Anarchy in the Black Lagoon

It’s coming sometime, maybe—climate change and rising tides might one day transform Earth into a boiling hot tub. How long will it take? Who knows? But as temperatures continue to get hotter, experts tell us that sea levels will also continue to rise. 

That’s bad news for humans, says Dr. Brice Chalefant. As a marine biologist, he knows that we’re doomed to extinction unless we adapt to the emerging Neo-Devonian period. He becomes obsessed with finding a way to transform men and women into hybrid creatures with terrestrial and marine attributes. 

Instead of doing the logical thing like studying the DNA from frogs, salamanders and lungfish, Dr. Chalefant pursues another avenue of abstraction. He gets a tip that a fish-man was captured in a secluded Amazon bayou back in 1954. He’s positive that this creature from the black lagoon is the key to mankind’s future.

In this way, the original mid-century Creature movies—including the iconic debut and the sequels Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us—are folded into the continuity of Paul Di Filippo’s novel from 2006. (For better or worse, the author completely ignores a memorable episode of The Colgate Comedy Hour where comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello tangle with the Creature.)

Dr. Chalefant learns pretty quickly that the creature from 1954 is now dead, but that doesn’t stop his mad quest. When a childhood friend invents the world’s first time travel machine (!!), Chalefant makes plans to jump 400 million years into the past to walk side-by-side with the original Gill-Men. The doctor’s mission statement is simple: “I want to find a living specimen of the creature and bring him back to the present day, so I can analyze his physiology and genetics, with an eye toward splicing the good stuff into the human genome.”

The time machine, btw, isn’t a “big-ass Jack Kirby cosmic-Death Star” contraption. It’s merely a standard issue iPod from 2015. “Small applications of energy and information produce gigantic results,” says the smug inventor. 

Once the time machine is unpacked, Chalefant and his girlfriend skip around the Paleozoic era like two giddy tourists. They do, eventually, make contact with a village of Gill-Men, but they also experience the dangers and oddities of pre-history (big sharks, big bugs, etc.). 

In many ways, Time’s Black Lagoon is a standard issue tie-in novel. It continues the Gill-Man’s mythology and features lots of callbacks to the original source material. Unfortunately, Di Filippo makes one disastrous change to 70 years of Creature canon. Most readers, I suspect, will hate it. I’d love to bash the author for his unnecessary twist, but I won’t. You can read the book yourself and be disappointed just like me. 

[Creature from the Black Lagoon: Time’s Black Lagoon / By Paul Di Filippo / First Printing: August 2006 / ISBN: 9781595820334]

Gothic Monsters

Vampires have been around a long time in folktales and literature. It was author John Polidori in 1819, however, who popularized the urbane, Byronesque vampire that’s become so beloved to fans today. Bram Stoker had a lot to do with it too, of course, but it was Polidori (with a little help from Lord Byron himself) who did it first. 

Unlike Dracula, Lord Ruthven (the titular hero in “The Vampyre”) was a beast with a curious moral compass. For example, he wouldn’t attack easy prey like a flirty party girl because of her lowly status. “His character was dreadfully vicious, the possession of irresistible power of seduction, rendered his licentious habits more dangerous to society,” writes Polidori. In other words, Ruthven had contempt for the adulteress, because he wanted his victims, the partners of his guilt, to be hurled from the pinnacle of unsullied virtue. 

For another thing, Lord Ruthven was fully committed to his victims—he wasn’t a one-night stand kind of guy. He took his time to court and marry young ladies before sating his thirst. If Polidori was using this bloodsucking metaphor for marriage, we’ll never know. 

Like vampires, tales of shapeshifting werewolves have been around a long time too. Maybe in high school, like me, you read the Epic of Gilgamesh or the story of Zeus and Lycaon. Looking back, it was probably the 19th century that was the golden age for wolf men in literature.

Also like the vampire, the werewolf often carried the weight of symbolic erotic fantasy. And that’s definitely the case with Clemence Housman’s story from 1896 called “The Werewolf.”

