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]

The Living Mummy

In 1445 BCE, at the age of 110, Joseph (son of Jacob) was laid to rest in Egypt. It took 400 years, but eventually his burial shroud was moved to Israel. Today, Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus is recognized as a religious shrine and represents a key Zionist ideal—the return from exile to the Promised Land.

That’s not where Joseph’s journey ended, however. According to author Maxwell Bauman, the Egyptians wrapped the Old Testament prophet in gauze and covered him with an arcane curse. Even after a millennium of golden slumbers, he wasn’t exactly dead. Someday he was fated to rise again.  

That day had finally arrived. A trickle of blood from an American tourist revived the ancient mummy of Canaan. His face was cold, stiff and gray, but for someone who had been dead for thousands of years, he looked pretty darn good. It actually looked like he had just woken from a nap, wrote Bauman.

The undead prophet emerged from his sacred sarcophagus and immediately started grabbing internal organs from luckless sightseers—eyes, intestines, liver—all the important stuff taken from him during the mummification process.

He also nabbed a stomach from a kid taking a dump in a public toilet. After thousands of years of not eating, the Canaanite was starving—he couldn’t wait until the poor boy was done with his business. Later, he shambled to a nearby food truck and devoured a big plate of shawarma. It smelled wonderful and the meat and spices were delicious, he said to himself.

Naturally, all this grisly mayhem caught the attention of the Israeli Police. Unfortunately, Detective Yosef Leib never truly understood what was going on—he didn’t believe in fairytales, after all. “Given the location of the attacks,” he opined, “I have reason to think it was gang activity or a religiously motivated hate crime.”

It was actually archeologist Golda Kohn who figured everything out. She was a woman of science who also believed in ancient scripture. She was the one to stop the mummy’s rampage across Israel. “You are the son of Jacob,” she told him. “This is Israel, the land promised to your father and your ancestors.”

Kohn knew there was a curse lingering in her homeland. She also knew that Joseph’s mummy was the continuation of that curse. “You are safe in the land of your people,” she said finally freeing the prophet from his burden. “Let this restlessness go.”

[The Mummy of Canaan / By Maxwell Bauman / First Printing: October 2019 / ISBN: 9781944866990]

Smarter Than the Average Bear

“The grizzly’s belly was full,” wrote Edwin Corley at the beginning of this movie novelization. “Dimly the beast was aware that he had stumbled upon a rich source of food that seemed inexhaustible.”

Until this moment, the hikers and campers of National Park had been a vague threat, to be avoided and hidden from. But now the giant bear had tasted their prime red meat, and he lost all fear of their strange acrid scent and noisy ways. “His thoughts obsessed about the juicy, easy food he had discovered, and his crafty mind began to form a plan of action.”

After the graphic slaughter of two comely female campers, the park rangers know everyone was in imminent danger. “We’ve got ourselves a rogue bear, a berserker bruin,” they all agreed. “That bear has tasted human blood. “From now on, he’ll be a killer. Until we kill him first.”

Normal grizzly bears were seven, maybe eight feet tall. But this one was easily 20 feet high and over three thousand pounds. Standing erect on his hind legs, he was able to snatch a helicopter from the sky. Truly, he was not unlike some kind of prehistoric monster.

And according to a local expert, that’s exactly what he was. “At one time there were grizzlies that large,” explained naturalist Arthur Scott. “The books call them Arctodus-Ursus Horribulus. They were one of the mightiest carnivores during the Pleistocene Era.”

But everyone wondered how a beast from a million years ago could still be alive? Was he trapped in ice like Captain America or what? “He was probably born of normal grizzly parents with hearty ancestral genes,” speculated Scott. “If so, he’s a genuine throwback to the Quaternary Period. He’d be an outsider to even his own pack.”

Still, no matter how fearsome bears were, they weren’t usually man-eaters. They mainly subsisted on fish, berries and pic-a-nic baskets. And like Winnie the Pooh and Baloo, they loved bees and honey too. Just like every other super villain in history, this psycho grizzly had an origin story that turned him into a raging man-killer.

