Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The limits of horror

I always liked horror stories – some of the earliest comics I can ever remember reading involved cheap, nasty horror comic reprints with gushing black blood – but there was a definite zenith to my love of all things horrific, and that was somewhere in the late eighties.

I was a young teenager at that time, and what teenager doesn’t love horror? After my obsession with GI Joe comics died out, I suddenly became mental for horror stories – horror movies, horror comics and horror novels.

I loved it all, but I soon found my limits.

It was a very good time to be a horror fan – the early eighties video tape boom saw distributors fill hungry racks with anything they could get their hands on, and that saw an explosion in easily available horror cinema. Small video shops in the middle of nowhere could suddenly have impressive collections of Umberto Lenzi or Lucio Fulci films, or obscure exploitations flicks from all over the world. (Unless your government didn’t like them…)

Which was fortunate for me, because I grew up in the middle of nowhere, where there was nothing better to do on a Friday night than go round to a mate’s place, steal a couple of nips from the parent’s liquor cabinet and watch something gross and gory.

Guided by a few key texts, my friends and I worked our way steadily through the horror section of every local video store. Every now and then you might get to see something that was actually good, like the first Nightmare on Elm Street or the criminally underrated Halloween III, but most of the shelves were full of abominable shit. And we ended up watching them all.

At least you had a fast-forward button, and if something did turn out to be unwatchable, you could always skip forward to the good bits. Most of these horror films had some kind of good bit, even if it was just laughably bad, and it was easy to ignore all the rest.

I was a lot less willing to put up with shit horror novels, because they were a significant time investment that you could not fast forward through, and that's where I reached the limits of horror.

At that time, Stephen King was still the undisputed master of horror fiction, after a decade crammed with classic novels. King, at his best, is one of the great American novelists, capturing life in the late 20th century like few others – in 200 years time, scholars will look back at his books to see how 20th century man lived and thought. But he was also able to craft deeply creepy stories about vampires and ghosts and clowns and Creatures From The Id and other horrific entities invading that normality.

But as prolific as King was, you could still get through something as dense as The Stand or It in less than a week, and I've always been a voracious reader, so I went hunting for more.

And there was plenty to find, and while I really enjoyed the horror fiction of writers like Joe R Lansdale and Dan Simmons, I tended to gravitate towards the UK horror writers, who were always a bit grittier and a bit nastier and a lot funnier.

James Herbert, who sadly passed away last year, was the king of this lot, and was particularly good at sketching in characters' background details, just before they were eaten alive by giant mutant rats, and also gave the reader loads of sex and violence to keep the plot humming. The third book in his Rats series, set in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear attack on London, was particularly strong, and his version of The Fog, which included a road blocked off by a massive, violent orgy, was way better than any pirate zombie movie.

There were plenty of other worthy British horror writers from this period, including the supremely moody Ramsey Campbell and the brilliantly balls-out craziness of Clive Barker, but there was also a lot of hack work, and that's about as far as I went with horror novels, because you could only take so much Shaun Hutson and Guy N Smith books.

This is down in the cheap and nasty section of horror fiction, where legions of hack writers churn out derivative drivel that means nothing. They often have terrific covers, but they just were just garnish on a turd.

I read the odd terrible book by writers whose names I never saw again, and never sought out again. But there were two writers whose books I saw everywhere, and which I briefly tried out, only to run away screaming, (and not in fear) – Guy N Smith and Shaun Hutson.

I actually tried a couple of Guy N Smith’s books – his series of giant crab novels were silly fun, until I realised they were all the same, with paper thin characterisation and cookie cutter plots that saw the giant crabs emerge from the water, rip apart a few unfortunate souls with their giant pincers, and sod off again. A ridiculously prolific writer – he has written over a thousand short stories and magazine articles, a dozen non-fiction books and his most recent Crabs book only came out a couple of years ago – his novels filled the shelves of the second hand stores where I bought all the cheap horror novels I could get. They obviously had their audience, but that was as far as my love of horror would take me.

It certainly didn’t take me past the single Shaun Hutson book I read. I remember reading interviews with the splatterpunk writer, where he said he started writing after reading one of those Crabs books and decided that he couldn’t do any worse, but he also didn’t do much better. Smith’s novels were almost charming in their clumsiness, but Hutson’s books were just nasty and mean and unimaginative, with one-word titles like Slugs, Spawn and Assassin. They also found an audience - Hutson's books are particularly popular in the UK prison system - but I couldn't even finish the one I tried.

That was it. I was done with that kind of shitty horror.

I haven't read a Hutson or Smith book for 20 years, and I don't think I've missed that much. But I don't really regret trying them out. It's nice to know your limits, and see how bad things can really get.

And there was something inordinately entertaining about how silly they could get, with clumsy and copious gore, although there was a weird smarmy arrogance about some of these writers that could get a bit much.

It's easy to look back and laugh at these silly horrors now - and it makes the jokes in Garth Marenghi’s Dark Places all the meatier - but there is some disappointment that they weren't better, that the writers didn't try to do something new and imaginative and original, creating new avenues of horror, instead of sealing off that road.

No comments: