Back into horror-novel land this week, because I’m on a British-nasties kick. When you talk about British “nasties” people usually assume you’re talking about the “video nasty” horror movies that were banned in the UK in the ‘80’s, but the term also refers to a literary movement that was happening in the late 70’s/early 80’s. While Britain cracked down on movies with violent images, they weren’t nearly as harsh on what was being written in books, and writers took advantage of that. What you weren't allowed to see on the screen, they were free to splash all over the pages, and before the whole “splatterpunk” thing really caught on, British nasty-novels were pushing the envelope on levels of violence and gore (with a bit o' sex too). James Herbert started it with The Rats, a vicious little nailbomb of a novel heaved onto a market that totally wasn’t expecting it. Before the first chapter’s over with, a guy’s getting his testicles gnawed off by diseased rodents and dying really fucking hard.
“Huge teeth that were meant for his throat sank into his cheek and tore away a huge flap.
His body poured blood now as he threshed around. Once he thought he’d found the door, but something heavy leapt up onto his back and pulled him forward into the floor again.
Rats! His mind screamed the words. Rats eating me alive! God, God help me.
Flesh was ripped away from the back of his neck. He couldn’t rise now for the sheer weight of writhing, furry vermin feeding from his body, drinking his blood.
Shivers ran along his spine, to his shocked brain. The dim shadows seemed to float before him, then a redness ran across his vision. It was the redness of unbelievable pain. He couldn’t see any more -- the rats had already eaten his eyes.”
That's a grindhouse between two covers, there. And when the gore-starved public got a taste of that verboten vileness, they wanted more, and soon the market was flooding with more books about rats (with lovable titles like The Scurrying), and books about bugs, slugs, worms, germs, lizards, dogs, cats, spiders, marine life, etc. Even walking jellyfish showed up at one point (thanks, John Halkin, for not understanding limits!).
And the gore branched out beyond the animal (and plant) kingdom, spawning more splatastic horror novels, including more apocalyptic scenarios from Herbert (check out The Fog or The Dark sometime), the underrated Nick Sharman, and the notorious Shaun Hutson, who took special delight in upsetting people (his Spawn, about bloodthirsty undead abortions, is a classic of bad taste that comes at you like GG Allin, daring you not to love it and determined to make you hate yourself for it if you do).
Anyway, I’m not limiting this to just the British, because the Yanks got in on the act pretty quickly. Signet Books (one of my favorite paperback publishers ever - even seeing their little logo makes me happy) had a whole line of critters-on-the-loose books, covering just about every animal you could think of - killer flies, cats, alligators, panthers, snakes, crabs, you name it.
So, here are some reviews of British nasties and a few American critter-books. A few of the reviews are skimpy because I wrote them a long time ago when I didn’t know there’d be an internet to put ‘em on. If nothing else, enjoy the covers!
And for more info, this blog has lots of great reviews of even more books - check ‘em out! They hipped me to a few titles to hunt down. This forum was also immeasurably helpful.
The Rats - James Herbert (Signet, 1974)
Upon this gory and unrestrained rock was the James Herbert empire -- and the notorious British “nasty” movement -- built. A breed of large, aggressive, disease-spreading rats terrorize London, and Herbert spares you nothing in depicting their attacks. For a while that’s all the book is; each chapter introduces a character (which are finely drawn so you know and are concerned with them in a very short time -- Herbert’s got major skills) who is soon gnawed to death by a hoard of vermin. And no one is safe; Herbert even runs you through a heartbreaking scenario where an infant is eaten as a brave puppy desperately tries to fight off her attackers! And even if you escape being eaten alive, one bite will condemn you to an excruciating and always-fatal disease that’ll cause your body to swell until it splits. Once a few characters we've gotten to know have been turned to rat-kibble, the novel takes on a larger scope as a teacher and the police try to stop the rat invasion from destroying the country as mass carnage holds sway. The novel is heavy on bloody rat attacks, but doesn’t sacrifice characterization or suspense while ramping up the body count. And while we certainly see enough of the rats, they never lose their menace. And they’d be back in two sequels, Lair and Domain. Important as a cornerstone of a subgenre, and still one of its best examples.
