Friday 3 April 2020

Dark Eyes Retro Reads #1 - The 1974 New English Library Horror Series

Plenty of column inches have been taken up across the internet describing what it was like growing up in the UK in the 1970s if your interests veered towards horror and the supernatural: in one word, idyllic. A casual browse through Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence's seminal work on the period, 'Scarred for Life,' is useful here for both the informed and uninformed. And you can buy that book here.

Among the plethora of magazines, television programmes and books available at that time, several publishers devoted serious resources to their horror output, and no finer example was the New English Library, or NEL as they were more popularly known. Acquired in 1961 as a complement to the New American Library imprint, and formed from two separate companies, Four Square Books Ltd and Ace Books Ltd, NEL's output in its first fifteen years of operation often covered the salacious (although it later gained more mainstream acceptance by publishing works by, among others, Stephen King and James Herbert), and was renowned for its science fiction and 'yoof' output.

But it was the horror and supernatural titles that first attracted me as an early teen. I'd been aware of many of its catalogue titles already: books like Richard Allen's 'Skinhead' series had done the rounds of the school playgrounds, and one or two of the racier NEL items had been procured from kids' dads' secret stashes and subjected to close break-time scrutiny (ah, the well thumbed page). But in 1974 the publishers brought out six successive novels badged as a 'horror' series, which was a bit odd because they'd been publishing horror titles for a few years. Who were the authors of these things? Where could I read more of their published works? How can I get away with reading them on public transport in the 21st Century? Well now all - ok bits - can be revealed, in a closer look at each of the six titles (oh and as a sidebar, NEL actually published nine additional horror/terror titles that year, including three by Errol Lecale, an author I'll cover in a later post, plus James Herbert's and Guy N. Smith's first books, 'The Rats' and 'Werewolf by Moonlight', Stephen King's 'Carrie' and a non fiction account of the lives of Burke and Hare, but these weren't included in the series.

Horror No. 1 - 'The Terror of the Seven Crypts' by Etienne Aubin. You will struggle to find any mention of the impressively named Aubin in writer directories or on the internet outside of their connection with this and one other NEL title ('Dracula and the Virgins of the Undead' also published in 1974 but not included in this horror series for some reason). This is because Aubin was a pseudonym - one of at least 45 - adopted by the author James Moffat (1922 - 1993), a Canadian born writer with over 290 titles to his name, covering a range of genres. His output included the 'Skinhead' series mentioned above under another of his noms de plumes, Richard Allen (written when he was about 50, no mean feat for a writer popularly believed to have accurately captured boot boy culture in these novels).

Anyhow, 'Seven Crypts' locates us at the fractious height of the French Revolution; well a pulp fiction version of it anyway, with names like Robespierre and Marat thrown around for verisimilitude and the odd French word chucked in to remind us what country we're in - there's even an "Allo Allo" in there. In a network of booby trapped crypts beneath Chateau Deveraux, a mansion in the French countryside, Marcel Fournier, mucker of the aforementioned scoundrels, squirrels away the treasure amassed from the country's nobility, but before he has a chance to enjoy his spoils, the mansion is besieged by 'the rabble' who tear him limb from limb.

Some time later a ramshackle group of middle class Royalist escapees and servants flee the horror of Madame Guillotine by sheltering in the same Chateau. But one after the other their members are murdered when they wander off and unwittingly access doors to the seven crypts. Someone, either one of their number or an interloper, is doing the killing, and it's up to their nominated leader, square jawed Jacques Roland, to work out who's responsible. By the way, it's a disfigured and bonkers Fournier doing the offing, if you're interested.

This stodgy mess of whodunnit and historical fiction weighs in at a merciful 108 pages but is still a real chore to get through. There are heaving bosoms aplenty and the occasional splash of gore - Fournier's unmasking at the end is completely borrowed from 'The Phantom of the Opera.' And on the subject of borrowing, the cover is lifted from the NEL/Four Square book 'Kurt Singer's Ghost Omnibus' published in 1967. The 'Pit and the Pendulum' style painting only vaguely represents any of the contents of 'Seven Crypts', but covers are there to sell books, aren't they?

