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]


Sharkantula“Throwing the gun” is an age-old trope of genre fiction. I don’t know exactly when it first popped up (probably in a Western or Detective movie), but I clearly remember reading Action Comics as a kid and seeing criminals toss their empty guns at Superman after running out of bullets.

Thus the term “throwing the gun” represents a character’s ineffective last stand. Or maybe it’s simply an exclamation of frustration. Either way, it’s a visual cue that underscores the dire situation. If you throw a gun at Superman it can only mean one thing—you’re about to get thumped.

A character does indeed throw an empty gun at the half-shark half-tarantula creature in Sharkantula, but that’s not the only genre-defining trope in Essel Pratt’s novel. There are others such as mad science, hybrid monsters, graphic dismemberment, horny teenagers, secret government agencies, creepy amusement parks and many, many more.

Don’t be mistaken, however; this isn’t a criticism from me. Embracing tropes is what genre fiction is all about, and it’s something you should expect from a book that advertises itself as a “B-Movie Novel.”

Wholly self-conscious, Sharkantula is intended for anyone who enjoys 50s-era monster movies and tokusatsu imports. Says the author early on: “Like a scene out of a cheesy Japanese monster movie, the girls dropped their cameras and screamed as Danae (the monster) hovered over them and snapped her jaws down onto their slender bodies.”

Once the hybrid creature is unleashed, it’s up to a daffy scientist and a group of teenagers to save the world (events escalate quickly in these types of stories). “With the hunting prowess of a tarantula and the insatiable hunger of a great white shark, Danae may be unstoppable,” says one of the desperate teenagers.

It quickly becomes apparent that the doctor and his young sidekicks are ill equipped for the job of saving the world. Armed with a collection of dopey weapons (like an aluminum trident, a wooden oar and an anchor prop), the team is hardly imposing. “We look like a rejected superhero group,” they agree. The Fantastic Lames.

In a novel-ending switcheroo, the author introduces a deus ex machina to defeat the rampaging shark. Sometimes described as a gimmick, this hoary plot device nevertheless remains a great way to spring a surprise ending on readers. I wouldn’t expect anything less. Long live genre tropes!

[Sharkantula / By Essel Pratt / First Printing: October 2018 / ISBN: 9781729249185]

Creatures from Infinity and Beyond

CreaturesBeyondDuring his time on this island earth, Terry Carr edited an astonishing number of tip-top science fiction anthologies. Not for nothing, he also co-edited one of the first books I ever read. World’s Best Science Fiction 1968 included a batch of great stories including Harlan Ellison’s career tentpole “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.”

Despite the efforts of award-winning authors such as Brian Aldiss (“Full Sun”), Robert Silverberg (“The Silent Colony”), Clifford Simak (“The Street That Wasn’t There”), Theodore Sturgeon (“It”) and Eric Frank Russell (“Dear Devil”), there’s nothing that rises to the level of Ellison’s genre-uplifting story in this collection from 1975.

But that criticism isn’t totally fair. In no way does Creatures from Beyond purport to be the “best” of anything. If I had to guess, I’d say it was aimed at a juvenile readership, and was reflective of what the science fiction community thought kids would enjoy at the time—in other words, the content wasn’t as good as Robert Heinlein but it was waaaay better than Perry Rhodan and Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.

More importantly (to me), Carr’s anthology is 100 percent committed to strange, wiggly and slimy creatures. Truly, it’s like the prose equivalent of TOPPS Ugly Monster Stickers (look it up). You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy these tales of giant worms, swamp things, werewolves, blue Martians, plague creatures from Venus and otherworldly cats.

Although the two best efforts are unconvincingly facile, they are thoroughly entertaining nonetheless. Theodore Sturgeon’s giant monster smells like carrion and “moves with the slow inevitability that is the crux of horror.” For 27 pages the thing-made-of-mold drags its hateful putrescence across our earth before being reclaimed by nature.

Significantly more upbeat, Eric Frank Russell’s “ropy alien with enormous beelike eyes” helps facilitate a friendly relationship between Mars and Earth. “By cosmic standards we are a weak and foolish people,” explains the shipwrecked Martian to his new human comrades. “We are desperately in need of support from the clever and strong.”

Weirdly, the only bad story in the book is by the editor himself. “Some Are Born Cats” is simply too annoying and precious for anyone over the age of 13. But don’t let that distract you too much. In every other way, Terry Carr did a fine job of curating a wonderful collection of science fiction monsters from Infinity and beyond.

[Creatures from Beyond / Edited by Terry Carr / First Printing: January 1975 / ISBN: 9780840764591]

Écrasez L’infâme

OgreIn the beginning, the monster in Mark Ronson’s novel is far from overwhelming. Initially it’s described vaguely as a sheet of silver reflecting in the sun. A little like Reynolds Wrap Aluminum Foil, I suppose.

It takes a while for the author to get warmed up, but he slowly finds his groove. “Down the tunnel came a sound indistinct and liquid,” he wrote. “The pallid organism pulsed and glistened with mucosity.”

Eventually the monster blossoms into an unholy abomination with a history reaching all the way back to pre-Roman English antiquity (and beyond). But oddly, in no way did the gelatinous titular blob resemble an ogre. There was nothing Shrek-like about it. What’s up with that?

The explanation comes from Patricia Derbyshire, a character who conveniently has a university degree in Celtic history and mythology. Her lesson in etymology helps clarify the monster’s linguistic origins. According to her, ancient English religious cults worshipped a deity they called Ooga. Later, French author James Perrault borrowed the word and used it in a new literary genre, the fairy tale. And that, dear reader, is how the word ogre transitioned into popular culture.

And that’s also why Ronson chose Ogre, and not vampire or hobgoblin, for the title of his book. “We’ve been face-to-face with a genuine man-eating beast all this time,” said Richard Finlay, the man at the center of the story. “At least we now have a name for it.”

No matter what it was called—ooga, booga, slug, vampire, cockatrice, griffin, hobgoblin or wyrm—the ogre had to be destroyed. Or as one character put it: “I want to see that damn thing poisoned, burned up, killed—kaput!”

But killing an ancient pagan idol was harder to do than you might think. Gas, bombs, napalm, flame-throwers, acid, lasers, nuclear artillery—there was nothing in mankind’s arsenal that could stop the ogre. Or was there?

Finding clues in weathered scriptures and faded church etchings, Richard and Patricia eventually discovered how the old Celts controlled the ooga. Translating Latin and interpreting ancient iconography was the easy part. More difficult was finding a modern solution that was compatible with hoary sacred rites.

Before the final showdown, Ronson throws a few curveballs to keep readers on their toes. There are competing subplots featuring a village idiot, a serial rapist (infamously known as the Leopard Man) and a clergyman with secrets. In addition, there’s a love story brewing between Richard and Patricia, which, to be honest, is a bit contrived.

By the end of the novel, the ogre is as big as a frikkin’ house with tentacles as thick as telephone poles. When it destroys buildings the effect is like an adult’s fingers smashing through the windows of a dollhouse. It is a vision of hell as only Pieter Bruegel could have imagined it. “Here Satan was no gentlemanly Mephistopheles,” concludes Ronson with an endgame flourish. “It was the very essence of evil—an ever-changing shape with the stench of a plague pit.”

[Ogre / By Mark Ronson / First Printing: June 1980 / ISBN: 9780600200390]