Three Reasons Why 1980s British Horror Fiction Was So Shocking

Although horror fiction has had something of a resurgence in recent years, it’s interesting to note that (with the exception of the zombie genre) it has mostly gone back to a more traditional focus on atmosphere, suspense, implication, psychological horror etc…

This isn’t a bad thing. These traditional elements have stuck around because they are effective. When brought up to the modern day and placed in modern settings, they can still be extremely disturbing. So, this article isn’t too much of a criticism of modern horror fiction.

On the other hand, when I started to re-read Shaun Hutson’s 1985 splatterpunk monster novel “Breeding Ground” before writing this article, I was reminded at how different it was from modern horror fiction. How much more transgressive it was compared to the scarier, but perhaps not as shocking, horror that you’d typically find in a more modern novel. This is a novel that absolutely revels in grossing the reader out – and you don’t really see this sort of thing that often in modern horror fiction.

If a modern horror novel is an ominous piece of classical music that sends a shiver down your spine, this 1980s novel is a heavy metal song turned up to eleven (and, yes, the one and only Iron Maiden are referenced in it too 🙂 ).

So, naturally, this made me think about why 1980s horror fiction – here in Britain especially – was a lot more transgressive than modern horror fiction often is. Here are some of my theories:

1) Historical context: Ok, there’s a lot of stuff here. The first is probably that, unlike the stylised US-influenced popular image of “the 1980s” these days, 1980s Britain was apparently a fairly miserable place to live in.

Although I haven’t studied 1980s history in a gigantic level of detail and didn’t even exist for most of the ’80s, even the comedies from that decade ridicule the general grimness of the country back then.

One of the side-effects of this was that horror authors noticed all of this stuff. They rebelled against it and they used it as a source of horror. They wrote stories set in miserable places where horrible things happen to people who live dreary, precarious and/or second-rate lives because, in a world like that, it wouldn’t be entirely impossible. They satirised the supposed bastions of goodness (eg: politicians, religions, celebrities, the police etc…) that everyone was told to trust in those troubled times. Or, to put it another way, there’s a reason why the genre is called “splatterpunk”. Like old punk music, 1980s horror fiction had a lot to rebel against.

The second is that horror fiction was in a fairly unique position at the time. In mid-1980s Britain, there was a ridiculous moral panic (is there any other type?) about “Video Nasties” – gruesome horror films that had been released on the newfangled VHS format. This led to film censorship being extended to cover videos, with the censors actually becoming stricter. However, thanks to a very enlightened court decision a couple of decades earlier, literature was (and thankfully still is) pretty much a safe haven from official censorship.

Needless to say, there was clearly an appetite for shocking transgressive horror entertainment at the time. Horror authors were in a unique position where they could reflect these changes in the genre in a way that films weren’t allowed to. And, with this added freedom, they were able to write stories that were gorier, grosser and generally more shocking than even the most “extreme” modern horror movies. Of course, since horror movie censorship has been relaxed over the past couple of decades, horror authors have less reason to make their stories as transgressive as they once did.

Thirdly, horror fiction was actually popular back then 🙂 Although I was somewhat late to the party, I remember seeing loads of old 1980s horror novels in charity shops, second-hand bookshops etc.. during the early-mid 2000s. It seemed to be as much of a fixture on 1980s high street shelves as crime thriller fiction is these days. Of course, since there were more horror novels for readers to choose from, there was probably more incentive for horror authors to out-shock the other authors, to provide horror fiction that was scarier, grosser and generally more extreme than the competition.

2) Respectability: One of the cool things about horror fiction in the 1980s was that, like with computer and video games in the 1990s, it wasn’t a “respectable” genre.

This meant that the genre had a lot more freedom. Since it was “trashy” entertainment that was made by and for fans of the genre, it didn’t have to worry about winning mainstream accolades. It could be as high-brow or low-brow as it needed to be in order to provide the kind of experience that readers would enjoy. Everything from the no-nonsense grisly grittiness of Shaun Hutson to the sophisticated dark fantasies of Clive Barker could thrive in this environment.

Because it was seen as “low culture” that fans enjoyed for the sake of enjoying it, it didn’t have to hold back because of what “respectable society” might think. It didn’t really have to advertise itself because horror fans knew an interesting horror novel when they saw one (even when I got into reading horror fiction during the early-mid 2000s, you could always tell that a book was a 1980s horror novel just by looking at the cover). Like modern heavy metal music, 1980s horror fiction was pretty much ignored by the mainstream press, media etc… and could do its own thing in a way that other genres couldn’t.