Horror No. 2 - 'The Village of Fear' by Martin Jenson. Ah, some real horror at last! Some internet sources suggest that Jenson was a Danish novelist born in 1946, who became a full-time author in 1996. If this is true it would have made him about 28 when he wrote this. But after reading 'The Village of Fear' it's pretty hard to believe that such a young author would have been able to write the often misanthropic and occasionally downright misogynistic prose contained in the novel. In reality the author's light burned briefly: he was the author of two further NEL titles, 'An Odour of Decay' published the following year, and 'Echo on the Stairs' in 1977, but it's likely that Mr Jenson was indeed a pseudonym for another writer, based on NEL's track record.

The titular village in the novel is Wellesford, a fictional location not far from Coventry. Presided over by the Reverend Trench, a man who is as likely to despatch sinners as he is to dead head the roses in his garden. For Trench is a man with a mission - to expunge from the area those who sin against God's holy writ, which in his eyes, is a pretty all encompassing project. His principle targets are: the local Conservative Club managed by Colonel Harry Rodgers, already a den of iniquity whose manager has the temerity to apply for a license extension; David Marriott's village Social Centre, attracting and failing to manage a range of miscreants including an out of town biker chapter called the Yellow Helmets; and worst of all Wellesford's own film and culture buff, Tom Radcliffe, who commits the heinous sin of planning a movie club screening of Luis Buñuel's 'Viridiana.'

Trench is having none of this of course, and after stern letters to all three sinners requesting them to desist, he embarks on an orgy of arson and murder to rid the village of anyone who, basically, disagrees with him.

'The Village of Fear' is considered by those who study these things to be one of the better NELs - it certainly packs a lot into its 128 pages. Character wise there isn't a single sympathetic person in the book. The police are fools, anyone under 25 is delinquent, and the women are depicted either as frowsy housewives or, in the case of newly widowed Anita, a dipsomaniac sex crazed exhibitionist gold digger, over the hill at 32 (mind you, NEL published a book called 'Sex for the Over 40s' which was obviously geriatric in terms of the 1970s libido)! Trench's psychopathic evangelism also provides for some spectacularly lurid death scenes, which all stem from the novel's subtext: the Vicar's problem with his own lustful urges (Jenson's lexicon of descriptors for Trench's erect penis - 'the treacherous member' - borders on genius).

One doesn't really get much sense of a village in fear here, more a state of confusion, not helped by bumbling coppers and not one but two members of the public working out the identity of the perp before the authorities, in the shape of slow on the uptake Sergeant Clyde. But this is great fun. Jenson was clearly writing to order - and to a deadline I'm guessing; the ending feels very rushed. And it's distinctly possible that David McGillivray may have read this before penning the script for the 1976 Pete Walker movie House of Mortal Sin, which also concerns a sex crazed priest.

Horror No. 3 - The Venomous Serpent aka Night Creatures by Brian Ball. Ball is our first real named author in the series. Like Moffat before him, Brian Neville Ball, born in 1932 and still with us, wrote a huge number of books, mainly across the horror, sci fi and fantasy genres, including three NELs, namely 'Lesson for the Damned' (1971), 'Devil's Peak' (1972). And this one.

MR James seems to be the initial inspiration for this tale which at its outset concerns a possessed brass rubbing, a story which fairly sharply takes a diversion into Stokerland.

Andy and Sally are a pair of young artists trying to scratch a living in a village in the Peak District. They move into an 18th century barn to escape the drug fuelled world of art school, and find themselves fashioning trinkets and home made candles for day tripping tourists as a way to get by. They are of course 'living in sin' (a phrase which would be largely redundant within the next ten years) and thus not immediately welcomed by the villagers. Sally brings home the brass rubbing having discovered an abandoned and semi ruined church nearby to their home in Stymead, complete with impressive but strangely heavily camouflaged tomb. Thinking that mass producing such rubbings might be a good way to bring in the pounds without much outlay, Sally pins the picture on the wall. But the etching depicts Lord Humphrey de Latours and his wife Lady Sybil, the latter of whom turns out to be a vampire.