As you’d expect from a novelization of a 70s exploitation flick, the action in Grizzly is waaaay over the top and spiced with Burt Reynolds-like bravado and curvy ladies. In fact, it’s laughable how much inconsequential chit-chat there is about big boobs in this book. Watching the movie, the actresses weren’t particularly zaftig. Their endowments came directly from the author’s overworked imagination.

For 180 pages, the bear roamed his domain without fear of consequence. Even though he was a gigantic prehistoric throwback, he was able to stay ahead of armed National Guardsmen at every turn. “That damn bear is smarter than you and me and everyone else put together,” admitted a weary park ranger.

[Grizzly / By Edwin Corley writing as Will Collins / First Printing: April 1976 / ISBN: 9780515041798]

Sea Hunt

Monsters weren’t supposed to exist, said Berkley, the plucky protagonist of Laura Martin’s latest novel. “I mean, I’ve read about them in books and stuff, but I’ve also read about dragons and elves and gnomes and giraffes, and none of those exist either.”

The truth was, there were all kinds of monsters in the world, all of them sea monsters. Jörmungandr, ghorch, makara, cetus, saw-mouthed skeplar, charybdis, kronda, bakunawa, two-headed aphant, loogie, mortagog and sea pig—they all existed because the world was now one massive body of water.

Because of a “Tide Rising” apocalyptic event, mankind was forced to take a giant evolutionary step backward. Humans lived on cruise ships and Navy aircraft carriers and existed on a diet of “fish, fish and more fish.” Like everyone else, Berkley was born and raised at sea. It was a precarious situation at best. “Fear was just a part of life,” she understood at an early age.

Berkley discovered gigantic sea creatures existed one day when she and her friend Garth were scavenging the Mediterranean Sea looking for valuable junk. Coming face-to-face with a 30-foot hydra serpent irrevocably changed her life in more ways than one.

Not only did monsters exist, she realized, but they were also intelligent and vengeful. Said Berkley immediately after escaping the clutches of the ruby Hydramonsterus serpentinius: “I turned back to look at the monster one last time. There was something about the way it looked back at me that made me sure it would kill me if it had the opportunity. I never thought that a creature like that could communicate emotion through its gaze.”

As a result of their first-hand, near-death experience with the hungry hydra, both Berkley and Garth were recruited as full-time monster hunters on the good ship Britannica. Now they would be stationed on the frontlines of the ongoing battle between man and monster.

It’s obvious Martin has a thing for sea monsters of all stripes and colors, and not just the shadowy unknowable blobs lurking at the bottom of the ocean. She takes care to give her creatures distinctive personalities. In particular: Elmer, the bratty gargantuan octopus.

Throughout the novel, ol’ Elmer is a pest who terrorizes the Britannica’s crew. It doesn’t take long before Berkley realizes he’s simply a colossal prankster with no evil agenda. After helping the ship overcome a hostile takeover by pirates, Elmer gives Berkley a convivial wink. What happens next is unknown, but the possibilities are endless.

[The Monster Missions / By Laura Martin / First Printing: June 2021 / ISBN: 9780062894382]

Mountaintop Madman Massacre

When you’re in the woods and a bigfoot unexpectedly crosses your path, there’s only three options available: run, submit or fight. What would you do?

In David Irons’s latest book The Bloody Tracks of Bigfoot, a character doesn’t run or submit to the eight-foot-tall beast. Astonishingly, he accepts the challenge before him. “Okay, asshole,” said tough guy Tony Reynolds. “Let’s go.”

The resulting fight was insane. Reynolds had been a Hollywood stuntman for a long time and there was no way he was gonna lose a fight to a goddamn freaky bigfoot. Wrote Irons: “Even though it towered over him and was a greater foe than any man he had ever fought, there wasn’t a bone in Reynolds’ body that was going to back down.”

