Content warning: this article discusses fictional portrayals of racism, including usage of racial slurs.
The first post in this series gave an overview of racial stereotypes in British horror fiction; the second discussed how the rise of postwar far right groups, such as the National Front, was reflected in the genre. For its third and final instalment the series concludes by analysing how horror writers of Britain confronted the far right head-on in consciously anti-racist fiction.
Horror Against the National Front
Although the National Front never regained the heights it reached in the 1970s, it still cast a shadow over Britain’s cultural landscape in the following decades.
Numerous authors invoked the far right party to create a sense of seediness and decay across contemporary Britain. In Neil Gaiman’s 1993 story “Troll Bridge,” graffiti depicting “the omnipresent NF of the National Front” adorns the titular fairy tale bridge, childhood fears mixing with adult anxieties. Not coincidentally these initials are shared by Norsefire, the fictional fascist party in Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s late-’80s graphic novel V for Vendetta.
Screenwriters, too, addressed the issue. The National Front turns up in Dennis Potter’s TV drama Brimstone and Treacle, which was produced by the BBC in 1976 but left untransmitted until 1987 due to concerns over a harrowing rape scene. The drama takes place primarily within the home of a middle-class couple, Tom and Amy Bates, whose daughter Pattie was left with a severe mental handicap after being hit by a car. A strange young man named Martin arrives at their home, purporting to be a friend of Pattie’s, and eventually finds a place as part of the household. In actual fact Martin is a demon in disguise – or, in less literalistic terms, a personification of evil and strife – and has his own designs on the couple’s incapacitated daughter.
The plot is driven in significant part by Tom Bates’ personal bigotry. We initially witness his prejudice when he casually makes derogatory comments about black people (“The whole world’s full of blacks and layabouts and drug addicts”) and the Irish (“I wish someone would come and plant a bomb here,” he says in a moment of frustration; “I wish some thick, ugly Irish oik could come and blow us all up”). We later learn that Tom has recently joined the National Front, although the couple prefer to keep this a secret.
While Amy quickly becomes fond of Martin, Tom is suspicious of their visitor. Martin eventually finds a way to win Tom’s trust: by appealing to his bigotry.
“It’s difficult being a father nowadays,” opines Martin.
“Now, you’ve put your finger right on it,” says an excited Tom Bates. “Drugs, violence, indiscipline, strikes, subversion, pornography…”
“And black faces everywhere,” adds Martin. “The Devil is walking up and down, there’s no doubt about it.”
Tom Bates carries on. “There’ll always be an England – ha! Not with half the cities filled with coloured men, there won’t!”
“Well, deport them, that’s what I say,” replies Martin. “England for the English!”
The characters loosen up over a few drinks, and the satanic Martin delivers a monologue on his vision of the future:
“Thank God for the National Front! They won’t take any namby-pamby nonsense. The blacks won’t go, nobody else will accept those born here… what to do? What can you do? Put them into camps! Well, for the time being, anyway. Then we can do what Hitler did. Oh, think of it… They’ll fight, so we’ll have to shoot ‘em, and CS gas ‘em, and smash down the doors… Put barbed wire around them, searchlights on the corners. Think of all the hate they’ll feel; think of all the violence, think of all the pain and the degradation, and in the end, the shooting and the riots…”
Tom, who has been growing increasingly agitated, protests at this point. “No! That’s going too far!”
“But you’ve got to admit, it’s logical,” replies Martin gently. “I didn’t say I agreed with all of that, sir.” It is interesting to note that, here, the demon is using a tactic favoured by the Internet trolls of the modern-day alt-right: making an outrageous statement, and subsequently trying to frame it as something other than personal opinion.
Still shocked, Tom protests that all he wants is “the England I remembered as a young man,” and has no desire to see anyone hurt. “If what you’ve said is the result of National Front policy,” he concludes, “then I shan’t renew my subscription… I simply want the world to stop just where it is and go back a bit.”
