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The Hell Candidate

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Corgi, London, 1981
(price: 1.50; 384 pages)

The blurb on the back:

They said Hunter Peale didn't have a hope in hell of getting elected.
They were wrong...
He was a kindly, moderate man - with a less than moderate chance of winning. Then it all began to change...
When a hideous, unearthly voice was heard whispering darkly to Peale behind the heavy carved door...
When whole crowds of people fell weeping at his speeches...
What power did Peale now have that brought men to their knees in abnormal pain - and made women writhe with unholy pleasure?
The answer froze the spirit like a chill, rancid breath from the foul grave-stench mouth of Hell - for Peale had entered into a monstrous pact with none other than the Prince of Darkness himself...
And the ultimate confrontation would now begin - with every living soul on Earth as the Prize...

opening lines:
I was often asked, in the weeks after Hunter Peal was elected President, just when I was first convinced that he was going to win.

To get this into some sort of context: The 1970s weren't America's most cherished decade. Even before Richard Nixon saw his career come crashing down in the absurd (expletive-deleted)-up that was Watergate, he had already accepted the defeat of the world's most technologically powerful nation at the heroic hands of the Vietnamese people. Nixon's incomplete second term was thus a double-blow, striking at America's political perception of itself both at home and abroad. And just when it seemed as though things couldn't get much worse, they did, with the election of Jimmy Carter.

Nowadays, of course, he's virtually canonized, and has a Nobel Peace Prize on his mantelpiece (just like Killer Kissinger), but back in his days in the White House, Carter was seen as a figure of fun at best and a national disgrace at worst. His ineffectual period in office culminated in the bathetic shambles of the Iranian hostage crisis, and for a brief moment it really felt like we might be witnessing the beginning of the end for American power: it seemed as though every nation that had ever been kicked around by Yankee imperialism was queuing up to get themselves a bit of justice, tempered by vengeance.

What actually happened next was the arrival of Ronald Reagan and the rebirth of the Cold War, but this novel gives us an alternative scenario. Forget Reagan, it argues, what would have happened if there'd be a really right-wing candidate who was a genuine contender? Someone who not only wanted to restart the Cold War but the Vietnam War as well, and who also wanted to bomb Cuba, invade Angola, assassinate key Arab leaders and seize Rudolf Hess from Spandau Prison - all on the same day? A man who could convincingly promise a return to the era of Eisenhower and Dulles, and whose electoral lexicon included the morals of the Wild West and the licence of the consumerist society? It's a simple equation:

(Mom + apple pie) x (guns + Playboy) = landslide victory

The only problem is that while deep down this might be exactly the message that everyone wants to hear and to see being put into practice, no one's sure that they're allowed to admit the fact: there are so many layers of sophistication and civilization that cover our basest drives. To cut through them, to sell such a programme, surely you'd have to have the charismatic charm and persuasive powers of Satan himself. Well, luckily, that's exactly what our hero Hunter Peal has, having done a deal with the Devil to secure his election. (Neat name, by the way: Hunt Appeal.)

What we've got here, then, is a curious hybrid of politics and horror, and I guess that's why it's not as well known as it might be. Written from the point of view of Hunter Peal's press secretary, it treats seriously the whole business of a presidential primary campaign, which would do little for many horror devotées, while its scenes of fairly graphic horror and supernatural violence are likely to alienate aficionados of political fiction. If you don't mind balancing the two, however, it's really very entertaining, and occasionally very illuminating.

Peal's promised land is one of rippling corn-fields and of nuclear families driving 1950s cars, but also includes a vision of thousands of B-52 bombers in the skies - and that latter element evokes just as much sentimental patriotism as the rest of his schtick. 'How many of you can say that you wouldn't choose to live in an America where that many bombers could fly over your heads?' he asks, and bizarrely it's a rhetorical question, because of course that's what everyone is supposed to want. Which is a damn scary concept. Much more so than the idea of Satan involving himself in human affairs. Because I don't believe that Satan exists, but I know for sure that those B-52s do, and the idea that deep in the psyche of white middle-class America is a dream of military ultra-violence is seriously worrying.

Then again, as a horror enthusiast, I can't help but admire the sheer story-telling power of the narrative. And that's not too surprising, since Thomas Luke is actually a pen-name of the incredibly prolific Graham Masterton, author of - inter many alia - books like The Manitou, Tengu and How To Drive Your Man Wild In Bed. You probably know his work, and you'll already know that he's more than competent, but even if you're not a big fan, this one is highly recommended. It feels as though it was written in a single breathless session without revision as a state-of-the-nation address by a major popular artist (a bit like John Fogerty writing 'Bad Moon Rising' to mark Nixon's election victory in 1968) and, as such, it has - apart from everything else - great historical interest.

Just as a footnote: I know I moan on a regular basis about the quality of the sleeves to these books, and I know it's repetitive and ultimately pointless, but really the packaging on this one is awful. The title's rubbish, the cover art is a disgrace and the notes on the back don't even manage to spell the name of the principal character correctly: it's Peal not Peale. Twats.

my thanks to Mr John Flaxman
for donating this book


visit the official Graham Masterton site
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