Welcome to the first in an occasional series of retrospective looks at 80s & early 90s horror. There are, I know, loads of excellent websites covering this area. Will Errickson’s Too Much Horror Fiction is the Daddy, and of course Grady Hendrix’s essential Paperbacks from Hell is your print companion. Elsewhere in the Gyre I’ve looked extensively at the works in print and celluloid of Clive Barker.
Why this period? As I wrote here, it’s simply the time when I was into horror when I was growing up, and it coincided with both the peak, and the start of the end, of the 80s “horror boom”.
Today, Mark Morris is a versatile writer with a back catalogue that shows he’s confident writing across genre boundaries, and indeed from the start his work, though unmistakably horror, always contained a seasoning of dark fantasy.
I remember the buzz around Toady. Some of this was because of Morris’s youth (for some reason my friends and I thought he was a teenager, but he was 26). As he shot into the pantheon of British horror authors, he was five years younger than Shaun Hutson, a full decade younger than Clive Barker, and fifteen or more younger than James Herbert and Ramsey Campbell. Toady – a genre book by a first-time novelist – hit number 7 in the national bestseller list.
It’s been likened to an English version of It, and Morris admitted in interviews a moment of despair when King’s blockbuster came out while he was writing Toady. It’s a fair comparison, but not one that should be considered a criticism.
Richard Gardener (through whose eyes we see the bulk of the story) along with his schoolfriends Nigel and Robin, are “The Horror Club” with a shared interest in all things Horror. Recently admitted to their group is the school outcast Adrian, known to all as Toady. The character names are a perfect time capsule: give today’s books thirty years and the names will seem just as dated. There are also plenty of period details and texture that are very “of its time” but which, to this reader, merely add to the charm: the TV has four channels, and late at night they stop broadcasting; patterns of speech and the slang used now seem curiously quaint. It’s tiny details that are telling: the name of old cars (Vauxhall Cavalier), even the types of food people ate before Britain discovered olive oil was for cooking…
Morris does a superb job of conjuring the rundown, almost moribund atmosphere of a seaside resort – the fictional Starmouth – out of season. I’m going out on a limb, but I want to suggest a coincidental parallel with a work from around the same era: Pet Shop Boys’ surreal road movie It Couldn’t Happen Here. In the same way that Toady (however coincidentally) is an English It – quirky, smaller in scale and with greyer skies – It Couldn’t Happen Here is a road movie refracted through the obvious limitations of British geography, but one which shares in part the same weird seaside resort setting. I wondered why seaside resorts would be seen nostalgically at this point: the early 80s had seen a huge surge in demand for foreign holidays, meaning traditional resorts in the UK, with no guarantee of summer sunshine, saw a massive drop-off in business. Making use of such places, as well as the atmosphere they lend themselves to, makes a social point without being explicitly political.
The Horror Club, despite Richard’s misgivings, perform a seance at a dilapidated house. He seems to be the only one to realise that they have released something, and only the events of the next few days – brutal murders, weird interconnecting dreams – convince the others that he’s right. Toady, however, knows full well what they summoned. He tries to control the entity, which can take on the appearance of anyone, but it is too strong and causes him to kill his entire family in a house fire. Events then spiral out of control. Nowhere is safe, not even sleep.
I re-read Toady recently for the first time since it was published. It holds up well, the pace rarely flags, there are good weird turns, and overall it’s highly enjoyable and definitely worth tracking down a second-hand copy of. Morris shows himself from the off to be an ambitious and (largely) confident writer. There are some good set-pieces: Robin is chased by a horde of characters based on Raggety from Rupert the Bear, and as they shepherd Robin into the cave which was once been the boys’ lair but is now one of the creature’s hangouts, the absurdity helps to make it the most chilling scene in the book.
But what does Toady reveal if we scratch the surface and look deeper?
Comparisons with It are inevitable, and as I mentioned above there’s a smaller-scale feel to Toady. Part of this comes from the setting of Starmouth: Morris focusses on his small cast of characters (in a claustrophobic winter), and doesn’t employ the same expansive storytelling method as King does in building Derry through the generations. The action in Morris’s book all takes place within a week or so, compared to the spread of It which mostly alternates between the 50s and 80s (with an eerie flashback of millions of years to the moment the entity later known as Pennywise comes to earth).