Andy, who is the narrator of the story, warns the reader that events will unfold very speedily, and indeed they do after a rather leisurely start. Bearing in mind what happens to the character by the end of the tale, the reader is perhaps surprised by how measured is Andy's prose in the first section of the book. But when it gets going, with the inclusion of hell beasts, stakings and beheadings, 'The Venomous Serpent' is actually quite thrilling stuff. Andy, who in the story is a strapping twenty year old, shows a level of introspection and resourcefulness that most people of a similar age these days would struggle to acquire. There's a definite pattern in these books depicting those who we would now consider 'young' as mature - or over the hill in terms of women, which suggests there has been a real shift in what we (or western society at least) consider as 'grown up.'

I'm also doubtful about the year in which the story was written. Although, like the other NELs in this series, the publication year is 1974, there's reference to pre-decimal currency and also at one point a mention of the villagers forming a local Shelter group to deal with local homelessness; Shelter was formed in 1966 and local activism was particularly prevalent in the three years following its establishment. But on the whole this is one of the better NELs - it's still a bit of a slog to get through and the writing style, particularly the supernatural descriptions, brings to mind stodgy authors like William Hope Hodgson. However you've got to love someone who manages their own inter text publicity; Ball makes asterisked references to both his other NEL books by peripherally shoehorning their plots into his narrative - nice one Brian!

Horror No. 4 - Plastic Man by Jeremy Brent. The sole book by Jeremy Brent strongly suggests a pseudonym, as there's no other reference to either the author or any of his other works on the internet - but it could also be that Mr Brent peaked with his sole SF/horror outing and retired to a life of hedge trimming and pipe puffing. But if sales of this one in any way contributed to his future comfort, I'd be extremely surprised.

On the face of it 'Plastic Man', with its science fiction setup, seems an odd choice for inclusion in a range of horror books. But the science is ditched fairly early on for a story that isn't so much written as seemingly conjured up from a succession of cheese fuelled dreams, but terribly stuffy with it.

Brad Minton, star reporter for Colossal Press, is despatched to Sunderland to get the skinny on a strange, flattened corpse discovered by police. Squashed in plastic, with its burst eyes and blood vessels, it's clearly an awful sight. A similar corpse turns up attached to one of the monoliths at Stonehenge, and Minton is determined to get to the bottom of things. The responsible person isn't human at all, but a computer: TASU (Thought Analysation Storage Unit) is a super machine devised by Albert Bright, an experimental scientist, who lives in splendid isolation with his goddaughter Lann who of course Minton falls for. TASU is the result of many years of research - oh and a stolen criminal's brain which provides the organic centre of the machine, which when added to Bright's own megalomanic thought projections, promises nothing but trouble.

Nosey Brad decides to dig around Bright's lab, when he's discovered by the scientist, and subjected to some kind of brain transfer which makes him TASU and Bright's slave. TASU issues the world some instructions, including liberating money from banks and repurposing office blocks for the homeless, and uses Minton to publicise them in the press. Using a pseudonym, 'Nemesis,' to author the piece, the editor of Colossal Press is delighted to be able to publish such a sensational bit of copy. But the publication sparks off a national revolution, with members of the public rushing to hear the words of 'Nemesis', confessing their sins and tearing their clothes off, and a self appointed army called the 'Doom Men' (who are also self administered castrati, allowing Brent to pen some excellent putdowns like "you spermless bastards!") who take it on themselves to co-ordinate TASU's list of demands.

I'm four NELs in, and honestly I'm not sure if my mind has curdled due to exposure to such a lot of rubbish writing, or whether I'm TASU's latest victim. Coupled with a multiWTF storyline - it's pretty hard to work out what the devil's happening most of the time - Brent's clunky prose renders many a titter. Again one wonders whether this might have been written a few years before 1974; the rioting scenes feel quite 'sixties' and Brent clearly has no idea how a computer works (although he was hardly alone in this; there's a whole book to be written about weird perceptions of the function of computers in fiction, TV and film at this point in pop cultural history). TASU's demands, and the spread of the all powerful emasculated 'Doom Men,' both feel very much like thinly veiled criticisms of communism, and when, towards the end of the book, the author sets out pages of military strategy as the army struggle to regain order (it's fascinating how the spectre of the army lingered on into the 1970s in UK sci fi - just look at episodes of Doctor Who - although they never seemed to be particularly effective), it gives us a fairly clear picture of the cut of Mister Brent's jib.

