“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]

Monsters Forever

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]