Of course, these days, horror fiction has had to regain some of it’s former popularity by appealing to more “respectable” audiences. This means that the genre also has to have an eye on things like professional literary critics, reading groups, large publishers, awards and what modern culture thinks is “acceptable” entertainment. But, like with modern videogames trying to gain some of the respectability of cinema by becoming more “cinematic”, this has resulted in major changes – some good, some bad- in the style, techniques etc.. of the modern horror genre.

3) Novelty: Horror fiction has existed for over a century at the very least. But, transgressive, shocking and/or ultra-gruesome horror fiction only really started to become a thing from the mid-1970s onwards (with James Herbert’s 1974 novel “The Rats” being one of the earliest popular examples). Back then, this type of horror was something new.

It was shocking because it was so different from the horror fiction that had come before it. It was a type of horror fiction that would have been pretty much unthinkable in the 1950s or 1960s. And, as such, it was something that authors were eager to explore and readers were eager to experience. It was the literary equivalent of ID Software releasing the original “Doom” at a time when computer games were mostly cartoonish platform games aimed at children.

Of course, novelty doesn’t last forever. Over time, “shocking for the sake of shocking” lost some of it’s appeal. The readers became jaded and the authors probably wanted to expand their repetoire. So, transgression and shock value went from something that a horror novel could rely on to being just one ingredient of many that horror authors can use. And, with the novelty value lost, authors also felt more free to look back at the older elements of the genre and find ways to bring them up to date.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Possible Reasons Why “Shock Value” Was A Major Part Of British Horror Fiction During The 1980s

Well, I thought that I’d talk about 1980s horror fiction today. This is mostly because, with Halloween only about a month away, I decided to start re-reading Shaun Hutson’s 1986 horror novel “Relics”. To my surprise, there were even more “shock value” elements to the story than I remembered (eg: grisly deaths, obscene rituals, vicious cruelty etc..).

Of course, as 1980s horror novels (at least in Britain) go, “Relics” is hardly an outlier. After all, this was the decade of splatterpunk fiction. So, why was 1980s British horror fiction a lot more “shocking” than it’s more psychological and ominous modern counterpart?

Here are a few of my speculations and theories:

1) Film censorship: Simply put, the 1980s was a decade of stifling censorship in Britain. It was a decade where grisly VHS horror films sparked a massive moral panic that led to video censorship legislation that is unfortunately still with us, pretty much unchanged, to this day.

Of course, thanks to the Lady Chatterley trial in the early 1960s, literature was protected from censorship. So, in an era when horror films were getting grislier (but being censored more heavily in the UK), horror fiction had something of a unique selling point. It could be more gruesome than the horror films that were available to the public. And, of course, astute horror authors took full advantage of this fact.

So, 1980s horror novels were grislier and more shocking than modern ones for the simple reason that they could bypass the strict censorship of the time. Of course, with film censorship being slightly less over-zealous in modern Britain, there is less of an incentive for horror authors to make their stories as extreme as possible.

2) Audience and context: One interesting thing about “shocking” 1980s horror novels is that they seem to have been reasonably popular amongst teenagers and it isn’t difficult to see why.

Even though the heyday of paperback horror fiction was already in it’s later stages when I was born, I belatedly discovered my first second-hand ’80s horror novel at about the age of thirteen and it absolutely astonished me. Needless to say, I read a lot more 1980s horror fiction during the next few years. And, from what I can remember of reviews/articles I’ve seen about older horror fiction over the years, this type of experience was something that also happened in the generation before mine too.

It’s a rebellious genre of fiction – I mean, it’s called “Splatterpunk“for a reason. It was the type of “shocking” fiction that made reading books seem like a “cool” thing to do. Add to this the fact that, at the time these novels were originally published (and a decade or two afterwards as well), the younger generations were pretty much expected to rebel. And what better way to rebel than reading an ultra-gruesome horror novel that would probably be banned if it was ever turned into a film?

Of course, these days, we live in an age where YA fiction is a more popular genre. We live in an age where, thanks to smartphones etc…, fewer people from all age groups read books. Likewise, these days, there isn’t really the expectation that the younger generation should “rebel” that there was in the past.

In other words, 1980s horror novels included a lot more shock value because they had a slightly different audience and a different historical context to modern horror fiction.

3) Popularity: Simply put, the horror genre was a lot more popular during the 1980s. In those halcyon days, horror fiction was apparently widely available in newsagents and all bookshops.

