I haven't read 'Werewolf by Moonlight' in decades, even though I've gone back to other early Guy N. Smith horror novels like 'Night of the Crabs' and 'The Sucking Pit' more than once. While it's still a short pulp read, I was surprised to find that it's a lot better written than either of those favourites. It's also a very telling read to those who know anything about Guy himself.
For a start, it's set on the Black Hill, a rural area of Shropshire close to the Welsh border, as the title of the Dutch translation makes very clear: 'Varulven fra Black Hill'. Many Guy N. Smith fans know the Black Hill well, because it's where Guy moved in 1976 following the success of 'Night of the Crabs'. At this point, he was a visitor who owned the shooting rights there, just like this novel's lead character, Gordon Hall, whose appearance is eerily familiar. The final page even tells us that he smokes a pipe, a lifelong habit for Smith who even won the British Pipe Smoking Championship in 2003.
Needless to say, Hall is a sort of wish fulfilment take on Smith himself. "Gordon Hall was as tough as they come," we're told, "ruthless, a hunter by nature, both of game and women, the only two quarries worth pursuing". "His occupation as a free-lance journalist gave him ample opportunity to pursue his two hobbies." It has to be said here that Smith was a regular contributor of articles to a variety of the sporting magazines at the time, even though he still had a day job at a bank.
We meet Hall first, out shooting mallard on the Black Hill with his dog Remus, and these scenes in the countryside are knowledgeably and evocatively written. In the early nineties, when Smith became the bestselling author in Poland, it was because the Poles, having been freed from the Soviet yoke to now be allowed to read horror, understood the universal appeal of the countryside. They didn't know the brandnames that littered Stephen King novels, which were also much longer than this, which clocks in at a mere 112 pages.
Oddly, the Poles never published this one, which takes advantage of the mid-European legends of the werewolf. It follows the traditional rules, even though we never get to the point where silver bullets are needed, as the titular werewolf finds that he's unable to cross moving water in the form of a local stream. The infection that turns an illiterate thirty year old farm lad into a werewolf comes from the Black Forest, via a dog named Loup. His parents bought it and imported it, after a nephew visited on holiday. It has a ten inch scar across its shoulder to advertise its worth, having fought and chased off a wolf that had attacked a herd of sheep.
This lad is Philip Owen and, of course, Loup bites him when he kicks it. That's in chapter one, so we're never in any doubt about the identity of the monster to come. Smith writes Owen with some level of sympathy. He's not evil, though the influence of the beast inside him does lead to evil acts, such as an attempted rape of a neighbour, a married lady called Margaret Gunn who's seduced by Gordon Hall in chapter two.
Philip breaks into the house, finds her in the bath, carries her to the bedroom and... well, Hall shows up to save his mistress in the nick of time. Smith promptly highlights how he chose to ground this in pulp logic instead of reality: "He looked at the naked girl on the bed, and seeing that she had almost recovered from her assault, he began taking off his clothes." Yeah, no. This did get a little outrageous about its wish fulfilment at points.
While Smith treats Philip Owen fairly as a victim, especially late in the novel when he comes clean to his parents and they try to help him by bolting the door to his bedroom shut and barring his window, he also has fun allowing him to run loose. His first kill, of a ewe, is particularly bloodthirsty, though the death count of this novel ends up surprisingly low; only four humans die and only one is killed by Philip in werewolf form. Anyway, here's that bloodthirsty paragraph, the sort of thing which Smith's career would become known for:
"His claw-like hands ripped her throat out in one grasp, and greedly he began stuffing the warm, bloody meat into his cavernous jaws, swallowing it with greed and appreciation. As he devoured so he mutilated, disembowelling the sheep and revelling in the stench of its entrails and unborn lambs. Blood dripped from his lips on to his newly grown hair, congealing, and matting it, making him even more of a horrific spectacle than before."
Things proceed roughly how you might expect, now you realise that this is a short pulp horror novel with one foot in the traditional mythology of Hammer horrors and the other in gratuitous gore. The sympathy is the most surprising element, because everything else is routine for a Guy N. Smith novel (though this was published without the usual N.). We can usually expect the story to unfold outdoors with plenty of farmers with shotguns, hunters with dogs and dips into local folklore.
While the police soon figure out that the killings are the work of a wild animal, maybe a wolf, Gwynne Owen remains as sure as sure can be that it's really the legendary Black Dogs, "spiritual dogs, whose arrival heralded death and disaster to those who set eyes on them." Smith mentions Pen-y-wern, a real stone circle near Knighton, gratuitously adding visions of druids into the mix, and the Sussex puma, highlighting Smith's fascination with big cats in the wild, something he'd return to in fiction with his horror novel 'Caracal' and in non fiction with his book 'Hunting Big Cats in Britain'.
I found that I liked this a great deal, certainly more than I expected from memory. Sure, it's short and not remotely surprising, but the locations are evocatively drawn, the characters enjoyable if not very deep and the story constantly moving forward. I misremembered this one as having a tiny cast, but it features everyone it needs to: primaries, their families, local police, representatives of Scotland Yard and, tellingly, three dogs introduced by name when many local human beings are not.
Anyone looking for a sympathetic look at a traditional werewolf story translated from the continent to a rural English setting would do a lot worse than to check out 'Werewolf by Moonlight', even if it dates as far back as 1974 and serves as Guy N. Smith's first published novel, his first horror novel in a long and memorable career.
Next month I won't be reviewing Smith's next book or indeed any of his next dozen. His next horror novel was 1975's 'The Sucking Pit', which I've already covered here at the Nameless Zine, as I have 'The Slime Beast', the first of four horror novels he published in 1976. In between, he wrote seven digests for Tabor that I've never managed to get hold of, which are pornographic fiction, and, as if to prove a crazy variety, four Disney adaptations for children, published by New English Library. Instead, I'll take a welcome trip down memory lane and revisit 1976's 'Night of the Crabs', the book that enabled Smith to become a full time writer. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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