I don't remember liking 'Thirst' all that much when I read it back in the eighties, though I don't particularly recall why. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't for me. Reading afresh, with the benefit of much hindsight, I think I see why. It's a very grim read, with a very loose story hanging over the horror. And the horror's great, because Smith doesn't let up on the long line of victims queuing up for their turn to postulate in the spotlight. What a great word that is for the genre too! But there's nothing in between the horror to release the tension, because nobody is happy in this book, even before it all went down. And, given that the nominal hero of the novel is riddled with guilt that weighs down heavier as it runs on, I'd be tempted to call this a proto-grimdark book. See, now we have a term for it.
As an example, the story is essentially told in the first chapter, triggered by something as innocent as a hare in the road. That hare bears no guilt as to what follows, and may be the only innocent character in the book. Initial blame goes to Mel Timberley, a lorry driver for Weedspray Limited, who's cheating on his wife with an older Welsh lady in Pontrhydfendigaid. I have to say that it takes someone living in the Welsh border hills to throw a town name like that into a horror novel! Anyway, Maureen's husband Ken walks in on them in-flagrante at 2am and so Mel chases off down the road in his truck, angry and guilty and panicked. His life has been turned upside-down but, when he notices that hare in the road and swerves to miss it, he crashes his truck into the Claerwen Reservoir, turning a lot more lives upside-down because he's inadvertently poisoned the entire water supply of the second-largest city in the UK.
There's a lot that's telling from a grimdark perspective here. For a start, while Timberley doesn't cause any of this destruction deliberately, he does bear a heck of a lot of the blame. However, when he dies in the crash, only eight pages into 'Thirst', he's not the first death we've read about. That's an unnamed child, only seven- or eight-years-old, who Timberley remembers as he ponders on the cargo he's carrying at ludicrous speed through these country roads. Mr. Larkin used Weedspray in his garden but foolishly left what was left in a mineral water bottle for future use. His little boy drank it, being a typically carefree but inquisitive child, went insane and, foaming at the mouth, eviscerated himself with a carving knife in front of his parents. His father took his own life in the car, using carbon monoxide poisoning and his mother attempted an overdose but wound-up in the local psychiatric unit instead, as it failed. This isn't cheerful stuff.
And then, in chapter two, we meet Ron Blythe, as close to a hero as we get in this book, but he's hardly a paragon of virtue. He's important here because he came up with the formula for Weedspray, the most potent and effective weedkiller on the market, a combination of paraquat, simazine and a dozen others, but that doesn't spark a cure in the way you expect. It's here to establish him immediately as a guilty man because of his part of what happened to the Larkin boy.
Timberley's accident and every further death from the weedkiller he created, of which there are many, bears ever heavier on his soul. To escalate that, the next victim he knows aboutthough we know better, as we've witnessed a whole bunch moreis his sister-in-law Cathy, whom he's spent the day lusting after, being an inveterate lech who cheats on his wife. It wouldn't be difficult to compare him to Brian Newman in 'Bats Out of Hell', who also sparked chaos and death on Birmingham, but Blythe is much less sympathetic.
What follows is a litany of destruction and Smith really doesn't skimp. Most characters introduced at this point die in the same chapter they show up, not always through being poisoned with weedkiller-infected water. I started my usual death count, but chapter three alonewith two murders by a man driven mad by weedkiller poisoning, a third death in self-defence, a fourth by accident, two more in a mad fight and another in a jail cell from weedkillerexceeds that of most of Smith's earlier horror novels, and that's before it really gets going.
After Cathy's death, there are two chapters that are just brutally incessant. One involves two trains colliding at Ham's Hill, with the signalman responsible for changing the points down with the poison. The wreckage triggers a knock-on effect that takes down seven cooling towers like dominoes and they bury buildings. Fire ensues, with explosions aplenty, and the fire brigade can't put it out because their water is contaminated and so flammable. Then there's a plane crash at Elmdon Airport, because the air traffic controller responsible for Runway 3 has been poisoned. And then, there's a mass pile-up on the Aston Clearway, prompted by a man murdering his father by sabotaging his car. But hey, many of the other drivers and passengers were already poisoned, so it was bound to happen anyway. Whew. That's a lot in just two chapters.
