The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

As unpredictable as an out-of-season storm and as elusive as shifting shadows at twilight, the Greek god Pan has maintained a well-earned reputation for being a devil, a tempter of flesh and a sealer of sin.

He’s more than a vicious demon, however. Pan is the guardian of the natural world and spiritual embodiment of nature’s cycle of birth, death and rebirth. He’s a physical deity and occult metaphor, a loving shepherd, sexual liberator, playful trickster and folklore fiend. Like all great gods and monsters, Pan is many things to many people.

According to William P. Simmons, the editor of this short story collection, weird fiction was rich with appearances of Pan during the late 19th century and mid-20th century. The horny god continues to be relevant to hedonists, intellectuals, artists, writers, rebels and horticulturalists today. 

The authors in this volume represent various literary disciplines and sub-genres, from gothic romance and decadence to ribald comedy. Baptisms of Horror & Ecstasy is truly a bacchanalian (dionysian?) orgy of fiction and poetry. 

A handful of stories bear witness to Pan’s influence over comely virgins. “The Moon-Slave” by Barry Pain (1901) is about a princess who enjoys dancing seductively under the full moon. Only later does she realize that she’s inadvertently encouraging the ardor of Pan.

In “Dryas and Lady Greenleaf” by R. Murray Gilchrist (1903) a young lady is raped by supernatural influences that awaken her carnal lust. “Who can say whether I am a goddess or a nymph?” she muses at the story’s end. 

Seduced by the beauty of nature, a 17-year-old girl pines for the embrace of Pan in a story called “In the Woods” by Amyas Northcote (1922). When the lonely girl finally hears the shepherd’s pipes, she quickly realizes the folly of her naive passions. “The piping rose louder and more clear. Beautiful it was, and entrancing, but evil and menacing too. She was like a bird charmed by the serpent.”

There are a couple of duds in this anthology (“Old Pipes and the Dryad” by Frank R. Stockton and an excerpt from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows), but overall Simmons has assembled a terrific batch of prose and verse that “follow Pan’s hoofprints across the soil of myth, folklore and literature.” 

“The Story of a Panic” by E.M. Forester (1911) is probably my favorite story here. Pan doesn’t make an appearance in the narrative but he certainly inspires the “panic” felt by the cast of characters.

Fourteen-year-old Eustace Robinson is a peevish lad, “indescribably repellent,” writes Forester. After a mysterious (sexual?) encounter in the woods, the boy embraces a newfound homosexual lifestyle which represents some sort of erotic freedom. Eustace is last seen running afield, no doubt bleating like a billy goat in heat. 

[Baptisms of Horror & Ecstasy: Supernatural Stories of the Great God Pan / Edited by William P. Simmons / First Printing: January 2023 / ISBN: 9798369909966]

The Decapitator!

A group of American academics are schlepping across Peru looking for the existence of an ancient civilization mentioned nowhere in antiquity. Based solely on a hunch, they’re hoping to find evidence of a ruined city and a religious shrine ensconced inside a hollow mountain.

Local Peruvian authorities aren’t too happy about the expedition. As you’d expect, they’re hypersensitive to the mishandling of any found indigenous objects. And besides, they want a piece of the action for themselves. 

“If you truly uncover a hidden temple,” explains the leader of the government’s security detail, “then we will pave a hiking path. An Inca Trail or something like that. People from around the world will come and visit. There will be hotels, restaurants and gift shops. It is a winning situation for both of us. We’ll let you publish your research papers … but the profit will remain ours.”

This so-called “winning situation” includes a tricky 160-mile hike across the southern tip of the Andes. The jungle is filled with dangerous flowers, predators, poisonous plants and deadly insects. A cute doctoral student named Annika doesn’t make it out of the tangle alive—she dies from a snake bite during a pee break. What a way to go. Readers take note: if you want to know how to safely pee in the wilderness, this is the book for you. Don’t end up like poor Annika. 

The group of scholars and government agents eventually stumble upon their ancient religious temple—an enormous five-stories-high ziggurat nestled comfortably inside an abandoned copper mine. Unfortunately, they also stumble upon the temple’s chief deity: The God of Darkness. Otherwise known as the Decapitator. Time to get nostalgic and turn up your 80s-era thrash metal mixtape.

