Killer Cockroaches

What do you get when mankind’s oldest profession meets mankind’s oldest enemy? In Donald Thompson’s novel from 1979, you get a little bit of sex, a little bit of creepy crawly action and a whole lot of exclamation marks.

Like all great novels, The Ancient Enemy begins with a naked woman standing by the roadside. But in this case, there isn’t anything sexy about her. Mostly, she looks like a peeled orange—“raw flesh from head to foot.”

Despite being flayed and catatonic, she helps lead a rescue party to Eros Ranch, a popular brothel 80 miles outside of Las Vegas. The situation at the ranch is unnerving to say the least. Neither Hieronymus Bosch nor Gustave Doré could have created a scene of such eerie silence, distorted color and horror. “The grounds resembled a butcher shop,” notes the author. “If the Angel of Death had lifted his fist, the judgment would not have been more brutal.”

Dead excoriated bodies were strewn everywhere. The women and men (some still frozen in coitus) all died from traumatic asphyxia. Every natural orifice was stuffed with cockroaches: throats, mouths, ears, eyes, anuses and vulvae.

When the killer cockroaches return to Eros Ranch that night they resemble “the inky, fetid tide of the river Styx rising in a wave of utter blackness.” That sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? The only way the rescue team can survive the onslaught is to lock themselves in a refrigerated kitchen pantry filled with a bunch of dead bodies. Things only get worse when a rowdy motorcycle gang arrives the next morning.

Even though he raises the question repeatedly, the author never gets around to explaining why the desert cockroaches are on the warpath. I’m not sure an explanation is necessary though. For Thompson, it’s enough to simply let the bugs erupt Krakatoa-like from the earth.

Two nights of sexual titillation and biker roguery punctuate the cockroach invasion. To escalate the situation even further, the author throws a non-stop barrage of exclamation marks at the reader. There are entire paragraphs in this book completely dedicated to the shout-y punctuation tag.    

But whatever. I’m willing to give The Ancient Enemy a little slack. Cockroaches are nasty and they’ve been around for 250,000 years. When you think about it, they’re probably the only enemy mankind has never defeated. If the author wants to overuse the exclamation mark, it’s OK with me.

[The Ancient Enemy / By Donald Thompson / First Printing: August 1979 / ISBN: 9780449142165]

Monster Blast

Monster fiction is a popular and specific horror sub-genre that’s been around a long time. After all, some people consider the Bible to be the first horror novel and there are plenty of monsters in that ancient tome.

There’s a special quality of entertainment in a good monster yarn, wrote editor Robert Arthur at the beginning of Monster Mix. “Monsters have been popular in fiction for a long time—since the first storytellers spun the first imaginative tales in some Oriental marketplace. Long before they were ever written down, and long before most of the types of story we know today were invented, giants, ogres, rocs, dragons and suchlike creatures were thrilling people of all ages.”

With this perspective in mind, the editor cobbled together a terrific collection of monster stories back in 1968 that featured signature work by Stephen Vincent Benét, H.G. Wells, Algernon Blackwood, William Hope Hodgson and Lord Dunsany (among others). The intention was to present a variety of monsters with imagination and literary skill.

Seemingly at odds with the editor’s prime directive and august story selection, Monster Mix was originally published for a young readership. Maybe that’s because vampires, abominable snowmen, bug-eyed monsters and sea serpents were considered the purview of children back in the late 60s. Adults were more interested in books by Jacqueline Susann and Harrold Robbins, I guess.

But now, 50 years later, Monster Mix stands as a worthy collection for readers of all ages. It’s true that most of these stories can be found in a sundry of anthologies, but it’s nice to have them bound in one handy volume.

The obvious centerpiece here is by Algernon Blackwell. Arguably his most well-known effort, “The Wendigo” is 60-pages of hallucinatory horror wrapped around an old Native American legend—in other words it’s an example of “the passionate loneliness a man can feel when the wilderness holds him in the hollow of its illimitable hands and laughs.” It was, said Blackwell at the time, the “Call of the Wild” personified. First published in 1910, it’s well-worth reading again (and again).

“Aepyornis Island” by H.G. Wells is both adorable and horrible, like a popular Pixar movie turned bleak, “Daniel Webster and the Sea Serpent” by Stephen Vincent Benét is a genial political folktale that takes place during John Tyler’s presidental term and the dragon in Guy Endore’s story attacks the contestents in a Miss America pagent. Proving, I guess, that the old tales of dragons and maidens were absolutely true.

