I spent much of the 1980s affiliated to arts collectives, including Sheep Worrying Enterprises – a Somerset-based theatre-music-fanzine-whatever bunch for whom I wrote or co-wrote a bunch of plays – and the London listings magazine City Limits. With Neil Gaiman and Eugene Byrne, I was also responsible for the Peace and Love Corporation, which provided humorous filler articles for girlie magazines like Knave and Fiesta and was a mainstay of the short-lived funny magazine The Truth. We would have liked to do one of those wildly successful trivial humour paperbacks, but no one was interested in publishing our projected laff-a-paragraph guaranteed hit How to Lose Friends and Irritate People – perhaps because none of us could draw (Neil can a bit, actually) and those things all had scratchy cartoons of dead cats or live penises in them. Aside from giving us a much-needed source of freelance income, the P&LCo (like Sheep Worrying) was a testing ground for ideas we’d develop later. Several of Neil’s comics arcs and novels echo a structure we’d used for a series of articles on various big topics (education, religion, etc) in which a naïve narrator (his name was Paul Lobkowitz) is accompanied on a journey by an ambiguous trickster know-it-all (Dr Sigmund von Doppelganger) who would teach him life lessons, essentially, by ripping him off. It’s possible (ahem) we were thinking of the relationship between Swamp Thing and John Constantine in the Alan Moore-Steve Bissette-John Totelben run on Swamp Thing. I first experimented with the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure format of my novel Life’s Lottery in a Penthouse piece co-written with Neil called ‘Sexual Pursuit’, about a hapless bloke trying to hook up in the singles hot-spots of Leamington Spa (mostly, it didn’t end well).
Though the bulk of the P&LCo stuff was written by Neil, Eugene and me, other folk who happened to be in the room when we were trying to be funny sometimes joined in. Stefan Jaworzyn, and prime mover of the band Skullflower, was a frequent contributor, as was the late Phil Nutman, British correspondent of Fangoria magazine. In a roundabout way, the novels collected here are Phil’s fault. I met Stefan at Sussex University at an all-night screening of horror films in 1978 and ran into him again in 1984 at the Scala Cinema, where he later co-curated the Shock Around the Clock festivals. I first agreed to work with Neil on what became our little-known book of science fiction quotations Ghastly Beyond Belief when Jo Fletcher introduced us at a British Fantasy Society pub meeting in 1983 (I think she was trying to get rid of him). Neil, Stefan and I were at the Scala for a launch party for a book about film posters in October 1984 and met Phil there. Some of us watched The Projected Man that afternoon, and went on to the press screening of The Last Starfighter in the evening. This was the era of VHS, and we’d often get together in the tiny room I had in a hippie flat in Muswell Hill for marathon-length overnight viewing sessions. I had started reviewing films for City Limits and the Monthly Film Bulletin, and occasionally Venue in Bristol, where Eugene was an editor. Anne Billson was often sent by Time Out to cover the same films, and we all met her about the same time. Stephen Jones and Dave Reeder founded the important ‘80s film fanzine Shock Xpress, which Stefan took over … and we all wrote for that, along with Shock Around the Clock co-chairman Alan Jones. Clive Barker’s first Books of Blood made a splash in the genre and he got started on doing all the things he’s done, in theatre, film, literature and painting. Clive lived in Crouch End, in the street next to the one I moved to in 1988. Peter Straub had once lived there too. A weird fact: Anno Dracula, the Books of Blood and Ghost Story were all written within a circle a hundred yards or so across.
Phil was filling the pages of Fangoria by interviewing British filmmakers who specialised in horror. There wasn’t much actual British horror cinema produced in the 1980s, though Clive sold the screenplays that became Underworld and Rawhead Rex (which Neil and I nearly got to work on when Clive momentarily blanched at one more set of producers’ notes) and was persuaded by the experience to direct Hellraiser himself. One of Phil’s interviewees was the genial Norman J. Warren, director of Satan’s Slave, Prey and Terror. He had recently made Inseminoid for American-based producer Richard Gordon – a lively Alien knock-off shot in Chiselhurt Caves which prompted Alan Jones to wonder whether ‘chainsaws would feature so heavily in future space programmes’. Phil reported back to the P&LCo folk that Norman was looking for original script ideas he could take to Richard … and so we set out to come up with a whole slate of them, in the hope that one would rise to the top. The four of us sat in that tiny room and hashed out four different stories in different sub-genres, trying (and probably failing) to think within the sort of budget available. Our brief was fairly loose, though I believe Norman said it would be helpful if one or two of the lead actors were American – Inseminoid had gone that route, probably because Alien had.