Childmare - A. G. Scott (Nick Sharman) Signet, 1980
Holy shit, this is a vicious book! Food poisoning and leaded gasoline fumes combine to turn Britain's schoolchildren into an army of homicidal maniacs in this uncompromising, violent apocalyptic novel. It starts with isolated incidents -- a picked-on kid smashing his father's brains out with a cricket bat, a pedophile getting his head run over, teachers decapitated or mutilated with paper cutters -- but soon turns into a full-scale Dawn of the Dead scenario perpetrated by mindless, murdering children. Sharman's always been an underrated writer, and he's not afraid to get nasty... and what's nastier than having to murder an entire generation of a country's children before they tear you to pieces? He stealths in a few social commentary bits (the kids are verging on Clockwork Orange even before the outbreak, and the ecological advisability of poisoning the air with leaded exhaust fumes sure takes a beating) and wallops you with violence; these kids aren’t playing around (even committing rape), and stopping them requires just as much ruthlessness. Well-written, strong, brutal horror that’s a must-read for any fan of 28 Days Later or Who Can Kill A Child.
Eat Them Alive - Pierce Nace (Manor Books, 1977)
Once in a magical while you come across a horror novel that seems to be the product of a diseased mind, one whose power to shock and disturb comes not so much from the story as it does from the fact that somebody wrote the damn thing in the first place. This ridiculous gorefest is just such a book. The protagonist, a demented scumbag named Dyke Mellis, was working with a team of criminals whose modus operandi was to torture people until they turned over their money. Dyke tried to rip off his mutilation-happy buddies and they sliced him up, castrated him, and crushed his skull enough to mess up his vision and make him even crazier. He lives as a hermit on a Columbian island until an earthquake releases thousands of giant praying mantises (what such things were doing in the earth is never explained -- you're just supposed to take it as a given). Dyke learns that he likes nothing better than watching giant mantises eat people, so he catches one, names it Slayer, and domesticates it (sort of - there's only so much taming down a giant mantis is going to take). He develops a hideously stinky mantis-repellent to cover himself with so he can walk among his mantis army, which he plans to use to get revenge on his former pals. The rest of the book is devoted to long, gore-laden explanations of how mantises eat people and the joy of watching them do it. The bugs eat women (especially the breasts), children -- even infants -- and Dyke goes on and on about how delighted he feels watching it. It's so repetitive and obsessive you can almost sense the author panting while he wrote it; he writes gore like it's hardcore porn. Kills go on for pages at a time, with limbs torn off, skulls cracked open, entrails devoured, all with great ecstasy. You gotta wonder what kind of fantasies this guy had because some of these scenes are written so floridly you get a sense he was masturbating over them! Anyway, Dyke's mantis allies devour whole villages of natives before he tracks down his enemies, who are dealt with in extra-gruesome fashion. Dyke tortures them with rocks and machetes before the mantises are loosed upon them and their families. There's not a lot of plot, just scene after scene of mantises really really enjoying human flesh and Dyke getting inappropriately excited watching it. The novel seems like the work of a disturbed individual clumsily trying to get some sick personal fantasy on paper, or work through some problems with fiction... and that's the strength of it, because the writing is passable at best. A highly bizarre reading experience that's probably going to leave scars.
An Odour of Decay - Martin Jenson (New English Library, 1975)
Three sisters inherit a huge estate from an eccentric old aunt, and malevolent supernatural manifestations start up as soon as they move in. A stench like a rotting corpse keeps popping up and they can't identify the source. A very nasty mold attacks one sister's book collection... but only the volumes that deal with religion. And then each sister starts exhibiting traits of a former occupant who was an infamous pervert. One has epileptic fits and starts painting disturbed old men with erections and running sores. Another becomes obsessed with death and all its imagined glories. And the formerly-chaste (nearly frigid) sister becomes a sadistic slut with some really brutal ideas of fun. Their boyfriends struggle to figure out what's going on and if there's any way to stop it. Well-written, fast-moving, atmospheric, and dark British pseudo-nasty is patterned on traditional ghost stories but is spiced up with a few well-handled scenes of violence and some sexual depravity. Jenson shows some restraint in the details at times (it's tough to say exactly what happened in the cheese-wire incident but you do get the end result, which will make you want to curl up in a corner and tremble for a while) but delivers effective creeps. Supposedly his best novel, but I haven't read Village of Fear or An Echo On The Stairs yet. But now that I've read this one, I plan to.
