Devil's Coach-Horse (UK: Hamlyn, 1979)
Tagline: "A winged terror which flies by night--feeding on
death and destruction..."
Ah, back in 1970's when men were men and flesh-eating
bugs were flesh-eating bugs. Those were the days. How
better than to reminisce than with a lovely little nasty
offering from Richard Lewis? If you've been lurking here
at Horror's Guilty Pleasures for any length of time, you
may recall that we reviewed Spiders by Lewis sometime
ago. I had mixed feelings on that one. It was pretty
uneven, but was saved by the appalling spider attacks. This time out, let's grab our
rubber gloves and forceps and take a good look at this little nugget of grue: Devil's
Coach-Horse...First off, for those of you (like me) marveling at the crazy title, let me
explain that the Devil's Coach-Horse is a common sort of European rove beetle,
common in fields and gardens. According to Wiki, it feeds on worms and wood lice.
Interestingly enough, it has been associated with the Devil since the Middle Ages. In
Ireland, it was thought that the Devil took the form of this beetle to eat
sinners....damn, now that's like a pretty cool plot unto itself!
The cover. Pretty damn cool. The evil Devil's Coach-Horse poised atop a burial slab,
blood dripping from its mouth. Very effective, I think. The background may be of
interest to purists. I think the artist copied it from a still of 1931's Frankenstein. You
may recall the statue, fence, and cross from the cemetery scene where Colin Clive
and Dwight Frye are robbing graves. Regardless, good design and execution.
The set-up of this one is pretty simple: during World Ecology Year, a plane filled
with scientists crashes into the Alps along with all their specimens. Amongst these,
of course, are Devil's Coach-Horse beetles. While the other animals die in the
freezing cold, the beetles survive by burrowing into the still-warm bodies of the
scientists long enough to lay their eggs. For a couple of the eggheads who are still
alive, though broken and dying in the plane wreckage, this is quite unpleasant:
"Their mandibles bit into the soft, ripped skin below them, and their jaws chewed the
blood-soaked tissue. After the skin going became easier. Warmer. Almost like mud.
Blood and mucus engulfed them as they tunneled through the sides of their new
Anyway, the insects die in the cold but their eggs go dormant in the corpses of the
scientists. It's a very bad winter, so rescuers can't reach the crashed plane. They
have to wait until spring. When they do, the bodies--with their eggs, of course--are
sent home for burial, to England and the US. Then the novel really begins. Our
infestation is under way. Enter our hero (?), Paul Adams, an entomologist and
colleague of the scientists that died in the crash. Lewis seems to go out of his way
to make Adams unlikable. He's insufferably arrogant and elitist, a cynical and
womanizing asswipe that's easy to hate and roll your eyes at. He's like central
casting's idea of an annoying, upper crust British fop with delusions of grandeur.
But let's forget about him for the time being. We're here for the bugs. Lewis turns
them loose and their first port of call is a stockyard in Chicago. Bursting from the
grave of the buried scientist, they swarm by the thousands, tearing open cows and
sheep, and one unlucky night watchman to boot. Back in England, a pair of lovers
are ravaged on a river bank. The beetles are hungry and they seek food wherever
they can get it: suburbs, city streets, malls, even a children's country picnic and a
"The bandages fell away from her recently-sewn operation incisions, and the
multi-legged, maddened horrors pounced on the bruised, brownish-red flesh held
together by blood-blackened gut stitches. And then the soft flesh, tender and
sponge-like, like an over-ripe, juicy plum, was easily burst by the strong mandibles
and plucked off."
Damn bugs! All the while these things are going on, a dumb copper named Mallet
tries to convince our hero, Adams, that something weird is going on with the
beetles. Adams refuses to believe it...even though he's found egg casings in the
animal corpses from the crashed plane. It appears our dumb copper ain't so dumb
after all and finally, Adams agrees with him. Well, the novel basically follows the
template set by James Herbert in The Rats from beginning to end. Mallet and
Adams become part of the Special Control Unit that is formed to eradicate the
beetles, which, of course, leads to the obligatory special staffing with the British PM.
And here's where I leave you. Will the insect menace be stopped? Will the dumb
copper continue to out-think the stuffy entomologist? Will the Devil's Coach-Horse
creepy-crawlies attack Adams and let some hot air out of his well-stuffed shirt? The
answers to these and many more questions can be found in this book.
Pros: I liked the beetles. The Devil's Coach-Horse, though perfectly harmless, have
a very menacing aspect to them with their shiny black armor and raised
hindquarters. Some good attacks and carnage. It doesn't rank real high on the
Ghastly, Gruesome, and Gor-ifying scale, but it has a few good moments.
Cons: The characters are uniformly depthless. Adams is such a jackass it's hard to
like him even when he gets off his high horse and does the right thing.
Overall: At a 168 pages, this a quick read. Like I said, the beetles are cool; the
characters pretty stiff. It moves pretty fast and Lewis gives us lots of interesting
insight into beetles. I'd rank this one with Spiders, no better or no worse.
Three bloody skulls out of five (and just).
Next month's Guilty Pleasure:
"Myth...or living nightmare?"