Each of us took away a set of notes to write up. Neil’s was Remember Remember, a holiday-themed slasher movie about Guy Fawkes Night. We must have heard of V for Vendetta, which had begun in the British comic Warrior but was curtailed mid-story with the title’s cancellation – but couldn’t have foreseen that the Guy Fawkes mask would ever catch on. Phil worked on Hell Fire, a scrambling of the plots of The Maltese Falcon and Night of the Demon which I eventually reworked as a short story ‘Mother Hen’ (reprinted in the appendix of the Titan edition of The Quorum) – though I didn’t have a copy of the outline to hand when I wrote it up, and only remembered the original concept. Stefan got Bloody Students, our shot at a ‘virus outbreak’ story along the lines of George Romero’s The Crazies or David Cronenberg’s Rabid. Stefan and I had been at university together, and enjoyed the idea of staging mutant attacks and battles on our old campus. Stefan came up with the tag-line ‘Bloody Students …first, they cut their grants, then they cut their throats!’ This was before student loans, when we literally didn’t know how well off we were.
Then there was Bad Dreams, which I was in charge of.
Our first thought for this was to revive a type of horror/crime film that hadn’t been done lately, in which the menace is a semi-supernatural crime boss like Dr Mabuse or Fu Manchu. After talking that through, we came to think it might be a hard sell – though we had hit on the title, which we were rather pleased with since it was a commonplace expression that hadn’t been used as a horror film title before. Given the recent success of A Nightmare on Elm St, we switched our master crook for an immortal vampire type who could manipulate reality (Neil and I were – and still are – great admirers of Philip K. Dick, which probably shows) to persecute our (American) journalist heroine. I suppose the Cenobites of Hellraiser have a similar m.o., but it should be obvious we were more influenced by Clive – The Damnation Game had come out – than he could have been by us, though Neil has suggested that the Cenobites were loosely based on the Peace & Love Corporation. The character of Clive Broome in Bad Dreams was called Clive Harker in the original outline; we played with the names of other friends too. The heroine is named Anne Nielsen in tribute to Anne Billson, who – in retrospect – we should have asked to join in as writer (I later worked with her on a play, The Hallowe’en Sessions). She later wrote the novelisation of Dream Demon, the British Nightmare on Elm Street ripoff which did get made. Norman and Richard quite liked our ideas, especially Bad Dreams and Bloody Students, but no development money was forthcoming and so the P&L Co film projects fizzled out. In 1987, Norman made Bloody New Year instead. I later learned that Slimer, a wonderfully lurid paperback co-written by our friends John Brosnan and Leroy Kettle under the pseudonym Harry Adam Knight, had also started out as a pitch for a Warren-Gordon film; Slimer had the distinction of eventually being turned into a movie, the direct-to-video quickie Proteus. It was the beginning of great things for Harry – who delivered a masterpiece in The Fungus (now reissued and an essential read) and founded a genetic dinosaur franchise in Carnosaur (adapted as a series of films by Roger Corman).
All the while, I was working on my own projects. I’d written a novella-length draft of my first novel The Night Mayor, the opening chapters of Jago (a stab at a big thick horror book along the lines of Ghost Story or ‘Salem’s Lot) and pages of notes for a projected trilogy that (after a lot of changes) became the Anno Dracula series. Neil and I talked about co-writing a disgusting horror paperback (there were lots of those about) called The Creeps, about mutants in the tunnels under London (where Neil would later set the mostly mutant-free Neverwhere). We also pondered a killer badger book called The Set. With Eugene, we worked on a computer game scenario and an unrelated novel both called Neutrino Junction – both sadly uncompleted. A year or so after we had outlined our film ideas and nothing was happening with them, I was at a loose end and decided to write Bad Dreams as a novel. I hammered out a first draft on an IBM electric typewriter. This didn’t sell until after I’d placed The Night Mayor with Simon & Schuster in 1989; the final version benefited greatly from the input of my agent Antony Harwood and editor Maureen Waller. The ‘Entr’Acte’ section was written well after the bulk of the book, very close to its 1990 publication – in the middle of the night because I was jet-lagged after my first trip to America. It’s one of my favourite sequences in the novel. There are elements in the book that feel to me like they came from Neil, Stefan or Phil – a lot of Neil’s stories feature protagonists with remote or monstrous parents, for instance. Neil also did all the research (rather more than we needed, really – but he made a convincing case for it) into seamy Soho clubs, with full credit to Roz Kaveney for getting him past fearsome door security. Stefan went along one night, but couldn’t stop laughing which probably ruined the mood.
