Monster Man

JamesWarrenGrowing up, my friends and I were fiercely loyal to our favorite comics. One guy loved the old Marvel monster books. Another friend collected Swamp Thing. I was a big fan of House of Mystery. As I remember, we sort of liked Star-Spangled War Stories too.

But we all agreed: If we wanted to read the best comics on the newsstand, we always reached for Creepy and Eerie. These magazines, with artwork by Wally Wood, Frank Frazetta and Reed Crandall, were the gold standard for snobby comic readers like us.

Before Creepy and Eerie came along in 1964 and 1966, however, publisher James Warren hit pay dirt with Famous Monsters of Filmland (1957), a magazine that successfully capitalized on the burgeoning monster craze in America.

Famous Monsters was a magazine for 11-year-old kids, but ironically its genesis was inspired partly by a recently launched magazine for men. Says biographer Bill Schelly: “Warren was mesmerized by Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, and he was aware of the magazine’s meteoric success. He saw how one man with a vision could make his mark in publishing.”

Warren’s vision turned out to be monsters and comics. Not a bad combo in my opinion. Famous Monsters of Filmland, edited by quipster Forrest J. Ackerman, soon paved the way for Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. Other magazines came and went (most notably Harvey Kurtzman’s Help! and Will Eisner’s The Spirit), but Warren’s empire of monsters ultimately became his legacy.

Unapologetically, Warren ruled his monster kingdom like a petty tyrant. Frazetta said he was full of crap, Archie Goodwin’s wife mocked him for being a Hugh Hefner wannabe and Gray Morrow said he was a flamboyant guy prone to attention-getting outbursts. “Warren was a feisty man with many contradictions,” confirms Schelly. “He had enormous charm, colossal arrogance, surprising kindness and explosive anger.”

Louise Simonson (then Louise Jones) became Warren’s go-to editor back in 1976. Like everyone before her, she discovered that Warren could be a prickly bastard. But somehow she survived. “He was a real character,” she says. “He could be the most charming man on Earth, or the most utter pain in the neck. He could be viciously cutting if he chose to be. He could be angry and raging or very kind and nice and gentle.” It was all part of the nature of a very complex individual, she says. “Heaven help me, I liked him.”

After driving his staff crazy for 25 years, Warren went a little crazy himself. He put out his last books in 1982, declared bankruptcy in 1983 and took a permanent vacation. “In running a publishing company I had to be more cunning than Satan and more generous than Jesus,” Warren confessed at the time. “I was not well-fitted for either role.”

Warren’s publications never seriously challenged larger companies such as Marvel and DC in sales, but they successfully created their own special niche in the marketplace and in comics history. Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella and Famous Monsters of Filmland, still iconic after all these years, helped crystallize a fan zeitgeist that continues to influence pop culture today. Says Schelly: “Like Frank Sinatra, James Warren did it ‘his way.’ He successfully built an empire of monsters. And who doesn’t love monsters?”

[James Warren, Empire of Monsters: The Man Behind Creepy, Vampirella, and Famous Monsters / By Bill Schelly / First Printing: March 2019 / ISBN: 9781683961475]

Reign in Blood

DoomstalkerWhen he was a little kid, Brian Kettering witnessed his father being murdered by the friendly neighborhood pizza delivery guy. Or maybe it was a fiend from the abyss? To be honest, he wasn’t 100 percent sure what he saw. He was only six years old at the time and his memory was a little bit unreliable.

Everyone has their own personal boogeyman, and Kettering was no exception. Thirty-seven years after witnessing the grisly murder, he was still being haunted by the specter of a monster he called “Doomstalker.” Kettering knew that one day he and his father’s killer would stand face to face—and only one of them would walk away alive.

As a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department, Kettering was familiar with druggies, rapists and pedophiles. He was clueless, however, about pre-Christian ethnology, demonology and Pharaonic magic. They didn’t teach that kind of stuff at the policy academy.

Now that the Doomstalker was scratching at his front door, Kettering needed help badly. There was a monster loose in L.A. and it was coming for him and his family. If only he could get his hands on a copy of The Necromancer’s Manual (or maybe a Death Note), then he might have a fighting chance.

Kettering knows he’s caught in an escalating situation but author Gary Brandner tells his story in the most roundabout manner possible. For example, the first third of the novel is mostly about Kettering’s failing marriage. After a while, you start to wonder if the author is using the Doomstalker as a metaphor for divorce. Spoiler alert: he’s not.

