Three Reasons Why 1980s British Horror Fiction Was So Shocking

Although horror fiction has had something of a resurgence in recent years, it’s interesting to note that (with the exception of the zombie genre) it has mostly gone back to a more traditional focus on atmosphere, suspense, implication, psychological horror etc…

This isn’t a bad thing. These traditional elements have stuck around because they are effective. When brought up to the modern day and placed in modern settings, they can still be extremely disturbing. So, this article isn’t too much of a criticism of modern horror fiction.

On the other hand, when I started to re-read Shaun Hutson’s 1985 splatterpunk monster novel “Breeding Ground” before writing this article, I was reminded at how different it was from modern horror fiction. How much more transgressive it was compared to the scarier, but perhaps not as shocking, horror that you’d typically find in a more modern novel. This is a novel that absolutely revels in grossing the reader out – and you don’t really see this sort of thing that often in modern horror fiction.

If a modern horror novel is an ominous piece of classical music that sends a shiver down your spine, this 1980s novel is a heavy metal song turned up to eleven (and, yes, the one and only Iron Maiden are referenced in it too 🙂 ).

So, naturally, this made me think about why 1980s horror fiction – here in Britain especially – was a lot more transgressive than modern horror fiction often is. Here are some of my theories:

1) Historical context: Ok, there’s a lot of stuff here. The first is probably that, unlike the stylised US-influenced popular image of “the 1980s” these days, 1980s Britain was apparently a fairly miserable place to live in.

Although I haven’t studied 1980s history in a gigantic level of detail and didn’t even exist for most of the ’80s, even the comedies from that decade ridicule the general grimness of the country back then.

One of the side-effects of this was that horror authors noticed all of this stuff. They rebelled against it and they used it as a source of horror. They wrote stories set in miserable places where horrible things happen to people who live dreary, precarious and/or second-rate lives because, in a world like that, it wouldn’t be entirely impossible. They satirised the supposed bastions of goodness (eg: politicians, religions, celebrities, the police etc…) that everyone was told to trust in those troubled times. Or, to put it another way, there’s a reason why the genre is called “splatterpunk”. Like old punk music, 1980s horror fiction had a lot to rebel against.

The second is that horror fiction was in a fairly unique position at the time. In mid-1980s Britain, there was a ridiculous moral panic (is there any other type?) about “Video Nasties” – gruesome horror films that had been released on the newfangled VHS format. This led to film censorship being extended to cover videos, with the censors actually becoming stricter. However, thanks to a very enlightened court decision a couple of decades earlier, literature was (and thankfully still is) pretty much a safe haven from official censorship.

Needless to say, there was clearly an appetite for shocking transgressive horror entertainment at the time. Horror authors were in a unique position where they could reflect these changes in the genre in a way that films weren’t allowed to. And, with this added freedom, they were able to write stories that were gorier, grosser and generally more shocking than even the most “extreme” modern horror movies. Of course, since horror movie censorship has been relaxed over the past couple of decades, horror authors have less reason to make their stories as transgressive as they once did.

Thirdly, horror fiction was actually popular back then 🙂 Although I was somewhat late to the party, I remember seeing loads of old 1980s horror novels in charity shops, second-hand bookshops etc.. during the early-mid 2000s. It seemed to be as much of a fixture on 1980s high street shelves as crime thriller fiction is these days. Of course, since there were more horror novels for readers to choose from, there was probably more incentive for horror authors to out-shock the other authors, to provide horror fiction that was scarier, grosser and generally more extreme than the competition.

2) Respectability: One of the cool things about horror fiction in the 1980s was that, like with computer and video games in the 1990s, it wasn’t a “respectable” genre.

This meant that the genre had a lot more freedom. Since it was “trashy” entertainment that was made by and for fans of the genre, it didn’t have to worry about winning mainstream accolades. It could be as high-brow or low-brow as it needed to be in order to provide the kind of experience that readers would enjoy. Everything from the no-nonsense grisly grittiness of Shaun Hutson to the sophisticated dark fantasies of Clive Barker could thrive in this environment.

