The Wonderful World of Neanderthals

Paleontologists agree: Homo sapiens neanderthalensis disappeared from the earth about 30,000 years ago. But according to writer Robert Silverberg, Neanderthals still exist in popular culture in many different ways.

Folktales and fairytales (especially in Northern Europe) abound with tales of gnomes, ogres and trolls. Where do you think these myths came from?

Could it be that the small, ugly, hairy men featured in the stories of Charles Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen and Jacob and William Grimm (among others) were Neanderthal survivors living in historic times?

Did isolated pockets of cavemen exist a few thousand years ago, here and there in Europe, the memory of them lingering from generation to generation in tales told to frighten children? “Perhaps,” says Silverberg.

One thing is true; the romance of Urmensch (Primal Man) continues to inspire dreamers, prehistorians and science fiction writers. It even inspired Silverberg and his editorial colleagues to compile this timeless short story collection from the late 80s.

Most of these stories can be found in the “What If” section of your friendly neighborhood library. What if Neanderthal Man was actually from Mars (“Genesis” by H. Beam Piper), or traveled the world as a circus attraction (“The Gnarly Man” by L. Sprague de Camp), or was your next-door neighbor (“The Hairy Parents” by A. Bertram Chandler)?

Isaac Asimov contributes the biggest “What If” story in the book. What if science allowed us to travel 40,000 years into the past and bring a little Neanderthal boy back to the present? “Snatched callously out of time,” writes Asimov, “the boy becomes the only creature of its kind in the world. The last and the only.”

After a few years, the “Timmie Experiment” is discontinued. Science has squeezed all the prehistoric data it can from the little caveboy. It’s time to move on, says one scientist. “Timmie stands in the way of expansion, and he is a source of possible bad publicity. We can’t let him block us from further progress.” The ending of “The Ugly Little Boy” is not as sad as you’d think, however. It paves the way for the ascendancy of Cro-Magnon, the Early Modern Human.

I cannot end this review without mentioning “The Alley Man” by Philip José Farmer. It’s a disturbing story about a modern day throwback to prehistoric times—possibly the last Neanderthal purebred. First published in 1959, it should probably come with a list of trigger warnings for today’s easily offended audience.

To Farmer’s credit, he doesn’t sugarcoat his protagonist’s (antagonist’s?) bad behavior. Old Man Paley isn’t a noble savage at all. He’s a liar, a drunk, a rutter and a layabout. Says Farmer: “He’s a dirty stinking one-armed middle-aged man. The ugliest man in the world. He smells like a goat that fell into an outhouse.”

Whether Paley is human or subhuman is never exactly clear. He may be a prehistoric anomaly (“older than Adam and Eve,” he says) or he may be the product of reading comic books and watching Alley Oop cartoons. A local doctor says Paley has concocted his personal myth to compensate for his extreme ugliness, his inferiority and his feelings of rejection.

Either way, the reality is the same. In a fit of self-realization, Paley shouts at the top of his lungs: “It ain’t only Neanderthals has to live on dumpheaps. It’s the crippled ’n sick ’n the stupid ’n the queer in the head that has to live here. No diff ’runce. We’re all ugly ’n hopeless ’n rotten. We’re all Neanderthals.”

[Neanderthals: Isaac Asimov’s Wonderful Worlds of Science Fiction #6 / Edited by Robert Silverberg, Martin H. Greenberg and Charles G. Waugh / First Printing: February 1987 / ISBN: 9780451147165]

Giant-Size Man-Beast

A former editorial colleague of mine believed that sex in novels was gratuitous. Every little bit of it. According to him, an author could easily snip the dirty parts from his manuscript and it wouldn’t affect the story at all. As a reader, you wouldn’t even notice anything missing.

Mostly, I agree with him. Sex scenes in prose might increase the temperature in your cabin, but they rarely add anything critical to the narrative. And it doesn’t help matters that literary schtupping is usually awkward and laughable.

But I disagree with my old friend when he insists that sex in novels is a trivial writerly exercise. At the very least, sex establishes an intimate bond between characters and elicits an emotional response from readers. Whether the amatory writing is bad or not-so-bad, it has a purpose.

