Having wrapped up his first trilogy at the end of 1978, Guy N. Smith kicked off 1979 with another third book, but there was little coherence to the 'Crabs' series at this point. It seems fair to call 'Night of the Crabs' a fifties monster movie in prose form, the precise book for a moment in time, but call 'Killer Crabs' a thriller that happened to feature some recognisable monsters in a new location, and 'The Origin of the Crabs' a prequel that's not really a prequel, because, while it does plenty, what it doesn't do is provide us with what the title promises.
You might think that the point of a book called 'The Origin of the Crabs' would be to tell us where and what the origin of the crabs was, especially given that 'Night of the Crabs' did little on that front, merely hinting at a Soviet nuclear test in the Arctic. Well, this does exactly the same thing. In the second chapter, Bruce McKechnie, Laird of Cranlarich, an out-of-the-way sporting estate in Scotland on the shores of Loch Merse, wonders about why his loch is hopping with trout and salmon and other species of fish. His thought is that:
"Undoubtedly the rumours concerning an underwater nuclear test carried out by the Russians in the Arctic Circle last summer were true."
And, well, that's about it on that front. This adds precisely zip to our understanding of where the crabs came from and why they're suddenly the size of cows. And, while there is a direct link to 'Night of the Crabs' in the form of an epilogue, when Milton Hogarth visits Shell Island to fake his own death early in 1976, having swindled his own company in the Midlands and left his partner holding the bag.
He gets to the point of leaving his clothes on the beach when the crabs take him down, before vanishing again with a change in weather, only to return in July when the sun is back again, a return we know very well indeed. We aren't even given a reason why the crabs leave Loch Merse and Scotland, though it may have something to do with the fact that there aren't that many people left in Cranlarich after they wrap up this book.
If what I've said so far sounds entirely negative, let me shift that around. This isn't bad at all, as a random entry into the 'Crabs' series. It just doesn't do its job as the obvious progenitor of the series, the origin story for Smith's signature monsters. So, in a sense, it fails at the one job it had to do, but succeeds anyway as a slice of crustacean carnage in a typical Guy N. Smith location, a rural hamlet reliant on a shooting estate.
Let's face it: what do we want from a book like this, beyond what its title advertises? A bunch of characters who we don't mind getting ripped apart by giant pincers, plus one or two who we're willing to get a little bit emotional about. Smith provides all that. An army of click-click-clickety-clicking monsters who come out with the moon and feed on a variety of human snacks? Smith has that down. And a local ecosystem that defines who runs Cranlarich and how everyone else maintains a balance within his worldview? That is absolutely here, too.
What's more, certain cruel and heartless people aside, it seems like quite a nice place to visit. I may not want to spring for £100 a day to shoot duck and geese off Loch Merse but I'd be happy enough relaxing in the Royal Stag over a pint or three, a fine meal of local game and a dram of whatever Scotch the old timer by the fire recommends. I'm a country boy at heart, even though I live in a big city nowadays, and I miss the peace of a little hamlet like Cranlarich in the middle of nowhere. Just so long as the crabs have moved on by the time I arrive! I don't fancy being dismembered for kicks by a sadistic oversized crustacean. I'm cutting down on that for Lent.
Of course, Bruce McKechnie is the man in charge. He's not a nice man and the rumours suggest that he only got to be Laird of Cranlarich by orchestrating the accidental fall of his much nicer brother James off a cliff. Rumour has it that whenever anyone has a fool idea to oppose the laird, he orders his head gamekeeper, Jock Rouse, to take care of them in ruthless fashion. Ferguson was found drowned in the loch and MacPherson supposedly wandered into the Cranlarich bog under the influence of drink. But maybe that's not how it went down. Better to keep on the right side of the laird, just in case.
McKechnie is on top of the rumours, as Christine Blacklaw, daughter of the landlord at the Royal Stag, is his whore and his spy in the village, though she has strong designs to marry him and live a financially comfortable, if not particularly loving, long life up at the Cranlarich Hotel, from which the laird runs his weekly shooting parties. They're the bread and butter of his business, though they soon start to fall apart after a couple of his regulars, Phil Ryland and Paul Barrett, a pair of young directors of a large shooting supplies business in London, disappear in mysterious fashion.