Because it was seen as “low culture” that fans enjoyed for the sake of enjoying it, it didn’t have to hold back because of what “respectable society” might think. It didn’t really have to advertise itself because horror fans knew an interesting horror novel when they saw one (even when I got into reading horror fiction during the early-mid 2000s, you could always tell that a book was a 1980s horror novel just by looking at the cover). Like modern heavy metal music, 1980s horror fiction was pretty much ignored by the mainstream press, media etc… and could do its own thing in a way that other genres couldn’t.

Of course, these days, horror fiction has had to regain some of it’s former popularity by appealing to more “respectable” audiences. This means that the genre also has to have an eye on things like professional literary critics, reading groups, large publishers, awards and what modern culture thinks is “acceptable” entertainment. But, like with modern videogames trying to gain some of the respectability of cinema by becoming more “cinematic”, this has resulted in major changes – some good, some bad- in the style, techniques etc.. of the modern horror genre.

3) Novelty: Horror fiction has existed for over a century at the very least. But, transgressive, shocking and/or ultra-gruesome horror fiction only really started to become a thing from the mid-1970s onwards (with James Herbert’s 1974 novel “The Rats” being one of the earliest popular examples). Back then, this type of horror was something new.

It was shocking because it was so different from the horror fiction that had come before it. It was a type of horror fiction that would have been pretty much unthinkable in the 1950s or 1960s. And, as such, it was something that authors were eager to explore and readers were eager to experience. It was the literary equivalent of ID Software releasing the original “Doom” at a time when computer games were mostly cartoonish platform games aimed at children.

Of course, novelty doesn’t last forever. Over time, “shocking for the sake of shocking” lost some of it’s appeal. The readers became jaded and the authors probably wanted to expand their repetoire. So, transgression and shock value went from something that a horror novel could rely on to being just one ingredient of many that horror authors can use. And, with the novelty value lost, authors also felt more free to look back at the older elements of the genre and find ways to bring them up to date.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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 🙂

How Limitations Made Older Creative Works So Different To Modern Ones

Although I’ve briefly mentioned this subject at least once or twice before, I thought that I’d take a deeper look at how limitations made “older” creative works so distinctive, in case it’s useful for anyone wanting to re-create things that look like they were made in the past. This isn’t to say that older creative works are inherently better than all modern ones (a lot of them are, but a few aren’t) but they are certainly different.

In short, older creative works often have a lot more “individuality” due to the limitations that the people making them had. The most notable of these is that research was a lot more complicated, limited and time-consuming in the era before the internet really became mainstream. Yes, this limitation was almost certainly a bad thing in many ways – but it also had some very positive effects too.

Because of this limitation, creative people either had to rely on things like narrowly-focused research, their existing knowledge/experience, extrapolating from what information they could find, their own imaginations and/or things that were already widely-known.

Not having instant access to vast swathes of humanity’s knowledge had a huge effect on the tone, style, individuality and atmosphere of many older creative works. In some cases, this led to works having a slightly more “local” setting, attitude and tone to them. In other cases, this led to creative works almost seeming like a non-fiction book or documentary about some obscure subject or another. In other situations, this led to creative works having more of a “timeless” quality since people were forced to take inspiration from things like their own imaginations, widely-known classics etc…

In addition to this, there were also many more practical and financial limitations on how much creative people could learn about the field that they were working in. These limitations actually had a surprisingly positive impact on a lot of creative works, and helped to promote a certain level of creative diversity too.

A good example of this can be seen in the horror genre. These days, a lot of things in the horror genre (including many of my own works in this genre) are knowingly “ironic” and will often contain all sorts of references to other things in the genre. In a lot of ways, this is a very good thing – the irony helps to prevent the horror from being depressing and the references help audience members to feel more like part of a community. But, at the same time, it makes things in the horror genre a little bit less… distinctive.

