Review: “Lair” By James Herbert (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for an old horror novel. And, although I’d started searching through my older books for a copy of James Herbert’s “Sepulchre” that I vaguely remembered seeing during a previous search, I instead chanced across my copy of Herbert’s 1979 novel “Lair” and decided to re-read it.

This is mostly because although I really enjoyed re-reading Herbert’s “The Rats” a couple of months ago and I am still too scared to re-read the final novel in the trilogy, “Domain” (I read that novel about seventeen years ago and I… still… remember it vividly), I didn’t remember that much about the second novel “Lair” other than my younger self didn’t really find it as impressive as “The Rats”. So, I was curious about what I’d think of it these days.

Although “Lair” is the second novel in a trilogy, it still works as a self-contained story. Not only are there recaps for some of the events of “The Rats”, but I imagine that some plot events will actually be scarier if you don’t already know what sort of thing to expect.

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

This is the 1990 New English Library (UK) paperback edition of “Lair” that I read.

The novel begins with a brief description of several giant mutant rats surviving the events of the previous book thanks to someone not following the government’s advice. Four years later, a farmer in Epping Forest notices that his pet cats have been attacked by something.

Meanwhile, a family is taking a short holiday nearby and one of their children spots what looks like a stray dog in the bushes – but it flees before she can take a close look. In another part of the forest, one of the wardens suddenly finds that his horse bolts in terror at some unseen creature. When the exhausted steed comes to a halt, the warden sees a white deer. A bad omen.

Meanwhile, at the offices of Ratkill, Lucas Pender arrives for work. Following the outbreak in London four years earlier, the company is flush with both private and government funding and has been researching a number of new poisons, ultrasonic technologies and protective suits. And, following new legislation brought in after the outbreak, all possible rat sightings must be reported. So, when Pender arrives at work, it isn’t long before he is sent to Epping Forest to investigate….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a much better book than I remembered 🙂 Although it is overshadowed by both the fame of the first “Rats” book and the deeply unsettling and unforgettable bleakness of the third book, it is still one hell of a good horror novel. Not only is the novel’s pacing even better than “The Rats” but it is also a much more extreme, dramatic and suspenseful horror novel too 🙂 In short, if “The Rats” established the early beginnings of the splatterpunk genre, this novel finishes the blueprint that would later be followed by many 1980s authors, whilst also adding some excellent thriller elements too.

So, naturally, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements – which are a mixture of suspenseful horror, monster horror, ominous horror, disaster horror, sexual horror, fast-paced horror, character-based horror, claustrophobic horror and, of course, gory horror. Unlike “The Rats”, this novel is very much a splatterpunk novel – with a level of uncompromising, grisly, gross-out gore that almost approaches that of the 1980s horror authors who were inspired by Herbert’s novels.

This novel also makes expert use of pacing to increase both the horror and impact of the story’s events. Although I usually wait until later in my reviews to talk about pacing, I need to mention it here because it is an integral part of what makes “Lair” such a compelling horror novel.

In short, the first third or so of the novel is spent building suspense. You know that something horrible is going to happen, and each near-miss or possible rat sighting just ramps up the tension even more. Then, when the novel explodes in a horrific frenzy of fast-paced danger, violence and hungry rats, it almost feels like a relief from the nail-biting suspense and, well, I won’t spoil the later parts. But, I cannot praise this efficiently short (244 pages) novel’s pacing highly enough 🙂

Like with “The Rats”, this novel also contains quite a few thriller elements too. Although it maintains some of the realistic “disaster movie” elements from it’s predecessor (eg: crisis planning meetings, political drama etc..), this novel’s thriller elements feel a lot more fast-paced, spectacular and action-packed than those in “The Rats”. In addition to all of the suspense that I mentioned earlier, the novel also contains a really good mixture between frantic, claustrophobic close-quarters fights for survival and larger-scale pitched battles with the giant rats too. Seriously, this novel is a brilliant example of how to mix the horror and thriller genres well 🙂

In terms of the novel’s characters, they are fairly good. In the classic splatterpunk fashion, several of the background characters actually get slightly better and more detailed characterisation than the main characters do. This is mainly done to both add a sense of scale to the novel and to create a grim atmosphere (since not all of these detailed characters survive).

