Saturday, 8 May 2010

Attack of the Killer Earthworms

“God, when I think I used to pick them up as bait for fishing when I was a kid. Never again!”

In the pulp world of the mid ‘70s to early ‘80s, Nature was revolting. All manner of creatures had developed homicidal, if not genocidal, tendencies and were turning against their human overlords.

The first stirrings of this uprising had actually taken place way back in 1917 with the publication of Arthur Machen’s novella The Terror. As a committed Christian and former member of the Golden Dawn, Machen offered an esoteric explanation for the “great revolt of the beasts”, interpreting it as a response to Man’s spiritual abdication during the horrors of the Great War;

“He has declared, again and again, that he is not spiritual, but rational, that is, the equal of the beasts over whom he was once sovereign… If he were not king he was a sham, an imposter, a thing to be destroyed.”

The sto
ry ends with a warning; “They have risen once – they may rise again.” How true that was to prove!

Daphne du Maurier’s short story The Birds, set in a bleak Cornish location, offered no explanation for the behaviour of its feathered antagonists, although its year of publication (1952) led some to read it as a Cold War allegory. Two years later, the science fiction movie Them exploited a related anxiety; the effects on nature of the atmospheric testing of atomic weapons. Low tech special effects were skillfully employed to depict a colony of giant ants, genetically mutated by radiation from the New Mexico tests and breeding in the storm drains beneath L.A. Much suspense is generated from the police investigation into mysterious deaths caused by the ants, which do not themselves appear in the movie for quite some time.

Hitchcock’s movie of The Birds (1963) transferred the action to a Californian location and added a screwball romantic plot. It was inspired by an actual incident which jogged the director’s memory of the option he had purchased on du Maurier’s story. A Santa Cruz newspaper had reported a bird attack in which, possibly as the result of seafood poisoning, a flock of seagulls had shattered windows and flown into streetlights, leaving dead birds littering the streets. The adaptation, with its screenplay by Evan Hunter (more widely known for his crime writing as Ed McBain!), did not find favour with du Maurier herself, but was a great critical success.

The “revolt of the beasts” really entered the world of the pulp British paperback in 1974, with the publication of James Herbert’s notorious debut “The Rats”. The novel recounts with gusto attacks by giant rats in a London still pockmarked by bombsites, its unbridled gore and grimly realistic setting making it an instant bestseller and a landmark in the horror genre. The floodgates were open. No creature was too small and innocuous, too cute or too fluffy for a starring role in a pulp horror novel as publishers rushed to cash in on Herbert’s success.

Most notably, Guy N. Smith's Crabs series maintained just the right blend of sex, gore and excitement. Smith conveyed the authentic feeling of a small community under threat in his evocation of the Welsh seaside resort of Barmouth, but his main talent lay in keeping his tone just the right side of tongue-in-cheek in describing the villainous over-sized crustaceans, which became more ludicrously indestructible with each sequel. Who, after reading Night of the Crabs, could read those ghastly syllables “clickety-click” without a shudder (or at least a chuckle)? The Crabs series extended to six volumes and maintains a cult following to this day. (A private amusement of mine is to enquire politely “Do you have Crabs on the Rampage?” when visiting particularly staid secondhand bookshops.)

The Morgow Rises (1982) was penned by Peter Tremayne, the pseudonym of respected academic historian and biographer Peter Berresford Ellis. Engaging in some literary legerdemain, Tremayne swaps genres half way through the book, leading us to believe at first that we are reading one of his trademark Celtic supernatural tales. In fact, it even seems possible that he may have adapted an existing text to the cookie-cutter “Nature runs wild” formula demanded by the publisher.

In the finely realised setting of a Cornish fishing village, we are faced with a mad old witch, a family curse and an intriguing slice of Celtic legendry as the attractive heroine, Claire Penvose, arrives to visit her retired mining engineer uncle, Henry “Happy” Penvose, on his birthday, only to find him missing in the corridors of a disused tin mine called Wheal Tom he is hoping to reopen. His disappearance appears to be connected to an ancient prophecy concerning the return of a monstrous creature;

"Beware when the Morgow rises,

Lament for the living,
Lament for the Unborn.

All things end!"

Meanwhile, local fishing craft are being destroyed and threatened by a mysterious whirlpool at sea and sightings are made of “a black, rubbery thing, something like a gigantic slug”. Reporters and other outsiders converge on the village as news of these happenings spreads.

So far, so good, until we learn the real secret of Wheal Tom. The mine should not have been sold by the Government to “Happy” Penvose (who has by now, met a grisly end in its tunnels) at all, and had only been doe so as a result of “bureaucratic error”. It should really be “a strictly prohibited zone” due to its use as a store for radioactive waste (page 100). Readers familiar with Them and its countless imitators will of course have guessed the rest of the plot by now, but have to wait a further 55 pages for an identification of the Morgow from a Government scientist;

“Lambert cast a nervous glance towards the group of angry press reporters.

‘Strictly between ourse
lves … I believe that the radiation attacked the most primitive cell forms – chaetopoda – earthworms or marine worms, causing a disruption in their growth.’
Neville stared at the man’s calm scientific assessment.”

Scientific indeed. Note the way in which “marine worms” are needed to explain why attacks are taking place at sea as well as on land, although no
concessions are made to the biology or habits in the working out of this tale. (In fact, in a couple of places the creatures are referred to as “eels”, leading to a suspicion that Tremayne may have changed his mind at some point).

After munching their way through various characters including the local witch (who goes out to entreat with the Morgow); a “male chauvinist” reporter; an adulterous ecologist and his “well proportioned” secretary (“but she felt her bottom was perhaps too broad and her breasts too full” – it is her demise that is so pleasingly illustrated on the cover) and most of the crew of a coastal shipping vessel, the worms are eventually, and somewhat perfunctorily, dispatched by the RAF, armed with high explosives and napalm bombs;

“Being worms they have no central nervous system, so no bullets harm them. You all know what happens if you slice through a worm with a garden spade. The two halve
s can wriggle away!”

Following an obligatory homily about the dangers of messing with nature, the novel ends with the suggestion that one of the creatures has escaped, making room for a sequel, although none was ever written. Nor is it likely to be,

Tremayne is mi
ning a vein of literary gold nowadays as the creator of Sister Fidelma, a 7th Century Irish nun whose “whodunnit” style adventures have attracted a huge following, organised into the International Sister Fidelma Society. He shouldn’t be judged too harshly on “The Morgow Rises”, after all it’s an entertaining and amusing read that, despite its ridiculous premise and clichéd conclusion, does manage some moments of tension and terror.


Carter Kaplan said...

I'd like to see Sister Fidelma discover one of those worms. Perhaps the one that got away?

Antony Trepniak said...

That would require a "wormhole" in Time, but I'm sure Tremayne could manage it.

By the way, it was fortuitous that I was able to find the picture of a real life sea monster that matches descriptions given in the book, so maybe the author was on to something?