- Fascist Ghosts: Racism and the Far Right in British Horror, Part One
- Fascist Ghosts: Racism and the Far Right in British Horror, Part Two
- Fascist Ghosts: Racism and the Far Right in British Horror, Part Three
Content warning: This article contains excerpts from explicitly racist material.
In the first post of this series, I discussed portrayals of race and racism in British horror fiction from the earlier half of the twentieth century, particularly in the work of Sax Rohmer, Bram Stoker, Nigel Kneale, and Dennis Wheatley. In this post, I will look at how the rise of the postwar British far right in the 1970s was reflected by horror writers.
It is fitting that Dennis Wheatley’s final novel was published in 1974, a year that saw two generation-defining horror authors make their debuts as novelists. One of these was Stephen King. The other was the man who went on to replace Wheatley as Britain’s foremost horror novelist: James Herbert.
Herbert’s first novel, The Rats, depicts a plague of deadly mutant rodents infesting London. The main character, a schoolteacher named Harris, becomes embroiled in this disaster and ends up confronting the rodents head-on. The story is a long way from Wheatley’s yarns about heroic aristocrats saving Britain from leftist subversion. Like many of Herbert’s later protagonists, Harris is a straight-talking everyman with a mistrust of authority.
The novel offers a vivid depiction of a decaying London, but Harris–who, one suspects, is acting as Herbert’s mouthpiece–does not pin the blame on a foreign element, as Wheatley’s protagonists would likely have done. Instead, he believes that almost everyone in the city is responsible for letting London go to the dogs (or rats, rather), from apathetic politicians to lazy milkmen.
The theme of racism turns up a few times within The Rats. In some cases, admittedly, Herbert is regurgitating the stereotypes that were common in British media at the time. At other points, however, the novel portrays racism as a symptom of a decline in cultural standards. This is clearest in a sequence set at a train station. The station master is a slovenly bigot who derides his black employee Errol as a “daft ape” for complaining about the station’s poor condition. Errol himself, meanwhile, is one of the few characters in the novel who shares Harris’ desire to put some effort into building a better London.
Later in the 1970s, Herbert published two novels that involve Nazi occultism: The Survivor (1976) and The Spear (1978). The villain of The Survivor is a ghostly magician named Leonard Goswell who, before his death, collaborated with the real-life British fascist Oswald Mosley. In The Spear, meanwhile, the antagonists are the latter-day remnants of the Thule Society, who have set up shop in Britain with the ultimate aim of resurrecting Heinrich Himmler through black magic.
These books were likely influenced by Dennis Wheatley, who conflated Nazis and devil-worshippers in novels such as They Used Dark Forces (1964); indeed, Herbert mentions Wheatley by name in The Survivor. But Herbert’s Nazi villains are not invaders: they have found happy homes in England thanks to English collaborators. Herbert portrays the cultural landscape of 1970s Britain as being literally haunted by fascist ghosts.
Furthermore, Herbert draws a line between the fascists of his occult fiction and the far right of reality. At one point in The Spear a character provides a quick roll-call of radically right-wing groups active in Britain and America, allowing Herbert to namecheck real-life far right organisations:
In this country, and in America, we have several such organisations, the National Front here and the National Socialist Party in America being the more obvious. But lurking beneath these, and well in the shadows are the more sinister factions such as Column 88…
This was not the only time that the National Front turned up in James Herbert’s writing. The party also has a role in his 1980 novel The Dark, which moves on from Mosley and Himmler to take a closer look at the post-war far right.
The Dark re-uses a plot device from The Survivor by casting a deceased occultist as the ultimate cause of its supernatural havoc; this time around, London is beset by a shadowy substance that turns out to be pure evil. In the novel’s cosmology, evil is an externalised physical force; anybody who falls under the influence of the dark shadows will lose all inhibitions and act out their basest desires. Herbert explicitly ties this phenomenon to the rise of fascism by establishing that dictators such as Hitler had previously harnessed the Dark to stir up murderous tendencies amongst the masses.
This novel’s premise allows Herbert to explore the seedy underbelly of Britain, just as Robert Fabian had done twenty years beforehand, influencing Dennis Wheatley in the process. But where Wheatley was an authoritarian moralist, Herbert was more a punkish rebel.
The Dark depicts a Britain in which old certainties have been replaced with secular angst; indeed, a loss of faith in the afterlife runs through the backstory of the protagonist, a bereaved father. Evil manifests not as a vampire that can be slain with a cross, but as a basic force of nature, seemingly as irrepressible as the wind or tide; old standards of goodness, meanwhile, are implied to be no more than hypocrisy. The book portrays civilised society as a mask for all manner of sordid depravity, and in this warts-and-all vision of Britain circa 1980, the far right is a particularly unsightly wart.