Eventually, with the help of his foxy new girlfriend, a police department psychiatrist and a community college professor, Kettering figures out everything. Once exposed, the demon has no choice but to reveal itself: “Its body grew and lengthened, its shoulders hunched into peaks. The legs grew thick and powerful, and the arms stretched down to its ankles. The curved talons clicked together as the fingers moved.” And the face, writes Brandner, “shifted and swelled and broke apart into a leathery devil’s mask.”

Doomstalker may be a solid horror novel featuring a monster older than recorded history, but it is nonetheless a product of its era. Published in 1989, it suffers wildly from outdated social signifiers. For example, Kettering’s son complains that his father isn’t cool like Bill Cosby (!!) and telephone answering machines are described as “high-tech gadgets.” There’s even a little bit of casual homophobia sprinkled about. I don’t think you could get away with that today.

And finally, it occurs to me that even the title of the book is somewhat dated. Doomstalker sounds like the name of an 80s-era thrash metal band, doesn’t it?

[Doomstalker / By Gary Brandner / First Printing: December 1989 / ISBN: 9780449145777]

Monstery, Inc.

CreatureThe creatures featured in this “chrestomathy of monstery” are huge (with the strength of a thousand puny humans), tiny (small enough to fit into a bottle of tequila), hairy, scaly, slimy, lonely, horny, vengeful, perverse, benevolent and cosmic.

No matter what the species may be—bigfoot, yeti, swamp thing, man-bat, leviathan, duppy, amphibian, changeling, interdimensional alien, whatever—their strength and cunning are inevitably far greater than any man or woman. Creatures and monsters do exist, says editor Bill Pronzini, and we are all doomed.

The anthology is divided into three sections: Land Creatures, Sea Creatures and Other Creatures—all neatly sorted for readers and their proclivities (or genus). The roll call of authors is impressive and includes notable names such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Stephen Vincent Benét, Leslie Charteris (The Saint) and Robert Bloch.

Most of the stories are quite good, and some are pretty dang terrific. Surprisingly, the worst story of the bunch is by the beloved gentleman who gave us The Lost World and Sherlock Holmes. “The Terror of Blue John Gap” offers only a shadowy glimpse of a monster, a disappointing denouement and writing skillz no better than Snoopy. “The night was dark and cloudy,” writes Conan Doyle during the story’s endgame.

Once you get past this tepid contribution, however, the collection fulfills its chrestomathy promise. There are a lot of great stories worth mentioning, but my favorites are mostly stacked at the beginning of the book. “Creature of the Snows” captures a first-contact experience shared between man and yeti, “Waziah” is like a mad sasquatch version of The Searchers and “Barney’s Bigfoot Museum” ends with a ghastly twist reminiscent of a classic EC comic book. Robert Bloch’s contribution (“Terror in Cut-Throat Cove”) is a fine, if somewhat serviceable, homage to H.P. Lovecraft.

Perhaps the biggest surprise comes from Charteris, the author of more than a million Simon Templar stories. “The Convenient Monster” is a smart (and goofy) blend of detective and horror genres. The Saint is in Scotland investigating a curious livestock incident. He completely misreads the clues. But never mind, the Loch Ness monster “conveniently” solves the case for him.

And finally, I have to applaud Pronzini for his indefatigable editorial contributions. Not only does he pen a 17-page forward to this volume, but he also adds a two-page introduction to every story. And that’s not all. His bibliography contains dozens of recommended monster novels. This is pure gold. I’ll be cribbing from his list for years to come.

[Creature! A Chrestomathy of Monstery / Edited by Bill Pronzini / First Printing: 1981 / ISBN: 9780877953210]

Loki the Enchantress

LOKIThere’s no timestamp on Mackenzi Lee’s latest novel. Readers aren’t told how old Loki and Thor are. All we know is that All-father Odin has yet to name an heir to the Asgardian throne.

Later, when Loki visits London, the details are somewhat vague as well. When exactly does Lee’s novel take place? Does it transpire during the early days of the Industrial Revolution? Or is it set in a bleak nineteenth century Dickensian milieu?

Even Loki is confused by the squishy timeline. On Asgard he’s a young prince and an artful dodger. But on Midgard he’s already the Lord of Darkness and Mischief and Chaos and Everything Evil.

Loki doesn’t know it at the time, but humans on Earth are keenly aware of the mighty Aesir. Stories of Odin and Frigga and the Twilight of the Gods are a big part of popular culture.

