Hakwork: An Appreciation of John Brosnan

What do horror novels with titles such as The Fungus, Slimer, Tendrils and Worm all have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re all UK paperback originals with garish covers, that is. And beware of jumping to the conclusion that they’re all potboilers or schlock horror because you would be wrong. What I’m looking for is the Australian link…

Want a few more titles? What about Carnosaur, Torched! and Bedlam?

Does it help if I mention that these novels are written by the authors Harry Adam Knight, Simon Ian Childer and James Blackstone? Not really? Okay, what if I admit that these names are actually all pseudonyms?

Give up?

Believe it or not every single one of these horror novels was written, or at least partially written, by the Australian writer John Brosnan. Writing under his own name Brosnan is probably best known as a science fiction and fantasy novelist, but as “Harry Adam Knight”, “Simon Ian Childer” and “James Blackstone” he has also written highly entertaining horror thrillers in collaboration with Leroy Kettle and fellow Australian writer John Baxter.

John Brosnan was born in Perth in 1947 and lived there until the late 1960s when he followed his passion for science fiction to Sydney and became active in local fandom. In 1970 he travelled overland with a number of other SF fans from Australia to England, and from that point he called London home until his untimely death there in 2005.

During his early years in the UK Brosnan continued his involvement in SF fandom and became well known for his non-fiction writing on SF, fantasy and horror films, which included regular film columns for the UK magazines “Starburst” and “Science Fiction Monthly”. Indeed, Brosnan went on to become a respected film critic, writing most of the film entries for The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (edited by Peter Nicholls and John Clute) and publishing at least ten movie and cinema related books.

But even though some of his movie books cross over into the horror field, our primary interest here is his fiction writing. Not, of course, the many science fiction and fantasy novels he wrote under his own name, but his less well known pseudonymous horror novels.

He cut his teeth writing fiction on a couple of thriller/adventure novels before turning his hand to horror. These first two books were Skyship (UK, Hamlyn, 1981), a near future thriller about a nuclear powered zeppelin, and an adventure novel called The Midas Deep (UK, Hamlyn, 1983). Then he turned his hand to horror and produced a series of novels that are deceptively easy to read, exciting as well as graphic and horrific, and a lot of fun to boot.

In fact there is a vein of black humour running through all these novels. One has only to examine the pen name acronyms of HAK (Harry Adam Knight) and SIC (Simon Ian Childer) to get an indication Brosnan’s approach. It is widely agreed among Brosnan’s friends that one was chosen to represent “hack” horror while the other was chosen to represent “sick” humour. Indeed, humour lurks in unexpected places in all these pseudonymous horror novels.

First and foremost they are effective horror thrillers, page turners which draw the reader effortlessly into the story. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction describes Brosnan’s horror books as the “written equivalents of exploitation movies [which] are slightly self-mocking but quite exciting as SF horror”, and this seems to be a tidy summation. The horrors themselves all tend to be based on science-gone-wrong, particularly in the fields of microbiology and genetics. Not surprising given Brosnan’s interest in science fiction, but also effective as a method of justifying the monstrosities before the mayhem starts.

As “Harry Adam Knight” Brosnan and Kettle first wrote Slimer (UK, Star paperback, 1983) for the London based publisher W.H. Allen, a reworking of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s classic 1938 short story “Who Goes There?” which was the basis for the two movie versions of The Thing. As might be expected for the first collaboration of two emerging writers, this is not as strong or assured as some of their subsequent work, but still demonstrates many of the strengths of their best work.

The story begins when a young crew of drug smugglers manage to find their way on to an oil platform after their yacht is wrecked. At first the platform seems to be deserted, but soon they begin to realise it is some sort of scientific research facility and strange things begin to happen. People mysteriously appear and disappear… And the smugglers begin to realise something is stalking them.

As with all Brosnan’s work the story is engaging and easy to read. The characters are probably a bit more wooden than some of his later work, but not so that they get in the way of the story. Sex, in one form or another, also plays a part in much of Brosnan’s horror work, here in the form of a ruthless and sadistic American jerk. And humour, of course, underlies much of the grotesque.

Slimer was followed by Carnosaur (UK, Star, 1984), also by “Harry Adam Knight” but this time written by Brosnan alone. Carnosaur is the story of dinosaurs brought to life by genetic engineering and pre-dates Jurassic Park by some years. While Carnosaur has a similar story line and shares many of the strengths of its more famous rival, in this case the dinosaurs are secretly brought to life in a Longleat-like stately-home-turned-game-park in rural England. It is a gripping horror-thriller, the investigation being led by a reporter from the local regional newspaper. And once again the horrific plot is splashed with sex and humour.

