By Ben Bussey
The passions that capture us in our youth invariably impact the person we grow to be in adulthood. This almost always seems to be true of horror fans: those who come to be lifelong devotees very often first develop that affinity for the genre whilst young (as we explored early this year in our Childhood Terrors thread). Still, whilst there would seem to be no shortage of fiction paying homage to the significance of music in adolescence, literature does not seem to have paid quite so much attention to the transformative power of film – and I for one have certainly never known of any works of fiction set against the backdrop of the notorious Video Nasty panic of the early 1980s. However, this is just what Andrew David Barker has done with Dead Leaves, an evocative and heartwarming novella about a group of teenagers who find their greatest joy in watching dodgy videos filled with hideous, deplorable acts of violence.
One thing that should be stressed from the off is that Dead Leaves is not in any way, shape or form a horror novel. Beyond a few chapters involving nasty punch-ups outside the pub, terror and carnage are notably absent. Barker has instead written a very grounded and realistic coming of age story, partially as a means to explore the social impact of the Video Nasty panic, but even more so to demonstrate how the love of horror movies can shape young people as they lurch unwillingly out of school age and into the big wide world of work, rent, bills and tedium. (Possible spoiler: none of them go mad from watching too much horror and turn into serial rapists, murderers and/or necrophiles.)
It’s October 1983 in Derby. Told in the first person, our main protagonist Scott is a recent school-leaver and ‘doleite’ whose time is taken up mainly with hanging out with his mates Paul, Mark and Mark’s girlfriend Lindsay, either at the pub, the video shop, or back at someone’s house watching videos. They’ve seen them all, except for the big one: The Evil Dead, the most in-demand video of the lot, whose notoriety has pushed up the asking price and made it somewhat hard to come by. However, with money proving scarce, pressure to find a job, and the imminent threat of a police clampdown on these allegedly obscene videos, getting hold of the ultimate experience in gruelling terror proves to be quite a gruelling ordeal in its own right, through which Scott will confront his personal
Candarian demons and come to realise what he wants to do with his life.
Given that Barker was born in 1975, making him a full decade younger than his central characters, Dead Leaves clearly isn’t 100% autobiographical, but you’d be forgiven for assuming otherwise. The novella is rich in period detail, painting a compelling picture of life in sleepy small town England in the early 1980s which certainly rings true with my own hazy memories of the era. But you don’t have to have been born into the 80s to relate to the adolescent experience Barker recalls; those feelings of uncertainty and disillusion, the struggle to find your place, combined with that weird sense of it being concurrently the best time of your life. Also dealt with in some detail are the best-loved horror video titles of the day, and the panic that arose in the media, and while these are of course central to the world Barker shows us, it is here that the prose can sometimes get a little clinical; passages which would fit perfectly in a non-fiction film text, but read a bit unnatural as dialogue or personal reflection in a literary context. Still, Barker more than makes amends for this with the abundance of colourful profanity, Scott and friends having no shortage of amusingly coarse put-downs for one another, and anyone else that crosses them.
However, whilst the video nasty connection provides the hook and the backbone, it’s the personal journey that keeps you reading – and Dead Leaves is a very easy read (we might even go so far as to apply that hideous miscarriage of the English language ‘unputdownable’). At less than 150 pages, with the chapters kept short and snappy – indeed, in some particularly amusing instances, chapters are literally only a single sentence long – Barker keeps you turning the pages all the way to the really quite poignant dark night of the soul finale, in which mounting personal struggles only fuel Scott’s determination to acquire The Evil Dead, until it truly becomes a quest of Holy Grail-esque proportions. And as we all know, a quest isn’t really about achieving the end goal: it’s about what we learn of ourselves along the way.
Again, Dead Leaves is no way a horror story, but it’s one that will speak to the hearts of horror fans everywhere. Recommended.
Dead Leaves is available now in paperback from Boo Books.