Double Feature Monster Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Curse of Frankenstein

Old-timey monster movie fans already know the story: Boris Karloff wasn’t the first choice to play Frankenstein’s monster back in 1931. The folks at Universal Pictures wanted to cast Bela Lugosi, fresh from the success of his Dracula performance.

Apparently the original screen test didn’t go very well for the Hungarian-born actor. Depending on what you’ve read, Lugosi either looked like Prince Valiant or Buster Brown. Reportedly, his on-screen reveal was more laughable than scary.

Thus Boris Karloff got the iconic part—and the rest was celluloid history. Frankenstein was a big hit and kept the stately British actor rich and comfortable for the rest of his life. “My dear old monster,” Karloff said at the time. “I owe everything to him.” For Lugosi it was the beginning of a long slide into Grade Z pictures, drug addiction, unemployment and a squalid death.

Over the years, the Lugosi screen test has become a highly coveted item for movie and monster nuts. Even though it resurfaced for sale about 40 years ago in a Los Angeles trade-paper advertisement, it may no longer exist. The two-reel screener was either purposely destroyed back in 1931 or inadvertently lost over the years. We’ll never know.

In Alive!, Loren D. Estleman’s novel from 2013, Tinseltown is turned upside down when the Frankenstein clip is unexpectedly rediscovered. Naturally it stirs up interest with a sundry of Hollywood freebooters, gangsters, collectors and preservationists.

Chief among them was Valentino (no relation to Rudolph btw). His business cards identified him as a “film detective,” a romantic indulgence befitting a life on the outer edge of the motion picture industry. In reality, he was merely a consultant for UCLA’s Film Preservation Department. 

Because of one late-night phone call, Valentino found himself in the middle of a mad scramble for the 30-minute Lugosi screen test. He eventually got it, but he had to navigate all of the gorillas, dinosaurs, blobs, alien invaders and giant bugs that had crawled, slithered, stomped and swooped through the backlot of every studio, major and minor, since pictures began.

In 1943, Bela Lugosi finally had the opportunity to portray the monster that initially escaped him in a movie called Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. It must have galled him to don the square headpiece created for Karloff a dozen years after he haughtily turned down the part.

Even though he created the iconic and beloved screen image of Dracula (itself a once-in-a-lifetime role), Lugosi could never escape the shadow of Mary Shelley’s creation. “Frankenstein, always Frankenstein,” he lamented, “ever and again until the end.”

[Alive! / By Loren D. Estleman / First Printing: April 2013 / ISBN:  9780765333315]

#BLM Stop the Violence

Like a lot of monsters, Maribel Daniels wasn’t human. “Well, she was human,” corrected her younger sister Anya, “but she was also something else.” It was complicated.

According to local legend, Maribel was accosted 10 years ago by a bunch of guys. They raped her, killed her and dumped her lifeless body in Stoco Lake. At exactly the same time, a truck overturned on a nearby bridge and dumped unknown and highly toxic chemicals into the lake.

These chemicals replaced the blood in Maribel’s body and brought her back to life (sort of). As time went by, she mutated into a scaly blue fish-like monster with seaweed growing out of her skin. “Kind of like Swamp Thing,” said author Renee Miller.

Over the years, Maribel, now infamously known as the “Blood Lake Monster” (or BLM, for short), acquired a reputation with local girls for being an avenging angel. Explained one teen in a burst of exposition: “If you’ve got a guy who’s done you wrong, you can go to the lake and say a prayer to Maribel. She’ll do the rest.” In other words: the Blood Lake Monster would kill that loser boyfriend of yours dead.

Ten years later, Anya returned to the crime scene to solve her sister’s murder and stop the gendercide. She didn’t have any trouble figuring out what happened and who was involved. Figuring out Maribel’s wonky moral compass, however, gave her fits. She didn’t realize that her sister harbored a multi-monstrous agenda.

One particular scene near the end of the book sums up Maribel’s conflicting emotions thusly. When a local constable falls into the lake one morning, she darts toward him hungrily. “Her teeth sank deep into the soft skin of his belly. Blood filled the water like a red fog and swirled around her face like a caress.”

Before leaving his dead carcass to float to the bottom of the lake, Maribel plants a soft kiss on his open mouth. Said the author: “She then trailed her clawed fingers down his chest to open him up so the fish in the lake could feast.”

