I don't believe that I've read 'Doomflight' since my first time through forty or so years ago, but I guess that it's really stayed with me, because it feels as archetypal an example of his work as anything prior to it. It starts out addressing Smith's most frequent theme, the clash between country and city folk, an approach he'd taken throughout the seventies, but it adds a further clash between ancient evil and the modern day, something he'd touched on in 'Satan's Snowdrop' but would cover far more as the eighties continued, especially in his 'Sabat' novels. And the text mostly unfolds in the thoughts of its characters, their deepest wishes and fears and prejudices.
The country folk here are the peaceful locals in the rural village of Fradley, somewhere in the Midlands of England. The city folk are the coalition of rich and powerful businessmen who buy the former RAF air field that was closed down even before the end of the Second World War and has been mostly used ever since as a commercial warehouse, a lover's lane for the young and a practice area for learner drivers. It becomes Fradley, a major international airport that threatens to match Heathrow within a decade.
The setup is quintessential Smith but he shifts gears on us by having the country folk serve as a rumble in the background rather than the protagonists. Usually when he lets city folk take the lead, it's those city folk who have moved to the country and found a way to fit in, to understand how country life works and to be sympathetic to it. That's not the case here, because the primary characters are the powerful men who make this airport happen and the interlopers who work it. Hartley Lowe, the most prominent Fradley local, as the churchgoing former schoolmaster and member of the local archaeological society, is a vocal opponent of the airport, but he doesn't really achieve anything.
The people who achieve here represent the ancient evil, a nameless and faceless force out of time who chip away nicely at the populace to generate the growing death toll. They're Druids, who got a mention in Smith's debut novel, 'Werewolf by Moonlight' but don't really show up in his bibliography until now. Don't worry, they'll be back in future books, usually appearing in a similar fashion, as a character in the modern day suddenly finds themselves out of time, blurring from now to then and frequently paying an immense price for the privilege, often becoming a blood sacrifice on an altar of stone.
And that happens a lot here. The airfield in Fradley was built on fields owned by Edgar Swain but, under the tarmac and the grass, lies an immense stone circle, that's almost a character in itself and certainly achieves the most in this novel, emerging from the rubble of the airport vibrant and complete after an incalculable sacrifice at the hands of the Bird of Death. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The first death is Susan Kemp, a young lady trying to dump her cheating boyfriend after a driving lesson on the abandoned Fradley runway before the new airport is built. She escapes him but ends up in open heath, where she's surrounded by toothless robed druids who promptly sacrifice her. And she's only the first.
That feeling of being utterly lost, moving quickly from a known place to somewhere supernaturally old and dangerous, is mirrored in Smith's approach to the structure of 'Doomflight'. Sure, he divides it into three logical parts but that's only the beginning. There's 'The Old Airfield', in which the idea manifests and the ancient evil stirs and the deaths begin. There's 'The Airport', in which the idea becomes reality but the ancient evil is pissed and the deaths escalate. And there's 'The Ancient Circle', in which the evil takes over and shatters the reality, with an exponential growth in the death toll.
But that means quite the passage of time and the involvement of quite the ensemble cast. There are a huge amount of characters here, though we naturally focus on a smaller number. However, Smith has an interesting approach that disorients us, in naming a whole slew of characters in conversation who don't actually appear in the book, while simultaneously refusing to name a whole slew more that he has walk on stage and off again, even ones to whom he gives dialogue. Nobody in Hartley Lowe's protest march is named except him. A large array of doctors, detectives, menial workers and the like show up, speak a line or two and are gone. Yet gossip gives us the names of friends, neighbours and relatives, who never appear in person. Some have been dead for years.
The majority of characters we follow are unsympathetic, not least the Flyways, Ltd. consortium behind this new airport: Charles Whyte, a brash American mogul; Phil and Roger Warboys, moving on up from their discos and nightclubs; and Frank Weston, who built his empire of five star hotels out of a boarding house. The people they work with are just as unsympathetic: Clive Manning, a corrupt planning officer; and Edgar Swain, who sold the entrepreneurs the land. We don't care about any of them but we don't necessarily hate them enough to want to see them dead. That feels odd too, as does the fact that they often don't actually get theirs, except in nightmares or frustrations.
More sympathetic are the people working for Flyways, especially the couple of Lance Evans, a youthful flying instructor, and Pamela Bridges, an air stewardess. Like everyone else at Fradley, these two have been persuaded away from solid jobs elsewhere by bumper salaries, but they soon came to regret their choice to move. They feel the evil bubbling underneath Fradley and find that they want out, soon after arriving. They're tormented by this evil, in ways that Smith was so good at detailing, merely by dipping into their minds. It doesn't necessarily show up and tap them on the shoulder, as the ghost of Wilson, a daredevil American pilot, does a couple of times to others. It just makes them unsettled, unwilling and uneasy, so that they snap at each other and make bad decisions even as they know they'll regret them later.
I wonder what people thought who read this as their introduction to Guy N. Smith. While it might seem to be a logical first choice, given how it tackles so many of the pivotal themes of his horror novels, it's a hard one to get to grips with unless you have a background in his work. It's a pessimistic read, not quite at the level of 'Bats Out of Hell' or 'Locusts', but it's definitely a downer to reflect the times in which it was written. Yet Smith avoids the scenes of pulp horror that he was so known for, merely setting scenes and letting us fill in the blanks, even in the finalé where what we surely know happens is obscured by an overwhelming bank of smoke.
It's also an ambiguous novel because, while we can fairly categorise people as decent or greedy, there aren't really any good guys or bad guys in the traditional active sense, certainly any heroes or villains. The monsters, if we can call them that, are ancient Druids who only exist in vague supernatural visions, even if they're able to manipulate their surroundings enough to drive their sacrificial knives into chests at the break of dawn. Nobody achieves anything here, even if it might seem initially that they do. Goals are all swept away in time, even if they're as simple as escape.
When I first read it, back in the mid-eighties, I don't think I was ready for it. I preferred easier novels to grasp, like 'Deathbell' or 'Entombed', and, of course, the more outrageous pulp offerings, 'The Sucking Pit' and 'Night of the Crabs'. Coming to it afresh as the twentieth novel in my runthrough of his novels, it feels important, still a little distant but a transitional point between what he wrote in the seventies and what I know he would go on to write in the eighties. In many ways, it epitomises what he did, but in an interesting way. It's stayed with me more than I ever thought it had and I think it's going to sit there in my mind as I read through Smith's next twenty novels. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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