Well, I was in the mood for reading another 1980s horror novel. So, after a bit of searching through my bookshelves, I found an old novel from 1985 called “Torched!” by James Blackstone. From the stamp on the inside cover, I must have got it from a second-hand book stall in Alnwick during a holiday near there in the early-mid 2000s.
Although I vaguely remember reading it back then, I couldn’t remember that much about the story (other than the fact that I later confused it with Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn“). So, it seemed like it might be worth re-reading.
So, let’s take a look at “Torched!”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in New York. A middle-aged man called Al Andrade is staying at a swanky hotel for a convention and is looking for company. To his surprise, a beautiful – and somewhat nervous- woman approaches him in the hotel restaurant and asks to go to his room. However, a few minutes after they get into bed, she suddenly bursts into flames.
Meanwhile in London, cynical middle-aged insurance investigator Richard Grierson is investigating a warehouse fire that resulted in two deaths. After a bit of snooping around and some examination, he concludes that the fire was started by the owner for the insurance money. But, soon after he’s solved the case, he’s called back into the office.
Following a takeover by an American firm called Insill, Grierson doesn’t really like his trendy new boss too much. Something not helped by the fact that, following a spate of arson attacks, Insill’s main branch has asked for the UK branch’s best investigator to fly over and team up with their lead investigator, Jack Lattimer. With the threat of being fired if he doesn’t, Grierson reluctantly gets on a plane to New York….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is technically a horror novel, it is more like an old thriller/ detective novel than anything else. It’s a fairly enjoyable novel – although, if you’re expecting a splatterpunk novel, then you’ll be disappointed. It’s a little bit like a cross between a Clive Cussler novel, a low-budget 1980s movie, and/or something like James Herbert’s “The Jonah” than anything else.
Even so, the novel’s relatively few horror elements are reasonably effective. There’s suspenseful horror, fire-based horror, sexual horror, scientific horror, cruel horror, character-based horror and maybe one or two moments of gory horror. Even so, this novel probably has slightly more in common with the average 1970s/80s thriller novel than the kind of 1980s splatterpunk novel that the dramatic-looking cover art (seriously, I miss ’80s-style cover art) might lead you to expect.
Still, as a thriller, it is fairly decent. Although you shouldn’t expect an action-packed explosion-fest, this novel makes fairly effective use of suspense, mystery, multiple plot threads and a spectacular set piece or two. In a lot of ways, this novel is a little bit more like a detective/buddy cop novel than anything else – with Grierson and Lattimer investigating the fires whilst another character called Carol also finds herself involved in the case.
But, whilst the premise of the novel is ripe for horror (and I was expecting something like Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn”), this novel goes down the cheesy ’80s thriller route of having a sleazy criminal mastermind villain instead. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a suitably chilling antagonist (although his villainy gets a little cartoonish at times) and this allows the novel to have a suitably dramatic and suspenseful conclusion at his villa. But, still, it’s impossible not to think of something like this during a couple of moments involving him. Seriously, this novel is a lot more ’80s than I’d expected.
As for the characters, they’re reasonably decent. Both Grierson and Lattimer are weary middle-aged men who have lost their families (either through divorce or arson) and, in typical buddy cop fashion, don’t get along that well initially but become a better team as the story progresses. Interestingly, although Lattimer is described as looking like an American cop, the mild-mannered Grierson is actually the “loose cannon” of the pair. The other characters are also given enough characterisation to make them sympathetic or creepy, but you shouldn’t expect gigantic amounts of characterisation here.
In terms of the writing, it’s fairly standard old-school thriller stuff. In other words, it is “matter of fact” enough to move at a decent pace but is a little bit more formal than you might expect from a modern novel. Still, the novel has a fairly decent atmosphere and sense of place to it – with the brief scenes set in London being reminiscent of James Herbert and the US-based scenes looking like something from a 1980s movie. Even so, the novel’s settings are the clichéd triumvirate of London, New York and Los Angeles.
As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly decent. At an efficient 223 pages in length, it makes me pine for the days when even thriller novels could be short if they needed to be. Likewise, although the novel is fairly moderately-paced and/or mildly-fast paced, this is one of those stories that becomes a bit more suspenseful and dramatic as it goes along. Even so, a few moments later in the novel seem a little bit contrived/coincidental, although they help to make the ending a bit more dramatic.
As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it probably hasn’t aged that well. Leaving aside a few “politically incorrect” moments and the general roughness of many of the novel’s sleazier moments, this novel is very ’80s. Normally, this is a good thing – since old novels usually provide a much more nuanced, realistic and immersive window into the past than films or TV do. However, aside from maybe the segments set in London, the rest of this novel has slightly more of a stylised movie/TV show-like tone to it. Still, this adds a certain cheesy charm to the story and the plot itself is reasonably compelling.
All in all, if you want a cheesy ’80s buddy cop-style thriller novel with a few horror elements, then this novel might be worth reading. It isn’t anything spectacular, but it’s a reasonably compelling (if a little silly) story. But, if you want a better old-school pyrotechnic horror thriller novel, then read Graham Masterton’s “The Hymn” instead.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and a half.