Some teenagers hid Playboys or hash pipes in their closets. Me and my friends hid adult paperback books. Lots of them. Most of them horror novels. Real ghastly ones too, full of gore, and devils, sacrilege and sex; ones our Dad’s read and then tossed for Mom to drop off at a thrift shop or, like my Mom would do if I didn’t get to them first, throw them in the fireplace because she was too embarrassed to take them anywhere let alone have them in the house for fear her overly curious daughters might read them.
Us Gen X kids, the kind who were raised on horror comics and alien invasion films, snatched up “filth-fiction” like gold bars. We traded them like secrets, sneaking them into school in our coats and into our lockers. We passed them out between each other like contraband. Forbidden wisdom. The ultimate high.
Other than Stephen King’s, The Stand, (and a ridiculous romance novel about a woman whose lover is Big Foot) I can think of no other book passed around faster in the Summer of 1983 nor hidden away quicker from the eyes of prying adults than The Hell Candidate (1981 paperback). Written by Thomas Luke, the pen name of the great horror writer, Graham Masterton, it was for many of us our first foray into the world of modern politics.
The story is about an electoral hopeful, named Hunter Peal, who everyone believes has no chance of winning the Presidential Election. First off, he’s a rather milch toasty, effeminate sort of guy pitted in the race against some real aggressive assholes. Then one night he hears a disembodied voice from behind the door in his bedroom call to him, promising him everything he’s ever wanted if he’ll only just say “yes”. He does, and a dark and sinister spirit enters his soul, empowering him with the powers of Satan.
Hunter Peal literally becomes a candidate from Hell; a man who women suddenly find irresistible and who men learn to fear. He becomes a man who dreams of total world dominion and destruction. He can have anything he wants; money, fame, women; he can make anything happen including causing mass hallucinations at political rallies, cause his enemies to literally crap their pants with a single glance and/or drop dead in his presence. He doesn’t have good intentions. He’s not a nice guy.
In the beginnings of Reagan America, a time when young people watched in helpless apprehension as religious zealotry and xenophobic paranoia storm trooped the land, it wasn’t so much the book cover we all were hiding from adult eyes, it was the book’s content. Never mind the unpatriotic and “unChristian” cover. What was inside was worse….or better, depending on your tastes or curiosities.
Even for hardcore seasoned horror fans, the novel was a supreme shocker in that it had a death by demonic sex scene (DDSS) in it between a woman and a lice-infested, half-beast/half-man Satan/Baphomet that truly must have pushed the boundaries of obscenity laws at the time. I’m not going to ruin it for you but I’ll give you a hint: Satan has two penises, each the size and girth of a man’s forearm. Knowing that, it’s pretty obvious what he uses them for. They, too, are weapons of mass destruction.
In every review I read online prior to writing this article not one single reviewer made mention of this once read/never forgotten scene which could mean one of three things; it didn’t phase them, they were too uncomfortable to mention it or perhaps by not having read an original US paperback copy the scene had been edited out of later editions. Was it later censored? I don’t really know. But it’s curious to me how anyone can fail to mention something so exceedingly perverse as that scene. It actually made the book notoriously known. It’s the only reason it got passed around.
Anytime you saw a copy of The Hell Candidate back in The 80s, it always fell open creased to that scene. It was the most read, most cringed over, most grossed out by, most discussed and most shared scene in the entire book. In fact, the first time I ever saw the book was when a friend pulled it from his jacket, opened it to the scene and said, with a wide-eyed expression as if he was about to share the greatest hidden treasure ever, “Read this part right here…holy fuck.” (exact phrase)
I think that was how just about everyone under the age of 18 was introduced to the book. I mean…c’mon? Horror novel aside, no teenage kid was going to read a horror novel about presidential politics no matter how kickass the cover was. Just the first few pages were enough to deter your average teenager to toss it and turn on Mtv. All this talk about what this one guy thought about another guy blah blah blah….politics…blah blah blah…boring.
I suspect a lot of them just read the death by demonic sex scene and that was it. But not me. Not my close friends, either. We read the whole thing. We loved it. It taught us things about politics we would never learn in school. Book nerds are always looking for enlightenment. It did not disappoint.
We discussed it at length. Not the DDSS (which got old real fast unless you were showing it to someone to get their first time reaction) but the actual story, and our fears of how that book mirrored in many ways the political world we were growing up in. President Reagan seemed a lot like Hunter Peal to us. Too much, in fact.
Although we weren’t religious and didn’t believe in Satan (who we only saw as an interesting mythological character) we understood that the evil nature of Hunter Peal was something no one needs supernatural forces to develop. You can be a manipulative, evil bastard on your own. With Reagan as President, The Cold War seemed to have plummeted to subzero glacial temperature by 1983 as paranoia in America rose alongside religious zealotism, two very bad things in combination.
Reagan was an unfunny President. All he talked about was war. War here, war there, war everywhere. Soviet-this and Soviet-that. Jesus-Soviet-War-God-Embargo-Bombs-Away bullshit. He scared us and every other kid old enough to understand what was going on. He was the saint of idiots to us. A propagandist at best. But he and his cabinet were very effective at fooling America into believing his hype. That was scary, too. Adults were eating his propaganda up like custard. Some, three decades later, are still eating it up.
One has to take into consideration that, as young people, here we were right smack in the middle of a brand new technological wonderland created by video games, arcades, electronic music and cable TV; a world where entire channels, music stations and commercial marketing campaigns were dedicated to our tastes for the first time in American history. We were surrounded by a burgeoning electronic reality where everything was vividly colored, fresh, new and ours. It was our era. A total youth era, one that hadn’t occurred since The 1920s in America. Yet here was this old, weird President on TV every night buzz killing our wonderland with religious superstition and tedious, corny patriotism that had went out of style during the Eisenhower era.
