To Conserve and Protect, Part 3

Kathy West and Nathan Toland are back for another monstrous wildlife adventure. The two rangers work in secret for the U.S. Park Service, investigating and protecting the public from supernatural and dangerous creatures that live in national parks.

In their first adventure (see my review here), West and Toland put the kibosh on a giant crab invasion. In the next book, the pair went toe-to-toe with a lounge of mutant fire-breathing lizards (review here). This time, the power rangers are in Yellowstone Park investigating a conspiracy of murderous mega-ravens and a sleuth of prehistoric beasts.

If you had only one chance to visit a U.S. national park, Yellowstone would be a great choice. Officially declared a government wilderness sanctuary 150 years ago, it includes 2.2 million acres and shares borders with three different states—Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. A trip to Yellowstone National Park, says author Russell James, is the North American version of going on an African safari.

Yellowstone has a long-forgotten secret, however, and Toland and West are tasked to uncover it. Here’s a clue for readers: If this assignment is anything like their previous assignments, it’ll assuredly include a giant monster or two.

As an NPS historian, Toland gleefully dives into the park’s massive library of paperwork (much like Scrooge McDuck diving into his vault of money). West, being the action-hero type, investigates tourist-restricted trails, mountains and woodland areas.

Pretty quickly the rangers piece together a compelling jigsaw puzzle of Yellowstone arcana. The info they uncover confirms the existence of a secret government organization initially fronted by President Theodore Roosevelt. And yes, as expected, there are horrible monsters involved.

Before long, Kathy West and Nathan Toland discovered that the nation’s park service was founded on a great big lie. On paper, the parks were meant to save unique natural ecosystems for the enjoyment of future generations. But in reality, a small splinter group within the government had purposely regulated public access to various parks and historical sites. As it turned out, Yellowstone wasn’t a sanctuary to protect indigenous flora and fauna—it was actually a prison for monsters. To be continued!

[Ravens of Yellowstone / By Russell James / First Printing: December 2021 / ISBN: 9781922551214]

Return of the Blobs

“By the 70s,” writes Kevin Candela in his introduction to this volume, “blob stories had run their course.” Especially in movies, monsters made of Play-Doh couldn’t compete with vampires, werewolves, space aliens, zombies and exorcists.

Spineless, faceless, gelatinous, icky creatures are still around, of course, but they’ve never been able to scare a generation of moviegoers like they did back in 1958 when the original titular Blob debuted in theaters.

In their respective intros, both Candela and co-editor Raymond Johnson do a wonderful job expressing their love of the gooey genre while giving readers a quick history lesson at the same time. Unquestionably, these two men love “shapeless slimes, blobs and evil oozes,” and their enthusiasm will get you pumped up to read the ensuing stories in this collection.  

Beware the Blobs! starts strong with stories by Candela, Johnson and Essel Pratt. “Shapeless In Seattle,” begins with an attempted rape and escalates quickly to the end of the world. “Sometimes you win the wrong lottery,” admits Mary the blobissa.

“The Ectenic Force” features a string of tragedies leading to an unwonted conclusion. Tobin Grace (not Topher Grace) inadvertently gives a blob access to a secondary reality. “Grace hadn’t doomed the world,” says the author. “He had damned it.”

And finally, “This Is How It Ends” is an apocalyptic downer with a kooky ending. The world is destroyed in 11 pages—only the rancid stench of death and the sweet aroma of gelatin desserts remained.  

The collection concludes with another excellent story by Johnson. Unfortunately, readers have to suffer through a handful of wince-worthy efforts before getting to it—in particular “Nu-Goo!” and “The Ooze King of the Planet Xanorior.” Both are desperately in need of a line edit, and it makes me wonder what type of services the book’s two editors provided—if anything.

I agree with Kevin Candela when he says the blob mirrors our “formless and incomprehensible origins in the cosmos.” Blob mania may have ended 50 years ago, but I suspect it’s ready for a big amorphous comeback. Like the tagline from the original movie says: “Nothing can stop it!”

