Oh wow, there's a lot here! It's been a long while since I've read 'Bats Out of Hell', so I was expecting to read it with COVID-19 in the back of my mind, given that it's all about a mutated virus that escapes from a laboratory where scientists have been experimenting on bats. No, it doesn't happen in Wuhan because it's firmly set in the West Midlands of England, but it made sense for Black Hill Books to have re-released it during the COVID pandemic.
However, what I realised is that this may be the quintessential Guy N. Smith novel, because there's so much of him in it. It's fiction, of course, but it's an episodic novel and I recognised so many episodes as taken directly from Guy's own background. In fact, this begins page one, with a dedication to Bernard Rickman, who had commissioned so much work from him during his early years as a freelance writer. Rickman was an editor at Gold Star Publishing and Guy wrote half a million words of porn stories and "readers' letters" for him in the mid-seventies.
The primary character, if we can call him that, is Prof. Brian Newman, the white coat who accidentally creates a mutated virus and whose foolishness leads to it reaching the wild. As most of his fans know, Newman is Guy's middle name, the N. in Guy N. Smith. This Newman is a bacteriologist working at the Midlands Biological Research Center, described as "an ugly scar on the landscape" opposite Cannock Chase, twenty thousand acres of Staffordshire woodland and heath which Guy knew well and wrote a number of articles about.
But more about these real life connections as we go, after some story. Newman is doing research into meningitis and it's not going well. The bats in his lab are dying horribly, hurling themselves against a glass barrier, their radar shot and their brains gone. He's inadvertently come up with a mutated viral strain of meningitis and he's wracked with guilt about it. In a textbook example of famous last words, Susan Wylie, his lab assistant, reassures him about the danger. "Whatever you've created is confined in that single class cage. The whole disease is trapped in there. It can't get out."
So take a wild stab what happens next! Here's how it goes down. Newman is an inveterate womaniser. He's divorced from Emma and lives in Cannock with Susan, but he cheats on her with Fiona Bradbury. He is thinking about ending it with Fiona, but sets up a date with her anyway at the Shoal Hill Tavern, only to find that Susan is waiting outside in her red Mini. Newman thinks he won't see her again and spends the night in the lab, but she shows up to work the next day. It's over but she's not going to lose her job and, if he tries anything, she'll report him. He slaps her, she attacks him, over goes the table and, as the back cover blurb ably reminds us, "glass is all too easily broken".
To his credit, Newman knows the ramifications of what he's done and he promptly warns Haynes, his boss but nobody buys into what they see as pessimistic fearmongering. Haynes does, at least, let him use the lab to try to develop an antidote but he can only do it in off-work hours. Meanwhile, as we can safely imagine, the bats are out there carrying the virus into the countryside. At this point, Newman shifts to the background as we follow the deadly bats; who, en masse, really serve as lead characters in this horror novel.
And here we start looking at locations again. I don't recognise the first one, the Wooden Stables, the home of young Shirley Williams's two horses, Penny and Stango, but I do recognise most of the others so I wonder if Guy had a connection I'm just unaware of. They're certainly real and were certainly the property of the Marquis of Anglesey in past years, as Guy points out here. Now, they're rundown and home to two rundown horses who get skittish when the bats move in and end up dead on the road as a drunk driver ploughs into them at 70mph. At least Stango gets to stomp on his head before the vet shows up to put him humanely to sleep. Oh, and the Williams family all die, Shirley of meningitis and her parents in a fit of madness. The death count begins small but, trust me, it escalates!
The next location is Lichfield Cathedral, which fans will immediately recognise as the background on the cover of 'The Busker', with Guy himself masquerading as a tramp in the foreground. We get there from the Close, where Guy lived for seven years as a boy. The Bishop's Palace there is now owned by St. Chad's Cathedral School, whose boys attend a service in the cathedral every Sunday and, on this particular Sunday, they're divebombed by a horde of mad bats disturbed by contractors working on the spire. Six boys die a week later, either of the disease or of a murder-suicide prompted by it. Also, the headmaster dies too, of bat-induced fear.
There's a pause here before things get too serious, so that Newman can educate us about bats. They will have retired somewhere to breed, he says. Gestation is seven weeks and baby bats can't fly for a couple of months. It's late May at this point, so that means that it'll get serious in September if they don't find the bats before then and destroy them. That means public announcements, which means a demonising of Prof. Newman and his lab. Chapter 7, which Guy's daughter Tara read aloud this year as part of her Hallowe'en event, has yobs beating up Brian, attempting to rape Susan and burning their bungalow to the ground.