It’s not exactly fish sex, but it was a dramatic way for author Miller to describe her monster’s ravenous appetites. Sure, Maribel was angry. No one ever wants to be raped and killed and reborn as the She-Creature from the Black Lagoon. But she was also suffering from an unrequited ache that would haunt her for the rest of her existence. She was lonely.

[Blood Lake Monster / By Renee Miller / First Printing: July 2020 / ISBN: 9781989206508]

Nine Stories

There’s a moment in the story “Cabin 14” when an unlucky glamper comes face-to-face with a hungry saber-toothed tiger. What the hell, he thinks. Was it possible that someone was breeding prehistoric beasts in the Minnesota wilderness? And more importantly: Why?? Why would anyone want to do such a crazy thing?

Author Lucas Pederson doesn’t answer that particular question. Nor should he. All the creatures in this nine-story volume exist within acceptable (albeit extreme) boundaries. A saber-toothed cat is just one of the aberrations found in this “Nature’s Revenge” anthology.

There are also bears, insects, fish, kangaroo and komodo dragons to worry about. There’s even a story about an Australian yowie. Each permutation is horrifying in its own way, yet is bound inextricably by the laws of nature. A wasp with a wingspan of 10 feet isn’t a monster, per se. It’s just a big fucking wasp.

In “Surrogate,” the aforementioned giant wasp attacks a couple of weekend hikers from Melbourne. “It’s legs were large bending needles, like a demonic sewing machine,” writes B.D. Ramsay, “And its eyes were great, soulless portals to hell.” But that wasn’t the scariest part of the story. The real horror emerged seven days later. “I’ve become a slave, a zombie in nature’s plan,” cries the unfortunate victim.

Likewise, a trio of old friends gathers for a weekend fishing trip in “Black Eyes, Dark Water” by Dave Jeffery. The male bonding is interrupted during the group’s first outing by a nasty Northern Pike. “A big fucker,” says one of the fishermen. “At least a seven-footer.”

But, again, the “Piscean stalker” couldn’t be faulted for being an apex predator. The friends knew immediately they were being hunted by an incredible aquatic, omnipotent killing machine. They were doomed.

Aberrations ends with a happily-ever-after finale (“Haunted” by editor Chris McInally). Before the final windup, however, readers are introduced to Yowa from Mallacoota, Victoria (“Refugee” by Paul Mannering).

Yowa was “really, really weird looking,” quirky as hell and possibly not even human. In a surprising twist, she turns out to be a guardian angel-like figure straight from Australia’s bush.

The 20-page story quickly escalates from funny to odd to creepy, and contains an obligatory amount of bloodshed. It’s also a blunt comment on identity and the sanctity of indigenous culture. It’s a reminder to all of us that truth lives in nature.

[Aberrations / Edited by Chris McInally & Dane Hatchell / First Printing: August 2020 / ISBN: 9798671775839]

Unbless This Mess

No lengthy preamble for me, I’ll just come right to the point: The Unblessed is a mess of a novel. The plot is rambling, repetitive and sloppy, and bounces around in the most illogical manner. Character motivations are fluid and questionable. Worst of all, the dramatic tension is artificial and ineffective.

But things don’t start off badly. Paul Richards’s book begins with a tantalizing backstory featuring an ancient African demon known as Anansi, the Spider God.

Described as a 15-foot-tall human with the face of a spider or maybe a giant spider with the face of a man (it’s hard to tell), Anansi came to America in the 16th century during the Atlantic slave trade. Now quarantined in Montana, the demon-god is awake and hangry.

This is when problems arise. The early expositional pages set in Africa are terrific. But once the author brings readers into the 20th century, the story becomes a haphazard patchwork of pulp clichés and golden age comic book tropes. If you’ve ever read the first 26 issues of Detective Comics you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Anansi is the greatest power in existence, a creature that‘s persisted in its present form for untold thousands of years—an “ultranatural,” says the author. The irony, however, is that the demon has no physical sense of musculature of its own. No matter how omniscient and evil it is, it remains wholly dependent upon the labor of its victims and acolytes for every physical need.

To assist in its quest for world domination, the Spider God anoints a herald as its proxy. Like Gabriel, Hermes and Norrin Radd, Maximillian Grey is a loyal intermediary imbued with unlimited authority, power and influence.

