by Guy N Smith
176 pages, Black Hill Books
Review by Pat Black
“I’m not reviewing this one. It was too much. People will think I’m some sort of nut.”
But here I am. Maybe my compulsion to review the trash fiction of Guy N Smith is linked to the atavistic impulse to read it in the first place.
In saying I won’t read any more of Smith’s work, I feel like Renton in Trainspotting. That part where he whips off the tourniquet, springs up from the floorboards and declares that he’s done with the gear. And Mother Superior smiles and nods. Sure you are, mate.
Smith has written a few werewolf novels, though not quite as many as he has about giant crustaceans re-organising the food chain. There is something compelling about the ancient folklore involved in lycanthropy. Somewhere out there in the mist and the darkness is a monster which was a person at one point, surrendered to terrible rages and lusts: the beast within. But, semi-detached from killing and blood, these stories often betray a yearning to return to a more feral life lived in the open. For Guy N Smith - a keen outdoorsman and certainly someone who has killed to eat - you suspect this is a theme close to his heart.
I expected Wolfcurse to be something along the same lines as his other wolfy novels, a bit of pulp fun. But it is different to the usual Guy N Smith fare. There is an unconfirmed rumour he wrote this book in response to criticism that he couldn’t be a “serious author” in his chosen genre. Smith sets about proving his doubters wrong, aiming for psychological realism in the tale of a suburban British man’s mental collapse.
Wolfcurse has got nothing to do with ripped Victorian ruff shirts, misty moors or silver bullets. There isn’t even a curse as such. Certainly the snarling wolfman on the front cover with the 1970s lambchops and dicey teeth doesn’t appear in this story.
Here’s the thing which really shook me up, though. For its first third, Wolfcurse is… quite good. It’s both a compelling story and a fascinating human study. In parts, it’s easily the best stuff Smith has ever created.
But then… oh, Guy! Why did you have to go all rapey on us?
The cursed man is Ray Tyler. He’s middle-aged, he works in a bank, his boss is an *rsehole, and his wife is a b*tch. There is a tragedy lurking in the background, the death of a child. This may be a factor in what happens, but maybe not.
For reasons that are never fully explained, Tyler detonates into unstoppable rages, lashing out at everything that’s wrong with his life. He’s less of a werewolf than he is the Incredible Hulk. This is apparent in the opening scene, when he gives three teenage thugs the bleaching of their lives. I feel no shame in saying I loved the parts where violence is dished out to unpleasant people. It slakes our own bloodlust, the thirst for nasty folk to be punished, and severely.
After this, Ray’s anger seeps into his working life. I know the young Guy N Smith was encouraged to follow in his father’s footsteps into a career in banking. I would imagine the lad was bored rigid in a collar and tie. That ennui and frustration surely informs his lead character’s working life in Wolfcurse, particularly his sour assessment of the climbers, bullies and treacherous creeps infesting every office in the world.
A particular target for Tyler’s anger is his short-fused bank manager, who pulls Tyler into his office to monster him for a perceived mistake. Things get physical; Tyler has the immense satisfaction of spreading his boss’s nose across his face. Who, in all honesty, can say they have never wanted to do that at some point in life?
Then his nosey, obnoxious neighbours get involved. Tyler is a self-sufficiency buff with a dream of providing for himself from the land and livestock. This extends to keeping a chicken coop in his garden. Tyler’s neighbour, a smirking wet blanket, doesn’t like that. Cue yet more overwhelming, intoxicating rage after Tyler’s territory is p*ssed upon.
This is when Wolfcurse is at its best. Like Falling Down, it’s not just the story of a personal breakdown, but also an examination of how society sometimes fails us. It indulges our fantasies of what we’d love to say and do to the irritants we all have to put up with for the sake of a quiet life.
Tyler doesn’t really become a werewolf. We can be sure it’s all in his head. The doubt belongs to him alone. At first, he thinks he’s affected by the moon; then he suspects he’s been infected in some way by a second-hand book on folklore, a carrier for the curse.
Slyly, the author undermines these conceits throughout the novel. There might be a scientific explanation for Tyler’s blood-soaked breakdown. Perhaps it’s lycanthropy, an actual mental disease where people believe they are wolves and start biting folk. Tyler recalls loping around on all fours in the moonlight, but we can never be sure if he’s imagined this or not.
Whatever the cause, Tyler begins to black out when he heads outdoors after dark. He wakes up with clotted blood under his fingernails; he fears that the wolf within has completely taken over.
The werewolf myth taps into feral instincts - killing rage; possessing great strength and power; becoming something lethal, something to be feared. It could be a metaphor for suppressed, perhaps transgressive lust. It could also stand for homosexuality, with the transformation reflecting a hidden compulsion which can cause terrible psychological difficulties for conflicted people. There’s also the Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario, whereby a mild-mannered person might be turned into someone awful after taking a drink.
Another angle was brilliantly examined in I Was A Teenage Werewolf: lycanthropy as a metaphor for emerging sexuality in adolescence. Similarly, the two lupine sisters in Ginger Snaps are starting to come to terms with their own nascent sexual power, manifest as wolfishness. That movie surely began life as a joke about “the curse”.
Wolfcurse had some interesting things to say about how we live our lives versus how we’d like to… until Smith examines Tyler’s sexual appetites. This amounts to rape. First, he assaults his unpleasant wife; then, a frisky, free-spirited neighbour. The sex and violence continues to mingle, to ultimately murderous effect.
Tyler is a maniac. The novel becomes plain nasty, and nigh-on unreadable. “Trigger warning” doesn’t quite cover it.
What particularly galls about these parts is that, the next morning, Tyler semi-rationalises what he’s done. Perhaps an unpleasant sign of the times Smith was writing in (Wolfcurse was first published in 1981), Tyler doesn’t process sexual assault as a serious crime. “She doesn’t seem the type to call the police,” he muses, in consideration of one victim, thinking that he might just get away with it. There’s a similar suggestion that the police will turn a blind eye to complaints of domestic abuse – phew, another problem averted! At the expense of virtue-signalling, this is some very problematic material indeed.
You could argue that without a sexual element, Smith’s tale of a man’s total moral disintegration would be incomplete. Perhaps this ultimate act of taking what we wish, when we wish, represents the final dissolution of civility in a person, the utter disregard of another person’s thoughts and feelings. Even worse, we know that this happens to someone, somewhere, in the real world, every day. It’s harder to handle than the more straightforward violent encounters – but why is it that we should we be less shocked by some teenagers being beaten into a pulp than we are about sexual violence?
None of these angles are explored by Smith, as Tyler blunders through increasingly horrifying acts before finally doing a bunk.
A perfect finale would have seen Tyler running loose in the forest, his dreadful shadow side in its element at last. Instead, he ends up at the seaside, hooks up with a sleazy woman, smokes some wacky baccy and carries out more awful crimes before he meets his fate.
It’s never quite clear what Tyler’s problem is. Perhaps he simply lost his mind. In his subtle suggestions that there’s no supernatural element at all, Smith displays more subtlety than I would have credited him with previously. In the case of one girl found slaughtered in a public park which Tyler has taken to prowling after sunset, it seems that the killer used a knife. “That can’t be me!” Tyler shrieks, upon reading the headlines. “I don’t use knives!”
But it was Tyler, Smith gently insists. It was him all along. Maybe he used a knife, too. There’s neither rhyme nor reason to such brutal, sordid madness.