After all, slasher movies were a major genre in the cinema. Not to mention that, as portable entertainment options went, books were also pretty much the only choice. Add to this the fact that books were a lot cheaper than VHS tapes/VCRs and you can see why horror fiction was also an attractive choice for home entertainment too.

So, horror novels were mass entertainment. And, whilst the more cynical among you might think that this means that the “shock value” elements were there to appeal to the lowest common denominator, I’d argue that it is a little bit more sophisticated than this.

Simply put, “shock value” horror isn’t actually about shocking the audience, it is about giving them the illusion of bravery. Yes, the first “shock value” horror novel you read will probably shock you. But, once you’ve read a couple, you’ll know what to expect and it won’t shock you. As such, you’ll be able to read “horrifying” novels without so much as a scintilla of fear – which makes you feel courageous and tough. So, these novels are more about evoking this feeling than about actually frightening the audience.

And, given that people enjoy this feeling of toughness (eg: just look at all of the superhero movies these days), it was probably part of the mass appeal of “shock value” horror novels in 1980s Britain. Of course, with horror fiction being less popular these days, modern horror authors have to focus more on actually frightening the audience with things like psychological horror, bleak horror, suspense etc…

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Basic Tips For Writing Gruesome Horror Fiction

Well, I ended up thinking about the topic of gruesome horror fiction recently after a couple of things. Firstly, one of the short story practice projects (that I probably won’t post here) that I finished the day before writing this article ended up being somewhat different from the more sanitised style of horror fiction that I seem to have drifted towards writing during the past decade. Secondly, I’m also reading another zombie novel (“Plague Town” by Dana Fredsti) at the moment too.

So, I thought that I’d offer a few basic tips for writing gruesome horror fiction.

1) Read it!: I cannot emphasise this enough – to write gruesome horror fiction you need to have read a lot of it.

And, yes, if you’re feeling put off by the idea of this, then this type of horror fiction isn’t for you (and you should probably focus on something like gothic horror or ghost stories or something like that instead). If not, then it is well worth reading several gruesome horror novels before you think about writing this type of fiction.

It’s probably best to start with the splatterpunk classics of the 1970s-90s. The books I’d recommend starting with are “Erebus” by Shaun Hutson, “The Rats” by James Herbert and/or any of “The Books Of Blood” by Clive Barker.

If you want something more modern, then just look for pretty much any zombie novel published within about the past two decades (since this is the closest thing to the splatterpunk genre still around in the present day).

When you read gruesome horror fiction, you’ll start to notice that each author has their own style, vocabulary etc.. for describing scenes of gruesome horror. And, like finding your own narrative “voice”, the best way to learn how to write gruesome horror is simply to read lots of different authors who write this type of fiction.

2) Pacing and frequency: There are two main approaches to this and each have their advantages and disadvantages. So, the best way to handle how often your gruesome scenes appear is probably to aim for something between both of these approaches.

The classic splatterpunk approach to writing gruesome horror fiction is simply to overload the reader with frequent grisly descriptions. This has the advantage of creating a grim, macabre and nihilistic atmosphere, where horrific death is never more than a few pages away.

On the downside, this lessens the shock value and/or horror value of your story’s gruesome moments, since the reader will get used to them fairly quickly. Yes, this makes the reader feel “tough” or “fearless” (since they aren’t feeling shocked or horrified) but it also severely reduces the impact of any individual gruesome scene.

The other approach is to carefully ration your story’s gruesome moments. To only include a small number of them, but to make each one especially horrific or grotesque and to build up to each one using a lot of suspense.

The main advantage of this approach is that these scenes will have a lot more dramatic impact (for a good example, read “In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami). On the downside, this approach to writing gruesome horror fiction is a lot more difficult to get right than the classic splatterpunk approach.

3) Other types of horror: On it’s own, gruesome horror isn’t scary. It can be disgusting, grotesque, repulsive, macabre or grim. But, it isn’t really scary. So, you also need to include other types of horror too. Seriously, don’t just rely on gruesome horror if you’re writing a horror story.

Fortunately, most of the situations where gruesome moments of horror are likely to happen are also situations where other types of horror are to be expected.

For example, if one of your characters is about to be eaten by a monster, then this is the perfect place to add a bit of suspenseful horror. Likewise, if your story is set during a zombie apocalypse, then this is the perfect place to add some tragic horror, bleak horror and/or disease-based horror.

