Three Possible Reasons Why “Shock Value” Was A Major Part Of British Horror Fiction During The 1980s

Well, I thought that I’d talk about 1980s horror fiction today. This is mostly because, with Halloween only about a month away, I decided to start re-reading Shaun Hutson’s 1986 horror novel “Relics”. To my surprise, there were even more “shock value” elements to the story than I remembered (eg: grisly deaths, obscene rituals, vicious cruelty etc..).

Of course, as 1980s horror novels (at least in Britain) go, “Relics” is hardly an outlier. After all, this was the decade of splatterpunk fiction. So, why was 1980s British horror fiction a lot more “shocking” than it’s more psychological and ominous modern counterpart?

Here are a few of my speculations and theories:

1) Film censorship: Simply put, the 1980s was a decade of stifling censorship in Britain. It was a decade where grisly VHS horror films sparked a massive moral panic that led to video censorship legislation that is unfortunately still with us, pretty much unchanged, to this day.

Of course, thanks to the Lady Chatterley trial in the early 1960s, literature was protected from censorship. So, in an era when horror films were getting grislier (but being censored more heavily in the UK), horror fiction had something of a unique selling point. It could be more gruesome than the horror films that were available to the public. And, of course, astute horror authors took full advantage of this fact.

So, 1980s horror novels were grislier and more shocking than modern ones for the simple reason that they could bypass the strict censorship of the time. Of course, with film censorship being slightly less over-zealous in modern Britain, there is less of an incentive for horror authors to make their stories as extreme as possible.

2) Audience and context: One interesting thing about “shocking” 1980s horror novels is that they seem to have been reasonably popular amongst teenagers and it isn’t difficult to see why.

Even though the heyday of paperback horror fiction was already in it’s later stages when I was born, I belatedly discovered my first second-hand ’80s horror novel at about the age of thirteen and it absolutely astonished me. Needless to say, I read a lot more 1980s horror fiction during the next few years. And, from what I can remember of reviews/articles I’ve seen about older horror fiction over the years, this type of experience was something that also happened in the generation before mine too.

It’s a rebellious genre of fiction – I mean, it’s called “Splatterpunk“for a reason. It was the type of “shocking” fiction that made reading books seem like a “cool” thing to do. Add to this the fact that, at the time these novels were originally published (and a decade or two afterwards as well), the younger generations were pretty much expected to rebel. And what better way to rebel than reading an ultra-gruesome horror novel that would probably be banned if it was ever turned into a film?

Of course, these days, we live in an age where YA fiction is a more popular genre. We live in an age where, thanks to smartphones etc…, fewer people from all age groups read books. Likewise, these days, there isn’t really the expectation that the younger generation should “rebel” that there was in the past.

In other words, 1980s horror novels included a lot more shock value because they had a slightly different audience and a different historical context to modern horror fiction.

3) Popularity: Simply put, the horror genre was a lot more popular during the 1980s. In those halcyon days, horror fiction was apparently widely available in newsagents and all bookshops.

After all, slasher movies were a major genre in the cinema. Not to mention that, as portable entertainment options went, books were also pretty much the only choice. Add to this the fact that books were a lot cheaper than VHS tapes/VCRs and you can see why horror fiction was also an attractive choice for home entertainment too.

So, horror novels were mass entertainment. And, whilst the more cynical among you might think that this means that the “shock value” elements were there to appeal to the lowest common denominator, I’d argue that it is a little bit more sophisticated than this.

Simply put, “shock value” horror isn’t actually about shocking the audience, it is about giving them the illusion of bravery. Yes, the first “shock value” horror novel you read will probably shock you. But, once you’ve read a couple, you’ll know what to expect and it won’t shock you. As such, you’ll be able to read “horrifying” novels without so much as a scintilla of fear – which makes you feel courageous and tough. So, these novels are more about evoking this feeling than about actually frightening the audience.

And, given that people enjoy this feeling of toughness (eg: just look at all of the superhero movies these days), it was probably part of the mass appeal of “shock value” horror novels in 1980s Britain. Of course, with horror fiction being less popular these days, modern horror authors have to focus more on actually frightening the audience with things like psychological horror, bleak horror, suspense etc…

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Tips For Writing 1980s-Style Horror Fiction

My first encounter with the wonderful world of 1980s horror fiction was during the early 2000s when, as a young teenager, I happened to find a copy of Shaun Hutson’s 1988 novel “Assassin” in the horror section of an indoor market book stall in Stafford.

When I read it, I was amazed that literature could be that gruesome, shocking and controversial. It showed me that books could be rebellious. Needless to say, I read lots of old 1980s horror novels (in addition to a few 1970s and 1990s ones) when I was a teenager. They were also the thing that first really made me interested in writing fiction.