Tom’s wife, weary after her failed attempts to change the subject, brings the discussion to its conclusion: “Go back two years.” The implication here is that Tom’s racism is a warped response to his daughter being injured two years beforehand, his understandable longing for the past being twisted by a desire to blame someone else for his wrongdoing. Come the story’s conclusion, we have learned that Tom himself was indirectly responsible for Pattie’s accident: she walked in on him sleeping with one of her schoolfriends, and was hit by a car after running out of the house in shock. At this point the drama ceases to be an analysis of far right politics, as it ties the subject too closely to the personal history of the fictional Tom Bates for it to stand as commentary on wider cultural issues.
The 1982 film version of Brimstone and Treacle, meanwhile, completely removes the theme of racism and instead portrays Tom Bates as a sexually perverted religious hypocrite. In the film, the devilish Martin is played by the musician Sting, a piece of casting which may well have influenced the character design of a beloved comic anti-hero: John Constantine, Sting lookalike and protagonist of Vertigo’s long-running Hellblazer. And Hellblazer, too, has tackled the National Front.
Although an American publication, Hellblazer is set primarily in Britain and was scripted predominantly by UK-based writers during its run from 1988 to 2013. In the early issues, written by Jamie Delano, “NF” graffiti sometimes turns up as a signifier of a decaying Britain. Then, when Northern Irish writer Garth Ennis took over the series in 1991 – his stated intention being “to use horror fiction to plumb the depths of evil and explore the dark underbelly of human life,” as he wrote in his introduction to his first collected edition – the National Front began to play a larger role in the narrative.
Ennis first brought up the far right party in “Friends in High Places” (Hellblazer #43), where John Constantine reluctantly infiltrates an elitist gentleman’s club for Cambridge graduates. The dark heart of this self-righteous group is signified when Constantine meets a National Front member named Charlie Patterson: “Hello, Charlie, how are you? Still burning down Pakistani grocers?”
This plot thread is picked up in the 1993 storyline “Fear and Loathing” (Hellblazer #64-6). In an interesting reversal of Brimstone and Treacle, with its demonic lodger, this narrative uses an incarnation of the archangel Gabriel as a key character: he belongs to the same elite club as the fascist Charlie Patterson and eventually winds up in one of Constantine’s occult schemes. Patterson, who intended to use Gabriel for a plot of his own (“it helps to have some mystic clout in affairs of state”), decides to strike back against Constantine.
Meanwhile, Constantine is reunited with two old friends, a pair of black brothers named George and Dez who have each witnessed violent racism. Their mother received a threatening message telling her to “go back to Africa”, while George was driven out of his home in Birmingham by an arson attack.
George and Dez each comment on the failure of the police to help (“The coppers were no bloody use, either…” “Are they ever?”) after which the discussion turns to the pread of contemporary racist movements; Constantine makes an off-hand comment about “those arseholes in Germany”.
“Ah yes, the Hun,” comments another of Constantine’s friends, a white vicar named Nielsen. “It seems that once again we shall have to climb into our hurricanes and spitfires, and give Fritz another sound thrashing.”
Nielsen then takes a sip from his drink, oblivious to George and Dez staring at him while Constantine buries his face in his palm. In this moment of dark humour, Reverend Nielsen is used to portray an out-of-touch white middle class that views racism as a specifically foreign phenomenon, one that can be bested with good, old-fashioned British patriotism.
Elsewhere in the story, Constantine incredulously reads out a National Front flier with a palpably insincere condemnation of racist attacks: “they’re taking the piss”, he says. In the same scene, Constantine and Dez discuss the origins of all this hatred.
“Sign’ve the times, innit?” says Dez. “All these little driggers out of work, looking for the enemy within. It’s not like I took their bloody jobs…”
“End of the century, too”, replies Constantine, putting a more occultic spin on current events. “All the arseholes come crawling out of the woodwork.”