This does get a little hard to take, because the death and destruction isn't tempered with anything until a pair of characters fall in love in chapter nine, which is halfway. There's no humour here whatsoever, with everything grim or grimmer. None of the characters are sympathetic; the first selfless act takes eight chapters to arrive, when Ron Blythe saves a girl from being raped in a snack bar. Guess where the love in chapter nine comes from. There isn't even a lot that might spark outside interest to a Guy N. Smith fan, as there was riddled throughout 'Bats Out of Hell'. This may be a vague sort of spiritual sequel, but Smith isn't targeting recognisable faces and places from his past; he's just taking down the world scattershot-fashion. There's some of him in Benny Wilkes, who was forced by his father into banking; there's a section featuring an old school gunsmith; and I believe that Guy has connections to Wrekin College, but that's about it.
So we have to grab at the respite offered by Ron Blythe falling for Carol Evans halfway through. Neither is a prize, Carol having knowingly embarked on an affair with a married man before, as she's about to do again, but there's a tenderness here that's enough of a positive for us to really treasure it. I was reminded, here, of that famous photo of St. Paul's Cathedral during the Blitz, shining intact through clouds, untouched by the Nazi bombs that had taken down almost everything around it. Sure, this is Birmingham rather than London, but the scenes are even worse, as the mobs, looters and rioters run mostly unchecked, occasionally shot by soldiers. Instead of a landmark building in surprisingly pristine condition, it's the human spirit that shines out, two negative characters creating a positive together in a massively negative situation.
My other realisation at this point, well over halfway through the book is that Ron and Carol's newfound love is the one and only hopeful thing thus far and there's precious little to come to bolster it. Sure, there's been a committee looking at the unfolding catastrophe from early on, with Blythe and his boss, plus representation from the water board and the police. That's enhanced later on by the order of the Prime Minister, bringing in the army and air force and some research chemists. But that committee is completely ineffective, having saved precisely nobody but condemning many by their slow or ineffective responses. They mostly serve to explain to us, the readers, the details of what's going on; even though we've already grasped the sweep of it anyway. It's no big shock when they all die, trapped in a burning building.
This darkness extends to details, often ironic ones because irony is a cruel master in this book, going way beyond an acknowledgement that four people end up miserable as Ron and Simon Blythe ought to have married each other's wives. An apprentice electrician at Ham's Hill miraculously escapes death when a building falls on top of him, only to be trapped in a ten foot square of debris, in which he's burned alive. Benny Wilkes finally achieves something in the moment he murders his domineering father, but he's already poisoned by weedkiller and so fails to benefit. A rapist and murderer in Winson Green Prison gets out of solitary when passing prisoners see the bottle he's pissed in and believe it to be whisky. He got the bottle from a convict who killed a man and got away with it, but was then locked up for murdering someone he didn't. Even the epilogue, which I won't spoil, is there to ensure that absolutely nobody escapes karma and irony both.
There has to be some hope at some point and what we get arrives at the end of chapter ten, as Ron and Carol attempt to escape from Birmingham, with Mike Cummins in tow and a kid called Paul Merrick that they pick up along the way. What this reminds me of is post-apocalyptic movies, where society has fallen already and a small group of mismatched survivors search through its wreckage for something. In this instance, the apocalypse is still raging, literally around them, with death and destruction still happening on a grand scale. It's an odd twist to that standard image, but a very welcome one at this point, because we need some sort of positive emotion to drag us up from the mire. Of course, it doesn't last.
And that's why this is grimdark, even though it's not fantasy and even though the genre hadn't been conjured up yet. Glen Cook didn't publish 'The Black Company' until 1984 and I don't know anything else that came out in the eighties. 'Thirst' was released at the very beginning of that decade, in 1980 and was branded as horror by New English Library, even if it finds a very different tone to everything else that Smith had written up until that point, except perhaps 'Bats Out of Hell', which was also notably pessimistic but also tempered with humour and a sort of glee in taking down everyone that had pissed the author off in his life.
Nobody comes out of this well, including the "heroes", who are notably flawed individuals, which is a hallmark of grimdark. It's nihilistic in the extreme, one chapter being mostly devoted to characters thinking about suicide to escape a worse imminent death, only to have that escape stolen from them. I doubt 'Thirst' was an influence on the authors who created grimdark as a genre, but many of those were English and of a generation that may well have been influenced by the British nasty novels of the eighties. I wonder. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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