I was surprised by how much I enjoyed revisiting 'Werewolf by Moonlight', Guy N. Smith's debut novel, back in February. It played much better than I remembered it, even though it had a relatively skimpy cast of characters to go with its skimpy page count and there wasn't much to catch us unawares, surely the most obvious being how few of those characters met their demise within its covers.
Well, this first sequel, unimaginatively titled 'Return of the Werewolf' plays most of the same cards, with one huge exception that I won't spoil. It has the same skimpy page count and not too many more characters, though it somehow feels more generous on that front. While that big exception is likely to catch a lot of readers unawares, it won't do so fully because it's not hard to work out the who behind a new werewolf scare and, if we do work it out, the why shouldn't be much of a stretch either.
I will say that Smith played up the horror a little more this time out, having made quite a name in the genre over the three years since 'Werewolf by Moonlight'. No, there aren't many more deaths and it isn't any more gory but, with the acknowledgement of plenty of irony, it feels like Smith was writing a horror novel here rather than a werewolf story, if that makes sense. He'd found his niche and he was acknowledging it. Sure, this was only his seventh horror novel out of twenty published titles but, after the bloody war novel that follows this, his next twenty novels would be exclusively horror.
We're back on the Black Hill, to which Guy had now moved. Like his protagonist in both this novel and its predecessor, Gordon Hall, he had owned the shooting rights on the Black Hill for some time, but a lightning-in-a-bottle novel behind him in the previous year's 'Night of the Crabs', he had managed to move there too. Hall has to commute during this novel, a hundred and forty-mile round-trip, and I can see Smith throwing that in deliberately to get one over on his character. However, he also cements an obvious similarity here, given that Hall's new wife is named Jean, just like Guy's own better half.
When Hall returns to the Black Hill, after a year away, things have just kicked off again. The unmarked grave in Llanadevy of Philip Owen, the werewolf in the first book, has been torn open by the claws of a beast, his coffin likewise and his corpse stolen. The locals jump to the obvious conclusion: there wasn't only one werewolf and, hey, if we're accepting that, then maybe Philip isn't dead and there are two in the hills now, preparing to plague the countryside with their fearful appetites.
Of course, the truth is a little more prosaic than that and it's notable that the first death, that of Wal Morris, a speeding lothario pissed at losing his conquest earlier in the evening, arrives when he spies the werewolf in the road ahead of him and snaps his neck in the ensuing crash. While the supernatural plays out as a suitable backdrop for a horror novel, there's plenty more going on that's natural, from the omnipresent threat of poachers to Hall reconnecting with Margaret Gunn, prompting them both to cheat on their spouses this time. So much for Hall settling down from his womanising ways. At least Margaret doesn't leave a yellow bucket out as a signal any more.
Talking of poachers, while it's good to see Hall and the Gunns and Gwynne Owen and a bunch of police return from the previous book, the best character here by far is the Lurker. He's new to this novel, but he's lived in Clun since he was a boy and everyone knows him by his nickname, so much so that his real name is never disclosed here. To underline a grudging form of respect from a sportsman to his natural and traditional enemy, Smith throws a couple of two-bit poachers into the fray later in the book. They don't fare well at all, arrested by the local constabulary the same day we meet them. By comparison, the Lurker hasn't been nabbed once yet, though PC Winter knows full well what he's up to; he simply can't catch him. I'm not unhappy at all that the Lurker plays quite the important role in this book. It's a much better novel for his inclusion than it would have been without him.
Another aspect I liked a lot was that, even though this book, from its title on down, advertises a rerun of 'Werewolf by Moonlight', that's really not what this is. Hall has kinda-sorta moved on, though he's more than up to the new challenge. Chief-Inspector Ford admires him and utilises his help as much as possible, while noticeably not making the same mistake he did last time and leaving when things get quiet. Quite a few of the other returning characters hate him though, especially Vic Gunn, who knows he slept with his wife, and Gwynne Owen, who blames him for the death of his son.
That all sets up a completely different dynamic against which to throw an inevitably similar werewolf hunt. Even there, Smith takes it in different directions, including a cliffhanger in Anthony's Quarry. It ends in a very different way too, albeit with many of the same metrics met and lessons learned.
There are still only a few deaths (I counted four, up one on last time) but they're just as neatly varied, and the human toll is far outnumbered by that of the wild game. The backdrop of the Welsh borders remains ranked as one of the best drawn characters. And Smith continues his habit of naming the dogs (and one cat) who play their parts in the story, while completely ignoring the makes or models of cars, which is a practice that's usually handled the other way around in horror novels.
On the flipside, karma plays just as much a part in the denouement, which I'm not entirely sold on and another sex scene featuring Margaret Gunn feels almost as awkward as the last one, if for a reason I can buy into a little more. And Smith ends the book with a rather flagrant jinx that only took him just over a year to fall prey to. At this point, he seems happy to close the book on werewolves, with a pair of related novels and further unrelated one in 'Night of the Werewolf'. He even gifts the key words to his obvious avatar, Gordon Hall:
"'Well now that we've accounted for the original Werewolf's brother,' he laughed softly, 'I don't think there's much chance of another one springing up!'"
Needless to say, I'll be returning to the Black Hill in a mere four months to be introduced to 'The Son of the Werewolf', but in September it'll be Guy's one and only war novel, 'Bamboo Guerillas'. ~~ Hal C F Astell
For more titles by Guy N Smith click here