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: “Relics” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Woo hoo! It’s October. And, with Halloween only a few weeks away, I felt like focusing on the horror genre for a while. So, with that in mind, I thought that I’d re-read Shaun Hutson’s 1986 novel “Relics”.

Although I first read this horror novel during a summer holiday when I was about fourteen or fifteen, I’d forgotten about most of it (except the ending) until I happened to browse an awesome second-hand bookshop in Petersfield last year and find some of the 1980s Star Books editions of various Shaun Hutson novels that I’d already read.

Since these editions have cooler cover art than the early 2000s Time Warner reprints I read when I was younger, I ended up buying about four of them – one of which was “Relics”.

So, let’s take a look at “Relics”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS (but I won’t spoil the ending..).

This is the 1987 Star Books (UK) paperback edition of “Relics” that I read.

The novel begins with a description of an obscene occult ritual, before showing archaeologist Kim Nichols working on a Celtic-era site near the rural town of Longford. Although the dig has turned up a few torcs and other relics, progress is slow until a small earthquake suddenly causes the ground to split open. Although Kim barely manages to avoid falling into the chasm, one of her fellow archaeologists isn’t so lucky.

Following this accident, a detective called Wallace arrives at the site. When Wallace climbs into the chasm, he finds that the poor archaeologist has landed on a giant spike in the middle of a chamber littered with bones. A while later, Wallace and the archaeologists also discover a hidden passage branching off from this chamber, revealing a mass grave and several ominous inscriptions.

Shortly after this grim discovery, strange things start happening in Longford….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is classic Shaun Hutson 🙂 In other words, not a novel for the easily-shocked.

In a lot of ways, this novel is almost like a grittier, creepier and more disturbing version of Hutson’s 1982 novel “The Skull“. Yes, there are some fairly significant story differences, but this novel is almost a spiritual successor to “The Skull”, and this works surprisingly well 🙂

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s horror elements, which were scarier than I remembered.

Although this novel contains loads of the ultra-gruesome splatterpunk horror that you’d expect from a 1980s Shaun Hutson novel, the genuinely scary parts of the novel include things like paranormal/occult horror, mysterious monster horror, gritty crime, startling moments, disturbing animal cruelty, suspenseful slasher movie-like scenes, character-based horror and an ending that you won’t forget.

Even so, several of the novel’s moments of horror do feel a little bit contrived/random and this is also one of those novels where you often can’t go more than a few pages without something gruesome, cruel and/or disturbing happening. Although this constant avalanche of horror adds up over time to create a bleak and menacing atmosphere, it can feel a little bit random at times.

In addition to this, the novel is also structured like a thriller too – with lots of ultra-short chapters that really help to both keep up the suspense and keep the story moving at a fairly decent pace.

This novel is also an early example of Hutson blending the horror and detective/crime thriller genres too, with some parts of the story playing out more like a gritty crime drama and/or police procedural. Even so, the emphasis is firmly on horror here 🙂

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably ok. Whilst you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation here, there is just enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to the main characters. There is also a large cast of background characters, many of whom don’t exactly have long lifespans. Likewise, there’s also a fair amount of characterisation devoted to a rather disturbing criminal called Ferguson, who is as much of a monster as the actual monster of the story is.

In terms of the writing, this novel is classic Shaun Hutson. In other words, the novel’s third-person narration is a rather hard-hitting mixture of fast-paced “matter of fact” thriller novel-style narration and more elaborate/formal descriptions (eg: whenever anything grisly, lurid, sleazy and/or horrific happens).

This novel’s narration also contains an abundance of classic Hutsonisms too (eg: “orb”, “cleft”, “liquescent”, “putrescent”, “scapula” etc…), which are always fun to see.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 269 pages, it never feels like there is a wasted moment. Likewise, this novel is also structured and written like a thriller, which helps to keep the story compelling. The novel also gradually builds in pace, with the final act being especially fast-paced.

In terms of how this thirty-three year old novel has aged, it is one of those books that probably wouldn’t be written today. Whether it is the ages of several characters during certain parts of the novel, the vaguely “Life On Mars“-like depiction of the police etc… this novel is very much a product of a different time. Even so, this novel is still fairly dramatic and gripping when read today.

