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of the Month

December 15
New reviews in
The Book Nook,
Illustrated Corner,
Odds & Ends and
Voices From the Past

December 1, 2022
Updated Convention Listings

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by Guy N. Smith
New English Library, 176pp
Published: December 1980

Guy N. Smith was hardly a stranger to the "animals attack" subgenre of horror when this was published by New English Library in 1980, having become famous for his crabs novels and followed up with a pair of others featuring bats and locusts. However, this one feels very different to all those. For a start, the cat of the title is easily his most sympathetic monster, utterly unlike the evil exhibited by his giant crabs or indeed the impersonal deaths caused by the bats and locusts. The caracal is as much a victim as any of the animals or people it kills within these pages. Also, while I'd hardly call this an optimistic book, it's a long way from the pessimism of ‘Locusts’ and especially ‘Bats Out of Hell’.

We're back in Smith's beloved Welsh borders this time and our first port of call is an dilapidated former country home called Pentre outside the town of Knighton. The usual set of drug addicts and dropouts in it form a sort of commune but the latest arrival is an illegal immigrant from Pakistan, a boy called Bilal who has brought his pet kitten with him, a caracal, a large species of cat that's trained in his homeland to work like a hunting dog. Needless to say, it grows up and, without that training, it's highly dangerous and the death toll soon opens.

Interestingly, while the members of the commune, who have a prohibition on "racialism" do pick on him somewhat because of his race, Smith doesn't judge at all. In fact, he's acutely careful to detail that Bilal believed that he was emigrating legally, only discovering on the boat to the UK that he had fallen prey to a con. So, while none of the deaths still to come at the claws of the caracal would have happened had he not illegally immigrated, none of them would have happened had he not been suckered into a scam. I would expect that, had the process he followed actually been legal, he would not have been allowed to bring the caracal with him. The novel would have ended before it began.

The commune at Pentre is currently run by Lester Hoyle, a former lecturer at Cambridge who fell into a drug habit when his wife left him and still thinks of himself as important, so lords it over everyone else. Wes Lansdale and Wendy Drew, stand up for Bilal somewhat, as they're good people truly attempting to quit their own heroin habits and mostly succeeding. Lansdale is a writer, whose novel Whispers sold fifty thousand in paperback, but Hoyle is good at destroying his confidence as a means of control, so he hasn't finished anything new in the commune. Drew is his girlfriend, but Hoyle wants her too and what he wants he gets, at least until this point.

Much of the hope in the book is personified in Wes and Wendy. He finds a friend in Knighton, a zoologist and author of non-fiction works on the countryside such as Naturalised British Animals, by the name of Prof. Colin Rutter. The professor has a cottage there where he spends his weekends and he becomes the mentor that Wes needs, letting him write there in peace and offering him support and a way out of the mess he's got himself into. Meanwhile, of course, as a zoologist, he's who the locals immediately come to when the deaths start happening, albeit initially pheasants and sheep. So Wes also becomes a point of focused guilt in the novel and he has to overcome that as much as the heroin he shoots up.

Surprisingly, it's not until the end of chapter four—of only twelve because these are often long chapters of sixteen pages or more—that the caracal claims its first human victim, a contrary four-year-old boy in the woods because he was scared by a low-flying military jet and his father, a chief forester who should know better, leaves him to his own devices in his Land Rover. However, there's a great deal of traditional Smith material to go through before that point, some of it appearing for the first time but much of it a common theme already.

For instance, most of chapter four is taken up by a "Big Shoot", an organised affair to hunt and kill the caracal before it kills more animals. Smith had been involved with shoots of many descriptions since he was a child and he could write this stuff from a hundred perspectives in his sleep. He often wrote about professional shooters with great admiration but he also often wrote about amateurs, well-meaning or not with great disdain. He touches here on the need to kill, not only for food but to help conservation, but also on the responsibility to kill cleanly and not inflict pain and suffering on animals through sheer incompetence. Responsibility is a huge deal in this book, not always but often tied to shooting.