But, the most important thing to remember is that gruesome horror isn’t inherently scary. So, when something gruesome happens in your story, you also need to pair it with other types of horror if you want to make the scene truly shocking or frightening.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Two Terrifying Tips For Writing Extreme Horror Fiction

Well, although I’ve already talked about splatterpunk horror fiction a few times before, I thought that I’d talk about a similar – but slightly different – genre of horror fiction today. I am, of course, talking about extreme horror fiction.

This is mostly because, at the time of writing, I’m reading an absolutely amazing surreal noir detective novel (“Word Made Flesh” by Jack O’Connell) that also includes some brilliantly disturbing extreme horror elements too. Needless to say, this article will contain some SPOILERS for the earlier parts of this novel.

Although there’s a lot of overlap between splatterpunk horror fiction and extreme horror fiction, I’d argue that the two things are at least somewhat different. In short, whilst splatterpunk horror fiction is often “gruesome for the sake of gruesome”, extreme horror takes the unflinching attitude of splatterpunk fiction and uses it in a way that is a lot more insidious and disturbing. In other words, whilst extreme horror might be gruesome, this isn’t the sole source of horror that the reader is confronted with.

So, here are a couple of tips for writing extreme horror fiction.

1) It’s not what is shown, it is how it is shown:
The horror/detective novel I mentioned earlier (“Word Made Flesh”) begins with one of the creepiest and most disturbing prologues that I’ve ever read. It’s the kind of prologue that, due to it’s sadistic, cruel, ultra-violent and grotesque nature, probably shouldn’t be described in too much detail here.

Yet, although this sounds like it would be a typical scene from a splatterpunk horror novel, this prologue does a few things differently to the average splatterpunk novel – which make the horror of this scene about ten times more disturbing.

For starters, the prologue sometimes shows relatively little in the way of gory detail. Instead of spending numerous paragraphs describing the grisly events that happen, the prologue will – for example – spend a couple of paragraphs talking in great depth about how a group of murderers carefully crafted their scalpels in accordance with various traditions. This evokes a sense of deep horror by contrasting beautiful things (eg: tradition, timeless artefacts, creativity) with the grotesquely cruel use that the scalpels are put to.

Likewise, when the scene in question does include gory detail, it will often leave some elements and details to the imagination. In other words, it will describe enough to make you wince with disgust but it won’t always go into the level of hyper-specific detail that a traditional splatterpunk novel typically would. By showing some grisly detail, then leaving some of it to the imagination – it creates the impression that some elements of the scene are too horrific to show. And, since what the reader does see is pretty gross, it makes them think that the details they don’t see are ten times worse.

Finally, the narrative tone of the scene adds an extra level of extremity to the horror. The scene in question is narrated in a casual, poetic and occasionally informal way (with the narrator even making the occasional macabre joke or talking directly to the reader). Although this sounds like it would lessen the horror of the scene, it actually makes the scene in question considerably more disturbing because the narrator is able to be so relaxed, awe-struck and/or happy in the presence of something so cruel and horrific. In other words, it makes the reader feel like they’re listening to someone very, very evil.

So, yes, extreme horror isn’t about what you show, it’s about how you show it.

2) Taboos: One of the other things that sets extreme horror fiction apart from splatterpunk horror fiction is the genre’s willingness to focus on taboo subject matter.

A good example of this is an incredibly disturbing chapter in “Word Made Flesh” where an old taxi driver talks about suffering bigotry and violent prejudice during his youth. Even though most of this chapter isn’t exactly easy reading, it finishes with one of the most unsettling, creepy and just generally disturbing passages of text I’ve read in quite a while.

After the taxi driver has talked about his tragic history, he then gives a chillingly “matter-of-fact” description of the psychology of the people who committed these crimes. Not only does this tap into some fairly disturbing subject matter, but it also examines these taboo subjects in a level of philosophical and psychological detail that is genuinely disturbing. In other words, this scene takes an unflinching look at taboo topics (like the psychology of evil ) that are too disturbing to think about in detail.

So, the difference between extreme horror fiction and splatterpunk horror fiction is the fact that whilst splatterpunk might be willing to take an unflinching look at gruesome fictional events, extreme horror is willing to take the same attitude towards real taboos. And this makes extreme horror about ten times creepier than splatterpunk horror.

Yet, this also makes extreme horror considerably more difficult to write than splatterpunk horror. After all, taboo subjects are usually taboo for a good reason.

