Tuesday, 3 August 2021

Sabat - The Complete Series

Sabat Out Of Hell

Sabat 1 - The Graveyard Vultures (1982)
Sabat 2 - The Blood Merchants (1982)
Vampire Village (short 1996)
Sabat 3 - Cannibal Cult (1982)
Sabat 4 - The Druid Connection (1983)
Hellbeat (short 1996)
Sabat 5 - Wistman’s Wood (2018)
Sabat 6 - The Return (2019)

Written by Guy N. Smith

Guy N Smith was one of those horror writers I stumbled upon in my early to mid teens. Around that age I, like a lot of people I knew in the early 1980s, started reading all the horror novels on the shelves of our local book shops, as adolescence brought a taste for bloodletting and sex, both of which are in abundance in the genre. So Stephen King was always the first ‘go to’ guy, followed by the slightly more lurid and very British James Herbert. And then there were all the rest... so people like Dean R. Koontz, John Halkin, Shaun Hutson, John Farris and so on. And somewhere near the top of these ‘also rans’ was the, also very British, Guy N. Smith.

Now, it has to be said that in terms of writing style... Smith was nowhere near as good as somebody like Stephen King or even James Herbert, but he made up for that in a couple of ways. One was that the plots were silly and inventive, defying credibility even within the genre, so much so that other writers probably wouldn’t touch some of these concepts. Two, they were often filled to the brim with gory killings and frequent sex scenes.... which is what every kid wanted to read. Thirdly, he was very prolific. His novels were much thinner but there were a lot of them around and he wrote literally hundreds in the space of a decade or two. Smith’s most famous creations were probably the giant killer crab novels he wrote (and was still contributing to up until the year of his death from an illness exacerbated by Covid on Christmas Eve 2020).

The ones I treasured most, though, were his original four Sabat novels, which I must have read in either 1982 (when the first three came out) or, more likely, 1983. It’s not because they were well written that I was attracted to them... they really weren’t. It’s because the concept was so 'out there' in terms of the character, compared to most other horror novelists of the time. So fairly recently, over the last few years, I bought a copy of the 1996 omnibus edition of those four novels, Dead Meat, which also included two new short stories... plus I also acquired his two new Sabat novels from 2018 and 2019... so I could re-read and finish the stories off properly, bringing myself up to date with Smith’s, somewhat unique character.

So Mark Sabat is a sex addicted ex-priest, ex-SAS soldier who’s really good at performing exorcisms and uses his supernaturally tuned powers to fight evil and, quite often, travel around in his astral form like Doctor Strange, as long as he remembers to leave his physical form protected in a chalk pentagram with various cabalistic symbols. He also has the soul of his evil voodoo brother Quentin Sabat, who he kills at the start of the first book, trapped inside of him and always threatening to surface and become the dominant personality in Mark’s body... which it does for the majority of the third book, it has to be said.

If you’re wondering where the character’s name comes from... well I have no confirmed idea but I can hazard a very good guess. Guy N. Smith describes him in certain ways which make the character very reminiscent of a young Lee Van Cleef, right down to the pipe he uses in For A Few Dollars More. Now, Smith was a big lover of pipes himself but, trust me, the description seems almost like its begging the reader to make the connection to the Van Cleef spaghetti westerns and, of course, one of Van Cleef’s more famous characters of that genre was Sabata, who he played twice. So, yeah, he definitely has some of the Van Cleef influence, I believe.

Re-reading these now... I’d actually forgotten a lot about them, to tell you the truth. They are quite lurid and pulpy and... that’s okay, I was expecting that. They also show a tolerance in the character to issues like homosexuality and sex workers that, I realise now, was quite ahead of its time in terms of mainstream novels you could pick up at your local Woolworths, back in the early 1980s. Smith must have been a very open minded guy for his generation.

The first novel, The Graveyard Vultures, is an excellent introduction to the character, starting with the fight with Quentin and his death. We then go into an adventure involving a bunch of black magic worshippers sacrificing innocents and led by a Bishop. There’s a wonderful, extremely violent cemetery fight where Sabat wields a crucifix like a sword and cuts through legions of the undead. There’s even a moment where he temporarily manages to exorcise himself of Quentin's inner voice so he can go and rescue the local sex worker who has betrayed the black cult and thrown in with him (not that he’s all that successful in this case... the majority of the early books tend to end with hollow victories).

The second novel, The Blood Merchants, is probably the most entertaining in the series, which involves a reincarnated Lilith using a host body of a lady who once got Sabat into a spot of bother. She,  her cult of would-be Nazis who go around bleeding out victims on the streets after dark and her token mascot of a husband, proclaiming himself the new Hitler, are the main problems Sabat has to deal with... although he is also captured and mentally charmed to help them for a while. I find it interesting now that the average hourly rate for a sex worker in the 1980s was apparently between three and five pounds. I have no idea if that’s true but I’m assuming Smith would have researched that.

