To Conserve and Protect

ClawsBack in 1961, President John F. Kennedy pulled the plug on a proposal to invade Cuba with a cast of giant crabs. It was Eisenhower’s crazy idea and he hated it. The newly elected president didn’t want anything to do with his predecessor’s cockamamie science fiction plan.

Kennedy wisely put the kibosh on a Cuban crab invasion. But what happened after that? Did the giant, bulletproof mutant monsters just disappear?

Nope. The genetically engineered super crabs were still hanging around. Dishonorably discharged from the CIA, they found a home near Fort Jefferson Dry Tortugas National Park.

Located 70 miles off the coast of Miami, Fort Jefferson was an abandoned pre-Civil War outpost. Even though it was officially part of the National Park Service, it was mostly uninhabitable—no Starbucks, no Netflix, no comic book stores, no nothing. “It was probably the quietest park in the whole system,” said Kathy West, the on-site park ranger. “Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened out here.”

Obviously Ranger West was unaware of the danger surrounding Fort Jefferson. The waters off the coast were clear and calm, marked only by a spiky coral reef. West had no idea what was going on because the crabs were busy doing nothing for over 50 years.

That all changed in a flash when a rogue Homeland Security agent shows up in tow with his crew of black ops musclemen. Their evil plan was to resurrect Eisenhower’s abandoned crab invasion (but with a dastardly twist).

Now it was up to West, an eccentric 80-year-old Navy veteran, a soggy torpedo and a self-described “history nerd” to stop an onslaught of giant crabs upon Miami Beach. “The odds weren’t good,” wrote the author.

Claws was more than a giant crab novel, however. Author Russell James had something else in mind the entire time. As it turned out, the crabs were just the “MacGuffin,” a literary device that fueled the plot. James was more interested in writing a lively mash-up of Men in Black, Challengers of the Unknown and (maybe) the Suicide Squad.

In the last chapter, Kathy West and her sidekick Nathan Toland were conscripted into a secret government assignment. In the future, wherever and whenever monsters attacked, they would be the first responders. It would be their job to keep the public safe from the creatures that haunted national parks, preserves, sanctuaries, archeological sites and historic structures. Their mission: to conserve and protect.

[Claws / By Russell James / First Printing: May 2019 / ISBN: 9781925840759]

Don’t Call It a Throwback

ThrowbacksRoger Sarac never explicitly gives a name to the shaggy humanoid beast at the heart of his novel. “It’s like a bear, and yet it ain’t,” he writes. “It’s sort of manlike, yet it ain’t. It’s just a thing without a proper name.”

Stories of apelike and bearlike creatures living in the Pacific Northwest have been popular for a long time. Readers may automatically assume the author is writing about Bigfoot or Sasquatch or something else born of “Indian and aboriginal stock.”

Sarac’s beast is something similar yet something altogether different. She exists as a link to both the past and the future—a baby beget by modern parents cursed with cellular structure culled from mankind’s forgotten stages of evolution.

To put it another way, it’s like a woman who wakes up in the morning to discover the world has slipped backward a million years. Or, perhaps, it’s like she’s been shot ahead into the future thousands of generations.

Forward or backward, says the author, it doesn’t matter. The timeslip is traumatic. “What is intended for thousands of people to experience gradually, comes all at once to one individual.”

The half-animal-half-human wretch is a repository of ancient human experience. She’s more advanced than most wild animals, but witless nonetheless. That’s her tragedy, says Sarac. Her intelligence and scale of awareness didn’t belong to any specific time period.

As a result, the she-beast is (mostly) sympathetic. She hunts and kills innocent people, but you understand her savage nature. Like all monsters, she’s trapped in a world she didn’t make.

The prehistoric throwback in Sarac’s novel is a genetic anomaly that provides a peek at the secret of life. She has no name, but she represents a serious threat to the future of mankind. According to the author, there’s a subhuman monster lurking in all of us—it’s just one gestation period away from being born.

[The Throwbacks / By Roger Sarac / First Printing: 1965]

Red Hot and Green

SheHulkDiariesIn my opinion, She-Hulk is the best superhero name Stan Lee ever thought up. The hyphenated personal pronoun succeeds at being funny and dumb and smart and provocative all at the same time. She-Hulk could easily be a monster from a 1950s movie or the topic of a women’s studies class. Take your pick.

She-Hulk is a six-foot-seven, 680-pound jade-green party animal. And as her name implies, she’s hell on wheels and an indefatigable physical presence. But in Marta Acosta’s novel from 2013 she isn’t nearly as interesting as her host, Jennifer Walters, a woman who is described as a beautiful disaster—all luminous eyes and existential grief. Walters is, according to her spunky best friend, “a perplexing blend of kick-ass chick and honor-roll nerd.” The She-Hulk Diaries could easily have been called The Jennifer Walters Diaries instead.

But no worries; Even with “She-Hulk” in the title, Walters establishes herself as the real hero of the book. Her quest to find a good job, secure an affordable apartment in Manhattan and hook up with an awesome boyfriend represents her version of a hero’s journey.

Naturally, there are plenty of obstacles in Walters’ way. She must grapple with duplicitous coworkers, limited rental options and an ex-lover who insists on writing embarrassing songs about their weekend tryst (sample lyric: “I’ll crawl from the primordial sludge for you. I’ll give up my gills and prehensile appendage for you”). Dr. Doom even shows up to make things more complicated. It’s sort of like Sex and the City (or maybe Breakfast at Tiffany’s) with a little superhero action on the side. There’s a lot of navel-gazing in The She-Hulk Diaries, but it’s mostly well written and relentlessly jokey. Added bonus for those who care: the sex talk is surprisingly frank.

With all the real world drama surrounding Walters, there’s not much for She-Hulk to do. We are told that “Shulky” is a righteous superbabe and a sex object for millions of teenage boys, but the author keeps her on the sidelines most of the time.

Regardless of her costarring status, She-Hulk succeeds in retaining her brutish charm wherever she goes. She is, I admit, pretty good with the zippy one-liners. “I’d rather be tasty than tasteful,” she brags at one point. And later, when her boobs pop out of her outfit, she says, “It pays to advertise!”

Even when she’s serious (which is not very often), She-Hulk is able to express herself with surprising aplomb. For example, every time she visits the Avengers Mansion she feels the sting of sexism (especially from ex-boyfriend Tony Stark). She may be red hot and green, but she’s not happy about being marginalized because of her sex. “Male is not the default gender for superhero,” she huffs. The Sensational She-Hulk deserves a little more respect.

[The She-Hulk Diaries / By Marta Acosta / First Printing: June 2013 / ISBN: 9781401311018]

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 police 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]