Beware the Leshy

Tree spirits are ancient demigods that symbolize immortality and/or fertility. They protect the forest (and the animals within the forest) and are ubiquitous in every culture around the world. 

Usually benevolent, tree spirits can embody malevolent characteristics as well. The Enchanted Elder, for example, has earned a sinister reputation over the years. Today it’s become an emblem of death and sorrow. 

Like everything old and inexplicable, tree spirits have been anthropomorphized again and again in folk tales and fairy tales—usually they take the shape of a nymph, a goddess or a Totoro-like beast. Whatever form they take, however, their message seems to be the same: heed the forest or else!

Lord of the Forest, the latest effort from author Chris McInally, takes place a millennium after the birth of Christ. That’s a long time ago, but even back then, tree spirits were called “Old Ones.” Men respected and feared them in equal degree. 

Things get hot when a small band of dispirited soldiers from Kievan Rus (a medieval Slavic confederacy) seek refuge in an inhospitable forest. One by one the squad is picked off in a gruesome and organic manner. They instinctively know they’re being stalked by a guardian of the forest—a leshy.

To stay alive, Danil (the leader of the pack) is compelled to to confront three separate adversaries: a surprisingly fierce match against a brother-in-arms, a climatic bash against the leshy and the post-climatic confrontation with the leshy’s wife. Each of these fights is terrific. The author’s writing is strong and clear and enfolds in an easy-to-follow sequential narrative. 

And finally, the author doesn’t withhold any details about his monster. By the end of the book, the reader knows exactly what the mighty leshy looks like. It stood taller than any man, writes McInally, “at least eight feet tall.” Its long, muscular arms hung at either side of a sculpted, humanoid torso. It had a pale face with a pair of blazing green eyes like liquid jade. A thin set of lips twitched and quivered before opening impossibly wide to reveal a nest of glistening, needle-like teeth. Rising from the monster’s forehead were a pair of antlers, strange, twisted, horned extensions that branched off in multiple directions. 

A master of declarative writing, McInally adds one last important detail about the leshy. Its skin was pale and waxy like a cross between flesh and wood, he says. “It was an ugly fucker.”

[Lord of the Forest / By Chris McInally / First Printing: June 2022 / ISBN: 9798836837419]

The Final Chapter

Size matters in kaiju fiction. Just ask Steve Alten, an author who’s penned eight novels featuring an awesome prehistoric shark. “What is cooler than stories of giant creatures?” he asks rhetorically at the beginning of this monster tome. “When it comes to stalking (or being stalked) size obviously matters. Alligator on the loose? No big deal. Wait … he’s a 30-footer? Well, hell, that IS a big deal.”

Here in Monstrous, a kaiju-fueled anthology from 2009, the creatures are indeed big. But as we all know, size is a relative thing. Giant head lice, for example, aren’t really that big (“The Enemy of My Enemy” by Patrick Rutigliano). Either are bull ants from Australia (“Six-Legged Shadows” by David Conyers and Brian M. Sammons). 

Thankfully, king-sized colossi dominate most of these stories: Bears (“Extinction” by Evan Dicken), black beetles (“A Plague From the Mud” by Aaron A. Polson), a 60-foot radioactive vampire (“The Big Bite” by Jeff Strand), a cancerous brain the size of your house (“Whatever Became of Randy” by James A. Moore) and a cast of man-eating crustaceans from crabmaster Guy N. Smith. 

There’s even a story about a colossal porn star with an 80-foot boner. “The erection felt great,” says Miles Long while stomping across Los Angeles, “a real classic like in the old days.” But “The Attack of the 500-Foot Porn Star” by Steven Shrewsbury isn’t strictly a 50s radiation monster retread. The ending, in particular, is aimed squarely at our PornTube generation. 

