Well, I wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about reading, so I needed to find a novel that I knew that I’d read. And, since it has been about a month or so since my last Shaun Hutson novel review, I rifled through my book piles for a one of them and ended up turning up a copy of Hutson’s 1999 horror novel (Sorry, “dark urban thriller”. Gotta love 1990s publishing jargon) “Warhol’s Prophecy” that I must have bought sometime during the early-mid 2000s, but never actually got round to reading at the time.
So, let’s take a look at “Warhol’s Prophecy”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins with a description of one of the Manson murders in 1960s America. Then we flash forwards to the 1990s and see a woman called Hailey Gibson in a shopping centre near London. Her daughter, Becky, has just gone missing and she is desperately trying to find her. After frantically searching, she finds a member of staff and gets them to put out an announcement on the P.A. Several minutes later, a man called Adam Walker finds Becky and returns her to Hailey.
We then see another description of a notorious real murder from the 1960s before the novel returns to the 1990s. A prisoner at Wandsworth prison called David Layton is due to be released in a matter of weeks, but he’s been asked by a gang boss to brutally wound another prisoner in retaliation for some slight or another. Since refusal will mean death and because Layton hopes that this might result in favours down the line, he begins planning the attack with the help of his cellmate.
When Hailey and Becky get home from the shopping centre, Hailey’s husband Rob finds out about Becky getting lost and the couple argue. Again. Ever since Rob’s recently-ended affair with his secretary, arguments have been a lot more common in the Gibson household. So, when Hailey happens to meet Adam again a little while later, she’s eager to talk to someone friendly…
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is probably one of the creepiest and most disturbing Shaun Hutson novels I’ve read. But, despite some very effective scenes of horror and scarily prescient social satire, the novel takes quite quite a while to really get started and, at times, reads more like a “gritty” soap opera-style drama than a horror novel. Yes, I can understand some of the creative reasons for this (eg: characterisation, suspense etc…) but expect a more slow-paced and small-scale experience than you’ll typically find in a Hutson novel. Even so, when this novel is at it’s best, it is genuinely terrifying.
So, I should probably start by talking about the novel’s well-crafted horror elements. It contains a genuinely chilling blend of psychological horror, slow-building suspenseful horror, cruel horror, creepy characters, a grim atmosphere, gory horror and – most disturbing of all – descriptions of real historical murders and serial killings.
Although these real historical crimes are written about in the extremely graphic and unflinching way that you’d expect in a Hutson novel, they do actually have a level of plot-relevance and artistic justification that consists of more than just “shock value”. Even so, they tend to appear more often during the otherwise less eventful early parts of the novel and, given that one of the crimes described (the murder of Gianni Versace) happened a mere two years before the novel was first published, the description of it may have possibly been a bit “too soon” when the novel was first published.
But, despite this, I’d argue that the inclusion of these extremely disturbing historical scenes is artistically justified due to their connection to the novel’s main themes. The novel’s title is a reference to Andy Warhol’s famous quote about everyone getting fifteen minutes of fame, and Hutson uses this as way to analyse and satirise how the media sensationalises and over-emphasises crimes. How extensive press coverage of atrocious acts not only lends the perpetrators a level of fame that they don’t deserve but also encourages other criminals too. And, given that mass shootings and/or terrorist attacks have become a depressingly frequent part of the news during the past few years, this late 1990s horror novel feels chillingly prescient in a lot of ways.
Plus, by contrasting the grim and almost unreadably horrible reality of these disgusting crimes with both “dramatic” media quotes from the killers and several characters’ fascination with “true crime” books, Hutson makes an utterly terrifying point about how popular culture has a warped view of the very worst criminals. How they are sometimes almost treated like celebrities in the popular imagination, when they should just be forgotten about.
All of this stuff is also part of the novel’s bitter satire and criticisms of fame itself which, in this era of social media, feels both chillingly prescient and yet very dated (after all, on the internet, almost everyone is mildly “famous” these days). So, as shocking, “tasteless” and/or extremely repulsive as parts of this novel may seem, these scenes are there to make a very valid moral criticism of society.
