“On Earth today,” wrote James H. Schmitz over 18,000 days ago, “we see a sorry lack of appealing monsters to write about. The vampire is a joke, and dinosaurs are quaint creatures in children’s picture books.”
There was a time when monsters were very real, however, and the beast remains part of our collective heritage unforgotten. “There is a kinship, a bond between it and us,” said the author. “It’s part of the raw substance of life.”
Nevertheless, back in the early 70s, Schmitz wanted readers to forget about all the prehistoric creatures and ancient folkloric monster variants. They were too simple-minded, I guess, too dusty, too scaly—too boring. It was time to embrace a new age of monsters, he said—the kind found in this anthology for example.
A Pride of Monsters does include a new kind of monster. Or, at least, I’m sure mid-20th-century-readers thought so. Except for one terrific story at the end, Schmitz wasn’t interested in the mysteries of terra incognita. He set his sights upward toward the stars.
In the first story, a mysterious creature is loose in a luxury hotel in outer space. The crew spends 80 tedious pages looking for the rogue Hlat with no success. Finally, tiring of the cat-and-mouse game, the monster reveals itself in a surprising (not surprising) ending.
In a similar story, a big snakish thing hunts the passengers aboard a bulky space freighter. Predating the movie Alien by nearly 20 years, “The Winds of Time” is a rare science fiction horror story. FYI: Check out the book’s cover illustration for a peek at the story’s mind-bending predator.
More often than not, Schmitz stumbles in his attempts to create the ultimate cosmic terror. Language fails him throughout A Pride of Monsters. In “The Searcher,” for example, he calls his monster “a sheet of luminescence,” “a flowing purple fire” and “a living, deadly energy mass.” I can’t criticize him too much; even H.P. Lovecraft struggled to describe the embodiment of the hostile universe.
Interestingly, the best story in the collection is about an Earthly monster. Brought to America on a banana boat, “Greenface” is a queer looking thing—shiny, squiggly and the size and shape of a goose egg. At first sight, it looks like a fat, smiling idol made of green jade.
Soon enough, Greenface grows to 30 feet and starts to resemble Egg Fu, the long-time Wonder Woman villain. Big or small, the creepy egg monster is truly a memorable character. “Its nebulous leering head swayed slowly from side to side like the head of a hanged and half-rotten thing.”
Greenface is a sad and crazy freak of nature, but it’s also unarguably the most terrifying thing in this book. Author James H. Schmitz was searching for a new kind of monster in the stars. In the end, the most terrifying thing he found was in his own backyard.
[A Pride of Monsters / By James H. Schmitz / First Collier Books Edition: 1973 / ISBN: 9780026071000]