Caterpillars on a Plane

SquirmsterDo “nature run amok” novels qualify as monster novels? Is a coordinated attack of army ants as monstrous as a mob of abominable snowmen? I say “yes.” Rats, worms, spiders, ants, a plague of flies, a swarm of bees, a flock of seagulls—when Mother Nature gets mad, she has a long list of creepy-crawlies on speed dial to do her bidding.

Squirmsters! is about thousands of ravenous caterpillars terrorizing an airplane during a three-hour flight from Seattle to San Francisco. In a way it’s like a nature run amok novel written by children’s author Eric Carle. Instead of eating pickles, ice-cream cones and lollipops, however, the mutant larvae feast on high school kids, metalheads, businessmen and various airline personnel.

In David Jacobs’s book, the caterpillars don’t morph into pretty butterflies like they do in Carle’s classic kids book The Very Hungry Caterpillar. They stay true to their single-minded prime directive. “They’re man-made monsters,” explains Mrs. Medford-Graham, a federal agent assigned to the case. “You’ve heard of biological warfare, right? That’s what they are, bio-weapons.”

She continues: “They were an experiment that never should have been. DNA engineers took a destructive insect pest and turned it into a weapon of war. The finished product was … Squirmsters!”

It was a silly name, of course. But so were Fat Man and Little Boy (nicknames given to the pair of atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Squirmsters had the same kind of devastating potential albeit less explosive. Regular unaltered caterpillars were infinitely destructive to plant life, and super caterpillars were living weapons that could devour crops, create famines and drastically thin out communities.

Accidently released from their cargo bay transport container, the Squirmsters quickly invade the aircraft’s cabin looking for a snack. Seven unlucky passengers immediately succumb to the hungry horde. “Each larva was a feeding tube with a mouth at each end,” says the author. “The gurgling sound they made was like a bubbling caldron of boiling starch.”

But don’t worry. With the help of a flare gun and a contrived plot device, the Squirmsters are ultimately destroyed in a fiery explosion. Good riddance, says Glitch Wade, one of the six lucky survivors. “There goes the second deadliest species on the planet.”

[The Bug Files #1: Squirmsters! / By David Jacobs / First Printing: June 1996 / ISBN: 9780425153208]

Witchy Woman

witchbladeWitchblade was certainly a big part of the “bad girl” movement in comic books during the 90s. And author John DeChancie doesn’t back away from the sexy witch’s infamous eye-popping transformation in his prose adaptation from 2002.

She was, he wrote, a paradox of dress and undress. “Her metamorphosis produced a filigree of delicate metal work of swirls and arabesques crawling up her body and covering her full breasts and neither portions but leaving little else unexposed. She was nude and yet somehow completely covered.”

Even without the Witchblade gauntlet, Sara “Pez” Pezzini was an eyeful. She dressed like a tomboy, said the author, but she always looked good. “Her jeans were tight and the T-shirt under her jacket was inevitably undersized, allowing her feminine lineaments to come through nicely. She was tall, thin, well proportioned, and had a face that could launch several navies. Legs up to the neck. Oh, those legs! And there were other parts of her body that shaped up just as well.”

Comic books have always been slightly disreputable, and Witchblade along with similar titles such as Vampirella and Lady Death unquestionably took advantage of the media’s lowbrow reputation. This is not a criticism from me btw. Over the years, the character has become iconic and (dare I say it) beloved around the world. She appeared on television in 2001 and even made the transition to anime in 2006.

Witchblade: Talons was a tie-in novel written specifically to supplement the TV series, but DeChancie doesn’t let himself get derailed by continuity minutia. Detective Pezzini wore her Witchblade gauntlet, she seemed comfortable with it, and characters (old and new) coexisted without a hitch. There’s no origin story to speak of, but the supernatural tenor of the comic book series was preserved.

Pezzini finds herself in a sticky situation involving a “magical” supercomputer, a werewolf, a “mahjong dragon,” a supernatural assassin, a Romanian crime boss and a bunch of religious zealots from an alternative dimension. Vlad Tepys (the Impaler himself) even shows up for some decapitating fun.

The whole thing is silly and beyond criticism. True believers will be happy to discover that Witchblade retains her bad girl charm in prose format (Pezzini even briefly considers launching a personal website with nude pictures of herself). The details of her ongoing story, however, are rendered inconsequential. But that’s okay. Nobody ever bought a Witchblade comic for the story.

