Ginger Nuts of Horror
Och, no, he thought before the end, not ma brain... not ma brain... anything but ma brain...please don't slice ma brain... no, no... not the brain...och, no...'
Garth Marenghi. Author. Dream weaver. Plus actor.
Some of you hereabouts may have heard me wax enthusiastic about the likes of Clive Barker and Poppy Z. Brite; how their work has shaped and informed my own, not to mention aspects of myself that I consider sacred.
None of them; not one, resonates quite as profoundly (or traumatically) as Garth Marenghi.
My experience of the man's work is fairly typical: a chance discovery at some little, second hand bookshop; the man's name catching my eye on a creased and cracked spine. The proprietor expressed surprise that there were any of his works left on the shelves (quote: “...I thought we'd gotten rid of all of those...”).
This was my first experience of Garth Marenghi; a cold, shuddering bus ride on a rain winter's day, though it was more than merely the chill making me shudder.
The first thing that struck me about Marenghi's writing is its starkness; there is a...simplicity of statement to it; no beating about the bush, no frills, allegories or metaphors: just pure statement, almost as a child might describe its experience. Then the moments of terror; babbling and lunatic, almost incoherent, echoing the reader's own state of mind. It's quite, quite brilliant, serving to confuse and bewilder as much as horrify. More than once over my course of devouring Marenghi's writings, I've had to put them down and go for a walk or just lie down for a while, the sensation they evoke almost akin to the throb of a migraine, which is a brilliant thing for any work of horror to do.
This first was Marenghi's 1980s best seller, Slicer, a fantastic descent into madness and violence in which the prose echoes the state of a truly broken mind. Riding that bus home, I could almost feel my own sanity slipping, as though I could easily snap and stab out the eyes of my fellow passengers with my house keys.
That is the brilliance of Marenghi's writing; it is writing of pure emotion, paying little heed to stylistic fads or the proscriptions of story structure, grammar, punctuation etc. It is not the kind of writing you would find at any award ceremonies, in creative writing workshops: this is writing as an art form rather than as a craft; he wants to make you shudder and recoil, to make you hiss and bare your teeth.
For those of you that are Marenghi virgins, then I'd advise preparing yourselves: the experience can be extremely traumatic, and may require a little self medication to ease you through.
For the rest, there's very little like him out there in any market. As Marenghi himself has much lamented, it is a commentary on the state of horror and literature in general that his work is not adorning the shelves of Waterstones next to the likes of Shaun Hutson or Dean Koontz, both of whom display clear influences from Marenghi's writing, but in notably dilute fashion; far more structured and standardised in a traditional way. That horror of all genres should opt for the safest bet; for literature that people will buy and read, is a sad and sorry state of affairs.
Marenghi's own publisher, Dean Learner, has waxed philosophical on the situation: “...I've had letters from people who don't read about Garth's books. You know, they won't read anything good, but they'll read Garth.”
Slicer is a superb example of that very phenomena; its lack of traditional structure; sometimes even spelling and punctuation, making it accessible to those who perhaps do not respond to more standardised formats, appealing to people who might be put off by proscribed work like King or Brown.
My own experience of the work is difficult to describe; it felt almost like blacking out at times; as though I were experiencing psychotic episodes, the rhythm of the prose; the way in which sentences would sometimes run on into paragraphs and pages or break half way through, only to flit to another subject, another thought or state of mind...it almost hurt to read, as befits the import of the whole work.
In terms of concept, Slicer is in a league of its own. Foregoing the standard cliché of a masked, knife wielding psychopath, the book almost entirely removes the killer or, indeed, any human agent, leaving us with an instrument that operates according to its own nature; something that is made to slice and which does so.
It serves as Marenghi's commentary on horror as a whole; on violence in fiction, on the symbolic significance of cutlery (which we see throughout his work, most notably in the iconic episode of Garth Marenghi's Dark Place, Hell Hath Fury): the instrument becomes divorced from any human agent, acting according to its own purpose, without remorse, without reason. It is quite, quite disturbing; the frequency and luridness of violence, which often occurs from the knife's perspective; pages upon pages of detail as it eviscerates all it comes across (including a vivisectory episode in Romford Zoo). The aforementioned starkness of description; the manner in which the prose provides each moment in digestible strips and slices, enhances the reader's sense of not only imagining a possessed, levitating knife, but being the knife, understanding the knife.
Some have criticised the book for being too explicit in its violence; arguing that there is a pornographic luridness to the descriptions (Marenghi himself has shot down most of these criticisms more eloquently than I ever could). However, these criticisms almost universally miss the point; the “meta” quality of the style that Marenghi deliberately demonstrates: yes, from a purely critical perspective, it might be said that the moments of violence (which pervade much of the book's 500 pages) are excessive, overly explicit; almost sadistically drawn, but removing oneself (as Marenghi) does from a human or indeed humane perspective allows for appreciation of what that actually means: the reader becomes the killing implement, lost in an almost hallucinogenic swirl of blood, bowels, ripped flesh and splintered bone; they transgress and transcend to heights that only fiction like Marenghi's can provide. The point is not prettiness or poetry; Marenghi doesn't write to awe you with how “A-level” his English is (I'm sure that most examiners wouldn't even give him a passing grade); he writes to exercise and demonstrate the elasticity of language; that it doesn't need pristine grammar or sentence structure or coherence or punctuation (much of which is added in the editing process, so I'm led to believe) to make itself felt: it only needs someone with the balls to write what many imagine, in their own private realms; in the nightmares they refuse to talk about, even down the local Weatherspoons.
Slicer was my introduction to Garth Marenghi; one the most significant books in my evolution as a writer and as a human being.
As one notable critic for the Observer noted:
“It really doesn't get any better.”
George Daniel Lea
GINGER NUTS OF HORROR, THE HEART AND SOUL OF HORROR FICTION REVIEWS