Back in the late eighties, as a tweenie , I started reading my first adult novels. No, get your mind out of the gutter I don’t been that type of ‘adult’. I mean horror fiction, such as Stephen King, Shaun Hutson, James Herbert and so on. While doing my weekly Saturday afternoon browse in Dillons bookshop in central Newcastle I picked up this book, Mania, and bought it. I never got round to reading it and it had always bugged me a little. Thirty years later, I thought I’d give it a try.
Any man who has hung around a taxi rank at 3am after leaving a night club will notice the bizarre transformation that affects young women. Much like vampires stepping into sunlight, when a girl totters out of the club and faces the harsh glare of street lights, it’s like she turns into a monster. Gone is the sexy allure, replaced by a stumbling, drunken, mess.
Painted up harlots, really.
Well, I exaggerate. All I wish to draw your attention to is the concept of putting lipstick onto a pig. Good writing will zing along, your attention captured from the first page. Words flow naturally, images form in your mind, and you feel the mood the author wishes to create in you. Good prose is like the lean smooth lines of a jaguar leaping onto the neck of a stag. If your prose is mediocre, you may try to disguise that fact by piling additional literary weight upon it. Like this.
Is that too obtuse an analogy? OK, try reading this segment. The context is that three guests at a small hotel are attempting to escape the building before an over-heating boiler explodes:
The hallway was deserted when they reached the ground floor, an elongated tomb where their footsteps echoed, the walls a spectral white from the reflection of the snow through the skylight over the front door. A door that seemed to beckon them, taunt them; come on, death by fire within, death from the snowdrifts outside. Take your choice, either way you die.
The boiler was louder now, like some demon in the vaults immediately beneath their feet, a monster that pulsed with demoniac fury, trying to lift up the floor to get them; heaving and pushing, creating its own background symphony with a rattling of crocks and cutlery in the filthy kitchen behind them. [p.208]
That’s rather over-written, wouldn’t you say? I get that he’s trying to imply there’s a demonic presence in the house but….. c’mon….. tomb, spectral, death, demon, monster…. that’s laying it on rather thick. Imagine Guy N. Smith sitting at home with his wife watching TV.
Her: “Will you put the kettle on love? The adverts are on soon and I’d love a cuppa.”
Him: “Can’t you hear it? The deathly rattle of the demonic biscuits in the cupboard. The chocolate digestives leering, waiting to pounce like jackal hell-spawn.”
Her: “Darling, not this again. Turn the light on if you’re scared.”
Him: “A stench of evil emanates from the lair of devil biscuits, a pungent odour of naked concentrated evil spreading it’s black tendrils through the air in the hope of ensnaring a lost soul.
Her: “No, that’s the Asda Value bananas. They’ve gone off. I told you they needed to be eaten by yesterday. I’m going to have to make the cuppa myself, aren’t I?”
I suppose this is a different form of Dread Game. Let me just outline the plot for you, then you tell me if this seems like it can carry the weight of a 234-page horror novel.
There’s a wild snowstorm in Southern England causing the roads to be blocked. A mid-thirties divorced mother gets stranded with her teenage daughter but struggled through the blizzard to a small old hotel which was a former nursing home. Some after, a young man also arrives. They are the protagonists. There are six “patients” in the hotel, a retirement-age old couple running the hotel, and the man’s weirdo brother living in a basement apartment. The owners are mental. Not evil per se, but neglectful and mean. All six patients are mental. This is the “mania” of the title.
Everyone is shut in by the storm for two nights. As time passes it turns out that Satan appeared in bodily form nine months earlier and shagged the dimwit teenage girl patient, getting her pregnant. She is in labour now. The old couple think it’s their young daughter reincarnated (she died of meningitis decades ago) but the hyper-religious patient thinks it’s Christ’s second coming. Another patient is a busybody old maid.
Things go to shit. Satan in spirit form possesses the basement brother, he dies, then his hand comes off (possessed by Satan) and runs around the hotel. It possesses the newborn, turning it into a grotesque little demon, but the baby demon can’t survive. Satan goes back into the hand, then possesses the bible-basher, who falls several stories in a stairwell and breaks his neck. He then possesses the old man who tries to abduct and sacrifice the teenager traveller, then possesses the busybody who cuts the head off the other dimwit girl patient. Then the boiler overheats, explodes, and obliterates everything. The end.
I have several problems with this masterful plotting…….
1. Why did Satan pick a tiny out-of-the-way hotel staffed by nutters? What are the rules that determine taking bodily form (to bang the bird), possessing people, and being only the dismembered hand. It rather seems like Satan’s limits depend entirely upon author expedience.
2. Every single time something really scary or portending of incoming danger happens, the main guy (the “hero”) decides to NOT tell anyone else about it, so as not to worry them. Why?
3. The whole time they are there, the hero does literally ONE thing of use – drag the teenager girl away from the crazy old man who wants to sacrifice her. That’s it. The rest of the book he just mumbles “things will turn out okay”.
4. Multiple times, the hero wishes he had a weapon. At no time does he try to obtain one. The kitchen has knives, the shed has hammers, and there are chair legs and broomsticks that would suffice in a pinch. Instead, he just cowers in his room with the two women, hoping for the best. His strategy is “wait out the night and if the snow clears we’ll leave in the morning”.
5. While hiding out, there is no lock on the inside of the door and they don’t block it either. There is a lock on the outside, which they do no disable. There’s a dramatic scene where the possessed guy is trying to break in (but fails). So then he just slips the bolt and locks them in. They now immediately try to break out…. after having just tried their damnedest to stay in!
But I think ultimately what really had me shaking my head is the formidable nature of the threat they face. They are in terror of two frail old pensioners, one of whom who has a kitchen knife. That’s it. If I’d been in this book it would’ve lasted two pages:
Brenda Clements glared at Nick, her eyes flashing with the fire of hell, boring into his skull. What twisted demonic mania gripped this woman? Her eyes darted to the kitchen knife in the rack a few feet from her quivering fingers.
“You vile invader!” she screeched. “I’ll show you. Our daughter will be reborn!”
“Shut your fucking mouth, you crazy witch” said Nick in a firm, low tone. “Turn it in. Either go to bed, or put the telly on and watch Going For Gold. But if you try anything on I’m going to fucking spark you out, you old cow.”
Brenda lunged for the knife. It was a very slow lunge because she was seventy years old.
Nick punched her on the chin, knocking her unconscious. He felt a bit bad because she’s so old, but she was intending to stab him. Then he stayed up all night with a chair propped under the door handle. In the morning, he left. The end.
What I will say in this book’s favour is it does actually build the mania of the characters quite well. They are a strange bunch but each has a definable personality disorder and acts convincingly within the context of being in a dumb schlock-horror book. For example the evil old woman running the hotel is a textbook malignant narcissist and the brother in the basement is obviously suffering from severe Aspergers.
The most horrifying thing about the whole book is just how much it reminded me of being at my parent’s house in winter.
 NOT twinkie. A tweenie. They are NOT the same thing!