Emperor of Excess - February 1990
In London's Mayfair hotel the man in studs and heavy black leather, his shaggy hair falling over his shoulders, attracts more than a passing glance. His face may even be vaguely familiar to some of his fellow guests since it has launched rather more books than Helen of Troy did ships.
He of the heavily-metallic appearance is second only to James Herbert as Britain's best-selling author of horror fiction, a genre that owes titles such as Slugs, Assassin and his latest, Nemesis, to the pen, generously dipped in blood, of Shaun Hutson.
Not for nothing labelled The Emperor of Excess, Hutson up to a point, appears to live as he writes, imbibing seedy atmosphere on solitary and nocturnal walks around London's tattier parts. "I don't just dress up like this for interviews," he assures me, anxious to underline that his appearance is not all image and no substance. To write what he does, as he does, perhaps requires something more than an imagination contaminated with the virus of violence? So how much of him lurks in the creation of scenes such as the ones in Nemesis, where a man butchers a girl babysitter and then attempts to rape her heavily pregnant mother? But fear not, the monster she is incubating emerges to castrate him.
"Well, I've joked about my books in the past, in self-defence, I suppose, and agreed with people that it's a load of cobblers but at least it sells. Nemesis, though, is the first one I can't talk about, a lot of it is very personal. There is actually some characterisation there. I wouldn't say there hasn't been in any of my other books but there's stuff here that comes from personal experience."
Hutson feels that Nemesis is the best book he has written. Despite the preceding incident, he describes the work as 'restrained' when compared with his other books.
He enjoys writing the violent scenes, and there's no question that the prevalent feeling is one, if not of macabre joy, then certainly one of triumphant terror.
"But the violence is not there solely as a way to shock people," he argues. "If in the first three chapters there's a rape, a decapitation and Christ knows what else, the readers are still going to put it down unless there's a strong story-line to hold all the mayhem together. Otherwise it would be like getting the pop-up book of an autopsy. Where's the fun in it?" Certainly the process of putting together a successful horror story requires a good deal more skill and talent than authors of the genre are often given credit for. As for the morality of the business, Hutson sees his books as providing, far from an incitement to violence, a benign and cathartic benefit. "It enables people to read about the sickest, most disgusting things that they can imagine or not imagine in the safety of their armchairs, chuck their book away and say, ';It's not us that's sick, it's him'. But I'm just supplying a public service because people do like nasty things and there's certainly nobody doing it nastier than I am at the moment. There is usually one particularly nasty scene in each book."
He cites, as an example, the scene in another Hutson epic, Spawn, in which abortions come back to life.
He also resists any charge that his work verges on the pornographic. "Definitely not, it's so over the top it goes beyond that," he argues, and one has to agree that the amount of suspended disbelief necessary to participate in a Hutson yam ensures that the reader is safely insulated from any kind of reality, and the enactment of the Hutson kind of fantasies would be improbable, if not altogether impossible.
The recipe is commercially highly successful ... Slugs has recently crawled into a video version, although Hutson is disparaging about the quality. "Avoid it like the plague," he enjoined, perhaps under the impression that I was about to rush out and purchase a copy.
The video is his own private horror story. "I went to the front door one day and picked up this parcel. Inside was the script, a copy of the contract, a cheque, and a letter from the company saying they'd bought the rights ... But I've got no ethics as far as the writing business is concerned. Give me the money and you can do what you like with it."
In that sense he's refreshingly honest. He finds the whole book business pretentious, despises launch parties, and says he'd rather sell lots of mass market paperbacks than win The Booker. Lately he's begun to write film scripts, but books will remain the bedrock of his career, and his fans continue to grow. He rises to his feet; it's getting late, the shadows are lengthening, maybe it's time for another of Shaun Hutson's nocturnal walks?
One last question, please. Doesn't anyone ever complain about his books? "No," he says, "not even the feminists. For every rape there's a castration."
Well, you can't get fairer than that, can you?