For years now I’ve been in the habit of seeking out old paperback horror novels in used book stores. Like many people of my generation I went through a period in the 1980s of reading a lot of horror. The Stephen King created boom of the genre had publishers printing everything that might become a hit in search of the next big author. Good things came from that boom and a lot of bad things as well but one of the aspects of this mad rush to put out as much horror fiction as possible is that some truly insane stuff got released onto the public. Luckily some of this insane stuff is pretty inspired and entertaining. Not that I always felt that this was true.
One of my favorite writers of this type is Guy N. Smith. During my years working in bookstores I shied away from his books because of their crazed covers and even more nutty titles. I was pretentious enough to turn up my nose at books about rampaging giant crabs and alien slime monster and tried to limit my ‘fun’ reading to higher minded science fiction and popular novels. In other words, I was an idiot! But now, having embraced Smith’s batshit crazy work, I find myself picking up every used horror novel I can find as long as it was published between 1970 and about 1986. I’m not sure why I picked 1986 as a cutoff point but I suspect it might have something to do with that being the year I graduated from high school.
Another odd part of my new reading obsession is that I find I like British authors more than American ones. I think it has to do with enjoying the ground level peeks inside everyday Brit’s lives that go along with the dismemberments and demonic attacks that keep me hunting for UK writers. Often I find myself simply fascinated by the different ways in which the countries view public life and dangerous situations. These are usually subtle but at times the differences are stark. Take for instance the climax of Kenneth McKenney’s nutty book THE PLANTS reprinted in the US in 1984 but first published in 1976. For most horror readers it might be considered a non-climax or the height of anti-climax but I loved it. Of course, the entire book is loony in the extreme but things are played so straight you just have to go along for the ride. I was less than 50 pages into the book before I was amused to note that the plot and the threat being spelled out resembled M. Night Shyamalan’s epic failure THE HAPPENING. A particularly good spring and summer has produced a jump in the amount of plant growth all over England. This fecund burst prompts the rich plant life of our planet to finally take a hand in stopping our ever expanding crush of nature with pollution and over population. Luckily some people can ‘hear’ the plants and attempt to broker a kind of détente. The story ends with the inhabitants of a small English village holding onto a tree and ‘communicating’ with it their intention to be better stewards of the Earth. Then an older lady goes off with the telepathic plants to be one with them or something to that effect. No explosions; no pitched battle with EVIL; no mad rush to stop an imminent disaster. But I liked it. And while I was able to believe in the plight of the British villagers enough to buy their actions I also kept thinking that Americans would have acted in much dumber ways to the threat. I suspect tanks and helicopters would have been deployed to fight off the vegetable menace.
While I enjoyed the tale, THE PLANTS is not a good book in any formal sense. The introduction of the threat is so hysterically handled that I was laughing out loud as I read it and the way characters accept the completely ridiculous again and again is sure to induce many readers to give up and start another, less silly, story. But it’s a lot of fun and it’s exactly the type of horror fiction I crave these days. Though I know it would make a really crappy movie.