It was just an ordinary garbage dump on peaceful Cape Cod. No one ever imagined that conditions were perfect for breeding, that it was a warm womb, fetid, moist, and with food so plentiful that everything creeping, crawling, and slithering could gorge to satiation. Then a change in poison control was made, resulting in an unforeseen mutation. Now the giant mutant cockroaches are ready to leave their nest—in search of human flesh!
During the ’70s and ’80s, there was a surge in animal attack horror novels. James Herbert’s The Rats and Peter Benchley’s Jaws were published in 1974 and Stephen King’s Cujo in 1981. There’s no definitive answer as to what sparked this craze, but I did come across one theory in a Facebook group dedicated to horror novels. In response to my post about The Nest, someone theorised that these tales of bloodthirsty, mutated creatures came about because the 1970s were just so dirty (their words, not mine – I’m a ’90s baby, I have no idea what life was like in the ’70s). Apparently, as is very much still the case today, there was “so much pollution and strange chemicals being dumped everywhere” and people had no idea what the result of this would be. Would these chemicals cause terrifying mutations within the natural world? Perhaps this question is the foundation of these novels. I’ve heard similar theories in regards to Japanese movie monster Godzilla. Godzilla isn’t just your run-of-the-mill monster. In the first movie, which came out in 1954, the monster’s very much a beast that not only symbolises the devastation caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, but also a stark reminder of the dangers posed by high levels of radiation. It’s natural for contemporary issues and fears to influence writers, be they novelists or screenwriters, so I agree with Horror Fan Facebook User in that the dirty 1970s could well be the reason.
Anyway, I digress.
So, The Nest is a book that appeared in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell (my copy of which
is currently in the post has just arrived), a non-fiction book that takes its readers on a journey through the weird and wonderful horror novels churned out in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m not going to lie, I was entirely expecting The Nest to be trash. Its cover very much screams “trashy pulp fiction” and I bought it for a laugh, to be honest.
But holy fuck, I’ve never been more wrong in my assumption of a book (hey, that rhymes).
I read The Rats a few years ago and despite it being lauded as one of the horror greats, I didn’t particularly enjoy it that much. Cue shocked gasps from the horror community. There was one reason in particular that I didn’t enjoy it, though, and it’s the fact that a woman is backhanded by the male protagonist. She’s naturally pretty upset about the whole, y’know, rats eating people thing and he decides that he, being the big, macho hunk that he is, needs to slap her back to her senses. Okay, I get that The Rats is a product of its time and it most certainly isn’t the only book of that era to portray women as hysterical damsels in distress, but still. Just no. It’s a tired, overused trope.
So of course when I saw that there were women characters in The Nest, I wholeheartedly expected it to be very much the same.
Sure, Elizabeth and Bonnie are relegated to the role of cleaner and cook by the male members of the group tasked with eliminating the cockroach scourge, but they both come into their own later in the novel. When faced with a legion of cockroaches that have escaped the scientists’ specimen jars, the two friends each grab a tank of dry ice and obliterate the bloodthirsty bugs, with Bonnie bellowing the epic line, “I’ll squirt those motherfuckers to death!” For a book written in the early 1980s by a man who was, by that point, in his late 60s, The Nest sure has some badass women in it. Furthermore, there’s also Wanda Lindstrom, a scientist brought to the island alongside colleague Peter Hubbard to investigate the cockroach infestation. Elizabeth notes on multiple occasions throughout the book that Peter, rightfully so, treats Wanda as his equal. Even now, in the 21st century, women are all too often deemed inferior to men, be it at work or at home. Obviously, I’m not claiming that The Nest is a feminist masterpiece, but it’s refreshing to read a book from this era where the author understands that women are just as capable as men.
Now, let’s talk about the actual horror. The Nest is hella gory. I’ve been reading horror novels since the age of 12 (after my grandad gifted me with a copy of The Shining). As a result, it takes a really good horror novel to get under my skin these days (in a non killer cockroach kind of way), but The Nest is the first horror book in I don’t know how long that’s made me go…
That scene on the beach where the local priest is trying to lift the kids to safety, despite the fact that the cockroaches have eaten his eyes, is one that got to me in particular. Guts and gore aside, it was a scene imbued with such an intense sense of hopelessness and sometimes it’s this knowledge that absolutely nothing can save a character that gets to us the most. Whenever I read a horror novel, I always ask myself, “What would I do in this situation?” and the thought of being trapped on a secluded beach, unable to escape the legion of oversized cockroaches tearing chunks of flesh from my bones, is a scenario that makes my blood run cold, my heart stutter in my chest. I mean, sure, it is highly probable that this situation will never arise, but still, could you imagine that happening to you and one of your final thoughts being Nothing and no one can save me? It’s that total lack of hope that truly scares me and I experienced this vicariously through this scene.
Douglas (real name Eli Cantor) was an exceptionally good writer (if you ignore the cringey sex scene where everything is described using nautical metaphors). The Nest is a horrifically graphic book. It shocks, it horrifies and it turns the stomach, making it a must read for even the most seasoned horror fan.
Want to read The Nest? Head on over to Amazon to grab your copy, or order it through your local bookstore.