Today I’m going to talk about the first in a series of four books by author Mick Norman. It’s worth putting a small heads-up at the start of this article.
Angels from Hell is incredibly violent, contains descriptions of sexual abuse, and some homophobic stereotypes (although this is a bit more complex as I’ll discuss below). All the books I discuss here are pulp fiction and often have sensationalised elements designed to shock their audience. Angels from Hell is no exception. However, what I hope to highlight is the interesting science fiction, fantasy, horror, and occult themes that make these a little more interesting.
Mick Norman was the pen name of editor and author Laurence James, and James’s story is interwoven with that of NEL itself.
After travelling to London for teaching college, James dropped out, spent some time employed at Foyles and Harrods, then worked in publishing for a decade before ending up at New English Library. At NEL he spent three years in charge of editorial work. Finally, he decided to turn his hand to writing, sent the manuscript for Angels From Hell to NEL anonymously where it was picked up for publication.
James became a prolific writer, with many novels under his belt using many pseudonyms. His most successful books were the Deathlands series. Taking over writing Pilgrimage to Hell from Christopher Lowder, James wrote 34 of the novels on his own, which sounds a lot until you realise that the whole Deathlands sequence runs to 125 books and 18 audiobooks.
However, this is a long time after he worked at NEL and had Angels from Hell accepted for publication.
The Perception of New English Library
There is an important point to make here. New English Library is often stereotyped as a very reactionary publisher. TV Tropes describes NEL in terms of;
“The NEL’s output covered all the bete noires of the right-wing establishment: skinheads, teen gangs, uncontrolled non-white immigration, Football Hooligans, biker gangs, greedy trade unions, and liberal politicians acting as willing or unaware dupes for Moscow’s diabolical plan to destroy the West from within before moving in to “restore order”, as well as having side-swipes at pagans, Wiccans, atheists, and others who threatened the traditional British way of life. Looking back with hindsight, it is almost as if somebody was deliberately setting up Nightmare Fuel for the bourgeoisie as well as a stern warning from Nanny not to eat cheese before bedtime. It was like reading the Chick Tracts recast as moral fables for our age, but with Satan replaced with more secular bogeymen.” (Source https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Creator/NewEnglishLibrary)
While I’m not going to sit here and defend all of NEL’s output, I think this doesn’t really capture the nuance of what was going on. Certainly some of their books were incredibly right-wing, particularly the Richard Allen Skinhead books. Yet this wasn’t a political view shared by the editorial staff, and definitely not the view of Laurence James. In the excellent 1994 by Stewart Home, James doesn’t pull his punches when talking about Jim Moffat (the alcoholic Canadian writer behind the Richard Allen name).
“JAMES: I can’t remember the catalyst for the skinhead books but Jim started doing them, and he was a terrible old man. He was unreliable, extremely right-wing, a terrible drunk, a liar, he hated kids. What more can I tell you about Jim Moffatt?
HOME: He was a talented hack with reactionary political views and a drink problem.
JAMES: In his early days he was an extremely talented hack, a really good hack writer, but unfortunately, as it went on, he began to believe that he was in touch with youth culture. And youth culture to him was fascist skinheads. He started putting masses of terrible racism in his books. His manuscripts were just completely racist. And I was labouring away trying to get rid of all this from his prose and saying “Jim, sorry, you can’t keep kicking the heads of asians (sic), no, sorry Jim”.” (Source https://www.stewarthomesociety.org/interviews/james.htm)
So how did Laurence James counter this in his writing and was he successful?
Angels from Hell
Angels from Hell is the first in a quartet of books about Gerry Vinson and The Last Heroes chapter. In many ways it’s a very typical biker book following the cliched journey of someone joining the club, and rising up the ranks. Yet there are some very stark differences from other books such as Chopper.
The book starts, as many of the biker books do, with an act of violence.
Jerry Richardson is blind. As he walks down the passage under Hither Green station, between Staplehurst Road and Nightingale Grove, he is mown down by several motorbikes. (According to Stewart Home’s interview with Laurence James, this was a particular fear the writer had when using the tunnel himself.)
