When you’re in the habit of intentionally judging books by their covers, it can be a little hard to find something of questionable content that’ll still be entertaining. Sometimes you find yourself looking at the same endless parade of pedestrian covers and nothing really jumps out and yells “READ ME!”
This was not one of those times.
This Garth Marenghi-esque novel as good as leapt (or slithered) into my hands, and not because it’s particularly crap looking- it isn’t really, it’s just a little simple. You’ve got the uncomfortably fetishised human mouth, a slug causing some rather gross wounding, and the title that lets you know upfront exactly what the book is all about.
At 208 pages you might think Shaun Hutson’s Slugs is a succinct and well paced tale bereft of padding.You’d be wrong. The problem with this kind of horror fiction is that it has only two objectives, to set up the killer monster and to destroy it. Narratives either fit those monsters in alongside a normal, everyday story of love or deceit or whatever, or stuff the pages with irrelevant filler material just to kept the page count high and let the monster be a threat for more than a few pages.
Slugs definitely takes the second approach, treating the reader to a constant procession of unrelated and unlikeable characters who either meet a sticky end at the hands (or proboscises) of the slugs, or blindly never realise how close they came to a squelchy and bloody death.
Unfortunately, when 90% of your chapters follow the same format, they’re also going to throw up the same issue and problems. In the case of Slugs, that’s the constant and flagrant abuse of “Show, Don’t Tell”
convenient source: Carey English
I’m not going to quote every single instance of straight up telling of character traits and appearances, because it happens every single fucking time somebody is introduced. Even when a female character is standing naked in front of a mirror (more on that in a moment) the reader is told what she looks like through the narrative voice, rather than shown what she looks like through her own gaze.
It’s often the case in Slugs that all the pieces are there, they just sit unused.
The book tells the reader over and over that Brady is a health inspector, but then extensively shows him inspecting health, making the previously forty or fifty tellings completely unnecessary waffle. (Incidentally both he and his wife are referred to by their surname, because that doesn’t confuse things at all, nope!)
We’re told at one point that the sky simply “is” glorious, and that Brady “likes” looking at it, when we could have just as easily been shown both these things through him “looking at a sky that he felt was glorious”. Readers don’t need their hands held, they can draw the dots- if someone finds something “glorious” chances are they’re going to “like” it.
Sometimes the novel gets lost in these little tells, and showers the reader with floating information that has no relevance on the story or the events of the chapter.
“Kim in particular went through a seemingly endless period of depression during which Brady began to fear for her sanity but she got through it in the end and their experience seemed to strengthen their marriage, intensifying their love beyond imagination.”
Wow! Thank fuck that was all written out like that. Saving time and skipping relevance is a much more effective strategy than gradually letting the the whole story unfold through memories, conversations and other narrative clues, or finding it out through the subtext of how Kim Brady and Brady Brady behave together.
This constant desire of the book to tell everything extends to gross abuse of omnipotent narration, particularly with regards to the motion of the slugs themselves. The slugs are often described performing such motivated tasks as “burrowing into his ear, seeking the juicy grey meat of the brain” as if the victim of such an attack would comprehend the specific feeding intentions of such a creature.
A mass of unobserved slugs are a cause for concern because “there seemed to be so many of them now”, but you can’t have seeming without someone there to do the seeming. Without a subjective observer, even an imagined one, all the narration can give you is facts or silence, never opinion.
Also, if “Bob blacked out” I’m never going to bond with him as a character if the book tells me everything that Bob forgets after he wakes up.
Bob’s actually lucky that he blacks out. Even the gravedigger, rebellious teen and town drunk (because town drunks are a thing!) are lucky, despite ultimately being eaten alive. No, the real unlucky and suffering characters of Slugs are the women. All of them.
Slugs makes no bones about positing women in supposedly traditional roles. They cook dinner, they look after children, they take showers, enjoy a good natter and are hysterically passionate about housework. They also get beaten by drunk husbands, miscarry in car crashes, turn barren, get cheated on, get used to cheat on others, constantly obsesses about their own nipples and whether or not they’re wearing a bra, start the day masturbating naked in front of a full length mirror, and do get eaten alive, but genitalia first.
Remember all this is in just 208 pages, which also have to talk about killer slugs at some point.
“She slid further into her denims, allowing the seam to cut into her damp cleft […] noting how her thin shirt made her hardened nipples even more prominent”
Seriously, why is she doing this? Because it’s central to the plot? Because it has something to do with killer slugs? No! It’s because her husband left her to raise a “slightly retarded” child all by herself, and since she’s unable to exist without a man, she’s getting all hot thinking about her neighbour, “a nice bloke…pity he was married.”
I appreciate that this book was written for a male dominated genre, 31 years of socio-cultural advancement ago, but it’s as if it screams in terror at women as an unfamiliar race… “Women! They suffer! They’re mistreated! They have nipples! That’s all we know!”
When I picked up this book I was looking forward to what the cover boasted, some trashy “mind-shattering horror” punctuated by gore and tension. I suppose that was there, but given all the sexism and poor style choices that surrounded it, it wound up taking a back seat.
However, the mistakes and tropes were so persistent and absurd that reading them became almost like an act of friendly familiarity. It wasn’t so much horror and suspense that kept me reading, but the bizarre desire to see just what ludicrous backstory, female-abuse or appalling conventions the book would throw out next.
Every chapter save a few were pretty much the same. Somebody is introduced, their specific and always depressing socioeconomic backstory is explained without any regard for context, and then they’re brutally killed.
What do you do when you’ve got some great ideas for characters but no idea what to do with them? You feed them to giant mutant killer slugs in quick succession, of course!
This book however does win my unofficial award for best/worst simile ever. “Burst forth like diarhoettic excretion.” Lovely.