[Witchblade: Talons / By John DeChancie / First Printing: January 2002 / ISBN: 9780743435017]


WeCallItMonsterKaiju novels are a lot of fun. In particular, I enjoy the crazy and extravagant descriptive language used by authors to construct their towering colossi. The books are rarely scary, but the earthshaking monsters are always a hoot.

If Gamera-like “gigaanna” are a staple of the genre, why would an author write a kaiju novel and deemphasize the monsters? That’s a question I’d like to ask Lachlan Walter, the author of We Call It Monster.

Don’t get me wrong, there are giant monsters in his book, but they’re peripheral at best. Even more disappointing, Walter clearly has no flair for the material. His kaiju are relentlessly generic. For example, here’s how he describes the first creature to stomp across Sydney, Australia: “It was a massive green-and-black thing,” he writes in the first chapter. “Its body was almost barrel shaped, the same as that of a gorilla or a wrestler.”

Later, Walter catalogues a bunch of creatures spotted during a jungle expedition. “A dragonfly as big as an eagle,” he begins. “Ants as big as dogs, millipedes as big as guinea pigs, Christmas beetles as big as basketballs, stick insects the size of a dining table and a wombat as big as a small car.” Like all newspaper editors I’m a big fan of simple declarative sentences, but writing like this is dull and maddeningly perfunctory.

To be fair, the author has an agenda above and beyond most monster novels. Along with global destruction, he’s telling a story about love and loneliness and commitment and survival. For him, the kaiju are the catalyst for poetry. Good on him.

He may have a lot to say about the human condition, but he struggles throughout the book to give his creatures any sort of unique identity. At some point he just gives up. “They were monsters, plain and simple,” he says. “No amount of jargon or doublespeak would change that.”

In one chapter, a group of strangers assemble on a hill to watch a thunderous Kaiju Big Battel. The problem? The giant monsters are the size of a thumbprint because they’re twenty kilometers away. That, in a nutshell, is my biggest complaint about We Call It Monster. Even if I thought it was a serious rumination about the eternal human spirit (which I don’t), the novel itself is still a bust. The monsters are destroying the civilized world, but the author reduces them to pint-sized specks on the horizon.

[We Call It Monster / By Lachlan Walter / First Printing: February 2019 / ISBN: 9781925840520]

Dracula’s Best Friend

HoundsOfHellMichael Drake lived a typical and uneventful suburban life. He had a job, a wife, two young kids, a couple of dogs, and a sexy neighbor he liked to flirt with. On weekends, he enjoyed camping and fishing.

But Michael had a little secret that he kept from his wife and kids. His great-great-great grandfather was Igor Dracula, a blood-sucking monster that terrorized Europe during the 17th century. Michael wasn’t a vampire himself (he was just a psychologist), but he wasn’t proud of his notorious family history. He kept a daguerreotype of Grandpa Igor hidden in the garage, underneath a pile of old clothes, college mementos and wooden stakes.

Nobody escapes the past forever, however. When 12 ancient sarcophaguses (sarcophagi?) are discovered buried near Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains, the Dracula curse is reborn. Igor’s faithful servant (a fractured lamia named Veidt Smit) and a giant Dobermann pinscher named Zoltan emerge from their subterranean tombs. And that means trouble for Michael Drake, the last of the Dracula line.

A fractured lamia, for those of you who skipped Strygology 101 at the Academy of Unseen Arts, is a vampire-like creature that can control its bloodlust and function in the daytime. According to Collin de Plancy, the author of Dictionnaire Infernal, lamias haunt cemeteries and disinter corpses. As such, they’ve been valuable wingmen to the Dracula family throughout the centuries. They’re especially handy when it comes to abducting victims for bloodletting.

Because of their subservient nature, a lamia cannot exist without a master. As soon as Smit awakens from his 300-year sepulchral slumber he starts sniffing around for Dracula progeny. “It was his unavoidable duty only to serve them unfailingly … and for eternity.” His preternatural spidey sense points him toward the New World. Destination: Tarzana, California.

Once in California, Smit and his vampire hound hop into a Hearst and travel up and down Highway 1 looking for Michael Drake. Don’t ask me how a guy from the 17th century acquires a vehicle and figures out how to drive. I don’t know. The author doesn’t seem interested in these trivial details and neither should the reader.

