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.
In the ordinary town of Edmonville a tremor hits, followed by a second devastating tremor, then darkness. The next morning, the survivors discover that most of the town has disappeared into an enormous crevasse.
As they struggle to survive, one by one people start to disappear without trace.
Title: Chasm | Author: Stephen Laws | Publisher: New English Library | Pub. Year: 1998 | Pages: 546 | Genre: Horror | Language: English | Source: Self-purchased | Starred Review: Yes
I reviewed Stephen Laws’ first novel ‘Ghost Train’ last year for my 1985 Carry on Screaming column. ‘Chasm’ from 1998 was his tenth. It’s also the last but one novel he has published, the final one being ‘Ferocity’ in 2007. He does still seem to be writing short fiction, which has appeared in a few collections. That someone could go from almost a novel a year (and from a major publisher at that), to just one in over 20 years is a pretty stark illustration of the sad decline of British horror fiction after the glory days of the 1970s and 80s.
‘Chasm’ is a big book, both in length and scope. Like King’s later ‘Under the Dome’ or John Lymington’s 1960’s sci fi novel ‘A Sword Above the Night’ it features a town cut off from the outside world and plunged into terror. In this case it’s a British town, although there are only a few details that give that away, the book has a very international feel and could as easily be set in the US or Australia. The book starts with Jay O’Connell, a down on his luck school caretaker, having a very bad morning which then turns much worse when the town is hit by an apparent earthquake which causes a bottomless chasm to form around the section of town Jay is in. The story is told in first person chapters from Jay’s perspective as well as third person ones that broadens the scope to include other characters. This works well, especially as (for once!) there is actually a reason for it, and I enjoyed both styles.
The plot progresses in fairly typical disaster movie fashion, with different residents of the town being introduced and followed through the chaos. As things move on though, the book becomes more distinctly a horror novel, with a metaphysical bent that I enjoyed much more than I usually do such things. It’s a little bit silly at times, but somehow it works and I couldn’t put it down.
I think what makes it so great is that it’s incredibly well paced and furiously gripping throughout. The writing strays into melodrama at times, but my god, Laws writes a good action scene. The violence is graphic and sometimes shocking, and the sense of peril throughout is incredible. The human characters, both good and bad, are engaging and the non-human ones are extremely effective. Right until the end I didn’t know what was going to happen to Jay and his companions and the climax absolutely thrilled me.
Looking at ‘Chasm’, you might think it’s just another fat horror novel, and it is, but it’s one that is so well done that it’s near perfect. Gripping, funny, romantic and horrifying, it’s a non-stop thrill ride of horror that I loved from start to finish.
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: 5 out of 5
Cover: 3 out of 5 – Not a classic COS-style cover, but it is kind of cool.
Nastiness: 4 out of 5 – There’s some decent nastiness in here, lots of gore and some decidedly unpleasant situations.
Sauciness: 2 out of 5 – What sex there is, is barely described. There are definite “sexual situations” though.
Cover promise vs delivery: 2 out of 5 – Can’t help feeling that the book would have been better served by a brash 80s style cover rather than the abstract one it has,
Overall Carry on Screaming rating: 16/25
What else happened in 1998?
1998 saw the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, a monumental achievement that ended years of violence in Northern Ireland. The Irish problem is one that has cropped up repeatedly in both the books I’ve reviewed for Carry on Screaming and in the events of the years I’ve covered. It’s still very relevant today, being probably the most contentious part of the Brexit negotiations.
In film, the year saw the continuation of the 90s horror boom with some sequels and adaptations (‘Blade’, ‘I Still Know What You Did Last Summer’, ‘Halloween H20’, ‘Godzilla’, ‘Psycho’) as well as some arguably more interesting original works (‘The Faculty’ and ‘Dark City’)
1998 was another weak year for horror fiction, although not as bad as 1997. King released ‘Bag of Bones’, which I bought in hardback but have still never finished. Kim Newman published another book in the ‘Anno Dracula’ saga (‘Dracula Cha Cha Cha’) and Ramsey Campbell had a short story collection out (‘Ghosts and Grisly Things’)
Next up, something a little different – a choose-your-own-adventure book for adults.
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