By far, my favorite thing in Monster Mix is by William Sambrot. In fact, “Creature of the Snows” is the best Abominable Snowman story I’ve ever read. It’s a first contact adventure (aren’t they all?) that’s both terrifying and touching at the same time. It’s not a horror story in any way. Instead, it eloquantly captures a moment in time on top of the Himalayas when man and yeti come face to face.  

[Monster Mix / Edited by Robert Arthur / First Printing: January 1968]

Monsters from the Deep

For my money, the most terrifying monsters can be found at the bottom of the ocean. After all, marine biologists admit they only have a vague idea what lurks below the water’s surface. Who knows? There might be a cast of Karathen (or worse) roaming the Mariana Trench.

So it was no surprise (to me) when a giant lobster was spotted on a beach in Oahu, Hawaii. “It was a gawd damn big brute,” said one eyewitness, “the biggest lobster you ever saw in your life. And red, like it hopped out of a boiling pot.”

The invasion wasn’t limited to giant shellfish either. Reports of other large sea creatures were becoming more and more frequent—squids, stingrays, jellyfish and octopi with tentacles almost 30 feet in length.

The scariest of these encounters happens one night in Burt and Jessica Burke’s honeymoon suite. “The hideous body of the gigantic devilfish filled the hotel room window, squeezing its soft flesh through the frame, its eight arms thrashing wildly,” wrote the author. “Its huge malign eyes and parrot-like beak inspired something deeper than physical horror.”

All these sea devils were on a singular mission: capture Jessica Burke, expatriate of an underwater kingdom called Akumu. She made the mistake of marrying a “land-human” and there wasn’t any greater disloyalty than that. The Akumus didn’t want any half-breeds diluting their royal blue blood.

With the help of a little sodium pentothal, Jessica spills the beans about the current scourge of sea monsters. “They’re the beasts of our world, the domesticated animals,” she told the authorities. “Some are trained to kill and they are possessed of the instincts of a bloodhound. There are others, too, far more horrible than red lobsters and invasive devilfish.”

The U.S. military gets involved and the novel quickly escalates into an end-of-the-world showdown. The Akumus wanted the surface dwellers to mind their own business. The Navy, on the other hand, embraced genocide—it wanted to flood Marracott Deep with nuclear waste.

I have no doubt that The Secret of Marracott Deep (first published in 1957) represents an affectionate nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s final effort, The Maracot Deep and Other Stories (published in 1929). Both novels include a secret underwater society and a forbidden love story. And both authors agree with me: the best monsters come from the bottom of the ocean.

[The Secret of Marracott Deep / By Henry Slesar / Armchair Fiction Edition: January 2011 / ISBN: 9781612870083]

Behemoth Rhapsody, Part 1

According to paleontologist Dr. Warren Callaway a species of super-sized “Behemoths” lived during the last ice age. Somehow they survived the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that killed the dinosaurs. Or maybe, he speculated, they were the catalyst for the extinction event.  

The Behemoths trampled the earth with primal impunity and possessed abilities only seen in mythology. They flew in the air, spit ice and fire and inspired all sorts of Toho-like havoc. Unlike the wimpy dinosaurs, these gigantic colossi didn’t perish—they simply went into hibernation or some other type of natural stasis.

And now they were back. After taking a nap for millions of years, they awoke to a new tumultuous era. It had been 30 years since the modern world exploded—coastal cities gone, places like Arizona almost unlivable due to rising heat, fires, massive storms, earthquakes. The recent shifts in weather patterns were like a ringing alarm clock for the Behemoths.

One by one they arose from their deep slumber—a 600-foot-tall bipedal lizard from Siberia, A pterosaur-like firebird from Brazil and an enormous kraken from the Atlantic Ocean. Within a few pages they were pounding New York City and each other. To the winner: world domination!

Even though Behemoths Rising is a short novel, the author includes lots of daikaiju battles and go-for-broke combat scenes. This is the first book in a Kaiju Overlords trilogy, so I assume there will be more thunderous world-shaking action TK.

Two comments: An elite air force squadron confronts the prehistoric creatures at every opportunity. There are big chunks of text devoted to aerial combat, but don’t expect any sort of descriptive air strategy or compelling tactical maneuvering from the pilots. This isn’t Twelve O’Clock High or The Blue Max (or even Snoopy vs. the Red Baron). “Hit the bastards with everything you’ve got,” ordered Captain Jason Bagley at one point. That’s all the strategy you get.

And lastly: I’m especially happy to see that love blooms even during a Behemoth uprising. Geologists, paleontologists and fighter jet pilots—they all deserve a little love and affection, right? After all, if you can’t find time to hook up during a world-ending disaster like this, when can you?

