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.
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.