All in all, this is a creepy, disturbing and compelling Shaun Hutson novel. If you want to see an example of extreme 1980s horror fiction, red in tooth and claw, then this one might be worth checking out. Likewise, if you enjoyed Hutson’s “The Skull”, then you’ll love this novel too. Just don’t read it if you’re easily shocked and/or have pets.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get about four and a half.

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”.

Review: “Dying Words” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Shortly after I’d finished reading Shaun Hutson’s “Last Rites“, I wanted to read some more of Hutson’s novels from the 2000s. And, after looking online, I found a cheap second-hand copy of Hutson’s 2006 novel “Dying Words”.

I wasn’t sure if I’d already read this novel back in the day (I probably did), but it intrigued me enough to buy a copy…. which then promptly languished on my “to read” pile for about three months. But, after reading Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies“, I wanted to read something a bit more fast-paced. So, yes, this review is long overdue.

So, let’s take a look at “Dying Words”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Dying Words” that I read.

The novel begins in London with a high-speed car chase. Detective Inspector David Birch is in pursuit of a serial killer and he’s damned if he’s going to let him go. After leaving a trail of destruction, the killer gets out of his car, draws a knife and flees – cutting down anyone who gets in his way. Birch gives chase. Finally, there is a tense stand-off in an underground station – which ends with Birch gleefully throwing the disarmed killer onto the electrified rails.

Meanwhile, a biographer called Megan Hunter is discussing her latest historical book about a little-known Renaissance thinker called Giacomo Cassano with her editor Frank. Compared to Dante and Caravaggio, no-one has heard of Cassano, and Megan hopes that her book will change this.

Back at the police station, Birch is called to the Commissioner’s office to account for his actions. After giving Birch a scare, the Commissioner eventually decides to turn a blind eye to the serial killer’s suspicious death.

A while later, Birch is called out to investigate a new case. Frank has been brutally murdered, yet there is no evidence of anyone else leaving or entering the locked room that he died in…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a really brilliant, but intriguingly different, Shaun Hutson novel. Although it still contains the horror and thriller elements you’d expect from a Shaun Hutson novel, this novel is actually more of a detective novel most of the time. And this works surprisingly well. Likewise, this novel is also an intriguing piece of metafiction, an awesome heavy metal novel and a wonderfully evocative piece of mid-2000s nostalgia too 🙂

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s detective elements. Apart from the beginning and the ending, this novel mostly takes a fairly “realistic” attitude towards detection, with large parts of the story involving Birch interviewing people, examining crime scenes, talking to other detectives and following up on leads. In a lot of ways, this novel is kind of like a cross between a drama and a gritty police procedural. And, surprisingly, this works really well – with the “locked room mystery” elements also helping to add some intrigue to the story too.

Likewise, this novel is also a really good horror novel too. Although it isn’t really that scary, there’s a really brilliant mixture of ultra-gruesome splatterpunk horror, creepy implied horror, suspenseful horror, atmospheric horror, criminal horror, medical horror and some paranormal horror … all of which gradually engulf what initially appears to be a fairly “ordinary” detective story 🙂 Seriously, this is one of the best blendings of the detective and horror genres that I’ve seen in a while.

As mentioned earlier, “Dying Words” is also a work of metafiction too – and it works really brilliantly. Although it initially appears to be a rather cynical satire about the publishing business and about critics (of which I now seem to be one), the novel also covers topics like the power of books, the power of authors and the nature of creativity itself too.

In addition to this, one fun element of the story is that one of the characters is a horror author called Paxton. Although I initially thought that this was an author insert, it’s probably more of a self-parody and/or a parody of the popular image of horror authors. Plus, there’s an absolutely brilliant description of one of Paxton’s books being launched, which is wonderfully evocative of the genre’s heyday in the 1970s-90s (which, sadly, I only discovered belatedly via second-hand books during the ’00s).

This novel is also a brilliant piece of mid-2000s nostalgia too 🙂 Everything from the cynical description of a “misery memoir”, to some of the fashions (eg: Megan’s boho chic outfit in one scene), to the general atmosphere of the story, to the vaguely “Silent Hill 3“-style settings in one part of the novel, to the mentions of CDs/DVDs, to the blissful absence of smartphones etc… is gloriously reminiscent of an era of history that popular nostalgia hasn’t quite reached yet.

So, if you miss the mid-2000s (and, back then, I never thought that I’d say those words… Wow, the present day sucks!), then this novel is well worth reading for nostalgia alone.