In the collected volume I was reading, the more recent Vampire Village short is inserted next, so it obviously takes place between the second and third books. It’s a slight tale which takes Sabat to a genuine vampire village, masquerading as a vampire themed tourist attraction by day. It’s okay but, not all that much happens.

Book three, Cannibal Cult, is my least favourite. A lot of the book seems to be the writer obsessing on the ways human flesh can be cooked and eaten and there are a lot of scenes involving this practice in the book. Also, Sabat's body has been taken over by Quentin in this one so, most of the book he’s a reluctant assistant and participant in the killing feasts, which are designed to lead to the resurrection of an evil individual who is reforming his body after a date with the guillotine.

Sabat is back to his normal self in the fourth and, for a very long time, final book in the series, The Druid Connection. This is a tale of ghostly druids from ancient times returning to punish corrupt officials and church people who have sold off the sacred land... by burning them in Wicker Men etc. Sabat starts off combating them but, when he realises this is all happening for a good reason, strikes a deal with the supernatural forces (for reasons too time consuming to go into here) and works with them to bring the corrupt officials to some kind of primitive justice.

The Dead Meat anthology finishes off with a very slight, short story called Hellbeat, where Sabat destroys a satanic girl, only to find out she’s what has become of the victim he was trying to rescue. Like I said, they were mostly downbeat affairs.

And then, a lifetime away almost, Smith wrote two new Sabat books in 2018 and 2019. And these are, it has to be said, a lot more optimistic than the originals. They are also set in a real time approximation to the originals so, Sabat is bang up to date in the 21st century, with all its mobile phones and other convenient devices... although, for some reason and though certainly mentioned, Sabat doesn’t leave his physical body in these stories, like he often does in the originals.

The first of these new novels, Wistman’s Wood, finds the sixtyish year old but still fit Sabat retired and moving from London to Dartmoor. The story involves the demonic evil area of the title, where it turns out Quentin has managed to physically manifest himself again. One of the interesting things in this is Sabat’s sex drive. It’s highlighted in all the previous books as something very prolific and he does tend to sleep with lots of women during those early books (these were written just before the advent of AIDS, I guess... and you can certainly tell). In this one, however, he takes a girlfriend and she survives through the end of the book and furthermore returns as his regular girlfriend in the last book. The end of Wistman’s Wood is great too (probably the best ending in the series). It’s vague and ambiguous and greatly reminiscent of the ending of a very famous Sherlock Holmes story... but I won’t go into which one for fear of spoiling the ending. I almost wish, however, that he’d finished the series here.

But then we get the sixth novel, The Return, published a year before the writer’s death and... it’s okay but it feels kinda cosy. This one mostly deals with a protagonist called G. N Strong (hmm... wonder where he got the name for that character from?) and a demonic antagonist called The Reaper and, indeed, it turns out it’s not only a sequel to the Sabat novels but also one to another newish book, The Reaper, which Smith wrote in 2018. In this one, Sabat, who has now moved up to Aberdeen with his girlfriend Toni, comes out of retirement and he and Toni go to stay in Shropshire with Strong and his girlfriend... at the request of the police... who are short handed and think that The Reaper will return to take his vengeance on Smith. It’s a deadly tale of The Reaper’s quest for revenge involving Russian agents with their novichock liquid (tagged as the same ones who caused so much trouble in the UK a few years ago), a buried treasure, a bunch of wolves and various other things which lead to... a disappointing ending where The Reaper comes to a sticky end through no real intervention of any of the main protagonists, it has to be said. It’s an okay novel but it does feel like it’s taking on too much and resolving it all in a rush, to be honest.

The writing in these last two is less interested in gore and sex, for the most part and they seem a little more paced and better written than the Sabat adventures of the 1980s. That being said, the publishing houses of these two tomes seem to have made a concentrated effort to subject the reader to just as many typos in these as possible... so it still feels like these are trashy, shoddy paperbacks with a cheap and cheerful route to the reader. And I guess that’s pretty appropriate in some ways. Of all the characters Smith ever wrote about, I’m still shocked that Hollywood or the nearest British equivalent of it have never optioned the rights to make a bunch of Sabat movies over the years. I mean, ex-priest, ex-SAS man who’s obsessed with sex, can roam the astral planes and performs demonic exorcisms seems a no brainer for a horror film series to me... but what do I know, I guess. As far as the novels go, sometimes it’s best not to revisit the past but, no, I’m glad I took another look at these but I doubt I’ll ever bother to read these ones again. I might try and reacquaint myself with Smith’s killer crab books at some point, though.

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