A lone female inexplicably appears during a snowstorm to bewitch an isolated family. Introducing herself to the multigenerational household, she says “My real name would be uncouth to your ears and tongue. Instead call me White Fell, the great white wolf.”

And like a femme fatale, she successfully casts a dark spell over the twin brothers of the house. Writes Housman: “They being twins in loves as in birth, had through jealousy and despair turned from love to hate, until reason failed at the strain, and a craze developed, which the malice and treachery of madness made a serious and dangerous force.”

In an attempt to defeat the she-wolf’s sexual power, one of the brothers follows the beast through the woods at night. He knows, as legend decrees, that the werewolf’s form will be resumed and retained if human eyes witness the change at midnight. 

There’s no big surprise at the end of the story—man defeats beast again. After several tiresome pages of running through the snow, the wolf-hound is slain in an act of selfless brotherly love. “No holy water could be more holy, more potent to destroy an evil thing than the life-blood of a pure heart.”   

[The Vampyre, the Werewolf and Other Gothic Tales of Horror / Edited by Rochelle Kronzek / First Printing: April 2009 / ISBN: 9780486471921]

Dinosaur Déjà Vu

At night, I dream of being in an Agatha Christie novel. After so many years, I’ve never been the hero—like Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple—and I’ve never  been the villain. 

Instead I’m simply a member of the cast. If I’m lucky, I’m one of a handful of suspects, but usually I’m just a faceless spectator in Christie’s ongoing mystery investigation. 

Reoccurring dreams have always haunted me. When I was a kid, for example, I dreamt that dinosaurs roamed my suburban neighborhood. In one dream I’d look out my bedroom window to see a dinosaur in the backyard. In another dream I’d have to find a circuitous route to school to avoid a Tyrannosaurus rex. One time a dinosaur popped out of the air ducts in my home. More than a few times I became a tasty snack for some sort of gigantic prehistoric reptile. 

I experienced an eerie sense of déjà vu while reading Unidentified. Michael Esola’s latest novel could easily be a nostalgic recap of all my childhood dinosaur nightmares.  

The action takes place on Yerba Buena Island located in the bay between Oakland and San Francisco. A handful of tiny dinosaur-like creatures are hungry and they’re looking for something to eat. To be honest, the dinosaurs (20 feet tall and 50 feet long) are only “tiny” in comparison to their mama, who is taller than the Coit Tower. 

For 200-plus pages, random groups of people dash around in circles trying to avoid being eaten. A forrest of eucalyptus trees offers some protection, but not a lot. Writes Esola: “They were truly experiencing Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory firsthand. It was every man, woman and child for themselves, pure survival in its purest and rawest form.” The world has gone to shit, says one character in a panic. “We’re all fucked.”

Many people get eaten alive, of course (if you want to know what it’s like to be swallowed by a huge animal, this is definitely the novel for you). Some of the victims deserve their fate—a cranky hillbilly gets chomped pretty quickly. The most satisfying death, however, involves a hysterical Bible-thumping zealot.

“These creatures are not to be feared,” she asserts. “They have been created in the same manner as the Lord created humans—with the same care and painstaking attention to detail. They are the rightful rulers of this planet and the world belongs to them now.” 

The only way off the island, she says, is to kill a couple of children. The Lord is jealous and avenging, she reasons, and demands a sacrifice. She’s even convinced a few toadies to do her dirty work. It’s a good thing the Bible lady eventually gets ripped in half by two heathen monsters. Otherwise, Unidentified might have ended in a completely different manner. 

[Unidentified / By Michael Esola / First Printing: July 2022 / ISBN: 9781736673831]

Almost Human

There are all kinds of robots in this short story collection from 1965—wayward robots, security robots, dystopian robots, god-like robots, existential robots, diplomatic robots and even robot lovers. 

But there’s only one kind of story here. All the contributions from Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Lester del Rey and Robert Bloch et alia are excellent. For once, the book’s cover blurb isn’t ridiculously hyperbolic: “Science fiction at its exciting best!”