This novel is also a heavy metal novel too 🙂 In addition to some utterly brilliant Iron Maiden references (especially to this song) that are integrated into the story in a really cool way, there are also possible references to Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye” and Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” too 🙂 Seriously, it’s always brilliant to read a novel by an author with such good taste in music \m/ 🙂 \m/

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably good and they all come across as fairly realistic – if somewhat stylised – people. Although, like in Hutson’s “Last Rites”, many of the characters have tragic backstories – this element isn’t emphasised quite as much in this novel, which helps to stop the story’s emotional tone from becoming too bleak or depressing (still, don’t expect a cheerful tale. This is a Shaun Hutson novel, after all).

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is a really interesting mixture of the more descriptive (and slightly formal) style that Hutson used in his classic 1980s horror novels and the faster, grittier and more “matter of fact” style that he used in his 1990s/2000s thriller novels. Still, this novel mostly tends be more like a classic-style Hutson novel in terms of the writing.

Interestingly, this novel only partially includes some of Hutson’s trademark phrases though (eg: the word “cleft” appears, but I didn’t notice the word “liquescent” anywhere). Still, it includes the brilliant description “mucoid snorting” at one point.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 357 pages in length, this novel doesn’t feel that much longer than Hutson’s classic 1980s fiction. The novel’s pacing is handled in a really interesting way too. Both the beginning and ending are as fast-paced as a good thriller novel, whereas the pacing of the rest of the novel is much closer to that of a horror or detective novel. This contrast works really well, since it helps to build suspense and make the thrilling segments of the novel even more fast-paced by comparison 🙂

All in all, this is a brilliantly enjoyable novel 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit different to pretty much every other Shaun Hutson novel, but at the same time it is also very much a Hutson novel. If you want a really interesting mixture of the detective, thriller and horror genres, if you want some intriguing metafiction or if you’re just feeling nostalgic for the mid-2000s, then this novel is definitely worth reading 🙂

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

Narrative Styles And Emotional Tone – A Ramble

Well, for today, I thought that I’d look at how the narrative style of your fiction can affect your story’s emotional tone. This is mostly because I’ve seen some really interesting examples of this in some of the novels that I’ve been reading recently.

The most striking example is probably in the novel I’m reading at the time of writing this article. This is an Alice Hoffman novel from 1992 called “Turtle Moon” and, on paper at least, it should be an incredibly bleak and depressing story.

Literally none of the characters seem to have cheerful backstories and virtually nothing good or happy has happened within the first hundred pages or so. Yet, despite this, I’ve kept reading it eagerly and thankfully haven’t been overwhelmed by misery and sadness. But, why?

Simply put, the writing in this novel is beautiful. All of the story’s grimness, sorrow and bleakness is expertly contrasted with a lush, poetic, magical and hyper-vivid writing style that is an absolutely joy to read. Seriously, the sheer beauty of the writing means that the depressing elements of the story are kept at a slightly safe distance from the reader. We still see all of these bleak, gut-wrenching, depressing things happening, but it’s like looking at a beautiful painting rather than at a grim photograph.

On the other hand, Shaun Hutson’s 2009 horror novel “Last Rites” contains a lot of similar themes to “Turtle Moon” (eg: broken relationships, bereavement, delinquent youth etc…) and also contains lots of characters with miserable backstories too. Yet, this horror novel feels about ten times more grim and depressing than “Turtle Moon”. But, why?

Ok, there are reasons like temporal and geographic distance (eg: early 1990s America vs. late 2000s Britain) too. But, the most important reason is the different writing styles that these authors use in the two novels.

Whilst Hoffman is able to give the reader a safe level of emotional distance through beautiful, magical, poetic writing – Hutson takes the opposite approach. Hutson’s writing style is a lot more “matter of fact”. This makes the story seem a lot more realistic, which emphasises the grim and bleak elements of the story a lot more. If reading Hoffman’s narration is like looking at a beautiful painting, reading Hutson’s narration is like looking at stark CCTV footage.

This, incidentally, is why traditional 1980s splatterpunk horror novels are so morbidly fascinating. When writers like Clive Barker or Shaun Hutson were telling horror stories during the 1980s, their narration would become (or, in Barker’s case, remain) very beautiful, vivid, detailed and poetic whenever they described something grisly, grotesque or disgusting. This contrast between the beautiful and the grotesque lends these scenes a unique quality which is both intensely horrific and intensely fascinating at the same time. It’s a really weird emotional tone that is difficult to describe (and has to be read in order to be understood properly).