To give you an example, two famous splatterpunk authors in 1980s Britain were Shaun Hutson and Clive Barker. Although they had obviously read and watched other works in the horror genre before they decided to add to it themselves, they didn’t have instant access to information about a lot of works in the genre, the international fan culture surrounding the genre, critical commentary/analysis surrounding the genre etc…

And, as such, these two authors have radically different approaches to the same genre – because they had to work it out for themselves. Clive Barker’s approach to splatterpunk fiction is more character-based, more fantastical and more “intellectual”. When something grisly happens in one of his stories, it not only has a noticeable effect on the characters, but it is often described in an almost poetic way – almost as if it had beauty of some kind.

On the other hand, Shaun Hutson’s approach to splatterpunk fiction is more “realistic”, “local” and “gritty”. His stories are often set in bleak rural or urban parts of Britain, his characters are a little bit more minimalist, his narrative style is a bit more “down to earth” and, whenever something grisly happens, it is often described in a much more “practical” or “scientific” way (for example, a notable trope in his stories is characters suffering injuries to their scapula bone).

Yet, if both authors had instant access to comprehensive information what their contemporaries around the world were doing (as opposed to whatever the local bookshop or video shop happened to stock) and to horror fan culture in general, then this would not only have affected the stories that they told, but also the way in which they told those stories. But, because they didn’t have any of this, they pretty much had to come up with their own distinctive “versions” of the splatterpunk genre.

So, yes, even something as simple as a limitation on the research that creative people can do can have a huge effect on what is produced. And, yes, most of what makes older creative works different from newer ones comes from the fact that people had more limitations in the past (eg: censorship, research, tools, technology, communications etc..).

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Three Vague Tips For Making Early-Mid ’00s Style Artwork

Well, since I seem to be in a nostalgic mood, I thought that I’d look at how to make art that is reminiscent of a time period which people haven’t really quite started getting nostalgic about yet. I am, of course, talking about the early-mid ’00s. Although this time period certainly wasn’t the best one ever, it’s starting to grow on me a bit after I re-listened to some music from back then recently.

So, how can you make early-mid ’00s style artwork? Although this article won’t really give you any specific pointers about technique, it will show you the types of things that you should look at or think about before you try to make some early-mid ’00s style art.

1) Do your research: Knowing a bit about the time period you’re basing your art on is always a good idea. But, chances are, you probably remember the early-mid ’00s anyway.

Even so, it can be hard to crystallise it into a single stylised image for the simple reason that pop culture hasn’t quite decided what the defining features of the early-mid ’00s are yet (since, at the moment, cultural nostalgia as a whole has finally started reaching the 1990s 🙂 ).

But, if I had to define a “nostalgic” version of the culture of the early-mid ’00s (in Britain, at least) , then it would probably include things like:

– Disposable cameras being the best and cheapest way to take holiday photos etc…
– Punk music sounding “heavier” than it did in the 90s, and heavy metal music sounding gloomier and/or more filled with angst.
– VHS tapes and audio cassettes just about still being available in shops. DVDs were still excitingly new and shops still stocked CD singles 🙂
– That annoying “Crazy Frog” thing that seemed to be everywhere in 2004/5. He didn’t even look like a frog!
– Japanese-style horror movies (with lots of jump scares etc..) being the most popular type of horror movie in cinemas. The very beginnings of the resurgence of more extreme horror movies was starting too (eg: the release of “Saw” in 2004)
– Hollywood produced very few superhero movies, and popular culture wasn’t saturated with superhero-related stuff 🙂
– Emo hairstyles, moral panics about “chavs”/”hoodies”, and the appearance of “Boho” fashion.
– Brilliant satire about Tony Blair and George W. Bush
– Mobile phones (with monochrome screens and games like “Snake”) were virtually indestructible and only had to be charged weekly. Smartphones didn’t exist 🙂
– Geek culture was still slightly obscure, “nerdy” and “uncool”.
– It was a time when it was still just about cool to be “edgy”,”controversial”, “rebellious” etc…
– It was a time when “social media” meant things like internet forums, blogs, MSN Messenger etc… Plus, Twitter didn’t exist and Facebook barely existed 🙂

I’m sure you can think of some things of your own. But, if you can’t, then the things on this list might be worth researching online.

