Saturday 13 April 2013

Speculation on a confluence of things:

  • This sliver of an obit/memoir from Hari Kunzru at the Guardian popped up following James Herbert's recent death - 
  • The above worn copy found yesterday in a charity shop in Loughton, Essex. Actually someone appeared to have offloaded their entire Herbert collection for the benefit of the Sue Ryder charity. I was sorely tempted to grab them all but wasn't sure how to justify them in terms of space to the rest of the family (or to myself). This horde  reminded me of the jumble sales my local scouts used to have where I could hoover up Sven Hassell paperbacks and all manner of unwholesome pulp from the heaving piles of paperbacks. This was rich compost for the impressionable mind. Although tidied up and carefully managed, charity shops still  occasionally possess this magical power to open portals and transport. But I digress into funny smelling,slippered-up nostalgia.

  • I remembered 'The Rats' being set around Epping Forest and near to where I was standing. Flicking through, I realised the action was generally around the East End, where James Herbert grew up. It was the less powerful Lair, set around the Forest, that I remembered being shared around the school in 1979/80 like Mayfair, Men Only or Penthouse.  This stuff was 'dirty'. The sex is full-on and explicit and any pleasure is generally tempered by brutal death. To adolescent boys it was powerful, if chastening, stuff at a point where they were being force-fed 'improving' literature from the Canon. Other alternatives were, from memory and my parent's bookshelves, updated Boys Own stuff by Alistair MacLean and  the racing thrillers of Dick Francis. I don't remember comics featuring much.

  • This boarded up canalside house, seen on a recent walk, also seemed to fit with my memories of the Rat's landscape.

  • In the next decade Derek Raymond/Robin Cook plunged his hands back into the black swamp and came up with even more brutal pulp in the Factory series, having tried his hand at class satire 'A Crust on its Uppers' and clunky, dystopian vision 'A State of Denmark'. He describes writing 'I was Dora Suarez' as 'a battle with evil'. In this company Cook was unusual as a drop-out from the ruling class, someone who deliberately turned his back on the route theoretically mapped out for him by breeding and education. Judging by his sales he didn't hit the reading public in quite the same way as Herbert, maybe lacking the former's marketing background. David Peace cites Cook as an influential fore-runner in his use of what Cook called 'the Black Novel' to anatomise and dissect contemporary society throught he prism of its worst horrors.

    • Coincidentally I reread an interview with Stewart Home, another working class 'outsider', who plagiarised/appropriated whole chunks of Richard Allen's Skinhead pulp, along with other works from the New English Library (NEL) canon. From the carcass of these pulp works Home constructed  books like Pure Mania and Red London in the late 80's and 90's, which he pumped full of repetitive sex and violence riffs interpersed with political theory and experimental avant garde techniques. Home talks extensively in other places about his love of in pulp fiction, and exploitation cinema in opposition to what he views as the exhausted literary and cultural mainstream. Sex is not brutally punished in Home's work. 

    • 'The Rats' appeared in 1974, coincidentally the same year the Stranglers formed. There are some similarities in the general levels of misanthropy, the image of rodents and the deliberate use of violence and shock. Herbert was a marketing man and designed his covers and the ad campaigns for his books. I may be wrong, but with the Stranglers it also feels that they were fully aware of the musical, lyrical and visual aspects of what they were doing. This level of professionalism damned them in the eyes of the Punks. It 'feels' like the work comes from the same swamp, although probably, in Herbert's case, without the Gnosticism that Phil divines in the Stranglers work. 

    • Like the Stranglers, James Herbert was huge in terms of sales and did not 'fit' comfortably into the prevailing cultural landscape. He was there in plain sight, like a large rock in the road. He made shedloads of money, but his interviews suggest a man who is always concerned that people don't get it.  He was a working class author writing about ordinary people, against prevailing modes, and he was conscious of this fact.

  • I don't think it's purely nostalgia that makes 'The Rats' and its companions resonate. Herbert was plugged into something vital, if deeply unpleasant, in the prevailing culture. It was recognised as 'real' by 15 year old schoolboys as readily as many other 1000's of others. Never something to be entirely proud of, never trumpeted, except in the Horror community.   This is probably why the books are turning up in charity shops and not being proudly displayed next to Martin Amis. 

