Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014
The British Invasion
The Boom: The Blockbusters
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries
British writers were not slow to jump on the bestseller bandwagon, once they observed the popularity of Blatty, King, and others. Some writers, of course, are beneath discussion, among them Shaun Hutson (b. 1958), who since 1982 has written a dismal array of novels whose chief foci are gruesome bloodletting, raunchy sex, and a prose style of nearly perfect illiteracy; and Guy N. Smith (b. 1939), a neo-pulp writer whose dozens of novels are all destined for oblivion, if they have not already achieved it. But some British popular writers are minimally above this low standard and worthy of some analysis.
Basil Copper (b. 1924) is a puzzling case. Capable on rare occasions of striking ideas and powerful emotive effects, he spoils much of his work by conventional supernaturalism, stiff and wooden characters, and in general a lack of concision and dramatic tensity. His supporters point to the old-time leisureliness of his writing, hearking back to the nineteenth-century ghost story; but this feature detracts from rather than adding to the merits of his work. Copper’s first story collection, Not After Nightfall, dates to 1967, but he began writing in earnest in 1970 and most of the work for which he is best known dates to the following two decades.
But there is very little of merit in either his novels or his tales. The early “Camera Obscura” (1965) is competent enough, although its moral is very elementary (the greedy will get their comeuppance); it is probably better absorbed through the effective “Night Gallery” episode than in print. “Amber Print” (in From Evil’s Pillow, 1973) puts forth the ingenious idea that a rare print of a film (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) changes upon each viewing, and at one point a character finds himself in the film; but the execution is clumsy. “The Great Vore” (in Here Be Daemons, 1978) begins promisingly but lapses into a verbose tale about a sex cult.
As for Copper’s novels, the less said the better. The Great White Space (1974) is one of the worst Lovecraftian pastiches on record—a cheap ripoff of one of Lovecraft’s poorest tales (“The Nameless City”), with a protagonist absurdly named Clark Ashton Scarsdale. Other of his novels, such as The House of the Wolf (1983) and The Black Death (1991), are similarly unimaginative and prolix.
Another writer who appears to have earned the respect of his countrymen, if only for his longevity and prolificity, is R. Chetwynd-Hayes (1919—2001), who wrote a dozen or so novels and more than twenty-five collections of stories from 1959 to his death; but little of this mass of work is worth reading. The collection Terror by Night (1974) is representative. Here we are met with a routine and predictable tale of a female werewolf (“The Throwback”); a painfully laboured attempt at a humorous ghost story (“The Ghostly Earl”); an unconvincing tale about the Devil in a Scottish village (“Lileas and the Water-Horse”); a passable tale about an actor who has played a monster in so many films that he thinks he has become one (“Under the Skin”); a story about the “hounds of hell” featuring a certain stateliness of diction that is not entirely ineffective (“Lord Dunwilliam and the Cwn Annwn”); an utterly confused story of a man who, out of unrequited love, engenders a kind of evil automaton (“The Echo”); a transparent and superficial account of religious fanaticism (“The Monster”); a ludicrous story about a wife who teams up with a ghost to kill her husband (“Housebound”); and so on and so forth. It can be seen from these summaries that Chetwynd-Hayes trods very well-worn ground, alternating from supernaturalism to non-supernaturalism as the case may be. But his prose lacks distinction and his conceptions are trite and hackneyed. The fact that he began writing his horror tales at a time when the field was at a low ebb should not entice us to elevate his work beyond the level of resolute mediocrity.
Mediocrity of an altogether offensive sort is exhibited by the dreary plethora of novels emitted by Graham Masterton (b. 1946). His first novel, The Manitou (1976), was a bestseller and filmed two years later. A kind of informal sequel to The Lurker at the Threshold (1945), the short novel that August Derleth wrote up from scanty notes by Lovecraft, The Manitou concerns the efforts of a Native American sorcerer, Misquamacus, to summon a “Star Beast” (163) who—as a contemporary Indian shaman, Singing Rock, informs us—is a “Great Old One” (176). But never fear: Singing Rock is here. He lets us know that every object in the world, including manmade ones, have a “manitou” (spirit) that can be summoned. Misquamacus and his creature are eventually dispatched by summoning up the spirit of a computer, which is “Christian [!!!] and God-fearing and dedicated to the cause of law and order” (189)—in spite of the fact that, much earlier, Singing Rock had declared, “These demons have nothing to do with Christianity at all. You can fight Christian demons with crucifixes and holy water, but these demons will just laugh at you” (118).
