The Nest (Gregory A Douglas [Eli Cantor]) [1980] 448pgs

The Nest is the first in a series of 80’s horror reprints from Valancourt Books in association with Paperbacks from Hell and I obtained it through a subscription e-book service Valancourt Books provides.

I was a little late on this one, a month late to be exact so my first delivery (by email) contained two books, but more on the second book in the series later.

The Nest, credited to Gregory A. Douglas but actually written by a fella called Eli Cantor, is a bit of a behemoth for a pulp novel. Clocking in at almost 450 pages it’s a little daunting. This isn’t King or Straub, who can manage to full so many pages with seeming effortlessness, this is – to me at least – an unknown; and I’m not a particularly fast reader at the best of times.

Still, with surprising eagerness I settled down and started The Nest.

A ferry arrives at Yarkie Island, off Cape Cod, delivering Elizabeth and her friend Bonnie to the island. Elizabeth is an islander, returned from university on a rare visit to her grandfathers and the town in which she grew up. Unknown to her, unknown to everyone, something is stirring in the local dump, something that is driving the rats into the sea, and it isn’t until Bonnie takes the family dog for a walk into the woods that anyone becomes aware of the horror that crawls through the undergrowth and waits in the shadows.

The Nest is, in many ways, a very typical piece of 80’s pulp horror. Taking its cues from the nature-gone-mad movies dominating the decade before it’s filled to the brim with explicit gruesomeness where no one, not even children, is safe from the crawling carnivorous menace. The death scenes are portrayed with such sadistic glee that they reminded me of the movies of the following decade, the 80’s – the decade of gore, but the writing itself was of a much earlier style and caliber, therefore also bringing to mind the atomic movies of the 1950’s. For instance one hero, a Professor from Harvard, could have stepped out of a 50’s movie wholesale, with his pipe and quiet male chauvinism, smiling benignly as he – literally – sends Elizabeth off to make sandwiches.

Its a weird little mix but for the most part it works very well, as long as you don’t mind how the combination dates the book; well, that and the casual male chauvinism.

In spite of the clear absurdity of carnivorous man-eating cockroaches the book manages to be extremely coherent of the science behind it all. I’m sure a trained entomologist would see plenty to fault but there’s logic to what transpires that makes everything surprisingly believable to those of us ignorant to the nuances. This is both a strength and a flaw in the book, in fact the main issue with the book is that its in dire need of an editor who would shorten the 450 pages to something more manageable; I could see at least a hundred pages that could be dropped without a loss to story, with probably fifty or so more to an editor who possessed a the necessary ruthlessness.

That all being said Eli Cantors descriptive prose does raise what could have been just a gory mess into something far more. The descriptions of the small fishing community, the quiet woods and the surrounding homesteads effectively builds a map of the island in the readers mind; something essential when the wriggling mass of insects begins its trek across the land; and, as much as I’d like an eager editor to descend on the book, I’d surely lament the loss of these sections.

But I have to admit that there were points where I found my will to continue flagging, I was still enjoying the book but it became harder to maintain enthusiasm at something like the 200 page mark, and this continued for fifty pages or so, until the final push against the insects began.

I suppose that a reader can take only so many lectures about insect behavior and scenes of smaltzy, not to mention unlikely, romance before the desire to see mass carnage takes over. Thankfully there’s plenty of mass carnage on display, with brain eating, eye munching and disemboweling aplenty.

The largest flaw I could see, the one that irked the most, was the quiet male chauvinism. The female characters themselves weren’t, the way they reacted to the male characters not withstanding, poorly written; they had character and depth and even Bonnie, who is probably the least developed character, manages to have weight in the story. The problem arises when they are put together with the men and they appear meek and overly compliant. The only female that doesn’t do this is the Professors fellow academic, who is written as a slightly unsympathetic alpha-female who lacks range in anything that doesn’t include her academic strengths.

Outside of the books love triangle of Elizabeth, the Professor and his fellow academic companion, there seems little reason to actually involve the women in the story at all, and as the love triangle is essentially just dead air in the story anyway there seemed little reason to include any of it as far as I could see.

As much as I enjoyed The Nest, I ended the book with a feeling of missed opportunity. So much is good in there, the horror scenes are well played the gore is ever-present and the prose paints a vivid picture. Unfortunately it’s when the people are center of attention it often felt dated and a little hackneyed in places; as well as being pretty much filled with cringe in others.

As I considered what I had read I began concocting a what-if scenario. In my version there was no Professor, or to be more precise the Professor was now amalgamated with his academic companion and the story became about a small town girl, Elizabeth, who discovers a way out of the small town through the heroism of a female professor called in to help with this entomological nightmare.

But of course this was not a likely scenario to a bloody horror novel published in 1980, and in this way at least I’m glad that things have moved on.

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