I heard some extremely sad news today and came out of blogging retirement for it. Horror legend Guy N Smith has passed away.
Anyone who’s known me for a while will know that this has a lot of significance as I was both a fan and latterly a friend of Guy and he really was one of my biggest heroes.
I think a lot of people don’t understand the pulp horror craze of the 70s and 80s and either appreciate it ironically or write it off as trash but, for me, it’s the genre and the stories and the style that is etched into my heart. It means so much to me and NO ONE did it better than Guy N. Smith. It’s easy to look at titles like Crabs On The Rampage or Crabs: The Human Sacrifice and chuckle but there was a real art to balancing the absurd with the horrifying with the thrilling and Guy was a master of it. He and his oft-times nemesis Shaun Hutson were the inspiration for Garth Marenghi and sure, when you read some of the lines about the crabs (“clickety-click, the knitting needles of death!”) it’s easy to make that link but damn, that prose is EXCITING. If you read it with your heart not your cynical brain, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in it. His art was that he could take a macabre scene and through sheer energy and force of will, escalate it far beyond where others would. He’d use lines like that to increase the hysteria of the scene. Sometimes, you might laugh but it’d be a nervous laughter because whatever was coming next would be grotesque or scary or just so downright bizarre.
His imagination was boundless. He wrote so many books per year (all four of his classic Mark Sabat books – about an ex-SAS shape-shifting exorcist who went up against everything from druids to cannibals – were written in a year where he wrote about eight others!) and rarely lost quality. I’m not saying every Guy N. Smith book is a masterpiece but almost all of them have at least SOMETHING that’s ferociously entertaining. And at least a couple each year WERE pulp horror masterpieces. He had more masterpieces than most writers have books so you can forgive the odd dud. Most impressive of all were his IDEAS. They were way out there. Surreal, mystical, way way way over-the-top. Far in excess of anything any other writer I’ve read has come up with. Sure, he did a lot of killer animal rampage books but there were tons of wilder, weirder things in his oeuvre and he loved to experiment more than people gave him credit for. A book like The Lurkers is a classic ‘slow-burn’ style horror, far away from the gross-out gore he was most known for. Mania, one of his late-80s efforts, remains one of my absolutely favourite horror stories. It’s rooted in reality – a shit hotel near where Guy lived in the Shropshire hills – but taken to illogical occult extremes and it’s genuinely terrifying and dark. I’m not even scratching the surface. He has SO many great books.
What came out in all of Guy’s writing was that he never put a lid on things, he never self-censored, he never went “is this too much?”, he just let rip and that purity of thought, that no-brakes juggernaut style made reading his books a visceral experience. You could feel the passion he had for words. As well as just the horror, he was a playful, mischievous writer and that sense of enjoyment for what he was doing always tempered even the most unforgiveably nasty material. You always came out of his books with a smile, no matter how dark they were.
If you ever doubt Guy’s sense of humour, it’s worth noting that the last post on his website was pushing a new reprint of his old novel Bats Out Of Hell as a topical read: “Back in 1978 I wrote Bats Out of Hell in which a plague of bats spread a dreadful disease amongst mankind. Little did I dream 40 years on this would become reality! I am almost too scared to look along the titles of the 200 plus books which I have written since. Will another of my horrors become reality in the future? If so, I dread to think which one might come next! Am I prophetic? My spine tingles at the possibility!” (It’s a Marenghiesque thing to say, for sure, but Guy knows that.)
Growing up, I started reading Guy years before I should’ve done. Of course it was appealing to me because his books were LOADED with sex, violence, bad language and everything forbidden, mixed in with stories simple enough for a kid to understand and insane weirdoid monsters. What wasn’t to love about that? I rediscovered my love for Guy as an adult, re-read a lot of the classics and began obsessively collecting. The more I read of Guy, the more I became inspired to try and do what I used to do as a kid again – to write stories in that same style. Somewhere between early adolesence and early adulthood, I’d got pretty depressed and lost my imagination. Re-discovering Guy N. Smith’s books reignited the spark. It reminded me why I loved reading and writing so much in the first place. And I started writing short stories.