The laird knows what's happened to them, because he's seen the crabsthey killed his gamekeeper in front of him and he only just escaped with his lifebut he's not telling anyone about them. That would guarantee the failure of his business! So he's keeping these shooting parties away from the loch where they might just stay alive and paying him money. We know what happens to them too, because we see it happen. They came to Cranlarich to shoot ducks and geese over the loch, so that's exactly what they do, at night, where they're promptly eaten, along with their cocker spaniel, by giant crabs.
And, if it wasn't bad enough that these disappearances are affecting the laird's future business, Ryland's younger brother John travels up to look into what happened and he promises, with his similarly headstrong nature, to be a real thorn in McKechnie's side. It never rains but it pours, right? Of course, he still doesn't tell anyone about the crabs and that's pretty important to the big picture because, if we know anything about the book before we begin, it's that nobody else knows about it when the crabs invade the Welsh coast a year later in 'Night of the Crabs'. Somehow whatever happens is kept an abiding secret and we do wonder how.
It seems clear to me at this point that Guy N. Smith had figured out what New English Library readers wanted from their horror novels and he was more than up to the task of delivering more. The biggest difference between this and similarly rural novels like 'Night of the Werewolf' or 'Hi-Jack!', two earlier novels which he similarly set north of the border, is how the deaths are handled. Not only does Smith provide plenty of kills here, mostly at the pincers of the giant crabs, he also keeps them coming in a steady flow.
After merely recounting tales of past kills, he opens up the death tally in chapter two when Rouse is eaten alive. Ryland and Barrett (and Toby the cocker spaniel) follow suit a chapter later and it's a rare chapter after that that doesn't add someone else to the tally. At my count, the crabs directly kill eight people, indirectly cause the death of two more and there's another who we can only assume passes away of natural causes. Also, Smith teasingly ends the novel just as another couple are about to be eaten, so we can assume that they ought to be added to that tally but can't strictly do so.
Oh, and that's excluding Milton Hogarth in the epilogue, because his story isn't part of the main one being told here, but you could chalk up another one if you must.
In many ways, though, Smith was still telling the sort of story he wanted to tell, merely within a horror framework. This is a novel set entirely in the countryside; we spend the whole thing in the remote hamlet of Cranlarich and there are only a few locations even there: the Royal Stag, the Cranlarich Hotel and a couple of cottages. The vast majority of the action takes place out by the loch, in the Cranlarich bog or on the slopes of the Criffel mountains, all outdoor locations on the Cranlarich Estate. Almost everyone we meet is tied in some way to shooting: not just shooters but gamekeepers, beaters and poachers, as well as the staff at the hotel that runs the shooting parties.
What's important, though, is that, unlike 'Killer Crabs', which was a thriller with some monsters spliced in, this is clearly a 'Crabs' novel pure and simple. I can bitch and moan all I like about how Smith failed to provide an origin for the crabs in 'The Origin of the Crabs', but I have to admire how he managed to pen another countryside novel in such a way that it's inherently exactly what his publisher and their readership wanted from him. I'd never have seen that when I first devoured this as a teenager but it stands out now I'm a fifty-year-old reading through his work one novel a month with knowledge of who he was and what drove him.
In fact, there's another aspect to this novel that's spun right out of Smith's hobbies, an inventive tie to the Loch Ness Monster. There's a point where the crab attacks need to slow down because their actions are governed by lunar cycles and Smith wisely spins up a way to have a mass influx of tourists into Cranlarich just as the crabs take a break, the tension palpable as motor launches tour the loch and bathyspheres are lowered into it. We know intellectually that everyone's probably safe because this has to end with the crabs still a secret, but we can't help leaping at possibilities for mass slaughter.
What Smith does is simply have John Ryland talk with the press. However, the press in this instance is Don Phinney, an aging journalist who's spent his entire career working for the 'Record' and he just loves sensationalism. He can't print a feature about giant crabs without proof; after all, Ryland's only heard them, never seen them, and those in Cranlarich who say they have aren't around any more to say so to Phinney. So he comes up with nonsense about how Nessie must have made a visit to Loch Merse through the subterranean tunnel locals have long imagined, and that sparks the whole thing.
And so, while this doesn't do the one job it should have done, it works surprisingly well otherwise. It's a good pulp horror novel, a decent 'Crabs' novel and worthy countryside novel in the Smith tradition. It just doesn't have jack to do with the origin of the crabs.
Next up: 'Locusts', which was Smith's first horror novel for Hamlyn, the creators of the "nasty novel" and a new regular publisher for him. It's also a bigger book, half as long again as anything he'd written for New English Library. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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