Behemoth Rhapsody, Part 2

The situation had escalated exponentially since we last checked in with the elite U.N. security team and its ongoing battle against the stampede of giant monsters known as Behemoths (see my review of Behemoths Rising here).

The feathered dragons were easily the most aggressive of the bunch. Ice Behemoths, Sea Behemoths and massive earthworms couldn’t compete with the Fire Behemoths’ fiery ambition to become the world’s next dominant species.

From the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Sahara Desert, the jungles of Mexico and across the far reaches of the globe, the Fire Behemoths filled the skies with terror. London, Boston, Beijing, Moscow, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Cairo—all the great armies of the world stalled, unable to defend their countries. The story of man had reached its inevitable endgame.

But hold on a sec. Mankind wasn’t ready to give up so easily. In particular, the U.N.’s crew of soldiers, weapons experts and scientists worked tirelessly around the clock to find a way to defeat the Fire Behemoths. For them, the war wasn’t over yet.

About halfway through the book, a scientist figured out (finally!) how the dragons operated. Said Dr. Violet Callaway, “Through my observations, I believe the largest Fire Behemoth is the alpha member of the flock. It directs the others and leads them in coordinated attacks on our largest cities.”

A plan to disrupt the Fire Behemoths quickly emerged: Take down the alpha dragon and the others would fall. And if they didn’t fall, they’d probably get confused, or afraid or they would quarrel with each other endlessly. Anything could happen, admitted Callaway.

At the same time as the Fire Behemoth puzzle was being solved, the U.N. security team found itself being ripped in half. A new recruit by the name of John Temple was making a play to become the leader of the team. Naturally, this bothered Jason Bagley, the current chief of security. They both knew there couldn’t be two alpha dogs in the same pack.

In his book Brave New World, Aldous Huxley split his characters into Alphas and Betas. In a way, author John Grover was doing the same thing here. There was only room for one dominant alpha in Giants Reborn. Soldier, scientist, pirate, Behemoth—who would it be? To be continued.

[Giants Reborn / By John Grover / First Printing: March 2021 / ISBN: 9798710181898]

The Secret Life of Plants

Like everything else in life, trends in fiction come and go. Fractured fairy tales, science fiction romance, teenage dystopia, sparkling vampires—all these genres (good and bad) inevitably have their moment on best-seller lists.

The man-eating plant genre, for example, was a literary phenomenon 200 years ago. Says editor Daisy Butcher in her introduction to Evil Roots: Killer Tales of the Botanical Gothic, the rise of imperial global access during the 19th century helped introduce the Victorian era to wild and exotic flora for the first time. 

These plants, often obscene and otherworldly, inspired well-known gothic writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle to feed off the era’s anxieties to create a new kind of horror. Think about it; the vampire had to be invited into your home. You were safe as long as you didn’t open the door at night. The killer plant, on the other hand, was already in your house and waiting ominously. 

The plants in this collection were no wallflowers that’s for sure. They were bloodthirsty vegetables with murderous intent. Because of their tentacle-like appendages, their mobility and their ravenous appetite for human flesh, they quickly became the stars of a new gothic horror genre called eco-horror. 

All 14 stories in this collection emphasized a distrust of the natural world. They also embraced a Darwinian fear of the breathing, moving, sentient and predatory plant which outgrew all human control. 

The plants were seductive as well. Both “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne and “Carnivore” by Lucy H. Hooper existed at the crossroads of sexual desire and death. Each story featured a luckless man caught by a beguiling flower’s bloom.

The most explicit of these stories was definitely “The Moaning Lily” by Emma Vane. The titular flora had somehow developed a perfect replica of a boneless human mouth. The author’s lurid and erotic prose makes the ending crystal clear. “My glorious parasite has sucked me dry!” cried a distraught botanist. 

Easily my favorite story in the collection was penned by children’s author Edith Nesbit. A monstrous Virginia creeper had taken control of a derelict pavilion in the countryside. But more interesting was Nesbit’s demur heroine. Amelia was a classic “wallflower,” one of those featureless blondes who seem born to be overlooked. To be honest, I didn’t even realize she was the protagonist of the story until the very end. The killer creeper was uncanny, but the feminist commentary from Nesbit was delightfully unexpected. 

