Well, since I’m currently reading a 1980s horror novel (“Carrion” by Gary Brandner), I thought that I’d talk about this cool era in the history of the horror genre today. But, one thing I noticed when reading “Carrion” was that, like other US horror novels from the 1980s, it was both similar and different to the British 1980s horror novels (by authors like Shaun Hutson, James Herbert etc..) that first made me interested in horror fiction during the early-mid 2000s.
So, I thought that I’d offer a few random thoughts about this topic- although I’ll probably be focusing slightly more on British horror fiction, since I’ve read more of it. Likewise, I’ll be talking about general trends that I’ve noticed. So – of course- there are exceptions (eg: Guy N. Smith’s “Accursed“, Jo Gannon’s “Plasmid” etc..) to some of these trends.
Anyway, the main difference between 1980s horror novels in Britain and America is probably the types of horror that they focus on. In short, due to things like stricter film censorship at the time (but little, if no, literary censorship 🙂 ), British horror novels from the 1980s often tend to focus a bit more on cynicism and shock value. They are often set in gloomy, seedy cities or bleak rural areas and the most prominent type of horror usually tends to be gory horror.
Yes, there are usually other types of horror too, but horror novels from 1980s Britain will usually take a certain amount of glee in grossing the reader out with beautifully-written gory descriptions. After all, horror movies were getting banned or trimmed to shreds for stuff like this, so there was much more of an incentive for writers to both rebel against this censorship and to give horror fans a more intense version of what they were missing out on in the video shops. This also links into the cynicism that you’ll usually find in British horror fiction from the 1980s.
The most famous way (probably pioneered in James Herbert’s 1974 novel “The Rats“) that this cynicism is used is in how these novels handle background characters. In short, these novels will often start a chapter by introducing a new character and then spend several pages showing their backstory, everyday troubles etc.. only for them to suddenly die horribly at the end of the chapter. Not only does this create a bleak and nihilistic atmosphere, but it also allows for things like social commentary/satire and helps to give the stories a greater sense of scale too.
Likewise, thanks to the influence of James Herbert’s “The Rats”, monster horror also became a popular sub-genre in 1980s Britain. Often, this would take the form of a “scary” type of animal (eg: rats, slugs, crabs, scorpions etc…) becoming mutated and extremely bloodthirsty, and terrorising a town or city. In addition to being a hangover from the “Invasion Literature” of the early 20th century, this could also be a reflection of the apocalyptic cold war fears of the time too.
In contrast, the 1980s horror novels from the US that I’ve read often tend to focus slightly less on gory horror than their British counterparts. Instead, these horror novels often tend to be a little bit more traditional in their horror – with more of a focus on things like atmosphere, dread, psychological horror, the paranormal etc… After all, not only was film censorship less of an issue in the US (so there wasn’t an incentive to rebel against it), but the literary and cultural influences that went into these novels were probably slightly different too.
At a guess, this is probably because – during their formative years, these horror authors probably had greater or easier access to the works of early-mid 20th century US authors like H.P.Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson, who really helped to define this style of slow, creeping tension and dread for the modern age. Likewise, the influence of the classic horror comics of the 1940s-50s probably also played a role too, with these comics often focusing on morally-ambiguous characters (who suffer cruelly ironic fates) and having a distinctively twisted sense of humour that differs slightly from the cynical humour found in horror novels from 1980s Britain.
But, these differences aside, both types of horror novel have a lot in common with each other. Both usually contain a lot of subtle or overt social commentary about the issues of the day, both usually focus on ordinary people confronted with extraordinary things, both usually include lots of characterisation and both aren’t averse to including unhappy endings.
Another thing that both types of horror novel have in common is creativity and fun. One of the cool things about the 1980s was that horror fiction was both a popular genre and one that wasn’t seen as very “respectable”. What this meant was that there was a real incentive for horror authors to either come up with interesting ideas that would stand out from the crowd or to create their own distinctive “brand” of horror that you couldn’t find elsewhere. Plus, because they didn’t have to worry about impressing literary critics, 1980s horror novels could also be a lot weirder and wilder than other genres could be.
And, since the people who would judge these novels were ordinary readers rather than newspaper critics, there was also more of an incentive to make these stories fun to read. In other words, they often tend to have slightly more of a thriller-like structure, with well-placed dramatic or shocking moments and some of the coolest cover art that you’ll ever see. These were books written for the enjoyment of ordinary people (in the way that popular crime thriller novels are today) and this usually means that they will often still be a lot of fun to read even three or four decades later.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