by Guy N Smith
166 pages, Black Hill Books
Review by Pat Black
In five years of Booksquawk, Guy N Smith has become our most-reviewed author.
If you asked us why this is, I’m not sure we’d be able to give a satisfactory answer. As prolific as Georges Simeon or Agatha Christie, Smith has pumped out dozens of novels over forty years. Smith won’t be troubling the Nobel committee at any time, but his stories do scratch an itch we might not otherwise admit to in polite society. And we keep going back to them.
Smith made his name as a pulp horror writer in the mid-1970s, first finding fame with the bestselling Night of the Crabs when the world was crazy for creatures-hate-you stories. His name will be familiar to 80s kids like me who derived a curious thrill in their younger years from glancing at the horror section in WH Smith and elsewhere – oh so cheap, oh so nasty, and oh so satisfying.
The “horror boom” is long gone – depressingly, so is one of its best-known black magicians, James Herbert - and Smith’s short n’ sharp works with their unforgettably grim covers are little more than a fond memory on whatever high street bookshelves remain.
Happily, though, Smith has embraced digital platforms with an enthusiasm lacking in many of his contemporaries, and his entire back catalogue, from Werewolf By Night onwards, is now available to download to your e-reader of choice.
As he approaches his 75th birthday, the evergreen Smith is back with a short fiction collection, Hangman’s Hotel and Other Stories.
We get things rolling with the title story, which sees a retired hanging judge enjoying an overnight stay in a fancy new hotel – a converted prison. The bones of many of the men he sentenced to death still moulder under the flagstones, and he looks forward to a night in the room which was once the execution chamber, where many a neck was stretched (and many a head popped off, too, whenever the hangman got his sums wrong). Anyone would think the judge had some sort of death wish… So no-one should be massively surprised as to how things turn out.
Next up is “The Black Druid”, a tale of malevolent magic and naughty nudeness following a girl on a night out with her female work colleagues. The girls get a bit carried away during some moonlight shenanigans at an ancient druidic site. Clothes and inhibitions are cast aside, even though the girl is a tad nervous about the local legend of the black druid. She might have been better off had she been a little more cautious about her jealous boyfriend...
Smith’s giant flesh-eating crustaceans are a staple dish in both his short and long-form fiction, and there’s a brilliant addition to his sideways-walking canon in “Crabs: The Survivor”. Following in the wake of events at the end of the previous Crabs novel, a husband and wife find themselves in a life, death or crabsticks situation when one of the surviving seafood specimens seeks to make a meal of them in their own home.
Now we come to the main business of Hangman’s Hotel, and an insight into one of Smith’s main inspirations as a writer and as a person: huntin’ and shootin’. Smith is mad keen on outdoor pursuits, particularly if he’s pursuing game from behind the trigger of some well-kept firearms, and just about every other story in the book reflects this.
“Savage Safari” was my favourite. It sees a big game hunter and a scientist head way down deep in the middle of the Congo to find two creatures of note. One is a notorious bull elephant which the hunter is keen to see decorating his mantelpiece. The other is mokele mbembe, Africa’s version of the Loch Ness monster, which the scientist believes to be a diplodocus. A competitive game warden is added to the mix for conflict’s sake.
Diplodocus. That’s probably my favourite word. I loved those syllables from the moment I first had them sounded-out to me by my sister from a Ladybird picture book, and I always will.
Anyway, the mystery creature in “Savage Safari” is not the docile, elongated, easily-sculpted-in-Plasticene di-plo-do-cus. Let’s just say that the hunters are made to work hard for their dinner, lest they become it.
This is the sort of story I would read, and enjoy, at any age. A bunch of guys, hunting a monster, somewhere exotic. Perfect escapist reading.
“Zombie Gunfighter” does what it says on the tin. There’s no big game hunting in this story, but there is plenty of gunfire as the living dead return to a town in the old west to claim revenge on behalf of a native American bad-medicine man. Rootin, tootin’ and shootin’ ensues, with the added spice of a lynched gunfighter shamble-moseying into town alongside his fellow zombies. Smith is a big fan of westerns, so this cowboys n’ carrion mash-up must have been a busman’s holiday to write.