Also, of course, sex is sex. It may not be a necessary storytelling requirement, but it’s often agreeably titillating. Like an after-dinner brownie sundae, sex in novels is a classic “dessert” that never gets old.

The Moorland Monster by Rochelle Larkin contains three big thumping sex scenes. (Thankfully, the sex is with consenting adults—no monster nooky here.) It’s appropriately libidinous but sophomoric overall. Sometimes it’s even academic. “We hammered each other for a long time,” wrote Larkin during her second encounter. “My constrictor cunnae muscles took over, began to milk that which they clasped. The Egyptians call this action that of the qebbadzeh—the clutcher. The Japanese name it chooskee. In the French language it is casse-noisette.”

More titillating is the descriptive language surrounding the book’s hero, Cherry Delight (née Cherisse Dellissio). Formerly an operative with N.Y.M.P.H.O. (New York Mafia Prosecution and Harassment Organization), she now works as a secret agent for the Department of Unusual Events (D.U.E.). Over the course of 29 novels, her weapons of choice were a wiggle in her walk and a giggle in her talk. “You’re a cool one,” admires one suitor. “Not really,” says Cherry. “Some folks think I’m pretty hot.”

In this latter adventure, Cherry’s in Cornwall to investigate the appearance of a savage giant-sized man-beast. The creature is loose in Bodmin Moor and terrorizing unlucky locals who foolishly venture into the wasteland at night. “It’s an unlovely thing,” describes one local of the moor. “So flat and forbidding, and when the mists roll in, it’s all of a greyness. That’s when the man-beast walks.”

Cherry’s not in southwest England too long, but she’s able to successfully flush out the monster and solve a villainous plot to steal a family fortune. She also has time for a couple of fervid midnight trysts.

With a million-dollar diamond ring safely tucked inside her Gucci bag and two Cornishmen in post-coitus bliss, Cherry departs England for the U.S. “My job here is done,” she says with a purr.

[The All New Cherry Delight: The Moorland Monster / By Rochelle Larkin writing as Glen Chase / First Printing: January 1977 / ISBN: 9780843904895]

World Domination Through Daikaiju

Forty years ago, Ishiro Sozo had a dream. He wanted to help mankind by using untoward advanced biotechnology. He called his crazy idea the “Daikaiju Directive.”

Only a madman would dream of using giant monsters as a balm for humanity’s ills, and Ishiro was indeed crazy. Years later his daughter Sadako took over the family business and tweaked the mission statement a little bit: Nothing less than total world domination!

With a host of scientific outlaws on the payroll, Hidora Neo (New Hydra) is creating supercharged kaiju left and right. Shellshock, Rampage, Conquer, Natilus Rex, Terror Griffin, an anaconda with batwings, a saltwater crocodile and a brown bear hybrid, a panda bear mixed with a fiddler crab and a gorilla with the head of an elephant—all of these creatures (and more) are “saving” humanity by smashing San Francisco, Minneapolis and Chicago.

Each monster is introduced with a fanfare of extravagant detail. Author Dustin Dreyling is obviously fully invested in his towering colossi and he enjoys talking about them at great length. Good on him. I don’t know Mr. Dreyling at all, but I bet Primordial Soup: The First Batch is the culmination of his “childhood imagination come to life.”

Along the way, Dreyling also loads his novel with a ton of nerd culture signifiers. This may be a good or a bad thing depending on your fandom credentials. Tekken, Gary Larson, Keith Flint, “Rapper’s Delight,” Married … With Children, Three’s Company, Klingon-style facial hair, The Last Dinosaur, “a group of musical monkeys named Led Zeppelin” and Target Field, “the overpriced home of the Minnesota Twins” all get solid shout-outs. For goodness sakes, even Neil Riebe (author of Vistakill) gets namechecked at one point (although Dreyling misspells his name. Tsk!).

The author is planning a sequel (of course) and one of his characters that will undoubtedly shine in the second volume is Volk’narr, an eccentric celestial warrior similar to Marvin the Martian, Mork from Ork and Jaco the Galactic Patrolman.

After coming out of a thousand-year stasis, Volk’narr dons his mech suit and preps for battle. He’s on a mission to save the “Earthicans” from monster annihilation.