Appropriately, the book ends in Japan, the ancestral homeland for all modern-day kaiju. “The Island of Dr. Otaku” by Cody Goodfellow literally turns the city of Tokyo into a “strange beast.” Tired of rebuilding after an endless barrage of daikaiju attacks, Tokyo’s metamorphosis is the only sensible response—it literally becomes a Toei-inspired monster itself.

Other cities follow. San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and Mexico City—they all begin to collect the world’s fears and misinformation and coalesce into a power source infected with hot air and bullshit. It’s the ultimate chapter in this collection of gigantic monstrous tales.

[Monstrous: 20 Tales of Giant Creature Terror / Edited by Ryan C. Thomas / First Printing: January 2009 / ISBN: 9781934861127]

Life On the D-List

It’s no secret. Everybody knows who’s on top of the superhero A-list. There’s Superman, Batman and Captain America, and all the Avengers and everyone on the Justice League roster. When Darkseid and Thanos come to town, these are the heroes who dutifully show up for work.

The B-list includes all the trusty sidekicks who assist the superheroes—people like Lois Lane, Robin and Bucky Barnes. And since B-listers need a little help too, there’s a C-list as well. Lois Lane always has Jimmy Olsen in her clutch after all. 

At the bottom of the heap are the lowly D-listers. These backup superheroes handle the muggings, heists and regular criminal activity the police can’t respond to in time. They are the faceless heroes who do all the grunt work without getting any of the credit. 

Author Kayla Hicks introduces two of these D-listers in the debut of her Backup Superhero series. Dwighter is an A-list wannabe with a drinking problem. Questions arise when he unexpectedly graduates to the upper ranks of the cliquey Superhero League. It’s up to his friend Tanser Girl to solve the escalating mystery.  

With a little bit of help, Tanser Girl uncovers a messy plot involving international espionage, the FBI, the vaunted Superhero League and a giant shark (for fun). To complicate matters further, the mystery also includes a duplicitous A-lister. 

Goffman is arguably the most popular superhero in the entire League. He holds the record for the most criminal apprehensions and is a PR charmer. He’s proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely. In a way, he’s like a pint-sized Homelander (The Boys) and Ozymandias (Watchmen). 

The Backup Superhero is a rather short effort (only 66 pages), but it contains enough subterfuge and superhero angst to warrant a handful of sequels. It seems reasonable to expect more knotty entanglements and shady alliances in future volumes.   

The key to solving the mystery, of course, is Tanser Girl, a character who freely admits that she’s just a superhero footnote. Like Kathy Griffin, she’s been trying to get on the A-list her whole career. But now, if she can expose systemic fraud within the Superhero League, she might gain the respect she deserves. It’s time for her to get off the D-list.

[The Backup Superhero / By Kayla Hicks / First Printing: March 2021 / ISBN: 9798711535157]

Every Dog Has Its Day

In his introduction to Wolf Moon, author David Irons freely admits his werewolf-in-space novel began as a screenplay. The movie was never produced (unfortunately), but it inspired a great tagline: “In space … there’s always a full moon.”

Irons uses the catchy phrase on his book’s cover and a few times throughout the story, but he isn’t married to it. Wolf Moon actually ends in a flurry of memorable catchphrases. The list goes on and on, but two of my favorites include: “Earth needs a wake-up call … with a bite” and “It’s a dog-eat-dog world and you always have to make sure you have the biggest teeth.” Probably the most provocative of the lot is “Never trust anything that bleeds once a month and never dies.” It’s either the perfect title for an Alice Cooper album, or the perfect tagline for an unmade “90s-style straight-to-video sci-fi/horror movie.”

The novel/screenplay begins with a ubiquitous roll call of disreputable mercenaries: the cocky man-whore, a pair of roidoids, the emotionally vulnerable rocket ship pilot and the pop culture nerd. They’re on a sketchy five-day mission to the dark side of the moon.

Once in space, an unexpected distress call lures the crew to a nearby asteroid. Within minutes of landing, they see a zombie-like human lurching toward them through a “catacomb filled with junked morbidity.” 

