Horror's Guilty Pleasures
Return with me now to the glory days of guts, gore, and flesh-eating nightmares.
A time when the paperback cover ruled supreme. I'm talking about the great horror
fiction boom of the 1970s and 1980s, of course, when each month dozens upon
dozens of cheesy horror novels from major houses flooded the book racks of your
local brick-and-mortar store. The cover was the thing: the more gruesome, the more
grisly, the more gut-wrenching, the better. And nobody did covers like the UK
publishers: NEL, Arrow, Star, Hamyln, Sphere etc.
That isn't to say, of course, that England held a patent on good horror artists--they
didn't--but for some reason, American publishers were simply too conservative on the
whole to produce books with maggoty skulls, impaled women, and cannibals feeding
on bloody human hearts. A tradition, unfortunately, that continues to this day in the
lackluster, anemic books put out by those American publishers that even bother
putting out horror at all. Zebra Books, for example, who had a very active horror line
in those days, thought that the pinnacle of horror illustration was the skeleton. And so
they pumped out countless horror novels--most of them pretty bad--and the covers
were nearly identical: a cheerleading skeleton, a skeleton in a baby carriage,
and--ooo, this'll get 'em--two skeleton girls playing jumprope.
Not the case in Jolly Old England. Gore and shock was the thing. And love it or hate
it, it was this kind of visceral imagery that sold millions of books. Back in the 1980s,
when you wanted a horror novel and nothing else would do, you wanted it to be
easily identifiable. You didn't want to grab some lame cozy mystery or tepid suspense
novel and in the UK, there was absolutely no chance of that. Of course, there were
always the pretentious bastards who thought such grisly covers were demeaning to
the form, that great fictional medium that Poe and Hawthorn, some contend, once
labored in. I recall one reviewer calling these covers "the artistic equivalent of two
boys poking a dead cat to see if the maggots will come out." In other words, childish.
But since horror fiction speaks directly to the frightened child in us all...why not? Let
us kick our lofty ideals to the curb where they belong and be done with them. We're
talking horror fiction here, people. If good horror is the literary equivalent of anything
then it's a scary tale told around the fire or one of those unpleasant stories kids
whisper to each in the dark.
I'm not ashamed to say that I bought dozens of books just for the grotesque covers.
There was thrill to it, I suppose, when someone saw you reading a book with slugs
tunneling through a screaming human head on the cover. The same childish joy I got
as a kid dragging squeamish girls to look at a decomposing dog in a ditch. When you
had one of these books in your hand you were saying, "Yeah, I can take it. I got good
nerves and a strong fucking stomach." After all, any fool can read Joyce Carol Oates
or John Updike, but it takes a special kind of mind to appreciate Shaun Hutson...
Anyway, in the UK these kinds of books were called "nasties" and that was an
appropriate tag for what you were to find in their pages. For if you wanted blood,
guts, and graphic close-ups of the most sickening atrocities, then you would not be
disappointed. If the nasties had a father, then it was probably James Herbert, Britain's
best-selling horror writer and the author of such absolute gems as The Fog, The
Dark, and The Spear. But it was his first novel, The Rats, that gave birth to the
nasties. Plenty of these books had supernatural horrors or serial killers running about
hacking people up, but their real mainstay was nature run wild. Herbert had created
the template with The Rats and it sold like crazy and soon the bookstores were
flooded with novels about spiders and worms, blowflies and jellyfish, mad dogs and
flesh-eating cats, killer pike, snakes, even lamprey and man-eating pigs got in on the
So let us return to those wonderful days when a lover of horror could simply go to any
bookstore, drugstore, or newsstand to get his bloody fix. No muddled covers, no
pretentious literary bullshit, no effeminate teenage vampires, no weak-kneed subtlety,
and absolutely no delusions of grandeur.
The horror is the thing...
|THIS MONTH'S GUILTY PLEASURE:
The Tribe (UK: Hamlyn, 1981)
Tagline: "Now they were gathering for their foul feast of
The majority of my collection of these books stems from the
1980s when I received a monthly catalog from Weinberg
Books of Chicago. They had everything--books, magazines,
fanzines, you name it. And closer to my heart, they were
well-stocked with latest releases from the UK which were
(and still are) my passion. Admittedly, I missed a few. Hell, I
missed more than a few and that's where the Internet has come in so
handy. Take The Tribe, for instance. Never heard of this one or Glenn Chandler,
but when I saw this online I knew I had to have it. That cover blurb and that great
photo cover of shrunken heads...what's not to like? Just reading the quick four-page
prologue hooked me. A white man is about to be eaten by cannibals in Papua, New
Guinea, circa 1969, who consider his white flesh a rare delicacy:
"Out came the knives of sharpened bone, and he watched, transfixed with horror,
as the first blade sank down through a gurgling well of blood into his right thigh."