One thing leads to another and the Drakes find themselves being attacked by Zoltan and a pack of wild dogs. Their “blood-curdling, ear-splitting roar of fury” couldn’t be ignored, says the author. One way or another these hounds of Hell were going to turn Michael into a vampire and force him to accept his dark legacy.

Even with the rabid vampirism, Hounds of Dracula is pretty tame overall. Yes, Zoltan is a scary brute, but he’s an ineffectual tool. As a reward for being a lousy alpha dog, he’s dispatched in the most inglorious way possible. And things don’t go smoothly for the lamia either. His demise happens off the page; he doesn’t even get a memorable death scene. Oh well. All villains get the death they deserve. I guess poor Veidt Smit and Zoltan didn’t deserve much.

[Hounds of Dracula / By Ken Johnson / First Printing: October 1977 / ISBN: 9780451077394]

We Are All Bug-Eyed Monsters

BEMBug-eyed monsters were popular in the early days of science fiction with their bulging eyes, groping tentacles and dripping ichor. Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft (among other writers) built entire careers on the endless confrontation between man and monster.

No one takes bug-eyed monsters seriously anymore. They can only be mocked or evoked in deprecation. It was more fun, however, in the old days when BEMs were featured prominently on the covers of Astounding Stories, Weird Tales and other sensational pulp magazines. That’s what the editors of this short story collection think. And I agree.

Brian Aldiss once said that science fiction was the image of the unspeakable human heart given shape as the grotesque other. And if that’s the case, then bug-eyed monsters are “the unassimilable vision of ourselves, safely distanced, invariably rejected.” As such, they’ve been an important subtextual figure of science fiction from the very beginning.

Take for example “Mimic” by Donald A. Wollheim. It’s a story about an alien creature living among us in plain sight. He looks like everyone else (sort of) but he’s a loner who never fits in. Like a moth that looks like a wasp or a caterpillar that looks like an armored beetle, the creature in Wollheim’s story uses camouflage to assimilate and survive. “Even here, in the heart of the largest city in the world in swarming New York,” says the author, “the eccentric and the odd may exist unhindered.” In other words, we are all bug-eyed monsters—alone and unloved.

“The Last One Left,” by co-editors Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg, is even more direct. In their story an alien invasion is taking place, and no one seems to notice—no pandemonium in the streets, no newspaper articles, no nothing. The BEMs have arrived and they’re slowly taking over the planet. But whatever. Obviously, the aliens, with their mass hypnosis and “rolicular modal control,” are superior to humans in every way. What can we do but shrug our shoulders in defeat?

These two stories, as good as they may be, are indicative of the entire collection. This isn’t a book for nostalgic readers looking for hideous creatures, Flash Gordon-like heroes, and women in brass brassieres. Every author from Damon Knight (“Stranger Station”) to Isaac Asimov (“Hostess”) is trying to deconstruct the sub-genre in their own particular way. Are they successful? Probably not. You can almost see the writers (especially Poul Anderson and Robert Bloch) smirking as they pound away at their clackity typewriters.

But I would recommend checking out Bug-Eyed Monsters nonetheless. Part of understanding what we are and where we are going is understanding where we’ve been. In this way the past always inspires the future. Says the editors: “The bug-eyed monster is where science fiction has been—and in its own way it wasn’t such a bad place to be.”

[Bug-Eyed Monsters / Edited by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg / First Printing: 1980 / ISBN: 0156147890]

Dig Dug

TheTunnelThere’s a lot of bad stuff going on at the U.S.-Mexico border. Human smuggling, human trafficking, inhumane detention facilities and indefensible family separation policies are all horrible.

Things are so fucked up that cartels and coyotes are now digging tunnels from one country to the other. In theory, these subterranean passageways make it easier to sidestep ICE agents and border patrol hassles. A tunnel is especially convenient for Central and South American drug syndicates looking for a way to get their contraband into the hands of their loyal customers. If you didn’t know, the U.S. is the largest market for recreational drugs in the world. Go team!

In this novel by Gayne C. Young there’s a tunnel in progress linking “a nondescript ranch house in Mexico to a nondescript ranch house in Texas.” It’s a big commitment for the Acuña Cartel, but it’s worth every penny. “The tunnel is a sizable investment,” admits Miguel Alvarado, a high-ranking official in the organization, “but it will earn 400-to-500 times its cost once the first shipment of fentanyl makes it across the border.”

