Maleficence

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of witchery in this collection of short stories. There are a few werewolf tales too, of course, but the anthology is heavy with malefic magic.

In general, Rod Serling’s Triple W: Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves includes an outstanding selection of stories, but it definitely doesn’t start off with a bang. In the first story, a pair of feuding witches turns a grifter into a cat. In the second story, a woman turns her husband into a dog—and later, in a twist, the husband turns his wife into a horse.

Thankfully, the quality of the stories improves dramatically once you get past these two ailuranthropy and cynanthropy contributions. For example, there’s a story about an amateur witch who screws up all her spells, another story about an elderly gentleman who serendipitously discovers he’s the high priest of a Boston coven and then there’s the story about a young man whose wife of three months is in league with the devil. The book ends with a 21-page history of witch trials from the 16th century to the 19th century.

Without a doubt the best story endorsed by Serling for this vintage 1963 collection is written by Jane Roberts. As a genre workout, “The Chestnut Beads” is simply about sorority sisters and an A-bomb explosion in New York. More than that, however, Roberts has a lot to say about a woman’s responsibility to the future. Men are the destroyers, she writes, and women are the creators. “Once more we are being asked to re-create the universe. But creation is not a kind act. It is an act of cruelty, and act of hatred against the darkness. The time has come when our hate must kill our love; when love can grow again from the rotting seeds of rage.”

And finally, beyond witches and werewolves, I’m always a sucker for stories about people who think they can outwit the devil. Except for Daniel Webster, nobody has ever done it. In “Blind Alley” by Malcolm Jameson, a wealthy gentleman pays Satan (a.k.a. “His Nibs”) to send him back to his childhood hometown 40 years earlier. He’s nostalgic for the past because “he hated modern women, the blatancy of the radio, the man in the White House and everything else.” Naturally, things go askew pretty quickly. Satan breaks his contract, collects his soul and turns up the heat. “See you in Hell, old thing,” he laughs.

[Rod Serling’s Triple W: Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves / Edited by Rod Serling / First Printing:  May 1963]

To Conserve and Protect, Part 2

Fresh from their first assignment as U.S. National Park Service secret agents (see my review of Russell James’s previous novel here), Kathy West and Nathan Toland found themselves quickly dispatched to Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii.

After squashing a giant crab uprising off the coast of Florida, West and Toland were asked to investigate irregularities near the Kilauea Caverns of Fire. They didn’t know what types of monsters they were going to encounter, but they knew that no assignment would ever be routine for them.

That’s because West and her history lovin’ sidekick were undercover agents for a shadowy section of the National Park Service. The government wasn’t protecting state parks just because they were attractive natural wonders. Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, Jellystone—many of these areas were home to the most dangerous monsters on the planet. As Park Services secret agents, West and Toland’s mission was to keep those creatures secret and safely within park boundaries.

In Hawaii, the biggest mammal problem was usually feral pigs. Escaped from domestic stock, they had huge litters and destroyed the land as they rooted for food. They were pesky because they had no natural predators.

But at Volcanoes Natural Park, West and Toland stumbled upon something far more terrifying than a pack of wild hogs. They found 20-foot, fire-breathing Komodo dragons living in the lava tunnels created by the Kilauea volcano. These dinosaur-sized creatures were the kind of mutation that would have made Charles Darwin proud, wrote the author.

Without realizing it, the park rangers were caught in the middle of a nasty Hawaiian cultural war. One faction recognized the dragons as sacred children of Pele, the goddess of volcanoes. They wanted to protect the indigenous creatures. The other faction was a bit more extreme. Their plan was to use the dragons to cleanse the islands and return the land to nature.

The leader of the extremist group was Romy Saturo Kang. With a name like that, you knew right away that he was a first-class MCU-like villain. With the help of the dragons, he was going to turn the white man’s tropical paradise into a blazing hell. “It won’t be long,” Kang promised. “Pele’s children will hatch, and the island of Hawaii will return to its wonderful natural state, with me as their king.”

