The Unholy (1982) by John Halkin


There’s an unstoppable homicidal arm loose on the streets of Paris and only a British member of the European Parliament can save the day. Basically an old occult relic discovered in a cave beneath a remote chapel, the arm’s modus operandi is to sever the intended victim’s own arm at the elbow and then to magically attach itself in its place, after which the arm also gains control of the rest of the body, mostly making the host laugh hysterically. Also the arm can jump without any hind legs or anything, but whatevs.

Although the threat here is an occult item slash body part, The Unholy, a Hamlyn original, very much belongs in the James Herbert school of “when animals attack” horror. The victims are all described in some detail, nudging the reader towards a calculated emotional reaction: these aren’t just names in a book who are killed, they are characters made of flesh and blood, tourists and grocers and drunks, and so on, all boiled down to their essential traits and a few quirks in a couple of paragraphs. To Halkin’s credit he’s pretty good at it, too.

This is also as much plot as there is, since not much more is required. After finding the strange arm frozen and dormant in a river, Mark the MEP unwisely takes it to Paris, where it wakes up and begins its killing spree, until the required page length (a slim 156 pages) is reached and the arm is restrained once again. There’s some filler, as the characters go missing and looking for each other, but it never gets boring, thanks to the structure which keeps the reader on the edge: every scene, no matter how meek and mild and mundane, might very well lead to a sudden explosion of blood and horror. And many do.

The Unholy is a surprisingly atmospheric novel, with Halkin feasting on descriptions of fog on the banks of the Seine and car lights disapperaring into the white mist. The main characters, Mark the MEP and Julia the girl ring true enough, although the star of the show is the arm itself. A gnarled, ugly thing with claws, the arm is the honey badger of body parts, it doesn’t give a shit about the laws of physics or anything else, it just kills and kills and kills. The writing goes slightly off the rails at the end, with the arm exhibiting somehow even less obedience for the laws of nature, but by that point, who would actually care? It’s of course all nonsense, more than usual even within its own subgenre, but The Unholy is, fortunately, fun kind of nonsense.

*** (3/5)