Other elements came from Norman’s briefing: making Anne an American in London wasn’t something I’d naturally have done – authentic American Lisa Tuttle kindly read the manuscript and gave feedback about this side of things. Dream Demon and Hellraiser have American heroines, so Norman might well have been on to something. While we were outlining, we talked a bit about who we’d like to see cast. I remember us thinking of Rosanna Arquette or Linda Hamilton, both doing interesting things in small-scale films like Baby, It’s You or The Terminator about then … though we also liked the idea of casting Sandra Bernhard and Amanda Plummer as the Nielsen sisters. One actor we wanted for the main villain roles in all our pitches was Richard Lynch, who had a very distinctive look – on an acid trip in 1967, he set fire to himself and his combination of scarred skin and handsome bone structure that got him a lot of sinister parts. He’s remarkable as the alien hermaphrodite messiah in Larry Cohen’s God Told Me To, but was most visible at the time we were working on these ideas as a Russian baddie in the Chuck Norris classic Invasion USA. Skinner, of Bad Dreams, and Lynch, of Bloody Students, are both tailor-made Richard Lynch parts. I think we wrote him into the other two stories as well. Ironically, in 1988, after I’d written the first draft of the novel, a film called Bad Dreams was produced in America … not only was it a Nightmare on Elm Street ripoff, but it cast Richard Lynch as the ghostly menace. It went straight to video in the UK, and didn’t have a high enough profile to persuade me to change the title. As a teenager, I had read How to Write a Novel, a very useful book of practical advice by John Braine which I mostly ignored … one thing that stuck in my mind was that Braine said he would reject out of hand any book that used a title which was a quote from Hamlet or Macbeth, prompting me to nod sagely and vow never to do that. Though it sounds like a commonplace, the phrase ‘bad dreams’ is actually a quote from Hamlet … ‘O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.’ So, in a nutshell, two permanent additions to the English language in one throwaway line.
With some trepidation, I showed my first draft to Neil, Phil and Stefan – who were supportive and gave helpful advice. The whole ‘Broadway play’ sequence, which would have been difficult to do on film, was not in the outline and so was new to them; Neil made a key suggestion about the use of Martin Landau as a face for the monster, riffing on the way he would peel off masks each week in Mission: Imposssible. Phil and Lisa both made me go back over Anne’s character and work a bit harder on making her distinctive … which eventually led to her reappearing in my novel The Quorum, which grew out of this period in my life and the milieu the P&LCo were hanging about in.
Having done it once, I was sort of impelled to give it another go – turning the nugget of Hell Fire into ‘Mother Hen’, which Steve Jones published in Fantasy Tales. Then, at a point when I was blocked on other things, it occurred to me that it wouldn’t hurt to have another novel-length manuscript to show around. I set out to write Bloody Students inside a week, the way Roger Corman made The Little Shop of Horrors when he had a spare three days’ shooting. The downside was that I didn’t have a copy of the full outline, so I had to reconstruct it from memory and a few notes. I diverged greatly from the more controlled movie we had envisioned. My feeling was that doing a book this fast would mean tapping into the energy and verve of B Corman’s pictures. I was also hoping to write something in the wild spirit of Harry Adam Knight. If it didn’t sell, I’d only lost a week. As it happens, it sold twice – Malcolm Edwards at HarperCollins bought it, on a recommendation from Mike Dickinson, but the bottom dropped out of the pulp paperback horror market and they returned the book to me, though a nice, lurid cover had already been created. Eventually, after my early novels had found a place at Simon & Schuster, Martin Fletcher – my editor on Anno Dracula, The Quorum and Life’s Lottery – bought Bloody Students, though he asked for a new title. I chose Orgy of the Blood Parasites, working title for David Cronenberg’s 1974 breakthrough film Shivers. Having moved from IBM typewriter to AMSTRAD word processor, I put the book through a second draft, adding several more days to the schedule (and increasing the body count) but not really tidying it up much. By then, I had started a parallel career writing as Jack Yeovil for Games Workshop, in the Warhammer Fantasy and Dark Future series, and it made sense to issue Orgy as a Jack Yeovil joint.
I’m happy these two books are available again, especially in this double bill edition. Technically, they were first published in the 1990s … but they were (mostly) written in the ’80s, before we got even slightly respectable. Reading them, I’m reminded of marathon video-watching, funny articles for porn mags, lively meals in cheap restaurants, the heights and lows of 1980s cinema, barbeques at Steve and Jo’s in Wembley, Sussex University in the 1970s and North London in the 1980s, long-gone magazines that didn’t die well, random introductions in pubs that changed the courses of lives, regular cinemas showing double bills like My Bloody Valentine and The Funhouse, gone-too-soon talents like Phil and Rob Holdstock and John Brosnan, the March for Jobs and Miners’ Strike fund-raisers, Neil and Clive with their original accents, sleeping on floors between sessions at the typewriter, watching reruns of Bilko and The Avengers when inspiration flagged, struggling with these computer things that would never catch on, writing a musical (the last great Sheep Worrying production) in two afternoons (break-out hit: ‘I’m Too Fat to Rock’), meetings with ripoff merchants, video nasties (frankly, that’s what these books would have been if filmed in 1986 – and proud of it), FantasyCons in Birmingham and Shock Around the Clock in King’s Cross, Margaret Thatcher going on and on and on, Captain Sensible singing ‘Happy Talk’, Betty Blue and Blue Velvet, and the thing that was said in the place where we went that time.
Kim Newman, thirty years later …