For 1980s horror fiction aficionados like me, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as when you buy an old paperback based solely on its promising cover art and then, upon actually reading the book, that the contents deliver on said promise. Now, ironically, the photo-realistic cover for Spectre, a 1987 Tor paperback by Stephen Laws —featuring some young denizens of that amazing decade in various stages of disappearance—doesn’t exactly scream “Horror! Terror! Dismemberment!” like so many others did back then.
That’s precisely what struck me about the cover, thanks to the talents of J.K. Potter, a renowned artist who’s illustrated countless volumes of horror fiction: its utter lack of tacky tasteless imagery (aside from an oversize sweater or two). I was drawn to Spectre because it promised, perhaps, quiet chilling scares, rather than the full-on assault of so much ’80s horror, often done with all the finesse of Leatherface working his saw. Did the novel deliver on its promise of quiet horror? Actually, no: Laws’ novel is filled with tentacles and teeth, torn limbs and slashed throats, abhorrent rituals and hungry gods… but it’s all done with the finesse of Hannibal Lecter preparing you dinner.
Not quite a coming-of-age story, Spectre introduces the reader to a group of inseparable friends from Byker, a city in Newcastle. Although they grew up together, and dubbed themselves the Byker Chapter, Laws doesn’t spend too much time detailing their childhoods like, say, Stephen King; he flashbacks mainly on their university years a decade ago; it’s the present, as they enter their 30s, that Laws is concerned with. The horrific death of one of the Chapter opens the novel, as Phil Stuart languishes drunkenly in his flat, TV and radio blaring to vanquish the fear and depression that has plagued him for weeks. A photograph of the last night the Byker Chapter spent together comforts Phil, a charm against his panic, but it works no longer: unbelievably, he seems to be fading from the photograph. He knows that can mean only one thing. And alas, he is correct.
After Phil’s introductory demise, we meet our protagonist Richard Eden, drinking with his memories at a nightclub called the Imperial. He’s 10 years older than the others partying in this disco, which was once a movie theater at which he and the others in the Byker Chapter saw many a Hammer horror film in the 1960s (Laws has dedicated Spectre to Peter Cushing!). Richard’s wife has left him and her new boyfriend has humiliated him, and soon he will learn one of his old friends has been murdered horribly. Employed as a lecturer at a college, his coworkers are still sexist morons, and the one person he hopes to feel a connection with, the beautiful and smart Diane Drew, susses him as an emotional wreck. When Richard pulls out his own copy of that Byker Chapter photo, he sees Phil is gone… and so now is another, Derek Robson. It all makes Richard think of the “spectre,” an inside joke between the friends, a word used as shorthand for all the horrible things that could go wrong in one’s life, whether a schoolyard bully or an absent parent, a police siren in the night or, indeed, the deaths of one’s old schoolmates.
What better way to get back on one’s feet than to get drunk and then investigate the death of one’s former mate? Richard enlists the help of a colleague of Derek’s, who coincidentally was also Derek’s landlord. Together they pay a visit to the scene of the crime—and so begins one of the more effective scenes of horror I’ve read recently. I read it one morning over coffee before work, and was excited at how convincing Laws presents and pulls off the two men’s encounter with—wait for it—a ventriloquist’s dummy. What could have been laughable is rendered with a physical realism and dream logic. It happens about 50 pages in, and while I was quite enjoying Spectre up to that point, it was this sequence that convinced me Laws truly knew how write a horror novel: his characters were real enough, with just the right amount of back story to explain motivation and relationship, while his skill in offering up the horror genre goodies as well was rather an unexpected treat. I spent my whole day at work marveling over that scene in my head, eager to get back to the tale and see what else Laws had in store.
It’s obvious that Laws has based these characters’ experiences on his own, and ably conveys it in these pages; the Imperial must be a real place as well, I decided (and the author’s postscript proved me right!). Too many horror paperbacks seem written by people who have no ability to capture the real world of friends and lovers, work and play, “writers” who don’t care about character or plot but only the next shock. If only these authors realized that shock is heightened only when we care about characters…
Richard now realizes he must track down the other people in that photo, old friends he hasn’t been in touch with for years. Drinking again at the Imperial (lots of drinking in this one, which I totally dig), he is surprised to see Diane arrive with some friends. They engage in some banter that isn’t embarrassing at all to the reader, and find they actually rather like one another. When Diane reveals that her mother had been a psychic, Richard dares to tell her about what’s going on his life… and it doesn’t scare her off. She offers to help him track down the other people in the photo, three men and the lone woman, Pandora Ellison. But this proves unnecessary; returning from work one evening to Richard’s home, they are met by two men in his doorway: Joe McFarlen and Stan “the Man” Staftoe, two more of the Byker Chapter. They’ve all been depressed, feeling trapped and hunted, and have tracked Richard down first. All are determined to get to the bottom of the Photo of the Disappearing Chums.
Along the way we learn that Pandora had told each of the men that she loved him alone and wanted to sleep with him, and then she did. She broke each of their hearts, unbeknownst to the others, and moved back to her parents and broke off any contact with the Bykers. Eventually, after much horror and death—all exquisitely rendered!—Richard, Stan, and Diane arrive in the Cornish port town of Mevagissey, looking for Pandora’s family. Which they find, and then learn the answer to Pandora’s deceit and departure. It’s a doozy: Greek myth and occult orgies, an Aleister Crowley wannabe and an unholy motherhood, and a vision of humanity extinct. Now that’s a horror novel!
In every way, Spectre is a success, and I was delighted that a book I bought on a whim, solely because of its cover art, turned out to be such a pleasure to read. Laws doesn’t reinvent the wheel here, and many scenes and characters are comfortably familiar. But his prose presents fresh insights, his depiction of English life and streets and architecture authentic and gritty. Best of all, he never hesitates to ramp up the horror with a vivid eye for the grotesque, and a ready pen to describe it: from a sludge monster rising from a developing tray in a photo lab, to a clay sculpture coming to life and embracing its creator; from a stuffed grizzly bear in a museum exhibit mauling a man in his own office, to electric-blue tentacles shooting from a TV screen; from an old woman with no face and a bloody gash for a mouth who explains all to the intrepid survivors, to a blood-drenched finale on the dance floor reflected in the glittering glass of a revolving disco ball—Laws lays on the ’80s horror good and thick.
But not too thick; the novel doesn’t even reach 300 pages, and can be read in only a day or two. In that era of bloated bestsellers and paperbacks with over-large type and novellas padded out to novel length, all to give merely the impression of value for money, a sleek torpedo of a horror novel like Spectre is a welcome addition to the genre.
Will Errickson covers horror from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s on his blog Too Much Horror Fiction.