So, not only do these scenes have to be written extremely carefully but they’re also likely to provoke strong reactions in audiences and publishers. So, yes, taboo-based horror is probably one of the most difficult elements of extreme horror fiction to get right.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Devil’s Coach-Horse” By Richard Lewis (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read a proper vintage splatterpunk horror novel (and, no, “Plasmid” doesn’t count). So, after looking online for splatterpunk novels and finding this review of the US edition of Richard Lewis’ 1979 novel “Devil’s Coach-Horse”, I just had to take a look at it.

After all, I’d quite enjoyed Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion” and this looked fairly similar, albeit with beetles rather than scorpions.

Interestingly, according to the review I linked to earlier, this book was retitled when it was released in the US. Although I prefer the original UK version’s title (it has a certain Victorian ghoulishness to it), the cover art for the US edition looks cooler and creepier than the UK edition that I read.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Devil’s Coach-Horse”. Needles to say, this review will contain SPOILERS.

This is the 1979 Hamlyn (UK) paperback edition of “Devil’s Coach-Horse” that I read.

The novel begins in Italy where British entomologist John Masters is travelling to another scientific conference with his American colleague, Michael Borowski and his wife Clare. However, when their plane crosses the Alps, they run into a cumulonimbus cloud that causes ice to form on the outside of the plane. Unfortunately, the aviation systems designed to dislodge ice from the wings malfunction and the plane crashes.

The only things to survive the crash are some samples of unusual beetles that Masters had been taking to the conference. These beetles are cold, hungry and need somewhere warm to lay their eggs. Needless to say, when the weather conditions reach a point where the bodies can be recovered, they are transported back to Cambridge and Chicago for post-mortem and burial. Of course, the beetle eggs have been laying dormant in the cold weather and when they hatch, they quickly develop a taste for blood….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, about a third of the way through reading it, I quite literally felt a warm glow of familiarity and nostalgia. This book was exactly like the kind of lurid second-hand retro horror novels that I read as a teenager during the 2000s and, even as a more jaded and cynical adult, it was so much fun to read. It is gloriously cheesy, hilariously melodramatic and wonderfully over-the-top 🙂

In terms of the horror elements of this novel, they work really well. The main type of horror here is, as you would expect from a splatterpunk novel, good old-fashioned gory horror.

Although this novel doesn’t quite reach the sheer level of wall-to-wall gore as something like Shaun Hutson’s “Erebus“, it certainly comes close during a few scenes.

However, whilst Hutson’s “Erebus” overloads the reader with almost-constant scenes of grisly horror until they become an atmospheric background element, Lewis’ “Devil’s Coach-Horse” takes a slightly more traditional approach.

In other words, the gruesome scenes are slightly less frequent – and more shocking in contrast to the rest of the story. Lewis also takes a slightly more sophisticated approach to these scenes, leaving one of the most horrific moments (involving a picnic) mostly to the reader’s imagination – which makes it even more shocking.

One other interesting feature in many of the moments of grisly horror in this novel is how Lewis approaches the topic of death. Often, the characters who are devoured by beetles will die with a smile on their face (for some ironic reason or another) and/or death itself will be presented in a peaceful manner. Not only does this contrast well with the horrific scenes that precede it, but it also helps to emphasise the sheer pain and terror of the events leading up to a character’s death too. It’s a really interesting literary technique.

But, in addition to the gory horror that you would expect, this novel also uses other types of horror too. These include things like scientific/medical horror, insect-based horror, vulnerability-based horror and even a moment or two of tragic/poignant horror too. All of this grim horror is also contrasted with a few moments of dark comedy too.

Whilst this novel includes many of the standard features of a splatterpunk novel, one interesting difference is how authority is portrayed. Often, in splatterpunk novels, authority is shown to either be the cause of the problem, dangerously incompetent and/or a threat to the main characters. However, in this novel, the main character (a scientist called Paul) works closely with the police, military and government – who are presented as competent, intelligent and good people. So, it’s a little bit like a traditional disaster story in this respect.

Another innovative feature of this novel is that the events of the story take place in both Britain and America. Most British splatterpunk monster novels from the 1970s/80s just focus on one town and/or city in order to create a sense of claustrophobic tension. However, in this story, the focus on multiple locations works really well since it helps to emphasise the scale of the problem that the characters face. This also links in with the book’s theme of ecology and environmental damage. For the most part, the US-based scenes seem to be fairly well-written, although the US President’s office is referred to as the “Oval Room” at one point.

This novel’s approach to morality is also wonderfully unpredictable too. In other words, whilst you can probably guess how some scenes will turn out (eg: a sleazy rich man having an affair with a woman who wants to rebel against her traditionalist upbringing) some other scenes gleefully fly in the face of traditional horror story morality. So, this novel never really feels like it is lecturing the reader and the scenes of horror remain at least somewhat unpredictable too.

