Tuesday 12 April 2011

my recent forays into the world of trash horror

Spawn by Shaun Hutson

Over the last few years, I have been reading some of the finest horror literature in the world, delving deep into the British ghost story masters James and Le Fanu, the spritualist-horror masterpieces of Machen and Blackwood, the darker American visions of Bierce, Chambers and that dark prince of the macabre, Poe, the early 20th-century efflorescence helmed by talents like Lovecraft, Smith and Howard and of course the current masters of the form such as Ligotti and Campbell as well as emerging giants like Barron and Pugmire.

And now I've read Shaun Hutson.

This isn't the worst thing ever - writers like Richard Laymon and the authors of a hundred disposable splatter paperbacks from the 80s boom were as bad and often worse - but it's not good by any means. The writing is amateurish and in need of editing, the plot is a mish-mash of cliches and poor taste, the characters are cardboard cut-outs and there's no real moment of dark epiphany, just a series of rather lowbrow gross-outs that culminate in the usual predictable twist ending.

For all that, I'm giving this a two-star rating simply because of its honesty - Hutson clearly set out to write exactly the kind of novel that he wound up writing. It's trash, but at least it's honest trash and nothing - the title, the blurb, the cover art or what you can glean by scanning the first few pages in a bookstore - pretends otherwise.

The House Of Doors by Brian Lumley

Lovecraftian robes, MacLeanian heart.

I'd vaguely heard of Lumley and his never-ending Necroscope series as well as his Lovecraftian fiction. What I'd heard of the former didn't exactly have me rushing to check out the latter, but I decided to finally sample something by him and this novel seemed like a good place to start as I wanted something outside of the Necroscope series to start with.

The novel is billed as horror, but really, it's closer to science fiction, and even closer to a plan and simple action thriller. Lumley certainly has a powerful if raw imagination; much of the rest is simply undercooked or half-baked. The appearance of a weird castle in a small Scottish town is certainly a promising set-up, and when we finally enter this strange place some of the imagery Lumley spins is suitably awesome, if couched in somewhat less than deathless prose. But the story begins to bog down with its characters; the hero is somewhat interesting in that he possesses an unusual ability to enter into a sort of empathetic rapport that lets him fathom how anything mechanical works; he is also dying of a fatal disease. Beyond that, however, he remains as much of a cipher as the remaining stock characters; a heavy-handed, arrogant politician, a tough secret agent with bodily and mental scars, a claustrophobic Frenchman, a fanatical occult investigator, a cheap hoodlum, an abusive drunkard and a woman. The woman's role is of course defined by her gender and driven by sexuality; to do otherwise would apparently defeat Lumley's understanding of storytelling.

The protagonist, the somewhat awkwardly named Sith of Thone, quickly turns out not be a truly cosmic threat but the sort of flawed, easily-understood and ultimately defeatable bogeyman of a million alien-invasion scenarios. The strange realms that the humans enter into via the many nestled Houses Of Doors turn out to have more in common with the old game show, The Crystal Maze than with, say, the dream realms of Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith's many magical worlds.

Ultimately, this novel doesn't hinge on a sense of horror or on its somewhat stock science fictional tropes; it's a thriller, an adventure yarn of victory against all odds, one that has more in common with the potboilers of Alistair MacLean than anything else. Although leaps of imagination sometimes caught at the edges of the awe mechanism in this reader's mind, the plodding prose, and leaden plot machinations drain those few moments of wonder of their charm and strangeness. It's not a bad entertainment, but it isn't something that needed to have been called a horror novel at all, at heart.

Baal by Robert R. MacCammon

Works well enough on its own terms; jettison expectations of originality and depth and settle for a fast-moving evil-messiah tale with many gore set pieces and a suitably vile villain and you'll be fine. Somewhat superficial research ensured that I caught all the resonances and hints quite early on, as well as a few factual errors here and there. The prose is functional but occasionally aspires to more; sometimes it gets there. Not at all bad for a first novel. But it's more gross and sickening than awe-inspiring; McCammon fails to exploit the full potential of this tale with his emphasis on viscera and profanity.

Can you tell that I'm starting to get tired of this stuff? That last review was really perfunctory.

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