The Art of H.A.K.
What do horror novels such as Slimer, Tendrils, The Fungus and Worm all have in common? Sure, they’d all paperbacks with garish covers, but that’s not what I mean. And you’re completely wrong if you have jumped to the "schlock horror" or "pot-boiler" conclusion. No, forget that they were all published in the UK, because I’m looking for the Australian link...?
Want a few more titles? What about Carnosaur, Torched and Bedlam?
Does it help if I mention the authors Harry Adam Knight, Simon Ian Childer and James Blackstone? Not really? Okay, what if I admit that these are all pseudonyms?
Believe it or not every single one of these books is written, or at least partially written, by expatriate Australian and now UK resident John Brosnan. Under his own name Brosnan is possibly best known to horror ferns for his regular book reviews in the UK horror magazine The Dark Side. But as "Harry Adam Knight" and "Simon Ian Childer" he writes highly entertaining horror thrillers in collaboration with LeRoy Kettle and as "James Blackstone" with fellow Australian writer John Baxter.
John Brosnan was born in Perth in 1947, but has lived in London since 1971. He was an active member of the 1970s London based SF fan group "Ratfandom", many of whose ex-members are now professionally active in SF related writing, editing and publishing.
Brosnan first came to public attention for his writing on science fiction, fantasy and horror films, including film columns for Science Fiction Monthly (the UK magazine 1974 – 1976) and Starburst (a monthly UK magazine covering SF/F/H genres in film and television). He is now a widely respected film critic and has subsequently written a number of books on the cinema.
He has also written science fiction novels under his own name, but I suspect that readers of this column may prefer his pseudonymous horror novels. I know I do. They are deceptively easy to read, exciting as well as horrific, not to mention that they are also a lot of fun.
They have been described as "tongue-in-cheek" by some critics. One only need look at the pen name acronyms of HAK (Harry Adam Knight) and SIC (Simon Ian Childer) to get an indication Brosnan’s approach. These names were not selected by accident. Humour lurks just around the corner in most of these books.
The Clute and Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes Brosnan’s horror books as the "written equivalents of exploitation movies [which] are slightly self-mocking but quite exciting as SF horror", and this seems to be a tidy summation. The horrors themselves all tend to be based on science-gone-wrong, particularly in the fields of microbiology and genetics. I guess this reveals Brosnan’s interest in science fiction and his ideas typically work well as a method of justifying the monstrosities before the mayhem starts.
As "Harry Adam Knight" Brosnan and Kettle wrote Slimer (UK, Star paperback, 1983), the first of these horror novels, for the London based W.H. Allen. As you might expect. this is the weakest of these books, but still, however, shows many of the traits and promise evident in their subsequent work.
The story begins when a young crew of drug smugglers manage to find their way to an oil platform after their yacht is wrecked. At first the platform seems to be deserted, but as they begin to realise it is some sort of scientific research facility strange things begin to happen. People mysteriously appear and disappear.... And they realise something is stalking them.
As with all Brosnan’s work the story is engaging and easy to read. In this book the characters are probably a bit more wooden than some of his later work, but identifiable all the same. Sex, in one form or another, plays a part in much of his work, here in the form of a ruthless and sadistic American jerk. And humour, of course, underlies much of the grotesque.
After Slimer came Carnosaur (UK, Star, 1984). also published as by "Harry Adam Knight" but this time written by Brosnan alone. Carnosaur is the story of dinosaurs brought to life by genetic engineering and pre-dates Jurassic Park by some years.
While Carnosaur has a similar story line and shares many of the strengths of its more famous rival, in this case the dinosaurs are secretly brought to life in one of those Longleat-like stately-homes-turned-game-park in rural England. It is a gripping horror-thriller, the investigation being led by a reporter from the local regional newspaper. Again the plot is splashed with sex and humour.
Next came The Fungus (UK, Star, 1985) published in the USA as Death Spore, as by "Harry Adam Knight" again but this time another Brosnan and Kettle collaboration. This is probably my favourite of the "Knight" books. In this story a plague sweeps England as a result of a scientist’s research to end world hunger. Despite the best intentions, the result is catastrophic disaster as an infinite variety of fungi and moulds do their best to transform the face of Britain.
There is a scene where the scientist who accidentally causes the disaster is thinking about her husband who has given up science, and her, in favour of writing fiction. She thinks, "What a waste! Imagine spending your time producing childish fantasies for emotionally retarded adults when you could be doing something useful with your life."
This is typical of the playful digs and snipes Brosnan takes at friends and foes alike. Black humour underlies all the ghastliness here and the story has the reader turning pages one after the other.
For some reason Brosnan and Kettle changed publisher and wrote as "Simon Ian Childer" for their next two novels. I suspect this may be due to some sort of contractual or copyright reason. The first of these books is Tendrils (UK, Grafton, 1986). Unfortunately this is now out of print and second hand copies seem scarce. Indeed, I have been unable to locate a copy so I can’t tell you much about this book.
