As I mentioned in yesterday’s article, I first heard of Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion” (1980) when I saw a review of it on a website about old horror novels (I used to read a lot of these novels when I was a teenager during the early-mid 2000s). Needless to say, the review made me morbidly curious enough to find a cheap second-hand copy of “Scorpion” on Amazon.
When the book arrived, it was a refreshingly slender volume (only 159 pages! If only modern books could be this concise!) whose pages had turned a warmly familiar shade of second-hand bookshop orange and also exuded the oddly reassuring aroma of old cigarette smoke. Not only that, the cover also had a perfectly-placed crease that made holding the book even more ergonomic than usual. Likewise, the back page of the book also contained a postal order form for books like James Herbert’s “The Rats” and Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Needless to say, I was feeling nostalgic already. You don’t get this with e-books.
So, let’s take a look at “Scorpion”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS (and some spoilers for James Herbert’s “The Rats” too).
“Scorpion” begins in the town of Long Point in Kent. Outside the local nuclear power plant, there is an environmentalist protest that is being attended by a man called Les Mason. However, he’s got other things on his mind. Something has stung his hand!
Within minutes, Les starts to feel ill and one of the protest organisers – Chris Lane – insists on driving him home. When they get back to Les’ flat, he tells Chris to return to the protest, although she insists on calling a doctor before leaving. Once she leaves, Les looks at his hand. It looks absolutely horrifying!
Within an hour or two, he is wheeled into the emergency ward of the local hospital. Despite heavy sedation, he keeps screaming in agony. A medical researcher at the hospital, Allan Brady, decides to investigate….
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is “so bad that it is good”. Everything from the occasionally corny dialogue, the descriptions of the scorpions, the ridiculous amount of sleaze, the premise of the story to Linaker’s narration just oozes low-budget cheesiness. I was torn between laughter and the sad feeling that I’d have probably enjoyed this book twice as much if I was half as old.
Even so, the experience of reading this book made me nostalgic for the Cornish summer holidays of my youth where I’d go on shopping sprees in second-hand bookshops and binge-read old second-hand horror and sci-fi novels on car journeys. Although the novel is set in Kent rather than Cornwall, I could almost taste the clotted cream and feel the summer sun when I was reading this book.
But, anyway, this is a good old-fashioned 1980s splatterpunk novel that was also part of the “creature feature” craze of the 1970s-80s. A lot of the horror in this novel is achieved through descriptions of swarms of scorpions and through the kind of grisly over-the-top blood-soaked ultra-violent horror that the splatterpunk genre is famous for. And, whilst this novel doesn’t have quite as much gore as a Shaun Hutson novel like “Erebus“, it could still give a modern horror movie a run for it’s money.
Whilst the scenes involving the scorpions often display a reasonable amount of inventiveness and never really get that monotonous, there is at least one scene that is possibly a cool little homage to the ending to James Herbert’s “The Rats”. This is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the story where the main characters encounter two larger, but weaker, scorpions within the scorpions’ lair. These scorpions are then splattered with pickaxe handles. Although there are differences, it reminded me a little bit of the memorable scene near the end of “The Rats” where the main character encounters the giant two-headed rat.
In terms of the narration, it is gloriously low-budget. Yet, the very slight clunkiness and/or amateurishness of it is all part of the charm. You sometimes get the sense that Linaker was actually trying to tell a story, that he was trying to find a way to write the type of novel he’d like to read. Yes, he isn’t always as eloquent as his contemporaries (eg: Shaun Hutson, James Herbert etc..), but this is part of the fun of the story. I mean, it’s a novel that sometimes reads a bit like an episode of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace“. And this is adorable!
Although, saying all of this, the narration does get a bit sleazy at times. This isn’t to do with the subject matter being written about (regardless of author, 1980s horror novels aren’t for the prudish) but it is to do with the way that these scenes are described and what the narration chooses to focus on. These scenes sometimes feel like they were written more for the author’s private enjoyment than because they are an organic part of the story.
The novel’s characters are reasonably good. As you would expect from a 1980s horror novel, even the background characters get a fair amount of characterisation. A lot of the novel’s best character-related moments take place during arguments with unsympathetic characters. Whether it is Chris Lane’s long-standing rivalry with the nefarious Mr.Condon who guards the gates of the power station, or Allen Brady’s dealings with the patronising and overbearing Dr. Camperly – the novel’s arguments are often hilariously dramatic. The romance between Chris and Allen is also fairly understated and rather heartwarming too.
In terms of the plotting, pacing and structure, this story is really good. Not only is it split into a three-act structure but there are also a couple of plot threads which go together fairly well. Likewise, this novel also makes full use of the classic splatterpunk technique of introducing new characters (eg: a hiker, a homeless man, a nude sunbather, an amourous couple, a mechanic, wealthy American tourists etc..) only for them to die in some horrible scorpion-related way a couple of pages later.
Not only that, this novel’s short length (a lean and efficient 159 pages) means that there are barely any wasted pages here too. Seriously, I miss the days when books could be short. This book tells a complete story that can be read in 2-4 hours and feels very much like a “full-length” novel. Seriously, I wish more books were like this! Not every novel needs to be a doorstopper!
In terms of how this thirty-eight year old novel has aged, it has aged hilariously terribly. Whether it’s the earnestness of the story’s message about the dangers of nuclear power, or the “sleazy” narrative tone of many of the novel’s more risque scenes or just the general 1980s-ness of the story, it is very much a relic of another age. Even so, the underlying story remains compelling and the scenes of horror still retain their potency. Not only that, the novel also includes a bit of timeless cynicism about the right-wing tabloid press too.
All in all, this novel is “so bad that it is good”. It’s the novelistic equivalent of a low-budget horror movie. Although it is a lean, efficient story with some timelessly horrific and creepy moments (that can also be read within 2-4 hours), it is still very much a “low-budget” horror novel. It’s so bad that it’s good. Still, if you’re in the mood for retro nostalgia or you want an old splatterpunk novel that you haven’t heard of before, then “Scorpion” will probably do the job.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would maybe just about get a three.