As it turns out, these myths from the past are also inextricably tied to Asgard’s future. Like it or not, Loki never gets to be the hero. It is his brother Thor who eventually ascends to the throne. “My story has already been written,” he cries in frustration. “It’s been told and retold. Humans know everything about me.”

Which begs the question: If Loki can’t be the hero, what else is left? Lots of things, apparently. He can be the witch, the trickster, the schemer, the self-serving God of Chaos. He can prove the mythology books right, that he was rotten from the start. Says the author: “He would serve no man but himself, no heart but his own. That would be his choice.”

Loki’s partner in crime is Amora, known to comic book readers as the Enchantress. In possession of five highly coveted Norn Stones, the pair hatch a plot to storm Asgard with an army of human zombies. For some reason, this seems like a totally reasonable thing to do.

As a couple, Amora and Loki are two sides of the same coin. They’re both dissatisfied with Asgard’s rigid caste system. Amora is a powerful sorceress who resents living in the shadow of her mentor Karnilla, the Queen of Norns. “I do not want to be controlled,” she says. “I am powerful, so let me be powerful!”

Likewise, Loki considers himself cleverer, sharper and quicker than everyone else in Odin’s court. He knows, however, that he’ll never win his father’s favor. Secretly he wishes for a hammer just like the one his brother wields. “I want to break something,” he says.

Good or bad, hero or villain, Loki and Amora are ultimately undone by social expectations. Like Esther Greenwood (look it up), they can’t break out of the bell jar. “There are some things that cannot be taught,” says Odin, “and one is how to change our hearts. Our true selves always show themselves in the end.”

[Loki: Where Mischief Lies / By Mackenzi Lee / First Printing: September 2019 / ISBN: 9781368022262]

Killer Croc

HybridVigorAccording to author John Lee Schneider, alligators were like big and lazy frogs. “Mud-rooters,” he called them. They might look fierce, but over the years they’ve grown fat with environmental protection.

Crocodiles, on the other hand, were something completely different. They were leaner, more athletic and much more adapted for active predation, particularly of large prey. A saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) was huge and it was the most aggressive predator in the world. “Never turn your back on a croc,” warned the author.

These days the Florida Everglades is a melting pot of the most dangerous species on Earth. Saltwater crocodiles, Nile Crocodiles (Crocodylus niloticus), Nile monitor lizards, pythons, cobras, copperheads, cottonmouths and mambas are all part of the creepy-crawly community. And to make matters worse, heterosis (i.e. hybrid-vigor) has escaladed the situation even further. Swamp apes, bog creatures and all sorts of Chimera-like mutations now roam the swampland unheeded. “The local ecosystem has been corrupted to the point of a mad science project,” said Schneider.

The biggest mutant of them all was a killer croc named Caesar. Not only was he twenty-two feet long and more than two tons, but he was pumped full of manmade hormones and steroids. “King Caesar” was the fearless hybrid hatchling of a saltwater crocodile and a Nile crocodile—and that made him a modern day dinosaur.

Because of his size, temperament and eating habits, Caesar attracted a lot of attention. The Everglades National Park wanted to tag him, poachers wanted to skin him, black market agents wanted to capture him and private sector conservation groups wanted to protect him. Plus, there were a handful of swamp folk who wanted to keep the giant herp for themselves.

Into this tinderbox came a mysterious young woman named Abby O’Neil (not Abby Holland). She was a wretched, spiteful, straight-razor totin’ woman with a secret vendetta. Nobody, not even the author, could predict what she would do. “She had intelligence in combination with true amorality,” wrote Schneider. “It was a factor that simply could not be gauged—to be perfectly aware of strictures, societal mores—yet, utterly unaffected by them.”

No one was a match for Polk Salad Abby, the tattooed swamp minx. Without a doubt she was the star of this novel and the ultimate predator. “She brought justice to the primordial swamp,” said the author. Swamp pirates, park rangers, social justice warriors and King Caesar never had a chance.

[Hybrid Vigor / By John Lee Schneider / First Printing: March 2019 / ISBN: 9781925840643]

Badtime Stories

NightMonstersNight Monsters reflects author Fritz Leiber’s career-spanning affection for horror, urban fantasy, timeless antiquity, arcanum, anima and Dark Ladies (no sword and sorcery adventures, alas). It’s a minor collection of stories, but still worthy of a place on your nightstand for a little bedtime reading.

