When Chainsaw Terror comes up in conversation among horror novel fans, it’s usually the story of the book’s publication that takes center stage. People pass snippets of its fabled banning in England and infamous cut passages like they’re sharing illicit drugs. Pulled from shelves! A Texas Chainsaw Massacre adaptation run amok! Going for hundreds of dollars online! Cut for extreme gore and child murder!
But while there are already several great pieces on the fraught and mysterious publication history of Nick Blake’s (really Shaun Hutson’s) Chainsaw Terror (or is it Come the Night?), there aren’t many that really dig into the story.
Since reading books and then regurgitating them like some sort of demented bird is on my short list of favorite
tourtures things, I thought it was about time someone took a closer look at what’s on the page in Come the (Chainsaw Terror) Night.
It’s 1978 and Ralph Briggs is a miserable man whose idea of a vacation is taking a week off to soundproof his house. He’s completely disengaged from his wife and daughter, Maureen, but he likes his son Edward, mostly because he hopes Ed will take over his carpentry business some day. You know, a real family man.
But when Briggs comes home one day to find his wife preparing to leave him, Briggs loses his mind and stabs his wife to death with a shard of mirror and then slits his throat. This would be traumatizing for any kid, but it’s even more defining for Edward who was creepily peeping through the keyhole the whole time.
It’s a brutal and thrilling beginning that reads like Clive Barker doing a splatterpunk adaptation of an exploitation film. “The next thrust penetrated her heart and he recoiled as a powerful spout of blood exploded from the riven organ.”
Jump to 1983 and Ralph’s children, Edward and Maureen, are still living in the house where their parents died. Ed has indeed become a carpenter, and Maureen is secretly dating a guy at work and afraid to tell her brother. Turns out Ed is a hell of a lot like his old man: quiet, possessive, and uncomfortable around women that aren’t his sister. “He could sense them appraising him, especially the younger ones.” Why, he wonders, can’t women be more like Maureen?
Unhealthy sister obsession alert.
When Maureen floats the idea that she might not always live with Edward, he quickly shuts the conversation down and then gets horny while watching her make dinner. But it’s not just Maureen’s food prep skills that give Ed a boner. He also likes to watch her in the bathroom through a peephole and creep into her room after she’s asleep and lift up her nightgown. Basically he’s a reverse Norman Bates with anger issues.
But just like her mother, Maureen totally doesn’t see what’s coming for her like the rest of us can. The only big surprise for us is how quickly she gets it. Turns out, Hutson isn’t one for drawn out suspense, and Maureen meets her untimely end just two chapters later in a scene where Edward attacks her with a cleaver and chops off her hand before decapitating her.
Thus begins Edward’s women-hating rampage that continues in classic grimy grindhouse fashion. And it doesn’t get more grindhouse than slicing off your sister’s head, putting it in the spare bedroom, and talking to it when you’re angry.
The first rule of the grindhouse is “Give ‘em the goods.” Exploitation mutants won’t stand for clever cut aways and poetic implications, and Hutson understands that. The scenes of violence are as graphic, clear, and to the point as the descriptions after the fact are long and detailed. Just take a look at this paragraph describing poor Maureen’s noggin after a few days away from its body.
“It was in an advanced state of putrification now. The skin had lost that waxy sheen and was now dull and flabby. The eyelids were closed, covering the eyes which were now almost fluid—soft mushy balls which looked like coagulated grease. One ear had withered like a flower exposed to flame and the eyebrows and eyelashes had come away in places. A clear fluid had trickled from both nostrils and solidified on the drooping top lip. The cheeks were sunken, a piece of bone showing through on the left side.”
So in just 50 pages, we’ve seen a graphic murder/suicide, gratuitous incestuous lusting, and hack and slash fratricide. It was at this point that I started to wonder where the hell Hutson could go from there?
The answer is to SoDo, of course.
After offing Maureen’s concerned boyfriend, Edward heads to the seedier side of downtown to fulfill the old serial killer/sex worker cliche. But instead of strangulation a la real-life monster Gary Ridgeway, Edward drags his victims to his basement and annihilates them with a chainsaw.
At this point you’re probably wondering if anything other than carnage ever happens in this book. I don’t blame you. After finishing this little slimeball, I’m wondering if I’m technically still human. But fear not, there is one other type of special scene that pops up again and again. The yin to any gore story’s yang, the sex scene. Off the top of my head I can think of at least four scenes where characters get down to business.
But while the sex scenes are decently written, I did catch one of my absolute favorite things to discover in a horror novel. I call it “When an Author is Accidentally Revealing,” and I’ve written about it before with
serial panty sniffer Richard Laymon. You see, while writing is all about creating believable, diverse characters, authors seem to have a tough time distancing themselves when writing about sex. I’m not sure why that is exactly, but as a sometimes editor of romance novels, I can say with certainty it’s a trend.
Throughout my reading years, I’ve seen it all when it comes to the accidentally revealing stuff. There has been problematic “no means yes,” Satanic masturbation fantasies, supremely boring psychic boning, you name it. But until Chainsaw Terror, I’d never seen sexy dragging men by the penis.
Now before you run away in fear, let me explain. Not once, but twice in this novel women take hold of their male partner’s member and then use it as a means to pull them into bed. At least, I think that’s what’s going on here. “Her hand gripped his swollen penis, pulling him onto her.” Ouch.
OK, now I’ll give you that maybe she was just guiding it along in that one, although the description still makes me shudder. But try this one on for size:
“. . . Penny rolled over onto her side and reached for his rampant organ, pulling him onto the bed beside her.”
First of all, l don’t know if you’ve ever looked up the definition of the word “rampant,” but any of the four entries would make that one of the most terrifying erections to ever grace the Earth. But more to the point, maybe this is just a mating ritual I’m not aware of (let me know if I’m missing out), but it certainly made me wince both times I read it.
So how does this whole thing conclude? Well, about midway through, Hutson introduces us to our protagonists, the plucky reporter Dave Todd, and a kindly sex worker named Vicki. As ladies of the night begin to go missing, the two hatch a plan to get to the bottom of Edward’s dastardly deeds. This leads to one of the most spectacularly gore-filled finales I’ve read.
It seems that most folks who have read Chainsaw Terror see it as little more than a hack and slash plup nasty created to deliver illicit thrills. So I was surprised to find that for all its exploitation, violence, and gore, Chainsaw Terror isn’t the nihilist trip I expected. Sure, it loves to revel in its nastiness, but it never tips so far that it falls into the abyss.
While Hutson puts his readers through the wringer, he isn’t afraid to leave a little bit of light at the end of the dark tunnel. Even if that light is far away, reflected in pools of blood, flashing blue and red into the night.