Originally published in 2018 by Black Shuck Books as part of their Signature Novellas line and just recently repackaged with a brand new cover, weighing in at 226 pages according to the publisher’s website, Dead Leaves by Andrew David Barker could easily pass muster as a short novel, while short chapters and snappy prose make it a fast read.
The book is set in Derby in October 1983, when Mary Whitehouse and her Festival of Light were in the ascendant, with censorship and video nasties in the forefront of national politics. Protagonist Scott and best mate Paul are horror fanatics, with the video rental shop as their home away from home, and the duo’s Holy Grail is to obtain a copy of banned tape The Evil Dead. A chance to get the video comes up, but it will cost them sixty quid, and as neither has a job (a source of distress to Scott’s parents) this won’t be easy. And, of course, the police take a very dim view of their ambition.
The video nasty furore makes for an interesting background, a political and intellectual climate that will be of intense interest to all horror fans. I’m not sure that Barker pitches the argument fairly. Though there’s little evidence for their being great thinkers, his heroes become strangely articulate when it comes to defending their freedom to watch horror films, while the spokespeople for the other side of the argument are comic cut out figures like the ridiculous and self-righteous bully Moir and Paul’s hypocritical brother Constable Carl, with his sucking up to superior officers (to be fair, I’d have a hard time coming up with any sensible arguments for the censorship lobby, though I’m sure there must be some, or at least something more credible than we get here). And the book’s ending felt a bit like wish-fulfilment, though I’m happy to be proved wrong by anyone who knows of similar occurrences in real life.
At bottom this is a quest story, with side journeys to pad out the story. We have the love triangle, such as it is, between Scott and friends Lindsay and Mark; we have some fisticuffs courtesy of two bullies straight out of the Stephen King play book, and we have the pressure on Scott from parents and society to conform and get a job. It’s the latter that gives the book a moral depth, even more so than the arguments pro and con censorship. Scott and Paul see themselves as trapped, fated to life in a dead end job in a dead end town. For them both, horror provides an alternative world view, in Paul’s case as both an encapsulation of and distraction from his problems, while for Scott with his dream of film making it offers an escape route. And on this score, the author and his characters seem to be speaking for so many of us who are enthralled by the horror genre, articulating that love in a way that touches to the heart of who we are.
The characters are well drawn, with Barker shying away from political correctness in the figure of Paul, whose views on women in general and Lindsay in particular leave much to be desired; Scott is made uncomfortable by the sexist garbage that comes out of his friend’s mouth but feels unable to argue the point. It’s probably a realistic depiction, though we could wish otherwise. Scott is in many ways the Everyman as young man, conflicted and trying to do the right thing, driven by raging hormones and peer pressure. hoping for a better life than the one his parents have known, both in love and at loggerheads with his father. On the other side of the gender divide, Lindsay is the most grown up and competent person in the whole book, the one who has a seriousness and independence that the others can only wish for.
I felt mildly cheated at the end in that we discovered what the future held for Scott and Mark (and by inference Lindsay), but not for Paul. A mild quibble, and one that does not in any way detract from the fun of this book. Barker gives us a story that is never less than entertaining, at the same time mounting an eloquent argument for the horror film itself as pure escapism while also espousing its value as a serious art form, video nasties and all, and tackling issues of censorship and freedom of expression along the way. Highly recommended.