[Evil Roots: Killer Tales of the Botanical Gothic / Edited by Daisy Butcher / First Printing: March 2020 / ISBN: 9780712352291]

Bisutakiru

“The word was out,” writes author Neil Riebe in his new kaiju thriller Vistakill. Once again Japan had a huge problem to worry about. Oshima-Kojima was rumbling and academics and government officials were concerned that a volcano eruption of this magnitude would trigger a catastrophe on scale with the Permian-Triassic extinction event. 

It wasn’t just Japan’s problem, however. NATO declared the impending volcanic blast to be a present danger to the entire world. The intergovernmental organization was correct. When the colossus peak eventually exploded, witnesses described it as primeval. “It was the type of geologic violence one imagined happened at the Earth’s formation,” says Riebe.

The volcano’s eruption wasn’t a natural occurrence, however—no tectonic plate action, no gaseous pressure buildup. In fact, there was no science or logic to the phenomenon at all. Instead, it was the result of a Precambrian demoness waking up from her prehistoric nap.

In short: 251 million years ago, an immortal “wild spirit” named Bisutakiru (pronounced Vistakill in English) was imprisoned in endless slumber for her bad behavior. As a result of Gen Z inattention (darn those zoomers!), the ancient deity was now awake and very, very angry.

Riebe assembles a fractious band of kaiju monsters to battle Bisutakiru and her lava-powered minions. As you’d expect, the interspecies squad of mutants and dinosaurs don’t make an easy alliance. It was up to a gigantic super pterosaur named Brown Scale to keep everyone committed to the endgame. “He slouched under the weight of the world,” says the author. “It was up to him to win the unwinnable fight.”

But there was a twist—or, more accurately, an alternative way to contain Bisutakiru. Just like in his previous novel I Shall Not Mate (see my review here), Riebe threads a compelling moral dilemma throughout his story that “twists” everything in knots.

Even though the resolution of this spiritual war is at the core of the book, the author never skimps on kaiju action. Bisutakiru and a handful of giant monsters streak across the Japanese skyline threatening the safety of anyone caught in their wake.

To counterbalance the unrelenting carnage, the author pauses regularly to remind readers of the situation on the ground. A profound example of this occurs near the end of the novel when two reunited lovers are caught in a confluence of gunfire, sirens and beastly roars. With everything falling apart, they embrace each other like they are the last couple on Earth. Their message to Bisutakiru, Brown Scale and the rest of the quarrelling monsters: “Where there is love there is life.”

[Vistakill / By Neil Riebe / First Printing: February 2021 / ISBN: 9781953221780]

The Ants Invasion

Located in the middle of the New Mexico desert, the Reclamation School for Boys looked less like a juvenile delinquent prep school and more like an abandoned factory where atomic bombs had once been constructed.

As it turned out, the Reclamation School was formerly a chemical weapons facility and an experimental genetic laboratory. That was bad news for the teachers and students of the school, but good news for readers looking for high voltage mutant insect action.

Giant ants designed for warfare? A school filled with delinquents and hoodlums? In my opinion there couldn’t be a better setup (insert chef’s kiss emoji here).   

Infestation begins quickly when a visiting entomologist spots something odd crawling down the school’s hallway. “What’s wrong with that ant?” cried Dr. Gerry Medford. “There are like six, seven, eight, nine legs on it!”

Later, after a grisly autopsy on a dead ant the size of a tiger (using only a crowbar and a letter opener!), Dr. Medford clearly saw what was wrong. There was absolutely nothing like it on earth. The giant creature was some kind of man-made mutant. It was built, or more precisely, it was engineered for questionable motives. “Somebody designed this monster,” said Dr. Medford in horror. “They started with basic DNA, and then they manipulated the heck out of it.”

By the end of the day, Medford and his motley crew of preteen degenerates were the only things standing in the way of a possible insect world war with humanity. This gang of six included Andy (the bland protagonist), Hector, Joey, “Pyro” and two guys without first names.

A key member of the pint-sized suicide squad was Pyro Porter. When fighting an army of giant ants, you always want a guy on your team who’s a compulsive arsonist. It’s all about perspective, right? A villain is sometimes a hero depending on your point of view.

