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 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]

Sharkenstein

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]

King of the Monsters

MiscreationsI agree with author Alma Katsu. In her chatty foreword to this book, she says that Mary Shelley created the greatest and most iconic monster of all time. Forget about giant gorillas and colossal kaiju, Frankenstein’s Prometheus remains king of the monsters.

Everybody knows the story of Shelley’s iconic creature. Made by man and rejected by mankind, he begged for his creator’s love and humanity’s pity. Born in 1818, Frankenstein’s monster was a sympathetic and lonely figure doomed to an eternity of unhappiness. “What heart, on hearing such a story, could still scorn a monster like that?” asks Katsu rhetorically.

Monstrosity is a complicated topic, that’s for sure. But we can learn a couple of things from Frankenstein. It is a cautionary tale that can teach us what not to do and how not to behave. But it can also teach us how to be heroic. After all, a monster to one person is a savior to another. Amirite?

With Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors, editors Doug Murano and Michael Bailey have tasked their contributors to submit prose and verse inspired by the Frankenstein mythos. Some of the stories are linked solidly to Shelley’s original effort (“Butcher Blend” and “Imperfect Clay”), and some have only a tangential connection to the source material (“Ode to Joad the Toad” and “Sounds Caught in Cobwebs”). Despite my predilections, all the efforts are excellent. There’s not a stinking corpse in the whole bunch.

The anthology begins with a dollop of metafiction called “A Heart Arrhythmia Creeping Into a Dark Room.” I enjoy deconstructive monster tales as much as the next guy, but Michael Wehunt’s story (as good as it is) lands the collection on less-than-solid ground.

To better establish the theme of the book, the editors might have considered slotting “Frankenstein’s Daughter” at the top of the ToC. Author Theodora Goss explores the dynamic between the monster and his descendant. And in this way she’s able to give a new perspective on the influential and ongoing legacy of Frankenstein.

One thing is consistent throughout these 23 stories and poems: Man and monster are inescapably twined together. Like it or not, monsters can’t exist without man to will them into existence. Frankenstein walks among us. Get used to it.

[Miscreations: Gods, Monstrosities & Other Horrors / Edited by Doug Murano and Michael Bailey / First Printing: February 2020 / ISBN: 9781732724471]

The Navy vs. the Night Monsters

MonsterEarthEndGow Island was a pile of drab rocks in the middle of the ocean—3,000 miles from New Zealand, 2,000 miles from Chile, 600 miles from the Antarctic ice cap and a million miles from home.

It was unending dreariness and monotony for the 19 military personnel assigned to the isolated and remote government outpost. Many of the inhabitants were suffering from acute island fever (or as author Murray Leinster put it, they were “rock happy”). “Propinquity plus tedium plus tension plus extreme uneasiness inevitably produced some queer situations,” observed Mr. Drake, the island’s dour administrative officer.

He weren’t kidding. On a normal day, Drake did his best to keep Gow running smoothly for the U.S. Navy. He had full responsibility for the conduct of affairs, and the morale and the efficiency of the island. To do so, he willingly put his private concerns on the backburner. He was particularly discreet about his romantic interest in his secretary, Mamie Van Doren.

The military post’s boring routine was interrupted one day when an airplane crashed onto its runway. There were 10 people onboard the plane when it left Antarctica. By the time it reached Gow, however, the pilot was the only one remaining. And he didn’t last very long. He shot himself in the head before he could be safely extracted from the cockpit.

First responders immediately spied eight bullet holes in the airplane’s flooring. Checking out the cargo hold, they also found a quartet of cute Adélie penguins and a bushel of thorny and weird-looking plants. That was it—no military personnel, no passengers, no copilot, no nuthin’. The situation was suspicious, to say the least.

Suddenly, the airplane’s curse became Gow Island’s curse. Navy personnel (along with a couple of unlucky dogs) started disappearing, and Drake and his crew quickly grew hysterical with fear of a nameless and indescribable menace. Was it the penguins or the otherworldly vegetation from the aircraft that was responsible for the ambuscade? I’ll give you one guess.

The Monster From Earth’s End is a wildly understated novel. The horror is subdued, the circumstances are forthright and the resolution is measured. It’s a quirky little book and I liked it very much. If you’re curious, the movie adaptation from 1966 (The Navy vs. the Night Monsters) is cheap and laughable, but enjoyable as well.

Gow Island was a bit like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. Even though it was a pile of rocks in the middle of nowhere, it was a major character in the novel. With its dangerous and foreboding atmosphere, it was a barometer of escalating tensions between man and man—and man versus monster. “The island lay wrapped in darkness as profound as that at the bottom of nothingness,” wrote Leinster. You can’t get farther from the madding crowd than that.

[The Monster From Earth’s End / By Murray Leinster / First Printing: January 1959]