One chapter involves a religious sect called the Temple of the Newly Ordained, the leader of which has turned to worshipping the Dark. The sequence combines Wheatleyesque occultism with memories of the Jonestown mass-suicide, which had occurred two years before the book’s publication. Herbert adds the theme of racial prejudice to this narrative by showing one member of the cult–black, skeptical Brother John–being forced to drink poisoned punch by Brother Samuel, a racist white member.
Immediately following this sequence, Herbert writes a scene involving a pub landlord named Alex Bryan and his wife Sheila. The dialogue establishes that an illicit meeting is taking place in the pub: “If the Law finds out you’ve got a meeting going on in the back, they’ll have your license,” warns Sheila. When Alex suggests that the supernatural darkness is a nerve gas unleashed by communists, Sheila dismisses this idea as having been suggested to him by “that mob next door.” Speaking of the people at the meeting, Alex remarks that “I just appen to agree with a lot of what they say. You’ve seen ow many blacks there is around ere.”
The book never specifies who is attending the meeting, but the group is clearly racist in nature. Herbert then invokes the most prominent far-right political party in Britain at the time by having Alex recall how “one of his mates, a publican in Shoreditch, had had to vacate when the brewery which owned the pub discovered he was letting his back rooms out for National Front meetings.”
Sheila responds to her husband’s bigotry with a sarcastic “Heil Hitler.” Then, falling under the sway of the Dark, Alex murders her with a wooden mallet; the growing vitriol of his racist remarks correspond with his descent into murderous insanity.
Another part of the novel features three teenage delinquents named Vince, Ed, and Wesley. Vince directs a racially-charged taunt at Wesley, who is black. In the following discussion we learn that Wesley himself harbours racist views towards Asian immigrants:
“Leave im alone, Vin,” said Ed, peering around the edge of the shelter into the gloom. “He’s joinin the Front, inne?”
“Do me a favour! They won’t have im! He’s a nig-nog imself.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want no more of them comin over here. Specially those Pakis,” Wesley protested. “Too bloody many.”
The other two youths shrieked with glee. The thought of Wesley marching along with the National Front holding a banner saying “KEEP BRITAIN WHITE” was too much. Wesley was too puzzled by their laughter to feel aggrieved. Soon he was laughing with them.
The Dark portrays racism as one of the evils bubbling to the surface in contemporary Britain; it also appears to be making a specific effort to remind the reader that racial prejudice can be found in all strata of society. The novel’s racist characters–a white pub landlord, a black teenager, and a member of a weird suicide cult–certainly comprise a diverse bunch of bigots.
Despite their anti-fascist themes, James Herbert’s novels were at one point condemned for perceived bigotry by horror author Ramsey Campbell. Writing in issue 28 of Halls of Horror magazine, Campbell describes a scene in Herbert’s second novel, The Fog, in which a gay schoolmaster is castrated by his pupils; Campbell’s initial impression was that Herbert was pandering to his audience’s prejudices.
However, in the same column, Campbell admits to having revised this opinion and developed a more favourable perspective on Herbert’s politics:
It’s odd that I didn’t wonder why, if Herbert harboured the prejudices I ascribed to him, he attacked the National Front implicitly in The Spear and explicitly in The Dark. Nor is the schoolmaster depicted with any of the neurotic loathing one finds in, say, the work of David Riley, a horror writer who stood for election as a National Front candidate.
David A. Riley and the National Front
David A. Riley first stood as a parliamentary candidate for the National Front during the October 1974 general election, at the age of twenty-three. He ran in the constituency of Accrington, where he pulled 2.9% of the vote. The election manifesto of his party, as quoted in The Times Guide to the House of Commons October 1974, took the uncompromising stance that Britain’s population should be entirely white, as should much of the wider Commonwealth:
Our aim is an entire reshaping of the Commonwealth. African, Asian and West Indian members will be obliged to leave except in cases where they can offer us tangible advantages in return for those that they derive from us, in which case they may be permitted to remain as associate members.
All experience has shown that African, Asian and West Indian immigrants cannot be successfully assimilated into the British population. The National Front advocates a total ban on any further non-white immigration into Britain, and the launching of a phased plan of repatriation for all coloured immigrants and their descendants already here. This programme will be put into operation with the greatest possible humanity, but we do not suppose that it can be effected without some hardship to a portion of the people concerned. We simply prefer to risk hardship to one generation of immigrants than ensure hardship for countless future generations of people in this country.
Today, the National Front is a marginal party even within the British far right. But in the 1970s, things were very different. Formed in 1967 from an alliance between multiple far right groups, the National Front was originally chaired by A. K. Chesterton, an anti-Semite who believed that Britain was under threat from an international Jewish conspiracy. The party grew in size over the next few years by capitalising upon anti-immigrant sentiment.