And, when I briefly got back into writing short stories last year, I had a lot of fun writing stuff that involved this type of fiction. For example, this story includes an “extract” from a fictional 1980s horror novel.

As such, I thought that I’d offer a few tips for writing 1980s-style horror fiction. I’ll mostly be focusing on British-style horror fiction (eg: Shaun Hutson, James Herbert, Clive Barker, Graham Masterton, Guy N. Smith etc..) here, since I’ve had much more experience with reading this type of 1980s horror fiction.

1) Splatterpunk: It is impossible to talk about 1980s horror fiction without talking about splatterpunk.

In short, this is a cool-sounding term for horror fiction that is more gruesome than even the most extreme modern horror movies. Although 1980s Britain was notorious for strict film censorship (eg: the “video nasties” moral panic) – thanks to the Lady Chatterley trial, horror literature had none of these silly over-protective restrictions during the 1980s.

But, splatterpunk fiction is more than just page upon page of gory descriptions – it has a very distinctive style, atmosphere and set of narrative techniques that are worth learning.

One of these techniques is how the genre handles side-characters. In short, splatterpunk novels will often include a few chapters that introduce new background characters… only for each of them to die horribly at the end of their chapter.

Not only does this allow for more shockingly macabre moments, it also gives the story a greater degree of scope – since we get to see what is happening outside of the lives of the main characters. In addition to this, when these types of chapters are placed near the beginning of the book, it adds some suspenseful uncertainty about who will (and won’t) be a main character. It also creates an ominously chilling atmosphere where life is cheap and death can lurk anywhere.

In addition to this, 1980s splatterpunk novels are often written in a more descriptive, formal and slow-paced way than you might expect. For example, even though Shaun Hutson was considered a “low brow” horror author during the 1980s, his 1980s novels are often written in a way that would almost be considered “literary” these days. So, don’t try to write a 1980s-style splatterpunk story in the fast-paced style of a modern thriller novel. The descriptive, slightly formal style is there for a reason. It helps to add atmosphere, vividness and suspense to the story.

Since it includes the word “punk”, splatterpunk fiction also displays a gleeful contempt for authority too. Most of the time, this takes the form of shadowy government conspiracies (eg: the military sealing off a town is a favourite trope) but it is also shown through things like the police being useless at preventing horrific events and/or hindering the main characters in some way etc…

Finally, another defining feature of 1980s splatterpunk fiction is the choice of mundane – often rural- settings. Most classic British splatterpunk novels will be set in ordinary small towns and feature ordinary people. This is mostly because one of the defining types of horror in 1980s splatterpunk fiction is contrasting the ordinary with the grotesque.

2) Creatures and monsters: It is impossible to talk about 1980s-style horror fiction without talking about creatures and monsters. This trend started in 1974 when James Herbert’s “The Rats” was published, but it only reached peak popularity during the late 1970s and the 1980s.

This was when novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Slugs” novels, Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion“, Guy N. Smith’s so-bad-that-they’re-good “Crabs” novels and Richard Lewis’ “Devil’s Coach-Horse” (which is on my “to read” list) were published.

I’ve written a more detailed article about this genre. But, in short, these types of stories typically involve some kind of animal, crustacean or insect that becomes mutated and attacks the population a small town.

Usually, the government’s response is to cover up the incident and/or obliterate the town. This genre also overlaps quite heavily with the splatterpunk genre, with the mutated creatures often devouring or killing many characters in a variety of inventively grotesque ways.

From all of the background reading I’ve done online, some theories as to the popularity of this type of horror fiction include things like it being an expression of Cold War anxieties about nuclear war (James Herbert’s “Domain” is a genuinely chilling exploration of this theme) or possibly a hangover from the “invasion literature” genre that was popular here in Britain during the early 20th century.

But, regardless, if you want to write a “1980s Britain” horror story, then including mutated creatures is one way to do it.

3) Don’t be too “retro”: One of the surprising things about 1980s horror fiction is just how… ordinary… it is. Yes, it often doesn’t age well. But, for the most part, there’s very little of the modern, stylised “nostalgic” version of the 1980s that you might expect when you think about this genre.

In short, 1980s horror fiction is just like ordinary literature – but without smartphones, the internet or stuff like that. So, if you’re writing “1980s” horror fiction, then don’t go overboard with the retro nostalgia.

For example, if your character is watching a VHS tape on a CRT television – then just write something like “she turned on the TV and played the video” rather than including a long description of the old TV and the VCR.