The Spider God is 13-feet tall and 30-feet long with segmented legs as thick as a man’s torso. It has the head of a jaguar (??) and wears a crown made of human bones. It’s a big and bizarre looking monster that’s been trapped in an underground labyrinth for nearly 200 years. 

The search party is in trouble deep. They are totally unprepared to outwit the mad spider-beast in its own lair. Their combined dreams of fame and fortune evaporate with each grisly beheading. The Decapitator’s skull-crunching carnage is unquenchable.

But all novels have to end and all monsters eventually get their comeuppance. Ironically, the novel’s fiery finale takes place in the pyramid’s sacrificial alter. The Spider God dies on the floor of the temple erected in its honor. 

[Temple of the Spider God / By Steve Metcalf / First Printing: January 2023 / ISBN: 9781922861474]

Rag Time

A mummy had come to New York City, but he wasn’t  the brittle and shambling kind of monster seen in old movies. This guy was far worse. He was a giant, fast-moving serial killer with a penchant for removing the heads and limbs of his victims. 

The death toll was increasing nightly, but the NYPD was unconvinced there was any supernatural deviltry afoot. The probability of a rampaging mummy in Manhattan was totally insane. Mummies weren’t real, they argued. 

They were wrong of course. Many cultures around the globe have been practicing mummification for thousands of years as a way to preserve (and honor) the bodies of the dead. Of all the famous monsters you can think of, mummies were the real deal.

Like it or not, New York’s police department had a nasty mummy problem on its hands. Actually, that’s not totally true. It had two nasty mummy problems, and both of them were connected to events dating back to Egypt in 1888. Skullduggery, desecration and murder begat a double-barreled curse that doggedly followed the original culprits from Abydos to Manhattan. 

With the police in denial, it fell to a couple of defrocked department detectives to unwrap the escalating mummy mystery. Tom Reardon and Dan Reese were once partners on the force, but recent events had derailed their careers and their personal lives. No spoilers from me, but I’ll say this: a rowdy game of strip poker may have been the pair’s undoing. 

No longer friends, but still dedicated to justice, Reardon and Reese team up once again. Explained author J.G. Faherty: “They were like two pieces of a machine that didn’t operate properly when separated, but when joined together, they created a powerful force.”

The former cops knew an ancient Egyptian curse had infected Manhattan’s elite society. They had the receipts. Strips of ramie linen were found at every murder scene, suspicious activity was taking place at the city’s Egyptian Cultural Museum and specific symbols were seen etched into dead bodies. 

Things get literal in a flash when Reese dies and wakes up in Egyptian Hell. He successfully navigates the Lake of Fire and winds up in the Hall of Judgment where he comes face to face with Osiris the ruler of the Underworld and Anubis the Accuser. Eventually returning to his earthly body, Reese sees the endgame clearly. I’d like to thank the author for providing a big dose of helpful exposition during this deep dive into Egyptian mythology. 

Still, it wasn’t easy for Reardon and Reese to vanquish the two powerful mummies and their double curse. But somehow they did it. They overcame all the obstacles in their path and all it took was a quick jaunt through Hell. 

[Ragman / J.G. Faherty / First Printing: January 2023 / ISBN: 9781787587434]

Project Manmaker

“Consider life and death,” write authors David Bischoff, Rich Brown and Linda Richardson in their mosaic novel from 1985. “Good and evil. Law and chaos. Black and white. Sex and oblivion.”

Yes, consider all the veriest stuff of life whose churlish churning and infinite interweavings, confusing comings and linear leanings constitute the essence of the universe’s febrile fecund fabric.

And when you’re done and you’ve figured it all out, give yourself a gold star. You’ve won the grand prize—the adoration and fealty of a 4,000-year-old sexy demoness named Anathae. 

Summoned from Hell using a pentagram made of Silly String, paper milkshake straws and swizzle sticks, Anathae is a perfect collection of human female curves and impish sultriness. “She didn’t precisely inspire men with fatherly feelings,” says the wry narrator. 

