Hot for Teacher

Certainly there were happy people living in Smallville. Lionel Luthor, for example. He owned most of the town. Why wouldn’t he be happy? And Jonathan and Martha Kent. They were modest people who derived honest pleasure from working on their small farm. 

But there were unhappy people in Smallville too. Lana Lang’s parents were killed in a meteorite shower, Lex Luthor had ongoing daddy issues and Clark Kent was a lovesick puppy that pined for a girl who would never totally reciprocate his affection. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy: “All happy people in Smallville were alike; all unhappy people in Smallville were unhappy in their own way.”

Take the Sanchez family for example. They gave up cushy jobs in Spain to become corn farmers in Kansas. Their idyllic dreams were dashed on the day Smallville was rocked by a meteorite shower that brought baby Kal-El to Earth. Their nine-year-old daughter Lilia suffered the worst. She had to live the rest of her life with space junk embedded in her skull. 

Eventually, José and Carmencita Sanchez sold their farm and moved back to Madrid. Their daughter, on the other hand, stuck around long enough to earn a college degree and get a job teaching Spanish at Smallville High School. 

Lilia’s personal life was splintered and she suffered ongoing seizures because of her childhood head injury. Even with all the adolescent trauma, she grew up to be a stunningly beautiful woman. At 23 she looked like “Penelope Cruz and Jennifer Lopez morphed together.” That ain’t too bad. 

Naturally, the arrival of Profesora Sanchez on campus caught the attention of Clark “Horndog” Kent. When he thought about her, he felt like a thousand tiny birds were in his belly all beating their wings at the same time. Clearly, he was hot for teacher. “If you told me you didn’t like her,” said a clueless friend, “I’d say you weren’t human.” 

But Clark had concerns. His teacher had a preternatural ability that could jeopardize his deepest secret. Those chunks of Kryptonite in her skull gave Lilia mind reading abilities, and that wasn’t good news for a young space alien in love. “What if she knew about my powers?” cried Clark. “She can’t find out. She can’t tell anyone. She can’t know my secret!”

Thankfully, not everyone infected with Kryptonite turned out to be a supervillain (or a snitch). Lilia figured out Clark’s secret pretty quickly but she remained discreet. In the final chapter she gave her favorite student a bit of advice. “Don’t keep what’s in your heart a buried secret,” she told him with a wink. 

You can’t write a Smallville novel without addressing Clark Kent’s adolescent angst or Lex Luthor’s emerging villainy. Nor can you ignore the super-charged estrus of Lana Lang. Author Suzan Colón was smart enough to know this. But her sole contribution to the show’s mythology (Lilia, the sexy dama mind reader) paled in comparison to the well-known legacy characters. Clearly, Lilia had her own unique story to tell, but here in this tie-in novel from 2003, she was just an actor on the wrong TV show. 

[Smallville: Buried Secrets / By Suzan Colón / First Printing: June 2003 / ISBN: 9780316168489]

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 throws 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]

The Bogus Man

At best, Nikie Gordon was a C-level actress in a string of B-level films. With her career in the crapper, no one in the industry was surprised when she disappeared in 1974 and became a Hollywood dropout. 

Twenty-three months later, she was back like a Bi-Centennial rockets’ red glare. Full-page ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter announced her triumphant return to the spotlight. She was a star reborn. 

The mystery of Nikie’s disappearance and her surprising return ran parallel with a monster that emerged mysteriously from La Brea Tar Pits. In a way, the titular Bog Beast became her benefactor and co-star. 

The creature was seven-feet tall, bipedal, skeletal and thickly covered with black viscous tar. Its silhouette was vaguely human if you ignored its crust of twigs, roots, clumps of fertilizer and vegetation. The Bog Beast didn’t come from the swamp, but it certainly was a sludgy cousin of the Heap, Man-Thing, Swamp Thing (and probably Theodore Sturgeon’s It).

Unlike its predecessors, however, the Bog Beast lacked any sort of compelling origin story. Nothing was known about the creature except that it had crawled out of a Los Angeles tar pit. Later, the author would give readers a small crumb to chew on: “It knew nature,” he wrote cryptically. “It was part of nature and had elemental understanding of earth and water.”

The lives of Nikie Gordon and the Bog Beast intersect during the filming of a movie called Tomb of Frankenstein. The sound stage was destroyed by a disgruntled former crew member, and the actor portraying Frankenstein’s Monster was killed. Luckily, the Bog Beast rescued Nikie when she accidentally fell down a rickety FX contraption. The film production was consequently shut down and the actress spent two years convalescing from her injuries. 

During that time, a Hollywood fixer approached Nikie with a proposal. Faced with major insurance lawsuits, union reprisals and insurmountable bad publicity, Worldly Pictures gave her an offer she couldn’t refuse. All she had to do was blame the whole thing on the Bog Beast and she’d get a second chance at Hollywood stardom. And that’s what happened.

I can’t blame the author for his contrived plotting and tidy resolution. Richard H. Levey’s prose is actually quite entertaining throughout the novel. I would even call it perky. 

Unfortunately, Levey is constrained by the poor quality of his source material. If you didn’t know, the adventures of the Bog Beast first appeared in a long-forgotten 50-year-old comic book. Believe me, the comic wasn’t very good, and neither is this novelization. Digging Dirt: Seeking the Bog Beast is a fine example of “garbage in, garbage out.”

[Digging Dirt: Seeking the Bog Beast / By Richard H. Levey / First Printing: July 2020 / ISBN: 9798666859476]