A recurring plot point throughout Hellblazer is the way in which Constantine’s exploits put his friends and loved ones in danger, as happens in this storyline when Charlie Patterson gets his revenge. In addition to having Constantine kidnapped, Patterson sends thuggish National Front supporters after his Irish girlfriend Kit and black buddy Dez. Kit is able to fend off her attackers – the most macho of whom gets a knife to the groin in a gross-humour sight-gag – but Dez is left mutilated, and eventually dies from his injuries in front of the tied-up Constantine.
Patterson then delivers a speech about his motivations:
Because we’re all scared, Constantine. We’re scared of losing the little worlds we’ve hacked out for ourselves, and if we see someone trying to take them away from us… that’s great. We don’t have to be scared anymore.
We can hate.
That’s where I come in, you see. “Look at those bloody niggers,” I say. “Look at them coming over here like they own the place, taking our jobs, screwing our women… frigging Pakis taking our businesses away.” Works a treat.
Of course, the liberals make their films and so on—searing indictments of the stupidity of racism, with clever plots and metaphors that drip with insight… and people say “yes, it is wrong to hate a man for the color of his skin!”
And then they go down the pub, and two minutes later they’re telling Paki jokes again.
That’s your problem, really. Average lefty just doesn’t realize—they’re asking people to act against their instincts. Not me. Be scared. Go ahead and hate. Hate enough, and you’ll forget you live in a shithole with no job, no health service and no security, and you’re a frigging moron with no hope of anything. And we’ve got to keep the morons occupied, haven’t we?
This speech lasts for around two and a half pages, during which Ennis manages to make a number of points through his villain Patterson. Firstly, the speech establishes the essential cynicism of Patterson’s racist philosophy: “Fear and Loathing” portrays racial tension as something fermented by an elite as a way of keeping the lower classes subdued through division.
Secondly, in a metafictional touch, Ennis expresses a clear pessimism about the value of anti-racist narratives in fiction, on the grounds that audiences will simply go back to their own prejudicial ways when they have finished the story. This leads into the final point, that opposition to racism will always be an uphill struggle – at least, so long as people like Patterson are in positions of authority.
Constantine manages to persuade Patterson to untie him, and begins planning to escape. Then Patterson is suddenly shot through the stomach by George, who has broken into the building after learning of his brother’s fate.
“I had the bastard eating out’ve me hand, there”, protests Constantine. “I was gonna take him and his whole pack of bastards to pieces…”
George responds by shooting the injured Patterson again, reducing the man’s head to a red puddle on the floor. “Screw you, Constantine”, he says. “Don’t you ever friggin’ judge me.”
While all this has been going on, a subplot has been following the inner turmoil experienced by the angel Gabriel after learning that his beloved Cambridge Club has housed a National Front member. The incarnate archangel ponders how, in following God’s orders throughout history, he himself has committed brutally prejudicial acts: massacring Egyptians and Assyrians, destroying Sodom and Gomorrah (“why one man should not have another, he didn’t know, just did as he was bid”) and raping the Virgin Mary.
Constantine refers to Gabriel as “the snob”; indeed, it is under this name that Hellblazer first introduced the character before revealing his true identity. Contempt for those deemed inferior is the key theme of “Fear and Loathing”, whether it is contempt for the poor felt by the rich, contempt for black people felt by white people, or even contempt for humanity felt by angels.
The story ends with the revelation that Constantine has tricked Gabriel into having sex with a demoness, and thereby falling from grace. The final panel depicts the wingless and homeless Gabriel curled up beneath some racist graffiti, trapped in a strife-ridden Britain that he – by acting as enabler to the likes of Charlie Patterson – has helped to create.
Where Brimstone and Treacle discusses racist violence as the likely outcome of the National Front’s rise in power, Hellblazer portrays it head-on. The provincial, middle-class prejudice of Brimstone and Treacle’s Tom Bates is quite different from the violent thuggery depicted by Garth Ennis, and this perhaps reflects the changing shape of the far right in reality.
