Guy N. Smith's name doesn't particularly resonate in the United States today, even in circles of diehard horror fans.
In the late eighties, Dell released American editions of the six books in his Crabs series, which began with 'Night of the Crabs', an opportune title of giant mutated crustaceans invading the Welsh coastline that found an eager audience on British beaches during the 1976 drought. The States wasn't quite the same in 1989. A few other titles were issued in the horror wave of the seventies and eighties, by Pocket, Signet and Dell, but mostly he went unseen by Americans until Zebra published four original titles in the mid-nineties.
In England, however, he was everywhere from 1974, when 'Werewolf by Moonlight' began his career in horror, through until the end of the century. He churned out no less than 38 horror novels in the eighties, all of which were easily available in high street newsagents. Sure, he didn't sell as well as Stephen King or Dean R. Koontz, but he was on the same shelves and he had more titles on offer. Readers wanting schlockier fare than the mainstream horror authors provided turned instead to folk like Shaun Hutson, Richard Laymon and Guy N. Smith because they delivered the goods and they did it often.
So, if any of my friends or readers in Arizona recognise this flamboyant title, it's less likely to be through nostalgia and more because it prompted Stephen King to mention it in his book, 'Danse Macabre', as having 'the all-time pulp horror classic title'. He's not wrong and the book itself, which I'm not convinced King ever read, backed it up in memorable style.
It's everything a pulp horror novel should be. It's short, it's a fast-paced ride and it's full of sex, violence and death. It has few characters, which means few distractions, and they run through a set of simple personality changes and plot conveniences to keep things moving. It's a politely gratuitous affair and I love it to bits. In its way, it's the real bedrock under Smith's career rather than the debut novel that came before it.
The story is sparked by the death of Tom Lawson, the groundsman at Hopwas Woods, a real place that contains such tailor-made for horror locations as the 'Hanging Wood', where Oliver Cromwell supposedly hanged a hundred loyalists, and the 'Devil's Dressing Room', where Satan himself, according to legend, paused a moment on his way to our world to take human form. He's of pure gypsy blood and he takes care of the place not only for the landowner, Clive Rowlands, but other pure gypsies, who come here to bury their dead in the Sucking Pit of the title.
His niece Jenny is the only person he has any time for and she arrives to see him right after he's been taken by a sudden heart attack. He lives just long enough to point her to a black book that he keeps at his bedside and she's fool enough not only to read it but to decide to try out the 'fertility potion' that it describes. She pulls a hedgehog out of a pile of dead leaves and retrieves a shrew from Tom's cat, after blasting it with his shotgun, and that's all she needs. Mix that pair up, boil the concoction and drink it down under the full moon while naked.
Sure, a 'virgin at twenty-five' would do this, because that's the sort of logic that holds court in this book, just as it promptly turns her into a power-hungry nymphomaniac who wanders downtown to pick up some john in a back alley, screw him senseless and slice off his tackle with a penknife. You know, like you would.
And so it goes. She dismisses her boyfriend; seduces the owner of the land, to blackmail into letting her stay for free, and takes up with the giant gypsy, Cornelius, the leader of the pure blood folk in Hopwas Wood. First task: to retrieve Tom's body from the churchyard and throw it into the Sucking Pit. Subsidiary task: murder the vagrant who spies them doing so and leave him for the cops to find sprawled and bloody by an empty grave. Needless to say, there are consequences. Needless to say, they all follow the crazy pulp logic that Smith conjures up.
'The Sucking Pit' was first published in 1975, only a year after the horror boom began in England with James Herbert's 'The Rats' (Stephen King sparked a similar boom in the States with 'Carrie' in the same year). 'The Rats' was decried by the establishment for its gratuitous descriptions of violence and death, but it really just began a movement that grew throughout the seventies and eighties with the so-called nasty novels published by Hamlyn (with Smith prominent amongst their authors) that took their very name from the video nasties that the censors had banned outright as deleterious to the health of the nation.
Smith built a reputation with novels like this of being a bad writer. Hutson savaged him often, probably through guilt after starting out in his shadow with books like 'The Skull'. One of his mentors, R. Lionel Fanthorpe, is infamous for becoming the epitome of many entries in the Turkey City Lexicon, a bible of things that should not be done in science fiction. Now, he did write novels at a rate much faster than even Guy N. Smith, who only cranked out five or six novels a year, not forty.
Smith actually became a decent writer, as time passed, with a number of seriously good books to come and a universal appeal that prompted him to become the bestselling author in Poland after the Berlin Wall collapsed and readers on the other side discovered the existence of horror fiction. Most importantly, Smith always knew how to tell a story, a skill that he honed while writing short stories for a local paper from the age of twelve.
To me, 'The Sucking Pit' is a perfect example of this. Nobody ever mistook this for great literature and there are drinking games to be built based on the wild character changes, plot conveniences and rapid escalations. This novel includes what is surely the fastest proposal in the history of fiction, leading to as ridiculous a happy ending as I can remember. And no, I don't mean by leaving 'them to wallow in their filthy rites and sex orgies.'
But I grinned my way through the whole thing. Smith conjures up a story and runs with it. It's wonderful to revisit and I'll follow up next month with its horror successor, 'The Slime Beast', which I remember as a tackier, even less substantial read but one that recently prompted a sequel almost forty years on. From a certain very particular perspective, they just don't get any better than this. ~~ Hal C F Astell