Of course, writers can use the narrative style to affect the emotional tone of their stories in lots of other interesting ways too. A great example of this is a time travel-themed sci-fi novel from 2013 called “Just One Damned Thing After Another” by Jodi Taylor that I read recently. This novel uses informal, punk-like first-person narration which is fairly “matter of fact”, whilst also emphasising the narrator’s irreverent, eccentric and practical personality.

This style is really interesting because it makes the novel’s many comedic moments even funnier by, for example, showing the narrator’s irreverent attitude towards serious things (eg: rules, history etc..) and also showing how different her perspective is to a typical sci-fi thriller protagonist. It also lends the story’s comedic scenes a jaunty and chaotic punk-like atmosphere too.

Yet, at the same time, this “matter of fact” narration also means that when bleak, nasty and depressing things happen to the main character, they’re considerably more intense and depressing. The same “down to earth” narration that makes things like the narrator getting wasted the night before a crucial research mission so hilarious also makes the novel’s grim moments about ten times bleaker, more intense, more “realistic” and/or more shocking too.

So, yes, your choice of narrative style can have a huge effect on the emotional tone of a story. A vivid, poetic, artistic narrative style that can lend beauty to joyous things will also moderate the effect of grimmer or more depressing things. By contrast, a more “matter of fact” style will add intensity to anything from comedy to bleak sorrow.

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Anyway, I hope that this is useful 🙂

Review: “Last Rites” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for reading horror novels and, a day or two before I wrote this review, I suddenly remembered that I had a copy of “Last Rites” by Shaun Hutson.

Back in 2009, I’d been out shopping when I had noticed that there was a new Shaun Hutson novel in the bookshop. Needless to say, I bought a new hardback copy of it there and then (something I’ve only done with maybe four or five books before). And then, for some completely unknown reason, I never got round to reading it. For almost a decade. So, yes, this review is long overdue.

So, let’s take a look at “Last Rites”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2009 Orbit (UK) hardback edition of “Last Rites” that I read.

The novel begins with a mysterious description of a man walking through a tunnel. Then, the story moves to North London where a teacher called Peter Mason is being brutally beaten in the street by a group of five young hooligans. They flee, leaving him for dead, but he is taken to hospital and, after being comatose for several days, he finds that he luckily has no serious lasting physical injuries from his ordeal.

Whilst all of this is going on, creepy things are happening in the Buckinghamshire town of Walston. The local church has been desecrated, several animals have been killed in bizarre ways and there is a spate of mysterious suicides amongst the town’s youth.

Suffering from panic attacks after he has been discharged from hospital, Peter Mason realises that he can’t stay in London any longer. So, he applies for several teaching jobs outside the city. To his delight, he is offered an interview at a prestigious private boarding school in the quiet, bucolic rural town of Walston…

One of the first things that I will say is that this is a Shaun Hutson novel. It has all of the grittiness, compelling storytelling and intense horror that you would expect, although it is a considerably bleaker and more depressing novel than I’d expected.

Yes, it could be because it’s been a while since I read a more contemporary Hutson novel (the only other Hutson novel I’ve read within the past few years was from the 1980s) and I’d forgotten just how bleak and cynical they can be, but it really caught me by surprise. It probably didn’t help that I binge-read most of the book in a single evening.

I should probably start by talking about the horror elements in this novel. After all, it is a horror novel and it is a very effective one at that! But, surprisingly, there is relatively little of the over-the-top splatterpunk horror that you would traditionally expect from a Shaun Hutson novel. Yes, the novel certainly has a few grisly moments but, by Shaun Hutson standards, they’re very tame. Seriously, I’ve seen horror movies that are gorier than this novel!

Yet, whilst this novel contains relatively little gory horror, it contains pretty much every other type of horror under the sun. Amongst other things, there is suspenseful horror, bleak horror, medical horror, sexual horror, crime horror, psychological horror, implied horror, realistic horror, atmospheric horror, bullying horror, claustrophobic horror, social horror, bereavement horror, tragic horror, occult horror etc… And all of these different types of horror are considerably creepier and more disturbing than the gallons of gore you’d traditionally expect to see in a Shaun Hutson novel.