The National Front was no stranger to violence, as evidenced by the 1977 “Battle of Lewisham” when party activists clashed with counter-protestors during a march. The same period saw the skinhead scene – originally a non-racist, working class subculture – develop a violent white supremacist element, a process later fictionalised in the 2005 film This Is England. Despite this, the National Front still tried to put a respectable face on its agenda.
But while the party had found a degree of mainstream acceptance in the 1970s, its anti-immigrant platform was taken by the Conservative Party under Margaret Thatcher by the end of the decade, robbing the National Front of what popular support it had. Pushed back to the margins, the party abandoned its façade and allowed its most extreme elements to flourish. During the 1980s, following the departure of sometime chairman John Tyndall, it was taken over by a cabal of self-styled “Political Soldiers” who sought to live the disciplined life of Spartan warriors (albeit with markedly less homosexuality). Small wonder, then, that the British far right’s dominant media image was that of the violent young man.
The miniscule National Front that exists today is, strictly speaking, a splinter group formed in 1986; the original party was dissolved in 1990. That same year saw the publication of Kim Newman’s short story “The Original Dr. Shade”, a postmodern tale that draws a direct line from pre-war British fascism to the violent skinhead culture of the 1980s.
The main character, Greg, is a comic illustrator who gets hired by the media empire of Derek Leech – a thinly-veiled parody of Rupert Murdoch. Greg’s job is to revive Dr. Shade, a pulp fiction hero of the 1930s who could be described as a cross between Walter B. Gibson’s Shadow and H. C. McNeile’s Bulldog Drummond.
Greg then discovers that Dr. Shade’s creator Donald Moncrieff was a fascist (and, like Goswell from James Herbert’s The Survivor, an admirer of Oswald Mosley). Dr. Shade’s earliest adventures portrayed him as an unabashed white supremacist who battled against the villainous Israel Cohen, portrayed as a sort of Jewish Bolshevik Fu Manchu.
Greg attempts to craft a more progressive version of Dr. Shade, but despite his efforts, the revival of interest in this character is accompanied by a rise in racial hatred. Racist gangs adopt Shade’s iconic goggles; this is a prescient detail, as the real world has since seen the likenesses of comic characters becoming viral symbols of political activism. The V for Vendetta mask is the most famous example, while more recently white nationalists have appropriated Matt Furie’s character, Pepe the Frog.
In Newman’s story, racist violence reaches a head when an unknown vigilante, labelled the “Guardian Angel” in the Leech press, begins murdering black and Asian youths. Eventually, a group of white supremacist skinheads – working for a mysterious gang leader, presumably the vigilante – assault Greg, forcing him under the threat of more violence to stick to Shade’s fascist roots. The leader of this racist mob turns out to be Dr. Shade himself: the fictional character has somehow manifested tulpa-like in reality, looking on with approval as Greg is forced to produce fascist propaganda.
“The Original Dr. Shade” is dripping with contempt for the British tabloids and their calculated pandering to bigotry: Newman portrays the gutter press as being ultimately to blame for the perpetuation of the British far right, the Murdoch-like Leech serving the same role as Hellblazer‘s Charlie Patterson. The resulting rise in racial hatred is personified by the iconic figure of Dr. Shade – who, as a symbol, has something in common with the ghostly Nazis that turn up in James Herbert’s novels. A spectre is haunting Britain: the spectre of fascism.
Into the New Century
Most of the anti-racist texts discussed above share a common weakness. They focus primarily on conflicts between racist Anglo-Saxons and non-racist Anglo-Saxons, with ethnic minority people – be they black, Asian, Jewish or Irish – treated as abstract concepts. Only Hellblazer’s “Fear and Loathing”, with its exchanges between the somewhat oblivious Constantine and his black friends, shows awareness that a story with an ethnic majority protagonist may not be the best means of articulating concerns about racial prejudice.