Worms - James Montague (Futura, 1979)
A henpecked husband (the first-person narrator) and his complaining wife visit a small seaside village in England. The husband falls in love with the place and wants to retire there but the wife (who has all the money) will have none of that, so the husband plots her death. He doesn't really actively murder her, just lures her into an unsafe situation where she falls and dies, but he's tormented by guilt even as he enjoys his inheritance. Buying a small, dilapidated cottage, he retires but is troubled by a preoccupation with the local worm population, as well as a blackmailer he has to kill. Just when it's looking like this is going to be a noirish crime novel instead of actual horror, a nuclear plant is built nearby and causes the worms to mass up and attack by the millions. This is an odd book, a possibly-supernatural-tinged guilty-narrator-going-mad novel until the last thirty pages where the worm attacks are tagged on as an eleventh-hour attempt at turning it into a "nasty." Despite being different from what I expected for most of the page count, it was a very engrossing read, and the plague of worms was impressive even though the gore was restrained. One scene with a huge mass of worms breaking down a door just as the lights go out was highly effective and made me jealous. A very good book even though it may not be exactly what you expected.
The Black Hoarde aka The Devil's Coach-Horse - Richard Lewis. (Signet or Hamlyn, 1979)
When a plane crashes in the Swiss Alps, some beetles - samples of a very adaptive strain - crawl into the corpses of the passengers, looking for a warm place to lay eggs. When the bodies are shipped home and buried, the devil's coach-horse beetles hatch, burrow out, breed in great numbers, and start hunting humans. At first they're only attracted by people who are bleeding (which leads to a queasy-making scene in a hospital and with a newly-deflowered virgin) but then they start attacking anyone, bleeding or not. It's up to the scientists to stop them from wiping out the U.S. and Britain. Typical example of the killer-insect nasty-novels that filled the book racks back in those days, offering no real surprises but delivering the killer-insect-book goods.
Night of the Crabs - Guy N. Smith (Dell, 1976)
Uncomplicated, no-frills pulp horror that's not that bad in that even if it doesn't really deliver much in the way of goods, it doesn't take but a few hours to read. Huge-ass crabs come out of the ocean by the score and start eating people. The people have to find a way to stop them or mankind is doomed! So, they do. But not so well that it doesn't leave room for a sequel. Or, in this case, five sequels. You don't pick one of these books up expecting Steinbeck, though, so s'okay. The series included Killer Crabs, Crabs: The Human Sacrifice, Crab's Moon, The Origin of the Crabs, and Crabs on the Rampage.
The Conqueror Worms - Brian Keene (Leisure, 2006)
For some reason (refreshingly barely speculated about, much less explained) it starts raining all over the globe and never stops. The Earth becomes flooded, with only the highest points left above water. An old man named Teddy Garnett writes a narrative of it all from a mountain cabin as he waits to die, trying to survive the floods and worm attacks as long as he can. He gets visits from his friend Carl and relates descriptions of how some other survivors battled giant earthworms and sea creatures that were part of an apparent apocalypse. It's kind of a combination of Tremors, Night of the Living Dead, and Waterworld, and it works perfectly. Keene is great at apocalyptic scenarios, and he handles giant hellspawn monsters even better than he does carnivorous zombies... and that's coming from a guy who loves his zombies. The cover art is accurate, which gave me pause initially; I love worm attacks, but wasn't sure I'd like them that big. Damn if Keene didn't win me over, though; these are great monsters. And I like the fact that their presence isn't neatly explained; too many horror novels want to make things "neat," but if such situations actually happened, the victims probably wouldn't know the cause. It just is what it is and they have to deal with it. Excellent, compulsively-readable horror that's currently out of print, but you may be able to scare up a used copy, and I imagine it'll find its way back to print in some format or other (hopefully in paper form - I still hate e-books, but you should read it any way you can). It's one of my favorite Keene books, so I just don't see how it can say off the market for long. Meanwhile, Keene has been offering installments of a free sequel, Deluge, on his website. Once that's complete I'm printing that baby out (or I'll even buy it if they print it up). Go here.