Regular readers of his work, even if that was just his horror novels, of which this was his sixteenth, had to recognise these themes by now. However, none of them would have realised that "alien big cats", as they're unfortunately known—yes, that abbreviates to ABCs—was a passion of his too, because this was the first time it came up. When unscrupulous gamekeeper Melvyn Hughes goes to Prof. Rutter with the news about the caracal's first kills, of a dozen of his poults, Rutter checks out the scene and discovers a footprint that looks like that of a lynx. Of course, it's not a native, he points out, but there are escapes from wildlife parks and he lists a few from recent years: "two wolves in Argyllshire, three boar hunts, a beaver on Speyside and a wolverine by Loch Ness, not to mention the mythical Sussex Puma."

To the best of my knowledge, Guy never caught one of these ABCs, but he certainly tried. I have a photo somewhere that he took of me inside the puma cage he built and set in a field just up the road from his house on the Black Hill. He owned the shooting rights up there and had seen a large cat in the forestry commission's woods. He's written about other experiences he had over the years in articles and would eventually write a chapbook on the subject, 'Hunting Big Cats in Britain', and a further horror novel on the same theme called 'Maneater'.

But that's a book for another day. Back to this one and little Eddie Evans earns the dubious distinction of being the caracal's first human kill. It's notable that, while this is not remotely the most gratuitous horror novel Smith ever wrote, even up to this point, most of the victims are kids. Perhaps this is simply because King—Wendy Drew named it with Bilal's agreement late in chapter two—gains in ambition as it grows, but next up are the four kids of June Whymark, whom she's sent to play outside because they were arguing with each other. They range from two to seven and it's two-year-old Dominic who triggers the attack by throwing a rock at King. All four are killed and June, who hears their screams while close to an orgasm upstairs and runs out stark naked to cradle their dead bodies in her arms, promptly dies of a heart attack dealing with the moment.

That's brutal and it's not the last brutal kill, even if we're surely all rooting for the caracal when it gets to rather unsympathetic characters towards the end of the book. One is trapped inside a building, tries to escape through a bathroom window, gets stuck and is promptly savaged from toes to rear end with a sharp set of teeth and claws. It couldn't have happened to a nicer bloke. However, these scenes could be described with far more gratuitous gore than Smith delivers, at least until a police marksmen loses his eyes to the caracal's claws after missing a crucial shot. And I mean that literally; they dangle down onto his cheeks as yet another reminder that, if we're going to kill an animal, we should do it cleanly. Even a beast like King does that. He kills Tige the lead otter-hound in the pack that's sent after him, but in a quick altercation that's clearly described as mortal combat, a fair defence of territory.

There's so much of Guy N. Smith in this book that it almost feels like a personal one for him, though I'm not aware of particular connections to specific moments in his life. Maybe he worked all those out of his system in 'Bats Out of Hell'. Unlike some previous novels, there isn't a single character that's obviously based on him, but there's some of him in a few of them. There's some of him in Wes Lansdale, of course, because he's a writer and he's trying to find a path forward as that and not whatever else he has been. There's some of him in Prof. Colin Rutter too, not just as an expert on wildlife who's written a number of books on the subject, but as someone who understands conservation as a balance. And there's some of him in Tim Grayling, a journalist and weekly columnist for the 'Sporting Gazette', though I hope not too much, because Grayling is an ass.

It could be argued that there's so much of him in this book that he felt comfortable with throwing out a fresh Welsh placename as if everyone reading will know how to pronounce Bwlchybryngolan. If there is that much of him here, then I wonder if he wrote this as a thriller and added a few gorier moments at a request from his publisher, given that his horror was selling so well. Most of the thrillers he wanted to write in the seventies didn't get written because the publishers had other ideas. Those that he did and which got published, like the second 'Truckers' novel and 'Bamboo Guerillas', weren't really what they were supposed to be, the former a countryside thriller forced into its series' mindset and the latter an exploitation movie as much as a war novel.

This is another countryside novel, another look at themes that Smith held dear, a first dip into a world of "alien big cats". And, quite frankly, it's all three of those before it's a horror novel, though I have to emphasise that's what it was marketed as and isn't an unfair description. It wrapped up 1980 for him, a fourth horror novel in a row to most fans but, while 'Deathbell' was a standard British horror novel and 'Satan's Snowdrop' was a standard American horror novel, 'Thirst' and 'Caracal' were different types of thriller. Even within the horror genre, Smith was telling a lot of different stories and that continues on with his first 1981 novel, 'Doomflight', clearly a horror novel but with a very different outlook again. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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