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Deathbell
Deathbell#1
by Guy N Smith
Pocket Books, 222pp
Published: January 1980

When the seventies began, Guy N. Smith was a wannabe author. He'd written a lot of stuff and some of it had been published, albeit mostly short stories in a local newspaper when he was a kid. However, the reading public didn't have any idea who he was and there weren't any books on the shelves of W. H. Smith for them to pick up and start finding out. Halfway through the seventies, he was a published author, with a novel in print and a varied list of contracts guaranteeing more, but he was still working for a bank and writing in his spare time, even if it was in vast quantities.

'Deathbell' was his first of four novels to see publication in 1980, allowing us a moment to take a look back at an incredibly prolific decade. At this point, he was a bestselling author, 'Night of the Crabs' a surprise runaway hit during the drought of 1976. The success of that book also allowed him to become a full-time writer, the ever-elusive goal of many wordsmiths, even highly successful ones you wouldn't expect to still have day jobs. There were fourteen original novels in print with his name on the cover, in three genres—horror, thriller and war—plus five novelisations, four of them for children, seven or eight porn digests and seven non-fiction books. Add in the short stories, articles, readers' letters and other porn, and it was a decade full of literally millions of words, enough to write a book about.

Which I have. Watch this space.

To me, 'Deathbell' means something more than just the beginning of another prolific decade, one in which he published no fewer than thirty-five novels. I also see it as a step beyond the traditional fare that he'd been churning out. It was easily his best book thus far, built from a highly original premise with an impressive narrative flow, and it wraps up at just the right point, two hundred pages in. It's probably fair to suggest that any claim of originality in his horror novels before this point would have to rest on his bringing the werewolf to the British Isles, worthy but hardly groundbreaking. With this novel, though, he fired the starting pistol for a pivotal decade of fantastic horror fiction in the UK.

On the face of it, 'Deathbell' looks utterly unique. Never mind werewolves, slime beasts and crabs, it suggested that a bell could be as devastating and we just have to buy a copy to figure out how. Really, it's an old story transplanted into a new setting, but also cleverly merged with one of Smith's abiding themes. That old story is the exotic east coming west, which Smith had already written about with his novelisation of 'The Ghoul', and the abiding theme is the clash between country folk and city people. Martyn Hamilton, a rich man who moves into the long abandoned Caelogy Hall in the rural village of Turbury creates the latter. The oddly inscribed Tibetan bell he installs in the belfry is the former.

Normally, of course, in Guy N. Smith novels, the city folk moving into the country are merely viewed with suspicion. They're interlopers, harbingers of change, people who don't understand the culture of the countryside and its quieter way of life. That's how Hamilton is initially viewed by the villagers in Turbury, with his locked gates and hidden away wife and exotic Chinese servant girl. Then he rings his bell, supposedly to accompany his family's private worship in the Caelogy Hall chapel, and the life of everyone in the village changes.

This bell isn't like other bells, like the ones at Rev. Rawsthorne's church. When it rings, the sound has an abiding quality, continuing to resonate and even build within the skull long after it stops tolling. It sounds loud too, almost deafening, wherever in Turbury you might happen to be at the time. It's not just a creator of headaches and migraines, either, as the painful death of Jane Reubens from a brain hemorrhage proves. She isn't the last, of course, and perhaps most notably, the local deaf mute, Donald Hughes, can also hear the bell. He hasn't heard anything else in his entire life, but he hears the Caelogy bell and reacts with utter terror.

Of course, there's a reason, even if it's not one acknowledged by the laws of physics, and that's what the novel builds to. The only complaint I really have here is that Smith introduces a character clearly meant to explore that angle and he doesn't. He's Julian Dane, important enough to be mentioned in the back cover blurb, alongside only Martyn Hamilton; he's the son of Jane Reubens's from an earlier marriage; and, conveniently, he's also a professional neurologist. It's so obvious why he was written into the book that it's somehow disappointing when that angle just fades away, leaving him the role of traditional hero, the defiant but able young man who eventually figures out a way to discover the truth and stop the bell from ever ringing again.

And, while he does take that role, he's hardly a dominant lead. Sure, he gets a good confrontation in Caelogy Hall when he accompanies his father, Fred Reubens, to do some work in its belfry, Fred being the local handyman. Mostly, though, he just floats around the village, falling into bed with the local schoolmistress and pursuing a conversation with Karamaneh, Hamilton's servant girl. Their meeting late in the novel provided, through its chapter title, a name for the Guy N. Smith fanzine, 'Graveyard Rendezvous', which gradually transitioned into Smith's fan club magazine, but it's hardly active stuff for a hero to be getting up to.

It could be argued that the general frustration of the villagers is underlined by the complete absence of a traditional lead. The most obvious is Revd. Rawsthorne, who's the first person to take complaints to Caelogy Hall, though he's utterly rebuffed. He works hard for his flock, organising their resistance and following the appropriate path to address the problem, gathering signatures for a petition that will bring in the Noise Abatement Society, who, frustratingly, discover that this vastly reverberating bell registers low enough in decibels that it's entirely legal. He ends up in an asylum for his troubles, having witnessed a horrific vision during a night of prayer in his church; but he tries, and tries hard.

While 'Deathbell' does lose its way a little during its second half, the first is brilliant stuff, ruthlessly original horror with a seamless natural flow. The effect that the Caelogy Bell has on a deaf mute is a fantastic horror device, probably the most powerful scene that Smith had written up until this point, and he knows it because he promptly buses in a group of deaf children to experience the bell, too. The bell's effects are brutal and gleefully recounted, of course, but it's the lack of any way to do anything about it that really horrified me, as a control freak. Sure, a crab the size of a bus would be scary, but being fearful, in your own home, of the ringing of a bell because of what it does to your skull, is more scary to me by an order of magnitude. Even the pitchforks and torches brigade memorably fail.

The other note I'll make here for the hardcore fans is that the opening chapter is another example of Smith re-using old material in a new way. Caelogy Hall is a shunned place that's lain empty for as long as anyone can remember, certainly since before the war, and that's because it has a particularly dark past. It was previously named Sodom and was a mill, but its tyrannical owner drove his two daughters to suicide, then murdered his wife and turned the knife on himself. None of these people are named, but Smith wrote a number of articles about the mill at Sodom, pitched to 'Blackwood's Magazine' and 'Country Life', pieces I can only assume are fiction extrapolated from fact.

I've certainly verified some of it, the Mill at Sodom being at "the confluence of the Littlemore Brook with the Lea Brook" in Derbyshire, at least in 1718. Smith names the owner as his great-great-uncle, Charles Else, and his daughters as Margaret and Mary. The various pieces vary in the details, but, in all of them, Margaret, a vivacious young lady, fell in love with the wrong man, upsetting her father, who thought she would marry well. In one, the young couple dive off a Lover's Leap to be together in death. In another, she's locked in her room and never looks at another man for her entire life. Sodom House is always abandoned and eventually destroyed by lightning, Charles Else praying inside while it burns, an action echoed in scenes with Revd. Rawsthorne and Martyn Hamilton in 'Deathbell'.

I find it fascinating to see the transition between oral stories told within a family to non-fiction pieces pitched for publication in reputable magazines to locations and characters in a horror novel. Writers are often advised to write what they know, and Smith certainly spun a number of horror novels out of local legends and odd little discoveries he made and asked questions about. You never know what an author is going to turn into fiction next. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Guy N Smith click here

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