Thus brought forth, Anathae is forever bound to Willis Baxter, an amateur demonologist and professor of medieval literature at a small New England university. Befitting his academic background, Willis is a bookish boob and a sad sack with a big drinking problem. If you enjoyed Dudley Moore in the movie Arthur then you’ll probably enjoy the professor’s endless drunken pratfalls and screwups.  

Anathae quickly sees that her human benefactor needs a little help and initiates “project manmaker,” a crash course in self-confidence. “You’ve got a lot of potential,” says the she-imp. “You’re like a Mack truck without wheels. A hell of a lot of horsepower going nowhere in a hurry.”

What follows is a series of humorous episodes involving Willis and his well-meaning personal demon. With a little bit of magic and hellfire, Anathae does, in fact, help the absentminded professor bolster his low self-esteem. Lots of sex helps too. 

But surely there must be a downside to having an infernal girlfriend, right? Willis wants to know. “Does my relationship with Anathae fall into the category of consorting with demons?” he asks. “And, if so, am I automatically going to Hell?”

To that particular question, Willis discovers that Heaven and Hell aren’t two separate places—they’re actually one single place. Gods, devils, angels and demons are all the same. Like humans, seraphs and serpents are sometimes good and sometimes not good. They’re fluid. “I prefer a little mischief,” says Anathae with a randy wink. “I don’t want to inflict any real harm.” 

After three months of romance, Willis forgives himself for his divine regressions. “I love her and, I suppose if demons are capable of love, that she loves me too.” That’s what matters, he realizes, that’s the only important thing. Next on his agenda: joining Alcoholics Anonymous. 

[A Personal Demon / By David Bischoff, Rich Brown and Linda Richardson / First Printing: September 1985 / ISBN:  9780451138149]

Dr. Who’s Book of Alien Monsters

We in the monster biz can spot monsters a mile away. It doesn’t matter if they’re wearing socks made of Cervelt fibre or drinking small batch whiskey from Japan—monsters can’t hide from us. 

Conversely, we also know when monsters aren’t really monsters. Take for example all ETs and ALFs. They may look weird to us, but on their home planets they’re a part of an inclusive homogenized community. 

Using this as our guide, Peter Davison’s Book of Alien Monsters isn’t a book about monsters at all. It’s a first-contact anthology featuring interplanetary sentient beings. In other words, it’s a slim storybook of culture differences, biology and life experience. 

But I quibble. The nine short stories in this collection are filled with an assortment of quirky otherworldly creatures who make Earthicans tremble. Call them monsters if you like. I don’t mind. 

Also: Seven of the nine stories in this book feature the adventures of a young protagonist. If I had to guess, I’d say the target readership here is somewhere south of early adolescence. Since I’m older than 10, I had to adjust my expectations with each new story. It’s hard to imagine an adult being entertained by Allan Scott’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” for example. 

Even with these caveats, sitting down with Peter Davison’s Book of Alien Monsters isn’t a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon (btw: If you didn’t know, editor Davison was the fifth actor to portray Dr. Who in the long-running TV show). 

Two of Davison’s top picks deal with self-identity and/or freewill—the perfect subjects for kids racing toward puberty. “Beyond Lies the Wub” by Philip K. Dick is an amusing story of instinct and survival. The wub is a 400-pound pig-like animal with no discernible way to defend itself in the wild. “We are a very old race,” says the wub. “Very old and very ponderous. Too heavy to run, too soft to fight, too good-natured to hunt for game.” The author patiently waits until the very last sentence to reveal how the wub survives from generation to generation. 

David Langford’s “Semolina,” is about an alien creature on a mission from Galactic Central to observe the human race. Fair enough. I’m sure mankind is already being studied by covert extraterrestrials. In fact, judging by the way it looks at me, my neighbor’s “dog” is probably on an intergalactic undercover assignment at this very moment. 

Semolina (the cosmic spy, not the pot of spaghetti) is on the case, but it needs to possess a mobile host to do an effective job. It can’t make a detailed report to its superiors by inhabiting a bowl of pudding or a bucket of marbles. The resolution isn’t a surprise, but it’s shockingly heartless for its intended youthful audience.  