One day at work, some time in about 2003, I was telling a colleague about my love for Guy N. Smith and he said “whatever happened to him? His books used to be everywhere and now you never see them” and I had to be honest, I didn’t know. So I googled it. And found that Guy was now running a makeshift booksellers from his home in the country. And he had his phone number on there… As luck would have it, I had to drive up from London to Manchester that weekend anyway and I thought maybe I could swing by on the way back and buy a book. So – in disbelief that this was really happening – I rang the number and Guy himself answered and I managed to shakily say that I was interested in some books and he invited me to come by on the Sunday.
I will never forget that Sunday, it was truly one of the happiest days of my life. I thought it would be super-awkward and that I’d appear at the door, awkwardly purchase a book and that’d be that, but it was something else entirely. Guy was astonishingly welcoming. When I admitted to being a fan, he showed me all around his home, including his own collection of memorabilia relating to his books. He made me coffee, we sat at his table in his farmhouse and talked for hours about horror, about writing, about his career. I met his amazing wife Jean, who made snacks. And we went up into Guy’s attic, where he kept his books. The surreal feeling of it is a memory I’ll never lose. You can’t stand up in Guy’s attic, so we had to crawl around on our hands and knees in this storage space full of books. There I was, slowly crawling along the beams behind literally my favourite writer of all-time – also crawling – and thinking “life is strange sometimes, eh?” My childhood self would’ve gone mad from the envy but been very confused by the image itself.
As I drove away from Guy’s house, through the beautiful Shropshire countryside, a backseat full of books, I just remember it was still a really sunny day and I felt truly ecstatic. Which is a rare feeling for me, I have to be honest. It made me want to write more than ever. I came home and hit the keyboard. Shortly afterwards, I got my first short story published (Duplicity) in Guy’s own fanzine, Graveyard Rendezvous. Shortly after that, I sold another story (Lambkin) to a fledgling publisher Hadesgate and, to my surprise and delight, they got Guy N. Smith to provide a quote about my writing that I treasured for life.
In 2006, I wrote my novel Filth Kiss that was absolutely 100% a tribute to Guy and his writing. I have never written a novel since with the ease and fever I had writing Filth Kiss (so it’s probably no coincidence I’ve also never had another novel published!). It came out like sorcery. I was so psyched – all those years of reading and loving pulp horror just exploded out like a fireball and I put that down to Guy as much as anyone. Not just for the inspiration, but for the SUPPORT. Knowing he was there in my corner and enjoyed my work was the greatest boost I could imagine. How many people get to have their favourite writer backing them? I was incredibly lucky (even morseo when Filth Kiss actually got published! I gave a copy to Guy, of course).
I went to Guy’s house a few more times over the years and attended his annual fan conventions, a little-known but absolutely lovely gesture of his where he extended an open invite to anyone who liked his work to just come and hang out for the day. Jean always put on a buffet, there were auctions of rare items, a lot of chat and the occasional random event – one year, Guy screened the rare movie Island Claws for us all on his TV because he was certain they’d ripped off his Crabs novels (they certainly had) and wanted to show us. But it wasn’t done with bitterness, it was hilarious, we all thought the film was crazy funny and had a great time.
Guy wasn’t really bitter at all about anything. He maybe had a reputation for being a bit of a pipe-smoking curmudgeon (indeed he was an award winning pipe smoker!), COMPLETELY (joyfully?) out of touch with modern times, but he was happy with his lot. He’d moved into his house after selling his first novel in the 70s and never left. He supported himself and his family comfortably and even after his books fell out fashion, never stopped writing. He was a man extremely content with who he was, which is both a rare and aspirational thing to be. He was generous and kind and humble and warm and funny. He seemed mystified that his writing had the effect he had on me and others who’d had similar experiences reading him in their youth, but he respected it nevertheless and made us feel special, not strange.
I’m so, so sad to hear he’s no longer with us. Heartbroken, really. I’d hoped I’d be able to go up and visit the Black Hill one more time some day but it’s not to be. I am so lucky and so honoured that I got to spend the time I did with him. This has been a long post and I guess there’s not much else to say of interest to anyone but me but I could genuinely go on all day. He was a hero, a friend, an all-round great Guy. I hope that he’s now chilling somewhere with Mark Sabat, Cliff Davenport and a gigantic pipe that never goes out.
RIP Guy N. Smith