Guy N. Smith had established himself on the horror bookshelves in the seventies with a string of novels with easily definable themes. City folk move to the countryside but don't understand country lifestyles and rub the locals the wrong way. Conflict between man and nature manifests in deadly attacks by the latter against the former. Whether it was werewolves or crabs or bats or locusts, the approach wasn't a particular varied one, even if it grew in pessimism and vehemence as the decade ran on. He wasn't any one trick pony, given the porn digests, Disney novelisations, thrillers and a sadistic war novel that also saw release in the seventies, but this novel was a major departure for him.
It's not surprising that Pocket Books picked it up for distribution in the United States, their only title of his, because it's fundamentally an American novel. It's not that the lead characters during the first half of the book are American, because those in the second half are British, the villain is German, a Gestapo torturer, and the key location that haunts the entire novel is a plot of land just behind the Reichenbach Falls, a cable car journey up from Meiringen in Switzerland. It's that the themes are all American, with a strong focus on evil strong enough to seep into a building and remain dangerous down the years; that building being surprisingly mobile, being packed into crates and shipped initially from Switzerland to the U.S. and then again to England, under the direction of the rich and powerful who do such things on whims.
It's the title that resonated with me first. It was pitched as 'The Scavenger's Daughter', the name of an evocative torture device that's mentioned early in the novel but doesn't otherwise factor into the plot. It was written under the underwhelming title of 'Snowdrop', which was then unsurprisingly changed to 'Satan's Snowdrop' in between the generation of the proof cover and the final publication by Hamlyn, the first edition carrying its eventual title on the front cover but its previous incarnation on the spine. It ended up with the right name, I'm sure, because it's a stellar juxtaposition of darkest horror and the most innocuous of flowers.
What it recounts is a journey of inevitability, reliant on the arrogance of the beautiful people who think they can do anything. Everything that happens here, every single death and every single disaster, could easily have been prevented, had a succession of these people just seen beyond their own narcissism. It's not a flattering story to Americans, really, as it takes brutal aim at a traditional American worship of a fake class of nobility, the sort of people who are famous only for having lots of money and who flaunt it on shows like 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'. If he wasn't fictional, Al Pennant would surely have an ongoing invitation to showcase his latest property and trophy wife on that show.
He's the lead for the first half of the book, even though it's named for his son, Tod, and the character of most note exudes his foulness throughout it, even though he dies during the prologue. The latter is the villain of the piece, a man named Reichenbach, who is finally caught after a twenty-year revenge quest by one of his prison camp subjects, a French Resistance operative named Pierre Lautrec. His vengeance is short-lived because the German is shrunken and cancerous, already near death even before he visits karma upon him, shredding him with a steel-tipped bullwhip just as Reichenbach had taken his testicles two decades earlier with six expert strokes while he was manacled to a ceiling. After Reichenbach dies, Lautrec does too, whirled through supernatural visions and dropped down the steps of the house to die in front of a blood-drenched snowdrop in the Swiss dirt.
Fast forward in time and Reichenbach's house is a decaying mansion up for sale for half a million bucks. La Maison des Fleurs, they call it and Al Pennant, a millionaire from New York, snaps it up for a discount with plans to have it renovated in situ, live in it with his wife and son for a few months and then ship it back to the States in the spring to sit on a plot of land in Long Island. He gets as far the renovation and a posh party to celebrate, but then the deaths begin. One guest dies in her bed of sheer terror, having suffered a torture chamber hallucination. She's not the only one to see things in the house either, with Al's trophy wife Veronica and their ten-year-old son Tod tormented by them. Of course, confident old Al ignores them both, because if he didn't, we wouldn't have a novel.
Almost everything here feels like new ground for Smith. Only two aspects feel familiar. The brutality of the gore is one, because the proclivities of a sadistic Gestapo torturer are just perfect fodder for him. The other is a blurring of time, characters in the present day being whisked back supernaturally in time, but not place, to experience something crucial to the plot. That begins in the prologue with Lautrec's journey back to the prison camp before he dies. Elizabeth Quilmer, the guest who dies at the party, has no history with Reichenbach but is transported back to his torture chamber too, as is Al Pennant's wife Veronica, prompting her to press to leave the building with her son, against her husband's wishes.
