There comes a point in every slasher fan’s life when they arrive at the horrible realisation that they’ve seen every decent slasher movie from the genre’s eighties heyday. Sure, newer slashers may promise a retro style but they, like Hatchet and Monster Man, usually turn out to be a mixed bag at best, with far too many nods to the trends of the present.
Faced with this situation, many of us stray further and further into the slasher wilderness, striving for years to find that “lost classic” that probably doesn’t exist, before finally losing ourselves in a graveyard of bad low-budget filmmaking and deeply dubious dress sense. But one man settled on a more ambitious solution: he wrote one. And, as if to ensure that no one could re-script, re-edit and, ten years later, no doubt re-imagine his vision, he turned his back on Hollywood and published it as a novel.
Now, don’t get me wrong: Vince A. Liaguno’s The Literary Six isn’t actually set in the 1980s – at least, not beyond its prank-gone-wrong prologue – but it’s the closest thing to an authentic “lost 80s slasher” you’re ever likely to come across. You know that exciting, fuzzy feeling you got when you switched on this year’s new, uncut version of the original My Bloody Valentine and it seemed like you were watching an entirely new movie? Well, open the pages of The Literary Six and the feeling will wash over you again… slowly at first, like the dusting of snow that welcomes the book’s characters to its remote setting of Shelter Rock Island, and then more forcefully, like the raging blizzard that cuts them off from the mainland.
Unlike its celluloid counterpart, the slasher novel has never really taken off beyond a handful of the more streamlined Richard Laymon stories, a raft of teen-oriented Point Horror titles, and the occasional one-off like Stephen Crye’s Joyride. What passes 85 minutes’ worth of popcorn-munching pleasantly enough doesn’t always translate to the page, where complexities like character description and psychological insight come naturally to the fore and, depending on your reading speed, a story may have to sustain your imagination over the course of several weeks.
In contrast, it’s crucial to the quick-fix nature of the slasher movie that we don’t get too close to its characters – bearing in mind that the majority of them are unlikely to survive until morning. For this reason, we frequently encounter instantly recognizable (and just as instantly disposable) stock types – the virgin, the slut, the jock, the joker and so on. In written fiction, this poses a problem: why spend hours investing in a bunch of people just to see them cynically picked off in random fashion? The author must create a cast that’s interesting enough to engage us, yet not so fascinatingly lovable that, when the blood does begin to spill, the experience descends into a depressing, nihilistic nightmare.
Enter the Literary Six themselves, a diverse sextet of former college buddies united by a tradition of yearly get-togethers – not to mention a dark secret from their collective past involving the fate of a much-despised university lecturer. The group that graduated as a bitchy campus clique has grown up into a successful, if slightly jaded, group of fortysomethings, whose annual reunions spark a flurry of repressed passions and bed-hopping antics that would make John Updike blush. You’ll find at least one character to love – and, quite possibly, one or two you’ll love to hate – but author Liaguno skilfully fleshes each of them out to the extent that you’ll understand the mixed motives of every last one.
Which is all well and good, because the first half of The Literary Six requires concentration to keep up with its tangle of affairs. As in many a slasher movie, the slashing doesn’t actually start until the book’s equivalent of the “45-minute mark”. But, whereas a film might pad out its opening with pranks and locker-room nudity, Liaguno’s novel uses this time to really get inside the heads of the Six’s members. That’s not to say there isn’t a nice “pre-credits” murder, along with a growing sense of impending doom, but it’s clear from the outset that The Literary Six demands more attention than your average slasher.
But how the investment pays off. When the power goes out and the gang’s latest gathering is plunged into darkness, the scene is set for the ultimate slasher showdown, as an unknown killer begins pruning down the party in a variety of brutal ways. Here, Liaguno really shows off his knowledge of – and great affection for – the genre, playing slasher movie clichés off against more unexpected elements as the action hurtles along.
The backdrop of Shelter Rock Island, with its abandoned mansion-house hotel, is straight out of April Fool’s Day, but the snowbound woods and network of wooden walkways that surround it provide a spectacular setting for hackle-raising thrills above and beyond the jokey tone of that particular film. Meanwhile, the references to other slashers come thick and fast, with Liaguno even managing an ingenious homage to My Bloody Valentine when our bemasked murderer reaches for a pickaxe and… well, you’ll just have to find out for yourself.
The Literary Six is a literary treat for fans of good old-fashioned slashers and proves that you don’t have to rely on a battered ex-rental tape and a miracle of VCR tracking to get that authentic fix. When it comes to gripping and intelligent slashers, it seems the pen is mightier than the machete.