Once Grey is introduced, The Unblessed waves goodbye to nearly every substantive character and dangling plot point. Segueing into superhero territory, the final endgame pits the Anansi herald against his eternal nemesis Camurious in a 50-page slugfest. All the African Spider God can do is wail in the background and “summon an icy force of demonic wind.” The monster of Montana is nothing but a crybaby and a damoiseau in distress.

[The Unblessed / By Paul Richards / Second Printing: June 1988 / ISBN: 9780821723807]

Echo in Space

Monsters are everywhere—in the closet, over the rainbow and 20,000 leagues under the sea. You can even find monsters on sunny Sesame Street (Check it out: The Monster at the End of This Book: Starring Lovable, Furry Old Grover). And they’re not earthbound either; monsters can also be found in “spaaaace” (insert spooky echo FX here).

But what is a monster, really? Beyond our limited earthly experience, the question is somewhat abstract. Are they unkillable bog men (“Atoms”), cosmic arachnids (“Spider In a Space Helmet”), a single, lonely aqua-man (“Black Lagoon”) or a bunch of lady astronaut clones (“Captain Clone”)?

Traditionalists will be happy to discover that vampires, werewolves and mummies continue their reign of terror in outer space. In fact, some of my favorite stories in this collection feature these hoary monster icons. A vampire pilots a ship of pilgrims on a long-term deep space mission in Jen Haeger’s “Cold Comfort.” Thrill seekers spend a fright-filled evening in a werewolf sanctuary in “The Moon Forest” (“come to the forest for a unique experience,” writes author Dirck de Lint with a smirk). And three embattled astronauts debate the difference between mummies and zombies in “The Silver Crown” by Mariah Southworth. Btw: It’s nice to know people in the future are still debating the old mummy/zombie chestnut.

My favorite of these classic-monsters-in-space stories is definitely “AstroNosferatu and the Invisible Void.” Author Brandon Butler basically introduces Vlad Tepes to the Universal Pictures “MonsterVerse.” Butler describes the difference between the Impaler and Dracula the King of Vampires this way: “The Impaler’s a warrior with a stomach for shocking brutality. The dainty vampire, on the other hand, concealed hungers born of crueler appetites.” Even before the surprise ending, it’s interesting to see how each monster navigates age-old grievances and alliances.

More than anything, Monsters in Spaaaace! is about all the otherworldly creatures that give humanity the heebie-jeebies. The most nuanced of these stories is “The Rise of Iës” by Rose Strickman. Stranded on an unsettled alien planet, 39 Earthlings fight a day-by-day battle for survival. Spying a human-like figure lurking nearby, a search party attempts to make contact.

Strickman’s resolution involves large and gross centipedes, orgasmic venom and a not-so-mutually agreeable conjunction. Quite frankly, it’s unthinkable, inevitable and icky. “Needs must as the devil drives,” quotes the author. In other words, if Satan is driving the car, you have no choice but to sit back and accept your fate. One night of murder and terror gives Strickman her happy ending.

[Monsters in Spaaaace! / Edited by Michael Cieslak / First Printing: November 2019 / ISBN: 9780998887890]

Eye of the Spider

With Eye of the Monster, Andre Norton was attempting to do something tricky, but only an extremely clever (or agile) author could have pulled it off. And in my opinion, Norton was neither clever nor nimble during her 60-plus years writing science fiction.

Here, Norton has written a space-age colonization story that pits meddling off-world settlers against marginalized native citizens. That’s right, she’s flipped the script—she’s basically written a novel in which the Aztecs were the monsters and Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors were the victims.

You can see how that would be a knotty narrative to untangle. So what if the Ishkurians were “hostile reptilians with crocodile-like sloping skulls”? Did that give anyone the right to hack their home world? I don’t think so.

It all started when Terrans showed up and introduced their own litigation and judicial procedures. A series of blunders and culturally insensitive decisions eventually led to a native revolt. By mutual consent, the colonists split Ishkur for greener pastures.

But some off-world stragglers remained—that’s when Eye of the Monster begins. Four disparate youngsters must survive a trek through an unforgiving jungle (filled with ghost-wings, skull-rats, progies and air dragons) while avoiding scary Ishkurian crocodile-men.

Norton wasn’t a dummy. Perhaps she thought she was being clever. I dunno. She knew she was turning native freedom fighters into monsters. That didn’t stop her from manipulating the reader’s sympathies in the wrong direction however.

Her hero was Rees Naper, a young man who made money selling indigenous fauna to off-world zoos. At times he seemed to respect the civil rights of the natives. But I wouldn’t exactly call him woke. Throughout the entire novel, he used the word “Crocs” to describe Ishkurians, even though he knew it was a forbidden and derogatory epithet.

