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WesternSFA


Locusts
by Guy N. Smith
Hamlyn, 240pp
Published: 1979

If you count the seventies as the years beginning with 197, then 'Locusts' was the last book that Guy N. Smith published in that decade. It was also the first that he wrote for a new publisher, Hamlyn, of "nasty novel" fame. They had established their horror line in 1978 by bringing a few American books over to the UK, most notably Gary Brandner's 'The Howling', which quickly saw multiple reprints, but also Marc Olden's 'Poe Must Die' and Jane Parkhurst's 'Isobel'. The only original horror novel in the 1978 line was Richard Lewis's 'Spiders', but it would soon be followed by plenty more in 1979, this one included, the first of eight he'd write for them in only four years.

The other change introduced in 'Locusts' was a more expansive page count. All Smith's books for New English Library ran short, whatever their genre, some only just reaching a hundred pages and only a couple making it past a hundred and fifty. At two hundred and thirty pages, this is half as long again as 'Killer Crabs', 'Bats Out of Hell' and 'The Origin of the Crabs' and over double most of the rest. Six of his first seven horror novels for New English Library ran for a mere hundred and twelve pages.

It's surprising to re-discover decades after last reading 'Locusts' that there isn't more story or, really, more characters. Smith simply took his time more and built those characters to a degree that wasn't at all possible until this point. The first mention of locusts as a potential threat comes forty pages in on the final page of chapter three, and they've only killed one person thus far. That would have been well over a third of the way into any of those early novels. Even that one victim, a tramp called Mac, is given more character background in the half a chapter it takes for him to be eaten alive by locusts than almost anyone in those first half dozen books. We really get to know who he is.

Another telling detail is that the lead character isn't the one who leads the inevitable battle against the locusts. The lead is Alan Alton, a vet from the Midlands who starts the book buying a property on the Black Hill because he wants to live in the countryside and run a smallholding, though he doesn't smoke a pipe, shoot the local game or write in his spare time. Sure, there's some of Guy in Alan but I don't immediately conflate the two the way I do when reading about Gordon Hall. While he does call the Anti-Locust Research Center in London to report a plague of locusts in his area, it's Roger Blade from that organisation who ends up tasked with fighting the insects and consulting with politicians and the military. He's the traditional lead and he gets plenty of opportunity late on.

It's easy to see that, in earlier books, these two characters would have been combined into one, to be a Gordon Hall or a Cliff Davenport. Separated, though, they can follow more natural story arcs. With the locusts a national threat, not just one to the Black Hill, it wouldn't have felt right for Alan Alton to have been given the job that Roger Blade has. He's here more to be our man on the ground, to be the human element in a growing disaster story. Only as that disaster story grows large enough, does the need to combat it emerge and Blade steps in to do that. He doesn't appear until page 104 and he doesn't meet Alton until page 121, after many of those early novels were over. While Blade stays with the Altons at the Granary, they have very few scenes together.

There are other connections though. It's notable that both fall for the same woman, the traditional slim nymphomaniac who turns up in a lot of Smith's books, but neither ends up with her, even though she becomes single early in the book, after her husband is kicked in the head by one of their horses, having been rattled by a swarm of locusts. She's Pat Hetherton and she's far better developed than any prior equivalent character, with some of the best scenes in the book revolving around her either getting sex or not getting sex. Even with a nymphomaniac in the novel, however, there's not a lot of nookie going on at all this time out.

Even that's because of character development. Alan's marriage has been falling apart, even before they move to the countryside, something he wants and their son David is all for, but which is utterly not what Sheila wants to do with her life. She actually gets to the point of leaving, only for the story to overtake her plans and render them non-viable. As they're driving away, to stay with her mother, they find the Black Hill engulfed by flame, a wildfire caused by a forest ranger crashing off the road during a locust attack, and Alan is draughted into helping fight the fire. Over time and through their continued shared survival in the face of much adversity, Alan and Sheila grow together again to find themselves a closer couple when it all ends.

