We associate the name of Guy N. Smith so closely with his 'Crabs' series that we often forget that he was initially associated far more with werewolves. His first novel, back in 1974, was a transplant of the continental legend to British soil, and he extended its story into a trilogy, initially with 'Return of the Werewolf' in 1976 and finally with 'The Son of the Werewolf' in 1978. What's more, one of the ten novels he wrote in between the beginning and end of his 'Werewolf Trilogy' was 'Night of the Werewolf', which is unrelated except for genre, and 'Wolfcurse', also unrelated, would follow in 1981.
Notably, Guy ended 'Return of the Werewolf' by jinxing himself. "Well now that we've accounted for the original Werewolf's brother," points out Gordon Hall, "I don't think there's much chance of another one springing up!" Needless to say, that's exactly the point of this novel, in which he added a belated twist to the demise of Tom Davies/Owen in its predecessor by suggesting that, as he looked as his impaled corpse, he saw that its skin was hairy and so maybe Tom was really a werewolf instead of a psychopath.
That's the question that Margaret Gunn asks herself in chapter one, because it's nine months later and she's about to give birth to a son, who was probably conceived when Tom raped her. It's certainly an ugly baby, with a broad squat head, abnormally large pointed ears and flared nostrils, but it's the fingers that answer her question, as the third finger on each hand (the ring finger, not the middle one, because thumbs don't count) is longer than its peers. And that means werewolf!
Chapter two begins fifteen years later, because Smith really isn't hanging about here. Hugh Gunn is an unruly and sullen child who bullies the other kids at Llandevy School. The first thing we see him do is accurately and powerfully kick a football into the groin of one boy, the solar plexus of another and the face of a ten-year-old girl. He's all set to take out a five-year-old, too, when the schoolmaster stops him. By chapter end, Clive Williams is dead, with Hugh caught wandering over to the police station coated in his blood.
It's worth mentioning here that, if you reckon the death toll across both 'Werewolf by Moonlight' and 'Return of the Werewolf', it only reaches eight, two of which were the werewolves themselves. Only three were killed by the werewolves and only two when in werewolf form. If that sounds disappointing, Smith makes up for it here because I'm counting ten deaths in this book alone, eight by Hugh Gunn and six of them while he's in werewolf form. The ninth is an accident, when a poacher's gun explodes in his face, and the tenth is Hugh himself. Like you didn't expect that he'd get away with it?
Maybe the author was getting used to writing graphic horror rather than rural novels in which horror things happen. Maybe he was overly pessimistic at the time, reflected from the dark times of the day, because much of the tone of 'Bats Out of Hell' echoes in this one, with its cities populated by disaffected yobs who think nothing of mugging old ladies for the money in their purses, aging whores living in filthy apartments and disconnected cops who really don't care what the rabble do to each other.
The odd exception is those who work in the prison system, because, of course, that's the quick destination for young Hugh Gunn. He pleads guilty to manslaughter on the basis that Williams was going to cane him for his bullying and then pulled a knife too. So he killed in self-defence, which the jury bought into, so giving him two years, of which he served eighteen months, released early for being a model prisoner. While Smith feels like the characters in charge in prison don't warrant names, he does treat them with a dose of sympathy, suggesting that they really do watch their charges and care about their wellbeing.
Then again, they don't notice when Hugh changes into a werewolf in solitary, in which he's kept because of his age, and they don't notice him doing it for months, whenever there's a full moon. And Smith doesn't give a lot of characters names this time out, an approach that's wildly inconsistent. We only meet fourteen characters with names, of which five don't have surnames, one doesn't have a first name and one only ever has a nickname. There were fourteen in 'Werewolf by Moonlight' and that was a much more constrained novel than this.
Yet, while Smith doesn't name the nurse or midwife in the first chapter, or the prison governor, warder and night warder, any fellow convicts, any of the gang of youths who attack Hugh after his release, the policemen who break it up, the doctor and nurse on duty when he wakes up four days later, and so on and so on, he does name two regular clients of a prostitute called Veronica, even though they don't appear. I wonder if Jack Brown and Tom O'Connor were real people who crossed Guy, so he discredited them in fictional form. He also names five other characters who only appear in flashback and three more who only appear in a story told by Gordon Hall.
And yes, the hero of the first two books does return here, though he doesn't make his first appearance until over halfway through and his presence is near inconsequential. He certainly doesn't kill the werewolf this time out; that's reserved for a strange but somehow appropriate deus ex machina that feels less appropriate when repeated in a short story written for the 2019 'Werewolf Omnibus' that collected the trilogy into one trade paperback, in order to wrap up the series. It's a short and unworthy story called 'Spawn of the Werewolf' and it serves no purpose except nostalgia.
For the most part, this isn't about searching for and stopping the werewolf, unlike the previous two books which followed that more traditional approach. This one's really a look into the mind of Hugh Gunn as he learns what he's become and takes appropriate measures. In many ways, it's a coming of age story for a werewolf, as gratuitous as the idea might seem and certainly as lurid. After all, what does a new werewolf learn? The strength and ferocity that enables him to kill so easily and the sexual gratification of sleeping with or raping a woman before biting out her throat and eating her guts.
Smith moves Hugh around a lot, given that the unseen police are connecting dots and actively seeking him for an increasing number of gruesome murders. The majority of the victims are unsympathetic and relatively faceless, literally just meat for mangling, appropriate given the pulp gleefulness with which Smith describes their deaths, which are full of ripping flesh and fountaining blood. Many meet karmic ends that we're not unhappy about in the slightest, even though we don't acquire any sympathy for Hugh Gunn.
I don't think I found any sympathy for anyone here, except maybe Veronica, the aging whore in Birmingham who enjoys Hugh's attentions before his change and oddly may have wanted to continue to enjoy them after. That's kinky. He actually changes on her in the dark, while she's playing with him after sex, which is something I don't think I've read or seen anywhere else. That makes for quite the moment!
In fact, I found so little sympathy for the characters this time that I was most engaged in the story when it was being diverted from. Gordon Hall's biggest contribution is the story he tells Margaret and Vic Gunn about the Black Dogs. From the first paragraph, I knew exactly where it came from: a piece that Guy pitched to 'Blackwood's Magazine' called 'In Search of the Black Dogs' that was presented as non-fiction.
Five pages here are lifted almost entirely verbatim from that piece, fictionalised and told not from an author's perspective but from Gordon Hall's, without changing any of the other names, suggesting that maybe they were fictional to begin with, even with a different presentation to 'Blackwood's'. There is only one difference: this adds a coda to kill off one of the characters for effect soon after the events of the "story". The key reason for including all this is to set up the ending.
It's hard to rank these three werewolf novels because they're very different. The first is a quiet rural story about a quiet rural area stirred up by a supernatural presence; it could be called a drama that contains horror. The second tries very hard indeed not to be horror, even though it really is; it's told like a horror story but it's keen to ditch the supernatural elements from the first in favour of more prosaic explanations. This one is emphatically horror, so much so that it revels in it, but it's also a character study of a monster, which is an unusual approach to take.
Perhaps 'Werewolf by Moonlight' is the most complete story but it's also sparsely told and surprisingly tame. 'Return of the Werewolf' has plenty of action but it's reluctant to embrace its genre. 'The Son of the Werewolf' knows exactly what it is and is gleeful about it. It's gratuitous and eager to continue to be gratuitous, with Smith turning up the gore. That, and the fact that it's so focused on one character, probably makes it a lesser novel but, at the same time, easily the most fun. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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