Welcome to Freaky Fridays, the day of your doom. When forgotten paperbacks rise from the grave and stalk the living, hungry for their warm, wet eyeballs. Crawling like hell-worms across this apocalyptic wasteland of mud, ruled by the dark vikings known as the Gods of Black Metal.
Downtune those guitars and slow your tempo to a dirge because this week’s book is the most Doom Metal of them all. It’s not just the fact that the Misfits logo is on the cover. It’s not just that it’s about witches. It’s not just that there is no escape from the crushing Scottish sludge of 1980’s The Stigma. No, the reason this book is an avalanche of grave dirt, wet with blood, muddy with the tears of the unborn, is because of its mood of unrelenting gloom, the way every plot twist results in another downer, the way the author seems to be doped to the gills on barbiturates, barely able to lift his heavy hands to reach the typewriter. This is gloomcore at its most pitch black and unrelenting. Ladies and gentlemen, meet The Stigma.
Born in Rochdale, just north of Manchester, Trevor Hoyle was a professional author whose first big success came novelizing the most bummer TV series of the 1970s, Blake’s 7, which was dripping with more doom and depression than a sci-fi show for kids should find healthy. He had also written some skinhead and football novels which seems to be a typical point of entry for UK pulp authors in the ’70s. After The Stigma he would write The Last Gasp (1983) a science fiction thriller in which all the oxygen on the planet is running out and the USA and the USSR conspire to destroy 75% of the global population in order to ensure enough air is available for the survivors. Hoyle also liked to stare out the window on rainy afternoons and watch kittens drown while listening to funeral marches on his turntable.
The Stigma begins with Elizabeth Strang trapped in a “grey limbo between waking and nightmare” only to wake up and find blood gushing from between her legs and saturating her mattress. “The day was cold and cloudy, a biting east wind pushing the leaden tumbling sky along a few feet above the surrounding hills and battering at the broad stone front of the house.” Instead of coffee, Elizabeth and her family just hit themselves in the faces with hammers as they sit around the breakfast table and nobody even turns on the lights anymore because why bother we’re all going to wind up in the cold dark of the grave anyways.
Despite the fact that all actions are futile in the face of the impending heat death of the universe, Elizabeth goes to her twice-a-week session with Quinton, her psychiatrist, much to the relief of her mother and stepfather, even though they know that relief is just a temporary cessation of suffering that only serves to make the inevitable future torment even more unbearable. Elizabeth tells Quinton that she’s haunted by a witch from the ancient past who cursed her father (now dead) and has cursed her (soon to be dead). Quinton’s superior, Vernon Lewis, believes that even listening to Elizabeth is encouraging her “maladaptive behavior” and they should just drug her to the gills before she can finish her sentence, but Vernon believes her dream is “eroding her will to live” and she needs regression therapy. Which means hypnosis, the go-to solution in pretty much every horror novel of the ’70s. Got a headache? You need hypnosis. Trying to remember who murdered your mother? Hypnosis. Lost your appetite? Suspect you were abducted by aliens? Gaps in your memory? Not sure why you’re wearing yellow trousers? Hypnosis will clear all that up, and probably reveal that you’re possessed by a demon from Hell in the bargain.
During the hypno session, Elizabeth describes a tower to Quinton and he, unwisely, tries to locate it. It’s in West Yorkshire and shortly after finding it he starts sharing Elizabeth’s dreams. Unlike Elizabeth, however, they don’t induce his period. Instead they make him get drunk and punch his pregnant wife in the face with both fists so hard that she falls down the stairs and loses their baby. He decides not to see Elizabeth as a patient anymore. Instead he calls Ravenscroft (who goes by just that one name, like Euronymous) a paranormal investigator, and his assistant Harry Price, who was actually a real person. Then again, are any of us real or all we all just figments of God’s restless dreams?
They link Elizabeth’s nightmares to the Lancashire witches (aka the Pendle witches), ten of whom were hung in 1612. Needless to say, they’re posthumously pissed off about this. Somehow, the Brontës are mixed up in this as well. Everyone is having nightmares now, including Lorna, Quinton’s wife who can no longer walk thanks to getting grandslammed by her husband and tossed down the stairs. In her dreams, the witch appears along with a giant black dog named Tibb, who gives her lascivious winks, which is gross.
Because of all the nightmares, Price and Ravenscroft isolate Elizabeth and her best friend Petrina in a bleak cottage on the west coast of England. There, they plan to destroy the witch, but plans are what make the dark gods laugh. The witch possesses Elizabeth completely and reveals that Tibb is going to impregnate Petrina. Ravenscroft gets lost in his car on the way to the cottage so only Harry Price is left to stop this disgusting and possibly illegal plan, but it turns out that he lost his soul when he wasn’t looking because he doesn’t believe in the possibility of goodness. Besides, no one can stop the witch now that God is dead. Is God dead? Seems like it, because the witch goes full metal and says: “Now that God is dead, we may begin.”
“Taste the milk of darkness,” she says, going so metal that she’s basically prog metal, as Tibb transforms into a large baby with an enormous, three-foot penis. Ravenscroft almost makes it to the cottage in time but the witch traps him in a time loop, then things get even more bleak when it’s revealed turns out that Tibb is the damned soul of Elizabeth’s father. Something sparks inside of him and instead of impregnating Petrina with a gross witch-baby he uses his three foot wiener to choke the witch to death, and as the witch’s vessel dies, so too does her power. And Elizabeth.
Harry, Petrina, and Ravenscroft stumble out into the cold morning as the diseased sun casts its leprous light over the gray and blasted beach.
“Some of us are born never to experience real happiness,” Ravenscroft mutters, staring moodily out at the waves. Cue the power-chord dirge. The sky splits open. It begins to rain scabs.
Grady Hendrix has written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today; his previous novel was Horrorstör, about a haunted IKEA, and his latest novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, is basically Beaches meets The Exorcist.