The immigration of black and Asian people into Britain, a relative rarity prior to World War II, was a hot topic at the time. In late 1972, the Asian population of Uganda was expelled by Idi Amin; the National Front opposed allowing these refugees into Britain, a cause célèbre that tapped into the public mood amongst many white Britons and boosted the party’s popular support. By the middle of the decade, the National Front had become Britain’s fourth largest political party.
It was in 1973 that David A. Riley joined the party. Here is his summary of the National Front as it existed at the time of his membership:
During that time I never regarded the party as fascist, though it did have minority elements within it that undoubtedly were. All parties have their less savory elements. I often clashed with some of these people. Over the years the party veered from one wing–the populist, more democratic–to the right, then back again, resulting ultimately in the most extreme elements leaving with John Tyndall in 1980.
John Tyndall was perhaps the most notorious figure in the National Front. The party sought to present its racist philosophy as being quintessentially British, but as an unabashed Nazi sympathiser, Tyndall had thrown his lot in with the enemies of Britain. Even by the standards of the National Front, he was a hard man to paint as a patriot. He became party leader in 1972, only to lose his position two years later; this was in large part because of a deeply unflattering episode of the ITV current affairs series The Week, as described in Martin Walker’s 1977 book The National Front:
The September 1974 programme was shown in prime time on independent television, had an audience of over eight million, and had a shattering effect upon the morale of NF members. It was a hostile programme, interviewing Tyndall closely about the precise implications of his racialist policy, making it clear that the NF opposed mixed marriages, and that coloured people would go to the bottom of every queue for housing and social services before they were repatriated. Within a month of it being shown, Tyndall was voted out of the chairmanship of the NF…
Tyndall retained a support base within the party even after being replaced as chairman. The National Front split into two warring factions, one anti-Tyndall and the other pro-Tyndall; the latter side eventually won, and Tyndall again became party leader. He remained in this position until resigning in 1980 and left to found what would become the British National Party a few months later. In 1983, following this turmoil, David A. Riley resigned from the National Front.
Riley had made his debut as a horror writer in 1970, a year that saw the publication of his short stories “The Lurkers in the Abyss” and “After Nightfall.” Although he was never a household name on the level of James Herbert, Riley’s fiction was featured in prominent anthology series such as The Pan Book of Horror Stories and The Year’s Best Horror Stories.
Amongst Riley’s short fiction is “The Satyr’s Head,” which was published in 1975 during his involvement with the National Front. A revised version was included in The Mammoth Book of Terror, published in 1992, while still another edition appeared in Riley’s 2015 small press anthology Their Cramped Dark World and Other Tales. The story comes across as a hybrid of M. R. James and James Herbert, mixing the former’s fondness for cursed artefacts with the latter’s propensity for sex and seediness. It also contains shades of H. P. Lovecraft, not only in its supernatural concepts, but also in its racial themes.
The main character of the story, Henry Lamson, encounters an elderly tramp while waiting for a bus. The tramp is described in terms of total physical repulsion, with one passage tying his overall ugliness to his uncertain ethnicity:
What an ugly old creature he was, with his pock-marked face all rubbery and grey and wet, and those bloated, repulsive lips. Was he some kind of half-breed? [Lamson] wondered.
The 1992 revision is even more explicit:
What an ugly old creature he was, what with his pock-marked face all rubbery and grey and wet, and those bloated, repulsive lips. Was he some kind of half-breed? [Lamson] wondered, though of what mixture he could not imagine.
The tramp hands Lamson a small stone head from a broken statuette. The head, too, is both repulsively ugly and ethnically ambiguous:
[T]he head’s features were similarly difficult for him to categorise with any specific race. It had the fine features of the Aryan subjugated with an almost disgustingly mongrel bestiality. The lips, unlike the other features, were singularly non-Aryan and reminded Lamson unpleasantly in their loose obesity, of the tramp’s.
After the head falls into his possession, Lamson begins having a recurring nightmare of being sexually molested by a hideous, satyr-like incubus, and, in a perverse twist, finds himself starting to enjoy this experience on a carnal level. As this is going on, the recurring theme of nationalism starts to manifest within the story. It first appears as a throwaway detail, when an unidentified television pundit declares that “You can be a Scottish Nationalist or a Welsh Nationalist and no one says anything about it, but as soon as you say you’re an English Nationalist everyone starts calling out ‘Fascist!’” (the 1992 edition replaces “English” with “British”).