Despite their best efforts, Medford and the kids weren’t able to totally defeat the looming ant invasion. They couldn’t overcome the flurry of non-stop razor-sharp chitinous claws. It’s too bad the author never wrote a sequel to this 2013 novel. Some day I would like to read a book called Infestation 2: Beneath the Planet of the Ants.

[Infestation / By Timothy J. Bradley / First Printing: April 2013 / ISBN: 9780545459044]

Mahtog Mindwarp

Terence O’Corcoran was halfway through his deep space exploratory mission when he crash-landed on Mahtog, a previously uncharted planet. O’Corcoran was either 28 or 22 years old (depending on how you calculated stasis-time), but in truth he was only 900 heartbeats older than when he left Earth.

One thing was certain, O’Corcoran’s ship had taken him to the outer limits of outer space. Exploring the alien landscape, the shipwrecked astronaut was immediately attacked by a sundry of terrifying creatures—among them a dinosaur-sized amphibian, a large ant, a green-skinned pigmy and a purple hawk with a wingspan of more than 12 feet. The entire scene was bizarre and reminded O’Corcoran of the garish covers on science fiction adventure magazines of a century ago. “All that was missing,” wrote authors Jack and Julie Jardine, “was the scantily clad maiden—and, of course, the bug-eyed monster.”

Near the end of the novel, O’Corcoran battled more familiar and specific earthly monsters. Said the authors: “His academy training had prepared him for encounters with every sort of life-form imaginable, with the notable exception of werewolves and vampires. Mahtog turned out to be far madder than anything Lewis Carroll had imagined down the rabbit hole.”

O’Corcoran also bumped into an alluring local gal named Naira. She was a pretty little thing. Tiny and lushly curved, she would have looked good on the cover of Miss Galaxy magazine. The first time he spotted her she was wearing loose-fitting and transparent clothing along with embroidered curly toed slippers. “Her wardrobe was barbaric and somewhat reminiscent of an Earth-style harem costume.” Needless to say, it was love at first sight for the lonely spaceman.

Naira (and her peek-a-boo outfit) persuaded O’Corcoran to enlist in the ongoing and escalating Mahtog civil war. When he said yes to her proposal, he unknowingly signed up for a golden age Edgar Rice Burroughs-like adventure.

But back to the monsters: As you might have deduced from the book’s title, all the monsters in this creaky space opera were imaginary—illusions created to spook the Earthman. “Nothing was real,” explained a chatty leprechaun named Seamus O’Flynn (don’t ask why there’s a leprechaun in this story, it’s stupid). “We picked them out of your subconscious—memories of things you’d read about or imagined, like the little green man and the 30-foot purple lady.”  

As it turned out, spaceman Terence O’Corcoran wasn’t the hero of this book at all. He was merely a pawn in the local Mahtog conflict—just a tool who was duped by his banal golden age imagination.

[The Mind Monsters / By Jack and Julie Jardine writing as Howard L. Cory / First printing: January 1966]

War Is Hell

“War is Hell” is a figurative and well-worn term that describes the most ghastly human experience possible. The expression, first coined over 150 years ago, has been used for great effect by everyone from Gen. William Sherman to Sgt. Franklin Rock.

Contact!, a new nine-story military horror anthology, uses the phrase “War is Hell” in a non-metaphorical sense. Devils, gods, aliens (and a few large crickets) literally turn Earth into a burning Neo-Testament inferno.

“Black Ice” by R.F. Blackstone is probably the best example of this. The story even adds a meta element to the narrative. A group of mercenaries enlist in a mysterious search-and-rescue mission. Following a path of black ice to their target, the “Filthy Animals” find themselves on the highway to Hell.

But is it Hell? Or is it another theological black pit of doom? Blackstone pauses twice or thrice to allow his characters to muse about the topic.

“This is the perfect location for the realm of Helheim,” says one of the mercs. “It’s nothing but ice and darkness, with only the souls of the dishonored dead to give any light.”

Naw, says his comrade. “This is clearly Hell from Christianity—specifically the lowest level Cocytus the frozen lake that keeps traitors and fraudsters trapped forever. In the center at Judecca you’ll find the Devil. Not some bitch from a Marvel movie, but the real deal. Satan, who isn’t some buxom wench, but is, in fact, a three-headed monster that is also trapped and buried waist-high.”

