Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Bats Out of Hell by Guy N. Smith (1978): Wings of Pain Reach Out for You

Can you believe it's been over a decade since I read a Guy N. Smith novel?! Despite his having written a near countless number of books, none ever made it to the top of my to-read list. In my paperback collection I have maybe eight or so of his titles, some part of his infamous Crabs series, and others just random I've bought over the years. The itch was coming upon me to revisit the infamous pulp novelist, but I wanted something other than those giant crustaceans, so chose Bats Out of Hell (Signet/Nov 1979) from my shelves. Similar in size and shape to simultaneously-published Killer Crabs—both part of the many "animal attacks" works Signet put out back then—Bats is a sleek 150 pages or so, and doesn't muck about with unnecessary plot or character. Smith knew exactly what worked for him, and for that cool $1.75 price tag, he was gonna give it to ya.

We begin in a science lab at the Midlands Biological Research Center, smack-dab middle of beloved tourist spot Cannock Chase, acres of natural land. Against the wishes of the locals, this "ugly scar on the landscape" now is filled with scientists studying disease, ostensibly "to benefit the good of all mankind Except for... for this!" That emphatic "this" refers to the study subjects of Professor Brian Newman: bats. The poor experimental animals locked in cages, have been injected with disease, in a rage, flying futilely about, dying paralyzed, ugh, poor things. I'll let manly Prof. Newman himself explain the  method to the madness:

"The virus is a mutated one caused by experimenting. I've tried to determine the difference between bacterial and viral meningitis... I've never known the disease lead to madness or such awful agony. And I have created a new horror. A mutated virus! God knows how it happened... my God, how far could it spread... even humans? It doesn't bear thinking about!"

1st printing, New English Library, Bob Martin cover art

Newman's pulp hysteria is calmed by sensible on/off gal-pal and fellow scientist Susan Wylie, as she notes this disease, is trapped inside the cages with the bats, surely nothing bad will happen, there's no way it can escape, they can wait till the creatures die off, be cremated, and Newman will admit to his superiors that his experiment was a failure. How big of him! Then Susan and he argue over their romantic entanglement after he breaks their date for that night; then Newman and his boss Haynes argue, all the while, many of the enraged bats are dying in agony beside them. Its eyes seemed to meet his, and they glittered accusingly, with sheer malevolence. Blaming Man, as though in its last seconds it understood.

I'm sure you can see where this is going...

1985 reprint, NEL, Terry Oakes cover art

Newman has broken his date with Susan to hook up with Fiona at a local pub, and of course Susan sees them together. Next morning at the lab, before Susan arrives, he notices the death rate of the bats has slowed and the creatures still alive seem more agitated than ever. Newman again ponders what he hath wrought: 

Whereas earlier he had been repulsed, he now experience a morbid fascination almost to the point of being hypnotized. He had crated something, death in a form that had not hitherto existed. It was all his doing... This was different, exciting. Death could occur at any second.

Well, dear reader, here comes the part we've been waiting for. Susan arrives and is cool and dismissive towards him—how dare she! It's back to professional relationship only. Newman's masculinity is so shattered by this he of course cries "You bitch!" and cracks her in the face. Enraged, Susan attacks him, and Newman falls against the glass bat cage and breaks it wide open... and the last living disease-bearing animals have their escape at last. Wow, can you say toxic masculinity?

1987 reprint, NEL, cover artists unknown

Smith now embarks on the time-honored tradition of vignettes of bat swarms attacking hapless British (specifically Birmingham) citizens in farms, banks, churches, wherever. Now, as noted, the bats are spreading a gruesome disease that causes agonizing pain, insanity, and paralysis; they are not blood-suckers out looking for a treat. Authorities are called in, Newman wants to accept responsibility—there's a novel idea!—as the bats wreak their havoc. The media have a field day and call out Newman by name, putting his life at risk. Vigilantes patrol the streets as thousands die from contagion. Cities burn, armored tanks fire upon citizens who try to gather in protest of the stay-at-home directive. Petty politicians rise up with conspiracy theories. What will it take to stop the bat epidemic? It's all a little unsettling to read these days!

I was impressed with Smith's steady narrative and solid, no-nonsense prose as he depicts his tale of apocalypse. His dialogue is generally poor; that's where you can tell he's not too concerned with realism. But his scenes of attacks are effectively creepy, his depictions of nature overrun with maddened bats chill, and his ability to draw a picture of the workaday lives of various characters is solid. Are there lapses in taste and sensibilities, seen from the vantage point of nearly half a century? Sure, but that's Seventies pulp horror. Smith seems committed to his tale, and that is truly all I ask from my paperback horror fiction. While not reaching the hallowed heights of The Rats or The Nest, these Bats Out of Hell should definitely find a home on your bookshelves.

Once an infected bat touched you, that was it. Finis.
There was no antidote.
Nothing on God's earth could save you.