Later on, Lamson encounters three political campaigners in a pub; their party affiliation is not specified in the original edition, although we are informed that one of them wears a tricolour rosette. The 1992 edition mentions that this rosette is red, white, and blue, the colours of the National Front. The 2015 edition, which otherwise downplays the story’s racist subtexts, unambiguously identifies the accessory as a “red, white, and blue National Front rosette.”
Lamson appears to be on friendly terms with this campaigner, whose name is Reynolds:
As the men waited for their drinks one of them turned round, smiling in recognition when he saw Lamson. “Hello there. I didn’t notice you here.”
“Still working hard, I see,” Lamson said, nodding at the tricolour rosette on the man’s lapel.
“No rest for the wicked. Someone’s got to do the Devil’s work.” The two men with him smiled in appreciation. “It’s the elections,” he continued, “in another month.”
The conversation turns to the discovery of a tramp’s dead body, presumably the ugly man encountered by Lamson, having succumbed to a supernatural fate. Reynolds and his fellow campaigners, however, blame this death on a foreign disease: “I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it wasn’t through something all these Asians have brought into the country. There have been cases of leprosy here already, and that was unheard of before.”
The motif of nationalism seems curiously tacked-on. It is represented at two separate points in the story by unrelated characters–the TV pundit, and Reynolds–and yet has little obvious connection to the main plot. Ultimately, these sequences come across as an attempt to nudge the reader towards a specific political viewpoint. The nationalist characters may be relegated to walk-on roles, but at least they survive, unlike the ill-fated Lamson, who ends up getting too close to “disgustingly mongrel bestiality” for his own safety.
Riley’s history of involvement in the National Front remains controversial. It came back to haunt him in 2015, when he was involved with the relaunch of Weirdbook magazine, and again in 2016, when he was serving on the Bram Stoker Award jury. Riley took the opportunity to try and clear his reputation in an April 2016 interview with novelist David Dubrow:
Do I regret having spent those years that I did in the National Front? Yes. If I had my time over again I would not do it. But the early seventies were a different time. Still recovering from its loss of empire, Britain was in a poor state, with strikes, the three-day week, regular power cuts, uncollected rubbish bags piling on the streets, the danger of Militant Tendency (the extreme left) taking over the Labour Party, unprecedented numbers of people arriving from overseas and the air that something had to give, that the country was on the brink of collapse.
As a footnote to this affair, the Autumn 1983 issue of the National Front journal New Nation ran an article entitled “H. P. Lovecraft: Novelist and Racialist,” which was credited to Riley. As there has been some dispute online as to whether or not he wrote it, I contacted him to clarify his involvement.
“It was published over six months after I had resigned from politics and was submitted to that magazine some considerable time earlier in a rough draft,” he told me. “It was extensively altered before publication by the editor, who never gave me an opportunity to correct or amend these alterations, which I suppose were meant to ‘toughen’ it up. I do remember being more critical of Lovecraft’s emotional response to other races than appeared in the final cut, where these comments were muted or cut entirely…It has never been for me a full-blown piece of my own work as I did not write every word in it nor do I concur with the views expressed.”
Regardless of its authorship, the article remains a noteworthy example of far right politics intersecting with horror fiction.
The piece reprints a selection of Lovecraft’s most virulently racist statements about “Asiatic filth” and “vastly inferior” black people and presents these comments in an approving light. When the article criticises Lovecraft’s racist opinions, it does so on the grounds that they were insufficiently refined. “Lovecraft’s anti-semitism, it should be noted, was not based upon a well-researched knowledge of the part played by certain wealthy Jewish financiers, but on plain physical repugnance.”
The piece concludes with the implication that it would be desirable for contemporary society to adopt Lovecraft’s views:
Lovecraft, though often too emotionally involved in the subject, was fundamentally a White supremacist, who had no doubts whatsoever of the rightful preeminence of the White race. “Science,” he wrote, “shows us the infinite superiority of the Teutonic Aryan over all others, and it therefore comes to us to see his ascendancy shall remain undisputed. Any racial mixture can but lower the result. The Teutonic race, whether in Scandinavia, other parts of the continent, England, or America, is the cream of humanity.”
How he would have viewed the suicidal swing towards multi-racialism now being compelled upon the “cream of humanity” should not be difficult for anyone to imagine. Not only was Lovecraft an outstanding exponent of the particular literary genre which he made his own, he was also, importantly, a staunch racialist who despised and abhorred the liberalising degeneracy which now imperils the future survival of our race.
To Be Concluded
The above paints a bleak picture of horror fiction being used towards racist ends. But a look at the wider picture would indicate that British horror authors of this period were, on the whole, closer politically to James Herbert than to David A. Riley. In the third and final post in this series, I will look at how the horror genre confronted the far right across the remaining decades of the century.