Review: “Breeding Ground” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, since I was in the mood for a retro horror novel, I thought that I’d re-read Shaun Hutson’s 1985 novel “Breeding Ground”. This was one of about four vintage 1980s Shaun Hutson paperbacks that I bought after finding a trove of them in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield a couple of months before preparing this review.

Out of these books, I decided to go for “Breeding Ground” since I’d already re-read “Relics“, since it was the shortest novel in the pile and because I remembered very little about this novel from when I first read a copy of it during my mid-teens. So, I was curious.

Although “Breeding Ground” is the sequel to Hutson’s 1982 novel “Slugs” (which was part of a trend of “giant vermin” monster novels started by James Herbert’s “The Rats” in 1974), it tells a self-contained story and can be enjoyed if you either haven’t read “Slugs” or have read it so long ago that you can’t remember much about it.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Breeding Ground”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1986 Star Books (UK) paperback edition of “Breeding Ground” that I read.

The novel begins with a farmer delivering a load of lettuce to a market stall in London. One of the lettuces looks a bit dodgy, so it is thrown onto a pile of rejects. On the lettuce leaves, baby slugs hatch and slither around unseen.

A homeless man called Tommy is scavenging for food and ends up rifling through the pile of rejected vegetables. Thinking that the lettuce looks vaguely edible, he takes it and eats it. Hours later, he is stricken by extreme cramps and pain. Tommy lurches through the streets in search of help. No one really notices him or tries to help, so he crawls into a nearby public lavatory and dies inside one of the cubicles.

His body is first discovered by a couple of louts who are looking for somewhere to sniff glue. When one of them kicks the body, giant slugs emerge from it. Horrified by this, the louts flee in terror.

The police, led by DI Ray Grogan, find Tommy’s slug-devoured remains a while later and have no clue of who or what could have done such a thing. The next morning, local doctor Alan Finch is making a couple of house calls when he finds that one of his patients, Molly Foster, is covered with strange boils that he can’t seem to diagnose the cause of…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is classic Shaun Hutson 🙂 If you’re a fan of James Herbert’s “The Rats”, then this novel is an awesome tribute (it even briefly references giant rats at one point) in Hutson’s own style. It’s the kind of no-limits retro splatterpunk “Video Nasty” of a novel that reaches the high standards of other Hutson classics like “Erebus” 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it contains a unflinchingly relentless mixture of gross-out horror (of various types), creature horror, suspenseful horror, medical/disease horror, body horror, slasher movie-style horror and sexual horror. This is also an atmospheric novel where you can practically feel the dripping slime and smell the plethora of rancid stenches. Needless to say, it isn’t a novel for the prudish or easily-shocked. Like with Hutson’s “Erebus”, this is also an ultra-gruesome novel that makes even the most “extreme” modern horror movies look like Disney films by comparison.

Interestingly, the novel also shares a few technical and thematic similarities with Herbert’s “The Rats”. In addition to the whole “giant flesh-eating vermin” thing, there are also a surprisingly large number of chapters focusing on ordinary people who die in horrible slug-related ways. Although this technique had become a mainstay of the splatterpunk genre by then, it’s really cool to see it in a “Rats”-like novel and with Hutson’s unique brand of cynicism too 🙂

Likewise, the novel also updates some of the themes of “The Rats” – transplanting it from the bleak, poor and still blitz-damaged 1970s version of London to the equally bleak Thatcher-era 1980s London, where people are made homeless by mine closures, where people sniff glue and where everything is generally a bit crap. Although this novel doesn’t contain a gigantic amount of social commentary, there’s still more than enough here to put the “punk” into “splatterpunk”. Not that this is really a punk novel. If anything, it’s a heavy metal novel – with a really cool Iron Maiden reference about halfway through the book 🙂

The novel also includes some really dramatic disaster movie-style elements, which are also reminscent of “The Rats” too – with doctors, detectives and the military trying to stop the slowly-spreading plague of flesh-eating slugs and all of the accompanying problems caused by it (eg: overflowing sewers, people turned into killers by slug larvae in their blood etc..). Like “The Rats”, it also has a wonderfully dramatic final act set in an evacuated segment of London too 🙂

Although I’d normally criticise such a novel as “derivative” or ” a rip-off”, this isn’t the case here. When a story is heavily inspired by a classic like “The Rats” and written by a horror legend like Shaun Hutson, it’s just pure awesome. It’s like an amazing cover version (eg: The Sisters Of Mercy’s cover of “Gimme Shelter”, Hendrix’s cover of “All Along The Watchtower” etc..) that equals or possibly even surpasses the original. Seriously, this novel was so much fun to read 🙂

