Welcome, ladies, gentlemen and fellow horror lovers, to this month’s Carry on Screaming post. Each month I’ll be reviewing a vintage British horror novels and reflecting on what was happening in both the horror genre and the news in the UK at the time. You can read previous posts in the series by clicking on the ‘Carry on Screaming‘ category.
A role-playing novel that reveals how small decisions can have monumental consequences. If you choose the right possibilities you may live a long happy life, or be immensely rich, or powerful, or win the lottery. If you make other choices you may become a murderer, die young, make every mistake possible, or make no impression on life at all. The choice is yours.
Title: Life’s Lottery | Author: Kim Newman | Publisher: Pocket Books | Pub. Year: 1999 | Pages: 608 | Genre: Horror | Language: English | Source: Self-purchased | Starred Review: Yes
I remember getting ’Life’s Lottery’ out of my local library when it first came out, but for some reason I didn’t read it. I was in my mid-20s then, with far less life behind me than I have now, and I can’t help feeling that the 20 years wait was worth it. The idea behind ‘Life’s Lottery’ might appear juvenile to some, but the book is anything but. It’s a mature and introspective work, not exactly horror, but infected with a kind of existential dread that any horror writer would be proud of.
The concept feels like it might be a gimmick, but it actually works very well. ‘Life’s Lottery’ is a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Written in the second person, it starts with the birth of its protagonist, Keith, in England in 1959 and follows his life through whatever path the reader chooses to take it.
Keith is very much an everyman, and the choices you have to make for him are often mundane, but they do alter his life and those of the people around him in interesting ways. Decisions made in childhood impact his adult life in a way that often makes it feel like there’s a a kind of predestination in place. In the seven or so lives I had in the book I failed to achieve a happy ending. The best I got was a purgatory-like conclusion that ends with the bleak phrase “and so on.”
Despite its depressing misanthropy, the book is surprisingly enjoyable. The writing is often very funny, and Keith’s various lives are so very different from each other that making different choices is a lot of fun. It’s also wonderfully English, obsessed with pop culture ephemera and the events of the 1970s and 80s. The Falkland’s war plays a big role, as does Thatcherism. That, and the concept, mean its very much a book of its time. It may not have massive appeal in 2020, but it’s certainly an interesting experiment in speculative fiction.
I’m adopting a slightly different rating system for my Carry on Screaming review, because, let’s face it, vintage horror novels are about more than just the quality of the actual book.
Book: 4 out of 5
Cover: 3 out of 5 – I quite like the cover of the edition I have, but as CoS covers go it’s not top drawer
Nastiness: 3 out of 5 – There isn’t a huge amount of nastiness in the book, but when it is there it feels like it’s your fault, which certainly gives it an impact
Sauciness: 3 out of 5 – As with the horror, there isn’t much sex, but as a reader you do feel complicit in it when it does happen.
Cover promise vs delivery: 3 out of 5 – It’s weird and effective, like the book.
Overall Carry on Screaming rating: 20/25
What else happened in 1999?
Looking back, 1999 feels like a weirdly varied year for news, although there were plenty of events that captured the public imagination. Dr Harold Shipman, a GP who murdered at least seven of his elderly patients was arrested, as was Gary Glitter, the former glam rocker, for possession of child porn. Tracy Emin exhibited her artwork ‘My Bed’ which got the tabloids in a fluster, and TV presenter Jill Dando was shot dead on her doorstep by a stalker.
The year after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, London was shaken by three bombings over the course of 2 weeks. The homemade devices were planted by a member of the extreme right British National Party and targeted immigrants and the LGBTQ+ community.
In horror film, 1999 saw yet more okay but not that inspiring big budget movies (‘The Mummy’, ‘Sleepy Hollow’, ‘The Sixth Sense’, ‘Deep Blue Sea’). The biggest news of the year though was the breakout low budget smash ‘The Blair Witch Project’.
In literature, ‘Hannibal’, the long awaited (and not very good) sequel to ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ was released. Apart from that and a couple of Kings the most notable publication was the first English translation of Koushun Takami’s ‘Battle Royale’.
Next up, our final book (*wipes eyes*). ‘The Ancient’ by Muriel Gray from the year 2000