2) Digital art, webcomics and manga art: If there were three major artistic trends in the early-mid ’00s, they were probably the increasing popularity of digital art, the beginnings of a lot of popular webcomics (since webcomics were still a fairly new medium then) and the increasing popularity of manga art styles.

Thanks to the wider availablity of the internet and the founding of blogging sites and art sites like DeviantART, artists had far more opportunities to share their art. This meant that a lot of art and comics on the internet were a lot more “unpolished” or “low budget” (compared to print publications) because the people making them were still learning. Likewise, digital art tools began to become even more available to ordinary people during the early-mid ’00s too.

Plus, although anime and manga have existed for decades – they only really seemed to get seriously popular in the west during the early-mid ’00s. This art style is still the most popular one on the internet and this trend can possibly be traced back to this period in history (although I can’t be certain about this).

3) Wider context: If there’s one thing to be said in general about the early-mid ’00s, it’s that it was a time when the post-cold war idealism of the 1990s died. Mostly because of 9/11 and everything that happened afterwards.

Yes, it wasn’t as dystopian as the age of austerity, Brexit, Trump, ISIS, mass surveillance etc.. that would come later, but it felt more dystopian for the simple reason that everyone wasn’t so desensitised to it back then. This naturally had an effect on culture as a whole.

It was a fairly major culture shift in a lot of ways. Creative works in the early-mid ’00s were more likely to be more “serious” or more “topical”. A good example of this is probably the thriller genre. Back in the 1990s, the plots of novels and films in this genre tended to be loveably silly – the villians were often from made-up countries, their evil plots were cartoonishly absurd and there was a more jovial atmosphere. But, in the early-mid ’00s, virtually everything in the thriller genre tended to be a lot “grittier” and more “realistic”. Perhaps as a response to news stories about Guantanamo Bay etc.. depictions of torture in the thriller genre also suddenly became a lot more common too.

So, if you’re making art about the early-mid ’00s, then give it a slightly more gritty, paranoid or pessimistic tone. Yes, the early-mid ’00s wasn’t an age of unremitting bleakness and misery. But, the emotional tone of things set in the early-mid ’00s is a lot more “modern” than things set in the late 1990s.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

History, Nostalgia, Creativity And Subtlety – A Ramble

2017-artwork-nostalgia-and-subtletey-article-sketch

Although this is an article about creating historical art, historical comics, historical fiction etc…. I’m going to have to start by talking about real-life “anachronisms” and some vaguely geeky stuff. As usual, there’s a good reason for this.

The night before I wrote this article, I happened to find an absolutely fascinating historical video online. This was one of those mildly unusual things that, like colour footage of 1920s London (or colour photos of 1910s Russia) or old footage from the 1920s/30s that seems to show people using mobile phones, seemed like an anachronism. But, what was it?

It was a modern-style HD video of New York… filmed in 1993. Seriously, you can actually watch this in 1080p if you have a fast enough connection and/or enough available RAM. I watched it in 720p, but it was still pretty astonishing, given when it was filmed.

Some of the high-definition scenes in the film look wonderfully retro and some look slightly eerie (eg: modern-style footage of the Twin Towers etc..), but a few scenes look like they could have been filmed today.

For example, there’s some aerial filming which – if it wasn’t for a barely-noticeable helicopter shadow on a building– could easily be modern HD drone footage. Likewise, there’s a close-up of an old man sleeping on a bench, which literally looks like something from a modern HD documentary.

So, what does any of this have to do with creativity?

Well, one of the many interesting things about this modern-looking HD video from 1993 was the comments below it. One thing that seemed to “shock” a few people was the fact that nobody was staring at a smartphone in the footage of the busy streets. People were actually *gasp* acting like people whilst walking down the street.

I was more distracted by the retro fashions etc… to notice this (which is especially odd, given that I made an entire webcomic about smartphones, time travel and 1990s America a while ago), but the absence of smartphones seemed to be one of the things that made it stand out as something from the 1990s.

And, yet, it’s a really subtle thing.

