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.
Richard, Robin and Nigel are ordinary boys who share a taste for the macabre in films, videos, books and comics. Then they admit a fourth member to their club – Toady, who is not at all an ordinary boy. From the moment he lures the boys to a seance, unimagined horror overtakes their lives.
Title: Toady | Author: Mark Morris | Publisher: Corgi | Pub. Year: 1989 | Pages: 702 | Genre: Horror | Language: English | Source: Self-purchased | Starred Review: Yes
If you wanted to sum up Mark Morris’s ‘Toady’ in 2 words, you’d say it was a British ‘IT’ (BrIT, maybe). Like Stephen King’s novel of three years earlier, the book features a gang of school kids battling a shapeshifting monster in a small town. It’s a credit to Mark Morris that despite those similarities ‘Toady’ never feels derivative. Instead, it’s creepy, imaginative and very, very English. It’s also very long (not ‘IT’ long, but 700 pages for a first novel is pretty hardcore). Like King when he’s on form, Morris manages to justify that length. There’s nothing that’s obviously bloated or slow here, just a lot of incident and story.
That story centres on the members of the ‘Horror Club’ a group of school boys who delight in horror fiction and movies (Ramsey Campbell gets a nod). They decide to take things up a notch by holding a séance, aided by Olive, an eccentric local woman. Naturally, they unleash dark forces, and the rest of the book concerns the impacts on the town and the efforts of the boys and Olive to undo their mistake.
I suspect that if I’d read ‘Toady’ when it was published in 1989 it would be one of my favourite books. Back then I was 16, pretty much the same age as the characters in the book, and living a life not at all dissimilar to theirs’ (shapeshifting monsters aside). For some reason I didn’t (how I missed it I don’t know), but coming to it as an adult I enjoyed it a lot. It’s engaging, horrific and fun. Most of all it filled me with an enormous sense of nostalgia. Of all the books I’ve read for ‘Carry on Screaming’ this is certainly the most of its time. Morris absolutely packs the book with pop culture references, in fact he does it to a degree that anyone who wasn’t in the UK in the 80s might find bewildering. Every chapter has some vintage nugget: Grandstand, Hammer horror on late night BBC2, Kate Bush, The Christians, Memorex C60 cassettes, Clarks’ school shoes, Sigue Sigue Sputnik… There were things in here I’d forgotten about completely, but they all helped drag me back to that time. For that reason, this might be the most ‘Carry on Screaming’ book. It lacks the trashy pulp appeal of many of the books I’ve covered, but none of them have captured what Britain in the 80s was like quite as well as this one.
That’s a rambling way of saying I really loved it. In terms of the writing alone it’s probably the best book I’ve read for this column. On top of that it’s packed with macabre invention and a passion for terror that eclipses King’s book at times. Towards the end it veers into fantasy territory (in fact it ended up reminding me of ‘The Talisman’ as much as ‘IT’, but it’s definitely a horror novel at its heart. Filled with the everyday anxieties of teenage life as well as supernatural dread. ‘Toady’ is memorable and effective, even if I did read it 30 plus years too late.
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 – well executed and a bit weird, but I’m not sure it really captures the book
Nastiness: 4 out of 5 – when the horror kicks in, it’s really something
Sauciness: 2 out of 5 – nothing to get excited about
Cover promise vs delivery: 3 out of 5 – the cover is weird and so is the book, but it doesn’t get over how creepy it is. In this case the cover under-promises
Overall Carry on Screaming rating: 16/25
What else happened in 1989?
Scanning through the news from the year, one event stands out in any otherwise quite quiet year. In April, 94 people were killed and another 300 hospitalised in the Hillsborough disaster, when police let more fans into an already over-crowded stadium, leading to a fatal crush. 30 years later the disaster was still in the news, with the families of victims trying to get answers in a tribunal that was held last year.
It was a pretty poor year for horror movies, with the most notable ones being from the cult/art-house side of things: Brian Yuzna’s enjoyably gooey ‘Society’, the cannibal black comedy ‘Parents’, and the simply bonkers ‘Sante Sangre’. Best of all (and most art-housey of all) it was the year Peter Greenaway’s beautifully repellent ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover’ came out. Some of my friends and I managed to get into the cinema to see it despite being a couple of years underage and loved its pretentious mix of beautiful cinematography, swearing, Helen Mirren and cannibalism. I forgot to mention it at a couple of months ago, but the landmark of my first 18-rated movie at the cinema came in 1987 when (at the same cinema I saw ‘The Cook, The Thief…’ I watched the now pretty much forgotten (but brilliantly titled) ‘Sammy and Rosie Get Laid’.
The world of horror books was a little better. Stephen King published ‘The Dark Half’, Dan Simmons released ‘Carrion Comfort’ and Jack Ketchum’s notorious ‘The Girl Next Door’ made in into book shops. In the UK, Clive Barker continued his move to Dark Fantasy with ‘The Great and Secret Show’. In other words, ‘Toady’ had some pretty stiff competition, but I’d say it’s as good as any of those books.
Next up, a bit of a change from the normal Carry on Screaming fare, with literary horror novel ‘Spider’ by Patrick McGrath.