The second "Childer" book is Worms (UK Grafton, 1986) and this is the second of these novels by Brosnan alone. Here, as in previous books. Brosnan passes the occasional humorous nod towards Australia. Like when the protagonist, a drunken ex-cop turned private investigator by the name of Edward Causey, is in desperate need of a firearm he turns to a shady character named George Turner. Then there’s a scene with three sewer workers down in the sewers under London. One of them is a young Australian, obviously set up for a grisly end. At one point they argue because the young Aussie annoys the Poms by continually singing Waltzing Matilda until one of his English work-mates says:
"What I don’t understand, is that if Australia is such a great place how come there are so many of you bloody Australians over here?"
"Revenge," says the Aussie character.
All Brosnan’s horror books warn of the dangers of meddling with science, either by well intentioned accident or by malicious design. Worms falls into the latter category. In this book evil scientists are experimenting on unwitting patients with genetically altered tape-worms, thread-worms and the like with which to destroy the British. It’s ghastly horrific fun.
In the same year Worms was published Brosnan also published Torched (1986), this time with fellow Australian John Baxter both writing as "James Blackstone". All I can tell you about this book is that it is a horror novel about spontaneous combustion. It appears to have had very limited distribution in Australia, if at all. But on the strength of Brosnan’s and Baxter’s previous work I’m keen to find it.
After 1986 Brosnan's horror fiction seems to have taken a back seat to some of his other writing for a while, and it was not until 1992 that he and Kettle returned to the "Harry Adam Knight" pseudonym. This time with Bedlam (Gollancz, 1992).
Bedlam divas described by The Times Saturday Review as "Splendidly splatterful", and not only contains more graphic splatter and violence than any of their previous work, but it also displays more complex and imaginative plotting. It is, perhaps, less clinically scientific, but more cosmic in its plotting. Amid the terrifying action, the reader finds the very nature of reality is challenged. Some readers have even likened it to the work of Philip K Dick, but I think this is stretching the point.
Thankfully, Brosnan and Kettle seem still to have their tongues in their cheeks. Despite the mayhem and terror of this book, their typical touch of humour is still evident. Take the following passage amid a brief lull in the mayhem for example: "The television set suddenly came to life. They all turned towards it as the Neighbours theme tune filled the room. For a brief moment Hamilton allowed himself the wild hope that the world had returned to normal but he quickly realised that it could never be this easy. And things had to be pretty low if Neighbours constituted normality."
Or if something like that doesn't amuse you, perhaps this scene will: "An unpleasant, wet sound of several things landing on the floor made him pause and look back. Josies's dismembered body lay scattered in front of the elevator. There was blood everywhere. Her decapitated head lay on its side, the eyes open and staring at him. Her lips moved. "By the way, yesterday afternoon was fucking fantastic. Maybe we can do it again some time soon."
Brosnan, as I mentioned earlier, is also a highly respected film expert and critic and has written numerous books about the cinema. Most are science fiction related. but The Horror People (Macdonald and Janes, 1976) is also of particular interest to horror fans. Here Brosnan examines the horror film, both past and present, by concentrating on some of the top people in various fields – producers, directors, actors and writers. His other cinema books are: James Bond in the Cinema (1972), Movie Magic: The Story of Special Effects in the Cinema (1974) and Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction (St. Martins, 1978). The Primal Screen: A History of Science Fiction Film (1991). This most recent film book was described in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (for which Brosnan wrote most of the film entries in the first edition, by the way) as "a light hearted update and rewrite of Future Tense".
His other fiction includes the science fiction novels: Skyship (UK, Hamlyn, 1981), The Midas Deep (UK, Hamlyn, 1983), both described as adventure novels. The Sky Lords (UK, Gollancz, 1988), The War of the Skylords (UK, Gollancz, 1989), The Fall of the Skylords (UK, Gollancz, 1991). Described in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as "Fast-moving adventure in a post holocaust society". And most recently The Opoponax Invasion, a new SF novel from Gollancz.
Given Brosnan’s interest in the cinema, it seems only fitting that some of his horror work has now been, or is about to be, filmed. Far less worthy books have been turned into movies.
Carnosaur was filmed in 1993 by Roger Corman, the well known producer/director who gave us (among numerous other films) those low budget 50s and 60s horror classics such as Swamp Woman and all those flicks based on the stories of Edgar Allan Poe. More recently he directed Brian Aldiss’ Frankenstein Unbound (which starred Michael Hutchins from INXS). Despite the unjustified taunts of "Jurassic Park rip-off" (after all, which story pre-dates the other), early reports of Carnosaur indicate the film is worthy of attention.
Beyond Bedlam, based on the "Harry Adam Knight" book Bedlam will be the next of Brosnan’s work to reach the big screen. It comes from producer/directors Vadim Jean and Paul Brooks and stars Craig Fairbrass and Elizabeth Hurley with Keith Allen as the "Bone Man". As I mentioned earlier, I think Bedlam is the most accomplished novel to date by Brosnan and Kettle and it should translate well to the visual media. Some of the pre-release stills seem to indicate it will.
The producers obviously think so, because they have already optioned Slimer, Brosnan’s and Kettle’s first collaboration.
If these films are successful at the box-office, Brosnan's horror novels will probably receive the attention they deserve. With any luck. they'll be republished to coincide with the movie releases. But why wait‘? Hunt them out now – scour the second-hand bookstores and libraries – and avoid the rush. Brosnan is well worth the effort.