Guy N. Smith's only war novel is a special book in his bibliography, because it marks the end not only of his output in 1977 but his non-horror output in novel form for another six years, not that it isn't a particularly horrific book in its way, packed full of rape and torture and more death than anything he had written thus far, including 'Night of the Crabs'. I counted sixty-two quantifiable deaths and many others that can't be counted, as Japanese army camps are bombed into oblivion and Malay villages are wiped out by the enemy.
From here on, he'd concentrate on the genre that sold and for which he's rightly remembered today: horror. He'd fought that, not averse to writing in that genre but not wanting to focus his writing that much, to the degree that this was actually supposed to be the first book in another series, a synopsis for 'Bamboo Traitor' outlining where he planned it to go next. I don't believe that was written but it's notable that it wouldn't have been a direct sequel, continuing the story of the characters who survive this one, rather introducing a similar set of characters in the same theatre in the same war.
That war is World War II and we're in the jungle outside of Kuala Lumpur in what is now Malaysia but was then part of the British Empire. The Japs are coming. Or the Nips. Or the "little yellow bastards" because you can pick your ethnic slur of choice here. Such insults have always been more acceptable during armed conflict. Just ask Bugs Bunny. The bridge at Tanjong Malim has been blown up and the British army is returning to Singapore to regroup.
Staying behind are a handful of men tasked with building a guerilla force alongside Li Chu, who has a bad reputation as a "murdering Chinese bandit" and possibly a cannibal, but who hates the Japanese as much as the British do, wanting vengeance for Nanking, where two hundred thousand Chinese had been butchered, most of them civilians. In charge is Col. Hugh Carter and he's backed up by Capt. Cole and a sapper named Sanders, neither of whom apparently have a first name.
I should mention here that names were clearly the last thing on Smith's mind as he wrote this book. I might forgive him for omitting the first names of soldiers, who often go by surname or just rank, but, as this novel runs on, we can't help but notice that there's precious little characterisation going on of any description. After these British soldiers arrive at Li Chu's camp, they discover that a hospital has been attacked and the nurses taken prisoner, confined at a prison camp in the jungle run by Col. Sika, a sexual sadist. So their first mission is to rescue them.
But the four male nurses remain anonymous, stripped naked and strapped to the camp's barbed wire fence and bayonetted to death. Of course, that would be far too simple a demise. Sika has a redhead brought out, stripped similarly naked and promised to them. Only once the last man has manifested an erection, does he have her thrown aside and the men butchered. We do know the name of the one female involved in that sorry demonstration. She's Jenny, one of twenty female nurses in captivity in this camp. Eventually, we learn that there's also Pam and Alison and Sonia, the senior nurse who has the obscure privilege of being the only one with a surname. She's Sonia Barnes and Col. Sika takes an interest in her from the moment she's brought into camp.
This lack of attention given to names isn't restricted to the British either. We meet a whole bunch of Chinese, Malays and Japanese and almost all of them come and go without names to identify them too. Only two Chinese have two names and both of them are Li: Li Chu the bandit chief and Li Wong, a cowardly member of his band. There's also Chan, Buki and Chandi, but Smith seems to have run out of viable Chinese names, so goes with Chuli for the other one important enough to have one. So yeah, a Li Chu and a Chuli. Five Japanese are named, though they only get one each and Col. Sika's second in command is called, get this, Samuri.
If Smith couldn't be bothered with names this time out, he could absolutely be bothered with death and sexual shenanigans. Not one of the nurses gets to do any nursing here and only Sonia manages a role beyond sexual object. The rest are either raped, repeatedly by the Japanese soldiers, who seem to have nothing better to do with their time, or by the prisoners in staged orgies orchestrated by Col. Sika for his own amusement. Only Sonia is exempted from this, because she becomes Sika's own living sex doll, enduring his attentions multiple times a day and multiple times a night. He's insatiable and apparently able to get it up over and over again. At least she gets to stab him to death with his own castrating knife. That had to be satisfying, watching the blade slice in and out of his Adam's apple as he contorts under her power.