The next HAK book was The Fungus (UK, Star, 1985), published in America as Death Spore (US, Pinnacle, 1990), another Brosnan and Kettle collaboration which is probably my favourite of the “Knight” books. In this story a plague sweeps England as a result of a scientist’s research to end world hunger. Despite the best intentions, the result is catastrophic as an infinite variety of fungi and moulds do their best to transform the face of Britain.

There is a scene where the scientist who accidentally causes the disaster is thinking about her husband who has given up science (and her!) in favour of writing fiction. She thinks, “What a waste! Imagine spending your time producing childish fantasies for emotionally retarded adults when you could be doing something useful with your life.”

This is typical of the tongue-in-cheek playful digs and snipes Brosnan and Kettle take at friends and foes alike. Black humour underlies all the ghastliness here and the story has the reader turning pages one after the other.

Around the same time Brosnan published Torched! (UK, HarperCollins, 1985), another techno-horror novel, but this time written in collaboration with fellow Australian John Baxter and published as by “James Blackstone”. Like the other books this is a science-gone-wrong horror story about spontaneous human combustion that unfolds as a pair of insurance investigators tries to solve a series of mysterious fires. Like the HAK books, Torched! is fast paced and thrilling, although perhaps lacks some of the overt humour that is a hallmark of Brosnan’s other horror novels

For their next two horror collaborations Brosnan and Kettle changed publisher and wrote as “Simon Ian Childer”. The first of these SIC books is Tendrils (UK, Grafton, 1986), which begins when a drilling rig accidentally strikes a giant alien jelly-fish-like creature hibernating deep within the earth. The creature responds by spewing acid gunk that kills most of he unwitting drillers and protesters at the site and the book then turns into a gore-fest as black tendrils erupt from the earth to suck dry the good people of our planet. Tendrils reads like a modern version of a 1950s SF/Horror movie, but with more overt gore.

The second SIC book is Worm (UK, Grafton, 1987), this time written by Brosnan alone. It is even gorier than Tendrils, but has a more sophisticated and believable plot. Here, as in previous books, Brosnan passes the occasional humorous nod towards Australia. Like when the protagonist, a drunken ex-cop turned private investigator by the name of Edward Causey, is in desperate need of a firearm and turns to a shady character named George Turner. Then there’s a scene with three sewer workers down in the sewers under London. One of them is a young Australian, obviously set up for a grisly end. At one point they argue because the young Aussie annoys the Poms by continually singing Waltzing Matilda until one of his English work-mates says:

“What I don’t understand, is that if Australia is such a great place how come there are so many of you bloody Australians over here?”

“Revenge,” says the Aussie character.

All Brosnan’s horror books warn of the dangers of meddling with science, either by well intentioned accident or by malicious design. Worm falls into the latter category. In this book evil scientists are experimenting on unwitting patients with genetically altered tape-worms, thread-worms and the like with which to destroy the British. It’s over the top, ghastly, gory, horrific fun.

After 1986 Brosnan’s horror fiction seems to have taken a back seat to his other writing and it was not until 1992 that he and Kettle returned to the “Harry Adam Knight” pseudonym for their final foray into the genre. This time with the novel Bedlam (UK, Gollancz, 1992).

Bedlam was described by “The Times Saturday Review” as “Splendidly splatterful”, and not only contains more graphic splatter and violence than their previous work, but it also displays more complex and imaginative plotting. It is less clinically scientific and more metaphysical in its plotting. Amid the terrifying action, the reader finds the very nature of reality is challenged. Some readers have even likened it to the work of Philip K Dick, but I think this is stretching the point.

Thankfully, Brosnan and Kettle seem still to have had their tongues in their cheeks. Despite the mayhem and terror of this book, their typical touch of humour is still evident. Take the following passage amid a brief lull in the mayhem for example: “The television set suddenly came to life. They all turned towards it as the Neighbours theme tune filled the room. For a brief moment Hamilton allowed himself the wild hope that the world had returned to normal but he quickly realised that it could never be this easy. And things had to be pretty low if Neighbours constituted normality.”

