Vampires from Outer Space

Frankenstein, Godzilla, King Kong, Freddy Krueger, Mike Wazowski—these are just a few of the monsters that have wormed their way into our collective consciousness.

You could probably include Vampirella in that group as well. Since her comic debut in 1969, the sexy vampiress from planet Drakulon has become a worldwide icon. I bet there’s a kid living in the hills of Peru right now with a poster of Vampi on his wall drawn by José “Pepe” González. (Confession: I wish I had that poster too!)

She might be instantly recognizable around the globe, but who’s foolin’ who? Nobody outside of a tiny bubble knows her origin story, her motivation, her powers or her personality. It’s all about the little red suit. Just to let you know, the provocative peek-a-boo outfit wasn’t meant for titillation. According to author Nancy A. Collins, it was simply “the traditional garb of a Drakulon maiden.”  

But how “traditional” was it really? I’m sure Drakulon men had libidos. A woman walking down the street in a skimpy red bathing suit was certain to turn a few heads. Even the viceroy of her home planet couldn’t stop gawking at her: “His eyes greedily devoured every inch of her,” says Collins, “from her luxurious ebony tresses to the scarlet costume clinging to the flawless magnificence of her body accenting every exquisite curve of her swelling breasts, sloping hips and slender waist and torso.”

So, yes, the image of Vampirella was instantly recognizable around the world. It wasn’t easy to create such an enduring icon, though. Give credit where credit is due. James Warren, Frank Frazetta, Trina Robbins (and probably Jean-Claude Forest) all had a hand in creating this enduring iconographic legacy.

The character’s personal story, however, was fuzzy. For newbie’s, the author spends about 20 pages covering the details of her origin story. Like Superman, Vampirella escaped a dying planet to come to Earth. But instead of landing in Smallville, Kansas, she crashed into California’s Hollywood Hills. Later, she became a fearless monster hunter and cracked heads with all sorts of supernatural ghoulies. Naturally, she did it all in her six-inch stiletto heels.

In this adventure, Vampirella reluctantly teams up with Dracula, Viktor von Frankenstein (and his “Patchworkkinder” twins) and Evily, the queen of the witches. Along with Pantha, her were-panther best friend, Vampirella is able to squash an invasion of vampires from outer space. It’s super zany and exactly what you’d expect of a Vampirella novel. Except for the poor copyediting, I have no complaints with it. The cover illustration by Jenny Frison is also very good.

Sexy vampire ladies have been a treasured trope of horror fiction since Carmilla was published back in the late 19th century. Vampirella is indeed sexy, but the author wants you to know she’s more than her itsy bitsy teenie weenie red swimsuit. She’s nowhere as stupid as her costume suggests.

[Vampirella: Blood Invasion / By Nancy A. Collins / First Printing: November 2019 / ISBN: 9781524115135]

Big, Fat, Smelly and Well-Hung

I enjoy a bigfoot yarn as much as any modern-day Homo erectus. But to be honest, Down From Beast Mountain is only a so-so novel. As a reader, you will probably enjoy the soapy social antics surrounding the small mountainside community of Porterville. And I’m certain you’ll get a rush from the Bigfoot violence at the end of the book.

But if you’re looking for anything else—any kind of nuance or specifics—you can forget about it. The devil is in the details and there aren’t many details in this 2017 effort from author Gerry Griffiths.

In particular, there’s one huge elusive detail that persists throughout the novel. For 131 pages, the author never delivers a satisfying description of his monster. After a while it becomes kind of puzzling. Why would he write a gonzo cryptid caper with so much potential but with such indifferent language? Note to Mr. Griffiths: Descriptive language heightens the aesthetic value of the text. It’s kind of important.

When the beast first shows up (page three), he’s simply a dark shadow in the night. In the distance, his “loud roar booms like a cranky lion at feeding time.”

Later, as he’s destroying a restaurant, a convenience store and a supermarket, he’s continually described as a big brawny bear (or maybe a hairy ape). He’s eight feet tall, 600 pounds and smells like a garbage pit. “This thing can pound us into the ground like a couple of action heroes made out of Play-Doh,” says the town’s game warden.

Interestingly, the only memorable detail we get is when the town’s warden and sheriff trap the beast in an alley with their vehicle. Through a rain-soaked windshield the pair of public servants get a split second peep at the Bigfoot’s generous endowments. “It huge!” says the sheriff gawking at the figure before him. “I’ll say,” adds the game warden, averting his eyes from the long phallic appendage hanging between the creature’s legs.

And there you have it, dear readers. The beast from Beast Mountain is big, fat, smelly and well-hung. He’s not exactly a unique or memorable creation. For goodness sakes, the author could almost be describing me!