“Jerry Richardson had been blind. Now he was dead.” (pg9).
Before his untimely demise, Richardson’s thoughts give us an insight into the political landscape of the book. He has spent the night at the London Buddhist Society, where a faction brought a vote to support the Home Secretary as he tries to stamp out the “Permissive Socialists and their fringe elements”, a vote Jerry opposes.
Already Mick Norman is giving us the sense that this is not a broad minded time in British history.
British society at the time the book is set (slightly in the future – probably late 1970s looking at the dates of the various fake news reports and articles featured in the book, and those in the subsequent series) is portrayed as an authoritarian, verging on totalitarian, regime where all the Hells Angels clubs have either been wiped out or driven underground. While the book focuses on bikers who might not be the most sympathetic of targets, it’s safe to assume that under a government where they were outlawed, other forms of descent and rebellion would also attract the government’s attention.
The Last Heroes chapter have gone underground, only emerging for the occasional run led by their president Vincent.
Norman explains what has happened in the US compared with England, and, in some ways, does predict the rise of the right wing politics that came to dominate in the latter half of the seventies/early eighties.
In this alternative timeline, the US government of a Wallace/Nixon coalition (I assume this is George Wallace) stamp down on the biker subculture, with Reagan as Secretary of State with Special Responsibilities for Social Hygiene leading the charge. After Sonny Barger‘s brakes are cut, leading to his death, the rest of the American HA are rounded up. This leads to the collapse of the subculture across US.
Similar techniques in the UK have a different impact. They serve to drive away the younger members who aren’t really committed, leading to a hardcore whose average age is over thirty. (It’s worth remembering that the backpatch scene in the UK at the time the books were written was still very much a youth subculture, mainly comprising young men in their late teens and early twenties, rather then the more established multi-generational scene it is now.)
Into this background, enter Gerald (Gerry) Vinson and his girlfriend Brenda.
Gerry Vinson is not your typical biker pulp novel stereotype. At twenty-eight years old, he is an arts graduate who wanted to be a teacher (intelligent), spent five years in the army, fighting in Ireland, with a talent for unarmed combat (battle trained). After his five years, he refuses to sign up again, meeting Brenda at the Young Anarchists (politically aware). They share similar views, that the running of the country by the old reactionary right has taken away personal freedoms, and while they admire the ideas of the Angry Brigade, Brenda talks him into seeing the Angels as a disruptive force that can change things.
Very early on, their idealism meets the reality of the Last Heroes and nearly ends in a mess of blood and bone. Gerry has to fight Tiny Terry, who, as the nickname suggests, is anything but Tiny. Armed and brutal, Tiny potentially has the advantage. By calculating and using his experience of unarmed combat, Gerry cripples Terry, finally killing him.
After Gerry wins the fight, Brenda is subjected to sexual abuse by the rest of the members, and because this is a pulp book from the seventies, there is a suggestion that she is turned on by her abuse. This is definitely one of the low points of the book.
Throughout, the central conflict is between Gerry and Vincent, with the carelessness of the latter attracting both the government and the media. This raising of the Last Heroes profile also brings the bikers to the attention of film-maker Donn Simon, who sends out his assistant and occasional lover Rupert Colt to make contact with the Last Heroes, and convince them to take part in his bikesploitation film.
Rupert Colt is clearly coded as gay, and portrayed as very camp. What’s interesting is how Norman develops the friendship between Gerry and Rupert. In many pulp books of the era (particularly those of Richard Allen) gay men are just there as victims to be beaten up. In Angels from Hell, Norman makes it clear that Gerry Vinson, the violent driven rival for the president role in the Last Heroes, has a lot of time for Rupert. Over time this develops into a friendship that carries on throughout the quartet. Don’t get me wrong, some of the stereotyping of other minor characters isn’t anywhere near as nuanced. Nancy the lesbian actor teases the bikers and then gets sexually attacked by them. Tarquin the male lead tries to seduce the chapter president Vincent and gets killed when he doesn’t take no for an answer. Both of these events may make Rupert’s friendship with Gerry seem small change, but it is an advance in a very unforgiving genre.