BTW: The man’s name is Niles Talbot. Which, I presume, makes him a distant relative to Larry Talbot. And you know what that means, right? The author is setting the stage for some hairy wolf-man action in outer space (soundtrack by Claude Debussy and the rest of his Impressionist pals).

Like I said earlier, Wolf Moon was originally a screenplay, which means you can arguably call this effort a novelization. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. I’ve been reading movie novelizations and tie-ins my whole life and I quite enjoy them. 

Scripts are lean and mean by necessity, but novels encourage writers to expand their narrative with visual details, subplots and characterization. A good writer takes advantage of the opportunities given to him. 

I have to admit, Wolf Moon doesn’t completely make the transition from screenplay to novel. There’s some excellent word play, humor and description here, but it’s a straightforward rewrite nonetheless. 

[Wolf Moon / By David Irons / First Printing: July 2020 / ISBN: 9798664439939]

Plasmagoria

Perry Rhodan, First Administrator of the Solar Imperium and Peacelord of the Universe, is having a bad day. A trader ship under his purview has been hit with a mysterious epidemic, his radar systems have spotted an unwelcome alien spacecraft nearby and a newspaper reporter is stoking dissent against his peacekeeping administration. Worst of all, a plasma monster is rapidly devouring everything in sight. 

Anyone who’s remotely familiar with the ongoing Perry Rhodan serial knows that the titular hero is a proactive man of action. He’s not the type to sit around and wait for trouble to escalate. 

He immediately assembles his trusty crew including Reginald Bell (his best friend) and Lt. Puck (the irrepressible mousebeaver with superpowers). On impulse, Rhodan also conscripts Walt Ballin, the rabble-rousing reporter. 

At this point in the novel, you’re probably thinking all four concurrent crises have solutions dependent on each other—and that’s correct. Even though they seem totally unrelated, the plague, the alien ship, the plasma creature and the reporter all hold keys to a happy ending. 

In particular, the amorphous gelatinous monster is the most menacing threat of them all. Whether Mal-Se is sentient or not is never fully revealed by the author (or the translator). The plasma thingie is referred to as “he,” but there’s no proof that it’s anything but a mindless ambulatory piece of goop.  

In tandem with a giant robot brain (I love giant robot brains, don’t you?), scientists eventually provide some useful analysis. Mal-Se is a formless yet endlessly forming colloidal mixture of complicated endosperms and inorganic materials. By utilizing highly evolved tracing sensors, it moves with uncanny swiftness to consume alien albuminous and other organic compounds.

“There is not the slightest prospect of being able to contain it,” cries one expert in a panic, “because the plasma increases itself at a rate of billions of times per second it will take only 16 months until Earth will be covered in a thick layer of muck.” In the end, every creature on the planet will become a goopy monster. “All of us will become what our attacking agent already is.”

After a moment (or two) of panic, Rhodan and his buddies figure everything out. Whew! In just 120 pages, the plague is cured, the aliens are thwarted and the plasma monster is contained. 

Even the muckraking reporter changes his tune and becomes a fan of the Solar Imperium—although he has one final question for his new pal Perry Rhodan. “Do the monsters out there outnumber us?” he asks. “I mean, is the universe one big bag of horrors or is it a galaxy of wonders?”

“So long as humans fear, that in itself is the monster,” replies the philosophical First Administrator. “Once their fear has been conquered they will perceive the wonders of creation. It’s a long road yet but at the end of it is humankind, to whom the universe belongs.”

[Perry Rhodan #95: The Plasma Monster / By Kurt Mahr / First Printing: May 1976 / ISBN: 9781041660798]

Endgame

What’s your favorite act in a three-act play? The set-up? The conflict? The resolution? If you’re a fan of big Hollywood blockbusters, you probably enjoy the endgame’s explosive resolution—the moments when Godzilla crushes King Ghidorah and Captain America thwarts the Red Skull. 