Engineers predict that robots will achieve humanlike intelligence by the year 2029 and they’ll probably reach singularity by 2045. In the future, metal men will no longer be soulless creations with only neutral electrical impulses to guide them. Jack Williamson (“With Folded Hands”) and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell) both agree: “Robots are the ministering angels of the ultimate god arisen out of the machine.” 

Invasion of the Robots begins with a provocatively titled story by Isaac Asimov called “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” Fifty years after the end of WWII, robots are just beginning to assimilate into society as general household handymen. Tony (TN-3) is assigned to a home in the suburbs and makes himself immediately indispensable (in more ways than one). Stories of humans falling in love with robots are pretty common, but Asimov’s story adds a delicious dose of comeuppance at the end. Guaranteed, it’ll make all the ladies in the house say “Yeah!”

The standout story in this anthology is easily “With Folded Hands.” At first glance, Jack Williamson’s acclaimed novelette is simply about robots making life easier for humans. “They were immune to human imperfections, able to save men from themselves,” writes Williamson. 

But the situation quickly spins out of control. The author has a message for all of his readers. He wants us to see how good intentions become the ultimate horror. “You can imagine what happened,” says Williamson when his theme is revealed, “bitter futility imprisoned in empty splendor. Something worse than war and crime and death: utter futility. We became pampered prisoners.”

And finally, Robert Bloch’s story shows how perverse a robot/human relationship can be. As an experiment, Bloch’s metal boy is raised just like a human child. Junior is an extremely Intelligent creation, but his life experience is limited. 

The only two people who see him on a daily basis are his creator Professor Blasserman and his nanny Lola Wilson. At some point (as you’d expect) Junior takes special notice of Lola. “I want you to oil me,” he tells her again and again. 

After pleading with his nanny to give him a lube job, Junior finally makes his move. The last thing Lola remembers as she falls to the mattress is the sound of the robot’s harsh metallic voice. “I love you, I love you, I love you,” he repeats over and over again. The funny thing is, writes Bloch, he sounds “Almost Human.”

[Invasion of the Robots / Edited by Roger Elwood / First Printing: April 1965]

Ogre Time

There was a monster roaming the woods of Starbright Springs, Washington—something big and fierce that combined the cunning of a man and the relentlessness of a territorial primate. In the past few days it had senselessly slaughtered horses, homeowners, hikers, campers, one masturbator and all manner of unlucky woodland creatures.

Deputy Clint Wilmont had an idea. “It had to be a bear,” he reasoned. “What else could it be? Bigfoot??”

Was it a bear, like Deputy Wilmont thought? Or was it Bigfoot, the ubiquitous cryptid from the Pacific Northwest? Or maybe it was Batsquatch? A Neanderthal? An alien from outer space? Or some other bogeyman?

Being a generous sort of guy, author Brian G. Berry gives readers a peek at his monster pretty early. “It moved with the grace of a primate,” he wrote, “one whose origin rested not in the cycle of recent ages, but of dim and forgotten recesses of time; from when the jungles ran deep with mystery and sired indescribable horrors that battled with the predecessors of man. A pendulum of might and madness, it swung amongst the pines, a black shadow of fur and claws and eyes that burned with molten evil.”

Continued the author: “Mercilessly its kind pounded and tore asunder the creatures of the woods, leaving behind ghastly mounds and smudges and traces of woodland critters; heads and arms and broken forms lay slashed in pools of blood.”

But, again, what was it? It sure sounded like Bigfoot. Not until later did the creature get tagged with its titular name. “It was an ogre of myth,” wrote Berry, “eating babies and swallowing kids.” Right on cue, Berry’s ogre threw a hapless boy into its mouth like it was sucking down a knot of spaghetti. Gulp! 

In his afterword, Berry admits that his inspiration for Ogre came from a bunch of “classic” monster movies, most notably Grizzly (1976) and Abominable (2006). Over all, it’s a fine homage to the woodland horror genre—one of my all-time personal favorite genres. 

Ogre ends with a crazy otherworldly Repo Man-like twist. Rough and hewed as if by tools and not nature, the monster was apparently just a pawn in some unknowable cosmic masquerade. “The beast had no compunction of morality or care,” wrote the author, “and was merely a tool in a grim design.” 