[Beware the Blobs! / Edited by Raymond Johnson and Roma Gray / First Printing: May 2021 / ISBN: 9798512454275]

I, Werewolf

The Werewolf of Ponkert is a (somewhat) famous novella from 1925. First published in the pages of Weird Tales magazine, it’s become notable for a couple of things. One, it was inspired by a notion from H.P. Lovecraft, and two, it’s a first-person narrative told from the titular werewolf’s perspective.

The story set in the 15th century was originally carved into human skin and kept in a church’s basement. First written in Hungarian, the grisly manuscript was eventually translated into Latin, then to modern French and finally into English. Anachronisms abound, admitted author H. Warner Munn, “but it was without dispute the first authentic document known of a werewolf’s experiences, dictated by himself.”

It’s a sad story of course: A single man beset by a pack of wolves one night in the woods. There was no escape. “Little red eyes, swinish and glittering like hell-sparks shone malevolently at me by the reflected light of the fully risen moon,” wrote the luckless memoirist. Given a choice to join the werewolf gang or become a tasty midnight snack, Wladislaw Brenryk took the only option that allowed him to stay alive—he reluctantly became the werewolf of Ponkert. “I was damned forever,” he wrote.

Brenryk was alive, but he was an angst-y wolf-man. Night after night he was growing hardened and inured to his lot, and only rarely did his soul sicken as at his first metamorphosis. But a pinch of humanity still remained. “Was I the unwitting cause of my further undoing?” he wondered constantly.

After ripping his wife to shreds (oops!), Brenryk surrendered to local authorities and helped his small Hungarian village eradicate its werewolf problem. He knew he’d be killed too, but he didn’t care. “Give me revenge and I will burn in hell for eternity most happily,” he confessed.

The story of Wladislaw Brenryk continued a generation later in a short story called “The Werewolf’s Daughter.” With nowhere else to go, Brenryk’s only surviving family member continued to live in Ponkert. But it wasn’t a hospitable place for her. “No one can ever love me. Never!” cried Ivga in despair. “I am the werewolf’s daughter, shunned, hated and feared by all, cursed at birth and despised by even children. There is no love for me in this ugly world.”

With the help of her Conan the Barbarian-like guardian, Ivga eventually escaped her village and fell in love with a French aristocrat. Whether she lived happily ever after is up to the reader’s imagination, but it’s easy to see how “The Werewolf’s Daughter” (first published in 1928) was a rudimentary (and awkward) hybrid of gothic romance and pulpy sword and sorcery novels.

[The Werewolf of Ponkert / By H. Warner Munn / Fiction House Press Edition: August 2020 / ISBN: 9781647201685]

Rock Star

In her latest prose adventure from 2020, Vampirella is in Hong Kong to infiltrate some kind of “crazy-ass” cult. She doesn’t know anyone personally in South China, but her reputation precedes her. Even in a dingy nightclub late at night, she’s recognizable. “You’re Vampirella,” says an awestruck bartender. “Meeting you is one of the coolest things to ever happen to me. You’re a rock star!”

I agree: Vampirella is a rock star. With her red “slingshot suit,” her six-inch stiletto heels and her retro Bettie Page hairdo, she’s the most magnetic vampire in the world.

But even with all her explosive charisma, author Dan Wickline can’t figure out a way to make Vampirella the protagonist in her own novel. She isn’t the A story in The Blood Dragon. She’s not even the B story. For pity’s sake, she’s a lowly C-lister! How could this happen??

The dramatic core of the novel belongs to Jincan and her centuries-old pursuit of revenge. Zhang Wei, the son of the infamous Dragon Lady, represents the supporting story. Vampirella, on the other hand, is simply the helpful outsider.

