'The Slime Beast' (click here for review) was Guy N. Smith's third and final horror novel before he found fame with the big hit on British beaches during the drought of 1976, 'Night of the Crabs', and it fits very much in the vein of those books that surrounded it. Each of those titles were short and set in the British countryside, into which some sort of horror is introduced to liven up the sleepy locals.
It was originally published by New English Library in April 1976 and reprinted in 1979, the same year it saw publication in West Germany. It had also been included in 'A Bargain Bumper Treble' in 1978, with two other early novels, 'The Sucking Pit' and 'Bats Out of Hell'. Then it was mostly forgotten about until publishers started trawling the author's backlist. Grafton reprinted both it and 'The Sucking Pit' in 1989 with garish new covers from Luis Rey. Phantom Press published it in Poland in 1991 along with a couple of dozen old Smith titles now that the Berlin Wall had fallen and Poles could read horror fiction again.
And that was that for the Slime Beast, as far as anyone expected. However, it refused to be forgotten and Centipede Press published it once more in a collector's edition in 2015: a numbered edition of 250 copies and a lettered edition of 26, each autographed by both Guy and the cover artist, Alan M. Clark. That shocking publication, and presumably decent sales of the e-book released into the wild in 2010, prompted the author to return to the Wash for a sequel no less than 39 years after the original. Enter 'Spawn of the Slime Beast', which, for now, is Guy's most recent horror novel.
What leapt out at me, after reading the sequel immediately after revisiting the original, is just how much has changed in four decades and how much nostalgia plays into this new book.
When Smith wrote 'The Slime Beast' in 1976, the title character was just a flesh-munching monster on the rampage, pure and simple, something to hunt down and kill before its body count got any higher. In 2015, while he doesn't play it up particularly, the new Slime Beast is another endangered species, so endangered that nobody knew it even existed before the events of the first book and everyone thinks is gone until similar events in the second.
The Wash, which Smith knew so well as a hunter on wildfowling trips, is now a European Union Special Protection Area, internationally important for seventeen different species of bird. As Gun Editor of 'The Countryman's Weekly', Smith is well aware of the changes in legislation and the knock-on effects, good and bad, that change the British countryside. Characters here are introduced not only as fodder for the new Slime Beast but as commentary on that change.
Weatherbeaten Brian Bromley is 'one of the few full-time professional guides left here', given that times have changed the wildfowling industry. Frank Forman and George Scott are hunters, visiting the Wash after being banned from the Solway Firth for shooting a barnacle goose, protected by law. Ted Fosdyke is a third generation farmer on the edge of the saltings whose income was halved when wading birds were put onto the protected list. If the depth in 'The Slime Beast' was in traditional British country life, then the equivalent here is in how that's changed.
I hardly need to talk about the main plot. The Slime Beast of the first novel is dead and gone, melted to nothing by Gavin Royle's flame-gun, but not quickly enough to prevent a jellyfish-like egg from being laid. How it was conceived I have no idea, but it hatches during the prologue and is all ready to follow in the webbed footsteps of its murderous mother by the time Gavin Royle returns to the Wash for the first time since the events of 1976.
Why he comes back, with his family, is more of that nostalgia. His wife Liz, the Liz Beck of the first book, wants their daughter Amy to see the blockhouse where she was conceived, a mildly creepy notion but a way to prompt a family trip to the Wash. The fourth in the party is Tim Tranter, Amy's poor excuse for a boyfriend who, in the author's most egregious omission, is not torn apart and eaten by the Slime Beast. I wanted that to happen so badly that I felt cheated when young Tim removes himself from the story by simply walking away and catching some form of public transport back to Leeds.
Whatever the reason, it's surely the higher power of plot convenience that prompts Gavin to return just as the spawn of the creature he killed is ready to reprise its rampage. It really is cheap to frame a novel around such an outrageous coincidence, but then 'The Slime Beast' was one of the most unashamed of the rides that Smith conjured into being back in the heyday of British pulp horror paperbacks and this sequel follows very much in the same vein. To suggest eighty or ninety books later, that the character motivations are a little more grounded in reality doesn't say a heck of a lot. This isn't that sort of book.
Really it's two stories in one, just like its forebear.
The obvious one is the monster movie, in which the spawn of the Slime Beast does pretty much what its mother did four decades earlier. Tradition suggests that the new monster be bigger and better than the old monster and there's a little nod to that here but without being unreasonable. Junior is just a little more self-aware and a little trickier to track. It's still a starving chomp machine with serious cravings for human flesh and the quest to destroy it isn't too far removed from the one that took down its mother.
The other is what's going on in the background, which is painted with less broad strokes and with more deliberate intent this time out. Smith may have known the area and some its traditions, but he wasn't a good enough writer in 1976 to detail that in more than a general sweep. Forty years on, he's lived in the countryside for most of his life, he's been writing about it for a living for decades and, a hundred books into his career, he knows a lot more about how to put it onto the page.
I know Smith can write better than this because I've read better books by him, but I can forgive that to a degree because I realise that he adopted some of the simpler style of his early career for this one and that does feel highly appropriate for something so clearly nostalgic.
In 1976, readers would have picked up a copy of 'The Slime Beast' on a whim from their local newsagent, bookshop or any other outlet that might stock cheap paperbacks, perhaps to read on the train to work. Forty years later, nobody publishes cheap paperbacks any more, the only books you can buy that easily are thoroughly mainstream and commuters are more likely to be lost in their phone than in a paperback.
This slim volume is a nostalgic look back to another time, for the reader as much as the countryside folk detailed within it. On that front, it works surprisingly well. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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