So let me hand off to Simon now, who's going to rip that scar wide open...
My new book, Hell’s Ditch, is set in the aftermath of a nuclear war. When I was growing up, there was no shortage of books and films on the subject, but I didn’t get to see the most notorious until the Cold War was long over.
It became a byword for post-apocalyptic bleakness; when I finally viewed it a few years ago, it frightened me in a way that very, very few films have ever done. The fear isn’t the pleasing terror of M.R. James, or the Grand Guignol and gross-out gore of Texas Chainsaw or a Lucio Fulci film; this is horror in a much more profound sense: a sense of doom and dread and utter, utter hopelessness. It was the essence of that very real childhood fear, distilled into its purest and most terrifying form.
The name of the film was Threads.
Set in Sheffield, Threads mixes documentary and drama techniques to tell its tale, and is told in an utterly convincing fly-on-the-wall style. The focus of the first half is the relationship between working-class Jimmy Kemp and middle-class Ruth Beckett, and their families. Ruth is pregnant, and they have the same small hopes and dreams of any young couple starting a family – worries over making ends meet, getting a flat together – but in the background, there are rumblings of international conflict.
The rising tensions between the USSR and the USA, initially in the form of background noise on the TV, build as the film progresses, intruding on the couple, their families and their friends. There’s panic-buying at supermarkets; meanwhile, local councillors are instructed to prepare for nuclear attack.
Halfway through the film, the air-raid sirens wail. Threads was made on a budget of £250,000 – pretty big for a TV production at the time, but paltry compared to the resources a studio film would have. Nonetheless, the attack sequence is chillingly effective, zeroing in on small-scale reactions rather than the big picture; in one memorable image, a woman stares at the mushroom cloud rising in the distance, urine pooling round her feet as her bladder lets go in horror.
Jimmy Kemp runs through the streets of Sheffield in search of Ruth just before the first bomb explodes over the city. He’s never seen again, and his fate remains unknown throughout the film. His mother, horrifically burned by the heat-flash, dies shortly after. His little brother is crushed beneath the wreckage of the family home; his father dies of radiation poisoning.
Ruth and her family are better protected, having taken shelter in her parents’ cellar, but her grandmother – sent home from the hospital due to the crisis – dies not longer after; later, her parents are killed by looters. In the streets outside, a man, his face swathed in bandages, rocks to and fro, hugging himself and shivering; a woman stares blankly up with a frozen half-smile on her face, cradling her lifeless baby.
The film pulls absolutely no punches. With the health service devastated, amputations are carried out without anaesthetic and in the crudest possible circumstances. Provisional special courts dispense summary judgement at gunpoint and minor local officials gain sweeping powers; Jimmy Kemp’s teenage sister, the only surviving member of his family, is last seen in a prison camp.
Part of the horror’s in the film’s gritty, intensely realistic tone. The world in which the story begins was the world we lived in, with the familiarity and naturalism of Coronation Street; indeed, at one point the director wanted to cast actors from the ITV soap, before choosing relatively unknown performers. The aftermath is littered with the remnants of advertising billboards and brand names that the viewers would have seen every day. There’s no escape, no relief in saying this is fiction; by now we’re locked into these people and their world: it is, was, might become our own.
But the most horrific thing about Threads – worse than the deaths in the explosion or from radiation sickness – is the fact that it just goes on and on and on without end. The story continues beyond the immediate aftermath into the future, breaking up into shorter and starker scenes as it does.
The ‘threads’ of the title – the myriad tiny intricate connections that bind us together – have been severed: without them, society unravels. Thirteen years on, a ruined Britain is ruled by a near-paramilitary government, with public hangings and summary shootings an everyday occurrence, and the population has fallen to between four and eleven million.
The children, including Ruth’s daughter Jane, are emotionally and psychologically stunted – from exposure to radiation while in utero, and/or from life being reduced to a brutish struggle for survival, with education rudimentary to non-existent.
Ruth dies young, prematurely aged, half-blinded by cataracts caused by UV radiation from a devastated ozone layer, leaving Jane to fend for herself. Impregnated after a bout of brutish intercourse with another, near-feral youth, she gives birth in a squalid, makeshift hospital.
The child is stillborn; we don’t see it, but Jane does. The film freeze-frames and ends as she opens her mouth to scream. It’s the one moment in Threads where we’re spared the horror of what comes next.
Simon Bestwick is the author of Tide Of Souls, The Faceless and Black Mountain. His short fiction has appeared in Black Static and Best Horror Of The Year, and been collected in A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Pictures Of The Dark, Let’s Drink To The Dead and The Condemned. His new novel, Hell’s Ditch, is out now.
HELL'S DITCH on amazon & Snowbooks
The dream never changes: a moonless, starless night without end. The road she walks is black, bordered with round, white pebbles or nubs of polished bone; she can't tell which but they're the only white in the darkness, marking her way through the night. In dreams and nightmares, Helen walks the Black Road. It leads her back from the grave, back from madness, back towards the man who caused the deaths of her family: Tereus Winterborn, Regional Commander for the Reapers, who rule the ruins of a devastated Britain. On her journey, she gathers her allies: her old mentor Darrow, the cocky young fighter Danny, emotionally-scarred intelligence officer Alannah and Gevaudan Shoal, last of the genetically-engineered Grendelwolves. Winterborn will stop at nothing to become the Reapers' Supreme Commander; more than anything he seeks the advantage that will help him achieve that goal. And in the experiments of the obsessed scientist Dr Mordake, he thinks he has found it. To Winterborn, Project Tindalos is a means to ultimate power; to Mordake, it's a means to roll back the devastation of the War and restore his beloved wife to the living. But neither Winterborn nor Mordake understand the true nature of the forces they are about to unleash. Forces that threaten to destroy everything that survived the War, unless Helen and her allies can find and stop Project Tindalos in time.