[Peter Davison’s Book of Alien Monsters / Edited by Peter Davison / First Printing: January 1982 / ISBN: 978099283003]

Love and Robots

Joe Kang looked out over the black Atlantic Ocean one morning and saw a sight no man on earth had ever seen before. An enormous mass arose from the water and moved not as a boat glides but as a man walks.

As it got closer to shore, Kang realized that the figure he was looking at was a robot. As described by author Don Wilcox: “It towered high above the lower clouds and well above the tops of the tallest buildings.” Kang would eventually discover the “Iron Man” came from Venus on a mission of revenge. Later, two more metal monsters would join the fray. 

A little backstory. Over the years Earth had turned Venus into a penal colony. Like the early Americas, Devil’s Island and Australia, the planet of Venus became a convenient dumping site for criminals in exile. 

And now, the Venusians wanted to leave their inhospitable prison planet and return to Earth. With advanced technology and a little help from a coalition of local opportunists, they were “scheming to bust the whole interplanetary system wide open.” They figured three iron giants on the ground and 17 warships in the sky would be a good way to announce their homecoming.

Joe Kang saw the first robot emerge from the sea and ultimately figured out a path toward the novel’s endgame. But he wasn’t the only member of his family entangled in the Venus-Earth conflict. His brothers were involved too. In fact, you could say that Ruppert and Lanny Kang had the two best seats to watch the battle unfold.

Iron Men of Venus (first published in 1952) has lots of giant robot action and War of the Worlds-like imagery, but it’s only a science fiction novel by default. In reality, the whole thing hangs on a thread of unrequited love. 

It’s a scientific fact that the universe cracks a little bit when a woman marries the wrong man. And that fact escalates the interplanetary kerfuffle. In the end, when love (and the universe) finally align, the robots and the Venusians go back home. Poets and philosophers agree: Love has never been conquered, not even by the greatest robot army in the Milky Way. 

[Iron Men of Venus / By Don Wilcox / First Armchair Fiction Edition: December 2010 / ISBN: 9781612870045]

Bluey, the Yahoo-Devil-Devil

The most memorable bit of dialogue from any monster movie comes from the original version of King Kong in 1933. It’s an unexpected piece of poetry that, I think we can all agree, elevates the movie above and beyond genre. 

Still powerful even today, the monostich finale continues to inspire thousands of movies and novels. “It was beauty killed the beast,” says Kong’s captor just before the movie ends and the credits roll. 

Man-Beast from Deborah Sheldon is an example of a novel inspired by the poetry of King Kong. It’s a Beauty and the Beast-like story with a monster and a pretty girl and the tragedy they share. 

Pearl Bennett is a young and petite woman. She’s a slip of a thing only 4 feet, 6 inches tall. Slender to the point of malnourishment, pale, wavy blonde hair and a pinched mouth like a cherry. Says the author: “She was a young and silly flibbertigibbet.” 

Pearl is the cook for a troupe of pugilists who travel across Australia fighting and wrassling for the enjoyment of rural communities. There’s Big Stanley, a legitimate pro boxer, Mavis the Mauler, a kangaroo and a stable of complicit showies. The star of the show is a Yahoo-Devil-Devil named Bluey. 

For those of you who don’t already know, a Yowie is the equivalent of a Sasquatch in Aboriginal folklore. Described here, Bluey is nine feet tall and 500 pounds. He has the face of a gorilla but almost that of a man—and even though he’s an infant, he’s got muscles the size of watermelons and a chest as big as a wine barrel. 

Bluey is the big moneymaker for the troupe. Everybody in Australia wants to see him spar inside the boxing ring. Caged, exploited and kept inebriated for safety concerns, the baby Yowie is a sympathetic monster just like King Kong.  

Eventually, with the help of Pearl, Bluey escapes confinement and is reunited with his extended family in the bush. What follows is an unfortunate massacre of beast and man. Parallel to the woodland melee, the author also includes a smart stream of consciousness   sidebar involving a pack of dingoes. 

Like King Kong loose in New York City, the resolution to Man-Beast is predictably tragic (“Everything about this is shitty,” sighs one bystander). Bluey and Pearl share a strong bond but they cannot escape from the cruel consequences of what they begat. “Her actions had doomed them all,” says the author about Pearl. “Every death so far, and every death still to come, was on her own contemptible head.” It’s not poetic like the ending of King Kong, but it’ll do. 