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly decent. The main characters get enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to them, but you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation here. Like in “The Rats”, the bulk of the novel’s characterisation is reserved for the many people who fall victim to the ravenous slugs. These segments of the novel work really well and really help to add a level of scale, humanity and drama to the novel’s large-scale horrors.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is classic Shaun Hutson 🙂 In other words, it’s a wonderfully distinctive mixture of gritty “matter of fact” narration and more formal/detailed narration. Yes, the narration sounds a little cheesy and old-school when read today (and it probably inspired Garth Marenghi), but this is all part of the charm and it’s still extremely readable 🙂 Plus, there are one or two brilliant moments of unintentional comedy too – such as the word “humping” being used in the traditional sense of moving heavy objects around.

Not only that, if you’re a Shaun Hutson fan, then this novel is also crammed with classic Hutsonisms too 🙂 Seriously, I lost count of the number of times that the words “mucoid” and “liquescent” turned up. Likewise, the word “cleft” also makes a couple of appearances, with the only noticeable absences being references to the scapula bone and the “coppery” smell of blood.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent 🙂 At a wonderfully streamlined 220 pages, there isn’t a wasted page here 🙂 Likewise, the novel’s day-based structure (the story is divided into about five segments, each chronicling the events of one day) allows for a suspenseful build-up from a few slug incidents to a full-blown crisis, with the story never really getting dull thanks to the fact that something horrific happens every few pages. It’s the kind of decently-paced story that can be enjoyed in three or four hours.

As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well. Yes, there are a few “politically incorrect” moments (the worst probably being a “humourous” homophobic T-shirt slogan later in the story) and the novel’s narration is a bit old-school, but the novel’s scenes of horror are timelessly gross and the story’s plot is still very compelling. Not only that, the novel has a wonderfully cynical “’80s” atmosphere to it and is a really fascinating window into the past. Plus, there are some cool ’80s references here such as mentions of Iron Maiden’s “Two Minutes To Midnight” and the characters from “The Professionals” too 🙂

All in all, this novel is classic Shaun Hutson 🙂 It isn’t for everyone, but it’s a really brilliant cover version of James Herbert’s “The Rats” that will delight horror hounds who are looking for something a bit more shocking. If you’re a fan of Shaun Hutson, then this novel will also evoke fond memories of when you first read his works during your teenage years (seriously, did anyone first discover them at a later age than this?) It’s a gloriously gross, enjoyably cheesy and just generally fun retro horror novel that is well worth reading… if you’ve got the stomach for it.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, then it would just about get a five.

Review: “The Rats” By James Herbert (Novel)

Well, for the next novel in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d re-read an influential novel in the history of modern horror fiction. I am, of course, talking about James Herbert’s 1974 novel “The Rats”.

In addition to being the forerunner of the splatterpunk genre, it also sparked something of a trend for stories about giant vermin in British horror fiction during the late 1970s and the 1980s, with novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Slugs” novels, Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion“, Richard Lewis’ “Devil’s Coach-Horse” and Guy N. Smith’s “Crabs” novels all taking inspiration from “The Rats”.

Like pretty much everyone who has read “The Rats”, I first read it when I was about fourteen or so. I also read the two sequels (“Lair” and “Domain”) around that time too. But, although I had thought about re-reading “Domain” (seriously, it’s almost as bleakly terrifying as “Threads), I’d been meaning to re-read “The Rats” for ages.

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

This is the 1991 New English Library (UK) paperback reprint of “The Rats” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief and ominous description of an abandoned house in London. Then, the novel tells the tragic tale of a man called Henry Guilfoyle who was driven out of his office job by homophobic bullying from his colleagues after they found out about his relationship with one of the new hires called Francis. Driven to alcoholism by this harrowing experience, he eventually becomes homeless and, after getting drunk on a bottle of cheap gin, is devoured by giant rats.

After this, the story mostly focuses on an art teacher called Harris who grew up in East London and has decided to teach there, despite the area’s rough reputation. After trading witty repartee with his rowdy class, he happens to notice something wrong with one of the troublemakers – he has been bitten by a rat…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it does show it’s age, it’s still a surprisingly compelling and horrific story. In a lot of ways, it is more reminiscent of a disaster movie or possibly even late 19th/early 20th century “Invasion Literature” novels than anything else. The mid-late parts of the story were also much more of a fast-paced thriller than I remembered too 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they are really well-written. Whilst this novel isn’t quite as gory as the later splatterpunk novels of the 1980s, it’s still surprisingly grisly and/or shocking for the time it was written. This is mostly because of the focus on the vicious cruelty of the flesh-eating rats and the vulnerability of many of their victims (eg: babies, puppies, children, homeless people etc..).