Smith brings back another character from his back catalogue – Mark Sabat, ex-SAS soldier and catholic priest turned full-time battler of paranormal evils. I’d never encountered Sabat before, though I had heard of him. I pictured a mixture of Doctor Strange and Uri Geller, a man with a seventies playboy moustache with a white streak in his hair; a wearer of amulets, black shirts open at the six-foot-wide collars and, probably, Hai Karate. Looking at the covers of the Sabat books, I was bang on the money – and it seems that Sabat bears a close resemblance to early photos of his creator…
This story astonished me. Partway through it I wondered whether the author had lost his mind, or if I had. It sees Sabat track down a witch to her woodland home in Poland, in a bid to thwart a Satanic plot.
Sabat, for a tough customer who knows every trick in the book, almost comes a cropper when the witch takes the unusual though highly predictable step of taking her clothes off for him when he walks through her door. Sabat’s ghost-hunting pantaloons are dropped. Vigorous booksex is applied.
Sabat’s laugh-out-loud trouser-based folly reminded me of something Sir Roger Moore said about the scene in The Spy Who Loved Me where James Bond drives up a beach in his amphibious Lotus Esprit, rolls down the window and hands a fish to an astonished sunbather.
Producer Cubby Broccoli saw this in the script and exploded: “How would Bond manage to get hold of a fish without rolling down the damn window under the sea?”
Sir Rog replied (suavely, of course): “It’s movies, Cubby.”
Sabat’s footsteps are dogged in this journey by the sneering voice of his evil brother, who I presume made life difficult in a previous adventure. I was never quite sure what was going on with this character – he intrudes on the narrative, interjecting into Sabat’s thought processes as a deranged interior monologue. Does he live in Sabat’s head? Was he present as a supernatural entity? Did Sabat imagine the whole lot? I could never quite tell.
I began to envisage an alternative storyline where it is revealed that Mark Sabat isn’t a paranormal investigator and battler of demons, but is in fact a lunatic, breaking into people’s houses and brutally murdering them while acting out his worryingly detailed delusions.
There can be no doubt that I’ll experience Mark Sabat’s previous adventures in a Squawking yet-to-be.
The rest of the book sees hunters encountering a paranormal menace of some sort, usually in thick woodland or remote glens. I didn’t mind the repetition. I happen to like spooky stories set on blasted planes and lonely countryside. And if there’s one thing you can credit Smith for, it’s a sense of location, and the eeriness that can descend upon the lonely British wilderness at any time of day or night.
“Dead on Cue” sees a young boy taken out on a spooky hunt on Boxing Day with landed gentry who may have a secret to keep.
“Devil of the Dark Forest” sees a near-mythical wild boar stalked in Germany, while “Death in the Snow” has similar business on its mind as deer are shot at in a forest.
“The Beast in the Mist” sees another hunter heading to Scotland to bag a semi-mythical stag, with grim, though entirely foreseeable consequences. “The House in the Wood” has even more shooting on its mind, though this was more of a straightforward haunted house potboiler.
“Winged Evil” features ghost eagles, luring gamekeepers and poachers alike to their doom in a squidgy bog (shades of The Sucking Pit?), while “Poacher’s Curse” shared remarkably similar DNA. The final story, “Dwellers in the Dark”, was more of a piece with “The House in the Wood”, although there is some huntin’ and shootin’ involved.
They say you should write what you know, and you can’t fault Smith here. He likes his huntin’ and shootin’, and many of these tales first appeared in The Countryman’s Weekly, where Smith has an editorial position in the huntin’ and shootin’ section. A far better title for this book would have been Scary Huntin’ and Shootin’ Stories. As well as huntin’ and shootin’ (with the odd segue into fishin’ if we count the Crabs, though of course they aren’t fish), our author does evoke a sense of location extremely well. It’s all too easy to imagine Smith out in the countryside, resplendent in tweed and wellies, a gleaming shotgun in the crook of his elbow, dreaming up ancient horrors and spooky events even as his eyes rove the treeline for grouse.
For the rest of us, Smith’s stories are a treat, a naughty bedtime snack just before you turn in. He continues to write and publish, and he has confirmed that a sequel to The Slime Beast is on the way. This has caused great excitement at Booksquawk Towers.
Our interview with the great man himself can be found here.