Horror No. 5 - Draco the Dragon Man by Cyril Donson. Although this is popularly believed to be number 5 in the series, it's the only one of the six not actually given a number. No matter.

We know a little bit more about Mr Donson than our previous author. Born in 1919 in Mexborough, Yorkshire, he was a journalist and author, and at one period of his life a schoolmaster at the Royal Naval School in Tal Handaq, Malta. He claimed to have published more than 6000 pieces, fiction and nonfiction, under various noms de plumes including Lonny Cordis, Russ Kidd, Via Hartford, Anita Mackin, and his real name Cyril Donson, under which he mainly wrote sci fi, so 'Draco the Dragon Man' is somewhat of a departure.

Published when the author was in his mid 50s (he died in 1986), the book is dedicated to 'My Very Dear Friends Frank Kitson and his wife Maria A. Kitson Montalto, The Baroness of Benuarrat, Malta G.C (George Cross)'. It seems that Frank was also on the staff of the Royal Naval School, hence the connection. Quite what Frank and Maria would have made of this little potboiler is anyone's guess - they both died relatively recently so would have been alive to see - and possibly blanche at - the dedication.

Sir Damon Draycott (pronounced 'Draco' hence the title) is a historian, archaeologist and plucky speleologist. Although he lives in a big pile in the Derbyshire hills, when we first meet him he's preparing for an expedition potholing deep beneath the Big Bend area of Texas. Left behind are his long suffering PA Dorothy and his maid, Jenny, with whom he's been enjoying a relationship that goes beyond breakfast in bed. He celebrates the eve of his big adventure by having a good luck fuck with up for it Elga Andersen, the Swedish receptionist at the hotel in which he's staying (and of course being Swedish, in the common understanding of the time, she's automatically a raving nymphomaniac - later she will have a threesome to prove it). And it's Damon's serial philandering ways that will come to bear later in the story.

So Draycott descends underground for a marathon caving session, but a few days into his trek he slips and falls, suffering serious injuries as a result. He's rescued by a strange race of dragon men, unsightly to look at but benevolent in manner, who feel a bond to our adventurer because of his surname. Fearing that, because of his injuries, he may not make it out of the caves alive, the strange subterraneans, who have an uncanny ability to repair themselves and therefore live to an advanced age, give Draycott some of their own blood.

Once recovered and back above ground, with the blood of the dragon men coursing through his veins, Draycott has renewed vigour, which he proves via a welcome back fuck with Elga, which leaves her seriously impressed ("You're so much...bigger" she comments). But there's a side effect which the dragon men didn't warn him about; every few days Draycott transforms into a dragon man himself, but because of his less than clean living ways, his dragon man, rather than the kindly form of his rescuers, is intent on raping and killing! So, ensconced back in Derbyshire, the hills are alive with the sound of, well people getting raped and killed really, as the police scratch their heads trying to work out the identity of the killer, and Draycott managing to fool his friends and family by covering up his scaly alter ego, courtesy of a secret tunnel that leads from his lab. Eventually Draycott's double life is rumbled, but in case one was hoping for a moral victory with the serial dragon killer slayed by the authorities, well sorry to disappoint because the scaly mass murderer fools his pursuers and hot foots it back to the world of the dragon men, presumably to give them the heads up about alternative lifestyles.

I really liked 'Draco the Dragon Man.' It takes a while to get going, but its fusing of werewolf style transformations and Jekyll and Hyde moral conundrums is pretty fun, not to mention some cringingly written sex scenes and random body tearing violence - oh and don't have out of wedlock sex ladies, particularly if your name is Elga. I have no idea of the point of the whole thing, but with Donson's output I seriously don't think he ever stopped long enough to worry about it.