Morris clearly delineates Starmouth into different topographies. There are the liminal zones of the shore, where the Horror Club meet in a cave, and the abandoned house in King Street (desribed as one of the “places where structures blend, where powers converge. Disturbed places”), where they hold the seance. After the seance, everywhere becomes a liminal zone as boundaries – physical and mental – begin to dissolve.
Piling Hill is clearly a post-war housing estate, now run-down and subject to the extreme social conditions found under Thatcherism. Morris clearly feels empathy towards the inhabitants, recognising their “tough, struggling lives”. It’s where Toady, described as an outsider (from having been a constant target of bullying), lives: his outsider status stretches to his class. The other boys are all upper-working class though only Richard’s family life seems at all stable, if somewhat stolid and dull.
The portrayal of mothers – and women in general – is, however, problematic, conforming as they do to caricaturised stereotypes decades-old by the time Toady was written. Mothers are either neurotic or sex-starved; the only girls to appear are visions in which they exist as sexual lures; and the one sympathetic female is the grandmotherly figure of the psychic, Olive.
Something else that – were Morris to write Toady now – I suspect would be very different is that everyone in Starmouth, with the explicit exception of one hospital nurse, is white. Nigel is “olive skinned” but we’re not given any evidence to suggest he’s of any other ethnicity. The only diversity is Ratz, the son of a Polish immigrant. Such colour-blindness is not uncommon in horror fiction of the era.
That said, racism does exist in the novel, however tangentially, and however tentatively handled. There is a realm that the boys find themselves in, home to the creature that they’ve summoned. This is the darkly psychedelic “Us”, reminiscent in part of Weaveworld‘s Fugue in that its constituted of random elements of normality, taken from humanity’s subconscious, such as a snooker table and a record player in the incongruous surrounding of a carnivorous jungle. The Us has gargoyles who are racist towards “pinkers” (humans, but the term itself is a loaded one), but it’s not really examined other than to show how ugly the gargoyles are morally as well as physically. They hold a slave auction of “pinkers” similar to that in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia adventure Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
The entity they summoned through the weak link provided by the King Street house is the Zad: another name that’s very “of its time” (once upon a time the letter “Z” sounded so futuristic and other). It’s amoral, and knows neither good nor evil. It’s also eternally hungry for experience and knowledge, assimilating whatever it can heedless of the collateral cost.
The fact that it merely acts as nature impels it almost creates a sense of de-othering, that’s also seen in the framing of the delinquent Rusty as a “victim” (according to his social worker: those 80s tabloid hate figures).
“Almost”, though: like Stephen King, Morris here creates a work that’s liberal in content but not in form. The Other (as we see repeatedly in King, whose liberal credentials are otherwise impeccable) must be expelled so that a normality of sorts can return. Morris wants to show progressive qualities but doesn’t quite manage it: ultimately the creature has to be killed because (in one of the weirder but weaker twists) in the Us, it’s an evil revolutionary pitted against a “good” king and queen, which didn’t quite work for me.
Morris’s timing was perfect: much later and no publisher would have taken a 700-page horror debut because within eighteen months (post-Silence of the Lambs) the wider public taste for horror had started to wane in favour of dark thrillers¹. Morris, in a contemporary interview with FEAR magazine, recognises that its length guaranteed the publishers had to make it a marketing priority: a 260-page book would have languished as a mid-list title.
Morris followed Toady with Stitch, a campus horror/thriller which I remember not enjoying very much, and should therefore revisit. His 1994 novel The Secret of Anatomy is a further trip into the dark fantastic, showing a debt to Clive Barker’s Imajica and – except for the rushed ending – is a good read.
What else was happening in horror fiction in 1989? Well, of the big names most had books out: James Herbert was working on Creed which would come out in 1990 but his muted ghost story Haunted was out in paperback. Stephen King’s tense The Dark Half and Clive Barker’s epic The Great and Secret Show were other releases. The latter was Barker’s first step away from horror towards dark fantasy. Elsewhere there was Dan Simmons’s whopping Carrion Comfort (another one due a re-read); and the “emperor of excess” [copyright FEAR magazine], the ever-prolific Shaun Hutson published Nemesis, which I have no memory of at all. From the realm of comics came the landmark publication of The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman, the first published Sandman collection (though containing the comic’s second story arc), and the serialisation of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s dark, enthralling meditation on London, mysticism and Jack the Ripper, From Hell. A vintage year, indeed.
¹ As noted by Grady Hendrix in Paperbacks from Hell. I’d love to read a thesis on to what extent the fall of Communism and the end of the Horror boom are related.