[Man-Beast / By Deborah Sheldon / First Printing: September 2021 / ISBN: 9781922551031]

Curse of the Mummy

Seventeen-year-old Alana Richardson was an Egyptology geek. She could read and write hieroglyphics and had a good knowledge of Egyptian mythology and history.

Even though she was a suburban kid from Denver, she looked like she was from Egypt. As a joke, she went to a styling salon one afternoon and had her hair cut like an Egyptian queen. The hairdresser loved the idea, and Lana’s hair, thick and jet-black, held the blunt cut perfectly. 

When an assortment of Egyptian historical artifacts comes to the Denver Museum of Natural History, Lana eagerly signs up as a volunteer. To her, this month-long exhibit was like the World Cup, Comiket and Mardi Gras all rolled into one. She couldn’t have wished for a better time.

But as we all know, you should always be careful what you wish for. On the first day of the exhibit, Lana found herself in a room with a pair of ornate sarcophagi. She immediately felt the weight of 6,000 years of ancient history. “The room was filled with silence that stretched back thousands of years,” wrote Barbara Steiner ominously. “The silence of a tomb. The silence of death.”

Like all mummy stories from the past (and into perpetuity no doubt), there was a curse surrounding the two stone coffins. There’s a burial shroud with the body of Prince Nefra in one coffin, but the body of Urbena, his fiancée, was missing from the other. 

The museum curator explained it this way: “The coffin is empty,” he said, “because someone robbed the grave of the would-be-princess and took her body. Legend tells us there is a curse on the tomb that will be broken only when the mummy of Urbena is found and returned.”

Before the first day of the exhibit ends, poor Lana becomes the target of intense harassment from a variety of sources. Nefra and Urbena speak to her from beyond the grave, someone is tossing scorpions and mummified cats through her bedroom window and everyone at the museum is being hostile. There’s even a “musty-smelling” mummy stalking her at night.

It’s bewildering at first, but Lana eventually figures out the underlying cause of her predicament. With her Egyptian countenance and hairdo, she looked as if she stepped right out of Cleopatra’s court. It was enough to make one believe in reincarnation. “You definitely look like Urbena,” joked a museum colleague, “Maybe you have come back, Princess. Isn’t that funny?”

To save herself, Lana needed to solve a 6,000-year-old mystery. Why was Prince Nefra killed the night before his wedding? Did Urbena commit suicide, was she murdered or was she buried alive? If Lana doesn’t do something quickly, she might find herself wrapped in gauze, stuffed into a sarcophagus and shipped back to Egypt. 

Lana wasn’t some silly schoolgirl who could be intimidated by theater tricks, but the curse of Urbena kept her dizzy. She had to admit, it was real to many people. “The curse will go on and on unless Urbena’s mummy is returned,” said a visiting archaeologist. “You’d be perfect Lana. You would satisfy the gods and Nefra would be pleased.”

[The Mummy / By Barbara Steiner / First Printing: May 1995 / ISBN: 9780590203531]

The Filth and the Fury

Thirty years ago, a plague came to Garth, Missouri. “I learned about it in school,” remembered one local. “About how the sickness fell from the sky when a meteor passed by and how people infected with it don’t die like they should. They just rot and bite.”

In other words, a large group of people living in rural Missouri turned into zombies. The word “zombie” wasn’t used by the townsfolk, however. Locals preferred to call them dead critters or dead folks. “They’re dead, that’s all they is,” said an old-timer. “Dead and unwillin’ to go to Hell.” 

The dead folks couldn’t go to Hell so they made a little hell on earth for themselves. They lived in an 80-acre quarantined zone called the Dead-Land and spent their days munching on brains and offal like it was brisket and cornbread. For dessert, they ate mud. 

Normally, the Dead-Land was a restricted area—no one was allowed to mingle with the zombies. But once a year the town sponsored a Hunger Games-like event called the Gauntlet. A pot of money was left in the center of the sanctuary. It was a mystery who put it there, but everyone was encouraged to claim it for themselves. This year there was $2 million waiting for the person who could outmaneuver the shambling dead critters, the clattering disembodied heads and the giant mutant parasites of the Dead-Land. 