Horror No. 6 - The Orgy Of Bubastis by Derek Hyde Chambers. This is probably one of the best known of the series; hey, the title even got nicked (and slightly mangled) by 1990s art-oddballs 'Add N to X' for a track on their second album, 1998's 'On the Wires of Our Nerves.'

On the surface Hyde-Chambers' history looks not to the written word, but the cinema. Derek was a film and TV editor with a considerable CV: born in 1914, his first genre credit was on the 1956 Children's Film Foundation offering Supersonic Saucer. Later work included TV series such as The Invisible Man (1959), One Step Beyond (1961), The Champions (1968) and Space 1999 (1975).

'The Orgy of Bubastis' seems to be Hyde-Chambers' only published book; but that was just in his own name. An archived interview with his wife Peggy disclosed that he'd written around 36 other titles, and a bit of sleuthing has discovered that these were published under a pseudonym, Arthur MacLean, mainly in the late 1950s/early 1960s. The books were chiefly entries in the popular 'Sexton Blake Library' series, with lurid titles like 'The Man Who Killed Me!' and 'Bargain in Blood.' but he also wrote a couple of westerns.

In the interview Peggy confessed to significantly editing his work as he used to run out of time juggling writing and movie editing projects. Quite what persuaded Derek to dust off the typewriter in the early 1970s to produce 'Bubastis' will now be a matter of conjecture only: sadly Hyde-Chambers died just six years after its publication, aged 65, but had been plagued with ill health for some time previously. One read of the novel also fills one with concern that the perfectly proper Peggy Hyde-Chambers should have had to pull this one into shape - it's a bizarre book, as a quick whizz round the plot will confirm.

Four actors, Jeremy, Myles, Mareta and Lois, book themselves in to an exclusive weight loss centre, the Sante clinic, deep in picturesque Dordogne in France. On the drive to the facility there is a bizarre incident: a cat jumps onto the bonnet of the car and when the guys leave the young ladies and try and find it, Jeremy is attacked by an unknown furry beast. On returning to the vehicle the girls are missing: Lois is found mussed up in a ditch, and Mareta is discovered naked, blathering on about being Bastet, Goddess of Fertility, brandishing a trident and a castrated penis!

The quartet of by now rather ruffled thesps make their way to the clinic, which is owned and managed by the enigmatic Doctor Peter Frantzius and his assistants Sister Puchert and Elsa Schneider - yes they're Germans, hanging out in France, so no good can come of this. The four actors are separated to recover from their ordeal, and the following morning Jeremy and Myles opt out of the daily clinic jog and explore the area. They come across a church like structure in the grounds and, looking around, encounter something rather odd inside - a hideous dwarf in a cage with an enormous phallus, smelling of rotten meat. 

From here on in things get really weird. Myles starts hallucinating, encounters a sort of erotic dance between Mareta (in her Bastet guise) and the dwarf, hears strange voices and, at one point, has a woodland meeting with Elsa who promptly transforms into a well known (it says here) local legend, the Werewolf of the Dordogne. The local chief of police, Joseph Maurac, can make neither head nor tale of the events as recounted by Myles, and calls in resident folklorist Etienne Dumas to assist. After a bit of chin stroking Dumas puts the diverse pieces of the story together and arrives at the rather prosaic conclusion that Myles' fags have been spiked with LSD, Mareta is looney tunes, and Doctor Frantzius fancies himself as Apep - Destroyer of the Day, and mythologically Bastet's sworn enemy.

It's fair to conclude that 'The Orgy of Bubastis' - and, sadly, there isn't an orgy in sight here - is Hyde-Chambers' staunch moral warning about his three biggest fears: drugs, health resorts and Germans. The writer also takes that standard authorial device - repetition of events to deepen a readers' understanding of what's happening - and applies it so frequently that the first half of the book is pretty much a recap of the opening ten pages again and again. But this is a fitting end to the series; totally chicken oriental, boring and bizarre in equal measure.

My sincere thanks to the various physical and online bookshops that have provided the above tomettes, and to you the reader for sparing the time to take the journey with me. If indeed you got this far.

No comments:

Post a Comment