Of course, Al doesn't let her, talking her out of such ridiculous notions, and that ends as badly as you're already expecting, with Tod taking a dive out of the window of the freshly moved La Maison des Fleurs in Long Island after a memorable scene with a demonic space-hopperI kid you notand Veronica sent mad by her son's death, dying herself ten months later in an asylum. And so Al has to sell, because what else can he do? His prime competitor, Bruce Parlane, is offering him a good price and so this house goes back into packing crates to be shipped into the English countryside to torment him and his family, Welsh wife Anthea and their son Rusty, the second half not a million miles distant from the first.
I liked this novel more on a fresh re-read than I remember doing back in the eighties, but it doesn't feel like a Guy N. Smith novel. I don't know if he was targeting the American market, which had seen a pair of his books already reprinted by Signet: 'Killer Crabs' and 'Bats Out of Hell'. Pocket took this one, then Dell took over for eight more in the second half of the eighties. However, he didn't break that market with regards to new material until the nineties, when Zebra started to publish some originals, starting with 'Witch Spell' in 1993, another primarily psychological horror novel, albeit in a different vein to this one.
What I liked was how Smith managed to adapt his traditional themes into a new framework. There may not be a clash here between city folk and country folk, but there's a clash between the arrogant rich of the world, whether they be American or English, and the regular people, the policemen, workmen and others, who all offer the same common sense advice but are all consistently ignored. Armand Heron is the chief gendarme in Meiringen and Al Pennant wants protection from him against whoever's aiming to get him to quit his investment; but what he gets is the firm statement that M. Heron wouldn't spend a night in La Maison des Fleurs for a million francs. If only the rich man had listened to the regular man, he'd still have a wife and son, if not a haunted house.
What I didn't like was how it so obviously played to the American market. Not subscribing to the theory that people who have money are inherently better than those who don't, I didn't give a monkey's about Al Pennant or Bruce Parlane. Quite frankly, I was waiting for them to get theirs, but Reichenbach takes his time and it's the innocents who suffer first. Then again, I can't really call Veronica Pennant innocent given that she presses to leave with Tod at one point, only to give in to her husband's rationalisations as she wouldn't be able to easily find another husband worth this many millions if she does. She's sensitive in ways that he isn't, but she's just as shallow and worthless. Of course, I was hardly rooting for the Nazi torturer, but he's emphatically a monster here rather than a man, so I don't know how much ideology is applicable. He was an evil sadist and would have remained so regardless of which uniform he wore.
I wonder what Guy really thought of this novel. It's not a bad one at all and it does its job well, though I have to note that it racks up a substantial cast of characters without many of them getting more than a brief moment in the spotlight. It's primarily about two rich families of three and they're the only ones who are given any real depth, which is difficult to achieve, of course, when they're so shallow. Many of the scenes feel like the inner monologuing that Guy was so good at, especially in moments of terror, is just let loose to run amok. Mostly it feels like an experiment to break into a new market; that failed and so was discarded. I don't recall any of Guy's other novels feeling so American in approach except perhaps 'Blood Circuit' a couple of years later, which I haven't revisited yet.
Maybe it was important to him, not as a horror novel but as the opportunity to explore one of his many fascinations within the framework of one. I'm talking, of course, about Sherlock Holmes, a character he adored and adapted into a number of his own detectives. Whenever he wrote a Dixon Hawke story or a Raymond Odell story, he was really writing a Sherlock Holmes story without the ability to mention that name. Eventually, of course, he was able to write a real Holmes story, 'The Case of the Sporting Squire', based on a case that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mentioned but never wrote. It appeared in a Mike Ashley edited anthology, 'The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures'.
Holmes, of course, famously met his supposed end, along with his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, at the Reichenbach Falls, such an important location here. Guy went as far as to visit this pivotal location, in 1958, and, of course, wrote about the trip in an article called 'A Pilgrimage to the Reichenbach Falls'. "My mission," he wrote, "was simply to satisfy my curiousity, perhaps to try and absorb the atmosphere engendered by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and to compare the scene of 'The Final Problem' with that story which had fired my imagination." He described a deserted Meiringen, a solo ten-minute cable car ride up onto the mountain and the deafening noise of the waterfall from the platform at the end of a trail.
It's an interesting piece, full of atmosphere, that clearly highlighted how this location stayed with the author, who was visiting as such even that long ago, rather than as a regular tourist. I don't find it at all surprising that it should eventually show up in one of his horror novels, especially given the way that he chose to end it. But there lie spoilers. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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