Although the book continues, the climax of the story happens in the quarry during filming, where one event after another explodes, culminating with a police raid, the officers outclassed and killed by the bikers who have been prepared by Gerry. Out of the chaos most of the Last Heroes escape, fleeing to Wales with the intent to hide out and maybe meet up with an almost mythical second backpatch club; The Wolves.
SFFH Elements of Angels From Hell
On first reading its quite hard to spot any science fiction or fantasy in Angels from Hell, and most of the horror comes from the violence and gore, which is not uncommon for pulp fiction. Yet hidden amongst the usual pulp ingredients is a very clearly dystopian police state.
Although police violence in the seventies (and after) is no secret, the difference in the society shown in Angels from Hell is the scale and visibility.
“Now life for an Angel was very different. Authority had come down on them in the biggest way possible and any gang member caught wearing colours or riding a chopped bike was likely to draw a punitive jail sentence. There was another hazard if you fell into the sticky hands of the fuzz. An unlikely percentage of bikers appearing before the new local magistrate’s court were either carried into the dock on a stretcher, or walked in with broken ribs, teeth missing or other facial injuries.” (pg12)
A knock on effect of the suppression was motorbikes almost going out of production, so all the choppers ridden by the Last Heroes date before 1972.
The main driver for the suppression in the book is Home Secretary George Hayes, and the Hayes code. Not only does this give the police the power to act with impunity, for example when they discuss fitting up a police informant with drugs, but also allows, even encourages, vigilante groups.
When one thinks of vigilante groups the image that comes to mind is either masked paramilitaries, or enraged suburban homeowners. In Angels from Hell they are portrayed slightly differently.
“Scurrying through the side streets, black dots of people, all heading for the motorway. Mainly women. Not young, hair swept up in curlers. A few men. Drab clothes. Some women in dressing-gowns and lime-green fluffy slippers. Occasionally a flash of weak sunlight off something metal held in the hand or tucked in the belt. Up and onto the road. Hundreds. Waiting.” (pg 90)
“The women opened out as the bikes roared at them, let them through. Closed up, encircled the bike lying on its side. Stood ringing the fallen Angel. Dylan, struggling to his feet, leaving his hog. Looking round him.
Police stopping, beyond the circle. Seeing, but not interfering. No way round, and others had held their chance. Got clean away, sneaking into their meeting place. And the vans made it. All but one.
He didn’t try and run. He didn’t try and fight. He just stood there as they tore him down. As the knives flashed and the nails tore, he died. Quickly. The pain was not long.
Although he died quickly, the mob were not easily satisfied. His head was hacked from his shoulders and passed gleefully from hand to hand. His clothes were ripped to shreds. Some women dipped pieces of his jacket in his blood and took them away. One elderly women (sic), dressing gown and hair still in tight curlers, got the biggest cheer when she went and sliced his genitals from the white flesh of his stomach, holding them high over his head.
Violence breeds violence.
All the Last Heroes made their rendezvous. All but one.
Dylan.” (pg 91)
It’s tempting to think that Norman used the image of older women as murderous vigilantes purely for shock value, but reading Stewart Home’s interview, I think that he is far too considered for that.
I wonder if he included this image of housewives tearing apart a biker as a way of countering the images of male violence included in pulp fiction. I’m not claiming that he was purely focused on redressing the balance, he is writing pulp and does include acts of graphic sexual violence designed to shock. There is a sense that he is aware of some of the prejudices of his contemporaries, particularly Jim Moffat writing as Richard Allen, and tried to do something different in his own work.
He is also tapping into the familiar image of the (mainly older) female wrestling audience of the seventies who would think nothing of attacking the wrestlers with umbrellas and handbags.
At the end of the book, the failed police operation leading to the high profile Quarry Slaughter, forces the Home Secretary Georg Hayes to retire, and the government to go to the country for a general election. In the aftermath of fifty police deaths and no biker convictions, the public have no appetite to live under such an oppressive system anymore, and vote for a more permissive government.