Still, the novel’s two main characters – Lucas Pender and a teacher/tour guide called Jenny Hanmer – get enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to them. Even so, they’re the typical “understated hero” and “sidekick/love interest” stock characters that you’d expect in a horror/thriller novel of this vintage. Likewise, although the novel’s police and military characters don’t get a giant amount of characterisation, they have the kind of quiet, understated bravery that makes you care about what happens to them.

In terms of the writing, this novel is excellent 🙂 As you’d expect from a horror novel of this vintage, the third-person narration is fairly descriptive and slightly formal but still “matter of fact” enough to be easily readable. Not only does this add a lot of extra atmosphere to the novel, but it also means that the novel can also move at a fairly decent pace too – with the novel’s “slightly formal, but matter of fact” writing style both adding gravitas to the fast-paced moments whilst also flowing well enough to keep the slower moments compellingly suspenseful too. Seriously, it’s a really good all-purpose writing style.

In terms of how this forty-one year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well 🙂 Not only is it still atmospheric, compelling and readable – but both the rural setting and the quality of the writing also lend it a slightly timeless quality too. This is one of those novels that mostly feels enjoyably “retro” rather than dated. Not to mention that the total lack of smartphones etc… also allows some scenes to contain a lot more suspense than they would do in a modern novel. Even so, the scenes involving one rather creepy background character would probably be written in a different way (eg: with less focus on his perspective, thoughts etc..) in a more modern novel, and the same is probably true for a brief reference to domestic violence during one scene involving the local farmer too.

All in all, this is a really compelling horror thriller novel 🙂 Like all good sequels, it takes what made the original great and turns it up to eleven. Yes, it’s less famous than “The Rats” and less scary than “Domain”, but it would be a mistake to overlook this novel. If you aren’t easily shocked and you like your retro horror novels to include a few fast-paced thriller elements too, then this one is well worth reading 🙂

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

Review: “Deathday” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, although I hadn’t planned to re-read Shaun Hutson’s 1986 horror novel “Deathday”, I found that the other book I’d planned to read just wasn’t as interesting as I’d hoped. So, worried about losing interest in reading altogether, I needed to read something I knew that I’d enjoy. And quick!

Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to find the small pile of vintage Shaun Hutson paperbacks I’d found in a second-hand bookshop in Petersfield a few months earlier.

Although I first read a 1990s/early 2000s reprint of “Deathday” when I was about fifteen or so, I couldn’t remember a huge amount about the story other than I’d enjoyed it. So, I was curious to see what I’d think of it these days. Plus, after reading a slightly more modern 1980s-influenced horror novel recently, I was in the mood for more of this awesome genre 🙂

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

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

The novel begins in the year 1596, with a horrifying scene showing the church authorities cruelly interrogating someone they suspect of witchcraft about a mysterious amulet. Eventually, they learn that only the first person to touch the amulet will be tainted by whatever lurks within it.

Then we flash forward to the 1980s. In the small Derbyshire village of Medworth, Detective Inspector Tom Lambert is standing in front of his brother’s grave, racked by survivor’s guilt about the car accident that he escaped from unharmed. In another part of the graveyard, two gardeners are getting ready to clear a patch of overgrown land. The work is gruelling and is made worse by a stubborn tree stump that refuses to budge.