Implausible as it might seem, the wily stuntman kept his adversary on its toes. Reynolds was a tough bastard, all right. “He was true Hollywood tough guy tough.” The writing in these four chapters is very good—simultaneously violent and humorous in equal parts. You could (maybe) call it Tarantino-esque.

Even though the cryptid was enormous, it wasn’t quick or agile. That helped Reynolds gain an advantage. With muscle memory culled from an old B-movie kung fu flick, the stuntman was able to dodge the beast’s sharpened claws and deliver a barrage of well-placed kicks and debilitating punches. When the giant bigfoot went down, Reynolds arrogantly blew a snot rocket toward the prone figure. “Just another furry pussy,” he said dismissively.

Reynolds was in the mountains of Oregon helping a crew shoot a low-budget independent horror film. It was the golden age of gory slasher flicks (the 80s) and everyone in Hollywood was looking to make a quick buck at the box office. This effort was going to be called Mountaintop Madman Massacre.  

But when a bigfoot family was discovered nearby, the original film was scrapped. Director Rob Lieberman decided to make a documentary instead. It would be a film that transcended celluloid, he thought, something that would change the world forever. Lieberman felt like he would go down in history as the man who clearly captured bigfoot on camera. There would be no denying the creature’s existence—the director was confident that he could bring home the Grand Guignol of bigfoot films.

What happened next was a grubby spoof of Hollywood wannabes and has-beens. The director’s dream of cinema verité quickly becomes a nightmare reality. With each death captured on celluloid, his grip on sanity unspooled. Life behind the lens desensitized him to what was in front of it. By the end of the novel, Lieberman was completely complicit in the mountaintop massacre.

No spoilers from me, but only one person from the film crew makes it to the last chapter. Everyone, even the lone survivor, experiences a shocking comeuppance. The Bloody Tracks of Bigfoot doesn’t suffer moviemaking fools lightly.

[The Bloody Tracks of Bigfoot / By David Irons / First Printing: August 2021 / ISBN: 9798454467999]

Behemoth Rhapsody, Part 3

Have you ever finished reading a book (or a series) and wished it had been told from a different character’s perspective—Tiger Lily instead of Wendy, perhaps, or Jane instead of Tarzan?

That’s sorta how I felt when I put down Monstrous Escape, the third and final (?) novel in John Grover’s titanic Kaiju Overlords series.

In all three books, the story swirled around Jason Bagley of the U.N. Special Forces. He was the presumptive hero of the series—a fearless fighter pilot, a doting family man and a steady influence to everyone under his purview. Without a doubt, he was the nicest man since Atticus Finch.

But there was another character who could easily have been the hero. John Temple had a compelling personal story before he joined the U.N. team. He also had a growth arc that took him from cocky pirate to selfless savior.

Grover’s kaiju trilogy would have been wildly different with Temple as the protagonist—in a good way, I think. But don’t be mistaken, I’m not asking for a rewrite. I’m just saying that a John Temple series would’ve been cool. He could have been the boss hero instead of the “woman in a refrigerator.”

As with all final books in a trilogy, Monstrous Escape wraps up with an explosive climax (for a quick catch-up, read my reviews of Behemoths Rising and Giants Reborn). In addition, if you’re like me, you’ll dig (!!) the unrelenting giant worm action. Added bonus: the giant centipede action ain’t too bad either.   

One thing I really liked about the Kaiju Overlords series was the way the author gave an emotional kick to all of his characters—two of them even found time to get married.

One of these emotional moments came a split second before the unthinkable endgame. Two colleagues suffering from the same post-apocalyptic funk attempt to articulate their feelings to each other. “I can’t keep losing everyone I care about,” said one.  

What followed was an intimate and awkward conversation forever unfinished between a man and a woman. Were they sharing a romantic moment (maybe) or were they trapped in a state of torpor (probably). Knowing now how the series ends, the conversation remains ineffably sad.

[Monstrous Escape / By John Grover / First Printing: August 2021 / ISBN: 9798451452585]