For readers who enjoy the final act the best (you know who you are), I suggest picking up a copy of Primal Riptide. AuthorJulian Michael Carver dispenses with the first and second acts and goes straight to the climax. His latest novelette is all endgame and nothing but endgame. 

The story picks up immediately after the U.S. Coast Guard destroys a drug cartel’s headquarters on an abandoned oil rig in the Pacific Ocean. Readers miss “the most explosive Naval confrontation since the Cuban Missile Crisis” and join a shootout in progress between Coast Guardsmen and the last four surviving members of the Salerno Cartel, including drug queen Nikki Salerno, Xavier, the tattooed enforcer, mercenary Cassidy Davis and Leon Saville, a Navy turncoat.

Tensions are running high among the cartel castaways. After all, their entire base of operations has been destroyed and they’re trying to outrun a fleet of Navy point-class cutters. Bickering escalates quickly and the fugitives are having a hard time keeping their shit together. 

But what they don’t know (yet) is that the real danger lurks below the water’s surface. All the action on top of the ocean has attracted the attention of something big—something like “an overgrown great white shark or a big orca.” 

The cartel and the Coast Guard quickly discover that they’re both being pursued by a sea creature that shouldn’t even be alive, namely a 66-foot-long megalodon. When Cassidy first sees the prehistoric shark coming her way, she knows that she and her comrades are doomed: “It’s a killing machine, the largest ocean predator ever known to scientists. We don’t stand a chance!”

Up close, the meg resembled “a large bloated great white shark,” writes Carver. “Its belly hung down as if it had just feasted on an entire blue whale and it’s icy eyes pierced the watery refraction like two great snow-globes. From its mouth jutted an array of razor-sharp teeth that reminded [Cassidy] of a hungry underwater tyrannosaur.” 

In conclusion, I’d say the non-stop action of Primal Riptide is fleetingly enjoyable, but unsatisfactory as a standalone piece of fiction. The author wanted to write a book that could be read in one sitting. Mission accomplished. But there’s a reason stories are written in three-act arcs. It’s the building blocks of all good linear narrative. 

[Creature Features #1: Primal Riptide / By Julian Michael Carver / First Printing: March 2022 / ISBN: 9781922551368]

House of Sasquatch

There are definitely monsters in Beasts of the Caliber Lodge, but I wouldn’t exactly call it a monster novel. There’s also a lot of espionage afoot, but I wouldn’t call it a spy novel either. 

It’s a hybrid effort of course. Author L.J. Dougherty calls it “a novel of espionage horror” and he’s correct. His mashup adventure involves Nazis, Nazi hunters, bored rich elites and a secret community of Sasquatch.

Dougherty isn’t swimming in uncharted waters here. There are other writers who have dipped their toes in the espionage horror genre pool in the past. Just off the top of my head I’m reminded of the excellent Milkweed trilogy by Ian Tregillis (2010) and Kay Kenyon’s A Dark Talents series (2017).  

Beasts of the Caliber Lodge takes place during the swingin’ 60s. An international organization of Nazi hunters is searching for Wilhelm Stengl, a former Colonel of the SS and a man who possesses a dossier of names and addresses of legendary Nazi high rollers. The job of these mercenaries is to capture Stengl alive and bring him to justice. 

After years of dead ends and near misses, the group finally gets a worthwhile tip. Stengl (now known as Kristian Beckett) will be vacationing at the Caliber Lodge in Alaska. Through various connections, the Nazi hunters are able to send an agent named Jimmy Knotts to the super exclusive snowy resort. 

This is when genres start to blend. Knotts is hoping to capture the slippery SS agent, but he finds himself in the middle of an unexpected plot twist. It turns out that the Caliber Lodge is an outpost for wealthy big game hunters looking to bag the most exclusive prey on earth: Sasquatch!

Naturally, Knotts and Stengl have a prickly relationship, but there’s additional intrigue at the lodge. One person to keep an eye on is Jonathan “Black Rhino” Turk. He’s a Kraven the Hunter-kind of guy with a shady past. And then there’s Greta Everly, the mistress of the manor, who enjoys having sex wrapped in a Sasquatch pelt. 