In terms of the writing and narration, Lewis’ third-person narration works really well. It is probably very slightly formal by modern standards, but it is still extremely readable. Lewis gets the balance between descriptions, dialogue, characterisation and action right – to the point where the book sometimes reads like an old thriller novel.

Plus, one amusing feature of Lewis’ narration is that he occasionally includes wonderfully melodramatic asides (eg: “Later he would remember his discovery. By then, however, it would be too late.”), which just add to the theatrical charm of this story.

In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is excellent. I’ve already mentioned the brilliant contrast between shocking moments and non-shocking moments, but this novel also moves along at a reasonable pace too.

The only criticisms I have with regard to the pacing are the fact that the same information is relayed to the reader twice (during briefings to the Prime Minister and the US President) and the fact that the solution to the beetle infestation appears “out of the blue” near the end of the story. However, this “deus ex machina” moment could be there for the sake of realism – since major scientific discoveries are often made by many scientists working in different locations.

Plus, at an efficient 168 pages in length, this story never gets bloated. I’ve said it many times before but I really miss the days when paperback novels could be short 🙂

As for how this forty-year-old novel has aged, it has aged extremely gracefully 🙂 Not only are the moments of grisly horror still fairly shocking and/or gruesome by modern standards, but the story still remains fairly compelling too. Likewise, the narration is still very readable too. Plus, this is one of those old novels that feels wonderfully retro rather than awkwardly dated too (eg: kind of a bit like a more modern film set in the 1970s/80s).

All in all, this novel was a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you want a fun, cheesy, retro horror novel that you can read in a couple of hours, then this one is well worth checking out. It has also stood the test of time surprisingly well too. So, if you’ve already read James Herbert’s “The Rats” and are in the mood for a classic vermin-based monster story, then this is definitely one of the better ones out there 🙂

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

Three Tips For Writing 1980s-Style Horror Fiction

My first encounter with the wonderful world of 1980s horror fiction was during the early 2000s when, as a young teenager, I happened to find a copy of Shaun Hutson’s 1988 novel “Assassin” in the horror section of an indoor market book stall in Stafford.

When I read it, I was amazed that literature could be that gruesome, shocking and controversial. It showed me that books could be rebellious. Needless to say, I read lots of old 1980s horror novels (in addition to a few 1970s and 1990s ones) when I was a teenager. They were also the thing that first really made me interested in writing fiction.

And, when I briefly got back into writing short stories last year, I had a lot of fun writing stuff that involved this type of fiction. For example, this story includes an “extract” from a fictional 1980s horror novel.

As such, I thought that I’d offer a few tips for writing 1980s-style horror fiction. I’ll mostly be focusing on British-style horror fiction (eg: Shaun Hutson, James Herbert, Clive Barker, Graham Masterton, Guy N. Smith etc..) here, since I’ve had much more experience with reading this type of 1980s horror fiction.

1) Splatterpunk: It is impossible to talk about 1980s horror fiction without talking about splatterpunk.

In short, this is a cool-sounding term for horror fiction that is more gruesome than even the most extreme modern horror movies. Although 1980s Britain was notorious for strict film censorship (eg: the “video nasties” moral panic) – thanks to the Lady Chatterley trial, horror literature had none of these silly over-protective restrictions during the 1980s.

But, splatterpunk fiction is more than just page upon page of gory descriptions – it has a very distinctive style, atmosphere and set of narrative techniques that are worth learning.

One of these techniques is how the genre handles side-characters. In short, splatterpunk novels will often include a few chapters that introduce new background characters… only for each of them to die horribly at the end of their chapter.

Not only does this allow for more shockingly macabre moments, it also gives the story a greater degree of scope – since we get to see what is happening outside of the lives of the main characters. In addition to this, when these types of chapters are placed near the beginning of the book, it adds some suspenseful uncertainty about who will (and won’t) be a main character. It also creates an ominously chilling atmosphere where life is cheap and death can lurk anywhere.

In addition to this, 1980s splatterpunk novels are often written in a more descriptive, formal and slow-paced way than you might expect. For example, even though Shaun Hutson was considered a “low brow” horror author during the 1980s, his 1980s novels are often written in a way that would almost be considered “literary” these days. So, don’t try to write a 1980s-style splatterpunk story in the fast-paced style of a modern thriller novel. The descriptive, slightly formal style is there for a reason. It helps to add atmosphere, vividness and suspense to the story.