Or if something like that doesn’t amuse you, perhaps this scene will: “An unpleasant, wet sound of several things landing on the floor made him pause and look back. Josie’s dismembered body lay scattered in front of the elevator. There was blood everywhere. Her decapitated head lay on its side, the eyes open and staring at him. Her lips moved. “By the way, yesterday afternoon was fucking fantastic. Maybe we can do it again some time soon.”

Brosnan, as I mentioned earlier, is also a respected film expert and critic and has written numerous books about the cinema. Most are science fiction or James Bond related, but a few overlap the horror genre. In The Horror People (UK, Macdonald and Janes, 1976) Brosnan examines horror film by concentrating on some of the top people in various fields – producers, directors, actors and writers. In later years he also wrote Scream: The Unofficial Companion to the Scream Trilogy (UK, Boxtree, 2000) and The Hannibal Lecter Story (UK, Boxtree, 2001), both of potential interest to horror fans.

His other cinema books are: James Bond in the Cinema (UK, The Tantivy Press, 1972), Movie Magic: The Story of Special Effects in the Cinema (UK, MacDonald & Janes, 1974). Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction (US, St. Martins, 1978). James Bond for Your 007 Eyes Only (UK, Grandreams, 1981) (with Tony Crawley). The Dirty Movie Book (UK, Grafton, 1988) with Leroy Kettle (writing as Leroy Mitchell). Hollywood Babble On (NZ, Seto Publishing, 1989), The Primal Screen: A History of Science Fiction Film (UK, Orbit, 1991), and and Lights, Camera, Magic! (UK, Legend, 1998).

Given Brosnan’s expertise in the cinema, it seems only fitting that some of his horror work has been translated to the big screen. Far less worthy books have been turned into movies. But unfortunately, the cinematic results have not done justice to the novels on which they are based.

Carnosaur was filmed in 1993 by Roger Corman’s Concord Pictures, based on an original treatment by Brosnan, but the scriptwriting is often credited to director Adam Simon. While it seems probable the film was produced to cash in on the success of the vastly superior Jurassic Park, we should remember that Brosnan’s novel pre-dates Crichton’s. Brosnan was not involved with either of the two Carnosaur sequels, something he was probably happy about because they are incredibly bad.

Brosnan’s next involvement with the movies was with the 1994 Vadim Jean directed film Beyond Bedlam (also known as Nightscare), which was based on Brosnan’s and Kettle’s HAK book Bedlam. As I mentioned earlier, I think Bedlam is the most accomplished of all the Brosnan and Kettle collaborations and it should have translated well to the visual media, but the result was once again disappointing. Perhaps because Brosnan was not involved in the scripting process. Whatever the reason, the movie was otherwise forgettable except for the fact that it introduced Liz Hurley in her first starring role.

Brosnan’s next actual foray into movies was the scripting of the 1995 movie Proteus, based on the HAK novel Slimer. This low budget film was directed by makeup specialist Bob Keen, who had obviously not yet gained his directorial stripes, and the end result looks cheap. The script as filmed also leaves a lot to be desired and is not indicative of Brosnan’s best work. Brosnan apparently also wrote a screenplay for a sequel called Proteus 2 – The Pursuit, but given the disappointing result of the original it was never produced.

In addition to the works already cited, Brosnan produced a significant body of other writing, including a number of TV novelisations under the pseudonym “John Raymond” and a handful 2000 AD comics. His other published books include the science fiction novels: The Sky Lords (UK, Gollancz, 1988), The War of the Skylords (UK, Gollancz, 1989), and The Fall of the Skylords (UK, Gollancz, 1991). Described in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as “Fast-moving adventure in a post holocaust society”. The Opoponax Invasion, (UK, Gollancz, 1993) a standalone SF novel. A humorous fantasy duology comprising of: Damned and Fancy (UK, Random House, 1995) and Have Demon, Will Travel (UK, Legend, 1996). His final published books were, Mothership (UK, Gollancz, 2004) and the posthumous Mothership Awakening (UK, Orion, 2007), a pair of humour-laced science fiction generation ship novels.

Given Brosnan’s considerable output, it might surprise some readers to learn that he battled both depression and alcohol abuse for many years. Indeed, it seems likely that his alcohol consumption contributed to his untimely demise which was officially caused by acute pancreatitis.

Sadly, it seems unlikely there will be further John Brosnan novels unless there are still unpublished manuscripts in his estate. But fortunately, one can still find second hand copies of Brosnan’s books on the internet. In particular, I encourage horror readers to seek out his HAK and SIC novels. You won’t be disappointed.