Well, since I’m currently reading a “so bad that it’s good” horror novel from the early 1980s called “Scorpion” by Michael R. Linaker (after reading this review of it made me morbidly curious enough to get a copy of it), I thought that I’d talk about a sub-genre of splatterpunk fiction that has been pretty much forgotten these days. I am, of course, talking about “creature feature” horror novels.
During the 1970s and 1980s, these horror novels were relatively popular here in Britain – and I remember reading at least five or six second-hand copies of them when I was a teenager during the early-mid 2000s.
The “creature feature” genre started with James Herbert’s “The Rats” in 1974, which was a novel that revolved around London being terrorised by giant, flesh-eating rats. Although Herbert followed this up with two sequels (“Lair” and “Domain”), he also started a new sub-genre of horror fiction.
This resulted in novels like “Slugs” and “Breeding Ground” by Shaun Hutson (about giant, flesh-eating slugs) and several hilariously terrible novels by Guy N. Smith about giant crabs (And, yes, I’ve read at least two of these).
So, from what I can remember of reading these books and from what I’ve seen so far in Linaker’s “Scorpion”, I thought that I’d offer a few silly tips about writing in this forgotten genre:
1) Choosing a creature: When choosing a creature for your creature feature story, it’s usually a good idea to go for pests and/or vermin. James Herbert chose rats, Shaun Hutson chose slugs, Guy N. Smith chose crabs, Michael R. Linaker chose scorpions etc…
But, why? Simply put, many types of pests and vermin are inherently creepy. So, making them slightly larger and more bloodthirsty is a very easy way to tap into this instinctive feeling of horror. In addition to this, some types of invertebrates already contain natural weapons (eg: a scorpion’s sting, a crab’s claws etc..) and these can easily be increased in size or potency in order to present a terrifying threat to your story’s characters.
But, if you want to make your story more funny than creepy, go for creatures that aren’t inherently “icky”. For example, although seagulls steal food, fill the air with screeching and leave a mess on people’s shoulders (almost as if they were aiming for them), they aren’t exactly frightening. So, if you tried to use them in a horror novel, it would be hilariously terrible:
Then again, “hilariously terrible” is kind of the whole point of the genre. Even so, if you want to at least make your story vaguely scary, go for commonly feared and/or reviled pests or vermin (eg: beetles, spiders, flies, leeches etc..) when choosing your creature.
2) The reason: Simply put, the creature feature genre is very similar to the zombie apocalypse genre. However, there usually has to be some kind of reason (however silly) for ordinary creatures and/or insects to turn into ravenous, bloodthirsty beasts. The typical cause tends to be something like radiation, genetic mutation, ancient curses and/or science gone terribly awry!
The main reason why you have to include this in creature feature stories is to give the main characters something to do. Whilst any vaguely sensible person would just run away from the ravenous three-foot mutant dung beetles, this doesn’t really make for a very compelling story. So, you need to come up with some reason for the creature attacks that the main characters can investigate. Even if it’s really obvious, it still has to be there…
3) Characters and numbers: Finally, even if you’re writing a parody of this genre, you still need to put some effort into characterisation. Without it, your scenes of horror will lack drama.
No matter how elegantly or graphically you describe a character being devoured by a swarm of rabid guinea pigs, this scene won’t have much of a dramatic impact if your readers don’t know who rabid guinea pig victim #7 is, why they are being devoured by guinea pigs and what their life was like before this happened.
Likewise, one thing that sets 1970s-80s creature feature novels apart from the monster movies of the 1950s is the number of creatures. In other words, you can’t just have one evil creature. You need a large swarm of slightly smaller ones. As I said, this genre has a lot in common with the zombie genre. One zombie isn’t particularly dramatic, a thousand zombies on the other hand….
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