But, one of the gardeners – Ray Mackenzie – isn’t going to give up without a fight and insists that they continue. Fetching axes and crowbars, the gardeners give the tree stump everything they’ve got and it finally gives way. In the pit below the stump, a giant slug sits atop a wooden box. Summoning all of his strength, Ray kills the slug and prises the box open. It contains a skeleton wearing a golden medallion. Feeling like he deserves a reward for his efforts, Ray grabs the medallion. Needless to say, things don’t go well…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is even better than I remembered 🙂 Seriously, this is the kind of gloriously fun ’80s horror novel that shows the genre at it’s absolute best 🙂 By the end of it, I was reading with the kind of huge grin that is usually reserved for things like cherished old computer games, corny late-night horror movies and the best heavy metal music. This novel is classic Shaun Hutson and, if you enjoyed Hutson’s “Erebus” or “Relics“, then this novel will absolutely knock your socks off 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements. It contains a brilliantly unpredictable, and yet reassuringly traditional, mixture of paranormal horror, suspense, a theme of mourning/death, ominous horror, gothic horror, vampire/zombie/demon horror, slasher movie style horror, jump scare-like moments (plus a few playful fake-outs) and, of course, lots of the ultra-gruesome gory horror that you’d expect from a splatterpunk novel. Although experienced horror hounds probably won’t find this novel that frightening, it is still a brilliantly enjoyable horror novel nonetheless 🙂

Shaun Hutson’s 1984 classic “Erebus” blended the vampire and zombie genres in a really cool way and “Deathday” takes this a step further by adding slasher movie-style elements and “glowing eyes” evil sorcery to the mix 🙂 This keeps the scenes of horror in “Deathday” excitingly unpredictable, whilst also allowing Hutson to add the most dramatic elements of each genre to the mix. Seriously, if you like any of these four genres of horror, then you’ll have a lot of fun with this novel.

Not only that, like “Erebus”, this novel is also something of a thriller too 🙂 This is handled extremely well, with lots of tense ominous moments gradually giving way to more intense scenes of frantic suspense before climaxing in a spectacularly dramatic, grippingly fast-paced and action-packed final segment 🙂 In addition to this excellent pacing, there are also detective/police procedural elements, some gloriously cheesy “80s action movie” one liners – with the best probably being ‘I am the law’ – and a good number of dramatic set pieces sprinkled throughout the novel.

Seriously, I love how this novel blends it’s horror and thriller elements 🙂 Unlike most horror thriller novels, the emphasis is firmly on the story’s horror elements – with the thriller elements taking a slight back seat for most of the novel. Then, when the thriller elements finally take centre stage in a furious blaze of gunfire, there are still enough horror elements remaining to give these grippingly fast-paced scenes a level of drama and impact that you wouldn’t usually find in a typical action-thriller novel.

I’ve said it before, but this novel is pure, unadulterated fun to read 🙂 In addition to the expert blend of horror and thriller fiction, this novel takes itself seriously enough to be dramatic whilst also being knowingly cheesy enough to bring a smile to any reader’s face.

Whether it is a scene where the police find an empty coffin with a broken lid (‘As if some powerful force had stove it out… FROM THE INSIDE’) or the brilliantly tongue-in-cheek way that the novel’s action movie-style “lock and load montage” is handled (it goes on for quite a few pages and shows what happens when unarmed policemen try using guns for the first time), this novel walks a brilliantly fine line between grim, shocking horror and gloriously cheesy late-night B-movie schlock that is an absolute joy to behold 🙂

In terms of the characters, they are reasonably ok. Whilst you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there’s enough here to make you care about the characters. Plus, although the main character – D.I. Lambert – is a bit of a stock character (who goes from grizzled, brooding protagonist to loose-cannon cop to badass action hero), this is handled in a slightly more realistic way (eg: he actually has emotions etc…) whilst still giving him the kind of stylised persona that you’d expect from a 1980s thriller protagonist. Likewise, many of the background characters feel like realistic people and even the less realistic characters – such as DCI Baron – are stylised enough to bring a smile to any reader’s face.

In terms of the writing, this is a Shaun Hutson novel 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is this brilliant mixture of atmospheric formal descriptions, fast-paced thriller narration and the kind of personality-filled cynical observations and quirky narrative moments that really make this novel unique 🙂 Yes, the paperback edition of “Deathday” I read had a few typographical errors and the writing can be a little corny at times, but this is all part of the charm. However, long-time fans of Shaun Hutson might be a little disappointed to realise that there aren’t that many classic Hutsonisms here (the only one I spotted was “cleft”, used in the usual context).