Eons ago, Xuê Lông (the Blood Dragon) was condemned to exile by the Jade Emperor. In recent years, however, a cult by the name of the Servants of the Blood has been working overtime to bring the demon back to Earth-Prime. Serendipity brings Jincan, Zhang Wei and Vampirella together to stop the cult’s machinations.

Unfortunately, the Warriors Three are unable to stop the Blood Dragon from returning. When he arrives, he’s as tall as a two-story building with wings twice that wide. Says Wickline: “His head was as big as Vampirella and his mouth looked as if it could swallow her in one gulp.”

As I said earlier, Vampirella isn’t the protagonist of this story. Jincan ultimately gets her revenge and Zhang Wei gets his redemption, but there’s no story arc for Vampirella. She’s just passing through on the way to her next adventure (in Russia apparently).

Throughout the book, Wickline has some good-natured fun with Vampirella’s wardrobe. How could he resist? In the beginning he dresses her in acid-wash jeans and a Gangnam Style T-shirt. Later, after the dust settles, Vampirella is spotted in a vintage KISS jersey.

All of it is kind of cute, but my favorite LOL moment comes during the endgame’s epic battle. While pummeling each other in the streets of Hong Kong, Vampirella and the Blood Dragon exchange a few tart quips.

“You’re not as clever as you think you are,” spits the demon. “I don’t know,” replies Vampirella with a shrug. “I do pretty well for myself—although I probably should’ve thought twice before wearing my red sling outfit today. The guy behind me is ignoring you and keeps staring at my ass.”

[Vampirella: The Blood Dragon / By Dan Wickline / First Printing: April 2020 / ISBN: 9781524119607]

A New Age of Monsters

“On Earth today,” wrote James H. Schmitz over 18,000 days ago, “we see a sorry lack of appealing monsters to write about. The vampire is a joke, and dinosaurs are quaint creatures in children’s picture books.”

There was a time when monsters were very real, however, and the beast remains part of our collective heritage unforgotten. “There is a kinship, a bond between it and us,” said the author. “It’s part of the raw substance of life.”

Nevertheless, back in the early 70s, Schmitz wanted readers to forget about all the prehistoric creatures and ancient folkloric monster variants. They were too simple-minded, I guess, too dusty, too scaly—too boring. It was time to embrace a new age of monsters, he said—the kind found in this anthology for example. 

A Pride of Monsters does include a new kind of monster. Or, at least, I’m sure mid-20th-century-readers thought so. Except for one terrific story at the end, Schmitz wasn’t interested in the mysteries of terra incognita. He set his sights upward toward the stars.

In the first story, a mysterious creature is loose in a luxury hotel in outer space. The crew spends 80 tedious pages looking for the rogue Hlat with no success. Finally, tiring of the cat-and-mouse game, the monster reveals itself in a surprising (not surprising) ending.

In a similar story, a big snakish thing hunts the passengers aboard a bulky space freighter. Predating the movie Alien by nearly 20 years, “The Winds of Time” is a rare science fiction horror story. FYI: Check out the book’s cover illustration for a peek at the story’s mind-bending predator.

More often than not, Schmitz stumbles in his attempts to create the ultimate cosmic terror. Language fails him throughout A Pride of Monsters. In “The Searcher,” for example, he calls his monster “a sheet of luminescence,” “a flowing purple fire” and “a living, deadly energy mass.” I can’t criticize him too much; even H.P. Lovecraft struggled to describe the embodiment of the hostile universe.

Interestingly, the best story in the collection is about an Earthly monster. Brought to America on a banana boat, “Greenface” is a queer looking thing—shiny, squiggly and the size and shape of a goose egg. At first sight, it looks like a fat, smiling idol made of green jade.

Soon enough, Greenface grows to 30 feet and starts to resemble Egg Fu, the long-time Wonder Woman villain. Big or small, the creepy egg monster is truly a memorable character. “Its nebulous leering head swayed slowly from side to side like the head of a hanged and half-rotten thing.”

