I've read almost every Guy N. Smith novel and there's much good and bad to be found in them, but I've long looked back almost to the beginning for the best and the worst. After his first novel, 'Werewolf by Moonlight', but before his breakthrough, 'Night of the Crabs', were 'The Sucking Pit' and 'The Slime Beast'. I remember the former as a glorious ride through unapologetic pulp territory and the latter as a cheap literary take on a cheap monster movie.
I don't believe I'm gone back to either book in a couple of decades but, with the release of 'Spawn of the Slime Beast' almost forty years after its literary mother and both 'The Sucking Pit' and 'The Slime Beast' released in expensive, limited edition, collector's editions, it was surely time to revisit both of these thin New English Library paperbacks and re-evaluate their merits or the lack of them.
What I found was that 'The Sucking Pit' is as much fun as ever but has more plot holes than I remembered or perhaps can count. When Stephen King called it 'the all-time classic pulp horror title', I believe he was talking about the actual title of the book but he wouldn't have been far wrong if he'd been talking about the book itself. It would have to fight it out in a kaiju battle with 'Eat Them Alive'. If anything, 'The Slime Beast' may actually be better written than its predecessor, though it's hardly a ground-breaking step in Guy's bibliography and it's not up even to its successor, the massively successful 'Night of the Crabs'. Yet it certainly reads better than I remember and I was surprised to find it spiritual kin to 'The Sucking Pit'.
The story is straight out of monster movie heaven. Our heroes are digging on the Wash, the large estuary on the east coast of England between Norfolk and Lincolnshire, in search of the crown jewels which King John lost there in 1216. Instead they dig up some sort of humanoid lizard from the mud, which naturally happens to be profusely hungry and quickly finds a taste for human flesh. Its inevitable name is sourced from its habit of exuding slime wherever it goes, albeit slime that evaporates quickly and so isn't the easy opportunity for trailing the creature that you might expect.
The progression of the novel is much as expected, with our various protagonists reluctant to share such an unbelievable story until such time as they have to, whereupon the authorities are forced to act by the growing body count and we discover just how much firepower the beast can withstand, before the hero of the tale finally figures out its weakness and takes care of business. It's almost textbook stuff, though I do see one traditional element missing, that of the origin story. Only a few paragraphs are dedicated to even thinking about where the Slime Beast might have come from and that cheapens the book which, frankly, was never going to be high literature at a mere 112 pages and with a title like 'The Slime Beast'.
It's what lies behind the story that makes it so obviously a Guy N. Smith novel, even if he rarely ventured into science fiction, which this is by association if not by intent. It's set in the English countryside amidst traditional English country pursuits: the characters indulge in wildfowling, birdwatching and drinking at the local pub, not to mention the pleasures of the flesh, whether consensual or not.
Incidentally, the most unbelievable aspect of this book isn't actually the creature of the title but Liz Beck, the twenty-year-old niece of Professor Lowson, who's leading the quest for treasure. She happily snuggles up for passionate baby-creating sex with our hero and hers, Gavin Royle, on page 85, which sounds fair enough until you factor in that she was a virgin until the night before, Mallard Grover tried to rape her only a dozen pages earlier and, since then, the Slime Beast killed and ate him while she watched in text that ties sex and violence inextricably together in fantastic pulp terms:
'The dripping slit-like mouth was incapable of taking it all, much of it running down on to the body and splashing in the mud.'
'The monster pulled its victim closer, into a horrific repulsive embrace. A long sliver of yellow tongue darted back and forth glinting in the moonlight, and within seconds there were no brains remaining in the pulped skull.'
So, after watching her rapist be french-kissed to death by the Slime Beast and escaping death herself by only three inches, naturally Liz's first thought is to snuggle up with her lover of two days and make a baby, there within the deserted blockhouse in which they're squatting while searching for treasure, a building which on the very first page of the novel 'smelled of stale urine and excretion.' Romance sure ain't dead, folks. Who said men don't understand the female mind?
The combination of those passages, which deliberately ignore realistic character motivation in favour of an overt linking of sex and violence is highly reminiscent of 'The Sucking Pit'. Other similarities are that the cast is very small and the number of locations follows suit.
Names are given only to the three hunters of treasure, a couple of neighbours on the mud flats who are disposed of soon enough, the proprietor of the Bull and his wife and a few members of the constabulary. By the time the army show up to take on the monster, they're merely referred to as 'the sergeant', 'the corporal' and 'four infantrymen'. The local whore is mentioned by name, though she doesn't appear, and so is Shep White, a real person whose farmhouse is a landmark in the book just as it was for Guy during the wildfowling trips to the Wash that prompted the location to begin with. Novelists starting out are always told to write what they know. Guy certainly knew wildfowling in the Wash!
As for locations, they're just as few and far between, so much so that it wouldn't be difficult to adapt the novel into a stage play. There's the blockhouse that the treasure hunters stay in, the Bull pub in Sutton and, well, the Wash itself: acres of mud flats surrounded by miles of green saltings. Other than that, the only real setpiece is the village of Sutton itself, where the army face off against the Slime Beast with their tank, as seen from the upstairs windows of the Bull.
This is undeniably simple stuff and any depth to be found isn't in the horror story but in the background. Imagine what this novel would have been, had the Slime Beast of the title not been found, given that the creature is nothing but a way to sell this as horror. This would be a novel about a trio of English characters searching for a historic English treasure in the peaceful English countryside, where they run up against quintessentially English clashes: between birdwatchers and wildfowlers, between treasure hunters and superstitious locals, between man and Mother Nature.
Imagine how quiet that book would have been. Then add Slime Beast and mix to taste. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For a review of the sequel Spawn of the Slime Beast click here