As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. Although it is a relatively long 383 pages in length, it never feels bloated or padded. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, the novel’s pacing is absolutely stellar 🙂 This is a novel that is compelling from the first page and then gets more and more compelling as the story gradually turns from an ominous gothic horror tale to a suspenseful slasher story to an action-packed zombie thriller 🙂

As for how this thirty-four year old novel has aged, it still holds up fairly well. Although it is very ’80s in a lot of ways, this often just adds to the story’s late-night “video nasty” charm – with the grimness of 1980s Britain (eg: crime, loneliness etc..) being contrasted with the kind of moments you’d expect to see in a cheesy late-night TV show (eg: loose-cannon police-work, an evil druid etc..). Not only that, the story’s plot is still as compelling and dramatic as ever. Even so, this novel is probably slightly on the “politically incorrect” side of things these days – but not as much as you might expect.

All in all, this is the most fun that I’ve had with a book in a while 🙂 It’s an expert blend of horror and thriller fiction, which walks a brilliantly fine line between amusing cheesiness and gripping drama. It’s an even better novel than Hutson’s “Erebus”, and I never expected to say that. If you like zombies, vampires, gothic graveyards, slasher movies, heavy metal music, cheesy ’80s movies and/or thriller novels, then this one is well-worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get six hundred and sixty-six.

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: “Zombie Apocalypse! Horror Hospital” By Mark Morris (Novel)

Since the weather was still pretty hot, I felt like reading a nice relaxing zombie novel. So, I thought that I’d take the chance to read a book that I’ve been meaning to read for a few months, namely Mark Morris’ 2014 novel “Zombie Apocalypse! Horror Hospital”.

I first saw this book online a few months ago and was impressed by the dramatic title and gloriously melodramatic cover art. But, since it was slightly expensive at the time, I ended up reading Alison Littlewood’s “Zombie Apocalypse! Acapulcalypse Now” instead. However, a couple of weeks before writing this review, second-hand copies of the book were a little bit cheaper online, so I decided to get a copy.

Although this book seems to be a spin-off from Stephen Jones’ “Zombie Apocalypse!” series, it seems to be a fairly self-contained novel. Yes, some elements of the book will probably make more sense if you’ve read the main series (which I haven’t, since they seem to be epistolary novels. And, although I read “Dracula”, “Carrie” and “World War Z” during the ’00s, I’ve kind of gone off of this narrative style). But, this is pretty much a self-contained stand-alone novel with conventional third-person narration 🙂

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Zombie Apocalypse! Horror Hospital”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2014 Robinson (UK) paperback edition of “Zombie Apocalypse! Horror Hospital” that I read.

The novel begins in London, in a dystopian version of Britain (well, more dystopian than usual). A night-shift nurse called Cat Harris is on her way to Lewisham Hospital when a frenzied person covered in blood lurches out in front of the car. Luckily, Cat is able to get away but she feels slightly shaken by the incident and somewhat guilty about not helping the person who lunged at her car. Still, there is work to be done at the hospital’s A&E department…

Meanwhile, a seventeen-year old gang member called Carlton is preparing for an attack on a rival gang. Although Carlton’s gang have the element of surprise on their side, Carlton ends up getting stabbed in the hip by a youth from the rival gang. So, naturally, he ends up being taken to A&E at Lewisham Hospital….

Whilst all of this is going on, there’s a hen party in a nearby nightclub. Although the evening is going well, a bearded man in a white robe enters the nightclub and begins to rant about beltane, fleas and other arcane things – before suddenly biting the bride-to-be. Whilst the other people at the club beat the bearded man to a pulp, the hen party make their way to Lewisham Hospital’s A&E department….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is basically an updated modern version of classic 1980s splatterpunk fiction 🙂 Everything from the cynical dystopian satire to the gritty inner London setting to the gallons of gore is wonderfully evocative of classic ’80s splatterpunk authors like Shaun Hutson, James Herbert etc…

But, it is also a modern novel too – about the best way to describe this is that the novel is maybe a little bit like Attack The Block mixed with the film adaptation of V For Vendetta mixed with 28 Days Later and/or possibly the first “Resident Evil” movie.