[Behemoths Rising / By John Grover / First Printing: November 2020 / ISBN: 9798561093319]

Ghouls Rule!

Mary Shelley invented science fiction. That’s a fact. But she also created the greatest monster of all time.

Back in 1818 when Shelley introduced her uncanny creation to the public, she couldn’t have predicted the ripple effect her novel would have. Cobbled together from romance and gothic literary traditions, Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus generated an ongoing interest in science fiction, horror and monsters that hasn’t abated in over 200 years.

In the book The Science of Women in Horror, co-authors Meg Hafdahl and Kelly Florence trace women’s influence in horror throughout the years. In fact, they strongly imply that women are the ultimate monsters because they are alluring and powerful predators. Women have been exploited again and again to strike fear in men’s hearts, they say.

Most female monsters are heteronormative preying easily on men who think with their dicks. But what about other women in horror? Women are not all whores, sirens or gorgons after all. What about those who exist somewhere else on the Kinsey scale?

The lesbian vampire, besides being a gothic fantasy archetype, can be used to express a fundamental male fear that female bonding will forever exclude men and threaten male supremacy.

Take Carmilla, for example. In the 1871 novel by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Countess Karnstein represents the most complete vision of the female vampire; a lesbian seductress who desires to overturn patriarchy by promoting female independence from men, and the rejection of biological reproduction.

Conversely, female werewolves offer another version of fear and loathing. They embody a kind of gendered body crossing where a woman expresses characteristics labeled both masculine and male by the dominant culture such as power, strength, rage, aggression, violence and body hair. Check out the movie Ginger Snaps (2000) for a good example of this.

Even off-screen, women have been making their mark on monsters for a long time. According to Guillermo del Toro, special effects artist Milicent Patrick designed the “number one monster suit in film history” (the awesome Creature from the Black Lagoon). Ruth Rose co-wrote the original King Kong script and contributed the last and most memorable line of dialogue: “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.”

Inevitably when thinking about horror movies, the gaggle of monsters from Universal Studios come to mind. The only female creature from the studio’s MonsterVerse to transcend its era is the Bride of Frankenstein. Considered by many film buffs to be better than the original movie, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) is the first sequel to Frankenstein and revolves around a subplot in Mary Shelley’s novel in which the creature yearns for a suitable mate. The Bride has little screen time and is ultimately rejected by science and her intended bridegroom, but her aesthetic (including her tall, skunk-streaked hair-do) endures to this day. Inspired by Shelley, Frankenstein’s bride is the mother of all monsters.  

[The Science of Women in Horror / By Meg Hafdahl and Kelly Florence / First Printing: February 2020 / ISBN: 9781510751743]

Horny and Hungry Monsters on the Prowl

When Casey Lovitt’s mom found a wolf spider casually lounging in her living room, she quickly swept it out the front door with her broom. “People weren’t meant to live in the swamp,” she told her daughter. “This place ain’t for us. It’s for them.”

Casey and her mom had lived their entire lives at the edge of Green Swamp, North Carolina. Over the years, they’d learned to coexist with the oppressive bug population. But last season’s hurricane and subsequent flooding significantly altered the local environment. The bugs were now bigger, more plentiful and more aggressive. “They’re finally running us out,” agreed Casey. “The creatures are taking the swamp back.”

That’s bad news for Casey. She was the park manager for the Green Swamp Zip-Line Adventure and Campground, and she knew people weren’t going to visit the N.C. wetlands if they were being attacked by giant horse flies, centipedes, mosquitoes, water scorpions, ticks, fire ants and wheel bugs.

Normally, bugs were mindless eating and breeding machines. But now they were hungry and horny monsters on the prowl. Thanks to the mutated venom of a brown recluse spider, for example, Casey witnessed an unlucky bastard decompose before her very eyes. Something had to be done. Ignoring the problem only made things worse.

Trying to help, the entomology department at the local college released sterile insects into the area. It was their hope that these bugs would nip the ever-expanding population in the bud. It was a nice idea, but it was a false narrative. The mounting danger and unforeseen secret agendas turned Green Swamp into a horror show.

To keep Infested focused, author Carol Gore divided her novel into three manageable chapters. Eschewing a standard third-act finale, however, she gave her protagonist an open door to a welcomed sequel.

A supersized mosquito buzzed toward Casey’s face. She let it get close and then smashed it against her forehead. It exploded with blood that ran down her face like war paint.

She wanted the other creatures to smell the death on her. It was a warning, wrote Gore. Casey would not abandon her home in Green Swamp. She was ready to keep on fighting.

