April 21, 2013


by Guy N Smith
178 pages, Black Hill Books

Review by Pat Black

The lights are out, the candles are lit… and out comes the cheese board. What a moment. Whether guest or host, no matter how full up you feel from your meal, you can’t stay away from that cheese. And why should you? A little bit of what you fancy, and all that. Go on, just a little corner. That’s it.

I shouldn’t say we’re fans of Guy N Smith on Booksquawk, exactly, but we’ve given him a fair crack of the whip. Mr Proops has very kindly gone through the British pulp horror stalwart’s Crabs series for you lucky people. That’s right – actual giant crabs, which can click you in half with their claws before sucking up your guts like chow mein.

Night of the Werewolf is my intro to the world of Smith’s novels, and to be fair, I had been warned. Although my esteemed colleague can’t seem to stay away from Smith’s work, he is entirely up-front that it’s crap. I was expecting a bit of fun, a bloody romp – no harm in a bit of cheese, is there? And it is that. But there’s an added bit of interest owing to the fact that this book is a “lost” novel of Smith’s. Originally published in Germany in 1976, it’s only now coming to light, as Smith’s titles are given a new lease of death on Kindle.

The first couple of pages are one in the eye for “show, not tell” bores. We meet Odell, a Van Helsing-esque monster hunter keeping a lookout for our titular lycanthrope in the middle of a forest, on the first night of the full moon. We are told that this guy has 20 years’ experience in the monster-hunting business, and is in south-west Scotland to take out a werewolf who has killed a few sheep before tomatoing a luckless shepherd.

You could see how other writers might have weaved this info into a more gently-unfolding plot, like good little novelists are supposed to. But I admire Smith’s braggadocio. Here’s the story, here’s what Odell’s up to, this is where he is and what he’s after - and stuff your subtlety. No time is wasted: this is the essence of economy.

Now that I’ve placed that feather in Smith’s cap, I have the unpleasant duty of telling you that Night of the Werewolf is astoundingly crap. It doesn’t fail because it’s cheese, or because its subject matter is low and its thrills come cheap – there’s nothing wrong with any of these things now and again (especially the cheese). But when you seek to unlace all frilliness and complexity, leaving the story completely bare, and that story defies logic and common sense, then your book is in big trouble and may in fact be crap.

First of all, the tale robs us of suspense, because Odell knows exactly who the town werewolf is. Everyone knows who the town werewolf is, in fact. There’s not even a hunt involved, or any detective work. The wolfman is an obnoxious, Bluto-esque town bully called Angus Broon. No-one thinks to phone the police or even the local dog-catcher about the fact that a blood-crazed beast lives on their doorstep, because they are all frightened of this mouth-breathing lummox. So everyone – including our monster-hunter - knows where this guy lives. Odell should knock the guy’s door and stick a silver bullet or two into his hirsute ass – but he doesn’t, because there would be no protection under law. Only when Broon’s in beast form can Odell carry out his work without any interference or comeback from the police.

Which is fair enough, but… Why not stake the house out? Maybe trail him until the moon rises, then wait for Mr Wolf to leave? While the creature double-checks he’s locked the door with his hairy, clawed hands, BOOM. “What time is it now, Mr Wolf? It’s banishment-from-whence-you-came time.” Job done, off to the pub, curtains, applause, roses.

But no, Odell packs up and goes to his room, puts his feet up, has a cup of tea. He puts himself at great risk by waiting in a forest in the middle of the night for the beast to show, keeping his gleaming, custom-made firearms to hand. I began to wonder if Odell is not very good, or just plain crap. His shooters may be custom but his aim is strictly jumble sale. He misses his shot on the first night and lets the wolf get away, after which it will presumably return to Angus Broon’s house to detransmogrify. Remember, Odell knows where he lives. Bad luck, eh? Try again tomorrow, maybe?

Odell further demonstrates his crapnicity when the other major characters enter the scene – freelance journalist Ron Hamilton and his German fiancée, Ingrid. They’re enjoying a short break back in the town where Ingrid grew up. The werewolf in the title remembers Ingrid full well, as she spurned his advances when they were younger. And so, in a strange colloid of King Kong and Grosse Point Blank, Angus the werewolf decides he is going to have the lovely Ingrid, whether she wants him or not. Odell and Hamilton seek to protect this damsel in distress from… What? Rape? Ingestion? A pleasing blend of both? You get the idea.

Odell gets his crap on several more times, missing his shot at the hotel where the couple are staying after Broon gets in a fist-fight with Ron. Later, in a supposed safe house, he literally falls asleep on the job, allowing Ingrid to get up and wander out to the shops, alone – as you would, when a gore-guzzling supernatural lustmonster is after you - whereupon she is captured. The two men search the woods for Broon, but the canny shape-shifter doubles back to the house they’re staying in before stealing and sabotaging the weapons Odell has left behind.

It struck me that the entire situation could have been avoided had Odell not been involved. Broon might have carried on molesting sheep. On nights of the full moon, people could have stayed in, locked their doors, shut the curtains, listened to Foster and Allen. Or, you know, called the cops. But the situation could be manageable. As any reporter who has worked that patch will tell you, sheep rustling is big business in the Scottish Borders – so what’s one or two wee lambie-lambs per month as a bit of run-off?

