Plague Pit  (UK: Hamlyn, 1981)

Tagline:  "From the depths of the earth rose a hideous
stench of death."

Honestly, after reading Ronson's earlier nasty, Ghoul, I wasn't
real keen on looking at anything else from him. It wasn't that
Ghoul was poorly-written or anything, but it was basically an
espionage novel sold off as horror (and very, very light on the
latter, I'm afraid.) But let's give the old boy another chance and
dig deep into the
Plague Pit and see what we get under our
fingernails. First off, what a cover! Absolutely perfect. Back in
the day, this is exactly what I went for: the most lurid covers I could find. I would
have snatched this one up without a second thought. But as we who read these kind
of books fully know, a good cover does not always make for a good story. So let's
peek under the hood and have a look at what
Plague Pit has to offer in the way of
cheap thrills.

First off, Ronson does a nice job of introducing us to a poor, downtrodden blue
collar soul named Hacker: he lives in a shitty flat with a view of a cemetery, his
girlfriend is a prostitute, and since dropping-out of college he's been forced to take a
laborer's job on a construction site. He's not the happiest of men and his boss,
Jennings, is a first-class A-hole. Hacker and the rest of the crew have a spot of
vodka for lunch then return to the site to get to work. Hacker, buzzed and pissy,
decides to raise some hell. Jennings warned him not to smash the scoop of his
digger into an old brick wall, so that's exactly what Hacker does--revealing an
ancient subterranean pit out of which rises a horrible stench that soon dissipates.
Grabbing a flashlight, the crew investigates and find bones:

"Skeletal arms rose from the mould as though petrified in the act of waving; skulls
assumed eerie expressions as shadows danced in their eye sockets and half-buried
rib cages gleamed like strange jetsam cast up on a dark shore..."

Realizing that what Hacker has revealed is a plague pit dating from the Great
Plague that decimated London in 1665-66, the boys decide they need to go down
there and look about. They find gold coins and chains and other valuable booty
amongst the bones and happily steal it. Hacker even cuts his A-hole boss in for a
share. The workers leave, taking their booty with them...and one by one they begin
to feel ill. And there lies the set-up of
Plague Pit: the plague germs are still active
and the workers are spreading them from one end of London to another. Now enter
into the story intrepid radio journalist Charity Brown who just so happens to be doing
a story on the Great Plague. As plague victims begin to be confirmed in London,
Charity is on the case (hoping for her own TV show), trying to get some answers.
Parliament, however, is doing everything possible to quash the plague talk, saying
it's a new type of flu...even though rumors are flying that some
genetically-engineered bacterium has escaped from an East German lab. But
Charity does not believe in the flu-angle and neither does anyone else. And
especially when the bodies start turning up:

"Twice the size of the human body it had once been, the torso was bloated to an
extraordinary degree with the belly ballooned as with a monstrous pregnancy and the
limbs forced apart by their own obscene swelling. The skin was black except where
pressure had caused it to split and reveal gray flesh. Patches of liquid putrefaction
seeped from beneath it..."

Things get out of control rather swiftly. Parliament continues to deny the existence of
the plague (even though they, of course, know it's everywhere and consider the
plague pit itself to be "nuclear waste of the Middle Ages"). Bodies pile up like
cordwood. Religious whackos take to the streets. Martial Law ensues. Troops move
into London.  Charity is forced to seek out the only person who can help her:
research biologist Paul Mitchell. Not the guy who makes the hair care products, but
a research microbiologist whom Charity publicly attacked and ridiculed for his work
in genetic engineering until he was known in the press as "Frankenstein" and lost all
his funding. He's a reclusive sort living on a boat now. She finds him, they connect,
have wild sex, and, together, they are determined to get to the bottom of the whole
mess. For it is indeed plague (Paul learns later). The good thing is that there is a
vaccine available, AP-13. The bad news is that a Neo-Nazi party, the NBP, is seizing
control of radio stations and other public and governmental facilities and they have
control of the AP-13. Or do they? Driven by moral outrage at society, they are
destroying laboratories left and right. When they reach the AP-13 lab, they demand
the vaccine so that only their members will survive the pestilence. A plucky Jewish
scientist tricks them and gives them not the vaccine but a vial of live plague bacilli.
Charity and Paul get the AP-13 but they must make it to the Bio-Synthetics lab
where it can be reproduced in mass quantities to be sprayed over the city. Do they
make it? Read this one and find out...even though I've ruined many plot twists for
you already.

Pros: This is a fun read. The descriptions of plague victims are pretty cool and I love
the historical angle of a 300 year old bone pit still containing active plague. A
pestilence laying waste to London was a nice change from the usual creepy-crawlies.

Cons: I never really identified or felt sympathetic towards either Charity or Paul. This
book would have been much more fun if Ronson would have followed the lives of
Hacker and the other working class types at the beginning of the book.

Overall: I liked
Plague Pit. It was a fun read and even though it doesn't rate real high
on the Ghastly, Gruesome, and Gor-ifying scale, it had a few good moments. It's
worth picking up.

3½ bloody skulls out of five.

Our next Guilty Pleasure:

"...One by one it took them...and death was only the beginning!"
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