This gory horror is also paired with other types of horror like monster horror, medical horror, suspenseful horror, atmospheric horror and economic horror. This is a grim, gritty novel that is mostly set in the overlooked poorer parts of 1970s London, where WW2 bomb sites still lay unrepaired, where slums were replaced with impersonal council flats and where no-one really cared about the many homeless people.

To add to the horror, there are a lot of short side-stories and vignettes showing the rats attacking random people, which lends the novel a much grander sense of scale. This is, of course, a technique which would later go on to be used in many 1980s splatterpunk novels. Likewise, whilst authority is shown to be competent sometimes, there’s enough criticism of it to see where the splatterpunk genre got it’s “punk” elements from. As I said, this novel was pretty influential.

Earlier, I likened this novel to a thriller or a disaster movie and this is one of the most surprising parts of the story. Although it is a little slow to get started, it contains numerous suspenseful and/or fast-paced scenes that still remain gripping to this day. The focus on the official response to the giant rats and the occasional pitched battle with them make this novel more thrilling than you might expect.

In terms of the characters, they’re interesting. Although Harris is a fairly ok protagonist, the novel’s characterisation is at it’s very best when Herbert is describing many of the random people who get devoured by rats. Many of these people either live drearily ordinary lives or have tragic backstories and this really makes you care about what happens to them.

In terms of the writing, it’s really good. Although the novel’s third-person narration does contain some hints of a more formal and old-school style, a lot of the novel is written in a surprisingly fast-paced and “matter of fact” way. This seamless mixture of styles works really well, since it adds atmosphere to the story whilst also keeping the story fairly gripping and/or gritty when it needs to be.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a gloriously efficient 186 pages in length, this novel makes me pine for the days when novels were expected to be short 🙂 Likewise, whilst the earlier parts are relatively slow-paced and suspenseful, the story picks up the pace and becomes a much more grippingly fast-paced novel than you might initially expect 🙂

In terms of how this forty-five year old novel has aged, it both has and hasn’t aged well. Yes, there are a few awkwardly dated moments but, on the whole, there are less of these than I’d expected from a 1970s novel. Plus, although the opening chapter is clearly set in a more narrow-minded age, it hasn’t aged quite as badly as you might expect, thanks to Henry being a reasonably sympathetic – if tragic- main character in this chapter. Yes, this chapter hasn’t aged 100% well, but – for a 1970s novel – it’s nowhere near as bad as it could have been.

The story’s thriller and horror elements have aged absolutely excellently though and this novel is still as grippingly compelling and horrific as it probably was in 1974 🙂 Not only that, the grim run-down 1970s setting of the story also helps to add to the horror too.

All in all, this is a compelling and influential horror novel. Yes, it’s a bit dated at times, but it is still a surprisingly gripping, atmospheric, suspenseful and horrific horror thriller novel that retains a lot of it’s drama and power to shock. If you like disaster movies, enjoy the splatterpunk fiction of the 1980s or just want to see why so many other 1970s/80s horror novels included plagues of giant creatures, then read this book. Yes, the lesser-known third novel in the series (“Domain”) is much scarier, but this novel is still a horror classic.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five. After all, it’s “The Rats”. I can’t give it any less than this.

Review: “The Skull” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, since I was still dealing with the tail end of a cold and because I was in a bit of an unsettled mood after the previous horror novel that I read, I thought “What I need is a nice, relaxing Shaun Hutson novel“. And, after looking through my bookshelves, I found my copy of Hutson’s 1982 horror novel “The Skull” and decided to re-read it.

This was a novel that I first read on a summer holiday in Cornwall when I was about fifteen. If I remember rightly, I’d read somewhere that “The Skull” was one of Hutson’s earlier books that wasn’t reprinted very often (when compared to his other horror novels). And, naturally, I was absolutely overjoyed when I randomly stumbled across a second-hand copy of it in a bookshop back then.

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

This is the 1999 Pan Books (UK) paperback reprint of “The Skull” that I read.

The novel is set in the Derbyshire village of Lockston, which has been cut off by ten days of solid rain. Early one morning, chartered surveyor Nick Regan gets a call from the building site and rushes over there. Thanks to the rain, the ground is too waterlogged for work to continue – so, Regan sends the crew home for the day. Needless to say, this doesn’t go down well with Regan’s boss who, from the cosy comfort of his office, decrees that work on the planned luxury hotel must continue.

Meanwhile, Regan’s wife Chrissie takes a school group on an archaeology trip. The children discover a mysterious buried bottle, which Chrissie takes back to the local museum for further study. Chrissie’s boss, Peterson, dates the bottle to 1650 and decides to try opening it. When he does, everyone in the room hears screaming and glimpses a mysterious face.