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of filth and fury in a book called Zombie Vomit Shitshow. Author Judith Sonnet didn’t miss an opportunity to add gobs of snot, puke, smegma and various organ meats to the narrative. It’s gross, but also surprisingly funny. 

Beyond the explicit carnage, Sonnet was smart enough to turn the annual Gauntlet into a metaphor for how fucked up our world was today. Everything that was horrible in Dead-Land was horrible in normal society too. The game allowed people to do all sorts of bad stuff to capture the caldron of cash. Steal, murder, rape—for one night, it was all part of the game. 

The winner (and loser) of this year’s competition was a teenage greaser wearing a Cannibal Corpse T-shirt. He beat everyone to the final prize, but the whole rotten game ruined his soul. For money (or maybe shredded newspapers, pebbles and grain) he had killed innocent people. 

Said the author in a novel-ending hillbilly elegy: The Dead-Land wasn’t just cursed … it was sick. It had a sickness that’d spread even to those that didn’t get bit. It tainted the soul and ruined the body. “Be prepared,” wrote Sonnet in conclusion. “You ain’t gonna come out the way ya came in.” 

[Zombie Vomit Shitshow / By Judith Sonnet / First Printing: December 2022 / ISBN: 9798366525138]

Teddy Roosevelt vs. the Sea Monster

Liopleurodons were the largest of the ancient Pilosaurs and arguably one of the greatest carnivores to ever exist. Back in the day, they were the size of a whale and looked somewhat like a crocodile and a shark. According to author M.B. Zucker, the short-necked plesiosaur transformed hunting into an art form, “A master of its craft,” he said, “the Liopleurodon was the Shakespeare or Beethoven of preying on reptiles and fish within Jurassic waters.

When an 80-foot, 150-ton living Liopleurodon was found frozen in a block of ice, the impact on science was immeasurable. It was the year 1911 and paleontology was experiencing its golden age. “Let’s take a moment to appreciate the biggest discovery in our field’s history,” said one awestruck scholar. 

The moment didn’t last long, however. Almost immediately, the Liopleurodon was abducted from a U.S. Naval base and released into the Atlantic Ocean. The aquatic monster quickly reclaimed its apex predator status and started gobbling up everything in sight. It hadn’t had a snack in 155 million years and it was hangry.

Over night, the giant marine reptile became a geopolitical pawn (or maybe a rook or a bishop) for a big ol’ game of pre-WWI chess. Both the United States and Germany saw the potential of using the prehistoric beast as a weapon of war. Whoever harnessed the Liopleurodon could hypothetically create chaos in key seaports and disrupt naval logistics in their favor. 

This was when things became really, really interesting. Without a doubt, the Liopleurodon was a fearsome ocean master, but its fearsomeness paled against the ever-lovin’ charisma of papa bear Theodore Roosevelt. 

Currently living life as an ex-President, Roosevelt was actively looking for some kind of publicity stunt to propel him back into the White House in the upcoming election of 1912. What better way was there than securing a compliant sea-roaming leviathan for the U.S. Navy? If his machinations proved successful, he would outmaneuver German Kaiser Wilhelm II and become the U.S. President once again. 

Throughout the novel, Roosevelt was a great big hoot. Always larger than life, he commanded the narrative and chewed up the scenery in the best possible way. Certainly he was a macho man (as defined by his generation), but he was also an articulate guy with an appreciation for poetry. He was keenly aware of the situation in front of him. “Roosevelt’s enemy was the Liopleurodon,” wrote Zucker. “Conquering it was his ultimate challenge.”

The story’s climax finally arrives as Roosevelt and the sea creature have their long awaited showdown in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. On hand to witness the event was a German dreadnaught and a private yacht with Winston Church onboard. As a reader, I was onboard too. In fact, the finale made me a little sad. “Why can’t reality be as exciting as this?” I thought to myself as I shut down my Kindle for the night. 

[Liopleurodon: The Master of the Deep / By M.B. Zucker / First Printing: September 2022 / ISBN: 9798986256450]