Greenface is a sad and crazy freak of nature, but it’s also unarguably the most terrifying thing in this book. Author James H. Schmitz was searching for a new kind of monster in the stars. In the end, the most terrifying thing he found was in his own backyard.

[A Pride of Monsters / By James H. Schmitz / First Collier Books Edition: 1973 / ISBN: 9780026071000]

The Call To Adventure Time

Read enough genre fiction and you’ll notice a pattern to every story. It’s a commonly used template known to comparative mythology students as the hero’s journey.

This monomyth has been around a long time and appears in every culture—from Gilgamesh to Star Wars, Moses to Captain Marvel and Buddha to The Lion King. It’s the foundation of every Disney and Marvel movie you’ll ever see.

There’s a bunch of well-defined steps in the hero’s journey (for specifics, check out The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell), but the journey starts with the call to adventure and ends back at home with some sort of accomplishment and enlightenment.

You can tell author Jill Morgan is familiar with the hero’s journey because her 1992 underwater actioner is a transparent swipe of Campbell’s monomyth.

Being versed in protomythology isn’t a crime. If it were, every college professor teaching screenwriting would be behind bars right now. It’s only a problem when an author sticks to the template in a facile way. And that, unfortunately, is the problem with Between the Devil and the Deep.

During a search and rescue mission in an underground river 80 miles below Death Valley, Kelsey Chase discovers a prehistoric nest with 10 large petrified eggs. For a chilling moment, the cave diver feels the ghost-like presence of a mother dinosaur guarding her nest of young. The experience changes his outlook on life irrevocably.

Later, when Chase is offered an opportunity to travel to Scotland and hunt the Loch Ness monster, he hears his call to adventure. Coming face to face with Nessie (and a nasty 600-foot eel), Chase is humbled by the majesty of 65 million years of earthly creation. As a result of his encounter, he decides not to kill the creature, but to protect it.

During his time in the Scottish Highlands, there’s a lot of chitchat about Chase’s journey. Everybody in his orbit understands that he’s on some sort of ineffable quest. Says one: “Each man must follow the path of his journey to where the circle ends.”

After a mad jumble of monomyth exposition, the novel concludes with Chase back at home with his girlfriend. “He embraced her in the place where his journey had begun; and he knew the peace that comes with reaching the journey’s end.”

[Between the Devil and the Deep / By J.M. Morgan / First Printing: June 1992 / ISBN: 9780671737009]

Web of Spider-Man

Sixteen-year-old Miles Morales always thought he came from bad blood. Both his father and his uncle were hoodlums when they were his age, and now his younger cousin was locked up in prison. Miles was worried that he would inevitably follow in their footsteps. Like Bigger Thomas, was his destiny written in stone by forces beyond his control?

That was a question he asked himself every single day. Despite being a nascent superhero with the powers of a genetically engineered spider, Miles couldn’t shake the feeling that he was the monster Dr. Frankenstein was chasing.

But one day while perusing his school’s library, Miles discovered a little tidbit about spiders that would help him navigate his family’s messy history. “It used to be said that spiders could connect the past with the future,” explained a chatty librarian. “I think it has something to do with the symbolism of the web.”

Suddenly Miles knew what he had to do. Just as a spider weaved a web, Miles had to weave his own path in life. The same fearlessness that led his father, uncle and cousin to a life of crime would now propel him toward excellence. “I believe it’s not just about where you’re from,” he said, “but also about where you’re going.”

Whoever convinced author Jason Reynolds to write this amazing book deserves a gold star. Reynolds (As Brave As You, Look Both Ways and Stuntboy, in the Meantime) has a passion for telling stories about kids (like Miles Morales) who overcome challenges and triumph over their circumstances. He’s a lively writer who’s tapped into the intellectual and moral climate of our times.