[Down From Beast Mountain / By Gerry Griffiths / First Printing: December 2017 / ISBN: 9781925711462]

Big Daddy

It made sense that Lieutenant Commander Bill Martin (code name: Tiger Shark) of the Secret Underwater Intelligence Service would one day find himself face to face with a giant sea monster.

The stories of marine monsters, including prehistoric reptiles, tentacled beasts and sea serpents were stamped indelibly into every seafarer’s subconscious. Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea wasn’t just a fanciful science fiction novel to career aquanauts like Martin. There was truth in Jules Verne’s undersea adventure story.

The U.S. Navy, however, wasn’t having any of it. It’s policy on such matters remained consistent: Kraken, karathen, lusca, whatever—behemoths from the bottom of the ocean did not exist. They were simply mythological creatures born in the days when men thought the earth was flat and sea monsters devoured ships.

Tigershark: Operation Sea Monster begins when a confluence of events explodes southwest of Guam in the Philippine Sea: a distressed bathyscaphe, an active underwater volcano, a nosey Russian submarine and outrageous allegations of a giant sea serpent dubbed Big Daddy by first responders. It was time for LCDR Bill Martin to transform into his superhero alter ego: Tiger Shark!

The sinking sealab, the pesky Russian sub and the erupting volcano were all serious situations the U.S. Navy was equipped to handle. No problem there. Sea monsters, on the other hand, were something altogether different. Unique in marine biology, Big Daddy was some kind of hybrid between a mutant sea snake and a giant squid, and it was big enough to crush a submarine like a can of beer. It’s single eye was “uncaringly neutral,” said an early report. “Cruel with no intent of cruelty.”

After a couple of close encounters that established a bond between man and monster, Tiger Shark jumped into his hi-tech stingray submersible and chased the mega mutant back to it’s lair at the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

“Stay down there, Big Daddy.” said Tiger Shark to his estimable adversary. “Stay down there and keep out of trouble. The world is not ready for you. Stay down and nurse your wounds and get well and, maybe in another thousand years, pay another visit to the surface and see if men have changed. You, or your spawn, or your spawn’s spawn; wait a millennium before you come again.” Case closed (for now).

[Tigershark #3: Operation Sea Monster / By Manning Lee Stokes writing as Ken Stanton / First Printing: January 1974 / ISBN: 9780532125433]

Kaiju with a Thousand Faces

Gamera, Gappa, Gorgo, Gigan—they’re all daikaiju A-listers. If you weren’t paying close attention, however, you might think they were all the same. They’re not, of course. According to author Eric S. Brown, “Each creature was unique with different powers and tendencies.” Like snowflakes, no two giant monsters were the same.

To prove his point, Brown wrote a short novel back in 2016 with a long list of rampaging kaiju (for laughs, he even threw in a giant robot). As promised, none of these monsters were alike. There were black ones, round ones, big ones, crazy ones—every kind of gargouille

The first daikaiju to appear in Tokyo Bay was large and scaly and sported a crown of horns. The next threat came from a giant bird-lizard with a wingspan over 50 feet across. In quick order, Japan was battling all sorts of creatures that resembled mutant garden moles, jellyfish, spiders, beetles, ants, snakes, pigs and flies. One monstrosity even looked like something from an old H.P. Lovecraft story. Truly, there was no end to the number of abominations contained in the kaiju ranks. 

Needing help badly, the Japanese enlisted the U.S. Navy for backup. “Some kaiju are like the kind of monsters you see in movies. They are giant, lizard-like creatures that shake the earth itself with their steps,” explained Commander Hiroto to his American counterpart. “Others have wings and come from the skies. Still others live solely in the water like the Krakens of myth. All of them are deadly. All of them are massive in scale compared to whatever animal or animals they share the characteristics of. There are even kaiju who defy all logical explanation.”

Message received. Not all giant monsters looked like Godzilla. On that matter, Kaiju Rampage was a raging success. Unfortunately, Brown failed to give his creatures any sort of distinct charm. They’re all rather trite; they may have looked different, but they essentially shared the same temperament and monotonous agenda. 

On the other hand, there’s one non-kaiju character in the novel who possessed personality plus. Charismatic (and possibly crazy) Heather Karza was the 22-year-old aide to a top Japanese official. She was pretty, of course (“the kind of beauty that poets of old wrote about”), but she was no angel. “If she had a soul,” wrote Brown, “it was certainly far more demonic in nature than angelic.” No kaiju, big or small, was her equal.

[Kaiju Rampage / By Eric S. Brown / First Printing: July 2016 / ISBN: 9781925493511]

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]