The world Reagan spoke of and the one we were living in just didn’t seem to connect on any level. To say his ideologies were in contrast to young America is a gross understatement. To us, he was from another planet. He was regressive thinking personified. A dinosaur bone plucked from the baked earth of the battlefields of yore where men named Patton and Bradley once roamed. He envisioned the ideal American male as being the kind who wears a white button shirt and a cardigan, carries a Bible everywhere he goes and is looking forward to the day he can sign up for Selective Service so he can fight in one of his wars someday while his doting, virginal girlfriend waits at home in the kitchen dreaming of all the babies she’s going to bear. He scowled at 80s youth who didn’t fit this antiquated vision. He thought we were trash. Slackers. The only redeeming quality he ever saw in video games was that he believed they may be inadvertently training us as fighter pilots or infantry soldiers. We thought he was cripplingly uncool. He was.
But over time, as much as he creeped us out, most of us started believing some of the things he said, and so much so that eventually we truly did wonder sometimes if we’d ever live long enough to grow up. After all, if you tell someone that they’re under constant threat of danger and annihilation from enemy missiles, pound it over and over into their heads like a nail, eventually paranoia is going to stick.
What was so terrifying about The Hell Candidate, beyond all the supernatural stuff we knew was only fantasy, was that the destruction of America by nuclear weapons was a very real possibility back then. In fact, the year me and my book trading friends began reading The Hell Candidate, an intercontinental ballistic missile strike between the Soviet Union and the USA had been averted only by seconds.
On September 26, 1983, a malfunctioning Soviet early warning satellite system had falsely sounded the alarm that the USA had launched a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Had it not been for the quick thinking Soviet officer, Stanislav Petrov, who deduced the warning alarm was false, Russia would have launched a retaliatory strike against us and millions of people would have died in America that day.
There’s a reason Petrov is known as The Man Who Saved The World...because he did.
So we lived in the shadow of that close call, feeling that at any time a nuclear war could wipe us out. It seems comical now but because of that near miss and Reagan constantly reinforcing that fear, these became very real concerns for youth of The 80s. We thought and talked about “nukes” all the time. I can remember whole summer evenings laying out in the grass with my friends where that was the prevailing topic. Not if it would happen or how we could stop it but what we would do, where we would run, how we would live when it did. We took the threat very seriously.
This is why an inordinate amount of popular movies made for the teen market during the 80s had centralized themes of political and nuclear destruction with The Soviet Union often as a nemesis; i.e. War Games (1983), Red Dawn (1984) and The Day After (1983). Even Ivan Drago in Rocky IV was a Soviet bad guy. Tron (1982) has a distinct USA vs. Soviet theme; the good guy wears blue and the enemies wear red.
Like Reagan, the fictitious Hell Candidate Hunter Peal envisioned a return to a 1950s America of white, nuclear families living in economic bliss and insulated by religious dogma, in a country whose economy is supported by factories churning out arms and munitions to conquer the world’s never-ending legions of bogeymen. According to the novel, Peal wants to see bombers filling the skies like flocks of deadly birds, wiping out foreign targets.
“How many of you can say that you wouldn’t choose to live in an America where that many bombers could fly over your heads?”, Peal asks in the book. He sounded like “Mr. War All The Time” Reagan to us, the guy who not only ranted about increasing our military but also had the insane idea of arming outer space, too. He called it “Star Wars”. His devout supporters called it “The Army of God”. Funny how 30 years later some people forget the sheer insanity of that concept.
Also Reagan, again like Peal, spoke often of how he wanted all of America’s foreign “enemies” wiped out by military strikes or starved by embargoes until their governments imploded from within and fell into civil war. He had indeed supported genocide in South America. He also sat back and did nothing as hundreds of thousands of people, mostly gay men, died of AIDS.
So when we read the book we came to envision Peal as Reagan whether the author intended the reader to or not. Hunter Peal, the sadistic, war-mongering character possessed by Satan in The Hell Candidate became a fictional image synonymous with Ronald Reagan to thousands of ambitious teen readers across America, and probably millions of adults world wide as well. Even the death by sex scene became part of the legend and a frequent joke between us kids. Reagan was, figuratively speaking, bending us over and royally double-screwing our entire generation
I don’t know if Luke/Masterton intended that comparison but that’s how we took it.* In the end it doesn’t really matter, and after 34 years who really cares if he did or not? We did grow up, no nukes wiped us out, and we became the young people who stood up as adults in the late 80s and 90s and rejected the ideologies The Reagan Era tried to poison our minds with. We are the Democrats and Liberals marching in the streets today; the ones who learned a hard lesson about populist politics, learned how to fight it and grew up to reject all of it. Their propaganda failed.
Speaking for myself, I thank Graham Masterton/Thomas Luke for writing that novel. The Hell Candidate gave an entire generation of young Gen X and late Boomers a chance to think for themselves at a time in America when we were being discouraged to do so.
If you like horror novels, the kind that make you catch your breath at certain parts, can change your perception of the temperature in the room and leave you with impressions that can’t be unseen for days, if ever –then this is your book. It really is an absolute masterpiece and in my opinion one of the weirdest, most twisted horror tales ever told, where the message, “Be careful who you vote for” really makes a hell of a lot of sense.
* NOTE: The author Graham Masterton a.k.a. Thomas Luke contacted me after this article was published and was somewhat surprised that Hunter Peal, The Hell Candidate, had been perceived as being a characterization of President Ronald Reagan as he did not intend the comparison at all. The Late President Reagan’s brother, Neil, was a friend of the author.
UPDATE: Due to the recent election of President Trump, The Hell Candidate has been enjoying renewed interest. According to Amazon, a hard cover version of the novel is selling for just under $2000.
Less expensive paperbacks copies are available here.