Hel, Satan, Luzifer, Der Teufel, whatever god they feared, the Filthy Animals knew they were fallen angels on the road to ruin.

With “Man of His Word,” author Alister Hodge sends 80 centurions into the desert to search for a charismatic holy man. Whether they’re looking for Jesus is unclear. Instead they get ambushed by a powerful seer named Bārû who communicates with gods and demands their presence.

“I am here to rid the world of Rome’s pestilence!” the seer screams—his body exploding in a ball of mucous, shit and blood signaling the arrival of a holy warrior with a really big sword. The demon is ferocious and righteous, but can’t complete its mission on Earth. The Roman Empire lives to see another day.

This is the second anthology I’ve read from editor Chris McInally and they are both very good. Like its predecessor Aberrations (see my review here), Contact! fully delivers its intended objective with vigor. I’ll admit some of the contributions are disappointing. For example, I have no patience for stories with surprise endings that aren’t surprising at all. But otherwise, efforts by Daniele Bonfanti, Lucas Pederson, Justin Coates and others are all worthy monster-military smashups.

[Contact! / Edited by Chris McInally / First Printing: February 2021 / ISBN: 9798713943677]

Awesome Possum

Back in the day, author, firebrand and dragonslayer Gore Vidal made a memorable (but dismissive) comment about contemporary fiction and the people who read it.

“Readers like books with a lot of dialogue,” he said at the time, “because they can skim pages quickly and finish books faster. It makes people feel good about themselves. It gives them a sense of accomplishment.”

That quote was rattling around inside my head immediately after reading Playing Possum by Stephanie Rabig. I swear I sat down with her book one Saturday afternoon and 10 minutes later I was done with it.

I confess, time flows differently in my house, but the point remains: Rabig’s dialogue-heavy novel can be finished in one sitting without a bathroom break and with just a single cup of coffee.

Did it make me feel good about myself? Did it give me, as Gore Vidal opined years ago, a sense of accomplishment? Yes, I suppose so, maybe, I dunno. One thing is certain; I wouldn’t have plowed through Playing Possum if it didn’t compel me to keep turning pages.

Rabig’s novel is a creature feature “nature runs amok” comedy about small town family feuds, nasty hoodoo and hissing were-possums. There’s even a sweet romance too. I admit, the book probably could have benefited from a more equitable mix of dialogue, narration and action, but otherwise it’s totally awesome. It’s probably the most popular possum horror novel in the Okefenokee Swamp library.

Actually, the author gives readers two possum abominations: zombie-possums and were-possums. The “possum-people” had black eyes, white and gray fur and “wickedly pointed teeth.” They reminded me a lot of Kristen Wiig in her Cheetah outfit from the latest Wonder Woman movie.

The zombie-possums weren’t as glamorous as Kristen Wiig, unfortunately. They were just rabid opossums blindly obeying a hoodoo spell. The locals quickly knew something wasn’t right. “Possums were supposed to play dead or something, not attack,” cried the book’s first victim. “And they sure as hell didn’t hunt in packs!”

My favorite scene occurs when an army of possessed possums attack the Sunny Side Up Diner à la Night of the Living Dead. As you can imagine, a skirmish in a restaurant is ripe for slapstick and Rabig knows it. Her waitstaff use anything handy to protect their customers and themselves: iron skillets, forks, spatulas, serving trays, toasters, bar stools and fire extinguishers. Frontline workers, we salute you.

[Playing Possum / By Stephanie Rabig / First Printing: April 2020 / ISBN: 978634951782]

Werewolf by Night

Fangs of the Werewolf by John Halkin is a terrific monster novel for young readers. But it’s also a pretty good mystery story as well.

A “wolf-man” is heard serenading the moon near a remote Welsh mountain village. The howling, according to Halkin, haunts the night like a wandering spirit’s distress call.

Since wolves died out in Wales generations ago, the locals (and various outliers) start freaking out. What’s going on, they wonder? Specifically, who among them is the bawling beast??

Halkin ramps up the tension by sprinkling his novel with an assortment of colorful characters who may be the werewolf by night. As a reader, you’ll have fun trying to figure it all out.

