At my sister’s wedding a while back my mother spoke about our family vacations when we were kids, and how much she liked Shell Island in Wales. So I was able tell her that by some strange coincidence on the flight over I happened to be reading an ebook about giant crabs eating tourists at Shell Island.
The seventies were a great time for pulp horror in Britain; pretty much anyone with a novel about monsters or demons or vampires could get it in print and many people did. Some of them were good, many of them were bad, most of them… well… let’s just say they filled a popular niche for escapist entertainment in the publishing world and not comment on their literary merits.
Guy N Smith was one of the more prolific pulp writers of that era, now with over eighty books to his name. However, he’s probably most remembered for his giant crab series, which captured the public imagination for a period and were popular enough that Night of the Crabs lead to several sequels; in the introduction to the ebook Smith talks about going into a book store in Wales and finding himself in an impromptu signing session. He’s now releasing some of his work as ebooks, and I bought Night of the Crabs for nostalgia’s sake when I saw it on Smashwords; it’s no longer for sale there, but should be elsewhere.
I’m sure I remember finding the paperback on the bookshelf in one of the houses my parents rented in that part of Wales a few years after it was published, but I’m not sure whether I actually read it at the time. I know I had heard of it, primarily because we did often visit the tourist areas mentioned in the book; which I suspect is why it became popular, as foreign travel was still rare and much of the British population would recognise the locations and the type of people mentioned in the story.
Giant crabs are a somewhat unlikely horror monster, particularly crabs as large and intelligent as those in the books; the laws of physics alone would mean that crabs of that size couldn’t easily move without huge legs to support their weight. But so long as people get eaten and the hero saves the day, no-one who likes these kind of books is going to worry much about the laws of physics.
And get eaten they do. From the opening line to the end, Smith seems to adopt the maxim that someone should get eaten at least every ten pages (and have sex at least every thirty) so the reader won’t get bored. The main character in the prologue doesn’t even last that long, becoming crab food within six pages
The prologue is actually one of the best parts of the book; it feels like a self-contained short story with few of the faults that the main story suffers from. However, the basis of the prologue’s plot (a man faking his death in the sea) probably seems more original now than it would have at the time when it had been in the news and a popular TV show.
I’m not going to comment much on the overall story because I don’t really need to. If you’ve read one monster animal novel or seen one monster movie you probably already know it; monsters start eating people, hero arrives to save the town, people don’t believe monsters exist, more people get eaten, hero saves the day, etc. That’s what happens in most of these stories, and what distinguishes them is the setting, the monsters, the characters and the author’s writing ability.
In this case the setting is different — while we’ve had stories like Jaws set in American seaside towns I don’t remember others in Wales — the monsters are different, and the main faults are the characters and the writing. James Herbert’s recently mentioned series about man-eating giant rats, for example, have better survived the intervening decades.
One of the biggest issues I noticed in the writing is blatant point of view shifts; with multiple characters in a scene, Smith has a tendency to jump from one head to another. That may have been more common at the time, but today it’s so widely discouraged that it immediately stands out. There’s also a fair amount of telling where showing would probably have helped to pull me into the story world and hide some of the more obvious character problems, and occasional bursts of passive voice. One final peculiarity is repeated references to characters by their full name rather than just their first name or surname, which is common early in the story but becomes rare by the end.
The characters are interesting, but the things the main characters do — or don’t do — often seem to stem more from a need to make the plot work than from the characters themselves. As a consequence I rarely felt that they were real people and hence felt distanced from the story; in general, although at times they did seem to have a remarkable ability to not be overly concerned that a giant crab had chopped off one or more of their limbs, the crab-bait characters who appear solely in order to be eaten seemed more real than the main characters in the story.
For example, the attractive divorcee almost immediately falls for the heroic biologist, and then when they see giant crabs eating one of the locals they don’t seem to be in much of a hurry to tell people about it; our biologist does talk to the government, who think he’s mad, but not to the local police or media. Even when the government do decide the threat is real, they don’t seem too concerned about evacuating the area or discouraging the heroic biologist’s new girlfriend from tagging along on his crab-hunting trips. In addition, when our heroic couple hide in the sand dunes to see if giant crabs really are sneaking out of the sea, they can barely manage to sit for two minutes before they decide that having sex would be a good idea.
Where Smith’s writing does work for me is in the entertaining set pieces through the book; he seems to delight in finding more characters to kill off in gruesome ways, possibly too much as the crab-bait scenes sometimes distract from the main plot and at one point take us away from the main characters for about twenty pages. The attack on a military base amused me, as the soldiers firing machineguns merely annoy the crabs because the impact of the bullets on their shells tickles them; they continue on to gleefully destroy tanks, trains and part of a tourist town in their search for delicious human flesh. Of course in the end the military are ineffective because using nuclear weapons “just isn’t on”, so only our heroic biologist can save the day while leaving the story wide open for a sequel.
This book is a product of its time and rating it by modern standards would be difficult and unfair; it’s different and if you’re a fan of pulp monster horror it’s entertaining. If you’re not a fan then the flaws probably overwhelm the good parts; I’d like to call it ‘Jaws with crabs’, but ultimately Jaws is just better written.
Still, it’s got me itching to sit back on the sofa and write a monster novel of my own, or at least rewrite my monster movie script into novel form. Maybe it’s finally time for that giant man-eating gopher story.
And I think I am going to have to track down those sequels.
Guy N Smith can be found at Guynsmith.com.