Don’t worry. Kang the Conqueror’s evil plan was eventually undone. Because of West and Toland’s last-minute heroics, hundreds of dragon hatchlings were boiled in lava. Problem solved.

The park rangers saved the people of Hawaii, but at what cost? What would animal rights activists and native groups think of their endgame? Surely some kind of compromise could have been negotiated? Kang was a first-class asshole (and he got a fitting comeuppance), but the dragons of Kilauea deserved better.

[Dragons of Kilauea / By Russell James / First Printing: October 2020 / ISBN: 9781922323903]

Atomic Bats

Underground nuclear testing, giant bats and unintentional collateral damage—that’s all you need for classic monster misadventure, right? Clearly author Jack Morse thinks so. Mostly, I agree, although a curveball or a subplot might have been nice too.

One look at the cover of Giant Killer Bats of Alamogordo and you know exactly what Morse is up to. He’s trying to recreate the “Age of Atomic Monsters” in prose format. He’s not necessarily concerned with details, however. The killer bats could easily be any kind of nuclear mutant like tarantulas, ants, Gila monsters, locusts, scorpions, praying matids, anything—even an amazing colossal man. It doesn’t really matter; the subtext is always the same in these sorts of stories.

The novel begins 75 feet below the New Mexico desert during the summer of 1957. Unbeknownst to anyone in the area, the U.S. Government is actively upgrading its nuclear arsenal. “Hiroshima was nothing compared to the power at my disposal,” cackles an ambitious Army attendant. The ensuing subterranean blast infiltrates a cavern of bats and “the radioactive cloud changes their very essence forever.”

The atomic bats are now bull-sized demons with wingspans over 10 feet. With a newfound intelligence lurking behind their cold dark eyes, they start terrorizing a small nearby town.

“I dunno what we are doing to our world,” says Ray Riggs when he spots the colony of bats for the first time, “but it seems to be striking back at us with a vengeance.” Carrying torches and pitchforks, the townsfolk quickly assemble to combat the scourge. Good luck!

Giant Killer Bats of Alamogordo is a slim novel told in a simple declarative fashion. Actually, the more I think about it, it’s very similar to a Japanese light novel but without any interior illustrations. There’s not much room for nuance or subtlety here (or even a messy subplot). It’s not for everybody, I admit, but I enjoyed the story’s retro vibe and breezy pace.

Another thing I really enjoyed was the author’s semi-regular and random interjections throughout the book. Some were funny and some were odd (in a good way).

My favorite of these exclamations comes early in the story when a character is desperately trying to locate his wife at a shopping mall. Writes Morse with a wink: “For the thousandth time, Ray wishes there were an easy way to communicate with other people. Perhaps he could invent a portable phone that worked without wires. He shakes his head and dismisses the idea; there wouldn’t be much call for that type of thing, he reckons.”

[Giant Killer Bats of Alamogordo / By Jack Morse / First Printing: June 2019 / ISBN: 9781950903030]

Double Feature Monster Show

As promised, there’s a pair of monsters in Mark Cassell’s new short story digest. Both abominations were frightful, but in particular, the post-human freak from “Reanimation Channel” was insanely frightful.

Creating and describing monsters must be a lot of fun for writers. Yet I’m constantly disappointed by authors who never get 100 percent cozy with their creations. Sometimes these beautiful creatures lurk in the shadows for the entire story. Only at the very end are they revealed—and usually in the most vague and mundane way possible.

I keep thinking about the oversized mutant fish from The Host (2006). That fucker appeared early in the film and terrorized people nonstop during the day and night. As far as I’m concerned, The Host was made for people (like me) who love monsters. That’s what I’m looking for in the books I read too.