[Ogre / By Brian G. Berry / First Printing: July 2022 / ISBN: 9798839926097]

The Red Herring

Obsessed with sharks his entire life, marine biologist Simon Chase was thrilled when a giant 16-foot, one-ton great white was spotted off the coast of Connecticut.

The local residents, however, didn’t share Chase’s enthusiasm. “People loved to read about sharks, loved to see movies about sharks, loved to believe they understood sharks and wanted to protect them,” wrote Peter Benchley 20 years after the publication of Jaws, his now iconic shark novel. “But tell them there was a shark in the water anywhere within ten miles—especially a great white shark—and their love changed instantly to fear and loathing.”

If you’ve read a lot of shark novels (like I have), you already know that great whites were marvels of evolution. They’ve survived almost unchanged for millions of years and were the biggest carnivorous fish in the world. Simply put, they were efficient man-eating dinosaurs. It’s as if Mother Nature had created them and thought, “Well done.”

This time, Benchley’s great white shark was nothing but a red herring. The apex predator didn’t do much except swim in and out of the narrative. The author used it to misdirect the reader from the real monster lurking nearby.

The horror behind the titular White Shark actual began during WWII when a Nazi doctor named Ernst Kruger created the prototype for a new species of amphibious soldiers. It was the most revolutionary weapon not only of the Third Reich but of science. Like Victor Frankenstein, Kruger was a genius who usurped the power of God. 

Fifty years later, der weisse hai was still alive and terrorizing a small Connecticut beach community. How it got from a laboratory in Germany to the shores of New England was a big convoluted mess that redefined the word “happenstance.”

The book’s endgame was also a litany of unbelievable contrived plot twists. If I were an evil book reviewer (and who says I’m not?), I’d accuse Benchley of being a lazy writer. In addition, the novel was filled to the brim with a shitload of minor characters masquerading as main characters. I tell you, the whole thing was exhausting. 

Most disappointing of all was the Nazi aqua man himself. Benchley was doggedly vague about the monster because he wanted readers to think the great white shark was the villain. Not till the very end of novel does he reveal his abomination from the bottom of the sea. 

When the German slime beast finally revealed himself, the author’s descriptive language was a bit inconsistent. At first, the creature was gray with yellow hair and later he was as hairless as a Sphynx cat. 

Despite the specifics of what the sea beast looked like, all eyewitnesses agreed on one thing: the gill-man was as big as Arnold Schwarzenegger or André the Giant or Shaquille O’Neal or Big Bird. Take your pick. It doesn’t really matter in the end. 

[White Shark / By Peter Benchley / First Printing: January 1994 / ISBN: 9780312955731]

Monsters Unleashed

It’s not like I hate San Francisco—I lived there for nearly 20 years after all. But I have mixed feelings about the city. To be kind, I’d say it’s a unique and eccentric place to live. 

But if you really, really, really hate San Francisco then you’ll really, really, really enjoy reading Rise of the Titanosaurus. Author John Grover drops two gigantic dinosaurs in the middle of the famous west coast city and turns it into a post-apocalyptic landscape. Did I hear someone say “Amen”?

The two Titanosaurs team up to destroy the Bay Area’s precious landmarks—Coit Tower, the Embarcadero, Ghirardelli Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Endup, STUD and all the rest of ‘em. The Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most iconic structures in California, is the first to fall. It sinks to the bottom of the bay on page eight. 

To be honest, the devastation wasn’t totally unexpected. A beach bum with a touch of prescience had been warning clueless locals about the impending disaster for years. “Our world is coming to an end fast,” preached Crazy Ed to anyone who would listen. “It won’t be the wrath of God. It’ll be the wrath of the planet.”

Ed somehow knew the Titans were returning. He didn’t know, however, whether they’d be Greek Titans or titanic dinosaurs, but it didn’t seem to matter. Either way, he knew San Francisco was in deep trouble. 

And that trouble eventually arrives when a series of earthquakes unleashes a pair of hibernating prehistoric monsters. The first one resembles a Tyrannosaurus rex only three (maybe four) times bigger, and the second one rises from the bay to attack the coastline. Together they are hungry, horny and unstoppable. 