As for all of the novel’s other horror elements, they are also chillingly effective. Unlike a lot of Hutson’s classic novels from the 1980s, this novel focuses slightly less on gory horror (though there are still some very grisly moments) and instead focuses more on gradually building suspense, creating a chillingly bleak atmosphere and gradually ramping up the tension.
Since this novel was published during that awkward time in the 1990s when many publishers often wouldn’t print new horror novels unless they were gritty, realistic “psychological thrillers”, the tone and atmosphere of this novel is a lot more “realistic” and down-to-earth than Hutson’s classic fiction. Whilst this focus on small-scale drama and realism serves to intensify the horror, it also means that this is often a slightly slower and less “over-the-top” story than you’d usually expect from Shaun Hutson.
The novel’s thriller elements are also quite well-handled and take heavy influence from both the detective genre and hardboiled fiction. In short, there are several characters with motives for some of the horrific acts that happen to the main characters and you’ll probably be guessing who is responsible right up until their identity is revealed. Not only does this allow for a few dramatic plot twists but, like in classic hardboiled crime fiction (eg: Chandler, Hammett etc..), a complicated web of crime, secret affairs etc… also helps to add complexity and unpredictability to the plot too.
In terms of the characters, they are both brilliant and terrible. In short, the characters here feel like very realistic people with realistic flaws, motivations, personalities and thoughts. The novel also devotes a good amount of time to showing the main characters’ everyday lives, allowing us to build a connection with them. So far, so good. However, one of the flaws with this is that the main characters spend so much time arguing with each other that parts of the novel can feel more like a soap opera than a horror novel. Likewise, this focus on the main characters’ ordinary lives also means that this novel can feel more slow-paced than a typical Hutson novel too.
As for the writing, this novel is fairly good. As you’d expect from a Shaun Hutson novel, it is written in a fairly “matter of fact” way that both adds gritty realism to the story whilst also allowing the narration itself to move at a reasonably fast pace (even if the events of the story don’t always do so). Although this novel contains a few of Hutson’s famous words and catchphrases (eg: “orbs”, “scapula”, “liquescence” etc…), one repetitive element that got a bit annoying was the fact that he over-uses the word “rasped” when describing speech in later parts of the book.
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is very much a mixed bag. At a hefty 541-3 pages in length, it does feel a little too long at times. Even so, the narration moves at a fast enough pace to stop things from dragging too much. This novel also focuses a lot more on slow-building suspense and drama than you might expect. Although this means that the later parts of the story feel nail-bitingly tense, intensely horrifying and extremely gripping by contrast, expect the early-mid parts of the book to be a bit of a slog at times. Still, the ending of this story is one of the most dramatic I’ve seen in a Hutson novel since “Relics” – with an expertly-handled mixture of irony, tragedy, shocking horror, dark humour and poetic justice that might catch you by surprise.
As for how well this twenty-one year old novel has aged, it has aged better than I’d expected. Whilst the story very clearly takes place in a grittily “realistic” version of the mid-late 1990s, a lot of the novel’s themes feel eerily ahead of their time. Although the novel’s “inspiration” for some shocking later parts of the story is clearly stated to be crimes that took place in 1980s and 1990s Britain, this horrific part of the story feels terrifyingly prescient and relevant when read these days. Perhaps more so than modern novels and films, given that modern standards and sensibilities probably wouldn’t allow writers these days to handle such topics in the unflinchingly stark way that they are handled here. Likewise, thanks to all of the novel’s comments about society, the dedication to the timeless satirist Bill Hicks at the beginning of the book isn’t just there for show 🙂
All in all, this is a better novel than I’d originally thought it to be. Yes, it can occasionally seem a bit slow-paced and the constant arguments can make the plot feel more like a soap opera at times, but not only is it a horror novel that is extremely disturbing on more levels than you might expect, but it is also an expertly-written, eerily prescient and utterly chilling piece of satire that has much more artistic merit than it might initially appear to have. If you want a satire of the worst parts of the modern world, written at a time when satirists had more freedom to be unflinchingly cynical, then read this book.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.