When “Reanimation Channel” begins, the monster was shocking, but still in the process of transmutation. It was a Frankenstein-like monstrosity, part-human, part-dog and part bird. “Wires and circuits wove through swollen flesh,” wrote Cassell. “Its head was a mess of what was perhaps a German shepherd fused with a bearded man. Vein-y membranous wings extended behind its torso.”

But that’s not how the patchwork chimera looked at the end of the story. In just 25 pages, the author pumped up his monster’s physical structure to an extravagant level. I don’t want to spoil the dramatic finale, but the fiend eventually morphs into an insane fusion of metal and plastic, discarded lottery tickets, K-Cup pods, Pringles cans, smartphone batteries, driftwood and machinery, pebbles and cockles, fur, feathers and flesh—not just human flesh, but that of varying species of mammal including eagles, bulls, turtles, dolphins, sharks and whales. It was, said the author, “an absolute abomination of nature.”

The monster in “Reanimation Channel” was an amazing behemoth—a testament to Cassell’s untamed imagination. As a reader, you can feel his enthusiasm on every page. As a monster fan, you never doubt his dedication to the genre.

The author kicks off his collection with an amphibious creature prowling the waters of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. “River of Nine Tails” had a bizarre mythological beast at it’s core, but the story was carefully deliberate because it contained some relevancy to the author’s personal life. As Cassell admitted upfront, his stories were about the monsters you saw. Wherever they might be.

[Monster Double Feature: River of Nine Tails / Reanimation Channel / By Mark Cassell / First Printing: August 2020 / ISBN: 9780993060182]

The Curse of Frankenstein

Old-timey monster movie fans already know the story: Boris Karloff wasn’t the first choice to play Frankenstein’s monster back in 1931. The folks at Universal Pictures wanted to cast Bela Lugosi, fresh from the success of his Dracula performance.

Apparently the original screen test didn’t go very well for the Hungarian-born actor. Depending on what you’ve read, Lugosi either looked like Prince Valiant or Buster Brown. Reportedly, his on-screen reveal was more laughable than scary.

Thus Boris Karloff got the iconic part—and the rest was celluloid history. Frankenstein was a big hit and kept the stately British actor rich and comfortable for the rest of his life. “My dear old monster,” Karloff said at the time. “I owe everything to him.” For Lugosi it was the beginning of a long slide into Grade Z pictures, drug addiction, unemployment and a squalid death.

Over the years, the Lugosi screen test has become a highly coveted item for movie and monster nuts. Even though it resurfaced for sale about 40 years ago in a Los Angeles trade-paper advertisement, it may no longer exist. The two-reel screener was either purposely destroyed back in 1931 or inadvertently lost over the years. We’ll never know.

In Alive!, Loren D. Estleman’s novel from 2013, Tinseltown is turned upside down when the Frankenstein clip is unexpectedly rediscovered. Naturally it stirs up interest with a sundry of Hollywood freebooters, gangsters, collectors and preservationists.

Chief among them was Valentino (no relation to Rudolph btw). His business cards identified him as a “film detective,” a romantic indulgence befitting a life on the outer edge of the motion picture industry. In reality, he was merely a consultant for UCLA’s Film Preservation Department. 

Because of one late-night phone call, Valentino found himself in the middle of a mad scramble for the 30-minute Lugosi screen test. He eventually got it, but he had to navigate all of the gorillas, dinosaurs, blobs, alien invaders and giant bugs that had crawled, slithered, stomped and swooped through the backlot of every studio, major and minor, since pictures began.

In 1943, Bela Lugosi finally had the opportunity to portray the monster that initially escaped him in a movie called Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. It must have galled him to don the square headpiece created for Karloff a dozen years after he haughtily turned down the part.

Even though he created the iconic and beloved screen image of Dracula (itself a once-in-a-lifetime role), Lugosi could never escape the shadow of Mary Shelley’s creation. “Frankenstein, always Frankenstein,” he lamented, “ever and again until the end.”

