Like most people living in the western world in the nineteen eighties, Guy N. Smith spent much of the decade with his eye on the apocalypse, mentally and physically preparing himself for a nuclear weapon assisted end of the world. Whereas others went on marches, bought Frankie Goes To Hollywood tee shirts or turned the cupboard under the stairs into a makeshift bunker, Guy did what Guy does best: he sat down at his typewriter and wrote books about the whole bloody mess. I also expect he stockpiled weapons and tinned peaches, but that’s a different issue.
‘Warhead’ and ‘Throwback’ are from 1981 and 1985, respectively. They both deal with the total destruction of our way of life, but each have a slightly demented twist. In some of these reviews, we occasionally point out Smith’s foibles – his obsession with vomit, for instance, or the way he sometimes clumsily juxtaposes the supernatural and the mundane – but we never call him on his imagination, which is limitless and boundless and utterly bonkers.
In ‘Warhead’, for instance, a war wipes mankind from the earth, but it is a war facilitated not by men but by ancient Gods, a pantheon of voodoo deities, vengeful Native American spirits and a red hot African lady who appears in men’s dreams and shags them senseless.
The action centres on a US missile base in Wales, and takes in several gruesome deaths, ritual murder, supernatural sex and liberal use of the ‘n’ word (in context, of course, nasty Americans are using it).
It’s a confusing, slightly muddled ride with simply far too many characters for the scant characterisation Smith provides (it is mainly populated with interchangeable male characters who are issued with a surname and little else. They all sound the same and, when they die, as die they must, you’re never quite sure which one has just copped it).
Without a focal point, the narrative wanders all over the place, only really communicating a sense of deadly urgency in the last few pages; even then, Smith follows a gruesome execution and crucifixion with an incongruous potted history of a new character, a Country and Western enthusiast who has given up on his own music but has decided to see in Armageddon with a fin de everything mobile disco at the local church hall. He plays an Engelbert Humperdinck record and the villagers cling together and get off with each other as the mushroom clouds gather.
It’s an odd coda that, nevertheless, sits well with the book’s weird ending, where Smith conjures up a post blast nightmare vision of, well, what? Hell? Purgatory? Shrewsbury? …
‘Throwback’ takes a very different approach. Here, the UK is hit not by several megatons of nuclear hardware, but by a nerve gas which, astoundingly and very scientifically, takes everything which sniffs it back a few stages of evolution. Chickens can fly, dogs become ravening wolves and humans become savage, squat, hairy Neanderthals with a penchant for violence and rough sex (only the first half of that description sounds like a massive change).
There are at least a few people who, having hidden in bunkers, have escaped the effects of the gas, and the story tells of their struggle to survive in a world full of angry, randy ape men. Needless to say, there is murder and sexual burglary, and quite a lot of throwing up, some of it tinged with blood.
The author takes his time with this one, introducing the characters one at a time and providing a taut story with proper people in it, many of whom are now covered in coarse, matted hair. Smith gets inside the ridged skull of a throwback most effectively, and positively revels in the morality free anarchy that these basic bastards bring to the backwards new world unknown foreign aggressors have created (we never quite get to the bottom of who did it, and why).
Smith dutifully ticks off the tropes of the post-apocalyptic world, including a ruthless approach from those in power, who conduct Nazi like experiments on captured throwbacks and herd the remainder northwards and hope they die out over the Winter. In the end, however, the best laid genocidal plans are blown apart by a very nasty plague which kills more or less everyone. Hurrah!
Did we mention that you can become a throwback by having sex with a throwback? Well, you can. Did we mention that a throwback, if frightened, will emit a 'rush of liquid anal wind'? Well, it will. Did we mention that it’s set in Shrewsbury? Well, it is.
We’ve never been, but we now associate the place with rape, murder, vomit and hirsute inhabitants who haven’t evolved since before the Stone Age. Are we far off, do you think?