So, yes, this is a grim, disturbing horror novel that does it’s job perhaps too well. Literally the only relief from the horror (and perhaps my only criticism of the novel’s horror elements) is the slightly ludicrous twist ending. Yes, some parts of it are brilliantly foreshadowed and the final chapter has a chilling sting in it’s tail. But, as a payoff for the nail-bitingly gripping and chillingly disturbing suspense throughout the novel, the ending comes up a little short. The mystery is far scarier than the answer to it.

However, the ending seems more like a formality than anything else. The rest of the novel is this incredibly gripping thing that just begs you to binge-read it. This novel is written and structured much more like a thriller novel than anything else (probably a side-effect of all of the brilliantly intense action thriller novels that Hutson wrote during the 1990s and early-mid 2000s) and this works really well.

Whilst the third-person narration includes some traditional Hutson flourishes (eg: the words “cleft” and “liquescent” appear, albeit separately), the story’s thriller-style elements include short chapters (that keep you wanting to read “just one more”), a very compelling mystery and a grittier and more matter-of-fact style narration that really helps to make the story more intense and fast-paced. Even though this novel is about 338 pages long, it’ll probably take you as long to read as a 200-250 page book would.

All in all, “Last Rites” is an incredibly chilling – and gripping – horror novel. Yes, it’s depressing as hell and it probably isn’t for the prudish. Yes, the ending is a little anticlimactic too. But, it is the kind of book that will pretty much make you binge-read the whole thing out of grim fascination. It is intense, it is disturbing, it is gripping. It is a Shaun Hutson novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a four.

Review: “Erebus” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a very extended break from Clive Cussler novels and read books by other authors. As such, I felt like re-visiting an old favourite that I’ve been meaning to re-read for ages. I am, of course, talking about a splatterpunk horror novel from 1984 called “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson.

I first read this novel at some point during the early-mid ’00s. Although I’d read at least two other Shaun Hutson novels before I read “Erebus”, this novel really knocked my socks off! It was quite simply the coolest book in the world. The only other books I read during my teenage years that even seemed to come close to the thrilling, fast-paced ultra-gory horror of “Erebus” were S.D.Perry’s excellent novelisations of the “Resident Evil” videogames (which, again, I really must re-read sometime).

But, about a decade and a half later (and after a failed attempt at re-reading it during a time when I’d gone off the horror genre), I wondered if I’d still enjoy “Erebus” as much as I’d done when I was younger. Needless to say, I did.

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

This is the the 2002 Time Warner (UK) paperback reprint of “Erebus” that I read.

“Erebus” begins in a farm near the rural town of Wakely, where local aristocrats Terence and Laura Bristow are returning home to check on their new racehorse. However, when they enter their farm, the horse flies into a homicidal rage. Meanwhile, Nick Daley is starting work at the local abbatoir. New to the job, he’s somewhat nervous. Something not helped by the fact that the bull that is due to be slaughtered suddenly becomes very, very angry…

Some time afterwards, we join a character called Vic Tyler. Following a bereavement, he returned to Wakely to run the family farm. Things are going surprisingly well since his farmhands tell him that the farm is producing more than usual thanks to some new multi-purpose feed from a local chemical company….

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring town of Arkham, journalist Jo Ward gets a frantic phone call from a nervous scientist at Vanderburg Chemicals who urgently wants to meet her to share information…..

One of the first things that I will say about “Erebus” is that there’s nothing else quite like it. It is an absolutely brilliant fusion of the vampire, zombie and thriller genres that manages to become more than the sum of it’s parts. Yes, other stories (“Double Dead” by Chuck Wendig, “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson etc…) have blended the vampire and zombie genres, but none have done it in quite the same way as “Erebus”.

In short, this novel is “Resident Evilfrom before “Resident Evil” was even a thing. But, instead of mindless shambling zombies, the “infected” are semi-intelligent vampires…. who happen to look and act a lot like zombies. Likewise, the main characters aren’t highly-trained soldiers, but a farmer and a journalist. And the story takes place in a rural part of 1980s Britain. And it is amazing!

In terms of horror, this novel isn’t outright scary – but it still uses different types of horror very effectively.

The most prominent form of horror in “Erebus” is the gory horror that the splatterpunk genre is famous for. Seriously, the average horror movie looks like a Disney movie in comparison to this novel. By bombarding the reader with frequent scenes of ultra-grisly horror, Hutson achieves something more than mere shock value. After a while, the grisly parts of the story become an atmospheric background element. So, even when the shock value wears off, these scenes still allow the story to maintain a menacing, macabre tone that really helps to set the mood.