The Fungus (later re-released as Death Spore) - Harry Adam Knight (Star, 1985)
British goremeister Knight has a field day destroying the entire population of Britain as a laboratory experiment designed to feed the world by increasing the growth of mushrooms gets out of hand and gives a massive growth-spurt to all forms of fungi. Soon people are dying (some exploding from within by internal yeasts, some being dissolved from the outside by athlete's foot varieties, etc.) or being taken over by growths that envelop them and turn them into monsters. A three-person team is given anti-fungal drug treatments, armed, and sent into a fuzzy toadstool-packed London to try to recover the laboratory notes so an antidote can be created before the fungus spreads to the rest of the world. Loads of nasty in-your-face gruesomeness is piled on heavily with enough plot to keep it going. As usual, Knight delivers exactly what's promised, and this is great stuff for fans of British nasties.
Worm - Harry Adam Knight (Bart, 1987)
British nasty-novel about giant intestinal parasites which are causing all sorts of gory mayhem. A woman whose sister died during an operation (which involved a worm jumping out of her guts and attacking the surgeon when he sliced her open!) hires an alcoholic detective to find out where the worm came from. He uncovers a truly evil plot and lots of gruesomeness and misery. Fast-moving and effectively sickening splatter novel that knows no bounds. Great of its type.
The Worms - Al Sarrantonio (Berkley, 1985)
Action-packed rush job about giant worms, spawned by a centuries-old curse, who rise out of a dump and kill off most of a New England town. These worms don't attack in the usual way; they sting their victims, who then swell up and become worms themselves (which is kinda stupid, and makes me wonder if this wasn't inspired by T.V. Mikels' The Worm Eaters, which would be a helluva thing to use as source material). Eventually a small band of survivors witness the worms transforming into mutant animal demons, and they try to find the talisman that will send them back to Hell. Not much plot, but almost non-stop worm attacks... which would be great except they get tiresome about the time one of the stingers narrowly miss the heroes. Sarrantonio's writing is always good, but this one feels like it was hammered out in a week and published as a first draft for some fast money, kind of a "I gotta buy a new fuel pump, so, eh, killer worm book, fuckit!" It's nothing special, but it's got a brief page count and large print, so it won't take much of your time, either.
Gila! - Les Simons (Signet, 1981)
Gore abounds in this giant-lizards-on-the-loose novel, which plays kind of like what classic 50's trash-film The Giant Gila Monster might have been like if Lucio Fulci had directed it. It's kind of silly, of course, but ya pays ya dime, ya gets to see lizard attacks. The plot is simple but engaging enough (you were expecting art?) and pretty ruthless -- not even little kids escape the hunger of the giant atomic-test-spawned predators as they attack diners, buses, and county fairs. It's up to a scientist and her Apache boyfriend to find a way to stop the bulletproof monsters before they reach Albuquerque! This book is exactly what you'd expect it to be, and for that reason, it's good. It's kinda lunkheaded, plot-wise, but it'll win you over with all the meatslappage. The writing is not strong but it's competent, and I kind of liked the twist ending, even though I did laugh at it.
The Visitor - Chauncey G. Parker III (Signet, 1981)
Unique horror novel about a man who raises the ire of a rat when he kills her babies. Soon the man and the very-determined-and-mobile rat are engaged in total war with each other, and the man's nightmare appears to have no end. The ruthless rat leaves nothing untouched in its vengeance quest; if it's not attacking him directly, it's ruining and contaminating all he owns. Great novel, and the movie made from it (Of Unknown Origin) is also well-worth checking out. I've had mouse problems before so I can relate to this, and even though it's just one rat, it's almost as disturbing as whole-plague-of-rat novels. Something different, for sure. I got this as a cut-out used book for 50 cents. Whatta bargain!
Slime - William Essex (Leisure, 1988)
A pool of killer slime, spawned by toxic waste, roams through a farm community devouring people and cattle, leaving no trace of corpses and growing in size proportionately to whatever it eats. The book is made up of endless attack after attack, which are all the same and none are the least bit scary. The slime gets really huge (who cares) and eats a bunch of cardboard characters (so what) and the townspeople fear it may take over the world (ho hum). So they kill it in a way you wouldn't believe if I told you (it involves urine). They kind of generic no-frills junk that gives horror such a bad reputation. There's not even any real gore to redeem it. Blah. Fuck it. Even the cover fails; I'm sure it's supposed to fill me with terror, but it just makes me wish I had some lime jello. Essex also turned out a book called From Below, dealing with killer leeches, and another called The Pack, which may have been about dogs. Hopefully they're better than this one...
More to come... I've been buying a lot of these things.
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