Remember that these novels were originally meant to be current novels about horrible things happening to ordinary people in ordinary places. As such, they don’t focus obsessively on anything that is distinctively “80s”. They just tell stories about ordinary people in ordinary places in an ordinary way. They weren’t written for nostalgia.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Plasmid” By Jo Gannon & Robert Knight (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I last read a 1980s horror novel. So, for today, I thought that I’d re-read one that I bought in a second-hand bookshop in Brighton about a decade ago (mostly on account of the awesome cover art) called “Plasmid” By Jo Gannon & Robert Knight.

Surprisingly, this book seems to have had a rather interesting history. Although Gannon’s name is the only one on the cover, a note inside the book explains that it was written by Knight based on a (seemingly unproduced) screenplay by Gannon. So, this book seems to be that fascinatingly rare thing – a novelisation of a film that was never made.

So, let’s take a look at “Plasmid”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1980 Star Books (UK) paperback edition of “Plasmid” that I read. *Sigh* I wish books still had cover art like this…

“Plasmid” begins on the south coast of England (seriously, it’s always awesome to see books set here 🙂 ), in the fictional seaside town of Oakhaven. Near the town, there is a problem with one of the test subjects at the Fairfield Institute – a government-sponsored laboratory. When a couple of the scientists go to investigate, they are brutally murdered by a mutated man with superhuman strength. The mutant then escapes into the sewers.

A while later, an investigative reporter at the local radio station called Paula Scott is about to get a few stern words from her boss because of complaints about a rather daring investigative report on some important local people. However, she produces a secret recording that proves the facts in her report. After this, she is sent to a press conference about the deaths at the Fairfield Institute – but she soon suspects that there might be a cover-up……

One of the first things that I will say about “Plasmid” is that, despite the gnarly cover art and the fact that it was published by Star Books, this is not really a splatterpunk novel.

Yes, it follows the same “disaster and government response” plot template as 1980s splatterpunk novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” and Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion” do. Yes, it even uses the splatterpunk technique of introducing many (short-lived) side characters and it also contains a typical splatterpunk-style “shock” ending too. But, if you are expecting the gallons of gore that you’d expect from a proper 1980s splatterpunk novel, you’re going to be disappointed.

Apart from a surprisingly small number of mildly to moderately grisly (by splatterpunk standards) moments, this novel is remarkably tame. A lot of the story’s gruesome and risque moments are either described in a relatively undetailed and brief way or are left “off screen”. The story also mostly focuses on other types of horror than gory horror (eg: suspense, tragic horror, moral horror, political horror, bleak horror, scientific horror etc..) too.

All of this stuff is probably a hangover from the fact that this novel was originally a film script, and would have had to pass the BBFC censors (who were notoriously stricter during the 1980s) if it was produced. So, the style of horror in this novel is more “horror movie” than “splatterpunk novel”.

Even so, this novel is a rather compelling and gloriously cheesy story that could have only have come from the 1980s. If anything, this novel almost reads more like a vaguely splatterpunk-influenced thriller than a horror novel. Most of the story is taken up with Paula trying to investigate what is going on and the scientists trying to deal with the fanatical Dr.Fraser who is behind the evil experiments. Likewise, this story also contains a healthy dose of Cold War paranoia about the government, press censorship etc.. too.

Plus, in addition to the fact that “Plasmid” is set in the kind of town that I know quite well, another surprising thing is this novel’s wonderfully cheesy, immature, groan-inducing sense of humour too. Yes, some of this hasn’t aged well – but, on the whole, it is an amusing relic of another age that includes things like a rockstar called “Big Willie”, a cat called “Fido” and this hilariously clunky attempt at political correctness when describing a group of homeless people: “Nearby another ‘citizen of the road’ was stretched out on a mouldering sofa, fast asleep.

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably ok. Paula Scott is a realistic, determined reporter in the classic ’80s horror novel tradition. Likewise, many of the scientists seem like fairly realistic and ordinary characters. Plus, some of the short-lived side characters are fairly interesting too (such as a homeless aristocrat), although many of them are just the typical “ordinary people” characters you’d expect to see in a 1980s horror novel.

Likewise, the plot of the novel is reasonably good. As I mentioned earlier, it reads a lot like a thriller novel, with some splatterpunk-style plot techniques. In addition to this, some hints of the novel’s cinematic origins can be seen in things like cutaway-style flashback scenes that are printed in italics. Plus, at a lean and efficient 191 pages, this novel never really gets bloated or slow. I’ve said it many times before, but I miss the days when paperback novels could be short 🙂

In terms of Robert Knight’s writing and third-person narration, it’s reasonably ok too. This novel is written in a slightly more descriptive, but “matter of fact”, way that is pretty much par for the course in British horror novels of this vintage. It’s still very readable but people who are more used to modern novels may find it a little bit slow-paced or formal.