  • All this is really a prelude to me having to re-read 'The Rats'. Many of these decades blogs  seem to be the revisiting of formative experiences and barely understood childhood events with adult critical apparatus. My first pop hero was Gary Glitter and Jimmy Saville bestrode the entertainment landscape like a colossus. Maybe something in 'The Rats' was reflective of this state of affairs. Will report back, hopefully in more coherent fashion.

    Phil Knight said...

    The Rats trilogy(?) was massive at my school, though I never read it, partly because I've never been a horror buff, and partly because at the time I didn't read anything unless compelled to.

    Also there's Donald Neilson and his sewer escapades, and wasn't there a Dr. Who story about a giant rat in the sewers of London?

    Also the Winter Of Discontent, rubbish uncollected, bodies going unburied etc.

    Definitely something archetypal occuring here.

    Bobby's Dream said...

    I'm also wondering whether misanthropy and misogyny become more prominent cultural tropes in periods such as this. Punk definitely had its fair share of both.
    I was curious as to whether you will be addressing the seam of apparent misogyny in the Strangler's work. I remember Simon and Joy Press (in 'The Sex Revolts') putting them in a lineage of outider boy gangs from the Stones, via the Stooges who, if I read it right, derived so much dissonant 'power'/cultural cachet from fear of/hatred of women.

    Phil Knight said...

    Yeah, I'll be doing an entire chapter on Hugh Cornwell and Rattus Norvegicus. The current Burnel piece I'm writing is Chapter 2 of the book. I'm starting with him and "No More Heroes" because that's the easiest bit.

    The argument I'll be making about "Rattus" is pretty much the same argument that Lasch made in "The Culture Of Narcissism" - that Feminism didn't change much structurally, but the declaration of sexual warfare that it overtly made (or was interpreted as making) allowed privileged males to cast aside any inhibitions they had in their domination of women.

    The Stranglers weren't "reactionary" in their misogyny - they were prescient. They anticipated the whole hip-hop/internet "bitch" culture.

    Much as I quiver at the idea of being in disagreement with The Reynoldsmeister, I think The Stranglers were a genuine break with the Stones/Stooges etc.

    The Stranglers' saving grace was their melancholy. Rattus is one of the saddest records ever made. They did, to their credit, intuit just what an empty, soulless world the denigration of women would lead to.

    Paul Hebron said...

    "anatomise and dissect contemporary society throught he prism of its worst horrors"

    I saw a similar argument in the Quietus as to why death metal and grindcore are more political than commonly thought, feeding depravity back to the culture that forms it (with extreme metal though it probably isn't getting to where it needs to be heard).

    Have you read Ramsay Campbell's fiction? Think you'd enjoy it.

    Bobby's Dream said...

    Haven't read much 'straight' horror. Don't know if Lovecraft counts? Will check out Campbell.

    From reading interviews with David Peace he seems to use all types of music, including death metal and grindcore, alot to establish mood while writing and also quoting lyrical snippets to help establish mood/locate in time.

    To be honest Katy Perry is far more adept at feeding depravity back into culture than, say, Anal Clit.

    Paul Hebron said...

    I've read Campbell's short stories mostly - he started as a Lovecraft and the went off on his own depraved direction. Track down the stories 'Cold Print' and 'The Faces at Pine Dunes'. Seriously cracked, very Red Riding. Very 1985 (I'd imagine so anyway).

    I've read The Damned Utd, the Red Riding books are in a pile somewhere waiting.

    Yeah in regards to Rotting Scrotum a lot of the politics seems to have drained off. The band names don't seem particularly politicized anymore, your Capitalist Casualties or Napalm Deaths of the late 80s.

    There's a grindcore sub-genre called pornogrind which seems to revel in violent sexist imagery, gore, vocals reduced to bubbling screeches or piggy squeals, and song titles that read like porn site search term word salads. It's like someone concentrated the seething vileness of the internet, and the systematic misogyny and attitudes towards sexual assault present in society, and squirted it onto youtube.

    It could equally be teenage boys to whom 'Vulvectomy' as a band name suggests the highest form of wit.

    Katy Perry is a digital ghost screaming in the void, one of her facets projecting into our world between the angles of space and time.

    Everything she does says 'consume me!'

    marble mantels said...

    wanna read more about Sven Hassel. Where that paperback is available?
    - Vinnie