On his way to Earth, Volk’narr somehow hacks into Spotify or a similar music platform. In particular, he finds himself liking heavy metal music, mostly “hair metal” and “thrash metal.” “The mech pilot found it perfectly appropriate to his vocation,” writes Dreyling.

Volk’narr knows he’s heading toward the most dangerous mission of his career. As he enters Earth’s atmosphere, he wants to make a dramatic entrance. Ready or not, it was time to get fucking hostile and kick some kaiju ass. Cue up Vulgar Display of Power by Pantera!

[Primordial Soup: The First Batch / By Dustin Dreyling / First Printing: February 2021 / ISBN: 9781735805429]

Attack of the Super-Octopods

There’s a lot of jibber-jabber about octopi in this shoot-and-miss post-apocalyptic thriller from Andre Norton. Three days after nuclear submarines wiped out Cape Town, Wellington, Sydney, Shanghai, Singapore, Busan, Rotterdam and Seattle—all the great seaports of the world—a consortium of giant cephalopods arrived to declare their sovereignty over mankind.

And sadly, there was no path of negotiation between humans and the new super-octopods. Here was intelligence to a high degree; scientists recognized that. But it was a form of intelligence so alien that there existed no hope for détente.  

Whether the “Octopus-Sapiens” were an ancient species hitherto dwelling unsuspected in the ocean deeps, or whether they were mutants whose evolution had been escalated by recent nuclear warfare, was still a matter for dispute.

But one thing was clear: The ancient horror stories of mariners were now coming true. Krakens had arrived that could (and would) drag down warships, oil tankers and cruise ships to be plundered at their leisure in the watery depths.

Sea Siege takes place on a small bleak island in the West Indies. According to Norton, “San Isadore was a sterile, scraped place that bore a sharp resemblance to the lunar landscapes drawn by painters of the fantastic.” The island may have been an inhospitable place for native inhabitants, U.S. Naval personnel and marine scientists, but it quickly became ground zero for octopod occupation because of the surrounding corral reef. It was literally an octopus pod.

But it wasn’t just octopi they had to worry about. The monster cephalopods were commandeering an aquatic force of obedient sea serpents and enormous sharks. Americans, Russians and Chinese had to work together now. The real threats to mankind were the mutants roaming the seas. “We’re closing ranks,” said a U.S. official to a Russian survivor. “If you’re human, you’re on our side.”

Readers learn a lot about octopi in this novel. It’s all fascinating stuff. Had native conditions varied only in the slightest degree, these sea creatures might have been the planet’s ruler in man’s place.

The nuclear fallout, however, was simply an abstract existential threat concocted by the author. Despite the nuclear chaos, the first step to recovery was obvious. Surface dwellers had to learn how to live in harmony with sea dwellers. “From now on we have to make peace ‘tween ocean an’ land,” said one philosophical Seabee.

[Sea Siege / By Andre Norton / First Printing: August 1957]

Behemoth Rhapsody, Part 2

The situation had escalated exponentially since we last checked in with the elite U.N. security team and its ongoing battle against the stampede of giant monsters known as Behemoths (see my review of Behemoths Rising here).

The feathered dragons were easily the most aggressive of the bunch. Ice Behemoths, Sea Behemoths and massive earthworms couldn’t compete with the Fire Behemoths’ fiery ambition to become the world’s next dominant species.

From the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Sahara Desert, the jungles of Mexico and across the far reaches of the globe, the Fire Behemoths filled the skies with terror. London, Boston, Beijing, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Cairo—all the great armies of the world stalled, unable to defend their countries. The story of man had reached its inevitable endgame.

But hold on a sec. Mankind wasn’t ready to give up so easily. In particular, the U.N.’s crew of soldiers, weapons experts and scientists worked tirelessly around the clock to find a way to defeat the Fire Behemoths. For them, the war wasn’t over yet.

About halfway through the book, a scientist figured out (finally!) how the dragons operated. Said Dr. Violet Callaway, “Through my observations, I believe the largest Fire Behemoth is the alpha member of the flock. It directs the others and leads them in coordinated attacks on our largest cities.”

A plan to disrupt the Fire Behemoths quickly emerged: Take down the alpha dragon and the others would fall. And if they didn’t fall, they’d probably get confused, or afraid or they would quarrel with each other endlessly. Anything could happen, admitted Callaway.