[Infested / By Carol Gore / First Printing: January 2020 / ISBN: 9781989206300]

Maleficence

As you’d expect, there’s a lot of witchery in this collection of short stories. There are a few werewolf tales too, of course, but the anthology is heavy with malefic magic.

In general, Rod Serling’s Triple W: Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves includes an outstanding selection of stories, but it definitely doesn’t start off with a bang. In the first story, a pair of feuding witches turns a grifter into a cat. In the second story, a woman turns her husband into a dog—and later, in a twist, the husband turns his wife into a horse.

Thankfully, the quality of the stories improves dramatically once you get past these two ailuranthropy and cynanthropy contributions. For example, there’s a story about an amateur witch who screws up all her spells, another story about an elderly gentleman who serendipitously discovers he’s the high priest of a Boston coven and then there’s the story about a young man whose wife of three months is in league with the devil. The book ends with a 21-page history of witch trials from the 16th century to the 19th century.

Without a doubt the best story endorsed by Serling for this vintage 1963 collection is written by Jane Roberts. As a genre workout, “The Chestnut Beads” is simply about sorority sisters and an A-bomb explosion in New York. More than that, however, Roberts has a lot to say about a woman’s responsibility to the future. Men are the destroyers, she writes, and women are the creators. “Once more we are being asked to re-create the universe. But creation is not a kind act. It is an act of cruelty, and act of hatred against the darkness. The time has come when our hate must kill our love; when love can grow again from the rotting seeds of rage.”

And finally, beyond witches and werewolves, I’m always a sucker for stories about people who think they can outwit the devil. Except for Daniel Webster, nobody has ever done it. In “Blind Alley” by Malcolm Jameson, a wealthy gentleman pays Satan (a.k.a. “His Nibs”) to send him back to his childhood hometown 40 years earlier. He’s nostalgic for the past because “he hated modern women, the blatancy of the radio, the man in the White House and everything else.” Naturally, things go askew pretty quickly. Satan breaks his contract, collects his soul and turns up the heat. “See you in Hell, old thing,” he laughs.

[Rod Serling’s Triple W: Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves / Edited by Rod Serling / First Printing:  May 1963]

To Conserve and Protect, Part 2

Fresh from their first assignment as U.S. National Park Service secret agents (see my review of Russell James’s previous novel here), Kathy West and Nathan Toland found themselves quickly dispatched to Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii.

After squashing a giant crab uprising off the coast of Florida, West and Toland were asked to investigate irregularities near the Kilauea Caverns of Fire. They didn’t know what types of monsters they were going to encounter, but they knew that no assignment would ever be routine for them.

That’s because West and her history lovin’ sidekick were undercover agents for a shadowy section of the National Park Service. The government wasn’t protecting state parks just because they were attractive natural wonders. Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Zion, Jellystone—many of these areas were home to the most dangerous monsters on the planet. As Park Services secret agents, West and Toland’s mission was to keep those creatures secret and safely within park boundaries.

In Hawaii, the biggest mammal problem was usually feral pigs. Escaped from domestic stock, they had huge litters and destroyed the land as they rooted for food. They were pesky because they had no natural predators.

But at Volcanoes Natural Park, West and Toland stumbled upon something far more terrifying than a pack of wild hogs. They found 20-foot, fire-breathing Komodo dragons living in the lava tunnels created by the Kilauea volcano. These dinosaur-sized creatures were the kind of mutation that would have made Charles Darwin proud, wrote the author.

Without realizing it, the park rangers were caught in the middle of a nasty Hawaiian cultural war. One faction recognized the dragons as sacred children of Pele, the goddess of volcanoes. They wanted to protect the indigenous creatures. The other faction was a bit more extreme. Their plan was to use the dragons to cleanse the islands and return the land to nature.

The leader of the extremist group was Romy Saturo Kang. With a name like that, you knew right away that he was a first-class MCU-like villain. With the help of the dragons, he was going to turn the white man’s tropical paradise into a blazing hell. “It won’t be long,” Kang promised. “Pele’s children will hatch, and the island of Hawaii will return to its wonderful natural state, with me as their king.”

Don’t worry. Kang the Conqueror’s evil plan was eventually undone. Because of West and Toland’s last-minute heroics, hundreds of dragon hatchlings were boiled in lava. Problem solved.

The park rangers saved the people of Hawaii, but at what cost? What would animal rights activists and native groups think of their endgame? Surely some kind of compromise could have been negotiated? Kang was a first-class asshole (and he got a fitting comeuppance), but the dragons of Kilauea deserved better.

