There are reports of new, never-before seen creatures in the South of England. At first, people think little of them, dismissing them as fictional or no more dangerous than ferrets. But the creatures grow, and multiply, and spread, their lust for human flesh increasing every day. As the death toll rises, humanity is forced to confront a new and horrifying idea: we are no longer top of the food chain.
The above description applies equally well to three different books, all by John Halkin, and all having a single-word title beginning with “S”. In Squelch, the menace is large, carnivorous caterpillars and poison-spitting moths. In Slither, hypnotic worms (the reptile-kind, limbless lizards) hunt humans in the sewers. And in Slime, evil hordes of jellyfish are the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.
It’s important that you know that these books do not take place in a shared universe. This is not the same people facing a new threat each year. Instead, these three books are entirely distinct, each one a self-contained narrative. The characters of Squelch would find the very idea of murderous worms ridiculous. John Halkin wrote ten books, and three of them were basically the same thing, just with different monsters.
This review is a review of all three books, but I’m mostly going to talk about them as though they were all one book, because the similarities are very clear. Squelch and Slither, for example, have interchangeable and equally-applicable taglines: “you’ll never feel safe in your bath again…” (Slither) and “turn on the tap… and die of terror!” (Slime).
Each book focuses upon a single main character, who works in media but is disillusioned with their working life – they wanted to be in a more meaningful role, not their current backwater. Their relationship isn’t doing so well either; they’ve grown distant from their partner, and will find it hard to resist the flirtatious side character they’ll meet in a chapter or so. Not only is this main character one of the first to encounter the monster, they spend most of the book being a lone Jeremiah whose warnings go unheeded until it is almost too late.
These books are archetypal 1980s pulp horror. There’s a steadily-growing threat and a lone voice that’s ignored until its almost too late. People who break even the mildest narrative or social rule – pensioners who drink too much, sexually-active teens, nagging or unfaithful spouses – are doomed to bloody and violent death. Sex is frequent and either a celebration of life or an immediate prelude to violence, depending on whether the main character is involved or not. Only the unflinching courage of the protagonist and a radical, outside-the-box solution can save the day in the end.
The books are relatively explicit (more so for violence than sex) but it’s not especially harrowing; I am easily horrified and shaken, but I can read these books without having to keep all the lights on for the next few nights. I never get the impression that Halkin is taking enjoyment in the violence, which is something I don’t like in monster books – the author and the reader should be in agreement that people being eaten by monsters is bad. It’s definitely graphic, it’s definitely upsetting, but it is no more gratuitous than the genre demands.
The prose is matter-of-fact, striving for realism throughout. Detail increases when the action heats up, but its still workmanlike writing, fading into the background so you focus on the events. Despite this, Halkin does have a tendency towards accidental foreshadowing, giving ponderous weight to a detail that turns out to be completely irrelevant later on. A minor detail will be highlighted as a portentous chapter end, for example, and then turn out to have no weight in the rest of the story, merely adding colour to the narrative.
Archetypal horror doesn’t mean flat characters – every character here has a complex background and motivations. Halkin’s real strength is the human side, the quick sketches of a bartender or an officious constable (both of whom are unlikely to survive more than a couple of chapters). I didn’t become especially attached to any characters, but several of them had my sympathies as they got eaten; they’re more than one-line descriptions and that helps add weight to the narrative.
Though the characters are established as distinct from each other in all sorts of ways, the one thing that almost every character has in common with almost every other one is infidelity. The three main characters all engage in affairs, and there’s a generally relaxed attitude towards the bonds of matrimony. I’m not objecting to this per se, but I do think Halkin could have made at least one protagonist faithful, if only to make that book seem a little more distinct.
One thing worth mentioning is that the covers are all somewhat misleading. They don’t represent events which actually occur in the books, and they don’t portray the monster accurately. The jellyfish in Slime don’t have human faces with demonic eyes, and the worms in Slither are limbless and up to a yard long, not pint-sized crocodiles. I really like the covers and their ludicrous 1980s aesthetic, but they aren’t actually accurate.
I enjoyed these books, but that’s at least as much a character trait as it is a reflection on their quality. The three of them are absolutely standard, by-the-numbers pulp monster horror, and if that’s your thing, then these books will satisfy that highly-specific itch. They’ll be less appealing to other people, but they’re still solid and competent works, despite the very-visible formula.
You can get a copy of Slither here. You will get almost the exact same experience as if you had read one of the others.