Night of the Crabs by Guy N. Smith (1976).
A reader does not live by M.R. James and E.F. Benson alone. Not every story has to be about mirthful couples renting isolated witch-struck Scottish cottages, or scholars lost in fen country accidentally going widdershins the barrow round.
The novel I read this week tells the story of two lonely people meeting while sharing a dinner table at their bed-and-breakfast in the coastal village of Llanbedr, Wales.
Cliff Davenport is a 40-something widower, a marine botanist. Pat Benson is a 25 year old divorcee, and her career goes unmentioned.
Cliff Davenport is the kind of self-confident boffin who can start out the day meditatively filling his pipe bowl, then fight passionately for his cause before skeptical MoD grandees, then don a frogman suit to place a limpet mine, and end up telling his fiancé there are some things about the ocean floor man is not meant to know. (I see Edward Judd circa 1965 in the role).
Cliff and Pat swoon for each other and embrace in the tall grass above the tide line on the beach.
Nature takes its course in a prose passage as passionate as a hydraulics diagram:
….Their lips met again, tongues probing and entwining. Both of them were experiencing the awakening of something which had lain dormant in them for so long. Rapidly they were getting out of control. Nothing else mattered … not even the giant crabs!
Cliff withdrew his left hand from the warmth of Pat's sweater and felt for the fastener on her jeans. Then he pulled her zip down and she lifted herself up slightly off the ground so that he could unclothe her. The whiteness of her thighs was in itself seductive in the soft moonlight, the darker triangle of soft fluffy hair between them seeming to withhold secrets from him. Secrets of men who had lain there. Men who had been sexually satisfied beyond their wildest dreams. And of one man who had walked away in preference for another woman.
Cliff rolled in between her open legs. She still had a grip on his hardness and now she was guiding it down where she wanted it, bathing it first in her warm river of desire and then sliding it down further until it disappeared inch by inch into her.
After that nothing else mattered. Their bodies bucked and heaved as they murmured sweet nothings in each other's ear before finally convulsing in a violent eruption that left them quivering and still yearning for each other.
Reluctantly they parted and adjusted their clothing. Pat, her hair awry and her cheeks flushed, looked more beautiful to Cliff than ever before.
'I'm more than glad I let you come with me tonight,' he whispered as he zipped himself up again. Tm afraid, though, that we must still keep an eye open for those crabs!
This is the UK of 1976, but Cliff's ideas about the role of women seem stuck in the Eocene, leading him to say things like:
'Push along, darling, and amuse yourself for half an hour….'
'Now look here,' said Cliff sternly, grasping her by the shoulders, 'this is no job for a woman. These creatures have claimed several lives already. They're deadly dangerous. The risks… '
But a fiery trial cements their union beyond just tumbling through the tall grass or making love in a single bed in Cliff's attic room: Cliff Davenport saves England from a seaborne invasion by King Crab and his hundreds-strong army.
Guy N. Smith sets the mood with ample portent:
...It's only just starting,' Cliff observed, and shook his head. 'Something… a freak of nature maybe, but whatever it is, this is only the beginning.'
Smith gives us some promising set-pieces.
When the crabs attack the drone aircraft test base on Shell Island:
THE sentry was bored….
….He yawned and leaned against the corner of the concrete blockhouse. That damned rifle was too heavy to hold all night. He leaned it up against the wall and delved into the top pocket of his tunic for a crushed pack of cigarettes. He found one, straightened it out and lit it. He drew deeply. Strictly against regulations, of course, but a chap would go barmy if he didn't have a smoke between sunset and sunrise.
He couldn't understand why they wouldn't let him sit in one of the huts. Probably thought he'd doze off. He might do that anyway. His eyelids felt heavy.
The moon was bright again tonight. He looked at it and couldn't understand why anybody would want to go messing about up there. Bloody crazy. He wouldn't have gone. Never knew what you might find pissing about in space. All sorts of weird monsters.
He straightened up. What was that? Sounded like somebody using old-fashioned morse code. He picked up his rifle,
Click, Click. Clickety-click.
Blimey! Those cattle had broken in through the fence. They were always rubbing themselves up against it. Never thought they'd actually manage to get inside.
He sighed. Better go and shoo 'em out again.
Then he saw the first pair of eyes. It reminded him of a groundhog. Shining like the CO's Land-Rover headlights. There were more of them. Scores of them!
He stopped in his tracks. The nearest was no more than fifteen feet away. 'What's goin' on?'
He gulped. Christ, fucking crabs.'
His rifle came to his shoulder. They wouldn't have much answer to that. He squeezed the trigger. The report was deafening, echoing around the concrete buildings and dying away somewhere far out to sea.
He couldn't believe it. The bastard hadn't budged! Wrong. It was coming towards him. They were all coming towards him. Waddling. Not hurrying.
He fired again. Twice. Three tunes. He kept on shooting until the magazine was empty. Run!
He turned. His heart nearly gave out. He felt his senses reeling. It wasn't the fact that his retreat was cut off. That would have been bad enough. It was the creature barring his way that caused him to cross over that thin borderline which separates sanity from madness.
