I was born in 1974; as a result, I was one of the last generation to grow up under a very particular fear: the fear of World War Three.
It was the Cold War. The US and the Soviet Union each wielded enough nuclear weapons to destroy all life on Earth many times over. In spite of détente, the weapons remained, the guns cocked and aimed, in the great-grandmother of all Mexican standoffs. And by the 1980s, the hawks and hardliners held power both in Washington and Moscow. The fear that one side or another could push the button, that a confrontation could get out of control, was very real and vast.
It was everywhere and you couldn’t escape.
It was in the pop music. 99 Red Balloons by Nene; Dancing With Tears in Their Eyes by Ultravox; It’s A Mistake by Men At Work; Two Tribes by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
It was in the films: Threads and The Day After studied the probable consequences of such a war (and may even have convinced Ronald Reagan to scale down the arms race with the USSR.) The Mad Max films looked beyond the nuclear holocaust into the shattered, lawless future beyond, half-mediaeval Europe, half-Wild West.
In the comic 2000 AD, long-running strips Strontium Dog and Judge Dredd portrayed a world scarred by long-ago nuclear conflict. The future war saga Rogue Trooper was played out on a planet poisoned by NBC warfare. Multiple one-off stories took The Bomb’s long or short-term aftermath as their setting or starting point.
And there were the books. From the US came the ‘Radioactive Rambos’: post-apocalyptic wet dreams of a simpler, freer existence, usually while battling The Evil Commies: The Survivalist, Doomsday Warrior, Endworld and David Alexander’s unintentionally hilarious Phoenix (which deserves a column all of its own).
In Britain, the tone tended to be a sombre one (we’re a miserable lot here; must be the rain.) There were excellent YA titles such as Robert Swindells’ Brother in the Land. But the one I remember most of all is James Herbert’s Domain.
Domain, of course, was the third and final outing for Herbert’s best-known creation, the rats (themselves the product of a nuclear explosion), but here they’re practically light relief. The opening chapter shows London hit by five nuclear bombs, the destruction relayed in precise and chilling detail, interleaved with vignettes of a half-dozen characters who perish in the holocaust. A group of survivors are lucky enough to find a blast shelter, but are later driven out into the ruined world beyond. Throughout the book are further vignettes, snapshots of other lives ended in the aftermath – by the rats, by radiation poisoning, by madness brought on by loss.
My parents didn’t let me stay up to watch Threads, but Domain I could pick up at WH Smiths. Herbert was never my favourite writer, but I’ll hold Domain up as evidence against anyone trying to dismiss his work completely.
I doubt it’s a coincidence that the last half of the Cold War – the 1970s and 1980s – was also the period where horror fiction reached its zenith of popularity.
Of course, that wasn’t the only factor: dwindling petroleum supplies, economic crises, terrorism and the dangers of environmental collapse were rearing their heads too. All these played their part, but first and foremost they were part of a world that could be annihilated by the push of a button.
And in the West, there was no longer the certainty of moral purpose. After the 1960s’ cultural upheavals and the morally squalid manoeuvres and alliances the US executed as the Cold War wore on, it was harder – even impossible – to believe that ‘we’ were the good guys, standing four-square for truth and justice. And the other side were even worse.
All life on earth seemed caught in the crossfire between two increasingly brutal and ruthless regimes, run by cruel, sickly old men. Is it any wonder so many writers depicted a world on the point of falling apart, where monsters lurked in every shadow?
Horror is the literature of our unease. It’s also often been something of a niche market; the great horror boom of the 70s and 80s was the exception, not the rule. And it coincided with the time the whole world lived in fear.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down; two years later, the Soviet Union broke up. The Cold War was over. The world and its problems didn’t go away; there was the civil war in Yugoslavia: sectarian violence and ‘ethnic cleansing.’ There was the Gulf War; and then the new threat of Islamist terrorism.
And yet there was optimism. The biggest shadow had lifted: to some, at least, a better world was coming.
By the mid-1990s, horror writers were vanishing from the bookshelves, their publishing contracts broken or unrenewed. Newer, upcoming writers struggled to find a voice: the small presses kept the flame alight, but the mass-market opportunities were no longer there. By 2000, publishers described horror as ‘dead’.
And then came 9/11, and the world changed again.
Terrorism emerged as a new, terrifying threat and brought other menaces – the prospect of wider conflicts, the erosion of civil liberties by authoritarian governments – in its wake. As before, economic and environmental crises play out alongside it, making the world once more a frightening place, teetering close to destruction. (Indeed, the environmental threat now arguably eclipses the others).
And while horror hasn’t quite regained its former (commercial) glory, it has seen something of a renaissance. It’s definitely not dead any more.
The old fears of my childhood ended up shaping my new novel, Hell’s Ditch, which is set in Britain twenty years after a nuclear attack. I suppose I could have chosen a different catastrophe. These new fears are different: in some, perhaps, there’s a greater hope of survival. But looking at the rising tensions between the West and Putin’s Russia, maybe that greatest fear hasn’t gone away.