This is less of an issue in the contemporary British horror scene, which has an increasingly diverse range of voices.
Take, for example, Nuzo Onoh, a Nigerian-born author who made her debut as a horror writer in 2014. “Night Market (Oje-ale)”, published in Onoh’s 2015 anthology Unhallowed Graves, follows a white diplomat from England who heads to Lagos, where he learns of a supernatural market in which mortals barter for commodities both physical and spiritual. The price is high, however, as they must trade in chunks of their lifespans, eventually ending up as ghoulish beings known as “Quarter-to-Deads” or “Come-backs”. The set-up of the story has obvious parallels with the works of Bram Stoker and Sax Rohmer, which also had white Englishmen encountering supernatural beings from foreign climes. But as Onoh is writing from the perspective of a Nigerian, she is able to utilise her home country’s folklore without resorting to the grotesque caricatures used by her European forebears in the genre.
In “Our Bones Shall Rise Again”, also included in Unhallowed Graves, Onoh portrays a similar culture clash from the opposite angle. This time the central character is an Igbo witch doctor named Oba – a member of a profession that has long been demonised in Western horror fiction, but is here made the centre of audience identification. The story takes place during the era of colonialism, and shows Oba’s dismay at the damage wrought by strange intruders to his homeland. The plot works with a specific historical trauma: the Igbo Landing incident, when a band of Igbo captured as slaves committed mass suicide upon reaching America.
During the climax, Oba’s son Obinna encounters the animated skeletons of drowned slaves; to him they are not beings of terror, but respected ancestors. The only ones who need fear these vengeful entities are the invaders who wronged them in life. In an interview with Sumiko Saulson, Onoh explains that the story gave her “an opportunity to return their restless spirits back to Igbo-land and give them their long-sought revenge”.
Conclusion: Horror for Good and Ill
Because of its subversive potential, horror fiction has long been mistrusted by political authoritarians.
When the moral panic over American horror comics reached the UK in the 1950s, the British Communist Party played a key role in fighting against these supposedly corrupting publications. As Martin Barker demonstrates in his book A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign, the Communist Party’s denunciation of horror comics showed a curiously nationalistic philosophy, portraying a cultural conflict between violent, capitalist America and peaceful, socialist Britain. Thirty years later, it was the social conservative campaigner Mary Whitehouse who spearheaded the infamous crusade against horror videos – or “video nasties”, as the press dubbed them – that were newly available in Britain at the time.
In more recent years, as horror continues to diversify, members of the far right have been treating the genre with suspicion. In a 2010 article attacking director Danny Boyle, the pro-British National Party blogger “Sarah Maid of Albion” derided Boyle’s zombie film 28 Days Later as “a post apocalyptic foray through a devastated world where few but the suitably diverse survived” – referring to the fact that one of the film’s four protagonists is black. Sarah, it appears, would have preferred a zombie apocalypse in which only white people were spared. Not even former National Front candidate David A. Riley is safe from far right suspicion: in 2009, a reviewer for the white nationalist publisher Counter Currents condemned Riley’s story “The Satyr’s Head” as “politically correct”. On an international scale, white supremacists across the web have been wringing their hands over the recent US horror film Get Out, which they deride as “anti-white.”
It is sadly true that, throughout its history, horror fiction has been used to demonise entire racial and cultural groups. At the same time, however, it is a genre that lends itself to the celebration of the misfits and the marginalised. It can also be used to articulate the anxieties and traumas within society: each of the stories discussed in this series presents a cultural nightmare, from the slave spirits of Nuzo Onoh to the fascist ghosts of James Herbert.
And as for the people who think that they have all the answers, who think that the world would be better off were they the ones in charge, who believe that anyone who does not feel, act or look the same as them should go to the wall… well, horror will always have something ready to scare them.
As, indeed, it should.