In Which We Look Back At Books We Loved But No Longer Have
Manhole diver: Pat Black
According to the author’s note, “Michael Slade” is a pseudonym for several Canadian lawyers, specialising in cases of criminal insanity.
In an effort to escape their difficult and sometimes horrifying professional lives, they constructed a series of gentle, bucolic novels about Hazey Galoshes, a farmer working in the flat English countryside, ploughing fields and loading carts with the help of his faithful donkey, Nubbins.
No, wait. That was just a dream I had.
Slade wrote horrific novels about thrill killers and the police’s efforts to catch them. When I was a teenager I read four of these books. Without re-reading them (but cheating a little with fact-checking on the net), here are my recollections.
Jesus, that cover.
Horror boom artwork rarely erred on the side of subtlety. In tandem with the garish thrills on offer from VHS rental boxes during this era, many of them etched their promises in blood, and lots of it. But even in a crowded field, you’d be hard-pressed to find artwork quite as disturbing as the image which illustrated the front of Slade’s debut, Headhunter.
This is one book where you can make a secure judgement based on its cover.
It’s a painting of a woman’s severed head on a stick. That’s nasty enough, but there’s something about the expression on the face, the large eyes and the bluish pallor of the skin… It’s just awful.
When we think back to when we were teenagers and the lack of sensitivity many of us had in those awkward years (perhaps I speak only for myself), it can be embarrassing, sometimes horrifying. But I can’t believe I walked out of a second hand bookshop with this paperback in my hands, and read it on a bus. Blame my dwindling thirties, or recent fatherhood, for this re-evaluation. But you can’t deny that the front cover is an absolute shocker. Apparently it sparked controversy after it featured on posters in the London Underground.
However, nasty as it is, it would be a mistake to categorise Headhunter as exploitative schlock.
Like all of Slade’s novels, Headhunter is mainly set in Canada, and features the Royal Candian Mounted Police, of red serge and strange 1980s TV series fame. Headhunter sees a maniac decapitating women in Vancouver, and taunting police with photographs of the missing heads. It’s up to retired Special X department detective Robert DeClerq to catch the killer.
Perhaps in homage to the giallo thrillers it takes for inspiration, Headhunter is part gruesome horror story, part sober police procedural. The seventies and eighties saw police using more sophisticated databases as a means of collating data to help catch criminals – such as the HOLMES system in London and the FBI’s Vicap. These form a key part of the investigations of DeClerq and his colleagues. Here, we can see the sprouting seeds of psychological profiling, mathematical analysis and computer models being used to work out patterns of offending – the place where raw science interfaces with jagged psyches. I bet you the computers and databases seem prehistoric, reading about them in this decade. Even so, gold star for homework.
The horror element speaks for itself, and no slice is left to the imagination. But there’s a stranger section of the tale, taking in some hallucinogenic experiences a character called Sparky has in the Ecuadorian jungle. Then there’s some childhood traumas set in a New Orleans S&M dungeon, which may be the killer’s reminiscences… although you’re never quite sure until the end, when the disparate strands of the story come together.
There are pungent ingredients in the mix; psychosis, trauma, perverse sexuality, voodoo and of course, some truly disturbing murders. It all leads to a final pursuit in a snowbound setting.
Deliciously, Headhunter does not reveal its killer’s identity until the very last line. I remember being utterly wrong-footed, and having no idea who the culprit was out of its cast of suspects. Whether I’d be so easily duped nowadays is difficult to say, but I recall thinking that Slade had put together a clever package in spite of the gruesome subject matter. If you’ll forgive the expression, the author uses the head – it’s a more cerebral book than you’d think.
The RCMP’s finest were back in the sequel, Ghoul (1987). During study leave for my school exams in 1993, I lay in bed one night and read the whole thing. I finally put the paperback down at about 4am, wondering what the hell I had just read.
It would be difficult to describe Ghoul to anyone nowadays without causing laughter. Headhunter, as I said, wasn’t quite as schlocky as it appeared, but Ghoul is unashamedly so. I couldn’t see it being given such a prominent release today in high street bookshops, front and centre alongside Barbara Taylor Bradford, Wilbur Smith, Judith Krantz and Jackie Collins, as it was in the 1990s. Like a particularly debauched night out, after this book is over you’ll doubt your own recollections. Ghoul is barking mad, but it is brilliant.
Originally released in the same year Axl Rose’s pterodactyl screech was unleashed on the world in Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction, Ghoul was inspired by the Gothic-tinged world of 1980s heavy metal. There are references to Alice Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, HP Lovecraft and premature burial. It has some astounding kill scenes, fiendish contraptions and booby traps, including a particularly sadistic home-made guillotine. Set in Canada and London, Ghoul has a complex story considering its subject matter, following a series of murders seemingly linked to the rock band Ghoul and its horror-themed stage stylings. It is cartoonish in places, but undeniably entertaining.