[Alive! / By Loren D. Estleman / First Printing: April 2013 / ISBN:  9780765333315]

#BLM Stop the Violence

Like a lot of monsters, Maribel Daniels wasn’t human. “Well, she was human,” corrected her younger sister Anya, “but she was also something else.” It was complicated.

According to local legend, Maribel was accosted 10 years ago by a bunch of guys. They raped her, killed her and dumped her lifeless body in Stoco Lake. At exactly the same time, a truck overturned on a nearby bridge and dumped unknown and highly toxic chemicals into the lake.

These chemicals replaced the blood in Maribel’s body and brought her back to life (sort of). As time went by, she mutated into a scaly blue fish-like monster with seaweed growing out of her skin. “Kind of like Swamp Thing,” said author Renee Miller.

Over the years, Maribel, now infamously known as the “Blood Lake Monster” (or BLM, for short), acquired a reputation with local girls for being an avenging angel. Explained one teen in a burst of exposition: “If you’ve got a guy who’s done you wrong, you can go to the lake and say a prayer to Maribel. She’ll do the rest.” In other words: the Blood Lake Monster will kill that loser boyfriend of yours dead.

Ten years later, Anya returned to the crime scene to solve her sister’s murder and stop the gendercide. She didn’t have any trouble figuring out what happened and who was involved. Figuring out Maribel’s wonky moral compass, however, gave her fits. She didn’t realize that her sister harbored a multi-monstrous agenda.

One particular scene near the end of the book sums up Maribel’s conflicting emotions thusly. When a local constable falls into the lake one morning, she darts toward him hungrily. “Her teeth sank deep into the soft skin of his belly. Blood filled the water like a red fog and swirled around her face like a caress.”

Before leaving his dead carcass to float to the bottom of the lake, Maribel plants a soft kiss on his open mouth. Said the author: “She then trailed her clawed fingers down his chest to open him up so the fish in the lake could feast.”

It’s not exactly fish sex, but it was a dramatic way for author Miller to describe her monster’s ravenous appetites. Sure, Maribel was angry. No one ever wants to be raped and killed and reborn as the She-Creature from the Black Lagoon. But she was also suffering from an unrequited ache that would haunt her for the rest of her existence. She was lonely.

[Blood Lake Monster / By Renee Miller / First Printing: July 2020 / ISBN: 9781989206508]

Nine Stories

There’s a moment in the story “Cabin 14” when an unlucky glamper comes face-to-face with a hungry saber-toothed tiger. What the hell, he thinks. Was it possible that someone was breeding prehistoric beasts in the Minnesota wilderness? And more importantly: Why?? Why would anyone want to do such a crazy thing?

Author Lucas Pederson doesn’t answer that particular question. Nor should he. All the creatures in this nine-story volume exist within acceptable (albeit extreme) boundaries. A saber-toothed cat is just one of the aberrations found in this “Nature’s Revenge” anthology.

There are also bears, insects, fish, kangaroo and komodo dragons to worry about. There’s even a story about an Australian yowie. Each permutation is horrifying in its own way, yet is bound inextricably by the laws of nature. A wasp with a wingspan of 10 feet isn’t a monster, per se. It’s just a big fucking wasp.

In “Surrogate,” the aforementioned giant wasp attacks a couple of weekend hikers from Melbourne. “It’s legs were large bending needles, like a demonic sewing machine,” writes B.D. Ramsay, “And its eyes were great, soulless portals to hell.” But that wasn’t the scariest part of the story. The real horror emerged seven days later. “I’ve become a slave, a zombie in nature’s plan,” cries the unfortunate victim.

Likewise, a trio of old friends gathers together for a weekend fishing trip in “Black Eyes, Dark Water” by Dave Jeffery. The male bonding is interrupted during the group’s first outing by a nasty Northern Pike. “A big fucker,” says one of the fishermen. “At least a seven-footer.”