The crisis is experienced through the eyes of two amazing heroines: Callie Breyer, a fighter pilot from nearby Travis AFB, and Lara Newcomb, a police officer with the SFPD. Both of these ladies go above and beyond the call of duty in an attempt to save their hometown. Callie, in particular, is a true top gun hero. “It’s time to kick some dinosaur ass,” she said confidently as she climbed aboard her jet. 

Crazy Ed is also a major player. He wasn’t always a homeless nutjob. He was once a highly respected scientist (specifically an ecologist) who figured out San Francisco’s crisis years ago. 

To Ed, the monster legends of ancient civilizations were warnings about man’s crimes against the Earth and each other. He knew how history repeated itself and he was prepared when he came face-to-face with the two giant beasts. “The world,” he said one final time, “has been sending us warnings for years.”

[Rise of the Titanosaurus / By John Grover / First Printing: May 2022 / ISBN: 9798837440342]

The Epic of Gilgamo

It’s a popular misperception that pollution and nuclear testing created the giant monsters known as kaiju. But did you know that exposure to pollution and radiation accounts for only 38 percent of the creatures on the United Nations deadly kaiju roster? Mother Nature can be blamed for the rest.

Gilgamo was one of the rare 38 percenters. The mutant megalosaurus was the product of illegal radioactive experimentation back in 1958. As a hatchling, he grew at an alarming rate finally reaching a weight of 40,000 tons and 220 meters in length. In short order he became the world’s undisputed apex predator. 

But in Neil Riebe’s latest (and best) monster novel, Gilgamo is struck with a blast from a shrink ray. Within seconds, the purple-scaled behemoth is downsized to five feet tall (in his theropod stance). For the rest of the book, he mostly exists as an itsy-bitsy mini-saurus. 

Being small is a big problem for Gilgamo. Not only is he being hunted by Japanese security personnel plus a secret Chinese consortium, but he can no longer compete with rivals such as Tiamatodon and Cynog. In his present state, the only way he can kick over cars and trucks is when he wanders into a playground. 

Consequently, he takes shelter inside a small cottage near Tokyo. What he doesn’t know is that an American expatriate and the 1,500-year-old ghost of a shaman priestess are already living in the house. 

This absurd arrangement is arguably the most entertaining thing in the book. It’s not exactly a kaiju version of Three’s Company, but it’s kooky nonetheless. The monster, the ghost and the emigrant all coexist in an improbable bubble of happiness. As impossible as it seems, Gilgamo behaves himself and is as cute and innocent as an overgrown puppy.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, a super-sized Allosaurus is crushing the United States. Twenty-thousand dead in San Francisco, 23,000 dead in Sacramento and 18,000 dead in Vegas. The U.S. military is nothing but useless. “My God,” says an official with the Pentagon. “We dropped 150 tons of explosives on him. If he can take that kind of pounding, he can take anything.” 

As he did with his first two novels (I Shall Not Mate and Vistakill), author Neil Riebe has created a fun and unique kaiju adventure combining both Japanese history and global alt-history. As promised by the book’s title and cover, Gilgamo and Super Allosaurus have a novel-ending knock-out battle which destroys downtown Manhattan. The fight is great, but the journey to New York is pretty exciting too.  

[Gilgamo Vs. Super Allosaurus / By Neil Riebe / First Printing: May 2022 / ISBN: 9798809392013]

Unidentified Killing Object

Doris Piserchia’s monstrous science fiction novel from 1980 is enjoyable overall, but it’s not without its problems. For one thing, the SFnal details are ridiculously banal—at one point, for example, she writes about visiting a microfiche library. Here and elsewhere, Piserchia’s script is as visionary as an average episode of Little Einsteins

And secondly, there are only two female characters with dialogue in the novel. Both of these ladies are ugly and ill tempered, but mostly they’re wholly gratuitous. I can’t help but think of a quote from Haruki Murakami: “Without women,” he once said, “nothing good happens.” 