As such, his Spider-Man novel is a nuanced look at an Afro-Hispanic teenager (with superpowers) who’s grappling with family issues, personal identity, school and romance. Naturally there’s villainy afoot, but there isn’t a Vulture, Goblin or Octopus anywhere in sight. Instead of superhero bang-ups, Reynolds informs his story with the pulse of music, language, literature and poetry. I guarantee that you’ll never read another superhero novel containing so much poetry—specifically Korean poetry.

Miles successfully defeats his family’s lingering bad reputation, and by doing so he finds a way to overcome the past and move confidently into the future. In other words: By creating a new and stronger web, he’s able to smash the old webs to smithereens. Spider-Man superpowers not required.

[Miles Morales: Spider-Man / By Jason Reynolds / First Printing: August 2017 / ISBN: 9781484787489]

Rare Bits

“The wooden cabin stood in the middle of nowhere,” wrote Aurelio Rico Lopez III. “It was the ideal place to escape the hustle and bustle of city life, and also, if one were psychopathically inclined, the perfect place to commit murder.”

It was also a perfect place to kick-start a classic horror story. After all, many authors had previously used the cabin-in-the-woods trope to great success. I agree with author Jasper Bark. In his intro to Rare he writes: “Lopez is not trying to reinvent the [horror] genre or transcend it, he simply wants to celebrate it in all its pulpy, gory glory.”

There’s also a gigantic 500-pound killer pig in Lopez’s latest book. And you know what that means, right? The word “pig” starts with “P” and that rhymes with “T” and that stands for “trouble.”

The boar was as big as an automobile and possessed two sharp tusks that could easily impale and disembowel any woodland rival. In addition, the beast’s hearing and tactical senses were acute, honed by centuries of evolution. Its genetic arsenal, along with its sheer size, made the pig a formidable predator. “Creatures, large and small, fell victim to the beast’s hunger.” wrote Lopez, “And it was always hungry.”

Four friends on holiday make the unfortunate mistake of using the abandoned cabin for their glamping pleasure. (What were they doing?? Had they never read a Richard Laymon book?)

With one whiff of the newcomers, the monster’s appetite was aroused. It suddenly knew where its next meal was coming from. Unlike other predators, it was not deterred by skanky human odor. Meat was meat, after all.

Nothing good ever happened in isolated cabins in the woods—Lopez knew it and his readers knew it too. Add a hungry, LeBaron-sized wild pig and you’ve got yourself an 80s-style nature-runs-amok treat.

One comment: Despite the setup, nothing monstrous (or evil) actually happened in Rare. The pig hunted its prey because it was hungry, and the campers defended themselves because they didn’t want to die. According to Rudyard Kipling (and Guns N’Roses), it’s simply the law of the jungle. The giant beast was a monster but it was blameless

[Rare / By Aurelio Rico Lopez III / First Printing: October 2021 / ISBN: 9798456639530]

The Urban Ranger and Bennie the Titan

Senior Sandra Lake wasn’t exactly the most popular kid at Valor City High School. To be honest, she had no friends whatsoever. She was really looking forward to getting out of high school, getting a job, going to college and getting the hell out of town. But that’s not how things turned out.

On graduation day, a creature that looked like a giant insect covered in translucent molten lava destroyed her high school. Dubbed King Obsidian by the local police, the monster was a massive monolith (over 500 feet tall) with a roar that sounded like an ambulance siren. “The perfect weapon of destruction,” said Sandra.

King Obsidian wasn’t the only kaiju attacking Valor City, however. There were gorillas with lizard faces, cats with blade-like paws and shark-like bodies, crocodile men, centipede-like creatures, colossal velociraptors and dino-monkeys. “It was an invasion,” wrote author Steven Capobianco. “A giant monster invasion.”

Within seconds Valor City was obliterated. It was no longer the city of prosperity, of advancement, of love. It was now the city of kaiju, and the giant beasts ruled their kingdom with god-like impunity.