Now, I should point out here that the Japanese were notorious for particularly horrific war crimes in real life. Read up on Unit 731, the Kempeitai and the Burma-Siam Railway, not to skip over the use of chemical weapons and the bombing of hospital ships; widespread torture and even cannibalism; and the concept of ianpu or comfort women. However, they also fought an actual war at the same time.
I have to wonder if Col. Sika has any interest whatsoever in the war effort. He seems to have nothing in mind for any random day except sex, sexual torture and sexual exhibitionism. His guards aren't as focused on sex but it's still at least a couple of notches above their job on their priority lists. To haul out the old "this is my rifle, this is my gun" epithet, these Japanese use their guns a great deal but have to be deliberately reminded to actually pick up their rifles. There's a scene in the jungle where Col. Carter and Li Chu and their men arrive at a kampong, or Chinese trading village, to find that it's been taken by the Japanese. There's only one sentry to kill because the other ten soldiers are drunk and busy running taking turns to rape a Chinese girl. They're all taken down with one grenade.
And that reminds me, when this book isn't focused on sexual sadism (and a little regular sex, because Smith repeatedly returns to the dubious concept he introduced in 'Werewolf by Moonlight' of a rape victim being eager to make love properly to blot out her bad experience), it's focused on death. It's a fair statement that none of the women here behave like actual real life women would behave and it's often blatant. Sonia Barnes is raped repeatedly over a week by Col. Sika, to the degree that she plans to take holy orders and retreat from the world as a nun after escaping the camp, only to fall for Hugh Carter at first sight, so fast and so hard that she just has to make love to him during their escape, in a clearing by a mosquito ridden pool while being bled dry by leeches. Realistic this isn't.
But death, I promised death and there's a heck of a lot of it here. Even 'Night of the Crabs' has to play second fiddle to 'Bamboo Guerillas' on that front. Surprisingly, it takes quite a while before we open the death toll but, when we get to that point, the bodies pile up quickly. First is the four male nurses bayonetted on the prison camp fence, along with six Malays. Then Chan is tortured to death. Then the British take out hundreds at once by bombing an entire camp of Japanese soldiers. After that, we're given plenty of personal kills, whether they're shot or stabbed or blown up. Some fall and break their neck. Some are killed by firing squad. Some just die offscreen, as it were, and we get a brief mention that they didn't make it. One is executed for being wrong. That's brutal.
The most brutal arrive during the staged orgy that Col. Sika is so proud of. He has ten female nurses brought out into the relentless Malay sun and stripped naked. Then he has ten guerillas, Chinese and Malays, stripped and tasked with raping the nurses. Three are bayonetted for being unable to keep it up, two are shot trying to run away and the rest killed as they finish. Three of the nurses die, not by a Japanese hand but of heatstroke during the ordeal. Scenes like this one highlight just how far away a book like 'Bamboo Guerillas' is from a regular war novel. This resembles a Nazisploitation flick from the seventies, like 'Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS', but I know Smith was much better versed in genre fiction than exploitation cinema.
While this works well as a cheap paperback thrill, much more lurid and graphic than any of those Nazi novels by John Slater and Jim Kent that seemed to be everywhere in Australia in the sixties and into the seventies, it doesn't really hold up as much of a story. It's unrealistic and over the top, without a single character of any substance and everything that happens is really an aside to what everyone is supposed to be actually doing. This guerilla force only manage to blow up a single ammunition dump and that's skimped over in less than a page. Sika is notable as a sexual sadist but completely useless as the commandant of a prison camp. Nobody comes out of this one looking good.
Maybe it's a good thing that this didn't strike a chord with readers in 1977. It was a tough item to find even by Guy N. Smith fans in the eighties, because it was usually shelved in a different section to the horror that we looked for, and it's a very tough item to find now. Meanwhile, he moved on to some of his most important books. 'Night of the Crabs' was behind him, of course, but he was about to return to that series with 'Killer Crabs' in 1978 and 'The Origin of the Crabs' in 1979. And, after a first 'Crabs' sequel, he'd release 'Bats Out of Hell', which was republished last year because, forty plus years on, it suddenly became topical, given that it revolved around a deadly virus inadvertently released from a laboratory where scientists are experimenting on bats. I'm suddenly looking forward to 1978. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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