The only way Naper and his crüe could survive their dire situation was to outwit the cunning Ishkurians. He subscribed to a theory called “Eye of the Spider”: If you fight a spider, you must attempt to see through its eyes, think with its mental equipment and foresee its attack as it would make one. The spiders in this case were the Ishkur natives and Rees would have to strive to think like a Croc in order to out-think a Croc. “But how?” he thought. “How did one become a Croc?”

In the end, Naper and his cohorts escaped to an orbiting satellite in outer space. Despite a knowing wink to her readers on the last page, Norton doesn’t explicitly give her “heroes” any type of revelation or insight into the situation. In their wake lay corrupt idealism, social upheaval, burned bridges and lots of dead bodies.

[Eye of the Monster / By Andre Norton / First Printing: January 1962 / ISBN: 9780441756957]

Rumble at the Drive-In

Mid-century drive-in theaters were infamous for showing a certain type of low-budget movie. The movie titles advertised on roadside marquees inevitably promised a riot of space invaders, giant insects, mutants, teenage monsters, biker gangs, grifters, hot rods, greasy kid stuff, tight angora sweaters and rock’n’roll.

With nostalgia to guide them, editors Norman Partridge and Martin H. Greenberg have assembled an anthology that perfectly represents (mostly) the golden age of B-movies—“The Thing from Lovers’ Lane,” “The Blood on Satan’s Harley,” “59 Frankenstein” and “The Slobbering Tongue that Ate the Frightfully Huge Woman” are just a few of the wild and campy stories included in this collection.

Perhaps the two stories that best encapsulate the drive-in experience are “Plan 10 from Inner Space” by Karl Edward Wagner and “Jungle J.D.” by Steve Rasnic Tem. Both efforts, in their own way, present all the elements of teenage cinema from the 50s in one kinetic jumble. The Wagner story is pretty straightforward, while “Jungle J.D.” is a crazy word salad of nonsense. Both are terrific.

As teenagers, my friends and I would go to our friendly neighborhood outdoor theater and gorge on action flicks from Hong Kong. For us, Bruce Lee, Sammo Hung, Angelo Mao and Cheng Pei Pei were the kings and queens of the drive-in. Unfortunately there isn’t much kung fu action in these 18 stories. A young Bruce Lee (with peroxide hair!) shows up briefly near the end of the book, but otherwise the contributions of Asian films on the American id goes undocumented.

Without a doubt, my favorite story of the bunch is by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. “I Was a Teenage Boycrazy Blob” is about a lovesick monster’s sensual awakening during her journey to the local Fosters Freeze to rendezvous with the boy of her dreams. “I could almost taste his whole substance even though he hadn’t touched me yet,” says Silly Putty Patty LeFevre. “Brylcream and zit medicine and shaving lotion, skin and bone and blood, ketchup on his breath, sex on his mind, soap on his skin.” A total nirvana of a snack! she gurgles.

One final note: More than one author name checks a particular iconic tune by Link Wray and His Ray Men. With its relentless distortion and ominous power chords, “Rumble” easily sets the mood for this socko collection of stories featuring monsters, teenagers and rock’n’roll.

[It Came from the Drive-In / Edited by Norman Partridge and Martin H. Greenberg / First Printing: February 1996 / ISBN: 9780886776800]

To Mega Therion

MotherAbominationsBree Kenny was a 10-year-old little girl when she saw her parents crushed by “the great griffon.” Since then, her life had become one huge allegory for using violence to solve her problems.

The griffon, officially known as Her Majesty’s Giant Monster but colloquially known as Humgum, was set loose by the Royal Navy to quell Northern Ireland’s uprising. Bree’s parents were collateral damage in England’s peacekeeping operation.

All her life Bree had been used as an unwitting tool for other people’s agendas. Orphaned, adopted and radicalized, turned into a double agent and pushed toward assassination, she wasn’t raised like other children. She was trained to be a soldier.

Her first assignment was a doozy. Bree was sent to Scotland to infiltrate Aleister Crowley’s den of thelemites. England’s Secret Intelligence Service was convinced that the infamous occultist was trying to subjugate the Loch Ness Monster for nefarious reasons. “The mission parameters were clear,” wrote author Desmond Reddick, “England wanted Crowley dead, but not before he raised the beast.”