He screamed at the top of his voice, wielding his rifle by the barrel. The stock smashed to matchwood on that armour-plated pincer. He backed away and then he started laughing. He adopted a fighting pose, his fists clenched.
'AH right!' he yelled. 'Come on then, you bastards. Let's see how good you are in a straight fucking fight!'
Mercifully the slashing claw of King Crab caught him directly on top of the head, splitting his skull in two. He was dead before he hit the ground and escaped the torture that Bartholomew had suffered as he was dismembered.
The searchlight was just in time to reveal the last of the mutilation to the two horrified gunners in the tower. They did not recognise that last joint of human meat disappearing into the jaws of the monster crab as belonging to their colleague. All they saw were the crabs. That was enough!
'Fucking hell!' the sergeant cried as he brought the light machine-gun to bear on the crawling mass. 'What the hell are they? This'll sort them out!'
The clatter of machine-gun fire rent the night air.
Click, Click. Clickety-click.
The whole camp was awake by now. Someone had opened the armoury. Men with rifles were rushing to every available vantage point and opening fire.
A battery of gunfire exploded.
Click. Click. Clickety-click.
Hailstones or bullets. They were all the same to the giant crabs. They just bounced off. They did not like the sensation of having things vibrating on their shells, though. It made them angry. Very angry. They didn't like the noise and the flashes either. Above it all, though, they sensed the prospect of sweet, tender human flesh.
'Christ!' the machine-gunner in the tower swore as he paused to reload. 'It hasn't bloody touched 'em! Might as well use a peashooter!'
Suddenly he heard a cracking of timber below and felt himself and the machine-gun starting to slide.
'They've wrecked the fucking tower!' the sergeant screamed, and then they were sailing through the air, hurtling down to the waiting jaws and pincers.
Two snipers threw down their empty rifles and made a run for the gate. Beyond lay the causeway. They would probably have made it had not the gate been closed. They started to scramble up it. Vicious pincers snapped at them. Legless, they fell back.
In a later chapter, King Crab and his minions confront army tanks as they breach mainland defenses:
….At 1.25 a.m. the invasion of Barmouth began. The waning moonlight was in the crabs' favour. A few nights ago they would have been spotted earlier - not that the outcome would have been any different.
The soldiers in the tank on the quayside were the first to see the creatures,
'Look!' The gunner shook his mate into instant wakefulness. 'They're here!'
It was a matter of seconds to bring the big gun to bear on the nearest crab. The sights were adjusted - and at that range it was impossible to miss.
The gun spat out its shell.
The crab keeled over, fragments of shell flying through the air.
'Got him!' the gunner yelled jubilantly. 'Invincible? A load of balls! This'll sort the bastards out!'
As he reloaded and brought his gun to bear on the crawling crabs again, a movement caught his eye. He paused.
'Shit,' he gasped. 'The bastard's getting up again!'
The creature had indeed struggled upright With the help of its companions it had regained Us balance. Its eyes glowed venomously and, apart from some shards chipped from its shell, it appeared to be all right.
'It couldn't,' the corporal grunted incredulously. 'Nothing could withstand that - not at that range anyway!'
'Well, it has,' the gunner snapped, taking another sighting. 'See that big sod? The one the size of a fucking house. Well let's see what it does to him! '
The quayside shook with the explosion.
King Crab was thrown backwards, yet did not roll over. For a few seconds he just squatted, dazed, and then he advanced. His army, well in excess of a hundred crabs, followed him. The clicking was deafening, mind-searing.
The large claw waved and came to rest pointing directly at the tank. There was no mistaking his command.
'Shut that hatch!' the gunner yelled. They're coming at us!'
The hatch clanged shut. The soldiers felt secure. The enemy was too close for another shot. They would just have to hold out until reinforcements arrived. The corporal lit a cigarette. His hands were shaking.
'They can't get at us in here.' His laugh was strained and hollow inside the confined space. 'Remember the time we broke down, Sarge? They couldn't tow us and had to repair us on the spot. Took 'em two days.'
'Shut up!' The sergeant's nerves were stretched to breaking point. He didn't like the look of those crabs one little bit.
They heard claws scraping on the steel.
'Come on you bastards!' the corporal yelled hysterically. Try and shift us!'
'For Christ's sake shut your bloody trap!' The gunner's fist caught the corporal in the mouth and his head hit the steel wall with a dull clang. He slumped back in his seat.
The gunner felt the tank move. Impossible. He looked out. Dozens of crabs were gathered around the mobile steel fortress. He felt it move again. Upwards.
They've, they've lifted it up!' He cast a glance at his companions. The corporal was still unconscious. He shook him roughly.
'Wake up!' he snarled, panic starting to creep into his voice. 'Wake up. They're carrying us.'
The tank shook and swayed as crabs crawled beneath it while others lifted. Their shells provided an ideal means of transport as they set off in the direction of the harbour wall.