Although Norman positions the government as socialist, when such an oppressive police system became a reality, it was under the Conservatives as the Thatcher government sought to suppress those who did not conform, including;
and New Age Travellers
In the TV Tropes quote at the start of this piece, they try to align NEL with a right-wing suppressive viewpoint, I would argue that Norman is showing that such an oppressive government will fail.
So, even though the SFFH aspect of Angels from Hell feels light, it is definitely there, and also acts as the basis for setting up the following books in the series which have a far more obvious SFFH feel.
Norman likes playing with form, particularly breaking up the main story with epistolary chapters, including police memos, news broadcasts, press clippings, historical reflections from fictional academic texts, and teenage poetry. These two to three page interjections are effective in allowing Norman to work in different perspectives and exposition without losing the pace.
During the finale in the quarry, Norman breaks the text using scene directions, echoing the film location setting. This lets him cut between different events without jarring the reader.
In several places during the story, he also breaks the fourth wall, addressing the reader directly.
By using these different techniques, Norman prevents the story feeling stale, managing to vary the pace and atmosphere.
As with many of the NEL books, they refer to events in other NEL books. On page seven, Norman describes;
“The violence and killings by young hoodlums reached its anarchistic peak in the Salisbury Festival of Heavy Rock. The massive slaughter has been caused, according to the television, by rival gangs of Hell’s Angels fighting and by the death on stage of two members of an Afro group, shot, so left-wing troublemakers insisted, by army units sent in by worried politicians. Whoever started it, the blood of the gentle people had been liberally split in an unprecedented tribute to political paranoia.” (pg 7)
This seems to echo the events at the end of Alex Stuart’s The Bikers.
There is an even more explicit reference on page 53.
“It’s no bloody good. You’re still living in the past, when it was all colours and runs and tangling with the law or the skinheads. The days of Little Larry and Chopper are gone, Vincent. I know it. You ought to know it.“
(Although in The Bikers it’s Little Billy and Larry the Lamb, with Chopper appearing the eponymous protagonist in the novel by Peter Cave.)
On page ten, before the News reports on Jerry Richardson’s death, they talk about a round-the-world yachtsman called Mike Cornelius lost at sea in his ketch, Elric, all clear references to Michael Moorcock and his work.
On Page 69 Rupert goes to a bookshop on Berwick Street, Soho called Light She Was And Fleet Of Foot, a clear stand-in for the famous science fiction bookshop, Dark They Were, And Golden Eyed.
In Angels from Hell, the bookshop is run by a Mary Shelley, while in reality Dark They Were… was founded by Derek ‘Bram’ Stoke.
When I first started rereading Angels from Hell I wondered if the quarry scene had been influenced by the biker scenes in Ken Russell’s Tommy. On checking the dates, Angels from Hell came out in 1973 while filming for Tommy happened in 1974.
I wonder (though have no evidence other than the dates) if the scene in the book influenced the scene in the film. However, it was quite common for bikers to party in quarries as they were often far from towns and the attention of the police. If you want to find out more about the bikers involved in Ken Russell’s film, there is a good article about the Black Angels MC North East Coast here, and an archive Guardian article from 1975 here.
In many ways Angels from Hell has more in common with the run of the mill bikesploitation/youth subculture pulp books than the strangeness of The Devil’s Rider. Yet, even with the fairly typical storyline, the five minutes in the future, dystopian oppressive police state with middle-aged women vigilantes firmly places this in speculative fiction. While the story-line is far too pulp to be seen as progressive by today’s standards, I admire Laurence James in his Mick Norman persona for introducing different gender roles, non right wing protagonists, and sympathetic gay characters at a time when this wasn’t at all common in the youth subculture genre of fiction.
In the 1994 interview by Stewart Home, James is explicit about his approach.
“One of things I always try and do in all my writing is subvert expectations.” (Source https://www.stewarthomesociety.org/interviews/james.htm)
In my opinion while not moving too far away from the core of the biker pulp novel, he manages to succeed, laying groundwork for taking that further in the following novels of his Angels quartet.