At the same time as the Fire Behemoth puzzle was being solved, the U.N. security team found itself being ripped in half. A new recruit by the name of John Temple was making a play to become the leader of the team. Naturally, this bothered Jason Bagley, the current chief of security. They both knew there couldn’t be two alpha dogs in the same pack.

In his book Brave New World, Aldous Huxley split his characters into Alphas and Betas. In a way, author John Grover was doing the same thing here. There was only room for one dominant alpha in Giants Reborn. Soldier, scientist, pirate, Behemoth—who would it be? To be continued.

[Giants Reborn / By John Grover / First Printing: March 2021 / ISBN: 9798710181898]

The Secret Life of Plants

Like everything else in life, trends in fiction come and go. Fractured fairy tales, science fiction romance, teenage dystopia, sparkling vampires—all these genres (good and bad) inevitably have their moment on best-seller lists.

The man-eating plant genre, for example, was a literary phenomenon 200 years ago. Says editor Daisy Butcher in her introduction to Evil Roots: Killer Tales of the Botanical Gothic, the rise of imperial global access during the 19th century helped introduce the Victorian era to wild and exotic flora for the first time. 

These plants, often obscene and otherworldly, inspired well-known gothic writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle to feed off the era’s anxieties to create a new kind of horror. Think about it; the vampire had to be invited into your home. You were safe as long as you didn’t open the door at night. The killer plant, on the other hand, was already in your house and waiting ominously. 

The plants in this collection were no wallflowers that’s for sure. They were bloodthirsty vegetables with murderous intent. Because of their tentacle-like appendages, their mobility and their ravenous appetite for human flesh, they quickly became the stars of a new gothic horror genre called eco-horror. 

All 14 stories in this collection emphasized a distrust of the natural world. They also embraced a Darwinian fear of the breathing, moving, sentient and predatory plant which outgrew all human control. 

The plants were seductive as well. Both “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne and “Carnivore” by Lucy H. Hooper existed at the crossroads of sexual desire and death. Each story featured a luckless man caught by a beguiling flower’s bloom.

The most explicit of these stories was definitely “The Moaning Lily” by Emma Vane. The titular flora had somehow developed a perfect replica of a boneless human mouth. The author’s lurid and erotic prose makes the ending crystal clear. “My glorious parasite has sucked me dry!” cried a distraught botanist. 

Easily my favorite story in the collection was penned by children’s author Edith Nesbit. A monstrous Virginia creeper had taken control of a derelict pavilion in the countryside. But more interesting was Nesbit’s demur heroine. Amelia was a classic “wallflower,” one of those featureless blondes who seem born to be overlooked. To be honest, I didn’t even realize she was the protagonist of the story until the very end. The killer creeper was uncanny, but the feminist commentary from Nesbit was delightfully unexpected. 

[Evil Roots: Killer Tales of the Botanical Gothic / Edited by Daisy Butcher / First Printing: March 2020 / ISBN: 9780712352291]

Bisutakiru

“The word was out,” writes author Neil Riebe in his new kaiju thriller Vistakill. Once again Japan had a huge problem to worry about. Oshima-Kojima was rumbling and academics and government officials were concerned that a volcano eruption of this magnitude would trigger a catastrophe on scale with the Permian-Triassic extinction event. 

It wasn’t just Japan’s problem, however. NATO declared the impending volcanic blast to be a present danger to the entire world. The intergovernmental organization was correct. When the colossus peak eventually exploded, witnesses described it as primeval. “It was the type of geologic violence one imagined happened at the Earth’s formation,” says Riebe.

The volcano’s eruption wasn’t a natural occurrence, however—no tectonic plate action, no gaseous pressure buildup. In fact, there was no science or logic to the phenomenon at all. Instead, it was the result of a Precambrian demoness waking up from her prehistoric nap.

In short: 251 million years ago, an immortal “wild spirit” named Bisutakiru (pronounced Vistakill in English) was imprisoned in endless slumber for her bad behavior. As a result of Gen Z inattention (darn those zoomers!), the ancient deity was now awake and very, very angry.