The sergeant started to scream, slapping his comatose mate frantically; but the corporal's head merely lolled from side to side. Then they stopped. The tank lurched forward and seemed to be suspended in mid-air for a split second before it hurtled downwards. A mighty splash and it was sinking. The murky waters closed over it A bone-jarring thud followed as it became embedded in the deep mud and started to sink. Inside all was silent. All three men were dead.
My favorite part of the novel is a truly nightmarish vignette about the fate of a train driver:
….The morning dawned dull and foggy. During the night hours a sea mist had crept in, reducing visibility to less than twenty yards.
A train-driver's job is at its most hazardous at such times. Dai Peters was due to retire at the end of the month. He had been looking forward to the day when he would no longer have to drive the early morning train to Barmouth from Dolgelly in those thick pea-soupers which were liable to start any time after September. And now this! Just like a winter's morning, bang in the middle of August! He cursed as the train halted at the whistle-stop station of Arthog.
'Morning, Dai,' the porter called as he threw a parcel into the guard's van and then approached the engine. 'What's it like back there?'
'Bloody awful,' Dai grimaced. 'The speed we've come, you could've walked it quicker.'
The train moved on even more slowly. Dai Peters had never liked the estuary crossing. It was a silly feeling, and he would never have dared let his fears be known amongst his fellow drivers but… well, he didn't trust the old bridge. It was looked after regularly and the experts said it was good for another century but that did not prevent him having nightmares about it. He had lost count of the number of times that he'd woken up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat shouting in abject terror. His wife was used to it and it was she who always calmed his fears… almost!
The dream was always the same. High tide. The water muddy and deep in the estuary below. Swirling like a whirlpool gone berserk. The train going at a snail's pace in spite of the fact that he was giving it full throttle. Slowing to a crawl for some unaccountable reason. Then the creaking of over laden timbers as the engine finally came to a halt. A splintering and cracking beneath. The bridge sagging and then snapping in the middle. A lurching. The train hurtling down towards the estuary. The screaming, his loudest of all The water closing over his head. That was when he usually woke up.
On a morning like this morning his dreams did not seem to be altogether the figments of a fevered, slumbering brain. They could so easily become reality.
He hated the crossing. Less than five minutes on a clear morning. It might have been five hours on one such as this. Five hours of bloody torture. He eased the throttle right down. Ten miles an hour. He looked down. Through the grey drifting vapour he could see the estuary below, grim and forbidding. He shivered.
He forced his gaze on to the track ahead, the parapet of steel girders on either side. They looked strong enough anyway. All the same he would be glad when it was all over, and they drew into Barmouth station.
Suddenly a shape materialised out of the fog ahead of the train. Automatically he started to brake. With an agonised shriek the wheels began slowing down. Whatever it was, it was still on the line. Right in their path and refusing to budge an inch. It looked as though somebody's cow had wandered onto the bridge when nobody was looking. If it didn't move soon it was bound to be run over. Stupid bloody animal. Trains can't just stop dead in their tracks!
He could see it more clearly now. Christ! That was no cow. It was too big. Wrong shape.
'Fucking hell!' he cursed aloud. 'It's one of those bastard crabs!'
The train was nearly at a standstill. He could see the crab. Every detail. Its face. Its eyes. The thing knew. Knew he would stop. Well, he'd show it. His hand left the brake and returned to the throttle. Full speed ahead. More of them on the line up in front Bloody crowds of 'em. Show 'em all. Crush 'em to pulp!
The engine had picked up to 20 mph when it made contact with King Crab. Another screech of anguished metal. A jolt that threw all the passengers forward. Dai Peters sprawled on the floor of his cab.
For a split second everything seemed to stop. Tune stood still. Then the engine was rearing upwards, its wheels spinning uselessly in the air. Carriages buckled into one another, overturning, rolling sideways against the steel girders. People were screaming,
Dai Peters tried to grab the controls. Brake, throttle, anything. The engine was lurching at a crazy angle, almost as if it was running on a model railway and the owner was picking his toys up. The driver just clung on for his very life.
He could see the water below him again, the current swirling as though ready to receive him. Another crash. Steel girders flying through the air. Hurtling, spinning, still hanging on.
That same dream. He started to yell. 'Emma! Emma! Wake me up! The bridge … the water … for God's sake wake me up!'
The fundamental problem with Night of the Crabs is that Guy N. Smith treats his material in such a perfunctory way. It is a story that requires ferocious elan, while Smith seems content with a skeletal first draft.
The ending makes this clear. Smith first gives us Davenport sealing the opening of the crabs' underwater lair with a limpet mine. Days later the Crabs reemerge aboveground, but are eventually defeated with liberal aerosol spraying of paraquat.
Were Smith fully invested in Davenport as his hero, and committed to investing the story with a little melodramatic gravity, he would have reversed the order here. After the crabs are driven back to their undersea cave by the paraquat, Davenport would enter the cavern with the limpet mine. Instead of setting the timer for 60 minutes, Davenport would set it for 60 seconds, sacrificing himself to ensure all remaining crabs are crushed to death.
Well, that's how I would've done it.
Smith's book has sold millions of copies, and that kind of historic mass echo carries an authority all it's own.
9 June 2017