The cover of my paperback copy says “In the tradition of The Rats.” But Guy N. Smith’s Night of the Crabs (1976) is a much better and tighter narrative adventure than the sleazy, booze-induced vignettes of Herbert’s Rats.
Cliff, a scientist, goes to the coast of Wales to investigate the disappearance of his nephew and his girlfriend, both strong swimmers. While observing the coast, he is arrested by military personnel who think he is spying on them. Eventually cleared, he is released.
He meets Pat, a young widow, who teams up with him to find out what is happening on the beach. They discover that giant crabs are crawling out of the water at night, including the biggest and smartest among them, whom Cliff calls King Crab. Battles follow, with the crabs seemingly impervious to conventional military power. One wonders if there’s a light metaphor here for the British Army in the 1970s contending with Irish Republican Army terrorists, but this certainly doesn’t come across as a strongly political book or a novel with a social critique.
At any rate, Cliff proposes a plan to bomb the underwater cave system where they spend their days, which should trap them in a watery grave. You should read it for yourself to find out what happens next.
The book is clever because it takes an animal, the crab, that isn’t scary, and turns it into a story that is. Not horrifying in the sense of a Steven King horror novel, but scary in the sense of a good old-fashioned monster movie or a perfect campfire story to tell late at night after a clam bake.
While it probably was capitalizing on the success of Jaws (murky, underwater threat snatches innocent victims and their body parts) as much as it was on The Rats, it is not as credible as either. It’s easier to imagine one deranged shark or an infestation of dangerous rats than it is to believe in the sudden surfacing of a group of giant, mutant, intelligent crabs.
But it still works. Cliff and Pat aren’t particularly deep or complex, but they are likeable and worth cheering for. They recognize the severity of the threat early on, and of course the community and the top brass of the military don’t take it seriously enough. If you like that kind of story, you’ll love this.
Again, it’s a fun, tight little piece of fiction. A short book, it’s readable in two or three sittings.