As for how this thirty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged hilariously terribly. In other words, this novel is very much a product of the 1980s (eg: the emphasis on local radio, the ominous government conspiracies etc…). But, although a few moments seem creepily sleazy when read these days, there isn’t that much shockingly dated stuff here. So, if you want to read something that is decidedly “retro”, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this book. Seriously, it’s always interesting to get a glimpse of the culture and imagination of this part of history.

All in all, this novel is “splatterpunk lite”. If you like the idea of splatterpunk fiction, but don’t have the stomach for too much gore or horror, then you’ll probably like it. Likewise, it’s a reasonably ok thriller novel and it is also gloriously retro too. So, if you want something that is decidedly ’80s and can be read in a small number of hours, then “Plasmid” might be worth looking at. But, honestly, you’re better off reading Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus” instead – it has got most of the stuff that this novel has, but turned up to 11.

If I had to give “Plasmid” a rating out of five, it would maybe get a three.

Three Silly Tips For Writing “Creature Feature” Horror Stories

Well, since I’m currently reading a “so bad that it’s good” horror novel from the early 1980s called “Scorpion” by Michael R. Linaker (after reading this review of it made me morbidly curious enough to get a copy of it), I thought that I’d talk about a sub-genre of splatterpunk fiction that has been pretty much forgotten these days. I am, of course, talking about “creature feature” horror novels.

During the 1970s and 1980s, these horror novels were relatively popular here in Britain – and I remember reading at least five or six second-hand copies of them when I was a teenager during the early-mid 2000s.

The “creature feature” genre started with James Herbert’s “The Rats” in 1974, which was a novel that revolved around London being terrorised by giant, flesh-eating rats. Although Herbert followed this up with two sequels (“Lair” and “Domain”), he also started a new sub-genre of horror fiction.

This resulted in novels like “Slugs” and “Breeding Ground” by Shaun Hutson (about giant, flesh-eating slugs) and several hilariously terrible novels by Guy N. Smith about giant crabs (And, yes, I’ve read at least two of these).

So, from what I can remember of reading these books and from what I’ve seen so far in Linaker’s “Scorpion”, I thought that I’d offer a few silly tips about writing in this forgotten genre:

1) Choosing a creature: When choosing a creature for your creature feature story, it’s usually a good idea to go for pests and/or vermin. James Herbert chose rats, Shaun Hutson chose slugs, Guy N. Smith chose crabs, Michael R. Linaker chose scorpions etc…

But, why? Simply put, many types of pests and vermin are inherently creepy. So, making them slightly larger and more bloodthirsty is a very easy way to tap into this instinctive feeling of horror. In addition to this, some types of invertebrates already contain natural weapons (eg: a scorpion’s sting, a crab’s claws etc..) and these can easily be increased in size or potency in order to present a terrifying threat to your story’s characters.

But, if you want to make your story more funny than creepy, go for creatures that aren’t inherently “icky”. For example, although seagulls steal food, fill the air with screeching and leave a mess on people’s shoulders (almost as if they were aiming for them), they aren’t exactly frightening. So, if you tried to use them in a horror novel, it would be hilariously terrible:

Like this.

Then again, “hilariously terrible” is kind of the whole point of the genre. Even so, if you want to at least make your story vaguely scary, go for commonly feared and/or reviled pests or vermin (eg: beetles, spiders, flies, leeches etc..) when choosing your creature.

2) The reason: Simply put, the creature feature genre is very similar to the zombie apocalypse genre. However, there usually has to be some kind of reason (however silly) for ordinary creatures and/or insects to turn into ravenous, bloodthirsty beasts. The typical cause tends to be something like radiation, genetic mutation, ancient curses and/or science gone terribly awry!

The main reason why you have to include this in creature feature stories is to give the main characters something to do. Whilst any vaguely sensible person would just run away from the ravenous three-foot mutant dung beetles, this doesn’t really make for a very compelling story. So, you need to come up with some reason for the creature attacks that the main characters can investigate. Even if it’s really obvious, it still has to be there…

Hmm… I wonder why that dung beetle is so large?

3) Characters and numbers: Finally, even if you’re writing a parody of this genre, you still need to put some effort into characterisation. Without it, your scenes of horror will lack drama.

No matter how elegantly or graphically you describe a character being devoured by a swarm of rabid guinea pigs, this scene won’t have much of a dramatic impact if your readers don’t know who rabid guinea pig victim #7 is, why they are being devoured by guinea pigs and what their life was like before this happened.

Likewise, one thing that sets 1970s-80s creature feature novels apart from the monster movies of the 1950s is the number of creatures. In other words, you can’t just have one evil creature. You need a large swarm of slightly smaller ones. As I said, this genre has a lot in common with the zombie genre. One zombie isn’t particularly dramatic, a thousand zombies on the other hand….

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