Riebe assembles a fractious band of kaiju monsters to battle Bisutakiru and her lava-powered minions. As you’d expect, the interspecies squad of mutants and dinosaurs don’t make an easy alliance. It was up to a gigantic super pterosaur named Brown Scale to keep everyone committed to the endgame. “He slouched under the weight of the world,” says the author. “It was up to him to win the unwinnable fight.”

But there was a twist—or, more accurately, an alternative way to contain Bisutakiru. Just like in his previous novel I Shall Not Mate (see my review here), Riebe threads a compelling moral dilemma throughout his story that “twists” everything in knots.

Even though the resolution of this spiritual war is at the core of the book, the author never skimps on kaiju action. Bisutakiru and a handful of giant monsters streak across the Japanese skyline threatening the safety of anyone caught in their wake.

To counterbalance the unrelenting carnage, the author pauses regularly to remind readers of the situation on the ground. A profound example of this occurs near the end of the novel when two reunited lovers are caught in a confluence of gunfire, sirens and beastly roars. With everything falling apart, they embrace each other like they are the last couple on Earth. Their message to Bisutakiru, Brown Scale and the rest of the quarrelling monsters: “Where there is love there is life.”

[Vistakill / By Neil Riebe / First Printing: February 2021 / ISBN: 9781953221780]

The Ants Invasion

Located in the middle of the New Mexico desert, the Reclamation School for Boys looked less like a juvenile delinquent prep school and more like an abandoned factory where atomic bombs had once been constructed.

As it turned out, the Reclamation School was formerly a chemical weapons facility and an experimental genetic laboratory. That was bad news for the teachers and students of the school, but good news for readers looking for high voltage mutant insect action.

Giant ants designed for warfare? A school filled with delinquents and hoodlums? In my opinion there couldn’t be a better setup (insert chef’s kiss emoji here).   

Infestation begins quickly when a visiting entomologist spots something odd crawling down the school’s hallway. “What’s wrong with that ant?” cried Dr. Gerry Medford. “There are like six, seven, eight, nine legs on it!”

Later, after a grisly autopsy on a dead ant the size of a tiger (using only a crowbar and a letter opener!), Dr. Medford clearly saw what was wrong. There was absolutely nothing like it on earth. The giant creature was some kind of man-made mutant. It was built, or more precisely, it was engineered for questionable motives. “Somebody designed this monster,” said Dr. Medford in horror. “They started with basic DNA, and then they manipulated the heck out of it.”

By the end of the day, Medford and his motley crew of preteen degenerates were the only things standing in the way of a possible insect world war with humanity. This gang of six included Andy (the bland protagonist), Hector, Joey, “Pyro” and two guys without first names.

A key member of the pint-sized suicide squad was Pyro Porter. When fighting an army of giant ants, you always want a guy on your team who’s a compulsive arsonist. It’s all about perspective, right? A villain is sometimes a hero depending on your point of view.

Despite their best efforts, Medford and the kids weren’t able to totally defeat the looming ant invasion. They couldn’t overcome the flurry of non-stop razor-sharp chitinous claws. It’s too bad the author never wrote a sequel to this 2013 novel. Some day I would like to read a book called Infestation 2: Beneath the Planet of the Ants.

[Infestation / By Timothy J. Bradley / First Printing: April 2013 / ISBN: 9780545459044]

Mahtog Mindwarp

Terence O’Corcoran was halfway through his deep space exploratory mission when he crash-landed on Mahtog, a previously uncharted planet. O’Corcoran was either 28 or 22 years old (depending on how you calculated stasis-time), but in truth he was only 900 heartbeats older than when he left Earth.

One thing was certain, O’Corcoran’s ship had taken him to the outer limits of outer space. Exploring the alien landscape, the shipwrecked astronaut was immediately attacked by a sundry of terrifying creatures—among them a dinosaur-sized amphibian, a large ant, a green-skinned pigmy and a purple hawk with a wingspan of more than 12 feet. The entire scene was bizarre and reminded O’Corcoran of the garish covers on science fiction adventure magazines of a century ago. “All that was missing,” wrote authors Jack and Julie Jardine, “was the scantily clad maiden—and, of course, the bug-eyed monster.”

