War novel nasties can usually be spotted by their titles: The Whores of War, Wheels of Terror, Slaughterground, Cauldron of Blood, Mountain of Skulls, Reign of Hell, Blood on the Baltic. The dust jackets promise demon heroes, corpse-strewn landscapes, sadism and blood. Inside, brutal men, ‘living outside the normal boundaries of reason and fear’, burn, loot, rape and murder their way across the battlefields of an hallucinatory World War Two. These caricatures, owing allegiance to nothing, have been dying in their lurid wasteland since the early 1950s when Sven Hassell’s The Legion of the Damned was first published. Unlike video-nasties, these novels have been around long enough to become quite respectable. Just ask at any W H Smiths or Menzies or local library.
Yet despite their continued popularity, the origins, the readership, even the writers of these war nasties remain obscure. The publishers will say little; only that the great majority of their readers are men and that the books sell very well indeed.