Books about monsters rising from the oceans to wreak havoc upon humanity are some of my favourite things, and the ones that I turn to in times of stress or boredom. I have read reams of books about sharks and squid and jellyfish, but was delighted recently to discover a whole stash of books focusing on monstrous crabs. I initially intended this review to focus on one book only – Night of the Crabs – but lately I have had a lot of long & boring train journeys, so instead will focus on all eight books in the Crabs series.
Luckily, the books – all the way up to The Charnel Caves – share many common elements, and can be usefully all discussed together. The plot of each book may vary in specifics, but the core narrative is the same – gigantic, hate-filled crustaceans emerge from the oceans, and humanity must fight for its survival in the face of this new and ever-unanticipated menace.
The most eagle-eyed of readers may have already spotted a problem here – how, eight books in, is “giant crabs murder people in Wales” still a novel hazard? That is a very good question, and one that the books make only limited attempts to answer. In one book, England is engaged in a desperate battle for survival, with London burning and armies of crabs marching up every river. In the next book, British generals scoff at the very idea of giant crabs. Sometimes, to be fair, the crab attacks don’t take place in Wales, but the same characters appear and the same mistakes are made.
Consistency and coherence are not hallmarks of the series. Despite all taking place in the same world with a shared history, characters and even the author seem foggy on details that are quite important. Vital details change from book to book – in Night of the Crabs, it is established that crabs are invulnerable to all weaponry and have no fear of fire. But by book 2 – Killer Crabs – fire is an effective weapon against them, and in Return of the Crabs (book 7), they can be harmed by rifle fire.
The rules of monster stories are a very important element of a satisfying narrative, and Smith’s wild disregard for previously established facts, along with the characters’ flagrant ignorance of their own recent history, makes every story feel isolated and weirdly weightless. There’s little point in a series with no evolution between books, and while some things do change over the course of the series, there’s not enough alteration to have much of an impact.
This is particularly a problem because a lot of the scenes are very repetitive. On several occasions, the crabs prey on grumpy grouse hunters reminiscing about their greatest-ever haul, neglected wives on sand dunes who are moments away from infidelity, and poachers determined not to abandon their law-breaking ways. It’s hard to put much emotional weight on the death of a character you’ve already seen die several times with a different name and hairstyle.
The repetition is not simply confined to (very specific) archetypes – entire chunks of narrative, word-for-word, are repeated in different books. I’ve never actually come across that before. Some of the novels are set at the same time as others – one even in almost exactly the same place – and Smith shares sections of text between them, padding the length of the later-released books with text that we’ve already seen. This is extremely jarring, particularly when two books begin with the exact same scene; it took me a while to confirm that I didn’t just have a mis-printed copy.
In the interests of fairness, I should mention that there is some growth throughout the series; certain events are carried through and have their consequences explored at various points. There’s a multi-book plotline of the crabs’ slow sickening and degradation, for example, but it doesn’t go far enough to make up for the repetitive and repeated stretches of narrative. A series looking at a single monster can do interesting things with escalation and evolution, but the Crabs series shirks that possibility in all but the most superficial of ways.
Like all monster books that have at least a vague understanding of the genre, the Crabs series is filled with graphic violence and (less graphic, but still prevalent) sex. Lots of people die, either individually in detail or lightly sketched in droves. Crabs get people on marshes, in houses, on roads and in tunnels; every few pages introduces a new character to the narrative who will quickly be removed from it. Smith has a real thing for people’s minds snapping under the strain, meaning that lots of deaths are accompanied by the wild shrieking laughter of the doomed.
It becomes clear – even within a single book – that crabs are a relatively limited monster in terms of murderous options. As hefty, constantly-clicking creatures, the crabs don’t have much opportunity for stealth or the slow build of suspense: when a crab is coming to get you, you are absolutely certain about what’s going on. No matter their initial starting situation, each victim ends up having limbs snipped off under the baleful red-eyed glare of the crab performing the unlicensed amputations. It’s an odd thing to find myself writing, but I would have appreciated a greater variety of deaths – repeating essentially the same demise again and again takes the horror and emotional weight away, leaving you just ploughing through self-indulgent and grotesque descriptions of horrible (not horrifying) things. It makes for uncomfortable reading, focusing too lingeringly on the pain and not enough on the plot or the characterisation.
However, the thing that really made me uncomfortable wasn’t the violence. This is a series that has a real problem with women. In the Crabs books, women come in two types: immoral, seductive women begging to be controlled by a strong-but-brutal man, and sharp-faced shrews who deserve death. Women of the first sort, I hasten to qualify, also end up dead in the majority of cases, but they’re objectified (in exhaustive detail) a lot first. I would describe the Crabs series as emblematic of the madonna-whore complex, if there were any madonnas evident. A very, very, vanishingly small number of women across the entire series don’t fall neatly into either the Jezebel or Goneril brackets, and they’re mostly prizes for the heroes; they still aren’t shown in a particularly positive light.
Let me be clear here – I’m not saying these books have a problem with women because they contain negative portrayals of female characters; it’s deeper than that. Even the most heroic and upstanding of male characters view women with a sort of paternalistic contempt, and the less heroic men use and abuse them with no sense of narrative or authorial condemnation. The female characters (who often describe themselves as masochistic nymphomaniacs, occasionally in those words) are all weak-willed and over-sexed, treated by both the characters and the narrative as disposable titillation. At every turn, the characters, narrative, and authorial voice belittle and objectify not just specific female characters but women as whole. Again and again, women are shown as worthless playthings or hateful nags, and the books take entirely too much joy in their slow (and, of course, sexualised) deaths. The three words I would choose to describe the Crabs series’ attitude towards women are contemptuous, prurient, and troubling.
There’s a definite argument to be made that I’m being unfair – that reading all the books in quick succession doesn’t give them a fair hearing, and that pulp horror as a genre requires not just a willing suspension of disbelief but one of enlightened attitudes as well. To an extent, that’s an argument I have some time for – these books aren’t meant to be high literature, and I do accept that this is a genre that is built upon flat archetypes, cartoonish violence, and short skirts.
However, as someone who does like pulp horror, specifically books about aquatic monsters, I don’t find that a convincing assertion here. It is perfectly possible to have the brightly-coloured simplistic world of square-jawed heroes saving swooning damsels from monsters without the underlying ugly seams that run through the Crabs books. I don’t get the impression that Smith’s focus was on that late-night double-feature picture show aesthetic. The misogyny is just too relentless to be seen as a nothing more than an excusable genre-feature, and the books are definitely aiming more for gritty realism (in style, not concept) than soft-focus. It’s not a motif or an accident, it’s a genuinely disturbing element to the books.
The Crabs series is, and will probably always remain, the pre-eminent work of fiction about gigantic crab monsters killing people. Unfortunately, that’s mostly due to the scarcity of works in the sub-genre, rather than any especial quality. The books are formulaic and repetitive, with some truly uncomfortable attitudes shining through. I was disappointed in them.
Buy Night of the Crabs here. Only buy the others if you like the first one an awful lot.