[Dragons of Kilauea / By Russell James / First Printing: October 2020 / ISBN: 9781922323903]

Atomic Bats

Underground nuclear testing, giant bats and unintentional collateral damage—that’s all you need for classic monster misadventure, right? Clearly author Jack Morse thinks so. Mostly, I agree, although a curveball or a subplot might have been nice too.

One look at the cover of Giant Killer Bats of Alamogordo and you know exactly what Morse is up to. He’s trying to recreate the “Age of Atomic Monsters” in prose format. He’s not necessarily concerned with details, however. The killer bats could easily be any kind of nuclear mutant like tarantulas, ants, Gila monsters, locusts, scorpions, praying matids, anything—even an amazing colossal man. It doesn’t really matter; the subtext is always the same in these sorts of stories.

The novel begins 75 feet below the New Mexico desert during the summer of 1957. Unbeknownst to anyone in the area, the U.S. Government is actively upgrading its nuclear arsenal. “Hiroshima was nothing compared to the power at my disposal,” cackles an ambitious Army attendant. The ensuing subterranean blast infiltrates a cavern of bats and “the radioactive cloud changes their very essence forever.”

The atomic bats are now bull-sized demons with wingspans over 10 feet. With a newfound intelligence lurking behind their cold dark eyes, they start terrorizing a small nearby town.

“I dunno what we are doing to our world,” says Ray Riggs when he spots the colony of bats for the first time, “but it seems to be striking back at us with a vengeance.” Carrying torches and pitchforks, the townsfolk quickly assemble to combat the scourge. Good luck!

Giant Killer Bats of Alamogordo is a slim novel told in a simple declarative fashion. Actually, the more I think about it, it’s very similar to a Japanese light novel but without any interior illustrations. There’s not much room for nuance or subtlety here (or even a messy subplot). It’s not for everybody, I admit, but I enjoyed the story’s retro vibe and breezy pace.

Another thing I really enjoyed was the author’s semi-regular and random interjections throughout the book. Some were funny and some were odd (in a good way).

My favorite of these exclamations comes early in the story when a character is desperately trying to locate his wife at a shopping mall. Writes Morse with a wink: “For the thousandth time, Ray wishes there were an easy way to communicate with other people. Perhaps he could invent a portable phone that worked without wires. He shakes his head and dismisses the idea; there wouldn’t be much call for that type of thing, he reckons.”

[Giant Killer Bats of Alamogordo / By Jack Morse / First Printing: June 2019 / ISBN: 9781950903030]

Double Feature Monster Show

As promised, there’s a pair of monsters in Mark Cassell’s new short story digest. Both abominations were frightful, but in particular, the post-human freak from “Reanimation Channel” was insanely frightful.

Creating and describing monsters must be a lot of fun for writers. Yet I’m constantly disappointed by authors who never get 100 percent cozy with their creations. Sometimes these beautiful creatures lurk in the shadows for the entire story. Only at the very end are they revealed—and usually in the most vague and mundane way possible.

I keep thinking about the oversized mutant fish from The Host (2006). That fucker appeared early in the film and terrorized people nonstop during the day and night. As far as I’m concerned, The Host was made for people (like me) who love monsters. That’s what I’m looking for in the books I read too.

When “Reanimation Channel” begins, the monster was shocking, but still in the process of transmutation. It was a Frankenstein-like monstrosity, part-human, part-dog and part bird. “Wires and circuits wove through swollen flesh,” wrote Cassell. “Its head was a mess of what was perhaps a German shepherd fused with a bearded man. Vein-y membranous wings extended behind its torso.”

But that’s not how the patchwork chimera looked at the end of the story. In just 25 pages, the author pumped up his monster’s physical structure to an extravagant level. I don’t want to spoil the dramatic finale, but the fiend eventually morphs into an insane fusion of metal and plastic, discarded lottery tickets, K-Cup pods, Pringles cans, smartphone batteries, driftwood and machinery, pebbles and cockles, fur, feathers and flesh—not just human flesh, but that of varying species of mammal including eagles, bulls, turtles, dolphins, sharks and whales. It was, said the author, “an absolute abomination of nature.”

The monster in “Reanimation Channel” was an amazing behemoth—a testament to Cassell’s untamed imagination. As a reader, you can feel his enthusiasm on every page. As a monster fan, you never doubt his dedication to the genre.

The author kicks off his collection with an amphibious creature prowling the waters of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. “River of Nine Tails” had a bizarre mythological beast at it’s core, but the story was carefully deliberate because it contained some relevancy to the author’s personal life. As Cassell admitted upfront, his stories were about the monsters you saw. Wherever they might be.

[Monster Double Feature / By Mark Cassell / First Printing: August 2020 / ISBN: 9780993060182]