The city’s only hope was Sandra, the high school graduate with no friends—the girl who wanted to flee her hometown and never look back. She possessed the key to stopping King Obsidian and the rest of the giant monsters: She had a pet kaiju named Bennie.

Bennie was a five-ton, 50-foot German shepherd-slash-lizard. Happenstance brought Sandra and Dogzilla together but they quickly united in a singular mission. They called themselves the Urban Ranger and Bennie the Titan—and they were ready to wrangle some pesky kaiju.

There’s not much to say about this 105-page novelette. I see no point in being mean. To be honest, it’s simply an immature effort from a writer still learning his craft.

I’d rather keep things positive. Everybody (especially me) enjoys a grand kaiju smashup, and the author does a good job of bringing scale to the giant monster action—especially when King Obsidian shows up. In addition, his pacing is nothing if not efficient. The title of the book and the title logo are also very good.

I have one piece of advice for Capobianco, however. In the future, try to refrain from telling a story from a female perspective. For a man, it’s a tricky thing to do and it’s easy to get tangled up in a web of discourse analysis and semiotics. Your writing reflects your unique experiences and personality. Keep it authentic.

[City of Kaiju / By Steven Capobianco / First Printing: February 2019 / ISBN: 9781731197078]

Dinosauria

For big-game hunters, traveling back in time to the Cretaceous period would be truly exciting. Just think about the trophies they’d bring back—triceratops, plesiosaurs, spinosaurus, velociraptors, pterosaurs. I’d love to read a travelogue written by Ernest Hemingway about his adventures 60 million years ago.

The end of the Mesozoic age provides a great opportunity for huntsmen like Teddy Roosevelt, Donald Trump Jr. and Elmer Fudd. For the price of $50,000 U.S. dollars (cheap!), they are given the privilege of spending two weeks in a prehistoric sporting arena.

It’s a pretty sweet setup: A time-traveling safari full of rich gamers, ambitious paleontologists and boorish politicians. Author David Drake fills his mosaic novel with a handful of colorful characters, and his dino action is appropriately earthshaking. It’s also heartbreaking in many ways. The safari slaughter at the end of the book, for example, is gross and goes waaaay beyond collateral damage.

In the first story, clients of the Time Intrusion Project stumble upon an early version of man. What do they do? Kill him as a trophy, capture him as a living specimen or introduce stimulus into the environment that accelerates the evolutionary timeline? To add another wrinkle to the situation, an ambitious paleontologist wants to exploit Homo habilis to boost her professional career. For a scientist who studies fossils for a living, she’s awfully shortsighted. She gets zero sympathy points from me.

But I want to get back to the dinosaurs. Time Safari is heavy with frightfully giant reptiles (Dinosauria, as they say), and the narrative surges through the roof when papa Tyrannosaurus rex shows up. Despite their size and bulk, no other herbivorous or carnivorous creature can compete with the 80-ton king of dinosaurs.  

This becomes a big problem in the book’s final story when a big-game hunter announces his intentions immediately. “Screw everything else,” says Luther Cardway. “I want to return Topside with a T-Rex.”

Cardway is a guy with a tremendous amount of privilege. As the current U.S. Secretary of State, he’s basically immune to any time travel accountability. Plus: “He’s from Texas,” says the expedition’s organizer with a shrug. “He thinks he can do anything he likes.”

Cardway puts the safari personnel in a tight spot. No titanosaurus carcass will sate his unreasonable demands—no troglodyte, no sarcosuchus, no giant dragonfly, no nuthin’. He has to have a Tyrannosaurus. And to get one, he’s willing to gun down every creature (big and small) that stands in his way.

The irony in all this is that Cardway’s selfish behavior inadvertently signals the end of the dinosaurs. And here’s the kicker: had things gone in a slightly different direction, Cardway would have ended human civilization too. Believe me, the two-fisted twist ending is a corker.

[Time Safari / By David Drake / First Printing: September 1982 / ISBN: 9780523485416]