Since it includes the word “punk”, splatterpunk fiction also displays a gleeful contempt for authority too. Most of the time, this takes the form of shadowy government conspiracies (eg: the military sealing off a town is a favourite trope) but it is also shown through things like the police being useless at preventing horrific events and/or hindering the main characters in some way etc…

Finally, another defining feature of 1980s splatterpunk fiction is the choice of mundane – often rural- settings. Most classic British splatterpunk novels will be set in ordinary small towns and feature ordinary people. This is mostly because one of the defining types of horror in 1980s splatterpunk fiction is contrasting the ordinary with the grotesque.

2) Creatures and monsters: It is impossible to talk about 1980s-style horror fiction without talking about creatures and monsters. This trend started in 1974 when James Herbert’s “The Rats” was published, but it only reached peak popularity during the late 1970s and the 1980s.

This was when novels like Shaun Hutson’s “Slugs” novels, Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion“, Guy N. Smith’s so-bad-that-they’re-good “Crabs” novels and Richard Lewis’ “Devil’s Coach-Horse” (which is on my “to read” list) were published.

I’ve written a more detailed article about this genre. But, in short, these types of stories typically involve some kind of animal, crustacean or insect that becomes mutated and attacks the population a small town.

Usually, the government’s response is to cover up the incident and/or obliterate the town. This genre also overlaps quite heavily with the splatterpunk genre, with the mutated creatures often devouring or killing many characters in a variety of inventively grotesque ways.

From all of the background reading I’ve done online, some theories as to the popularity of this type of horror fiction include things like it being an expression of Cold War anxieties about nuclear war (James Herbert’s “Domain” is a genuinely chilling exploration of this theme) or possibly a hangover from the “invasion literature” genre that was popular here in Britain during the early 20th century.

But, regardless, if you want to write a “1980s Britain” horror story, then including mutated creatures is one way to do it.

3) Don’t be too “retro”: One of the surprising things about 1980s horror fiction is just how… ordinary… it is. Yes, it often doesn’t age well. But, for the most part, there’s very little of the modern, stylised “nostalgic” version of the 1980s that you might expect when you think about this genre.

In short, 1980s horror fiction is just like ordinary literature – but without smartphones, the internet or stuff like that. So, if you’re writing “1980s” horror fiction, then don’t go overboard with the retro nostalgia.

For example, if your character is watching a VHS tape on a CRT television – then just write something like “she turned on the TV and played the video” rather than including a long description of the old TV and the VCR.

Remember that these novels were originally meant to be current novels about horrible things happening to ordinary people in ordinary places. As such, they don’t focus obsessively on anything that is distinctively “80s”. They just tell stories about ordinary people in ordinary places in an ordinary way. They weren’t written for nostalgia.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Review: “Scorpion” By Michael R. Linaker (Novel)

As I mentioned in yesterday’s article, I first heard of Michael R. Linaker’s “Scorpion” (1980) when I saw a review of it on a website about old horror novels (I used to read a lot of these novels when I was a teenager during the early-mid 2000s). Needless to say, the review made me morbidly curious enough to find a cheap second-hand copy of “Scorpion” on Amazon.

When the book arrived, it was a refreshingly slender volume (only 159 pages! If only modern books could be this concise!) whose pages had turned a warmly familiar shade of second-hand bookshop orange and also exuded the oddly reassuring aroma of old cigarette smoke. Not only that, the cover also had a perfectly-placed crease that made holding the book even more ergonomic than usual. Likewise, the back page of the book also contained a postal order form for books like James Herbert’s “The Rats” and Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Needless to say, I was feeling nostalgic already. You don’t get this with e-books.

So, let’s take a look at “Scorpion”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS (and some spoilers for James Herbert’s “The Rats” too).

This is the 1980 New English Library (UK) paperback edition of “Scorpion” that I read.

“Scorpion” begins in the town of Long Point in Kent. Outside the local nuclear power plant, there is an environmentalist protest that is being attended by a man called Les Mason. However, he’s got other things on his mind. Something has stung his hand!

Within minutes, Les starts to feel ill and one of the protest organisers – Chris Lane – insists on driving him home. When they get back to Les’ flat, he tells Chris to return to the protest, although she insists on calling a doctor before leaving. Once she leaves, Les looks at his hand. It looks absolutely horrifying!