Our hero this time is another Mountie, Zinc Chandler – as the name suggests, more of an action man than the cerebral DeClerq - following a deep-pile red carpet of bodies. Ghoul is bonkers, seems to have been highly regarded among the horror cognoscenti and, yes, when I was 16 I loved it to pieces. It has featured in some all-time lists of dark fiction over the years, no mean achievement, although I suspect modern audiences might find its scenes of rock n’ roll theatre ludicrous compared to today’s airbrushed, streamlined pop idols. Think Anne Rice’s hilarious attempt to depict a rock concert in The Vampire Lestat.
When you discover Slade worships Alice Cooper, it begins to make more sense. Indeed, Mr Furnier decorates the inside cover with a recommendation, alongside none other than The Bruce Dickinson of Iron Maiden. Slade must have been cackling when he realised his rock n’ roll idols had gotten on board that crazy train.
Out of all of Slade’s output, Ghoul is the one I’d most want to revisit.
Chandler returns in Slade’s next novel, Cutthroat (1992), as does Headhunter’s crusading detective, Robert DeClerq.
The clanging sound you hear as you open this book is the kitchen sink falling out. This one has a lot going on. The set-up is almost too complicated – but then, as Slade knows from experience, what goes on in any maniac’s mind is bound to have obscure, complex, bizarre roots.
Cutthroat mimics the first novel’s dedication to historical detail, taking in the massacre at Little Big Horn and the search for a fugitive Native American by Blake, the mad Scottish Mountie whose bloodline has such nasty consequences in Headhunter. We have the hunt for one of the Big Two of cryptozoology, the Sasquatch/Yeti (alongside Nessie of course). We also have a nice cutlet of cannibalism linked to the activities of a sinister Chinese pharmaceuticals firm controlled by a modern-day warlord. The killer in the title is suffering from a degenerative brain disorder and needs a mystical “yeti” skull – the missing link between man and ape - to improve his condition, a lunatic prescription of Chinese alternative medicine.
I’m shattered, writing that. Need a rest. A cuppa tea and a sit down. There’s enough material for half a dozen books in there.
Along the way, of course, slicing and dicing ensues.
One other thing: the ending to Cutthroat was a shocker on a par with the final revelation in Headhunter. “Wait! What? No! That can’t be right!”
My final encounter with Slade was Ripper (1994), his attempt at an Agatha Christie-style isolated house/locked room mystery. It has lots of inventive kills by a pair of occult-obsessed psychopaths. As you’ve probably guessed, it takes for its historical inspiration Jack the Ripper’s handiwork, and the contrived “occult” significance which fantasists, hacks and chancers keep trying to attach to those sordid killings.
Ripper felt lightweight compared to the three previous novels, but was still a lot of fun. It sees Zinc Chandler (having survived something he probably shouldn’t have in Cutthroat) and DeClerq joining forces to chase the two crazed, but educated killers. The world of horror novels and the distaste they elicit among critics was a key part of the book. It amuses me to think of some reviewers shuffling uneasily in their easy chairs as they read about the fake novel Jolly Rodger, which contains clues to the killers’ identities. I’m sure one or two critics suffer appalling deaths. Talk about making a statement!
This one was a true giallo/slasher with typically inventive kills as the cops and supporting cast - which might include the two killers - are trapped in an isolated, booby-trapped mansion straight out of Agatha Christie.
That was my lot. I never returned to Slade.
I notice some of his paperbacks are going for silly amounts of money online. I think I might dig these out of the garage and see if I get some bites… although I may have a wee flick through them first.
In the course of my research I used Slade’s excellent website... I should warn you, though, it features some graphic images of historical crimes). In the “morgue” section he describes in fascinating detail exactly what inspired his novels – with particular reference to his childhood and career in the law, and the sometimes gruesome cases he dealt with.
We all know that police and ambulance workers have Seen Some Stuff, but we forget that people in legal circles also have to deal with visits to crime scenes and police photographer “hamburger shots”. Slade reveals that he writes out his anxiety and fears related to this gruesome stuff. Although his books may be grim, he “sleeps like a baby” and never has nightmares.
So he says, anyway.
Having gone through all this I’m still not sure who or what Michael Slade is, or if these biographical details refer to one person or several – or no-one at all. I’ve even heard that Slade is a father-and-daughter team. He, she or it remains unsettlingly vague.
They could be anyone, anywhere…
:: Next up, we wash our hands of that nasty gloopy horror stuff, grow our hair long, put on a hot pink bandanna, pull on some green tights and sing strange songs of heroes, monsters, magic and girdles… Equally, we could just take a look at Terry Brooks’ Shannara series instead.