Keep in mind that when the author uses the word “werewolf,” he’s using it in the most inclusive and general way possible. If you’re an etymologist, you already know that “were” is an old word meaning “man,” as in mankind, humankind, hominid. So it’s perfectly reasonable to suspect both gentlemen and ladies.

Is it Gareth Rhys, the village oddball? How about sporty Sabina Llewellyn? Or Joan Ellis, the woman from the dog pound? Or maybe bartender Tegwyn Jones? Or sheriff Griffith Owen? Or his son? There’s even some evidence that the werewolf might be flirty barmaid Vicky Foster and/or her two tweener kids.

For clues, always pay attention to the advice of the local wise woman (all villages have one). Old Blodwen Roberts has been around for 80 years and she knows a thing or two about “lycanthropic metamorphosis.” She had a close encounter with a werewolf when she was a young girl, and now she’s the wizened “guardian of the silver.”

After teasing the reader for 11 chapters, the author reveals the werewolf’s identity and provides a satisfying climax. For the record, I sussed out the monster early on. But I admit, it was a lucky guess.

In the final moments, a decision has to be made. Do you, at this critical moment, surrender your will to the moonlight’s mysteries and the scents on the night breeze? Or do you remain a mere human and never experience true independence, or true strength or the true joy of living in harmony with the natural world?

No matter the outcome, says Old Blodwen, your true self will be lost forever. “If a genuine werewolf were to watch itself in a mirror, which shape would it see—wolf or human?”

[Fangs of the Werewolf / By John Halkin / First Printing: September 1988 / ISBN: 9780812040715]

Dr. Who’s Book of Monsters

Using a nearby fire extinguisher, a schoolteacher thwarts an alien invasion in a story titled “Spawn” by David Campton. Later, in “The Eyes Have It” by John Halkin, a lowly carpenter’s apprentice shuts down a computer uprising with another fire extinguisher.

Coincidence? Probably. But one thing is apparent—we should all have a functioning fire extinguisher handy when the zombie apocalypse arrives or when kaiju start attacking Tokyo Bay or when sea monsters crawl ashore. I’m sure it’ll come in handy.

Fire extinguisher or not, most of the monsters in this Jon (Dr. Who) Pertwee collection from 1979 aren’t defeated at all. Giant slugs, carnivorous cacti, mermonkeys, dragons, interstellar spiders and vampire plants all live to see another day.

The vampire in George Evans’s “The Samala Plant” is actually an eight-foot tropical flower with a single octopus-like limb. It’s immeasurably old but as of yet unknown to science.

Immediately the blood-sucking plant establishes a complicated Frankenstein-like familial bond with botanist, Dr. Bernard Fenwick. It considers Fenwick a father, but is insanely jealous of his affections—especially with his 17-year-old daughter. “She was an intruder,” it thought. “She was the one causing trouble. With her out of the way, perhaps Fenwick would be happy.”

The Samala vampire eventually tries to kill the daughter but things take an unexpected turn. With the girl safely out of reach, the plant’s jealous nature manifests itself in a shocking last minute sexual gambit.

The plant reaches for Fenwick. Writes Evans: “The tentacle caressed his face, the touch so light that he could hardly feel it. Then it traveled downward, stroking him. Fenwick felt the affection, the love, that emanated from this strange being.” I have to admit; I’ve never read a story with such an overt eco-sexual climax.

My favorite story of the bunch is “The Lambton Worm” by Roger Malisson. I don’t laugh out loud much when I’m reading horror fiction, but this one had me snickering from start to finish.

A cruel serpent rises from a lake to terrorize a small village near the Scottish border. The creature was as long as a lane, thick as a barrel and ugly as a baby. Nothing could appease it except for a steady diet of milk and sugar and children. “No one was safe from its endless appetite,” writes Malisson.

The irony, of course, is that the serpent was initially found when it was a wee hatchling just six inches long. It was so insignificant at the time the villagers dismissed it entirely.

Now as a full-grown monster, the giant serpent couldn’t be stopped. But isn’t that always the way with evil? If you neglect it when it’s small, it will eventually grow big enough to destroy you.

[The Jon Pertwee Book of Monsters / Edited by Richard Davis / First Printing: January 1979 / ISBN: 9780416872002]

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]