But, again, the “Piscean stalker” couldn’t be faulted for being an apex predator. The friends knew immediately they were being hunted by an incredible aquatic, omnipotent killing machine. They were doomed.

Aberrations ends with a happily-ever-after finale (“Haunted” by editor Chris McInally). Before the final windup, however, readers are introduced to Yowa from Mallacoota, Victoria (“Refugee” by Paul Mannering).

Yowa was “really, really weird looking,” quirky as hell and possibly not even human. In a surprising twist, she turns out to be a guardian angel-like figure straight from Australia’s bush.

The 20-page story quickly escalates from funny to odd to creepy, and contains an obligatory amount of bloodshed. It’s also a blunt comment on identity and the sanctity of indigenous culture. It’s a reminder to all of us that truth lives in nature.

[Aberrations: A Creature Feature Anthology / Edited by Chris McInally & Dane Hatchell / First Printing: August 2020 / ISBN: 9798671775839]

Unbless This Mess

No lengthy preamble for me, I’ll just come right to the point: The Unblessed is a mess of a novel. The plot is rambling, repetitive and sloppy, and bounces around in the most illogical manner. Character motivations are fluid and questionable. Worst of all, the dramatic tension is artificial and ineffective.

But things don’t start off badly. Paul Richards’s book begins with a tantalizing backstory featuring an ancient African demon known as Anansi, the Spider God.

Described as a 15-foot-tall human with the face of a spider or maybe a giant spider with the face of a man (it’s hard to tell), Anansi came to America in the 16th century during the Atlantic slave trade. Now quarantined in Montana, the demon-god is awake and hangry.

This is when problems arise. The early expositional pages set in Africa are terrific. But once the author brings readers into the 20th century, the story becomes a haphazard patchwork of pulp clichés and golden age comic book tropes. If you’ve ever read the first 26 issues of Detective Comics you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Anansi is the greatest power in existence, a creature that‘s persisted in its present form for untold thousands of years—an “ultranatural,” says the author. The irony, however, is that the demon has no physical sense of musculature of its own. No matter how omniscient and evil it is, it remains wholly dependent upon the labor of its victims and acolytes for every physical need.

To assist in its quest for world domination, the Spider God anoints a herald as its proxy. Like Gabriel, Hermes and Norrin Radd, Maximillian Grey is a loyal intermediary imbued with unlimited authority, power and influence.

Once Grey is introduced, The Unblessed waves goodbye to nearly every substantive character and dangling plot point. Segueing into superhero territory, the final endgame pits the Anansi herald against his eternal nemesis Camurious in a 50-page slugfest. All the African Spider God can do is wail in the background and “summon an icy force of demonic wind.” The monster of Montana is nothing but a crybaby and a damoiseau in distress.

[The Unblessed / By Paul Richards / Second Printing: June 1988 / ISBN: 9780821723807]

Echo in Space

Monsters are everywhere—in the closet, over the rainbow and 20,000 leagues under the sea. You can even find monsters on sunny Sesame Street (Check it out: The Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover). And they’re not earthbound either; monsters can also be found in “spaaaace” (insert spooky echo FX here).

But what is a monster, really? Beyond our limited earthly experience, the question is somewhat abstract. Are they unkillable bog men (“Atoms”), cosmic arachnids (“Spider In a Space Helmet”), a single, lonely aqua-man (“Black Lagoon”) or a bunch of lady astronaut clones (“Captain Clone”)?

Traditionalists will be happy to discover that vampires, werewolves and mummies continue their reign of terror in outer space. In fact, some of my favorite stories in this collection feature these hoary monster icons. A vampire pilots a ship of pilgrims on a long-term deep space mission in Jen Haeger’s “Cold Comfort.” Thrill seekers spend a fright-filled evening in a werewolf sanctuary in “The Moon Forest” (“come to the forest for a unique experience,” writes author Dirck de Lint with a smirk). And three embattled astronauts debate the difference between mummies and zombies in “The Silver Crown” by Mariah Southworth. Btw: It’s nice to know people in the future are still debating the old mummy/zombie chestnut.