The two genres ultimately come together for an explosive finale as the Caliber Lodge goes up in flames like the House of Frankenstein. The good guys prevail. Both the Nazi hunters and the Sasquatch earn their long-awaited rewards. 

[Beasts of the Caliber Lodge / By L.J. Dougherty / First Printing: March 2021 / ISBN: 9798553886776]

The Halloween Haunted Forest Tour

Four years ago a copse of trees popped up in Nowheresville, New Mexico. Not only was the forest a foreboding place, it was also home to thousands of frightful monsters—beasts with claws and fangs and tentacles and huge bloodshot eyes and every kind of grotesque appendage.

Scientists were baffled by the appearance of the Haunted Forest. The internet, on the other hand, ran wild with conspiracy theories. The most common theory was that the United States of DC Comics had developed a high-tech tree growth hormone that had gotten out of control, and the creatures in the forest were being bred as super-soldiers. 

In reality, the Haunted Forest was an interdimensional portal. The monsters from one dimension were coming to our dimension to feast on an all-you-can-eat buffet of human flesh and offal. 

Sounds rather bleak, doesn’t it? The appearance of the forest was an alarming harbinger. It was the beginning of Armageddon and the end of the world and that kind of thing. But some people didn’t see it that way. The mayor of a nearby city, for example, was perfectly fine having monsters as neighbors just as long as they decided to keep to themselves. 

And then there was Martin Booth, the owner of H.F. Enterprises. He decided to turn the area into a wildly popular tourist attraction. His Halloween Haunted Forest Tour allowed people to ride a tram straight into the heart of darkness. He assured visitors that nobody had ever been eaten on one of his tours—and “nobody ever would!”

But as we all know, accidents happen all the time. Even in Finland and Disneyland, the two happiest places on Earth, people aren’t 100 percent safe. In truth, the Haunted Forest was more like Jurassic Park than Hershey Park. 

An unexpected tram accident two miles into the forest left 84 people unaccounted for. Spoiler alert: Nearly all of the passengers were immediately gobbled up by hungry monsters. “Things with fangs, things with claws, things with spikes, things with horns, and even a fuckin’ thing with a giant mouth on it’s stomach.” 

It was up to a mötley crëw of survivors to figure out the mystery of the Haunted Forest and ultimately save mankind from extinction. Time was running out, and they couldn’t wait for the Justice League of America to swoop in and save them. 

The novel ends in a glorious orgy of hellhounds, 15-foot ogres, colossal wyrms, lizard men, snake women, human-faced scorpions, imps, giant ants, dragons and werewolves. There’s even a pinch of torture porn to make readers squirm. Most devious of all, however, was the demon puppet master orchestrating the entire show from the sidelines. 

Somehow, through grit and luck, a handful of people found their way to a happy ending (sort of). Said one character in a fit of endgame empowerment: “I’m tired of letting this forest push me around. I’m tired of the bugs and the tooth-bearing things and the blood and the fur and the claws and the … the stuff. I’m tired of all the forest stuff.”

[The Haunted Forest Tour / By James A. Moore & Jeff Strand / First Printing: September 2017 / ISBN: 9781977529992]

Psycho Sea Spider

Be forewarned, there’s a lot of needless exposition in Spider Legs, the giant sea creature novel from co-authors Piers Anthony and Clifford A. Pickover. It’s not Moby Dick level exposition, of course, but it’s totally disruptive and maddeningly unnecessary. 

All writers know that exposition is an essential literary tool. It provides context and helps manage the story’s action and rising climax. Using this simple matrix, Spider Legs would certainly benefit from a better balance between setting, character and conflict. 

Readers are treated to an unflagging discourse on sea spiders (Pycnogonids) and the indigenous environment of Newfoundland. That’s to be expected, I guess. Unfortunately, the info is delivered in the most dull and didactic way possible. 