The monster, on the other hand, is terrific. Corradado (the titular Fluger) is big—four hundred kilos, five meters long, four thick legs, lithe yellow body, blunt head, numerous teeth, eyes tawny and full of guile. 

He comes to Earth as a stowaway, an illegal refugee from the planet Fluga. Once ensconced in Olympus, the heavenly sky-high metropolis hanging over the Manhattan ghetto, Corradado releases his wrath on the utopian community like a fraggin’ atom bomb. “Hatred was his inspiration and his motive for living,” says Piserchia. Venting his rage upon the enemy, he grows to hate them even more. At times he wonders, “What would it be like to destroy a world?”

The Fluger’s rancor is countered by the hegemonic idiocy of Olympus. Everybody on the city’s governing council is a vainglorious ineffective boob. Happily they all get a dose of messy karma in the end. 

It’s up to a handful of minor characters to stop Corradado’s endless rampage—a “wetback” from Manhattan, a blind security guard, a 72-year-old drug dealer and a hired mercenary from outer space. 

Kam Shar is introduced as a soldier of fortune and a galactic detective who “knows his onions” (that means he’s smart btw). But in reality, he’s just a fiddle-footed professional hit man with questionable motives.  

Initially, Kam Shar is seen as a fiend just like Corradado. “He’s an alien,” explains one character, “what we humans consider a dangerous animal.” But the assassin’s offworld experience and wiliness ultimately prevails—Olympus, the city of heaven, is saved from a monster by a monster. 

[The Fluger / By Doris Piserchia / First Printing: November 1980 / ISBN: 9780879975777]

Them!

Mandibles by Jeff Strand isn’t exactly a parody of the killer mutant bug genre—it stands on its own merits (mostly), but there’s a moment early in the novel that is undeniably meta. 

Outside during a smoking break, a bored accounting assistant named Trevor sees a fire ant the size of his pinky. That’s a pretty big ant, he admits. By the time he’s done with his cigarette, he spots hundreds of similar-sized ants chittering on the patio. Time to get back inside and back to work, he tells himself.

Returning to his cubicle, the young clerk starts thinking about the upcoming weekend. “Maybe I’ll stop by the video store on the way home tonight and rent a copy of Them!,” he says referring to the (now) classic big bug movie from 1954. Also on his wish list: Phase IV, Empire of the Ants and It Happened at Lakewood Manor—and if he’s lucky, he’ll grab Antz and A Bug’s Life too. 

An ant kills Trevor pretty quickly so he never gets to enjoy his weekend movie marathon. But before he’s stung, he instinctively realizes that he’s a character in a novel about a giant ant invasion of Tampa, Florida. In a collision of fiction and reality, he falls victim to the metaverse. 

The remaining characters don’t know nothin’ about metafiction. Monette, Jack, Zachary and Roberta are simply trying to navigate their way to safety. Says Roberta: “Let’s just get out of Tampa. Maybe head east. I’m sure Disney World has a state-of-the-art ant defense system.” 

Unfortunately, an escalating tide of fire ants keeps the survivors running around in circles—and each ant wave is bigger than the one before it. At first the ants are two-inches long. Then they’re as big as a large rat. Soon they’re the size of a wolf or a living room couch. Eventually the crew bump into an ant that’s as big as a refrigerator. 

Mandibles is filled to the brim with characters that flit in and out of the narrative. My favorites are Dr. Tyler Enzian the sociopathic entomologist, Winston Cameraman the incompetent boss and (of course) Hack and Slash, the villainous Laurel and Hardy of the ant apocalypse. 

The author does a good job of stitching together a patchwork narrative giving readers a realtime peek into the situation. Chapter 13, in particular, is packed with various short vignettes that gradually build into a coherent account of the chaos. 

And of course, like everything Jeff Strand has ever written, there’s plenty of unsuspecting laughs throughout the novel. One thing that’s not funny, however, is the ongoing carnage. Like robocalls and Covid, the ants are relentless. They keep coming and coming.   

[Mandibles / By Jeff Strand / First Printing: June 2003 / ISBN: 9781594260063]