My favorite of these classic-monsters-in-space stories is definitely “AstroNosferatu and the Invisible Void.” Author Brandon Butler basically introduces Vlad Tepes to the Universal Pictures “MonsterVerse.” Butler describes the difference between the Impaler and the King of Vampires this way: “The Impaler’s a warrior with a stomach for shocking brutality. The dainty vampire, on the other hand, concealed hungers born of crueler appetites.” Even before the surprise ending, it’s interesting to see how each monster navigates age-old grievances and alliances.

More than anything, Monsters in Spaaaace! is about all the otherworldly creatures that give humanity the heebie-jeebies. The most nuanced of these stories is “The Rise of Iës” by Rose Strickman. Stranded on an unsettled alien planet, 39 Earthlings fight a day-by-day battle for survival. Spying a human-like figure lurking nearby, a search party attempts to make contact.

Strickman’s resolution involves large and gross centipedes, orgasmic venom and a not-so-mutually agreeable conjunction. Quite frankly, it’s unthinkable, inevitable and icky. “Needs must as the devil drives,” quotes the author. In other words, if Satan is driving the car, you have no choice but to sit back and accept your fate. One night of murder and terror gives Strickman her happy ending.

[Monsters in Spaaaace! / Edited by Michael Cieslak / First Printing: November 2019 / ISBN: 9780998887890]

Eye of the Spider

With Eye of the Monster, Andre Norton was attempting to do something tricky, but only an extremely clever (or agile) author could have pulled it off. And in my opinion, Norton was neither clever nor nimble during her 60-plus years writing science fiction.

Here, Norton has written a space-age colonization story that pits meddling off-world settlers against marginalized native citizens. That’s right, she’s flipped the script—she’s basically written a novel in which the Aztecs were the monsters and Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors were the victims.

You can see how that would be a knotty narrative to untangle. So what if the Ishkurians were “hostile reptilians with crocodile-like sloping skulls”? Did that give anyone the right to hack their home world? I don’t think so.

It all started when Terrans showed up and introduced their own litigation and judicial procedures. A series of blunders and culturally insensitive decisions eventually led to a native revolt. By mutual consent, the colonists split Ishkur for greener pastures.

But some off-world stragglers remained—that’s when Eye of the Monster begins. Four disparate youngsters must survive a trek through an unforgiving jungle (filled with ghost-wings, skull-rats, progies and air dragons) while avoiding scary Ishkurian crocodile-men.

Norton wasn’t a dummy. Perhaps she thought she was being clever. I dunno. She knew she was turning native freedom fighters into monsters. That didn’t stop her from manipulating the reader’s sympathies in the wrong direction however.

Her hero was Rees Naper, a young man who made money selling indigenous fauna to off-world zoos. At times he seemed to respect the civil rights of the natives. But I wouldn’t exactly call him woke. Throughout the entire novel, he used the word “Crocs” to describe Ishkurians, even though he knew it was a forbidden and derogatory epithet.

The only way Naper and his crüe could survive their dire situation was to outwit the cunning Ishkurians. He subscribed to a theory called “Eye of the Spider”: If you fight a spider, you must attempt to see through its eyes, think with its mental equipment and foresee its attack as it would make one. The spiders in this case were the Ishkur natives and Rees would have to strive to think like a Croc in order to out-think a Croc. “But how?” he thought. “How did one become a Croc?”

In the end, Naper and his cohorts escaped to an orbiting satellite in outer space. Despite a knowing wink to her readers on the last page, Norton doesn’t explicitly give her “heroes” any type of revelation or insight into the situation. In their wake lay corrupt idealism, social upheaval, burned bridges and lots of dead bodies.

[Eye of the Monster / By Andre Norton / First Printing: January 1962 / ISBN: 9780441756957]