It really is amazing how character arcs can be rendered so much more believable when a writer has a page count to work with that allows him to explore them properly. There certainly isn't more story in this book to eat up those pages and the locusts are a rather abstracted menace. They're here, they're eating everything and that's about it. Smith does try to endow them with evil intent at points, but he doesn't really get anywhere with it. That's easier to do with a werewolf or a small army of crabs than a swarm of locusts millions strong. Only in a couple of early nightmare scenes or moments where one lone locust has made it into a house do we actually feel a connection. Otherwise, they're just a force of nature.

The closest comparison within Smith's other work is to 'Bats Out of Hell', another faceless menace to an entire country. However, that felt episodic, as Smith visited death and destruction on whoever had presumably wronged him in life, in a multitude of locations. This is much more focused on just one, a couple of houses on the Black Hill. When the locusts swarm elsewhere, we're rarely there to see it, a news report enough to keep us up to date. Notably, this also feels far less downbeat, even with such a vast threat, not just directly to crops but leading to famine, mass panic and complete disruption of a nation's infrastructure. Here, England mostly puts up with the locusts until the solution arrives and they're gone again. Keep calm and carry on.

I hadn't remembered 'Locusts' particularly well, perhaps oddly given that I remember other Hamlyn novels like 'Deathbell', 'Satan's Snowdrop' and 'Entombed' as among Smith's best and most original works. What I found on reading it afresh decades after my last time through is that it holds up really well. Smith clearly enjoyed the breathing room he had with a larger page count. He built characters better, even ones who he clearly introduced only to promptly kill off in horrible fashion. He focused a story on a small number of primary characters, whom we quickly care about, while introducing many others in tiny bit parts, even just as mentions, never appearing themselves.

I also liked the progression of the book. It's Smith exploring his beloved countryside yet again, with a character study of a family going back to nature only to find itself stuck in a disaster movie. The way it ravages its way around them plays out more like a thriller than a horror novel, Roger Blade coming in to handle it like a traditional disaster movie lead. There's an appropriate metaphor introduced late in the book, hinting that this is a war story with locusts as enemy combatants. Only in the death scenes does it absolutely transform into a horror novel, because Smith is almost gleeful in how he takes his victims down and that often after introducing us properly to them, so we care more when they die.

There are plenty of character arcs here that leap straight off a cliff, sometimes literally with Mac the tramp and Peter Ditton, Chief Ranger for the Forestry Commission in the Black Hill area. We meet a seventy-year-old blind piano tuner, a former policeman who grows his own tobacco, a wealthy farmer who suicides when he sees what the locusts have done to his crops. They're Elwyn Pugh, Joe Billings and Ted Satterthwaite. They have names and backgrounds. We even get to learn a little about three-week-old Doug Thurston before he's eaten alive in his pram. Oh yes, indeed. Nothing is sacrosanct in this one. Even some of the most sympathetic characters find themselves on the chopping block.

What all this means is that 'Locusts' isn't just better than I remembered it, it's Smith's best novel up to this point and for a variety of reasons. He's even comfortable in connecting in the geography of a few prior novels, as if he's creating a shared universe. The Altons are friends with the Lloyds, who live in Barmouth, which is 'Night of the Crabs' territory. Mac winters at St. Chad's in Birmingham, right in 'Bats Out of Hell' territory. And Shep White's old place on the Wash is a landmark for the military, a nod to both a real person and place and the fictional territory of 'The Slime Beast'.

Now, this newfound maturity in writing that came with a larger page count didn't last, of course, at least not consistently. Smith continued to write for New English Library and many of those books had to remain a lot smaller than this one. Many of them are very pulpy indeed, unashamedly so. A few of them were larger, though, often ones I don't remember as fondly, such as 'Thirst' and 'Warhead'. I'm now fascinated to see if they're going to play much better on a fresh reading.

'Thirst' is up soon, as a 1980 novel, but next month will be 'Deathbell', one of my favourites of Smith's horror novels, with 'Satan's Snowdrop' following those two and the perky 'Caracal', introducing one of the author's favourite non-fiction subjects, namely big cats in Britain, into his fiction, wrapping up the year. So, into the eighties I go, freshly invigorated by the fascinating decade of writing that was Guy N. Smith's output in the seventies. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For more titles by Guy N Smith click here

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