Well, how can you not want to read on after that? We jump to the present. Detective
Chief Superintendent Graham Holroyd ("Chubby" to his friends) investigates a grisly
crime scene at the house of the Spender family. David Spender, an anthropologist,
has disappeared...but what hasn't is the vomit-covered corpse of his wife that is tied
to a chair. Apparently, she had been force-fed and choked on the offerings. What's
left of the food is still there on a plate along with the spoon that was used to ram it
into her mouth. To the pathologist, it looks to be cooked liver and pork made into a
curry with brown sauce. But is it? For in the kitchen, they've found the mutilated
body of a young girl on a table:
"...the head had been hacked off and the brains removed with a drill, great folds
of flesh had been cut away from the thighs so that the whiteness of the bones was
exposed, and there had been extensive disemboweling..."
Yummy. Under the table, there's a copper jug with approximately two pints of blood
in it. What's worse, it appears to have been drunk from. And what's still worse is
that, judging by the blood-smeared scalp of blonde curls, the girl is Audrey
Spender. Her liver is missing along with her brains and a goodly amount of thigh
meat. This novel is definitely off to bloody good start. Imagine. A mother choking to
death after being force-fed the cooked meat of her own daughter!
Next we meet John Wright who is tormented by the most awful memories. He
receives a frantic call from his old pal Duncan Hay whom he hasn't seen in four
years. Duncan is tormented by memories and nightmares as well. And there's a
good reason for it. Duncan opens a cupboard and shows John:
"The hellish thing hanging by a cord from the roof pursed its lips and rolled its
eyes, and fresh blood oozed out of its shriveled black mouth. The blood spattered on
the lid of the pan. Then it looked straight at him, masticating its jaws, knowing what
he felt, and thought, and above all needed."
Beneath it, is a pot of human bones and root vegetables. It reminds John of a time
long ago. As horrifying as it all is, staring into the pot makes his stomach growl.
Our next character is Alison Marshal. Poor Alison. She's just returned from living
amongst pygmies in equatorial Africa. She's bored and depressed. She can't
stomach bland English food. In fact, she can't readjust to England at all, much to
the displeasure of her fiancé Ned. She finds he and his friends oppressively dull.
They argue about getting married--he wants to, she doesn't. She's haunted by a
constant thumping noise from the cupboard where she keeps her traveling chest of
mementos: souvenirs and tribal artifacts. Reading about the search for David
Spender in the newspaper and how he curried his daughter and fed her to his wife,
strange feelings and impulses seize her. Searching in her bag, she discovers a
shrunken head that grins up at her. Moved by unseen, sinister forces, she shoves
Ned into a tub of scalding water and brains him with a hammer. Which brings
Chubby the cop into it. Ned was not only boiled but partially eaten. At the
mortuary--where an extremely clichéd cop eats ham sandwiches--they learn that
Alison Marshal was an anthropologist like David Spender. The coincidence, Chubby
decides, is too great. Both were also students of a certain Professor Allen
Well, the game is afoot...most certainly afoot, we discover, as a student nurse is
abducted by men in a blue Ford van (which was also seen outside Duncan Hay's
building...hmm) and taken to a secluded estate, drugged, and dragged into a
bamboo hut where a weird naked guy in tribal attire forces her to eat meat that
tastes like salty, roast pork. But as the drug wears off, she realizes her own foot has
been cut off and she just ate it! Now over to Howard Bethman who is also
possessed by one of the awful living shrunken heads. He cooks and eats his own
"He carried the piece of skin over to the oven, where a frying pan of oil was
spitting and smoking, and dropped it in. It shriveled and turned brown. With a
wooden spoon, Howard stirred it round, until it was fried. Then he picked it out with a
fork and ate it."
Now Maggie and Herbert Gunthers, back from Australia, visit their old friend Allen
Braithwaite, are introduced to his collection of living shrunken heads, and are held
captive. Meanwhile, Chubby learns that David Spender, Alison Marshal, Duncan
Hay, Howard Bethman, and John Wright all went on an expedition up the Fly River
in New Guinea with none other than Allen Braithwaite...who brought them there to
be eaten. They escaped, but have never been quite the same since. As Chubby
closes in on the Braithwaite estate, the Gunthers and a group of others are held
captive in the bamboo hut....they are about to meet the Tribe at a cannibal feast of
Pros: Excellent, excellent, excellent. I couldn't put this down.
Cons: Oh, you could quibble that the characters aren't fleshed out enough, but why
drown this in needless Stephen King exposition?
Overall: It satisfies on every level. Ghastly, Gruesome, and Gor-ifying. Get it. Read
it. Love it.
Five bloody skulls out of five
For our next guilty pleasure, we indulge in:
"A seafood cocktail for the strongest stomachs..."