This isn’t to say that even more experienced splatterpunk readers won’t be shocked occasionally though. Seriously, Shaun Hutson is an artist when it comes to writing about death, decay and other disgusting things. I won’t spoil any of the novel’s more shocking moments, but let’s just say that – if this was a film – it’d probably get banned. Or, at the very least, provoke a few amusing Daily Mail headlines.

The novel’s gallons of gore are also complemented by several other types of horror too. The most prominent of these is good old-fashioned suspense. At first, this includes some wonderful gothic horror tropes such as mysterious figures moving in the shadows, the townspeople slowly taking on a deathly pallor and the town centre gradually becoming more and more deserted. But, as the novel progresses, this is replaced with the kind of fast-paced pulse-pounding action-packed suspense that you’d normally expect to see in a particularly gripping thriller novel. Seriously, it is an absolute delight to see something that is able to blend both types of suspense so expertly 🙂

In terms of characters, this novel is surprisingly good. Good horror relies on good characterisation, and “Erebus” certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Both Vic Tyler and Jo Ward come across as reasonably realistic characters, both of whom have interesting backstories that have shaped the course of their lives. Likewise, literally every other character in the story receives at least a small amount of highly-concentrated characterisation.

Hutson’s narration is also really interesting too. In short, he sometimes uses the type of descriptive and eloquent narration that, these days, would be considered more fitting for a literary novel than a “low budget” horror novel. This works astonishingly well, since the rather flowery and sophisticated narration is contrasted perfectly with the grim events and drearily mundane settings of the story. It’s a perfect parody of the type of idealised, bucolic, “literary” storytelling that you’d expect to read in a more aristocratic novel.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. One of the major themes in “Erebus” is the contrast between Britain and America – with both being presented in a gleefully cynical manner.

Rural Britain (England in particular) is shown to be reassuringly cosy, but also the type of dreary, mundane, dilapidated, old-fashioned place that you would expect. On the other hand, America is depicted like something from a dramatic Hollywood movie… albeit a gangster movie. This is shown in Jo’s character arc – she flees New York in order to escape the Mafia, but ends up in a dreary English village that soon becomes just as dangerous…. thanks to an American corporation and an ex-Mafia hit-man, who are in hock with the British government.

This is also reflected in the novel’s politics too. Whilst the novel contains some brilliantly anti-establishment moments that put the “punk” in splatterpunk (such as the ominous government conspiracy later in the story, or Wakely’s comically incompetent police force etc..), it also realistically reflects the conservatism of rural England too. For example, during Jo and Vic’s first date, their conversation briefly includes a conservative rant that could almost have come straight from the pages of the Daily Mail or Daily Express.

For the most part, this 34 year old novel has aged fairly well. Not only are the suspenseful parts of this story timelessly thrilling, but the gory moments are also timelessly grotesque too. Likewise, the total lack of modern mobile phones just adds to the suspense too. Even the more obviously 1980s elements of the story (like Hutson referring to a computer monitor as a “V.D.U.”) just add to the cosy retro charm of this story.

Even so, there are a couple of brief moments that have aged badly. For example, the fact that one of the novel’s villains is something of a racist is relayed to the reader in a third-person narrative segment that would probably be written slightly differently today. Likewise, the conservative rant mentioned earlier also uses some descriptions/terms that haven’t aged well at all.

In terms of length, this novel is absolutely perfect. At 309 pages, this story never really outstays it’s welcome or contains much in the way of padding. Seriously, I miss the days when novels actually had editors who cared about length. This is the kind of book that can easily be binge-read in a couple of satisfying two-hour sessions. Seriously, it’s refreshing to see a novel that isn’t a 400+ page tome 🙂

All in all, if you love gruesome horror fiction, if you’re a fan of the classic “Resident Evil” games and/or if you aren’t easily shocked, then you owe it to yourself to read this novel 🙂 It’s thrilling, ominous, grotesque and unlike anything you’ve read before. It’s both gloriously retro and (mostly) timeless. It’s both really good and “so bad that it’s good”. It’s a novel that amazed me when I was a teenager and it still kept me absolutely gripped when I re-read it at the age of… well, older than that. So, wait until after midnight, put some heavy metal music on in the background and start reading “Erebus”.

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