And that’s why the cartel is upset when a mysterious incident abruptly stops construction. Each day a delivery truck doesn’t drive through the underground freeway represents a loss of tens of millions of dollars. Jeff Hunter and Jarrett Taylor, two Afghanistan War veterans now employed by the drug mob, are immediately dispatched to the site. Along with an alpha team of mercenaries, their mission is to clean up the situation using any means necessary.

Initially, Hunter thinks that a rival gang is responsible for the narco tunnel mishap. Or perhaps it’s the result of overzealous immigration agents. But he’s wrong. Some type of monstrous creature is obviously attacking the diggers. Says the author: “The bodies were mutilated beyond recognition and resembled caricatures of human forms as if fashioned from a fevered dream or by evil itself. The tunnel floor was littered with dried blood, viscera and torn earth that told of struggle and carnage.”

You have to wonder: What type of animal is responsible for such slaughter? Dogs? Hyenas? Jaguars? How about a vampire-like chupacabra or a mythical jackalope? Maybe a troop of invasive Japanese snow monkeys? That’s the best (and funniest) theory.

For the record, the author never reveals what kind of monsters are down in the dig dug tunnel. He does, eventually, provide a pretty good description of them, however: “The animals resembled baboons except for the eyes, which appeared three to four times larger than they should have been on similar animals of size. Their eyes were coal black and void of pupils. Their fur was dirty white and course. Their claws were elongated, razor sharp and pale ivory in color.”

The Tunnel is written in short, rapid-fire chapters that compel readers to keep turning pages. The monsters are sufficiently scary and the subterranean world is vivid. There’s a long literary history of secret underground worlds, and this book fully embraces it. There’s also a little bit of munitions porn (chapter 27) for those of you who like that sort of thing. And finally, there are some truly laugh-out-loud moments between border agents Joel Andrews and Champe Carter. I hope the author has plans to revisit these two oddballs in future efforts.

The novel ends with a couple of burning questions: Why are these troglobites attacking people? And why did the mere presence of humans whip them into such a frenzy? The answer to both questions is simple. “They liked the taste,” says one of the mercs.

[The Tunnel / By Gayne C. Young / First Printing: June 2019 / ISBN: 9781925840797]

Killer Worms

TendrilsThere’s nothing particularly funny about the worms in Simon Ian Childer’s novel. They’re nasty and icky things that look like “a thick thread of dark jelly loosely packed within a transparent membrane.”

But when the worms launch a unified strike on the citizenry of London (chapter six), the author starts having a little bit of fun. Tendrils come up through the toilet to suck on sphincters. They attach themselves to boobs and they drill into eyeballs. In fact, these subterranean creatures inevitably find a way to attack their victims in the most indecorous manner.

It all starts when a geology team looking for a suitable place to dump nuclear waste punctures a prehistoric cocoon 500 feet below the surface. Unknowingly they release a dangerous alien organism of monstrous dimensions under London.

The worms begin their “harvest of humanity” right away. Ninety-three people (and a few cows) are killed the first night. After being dormant for 65 million years, the tendrils are hungry. Thankfully (for them) London contains a scrumptious and plentiful food supply.

Throughout the book, the creatures are repeatedly called worms. But eventually, Dr. Clive Thomas, his lab assistant and a newspaper reporter discover the truth. The worms aren’t worms at all. They’re part of one vast organism. Says the author at the end of the book: “It was a huge, repulsive jellyfish. The bulbous, spongy mass was mounted on a thick stalk from which countless tendrils protruded. Rising 400 feet above Regent Street, it looked like a gigantic phallus.”

As it turns out, the monster is a parasite from outer space, which infects planets, feeds off animal life, then goes into hibernation while it waits for new species to evolve and restock the planet. Then it wakes up. “It would explain why there are several inexplicable periods of mass extinction in our fossil records,” muses one scientist.

To destroy the monster, Dr. Thomas and a small team of solders venture forth armed with machetes, axes, sub-machine guns, flamethrowers and one chainsaw (and a dose of “Chemical X”). The giant jellyfish is destroyed, but not without a few complications.

But Londoners shouldn’t rest easy just yet. Dr. Thomas and his crew suspect there might be more Jellyfish monsters. Buried deep underground. Asleep, like this one was, but waiting for an alarm call. “It stands to reason, doesn’t it? That there’d be more than just one of them,” says a chatty medic on the last page. “I suppose so,” sighs Thomas.

[Tendrils / By Simon Ian Childer / First Printing: January 1986 / ISBN: 9780586064375]