For 200 pages, this pedantic writing style strangles the narrative dead (check out the villain’s long-winded soliloquy and weep). Congratulations to anyone who makes it to the awesome climactic man-verses-monster endgame.  

But is it worth the trouble? I dunno. The closing chapters featuring a giant mutant sea spider terrorizing a ferry full of tourists are indeed terrific—kudos to Anthony and Pickover for giving us a last minute thrill ride. It’s too bad the rest of the novel is soooo boring. The nicest thing I can say about Spider Legs is that it’s a slow burn. 

Characterization and dialog are also a big problem here. Not for one moment do the characters talk or act like real people. Take for example the novel-length courtship between lonely policewoman Natalie Sheppard and Nathan Smallwood of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. 

“I find myself getting intrigued with you in a male-female way,” says Nathan to Natalie during their second date. That makes me happy, she replies. “I have a great need for affection, love and physical pleasure.” Could sexual tension between two lovers be less steamy??

Later that same day, the two lovebirds check into a hotel to consummate their affair. “Perhaps you can appreciate the appeal of such interaction,” says Natalie, tickling Nathan where it counts. After a little bit of frottage, Nathan unknowingly shoots his shot prematurely. Natalie has to tell the poor guy what just happened. “Oh, my!” he says flushed with embarrassment. “I didn’t realize!” 

Oh, brother. Has there ever been a man in the history of mankind who wasn’t aware of having an orgasm? No, of course not. To prove how bad the sex scene is, I wish I could cut-and-paste the entire thing and attach it to this review. It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever read. 

[Spider Legs / By Piers Anthony & Clifford A. Pickover / First Paperback Edition: February 1999 / ISBN: 9780812564898]

Curse of the Wolf Man

Eighty-year-old Miss Edna was a snoopy old bat who constantly pestered Sheriff Ben Carter with her scandalous town gossip and conspiracy theories. She had cried wolf so many times, the sheriff no longer paid any attention to what she said. 

This time, however, Miss Edna really saw a wolf—a wolf man to be exact. “I was just sitting on my porch Halloween night minding my own business,” she said, “when this man in what I thought was a wolf costume came running out of the woods.”

Edna lived in a small Mississippi town just south of Memphis. Like similar townlets, Mercy was full of eccentric outliers and castaways. To her knowledge there wasn’t a single werewolf among them.

But regardless, there he was in the middle of the woods—a werewolf shot through the heart with a silver bullet. Investigating the crime scene, Sheriff Carter and his cousin Lily Gayle Lambert couldn’t believe their eyes. Where had the wolf man come from, they wondered? Had the monster escaped from an asylum? A zoo? A circus??

Carter and his cousin didn’t have any RL experience with werewolves, but the corpse certainly looked like the real deal. Although, to be honest, they both noticed that the face didn’t have the elongated snout of a wolf or any razor-sharp teeth. The guy looked more like Lon Chaney Jr. in those old black-and-white Wolf Man movies. 

Naturally, the sheriff wanted to keep the murder on the down low. His cousin, on the other hand, couldn’t stop chattering about it. “I would follow the devil into hell to solve this case,” the middle-aged Nancy Drew wannabe confessed. “The imp of perversity always sits on my shoulder.” I wouldn’t call Lily Gayle nosy; she just needed to know things. 

And sure enough, while Sheriff Carter was running around in endless circles, Lambert began working her gossip network. She picked up a few tantalizing clues from her lady friends, but she was only able to solve the case when an unexpected deus ex machina popped up in her email inbox. 

Deus ex machina or not, sharp readers will be able to figure out the mystery of Death of a Wolfman by the end of the first page. You may want to stick around until the end, however. The third act plays out like a cheap paperback gothic romance from the 60s. In other words, it’s silly and predictable in the best possible way. 

[Death of a Wolfman / By Susan Boles / First Printing: August 2016 / ISBN: 9780997909302]