As a horror novel, this story works really well 🙂 Although it isn’t exactly scary, it is filled with the kind of intense, ultra-gruesome, claustrophobic, tragic, dystopian, fast-paced and suspenseful horror that you would expect from a 1980s-style splatterpunk novel.

Likewise, this novel also includes some transgressive horror, some medical horror, a bit of paranormal horror, lots of apocalyptic horror, a few moments of gothic horror and some insect-based horror too. In other words, this isn’t a novel for the easily shocked or horrified.

Interestingly, the zombies in this novel are modern-style fast-moving zombies – with the zombie virus also being spread via infected fleas (like the bubonic plague) and having some kind of paranormal component to it too.

This allows for some fairly inventive scenes, such as infected characters having psychic visions or pickled specimens in a nearby medical museum returning to life. In addition to this, the fast-moving zombies also help to keep the later parts of the story suitably thrilling too. But, thankfully, some classic tropes of the genre (eg: aim for the head!) still remain too 🙂

Like any good zombie story, this novel also contains a fair amount of dark humour too 🙂 In addition to a few movie/TV references, a subtle reference to James Herbert’s “The Rats“, arguments about whether the zombies are actually zombies and some amusing dialogue segments, there are also a few brilliant moments of grotesque humour too (such as a heartwarmingly romantic reunion… of zombies) which will either make you laugh out loud or feel slightly queasy.

The novel’s dystopian elements are pretty interesting too. Although they’re mostly kept to the background, this story is set in a vaguely “V For Vendetta”-style version of Britain that has a nationalistic UKIP/Tory-style government, daily curfews, armed police, mysterious conspiracies etc.. With the only reason that it hasn’t turned into a full-blown 1984-style dictatorship mostly just being because of governmental incompetence, stinginess/austerity etc.. Seriously, this novel is a brilliant piece of political satire.

However, one fault with this novel is that it overloads the reader with characters and sub-plots during the first half of the novel. Yes, all of these sub-plots do add scale, suspense, emotional depth, narrative breadth etc… and the story does become more streamlined later, but it means that the crucial early parts of the story aren’t always as fast-paced or focused as they should be.

This wouldn’t have been too bad if this novel had used the classic splatterpunk technique of killing off most of the background characters after just one chapter, but they’ll often get at least a couple of chapters (if not more) – which bogs the story down a bit.

In terms of the characters, they’re all reasonably well-written. Like in classic splatterpunk novels, the focus is more on ordinary people rather than on soldiers, politcians, police officers etc.. Although, as mentioned earlier, the focus on introducing lots of characters near the beginning of the story does make the story feel a little bit less focused than it should be.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is really good. In addition to switching between more formal and more informal narration depending on the situation, the story’s narration also contains some absolutely awesome descriptions – like this one: “The church was a squat, ugly, moss-covered building that perched like a toad in a sea of mud and tangled vegetation, from which broken, slanted gravestones jutted like old teeth.

However, one minor annoyance is that the novel randomly switches to present-tense narration during one or two chapters though. Even so, this novel is wonderfully readable 🙂

Like with the other “Zombie Apocalypse!” spin-off novel I’ve read, this one also includes a few greyscale illustrated pages too. But, most of these just seem to be pictures of blood-spattered hospital corridors and they don’t really add too much to the story. Then again, if you’re having difficulty picturing the settings, then I suppose they might come in handy.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. At 343 pages, it’s a little long by classic splatterpunk standards but on par with other modern horror novels. Likewise, although the novel becomes a lot more focused and fast-paced during the later parts, the numerous character introductions and the emphasis on suspense etc.. near the beginning means that the novel gets off to a slightly slower and less streamlined start than I would have liked.

All in all, this is a really good zombie novel. Yes, it isn’t quite perfect, but it’s still really brilliant 🙂 If you want to read a slightly more updated, modern version of the type of awesome old 1980s splatterpunk horror novels that used to be common in second-hand bookshops/charity shops a decade or two ago, then check this novel out.

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