Whatever the case, The Manitou is a wretched piece of hash that was clearly meant to capitalise on the popularity of The Exorcist and other blockbusters. In the short run it succeeded in its goal, as it was made into a big-budget film in 1978 and spawned two sequels by Masterton, The Revenge of the Manitou (1979) and Burial (1992), which I have not had the masochism to read.
Other of Masterton’s novels employ such routine villains as evil spirits, Nazis using black magic, and so on. There are liberal doses of sex (as is fitting for one who edited Mayfair Magazine for years and has written a dozen or more sex manuals) and grue, but of literary quality there is not the faintest scintilla.
Much the same can be said of James Herbert (b. 1943), who, like Copper and Chetwynd-Hayes, appears in recent years to have gained the respect of his compatriots. This is apparently a reversal from a previous era when Herbert was held in low esteem. Even Ramsey Campbell, who ordinarily is acute in distinguishing the meritorious from the trashy, remarks that his previous poor opinion of Herbert was “wrong” and that “I’ve begun to wonder if Herbert is disliked by some writers because he challenges the class bias of English horror fiction” (Ramsey Campbell, Probably 256). This is a very odd comment, suggesting that Herbert is a kind of British Theodore Dreiser, when in fact he is merely the producer of a succession of unimaginative and shoddily written potboilers.
Herbert’s first two novels, The Rats (1974) and The Fog (1975), pretty much tell the whole story. In the first, enormous rats appear to have overwhelmed a lower-class section of London, killing and eating many of the downtrodden inhabitants. If this is supposed to symbolise some kind of class conflict (the rich victimising the poor?), I fail to see it. Instead, what James attempts is capsule biographies of his various victims, as if his superficial and uninteresting portraiture of these hapless individuals somehow humanises them and makes the horror that much more poignant; it is transparently obvious that these passages are merely filler, designed to flesh out a work whose substance would not otherwise justify the length of a novel. For much of the work there is a question whether these are merely overgrown rats or somehow supernatural; in the end we learn that a zoologist had engendered these creatures as mutations from radiation. But the most preposterous phase of the novel is Herbert’s suggestion that the entire population of the London metropolitan area is at one point evacuated so that the authorities can destroy the rats. Where do these tens of millions of people go? How will services be provided for them? Herbert blandly ignores the absurdity of the proposition merely to further the plot.
As if the put-upon denizens of London hadn’t been through enough, in The Fog they are now faced with a fog or mist that first causes odd behaviour, such as random killing, and then horrible death. Even animals are afflicted, committing mass suicide by drowning themselves in the sea. In another whopper, the entire population of the city of Bournemouth is killed. Once again a pseudo-science-fictional premise is unearthed: the fog was caused by a virus that was released by an underground bomb blast.
It can be seen from these synopses that Herbert’s early novels fall into a kind of “supernatural disaster” scenario, possibly influenced by the related bestsellers by such writers as Michael Crichton and Robin Cook. Disasters they are, but not of the sort that Herbert imagines. The thinking apparently is that by creating a worldwide (or at least nationwide) menace, the reader will be far more riveted than if the horror affects only a small group of people; but the end result is that the focus of the novels becomes one of mystery or suspense or adventure rather than the supernatural, which is given short shrift both in terms of plausibility and of coherent rationale. The Dark (1980), as well as two sequels to The Rats, fall into this pattern. Much more orthodox is Haunted (1988), a not ineffective ghost story. But overall, no one need waste much time sorting the few gems from the depressing mass of Herbert’s rubbishy work.
Where Britain excelled, during this period, was in the anthology. The immensely prolific Peter Haining (1940—2007), amidst a welter of mediocre volumes, did assemble several noteworthy titles such as Gothic Tales of Terror (1972) and The Lucifer Society (1972), the latter including mainstream writers who wrote the occasional weird tale. Hugh Lamb (b. 1946) did sound work in resurrecting unjustly neglected writers of the supernatural, while Michel Parry (b. 1947) also has some notable volumes to his credit.