Within an hour or two, he is wheeled into the emergency ward of the local hospital. Despite heavy sedation, he keeps screaming in agony. A medical researcher at the hospital, Allan Brady, decides to investigate….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is “so bad that it is good”. Everything from the occasionally corny dialogue, the descriptions of the scorpions, the ridiculous amount of sleaze, the premise of the story to Linaker’s narration just oozes low-budget cheesiness. I was torn between laughter and the sad feeling that I’d have probably enjoyed this book twice as much if I was half as old.

Even so, the experience of reading this book made me nostalgic for the Cornish summer holidays of my youth where I’d go on shopping sprees in second-hand bookshops and binge-read old second-hand horror and sci-fi novels on car journeys. Although the novel is set in Kent rather than Cornwall, I could almost taste the clotted cream and feel the summer sun when I was reading this book.

But, anyway, this is a good old-fashioned 1980s splatterpunk novel that was also part of the “creature feature” craze of the 1970s-80s. A lot of the horror in this novel is achieved through descriptions of swarms of scorpions and through the kind of grisly over-the-top blood-soaked ultra-violent horror that the splatterpunk genre is famous for. And, whilst this novel doesn’t have quite as much gore as a Shaun Hutson novel like “Erebus“, it could still give a modern horror movie a run for it’s money.

Whilst the scenes involving the scorpions often display a reasonable amount of inventiveness and never really get that monotonous, there is at least one scene that is possibly a cool little homage to the ending to James Herbert’s “The Rats”. This is a scene about two-thirds of the way through the story where the main characters encounter two larger, but weaker, scorpions within the scorpions’ lair. These scorpions are then splattered with pickaxe handles. Although there are differences, it reminded me a little bit of the memorable scene near the end of “The Rats” where the main character encounters the giant two-headed rat.

In terms of the narration, it is gloriously low-budget. Yet, the very slight clunkiness and/or amateurishness of it is all part of the charm. You sometimes get the sense that Linaker was actually trying to tell a story, that he was trying to find a way to write the type of novel he’d like to read. Yes, he isn’t always as eloquent as his contemporaries (eg: Shaun Hutson, James Herbert etc..), but this is part of the fun of the story. I mean, it’s a novel that sometimes reads a bit like an episode of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace“. And this is adorable!

Although, saying all of this, the narration does get a bit sleazy at times. This isn’t to do with the subject matter being written about (regardless of author, 1980s horror novels aren’t for the prudish) but it is to do with the way that these scenes are described and what the narration chooses to focus on. These scenes sometimes feel like they were written more for the author’s private enjoyment than because they are an organic part of the story.

The novel’s characters are reasonably good. As you would expect from a 1980s horror novel, even the background characters get a fair amount of characterisation. A lot of the novel’s best character-related moments take place during arguments with unsympathetic characters. Whether it is Chris Lane’s long-standing rivalry with the nefarious Mr.Condon who guards the gates of the power station, or Allen Brady’s dealings with the patronising and overbearing Dr. Camperly – the novel’s arguments are often hilariously dramatic. The romance between Chris and Allen is also fairly understated and rather heartwarming too.

In terms of the plotting, pacing and structure, this story is really good. Not only is it split into a three-act structure but there are also a couple of plot threads which go together fairly well. Likewise, this novel also makes full use of the classic splatterpunk technique of introducing new characters (eg: a hiker, a homeless man, a nude sunbather, an amourous couple, a mechanic, wealthy American tourists etc..) only for them to die in some horrible scorpion-related way a couple of pages later.

Not only that, this novel’s short length (a lean and efficient 159 pages) means that there are barely any wasted pages here too. Seriously, I miss the days when books could be short. This book tells a complete story that can be read in 2-4 hours and feels very much like a “full-length” novel. Seriously, I wish more books were like this! Not every novel needs to be a doorstopper!

In terms of how this thirty-eight year old novel has aged, it has aged hilariously terribly. Whether it’s the earnestness of the story’s message about the dangers of nuclear power, or the “sleazy” narrative tone of many of the novel’s more risque scenes or just the general 1980s-ness of the story, it is very much a relic of another age. Even so, the underlying story remains compelling and the scenes of horror still retain their potency. Not only that, the novel also includes a bit of timeless cynicism about the right-wing tabloid press too.

All in all, this novel is “so bad that it is good”. It’s the novelistic equivalent of a low-budget horror movie. Although it is a lean, efficient story with some timelessly horrific and creepy moments (that can also be read within 2-4 hours), it is still very much a “low-budget” horror novel. It’s so bad that it’s good. Still, if you’re in the mood for retro nostalgia or you want an old splatterpunk novel that you haven’t heard of before, then “Scorpion” will probably do the job.

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