And then it's right back to memorable locations. Guy famously started out his career in banking, as an occupation his dad had driven him into, and it's well known that he wrote novels like 'The Sucking Pit' during work hours, while inside a bullion van. Well, the next location is the Credit House inside Bank's Treasury in Birmingham, where an idiot clerk attempts to crush a bat with a cylindrical ruler and thus prompts the death of seven bank employees. Their coward of a boss, Mr. Baxterdale, gets his quicker. He's bitten by a rat that's hiding under his car and he finds himself paralysed while driving home, not a tenable position for a driver, which results in him dying in the wreckage of his car, upside down on a Midland Bank forecourt. Guess which bank Guy worked for? I wonder if he worked for Mr. Baxterdale?
The most familiar locations to me are the Hanging Wood and the Devil's Dressing Room. They're real; a part of Hopwas Woods in which Guy set 'The Sucking Pit' and other books. In this one, a farmer from Tamworth called Jim Dunkley, walks to the Devil's Dressing Room and discovers that the quarry at its heart is now home to hundreds of decaying bat carcasses. The live ones are all nearby, in a cave, and a single piece of dislodged slate later, they swarm him and he tumbles to his death into the quarry. My note isn't just that I know about them from articles that Guy wrote, but that I even recognise some of the prose used in describing them, much of it copied verbatim from Guy's article, The Hanging Wood.
I even recognise some of the story elements from synopses that Guy pitched to publishers but weren't greenlit. The wannabe politician who sparks a riot in Birmingham reminds of similar characters in the synopses for 'Night of the Floods' and 'Blizzard', pitched to New English Library after the wild success of 'Night of the Crabs' in 1976 but never written. There, he's Affron Walters, extremist MP, while here he's Marcus Vandon, who's lost his deposit in six by-elections. However, the spiel is the same, that the failing government has deliberately unleashed death on the public as a means of population control. I was happy to see him get crushed by a mob of his own creation.
It's in Birmingham that the death toll really leaps. After the Credit House clerks died, the Ministry of Defence has the tally at twenty-three but Guy has Birmingham burn for two days, through rioting, an exquisite assault by a vast horde of bats and the ensuing anarchy. I wonder how much fun Guy had in a full on couple of chapters that outstrip anything he'd previously written when it comes to body count. It's impossible to estimate the death toll, we're told, but it's easily in the thousands and it continues to grow in the aftermath.
By the time the book is done, it's over ten thousand and that's just humans. What's done to actually stop the bats also destroys entire species of insects, birds and animals, which inevitably destabilises the ecosystem and prompts even more species to die of starvation, their regular source of prey gone. And that lends the book a highly pessimistic ending, one in which the inevitable gamekeeper whose job is to rear pheasants, cull deer and patrol the two thousand acres that his bosses own on the edge of Cannock Chase, looks up at the Midlands Biological Research Centre and angrily berates the cause of all this death and destruction, Prof. Brian Newman, who doesn't even notice him. There's rather a lot of subtext to read into that scene if you've read any of Guy's non-fiction about the countryside.
Pessimistic ending aside, I enjoyed 'Bats Out of Hell'. It puts the monsters even more obviously at the heart of the book than in the two giant crabs novels that he'd written thus far. In 'Night of the Crabs', the tone was fifties sci-fi monster movie, with Prof. Davenport the good guy saving the world from an apparent threat whose origin was still unknown. In 'Killer Crabs', the tone was thriller with the crabs the background to a set of traditional stories and Davenport still the hero of the hour but without as much time or focus as he does what he does. Here, the bats are the victim as much as the monster, a role perhaps better assigned to Prof. Newman, who arguably gets away with everything.
And, wow, what a read for the diehard Guy N. Smith fan. The more you know about the human being behind those hundred plus novels, the more you'll continually encounter him in this book, not as the lead character because he'd done that, as Gordon Hall in 'Werewolf by Moonlight', but in the choice of locations and, I can only assume, in the choice of victims. I wish I could ring him up and ask him how many of these St. Chad's schoolboys and Credit House clerks and others are people he knew and may have garnered great satisfaction from by leading them into horrible deaths. It may be worth noting at this point that, while this still ran only 160 pages, the cast of characters and of named characters is an order of magnitude above normal. Which of them are real people? Inquiring minds want to know. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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