During his time, Leiber skirted genre restrictions willfully, but to me he was mostly a first-rate horror and fantasy writer. Many people continue to compare him (somewhat dismissively, I’m afraid) to H.P. Lovecraft. I totally get it. But I prefer Leiber’s clever and mood-y wordplay to Lovecraft’s overly written and often awkward prose. It’s a personal choice, I guess.

That’s not to say, however, that Leiber wasn’t indulgent at times. He was a smart writer who loved to remind readers how smart he was. This writerly quirk is present throughout Night Monsters. Time after time, he includes some sort of esoteric throwaway reference and immediately pauses to explain himself in a fussy way.

Take for example the song lyrics from “The Black Gondolier,” the first (and best) story in this collection. A beatnik folksinger acquires a bit of notoriety for composing a theme song for Leiber’s inky elemental monster. “The Black Gondola’s gonna take you for a ride with a cargo of atom bombs,” sings the bohemian bard.

The complete lyrics are, in fact, quit clever. And Leiber wants you to know it. The song, he says, includes references to W.B. Yeats, Vachel Lindsay, Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Considering the year “The Black Gondolier” was written (1964), there’s probably a little bit of Bob Dylan, Allan Sherman and Stan Lee in there as well.

But I quibble. All writers (thank goodness) have their loveable idiosyncrasies. Even 30 years after his death, Leiber’s stories remain uniquely compelling and creepy. His monsters aren’t the type of creatures that crawl out of sewers or tower over skyscrapers. Instead they are “an oleaginous humanoid spawn” (“The Black Gondolier”), “a spider in the crystal web” (“Midnight in the Mirror World”), “an elaboration of all that is decayed and rotten” (“I’m Looking for Jeff”) and “a black cloud with the head of a wolf” (“The Casket-Demon”).

Fritz Leiber knew that monsters came out at night. They were strong with night’s secret power, he said back in 1946. “There’s still a black shivery outside, you know—a weird realm from which men shrink in terror. Science hasn’t done away with it. Nothing will ever do away with it.”

[Night Monsters / By Fritz Leiber / First Printing: March 1969 / ISBN: 9780441303007]

Sabrina the Good Little Witch

SabrinaSeasonWitchIn Season of the Witch, Sabrina Spellman was only 15 years old. She hadn’t experienced her dark baptism, she hadn’t signed her name in the Dark Lord’s book of souls, and she wasn’t enrolled at the Academy of Unseen Arts. She didn’t possess a grimoire—she didn’t even have a black cat named Salem yet.

At this point, Sabrina wasn’t much of a witch. She came from a long line of spellcasters, however; and her father was a highly respected and powerful warlock. Said her cousin Ambrose: “You’re such a good girl. Sometimes I wonder how you’re ever going to make a wicked witch.”

Despite her pedigree, Sabrina was never going to be wholly wicked. Her mother, after all, was lovingly mortal. Unlike her pernicious cousin, she had a sunny and indefatigable disposition. She hoped that she would survive her upcoming dark baptism and be a light in the darkness. To her, magic was a way to make the world a better place.

That was the conflict roiling inside Sabrina. On her sixteenth birthday she would have to make a decision—would she give her soul to Satan or renounce the Church of Night altogether? “I wanted to do both,” she confessed. “I felt like I was being pulled in two different directions, and nobody cared that I would be torn in half.”

The main reason for Sabrina’s indecision was her boyfriend Harvey Kinkle. The two met in kindergarten and now as teenagers they couldn’t keep their hands off each other. “I’ve loved Harvey my whole life, and I’ve had a crush on him almost as long,” said Sabrina. “He was my first kiss, and I’ve never wanted another.” When Harvey and Sabrina went on their first date, their chemistry was electric. “That’s how witches burn,” wrote author Sarah Rees Brennan.

Season of the Witch takes place during the summer before the Sabrina Netflix series begins. It’s a fun prequel filled with lots of “Hail Satan!” interjections, quotable Latin incantations and gloriously over-the-top similes such as “The moon shone behind you like a crown of bone, and the night streamed behind you like a cloak of shadows.” Overall, it’s probably the best Sabrina novel you’ll ever read.

The book features alternating chapters that focus on the main cast. It’s on these white-on-black pages that author Brennan really shines. The chapter about Harvey’s older brother, in particular, is especially strong. Like Sabrina, Tommy Kinkle had an all-consuming love for Harvey. But unlike Sabrina, he paid dearly for his devotion. His story will break your heart.

[Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Season of the Witch / By Sarah Rees Brennan / First Printing: July 2019 / ISBN: 9781338326048]