The next day, there is an accident at the rain-sodden building site. A JCB falls into some kind of sinkhole. When Regan and a couple of the other workers go down to inspect the damage, they find an underground cave system. Regan also finds a strange half-buried skull and decides to take it to the museum to see if they can work out what species it belongs to.

During an inspection of the skull at the museum, it’s jaws suddenly snap shut and injure an assistant called Swan. The wound quickly becomes hideously infected and Swan is rushed to hospital. Meanwhile, skin has started to grow on the skull…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is “so bad that it is good” in the best possible way 🙂 It is a gloriously cheesy, brilliantly silly and thoroughly fun monster story that was an absolute joy to read. If you’re a fan of horror parody TV shows like “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace“, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this novel. This is cheesy low-budget ’80s horror fiction at it’s pulpiest best 🙂

I should probably start by talking about the horror elements of this novel. Although it isn’t that frightening, it contains a really compelling mixture of ominous suspense, scientific/medical horror, occult horror, body horror, monster horror and, of course, Shaun Hutson’s usual ultra-gory splatterpunk horror. Unlike some of Hutson’s other novels, this one actually starts out as a relatively bloodless story and then becomes more and more grisly as it progresses.

Another cool horror-related element of this book is a sneaky reference to James Herbert’s “The Rats” later in the book: ‘Rush trotted out a story about giant rats being sighted‘. Although, given the rural setting, it could be a reference to Herbert’s 1979 sequel “Lair” instead.

Interestingly, like with Hutson’s “Erebus“, this novel is as much of a thriller novel as a horror novel. It contains lots of mystery and ominous suspense, some dramatic monster encounters and a couple of wonderfully badass moments (Viking battle axe, anyone?). It also has a rather fast-paced thriller-like structure too. Plus, just like “Erebus”, it is set in a wonderfully gloomy and rainy rural village too – seriously, I absolutely love these kinds of atmospheric locations 🙂

Although it isn’t focused on outside of the earlier chapters, one interesting theme in this book is the contrast between the experienced construction workers and their snobbish, upper-class bosses. Yet, unlike the cynical anti-establishment satire in Hutson’s “Erebus”, the police in this novel are actually shown to be sympathetic and vaguely competent characters.

In terms of the characters, there isn’t a giant amount of ultra-deep characterisation but there is enough characterisation and backstory to make you care about the characters. Likewise, Hutson also does the classic splatterpunk thing of introducing a new character, giving them a couple of pages of detailed characterisation and then bumping them off in a grisly way.

In terms of the writing, it is unintentional comedy at it’s best 🙂 This novel was one of Hutson’s earlier novels and it shows. The novel’s third-person narration is this glorious mixture of fast-paced “matter of fact” descriptions and some of the funniest purple prose and most random similes you’ll ever read.

To give you one hilarious example, a 19th century manuscript is described thusly: ‘The writing was jagged like the teeth of a badger‘. Plus, even at this early stage in his career, there are a few classic Hutsonisms like “mucoid”, “putrescent” and blood being described as “coppery” too 🙂 Seriously, if you’re a fan of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace”, you need to read this book!

However, I have to criticise the editor/publisher of this edition of the book. Despite being a book by a British author that is both set in Britain and reprinted in Britain, the 1999 UK edition of “The Skull” uses US spellings for some bizarre reason. Whilst I don’t usually care about this sort of thing, the US spellings just seem ridiculously out of place in a Shaun Hutson novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 324 pages (with relatively large print), this novel doesn’t feel too long. Likewise, it is written in a reasonably fast-paced way and structured a bit like a thriller too, which helps to keep the story moving at a decent pace. Whilst it isn’t quite as fast-paced as Hutson’s “Erebus”, it’s still a surprisingly quick and compelling read.

In terms of how this thirty-seven year old book has aged, it both has and hasn’t aged well. Although this novel is a bit “politically incorrect” in some places, the general attitude of the book isn’t as dated as you might think (eg: it takes a critical attitude towards various forms of bullying, assault etc.. Albeit in a more subtle way than modern writers would). Likewise, although the settings and characters are very 80s, this just gives the book a wonderfully retro atmosphere. Not to mention that the underlying story is still just as suspenseful and compelling as ever too 🙂

All in all, this is an incredibly fun “so bad that it’s good” 1980s monster novel 🙂 It’s an early work by a writer who, a mere two years later, would release the zombie vampire masterpiece that is “Erebus”. Plus, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, if you’re a fan of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace”, then you need to read this book.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four. It’s “so bad that it’s good”.