Book Review: We Belong Dead’s 70s Monster Memories

By Nia Edwards-Behi

70s Monster Memories is a monster book itself – at 408 pages long, editor Eric McNaughton has gathered together short chapters from a whopping 53 contributors. As you may recognise, McNaughton is editor of the long-running We Belong Dead magazine, and there are many familiar names among the contributors to this book. The topics covered in the book include film, music, television, animation, model-making and magazines, and there are interviews with key figures from the period as well as personal accounts of the time, through to more in-depth histories. The cultural history under scrutiny is restricted to the decade of the 1970s, but the perspectives on offer come from the UK and US, and occasionally dip into the years that surround the decade.

70s Monster Memories, as the title might suggest, is very much a product of nostalgia. I confess I’m not a reader of We Belong Dead, and indeed the tone of the bulk of the chapters in this book rather confirms the reason I tend not to read publications like it: there’s nothing at all wrong with what’s written, but it’s just, quite literally I think, not meant for me. The repetitive and insistent statements, for example, that this was a time before Blu-ray and social media became tedious quite quickly for me. There’s nostalgia, and then there’s boundary policing: more than once the idea of what constitutes a ‘real’ fan sneaks in and, though not unexpected, it’s a bit grating for someone who clearly doesn’t fit within those boundaries (I like my internet and my Blu-rays, thank you very much).

There are other elements repeated across chapters – twice in quick succession I read two different authors paraphrase Bob Dylan to express that times, they were a-changing. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason, either, to the ordering of the chapters, so there’s little sensible progression from chapter to chapter, and instead repetition of particular details and turns of phrase throughout the book. There’s also some inconsistency in things like the formatting of words (eg. tv/TV/telly/tele…!) and other grammatical errors which could have been weeded out, which I don’t suppose entirely matters, but in terms of reading the text for review made an impression on me.

It probably sounds like I’m being overly critical, and truthfully, I think I am – I’m not sure that my impression of a certain lack of coherence to the book is entirely accurate on my part. This is clearly something of a tome, and I don’t think the intention is for the reader to sit to it and read it through, page by page. Rather, I think it’s meant for dipping in and out of, like glances through the curtain of time to a bygone age. As such things like thematic progression or repetition don’t really matter so much to the way in which the book really ought to be consumed. It did feel to me, when reading the book, that it’s being aimed at people who are like the writers, people who were monster fans and horror fans and whatever else during the 70s. That’s not me, and although I take a very healthy interest in the period, reading the book felt, at times, like I was on the receiving end of a stern telling off for being, well, born too late. Again, I don’t imagine that’s entirely a bad thing, but from my perspective as a reader it didn’t always make for an entertaining read as a result.

70s Monster Memories absolutely sets out to do what it intends do: recall a time gone by, offering fond and detailed accounts of both the cornerstones of the era (Hammer, Denis Gifford, zines etc.) as well as an impressive range of other details, from Aurora monster models, to sound effect LPs, even to an extensive chapter about horror-themed snacks…! The true range of topics covered is a real strength of the book. There are also chapters which dwell on some more ‘real world’ historical detail too, such as Jack the Ripper or the Loch Ness Monster.

The most impressive thing about 70s Monster Memories is easily the level of detail contained within. So, as someone who did not experience any of these notable 70s cornerstones of fandom first-hand, it certainly feels like I’ve come away knowing a lot more about them having read the book. While initially my impression of some of this detail was that it came across as descriptive (where I would have preferred to read something more analytical) instead I think the style of writing could more accurately be described, to an extent, as ‘cataloguing’, and as such rather befits the tone of the book as a whole and indeed some of the publications revered in its pages. Indeed, there’s an element of actual cataloguing too, such as a comprehensive guide to the BBC’s horror double bills, or a list of horror soundtrack releases on vinyl in the US during the decade. As I’ve said there’s some inevitable cross-over and repetition as a result of the tendency for each author to catalogue shared elements of the memories of the era, but again given the sort of the book this is I don’t think that’s too much of a flaw if you’re dipping in and out of it. The book is also very nicely illustrated with film stills, photos, magazine covers, poster artwork and images of archival objects.

If there’s one thing that I subjectively found frustrating about the book, it is the lack of female writers (there are two in the whole book, if I’m correct, and an interview with Victoria Price). Obviously there is absolutely no reason for a book like this to shoe-horn in writers for the sake of it, but I did find myself increasingly curious, as the book went on, whether the experience all these little boys were having – of seeing buxom Hammer actresses in the pages of magazines, for example – was similar or different for any Monster girl-kids of the era. It’s not the job of this book to have provided that for me, but it’s certainly something it’s left me very curious about.

All in all, then, while I perhaps did not enjoy 70s Monster Memories as much as it probably deserved, it’s absolutely a very impressive piece of cultural history, and no doubt provides a thrilling return to an era gone by for anyone who experienced it or just really wishes that they had. For anyone who already collects the kind of books that are often discussed in its pages, 70s Monster Memories will no doubt stand handsomely alongside them.

70s Monster Memories is available now via We Belong Dead.