In Reddick’s “Monster Earth” novel, the nations of the world fought wars by deploying giant monsters. England already had a monster in its stable, but it coveted a second one. Having control over a giant griffon and a massive plesiosaur would easily establish the United Kingdom as the most powerful country in the world.

While visiting Crowley’s sanctum sanctorum in Northern Scotland (“Do as thou wilt!” encouraged the 107-year-old degenerate), Bree finally discovered her Earth-changing destiny. She was Babalon, the Scarlet Woman—otherwise known as the Mother of Abominations. It was she, not the renowned magician, who controlled To Mega Therion, the beast of Loch Ness.

Suddenly, the power dynamic flipped. Crowley wanted to change the world and England wanted to rule the world, but it was a 20-year-old woman from Belfast who won the grand prize. The Loch Ness Monster was real, and it was Bree’s personal pet. Without a second thought, she steered the antediluvian sea creature toward London for a showdown with Humgum, the giant griffon.

The novel’s endgame includes a giant monster clash that destroys the Palace of Westminster and Big Ben (for details, check out the cover illustration by Mark Maddox). Bree’s twin brother and a third monster show up to complicate things, but their involvement is mostly gratuitous. Added surprise: Reddick’s graphic description of being swallowed alive by a giant reptile is a ghastly delight.

By the time the novel ends, Bree Kenny gets her revenge and Aleister Crowley gets his comeuppance. England’s dreams of world domination are dashed and the legendary monster from Scotland is released from its Loch Ness prison. Mankind foolishly thought it could tame the primal and ancient world. But there are things bigger than all of us. It’s a monster earth and we just live on it.

[Mother of Abominations: A Monster Earth Novel / By Desmond Reddick / First Printing: February 2017 / ISBN: 9781530879823]

The Beauty and the Beasts

BeastThe Beast is a salacious piece of work. First published in 1980, Walter J. Sheldon’s bigfoot novel is filled with all sorts of touchy topics like bestiality, rape, cannibalism, religion and grubby small town politics.

In particular, the novel’s carnal content is off the charts. The shaggy shagging starts on page 16 and continues with regularity until the penultimate chapter. If you’re squeamish about sasquatch sex, then you might want to read something less sensational … like maybe Flowers in the Attic or Tropic of Cancer.

There are two strong female protagonists in Sheldon’s story: Zia Marlowe, a 25-year-old anthropology student, and Self, a precocious bigfoot teenager. Both are willful characters who keep the narrative thread burning from both ends.

Having seen 15 Times of Snow, Self has reached puberty and is consumed by her raging hormones. Says the author: “She tingled when males came near her, and sometimes just at the thought of them. Her vagina itched with desire.”

Unfortunately, a bigfoot penis is rather small (you didn’t know that, did you?) and Self quickly discovers there’s no such thing as postcoital reciprocity among partners. She sleeps with all the males in her troop and she never once feels a “great explosion of pleasure.”

But she’s heard tantalizing rumors. Even though their bodies are smaller, the penises of the “Pink Skin” males (humans) are supposedly bigger than a bigfoot penis. Fantasizing about these rumors keeps Self warm during long cold winters. “What would it be like to live in harmony with the Pink Skins?” she muses as she rubs restlessly between her legs. “What a nonsensical dream!”

Zia Marlowe is similarly obsessed. She has proof that there’s a bigfoot troop in the nearby mountains and she’s eager to find it. She’s 25-years-old, but unlike Self, she’s still a virgin. That doesn’t mean she wants to be a sexless spinster her entire life, however. She’s an exotic beauty “with a faintly oriental cast to her eyes,” and every man in town gives her a randy wink when they see her. For one reason or another, Zia has decided to forego sex until she finds her elusive sasquatch.

Like I said, she’s a tad obsessed. Zia wants to venture forth and bring back scientific proof that bigfoot exists (no killing involved she hopes). More than anything, she wants to bring truth to the world and establish an evolutionary brotherhood between bigfoot and man.

In one dramatic swoop, she finds out how close the two primates really are. Sex is the common link and poor Zia becomes the amative vessel for both a horny colleague and a bigfoot alpha male. It isn’t exactly the scientific proof she’s hoping for, but it’s definitely something Self, her sassy sasquatch sister, already figured out: All men are assholes.

[The Beast / By Walter J. Sheldon / First Printing: March 1980 / ISBN: 9780449143278]