Near the end of the novel, O’Corcoran battled more familiar and specific earthly monsters. Said the authors: “His academy training had prepared him for encounters with every sort of life-form imaginable, with the notable exception of werewolves and vampires. Mahtog turned out to be far madder than anything Lewis Carroll had imagined down the rabbit hole.”

O’Corcoran also bumped into an alluring local gal named Naira. She was a pretty little thing. Tiny and lushly curved, she would have looked good on the cover of Miss Galaxy magazine. The first time he spotted her she was wearing loose-fitting and transparent clothing along with embroidered curly toed slippers. “Her wardrobe was barbaric and somewhat reminiscent of an Earth-style harem costume.” Needless to say, it was love at first sight for the lonely spaceman.

Naira (and her peek-a-boo outfit) persuaded O’Corcoran to enlist in the ongoing and escalating Mahtog civil war. When he said yes to her proposal, he unknowingly signed up for a golden age Edgar Rice Burroughs-like adventure.

But back to the monsters: As you might have deduced from the book’s title, all the monsters in this creaky space opera were imaginary—illusions created to spook the Earthman. “Nothing was real,” explained a chatty leprechaun named Seamus O’Flynn (don’t ask why there’s a leprechaun in this story, it’s stupid). “We picked them out of your subconscious—memories of things you’d read about or imagined, like the little green man and the 30-foot purple lady.”  

As it turned out, spaceman Terence O’Corcoran wasn’t the hero of this book at all. He was merely a pawn in the local Mahtog conflict—just a tool who was duped by his banal golden age imagination.

[The Mind Monsters / By Jack and Julie Jardine writing as Howard L. Cory / First printing: January 1966]

War Is Hell

“War is Hell” is a figurative and well-worn term that describes the most ghastly human experience possible. The expression, first coined over 150 years ago, has been used for great effect by everyone from Gen. William Sherman to Sgt. Franklin Rock.

Contact!, a new nine-story military horror anthology, uses the phrase “War is Hell” in a non-metaphorical sense. Devils, gods, aliens (and a few large crickets) literally turn Earth into a burning Neo-Testament inferno.

“Black Ice” by R.F. Blackstone is probably the best example of this. The story even adds a meta element to the narrative. A group of mercenaries enlist in a mysterious search-and-rescue mission. Following a path of black ice to their target, the “Filthy Animals” find themselves on the highway to Hell.

But is it Hell? Or is it another theological black pit of doom? Blackstone pauses twice or thrice to allow his characters to muse about the topic.

“This is the perfect location for the realm of Helheim,” says one of the mercs. “It’s nothing but ice and darkness, with only the souls of the dishonored dead to give any light.”

Naw, says his comrade. “This is clearly Hell from Christianity—specifically the lowest level Cocytus the frozen lake that keeps traitors and fraudsters trapped forever. In the center at Judecca you’ll find the Devil. Not some bitch from a Marvel movie, but the real deal. Satan, who isn’t some buxom wench, but is, in fact, a three-headed monster that is also trapped and buried waist-high.”

Hel, Satan, Luzifer, Der Teufel, whatever god they feared, the Filthy Animals knew they were fallen angels on the road to ruin.

With “Man of His Word,” author Alister Hodge sends 80 centurions into the desert to search for a charismatic holy man. Whether they’re looking for Jesus is unclear. Instead they get ambushed by a powerful seer named Bārû who communicates with gods and demands their presence.

“I am here to rid the world of Rome’s pestilence!” the seer screams—his body exploding in a ball of mucous, shit and blood signaling the arrival of a holy warrior with a really big sword. The demon is ferocious and righteous, but can’t complete its mission on Earth. The Roman Empire lives to see another day.

This is the second anthology I’ve read from editor Chris McInally and they are both very good. Like its predecessor Aberrations (see my review here), Contact! fully delivers its intended objective with vigor. I’ll admit some of the contributions are disappointing. For example, I have no patience for stories with surprise endings that aren’t surprising at all. But otherwise, efforts by Daniele Bonfanti, Lucas Pederson, Justin Coates and others are all worthy monster-military smashups.

[Contact! / Edited by Chris McInally / First Printing: February 2021 / ISBN: 9798713943677]