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Carry on Screaming – Sheep by Simon Maginn (1994) #BookReview

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.

The ramshackle farmhouse in Ty-Gwyneth seems like the perfect retreat for James, Adele and their young son after the tragic drowning of their daughter Ruthie. But things take a horrific turn when James unearths an odd collection of bones while working on the house, and Lewyn, a local farmer, relates a nightmarish story of the tragic history of Ty-Gwyneth.

Title: Sheep | Author: Simon Maginn | Publisher: Corgi Books | Pub. Year: 1994 | Pages: 361 | Genre: Horror | Language: English | Source: Self-purchased | Starred Review: Yes

Last month’s book, ‘Suckers’ was the first book I’d reviewed for Carry on Screaming by a woman. This month’s is the second by a gay man (the first being ‘The Books of Blood volume 1’ by Clive Barker), although I don’t think either were publicly out when the books in question were first published. Whilst there are some notable female horror authors (Mary Shelley, anyone?), it still feels like an overwhelmingly male genre in a way that genres like crime and sci fi aren’t. I don’t know what that is, but I’d welcome thoughts in the comments below.

Back to the point. ‘Sheep’ is the 1994 debut from Simon Maginn, who lives (it turns out) a a few miles away from me. Maginn published four more horror novels under his own name and a number of comic novels as Simon Nolan. ‘Sheep’ made a bit of a splash when it was published, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s creepy, effective and very British. It was filmed as ‘The Dark’ in 2005, with the screenplay by Maginn), John Fawcett (‘Ginger Snaps’) directing and Sean Bean (almost every film ever) playing the lead. The film was, I think, less well received than the book.

I don’t know if Maginn’s other horror novels are as good as this one, but if they are I need to track down copies. ‘Sheep’ is unsettling right from the start and maintains its tension and subtle menace until the very last word. It tells the story of James and Adèle, a couple with a young son, who are trying to come to terms with the death of their daughter. They move to a dilapidated farmhouse rural Wales to escape their memories, but (this is a horror novel after all) end up facing something just as bad.

‘Sheep’ uses a lot of horror (and rural horror) tropes, but does so very effectively. The house has a dark secret. The locals are secretive and the sheep that graze the land around the farmhouse are freaky. Plus there’s a shit tonne of small bones buried near the house. What lifts the book out of cliché and is the quality of the writing. The grief and guilt that James and Adèle feel over the death of their daughter is palpable and infects the whole book. Their son, 7 year old Sam, is as convincing a child as I’ve read in a horror novel. Likewise, their new neighbour, Lewyn, who owns the sheep is a believable and very well rounded character.

Whilst the book isn’t overly gory, Maginn does a great job of making it disturbing. It’s quietly horrifying, like classic British rural horror movies ‘Blood on Satan’s Claw’ and ‘The Wicker Man’. There’s a sense throughout that there’s something deeply messed up going on and that the final reveal with be shattering. If it doesn’t quite manage to be, it’s not too big a disappointment because the journey is so strong.

It strikes me that, as we’ve moved into the 90s, the books I’ve covered (with the exception of ‘Renegades’) have been far from the Paperback from Hell style of book that I expected to be covering when I conceived this column. They have, however, all been authentically horrifying and distinctly British. The transition from the gory excesses of Herbert and Hutson, to the more psychological horror of Maginn and McGrath and the witty satire of Newman and Billson is interesting observe and probably deserves analysis from someone better at reading pop culture trends than I am.


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: 4 out of 5 – Creepy and effective

Nastiness: 2 out of 5 – This is a far subtler book than most I have featured here. The horror is be about atmosphere and ideas rather than gore.

Sauciness: 2 out of 5 – Sex plays an important part in the book, but there isn’t actually any in it.

Cover promise vs delivery: 5 out of 5 – This is another case of the cover matching the book perfectly.

Overall Carry on Screaming rating: 17/25

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What else happened in 1994?

There were two ongoing news stories that dominated the UK press in 1994. The first was the leadership of the Labour Party. The Labour leader, John Smith, died suddenly of a heart attack in May. Tony Blair was subsequently elected as the new leader, and by the end of the year the party were riding high in the polls. Blair would go on to be Prime Minister, ushering an era of British politics that was drastically different from what had been seen before.

The second story was the arrest of Fred and Rose West for multiple murders. The couple are believed to have murdered 9 young women at their home in Gloucester, as well as Fred’s daughter and first wife.

It was a better year for horror movies than 1993. Two big budget movies from famous non-horror directors were released: ‘Wolf’ (Mike Nichols) and ‘Interview with the Vampire’ (Neil Jordan). I didn’t care for either of them, but thankfully there were also a good number of great movies from directors who specialised in the genre: Wes Craven’s ‘New Nightmare’, John Carpenter’s ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ and Michele Soavi’s ‘Cemetery Man’. It was also the year that the excellent, but tragic, ‘The Crow’ came out.

It was a bad year for fiction though. King had ‘Insomnia’, which is fine but definitely not one of his best, and Herbert had ‘The Ghosts of Sleath’ which I’d put in the same bracket. Aside from that, LOTS of horror for kids again, which I applaud but which bypassed me at the time as I was already 21.

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Next up, another book and author I’ve never read. Looks saucy.

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