And as for the tourist couple sucked into the plot… There’s always the option of leaving. Even though the bold Broon wrecks their car, and presumably every mechanic in the area has a Krypton factor of fuck all, they could always book a taxi. Or catch a bus. “Hunting a werewolf are you, Mr Odell? A ferocious man-eating beast? Well, why don’t we leave you to it?”

I think this sense of plausibility – quite separate from verisimilitude – is the key test for any piece of fiction or drama. If the story makes sense on its own terms and follows its own rules (unless you are wilfully breaking them for aesthetic reasons, you old rogue), then you’ve nothing to worry about. We’ll buy it. But break that covenant between plausibility, structure and technique, and the result is almost always crap.

The thing which bothers me here is that you can see how a far better novel would have resulted with a quick redraft. Do away with the character of Broon altogether; maybe Odell is the only one who knows a werewolf is on the prowl, being a hunter of these creatures. Make him track the wolfman or woman down. And instead of making Odell crap, you could make him cool. Sort of like Quint in Jaws, but less bonkers, or like Stephen Sommers’ movie version of Van Helsing, but without the whole enterprise seeming like an ADHD teenager’s acid nightmare.

But Smith somehow makes a balls of it. It’s sloppy plotting. Wrong from the start, like that last Batman movie. You wonder if this was a first draft, written in a week, rattled off to the printers and pinged out to hit a deadline.

There is blood and death, surprisingly horrible stuff. It’s curious to note the first few killings aren’t at the claws of a wolfman, but are carried out at knifepoint by Broon in his nine-five guise. Two killings in particular are extremely nasty. Night of the Werewolf is a daft affair with histrionic Hammer horror film dialogue, but when the death comes down, it’s grim. You have to credit Smith for that.

Another tip of the hat for setting. His fictional town of Glencaple is supposed to be in south-west Scotland, and although the wild places around there are less hilly than you might expect, they are heavily forested. And it's one of the best spots in Britain to enjoy a night sky free from light pollution. Werewolves I don't know about, but you can see sparrows flocking there in their hypnotic patterns, especially around this time of year. Add a big bright moon to those diamond-speckled skies over the head of the soughing pines, and that's a wonderful setting.

Although his villagers are thicker than wolfshit, Smith also avoids taking us a wee trip down Brigadoon with bonnie Morag and the misty blue hills. There are no caricature Scots speaking Jocklish – a stumbling block for many far superior writers who try to write in the Scots vernacular without the slightest idea or experience of what they’re talking about.

Looking forward to the dirty bits? Bad luck. No sex please, we're wolfish. There's no naughtiness in this one, but I understand Smith's novels are usually quite racy. This was par for the course for such tomes back in the 1970s and 1980s. There was certainly an appetite for blood, sex and death, given sales figures for horror writing. This fertile period for authors of dark fiction is called the "horror boom". There are theories that the genre's popularity in these times owed something to economic strife, political upheavals and the ever-present threat of nuclear warfare. The thinking goes that there was some societal need for horror, perhaps to blind us to the more banal evils stalking the corridors of Westminster and Washington.
There's a bit of truth in that - but if so, where are the great horror novels of the 2010s? We're in an absolute mess in the west, domestically, economically and geopolitically. Going by the "horror boom" theory, there should be an avalanche of scary books on the bestseller lists. But I can't think of any groundbreaking novels or breakout writers in recent years - certainly no-one to compare to King or Herbert (RIP). Sure, Twilight is a monster, but I consider those to be primarily romance novels.

A more prosaic explanation is that people's thirst for horror, the macabre and the plain disgusting is being slaked by the internet. Think about the first thing you ever saw online that truly shocked or nauseated you. How can Guy N Smith's tale of Dick Dastardly wolfmen running around rooftops compare with the reality of warzones, snuff videos and the increasingly Lovecraftian world of extreme pornography? Night of the Werewolf is Scooby Doo in comparison.
Like the early Hammer films, Smith's werewolf is toothless in the modern world. But although our aged horrors may not quite be so scary or shocking any more, we are affectionate about them. Faces are ripped off, severed heads bounce down the road like coconuts and skulls are smashed like Easter eggs, but this book seems cute. Reading it is an escape from the real world of chaos, carnage, death and grief, not an embrace of it.

Many of Guy N Smith's books are available on Kindle at very low prices. They are mostly horror novels, but he had a good pop at other insalubrious genres - dirty truckers, crime, straight-up-and-down pornography. It must be heartening for the guy to have his books out there and available for people again. He was, and is, prolific. All that you can ask as an artist is for your work to survive.

I’ve given Smith a kicking here, but at the end of the day he’s a published, professional author with an extensive back catalogue, and I am not. For all my snark, if you’re looking for a bit of fun and a bloody romp, then this ticks the boxes. It’s a cheap thrill. Smith’s precedent is in the pages of the penny dreadfuls, in Varney the Vampyre, or any number of killer titles from yesteryear.

His books are, above all, not meant to be taken seriously, so I guess this review was a failure from the start. Guy N Smith’s novels are not pretentious. They are not abstruse. And they are not, praise Cthulhu, ironic. They are an honest enterprise. This one in particular happens to be crap, but I had a fair idea this would be the case.

Will I be back?

‘Course I will.

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