So, this obviously made me think about works of art and fiction that are set in the past. Often, when we’re making art or comics about the relatively recent past, it can be very easy, and very fun, to go down the “nostalgia” route and exaggerate notable features from the time in question. Like with some of my own “nostalgic” 1990s-themed artwork:

"1990s Office Awesomeness" By C. A. Brown

“1990s Office Awesomeness” By C. A. Brown

"1990s Awesomeness" By C. A. Brown

“1990s Awesomeness” By C. A. Brown

But, often the most telling signs that something ‘serious’ is set in the past are a lot more subtle. For starters, many things are surprisingly timeless. Although the inclusion of these things in historical works might make them seem ‘modern’, they’re often anything but modern.

For example, the copious use of four-letter words in the fictional medieval-style setting of “Game Of Thrones” is probably closer to how people actually talked in medieval Britain (even if many written records of the time were kept by pious monks etc… who didn’t use four letter words). Even a few centuries later, the old French slang term for British people – “les godames” – comes from the fact that we used to use the word ‘goddamn’ a lot. So, it’s hardly a modern thing.

Likewise, historical change isn’t really an instant thing – so, the best way to show that something is set in the past is often to focus on these timeless things and to keep the “old” details relatively subtle.

This also reflects how nostalgia actually works. For example, in late 2016, I had a sudden and vivid moment of 1990s nostalgia that actually led to me spontaneously writing a short essay and making a cartoon.

All of these old memories were suddenly brought back to life when I happened to hear about a videogame series that I played when I was a lot younger. It was a subtle “background detail”, but it probably evoked more nostalgia than a picture of the Power Rangers playing POGs whilst watching a Tamagotchi advert that was playing on a CRT television in the middle of an episode of “The Fresh Prince” probably would.

So, yes, nostalgia and a sense of history can often work better when they’re fairly subtle.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Why Are “Cover Versions” Much More Common In Music Than Art?

2014 Artwork art cover versions Sketch

Although I’ve mentioned this whole subject before, I ended up thinking about it again a few weeks ago after finding out that The Offspring (my favourite pop-punk band) have released a couple of really cool cover versions of Bad Religion songs on their official Youtube channel. The songs are “No Control” and “Do What You Want” and they sound amazing!

Unfortunately, they didn’t cover “The Fast Life” or “American Jesus” though. But this isn’t an article about The Offspring, it’s an article about cover versions and why they are a lot more common in music than they are in art.

In case you’re confused by this, it’s certainly possible for one artist to cover the work of another one in their own style in the same way that musicians do.

However, about the only common examples of this in the modern world are artists making fan art based on their favourite comics, animated films and/or videogames. In addition to this, many artists also like making studies and/or parodies of old public domain paintings – like this one:

"Not The Night Watch" By C. A. Brown (A parody of Rembrandt's "The Night Watch")

“Not The Night Watch” By C. A. Brown (A parody of Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch”)

But, why do we have this situation? I mean, I can think of loads of more recent artists whose work I’d absolutely love to “cover” in my own style if I had the chance to.

But, of course, if an artist tries to cover another contemporary artist’s work, they’re fairly likely to face lawsuits and/or accusations of plagiarism. As for people “covering” my own work, check out my fan art policy for the rules about this.

I think that the situation is slightly different with musicians because there’s still a fairly long-running tradition of cover versions throughout the history of music.

I haven’t really studied the history of this in any level of detail but, I’m pretty sure that the idea of one musician “owning” a song (in the modern sense of the word) is probably a relatively recent one which only really came about once people were able to record music.

Or it might have possibly appeared when sheet music started being printed and widely distributed. I don’t know, as I said, I haven’t looked at the history of this too much.

But, before this, folk songs and instrumental pieces were learnt, performed and passed around amongst musicians without any real idea that anyone “owned” a particular song. So, I’m guessing that cover versions of songs come out of this tradition.

Of course, with art, this has never really been the case. Paintings have almost always been associated with a particular artist and, especially with older paintings, this is one of the things that makes them so famous and/or valuable.

This is probably why there has been no tradition of “cover versions” in art – given that a picture’s value is has always been linked to it’s rarity, uniqueness and, most importantly, the artist who made it.

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Sorry for another short article, but I hope that it was interesting 🙂