Science Fiction & Fantasy

  ALFRED COPPEL “The Last Two Alive!” Short novel. First published in Planet Stories, November 1950. Reprinted with Out of Time’s Abyss, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, as half of Armchair Fiction Double Novel #D-169, paperback, 2015.

   If you all you want is a whopping good old-fashioned space opera story without a lot of either depth or characterization, this may be the story for you. Aram Jerrold is accused and convicted of conspiring against the ruling Tetarchy of the Thirty Suns, based on the testimony of Deve Jennet, a girl Aram thought he had a future with.

   But once sent to the prison planet Atmion IV for execution, Aram is pleasantly surprised (to say the least) to find that Deve is a member of group of rebels against both the Tetarchy and Satane, the despot ruler of the Kaidor planetary system. Planning to revolt and take over the Tetarchy, the latter has developed a biological weapon that wipes out the memories of its victims and turns them into howling beasts.

   Well, sir, what can a band of only a handful of rebels do — the one Aram is now a member of? They do their best, and realistically, the outcome is all but inevitable. The story is told in picturesque fashion, however, and it doesn’t slow down for a minute, exactly how you’d expect from a tale first published in a magazine called Planet Stories.

   [WARNING: PLOT ALERT AHEAD] As it so happens, this is one of those big-scale stories in which humanity completely wipes itself out, leaving only two survivors. Aram [Jerrold] and Deve [Jennet] become the progenitors of a new human race, and over the years, their names become corrupted to … can you guess?

ROBERT SILVERBERG “Double Dare.” Short story. Galaxy Science Fiction, November 1956. Reprinted in The Fifth Galaxy Reader (1961). Collected in The Cube Root of Uncertainty (1970), among others.

   While published before I discovered science fiction magazines at the local newsstand, which would have been a couple of years later, this is the kind of SF story I enjoyed immensely when I did, and which I don’t come across all that frequently any more.

   Which is to say a “nuts and bolts” kind of SF story, in which either a Terran scientist or a pair of engineers from Earth — as in “Double Dare” — are given a problem to be solved, and whatever their motivation, they go ahead and do it.

   In this case, the stakes are raised about as high as they can go, starting with a bet in bar about which of two races, Earth’s or the alien Domerangi, is the better at solving technological problems. To settle the question, a team of two experts from Earth are sent to the Domerangi home planet, where they are presented with three engineering or physics problems to solve, with two of the Domerangi doing the same back on Earth.

   The first two tasks are easy, but the third is a tough one: to build a perpetual motion machine. Given the right incentive — and on a personal level it is to be able to go back home again — the two from Earth … but telling more would spoil the point of the story. Suffice to say that everything works out in very fine fashion, and with a added twist to the tale as well.

   Stories such as this one are built on cheery optimism, I grant you, but they’re also a lot of fun to read.


R. S. BELCHER – The Shotgun Arcana. Golgotha #2. Tor, hardcover, 2014; trade paperback, 2015.

   The moon was a bullet hole in the sable night, bleeding ghostlight across the wasteland of the 40-Mile Desert.

   That’s not an opening to a Western you are likely to forget, and as you might expect one you will long remember in the case of this ghastly Gothic tale of the small town of Golgotha, Nevada in 1870 where the population includes a fallen angel (Malachi Bick) and his daughter Emily, mad scientist Clay Turlough (“Soul wouldn’t need protecting if the transportation for it was designed a bit more steadily.”) who practices reanimating heads, and Maud, grand-daughter of Anne Bonny ( who disclosed to her the secret history of the world — the story of Lilith, the first human to rebel agains the tyranny of heaven…) and herself a retired pirate queen and practitioner of Lilith magic who lives with her psychic daughter Constance.

   Despite that, Golgotha is a fairly peaceful town watched over by Sheriff John Highfather and his deputies young Jim and Mutt and Mayor Harry Pratt and his lover, gunfighter Ringo, but forty years earlier Malachi Bick was part of a rescue party that found the Donners and retrieved a cursed skull that is about to release hell on Earth — literally

   Lead by the demonic fallen angel Raziel Zeal (“… the Keeper of Secrets, the vessel of divine knowledge, one of the Princes of the Second Heaven …”) an army is riding toward Golgotha, an army of lunatics, murderers, cannibals, thugee, and worse all drawn to the skull and Zeal’s ambitious plans to destroy mankind before killing God.

    “…cities will become slaughterhouses, civilizations will burn, and in time, slowly, painfully, the human race will die screaming, at its own hand.”

   The Gothic Western has never been a prolific genre. Walter Van Tilberg Clark’s Track of the Cat is likely the best known, though a few ghosts, spirits, werewolves, and the like appear in the pulps, and on screen there are films like High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider hinting at demons and devils. Stephen King’s Dark Tower borrows many elements from the Western, notably in it’s central figure Roland, the Gunfighter, but outright Gothic Western horror, aside from the likes of the Wild Wild West is rare.

   Which is why this beautifully written rollicking novel is such a delight, from the imagery (The noonday sky was dark with screaming crows …) to an apocalyptic battle between good and evil fought by mortal men and fallen angels in the middle of the Nevada desert. It’s a Gothic, stream-punk, splatter punk, high adventure, horror, dark fantasy, Western coming of age story.

   The sky was deepest indigo. Ribbons of dying umber, crimson and gold wavered at the jagged teeth of the horizon. The stars, bright and burning and ancient, unfurled before them from behind a gauze curtain of clouds.

   The Shotgun Arcana is a wild ride easily one of the most enjoyable extravaganzas in years, Quentin Tarantino crossed with Sergio Leone by way of Stephen King.

Bibliographic Notes:   The Shotgun Arcana was preceded by The Six-Gun Tarot (2013) and followed by The Queen of Swords (2017)

SHANNON CONNOR WINWARD “Witch’s Hour.” Novelet. First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2017.

   Fantasy stories with pseudo-medieval settings are very common. They usually come with castles and kings and queens, secret alliances and intrigue within the castle and with heads of other kingdoms, often with sons’ and daughters’ hands in marriage, with or without their approval.

   Such is the setting of “Witch’s Hour,” save for the primary protagonist, Esmelda, who heads the kitchen in Castle Lochhunte. She’s the head cook, in other words, and a good one, perhaps the best there is for miles around.

   But she has a problem. The ghost of the former cook, the man who she replaced, the man whose life she took when his groping hands became more than just a minor nuisance, is haunting her. That the king also has his eye on her, and not only for her finesse in the kitchen, is less of a problem — one in fact that she welcomes.

   But fantasy stories with pseudo-medieval settings need not always have happy endings, and this [PLOT ALERT!] is … You’ll have to read this one. The author, Shannon Connor Winward, is also an award-winning poet, and it shows.


THE SHIP OF MONSTERS. Sotomayor, Mexico, 1960. Originally released as La nave de los monstruos. Eulalio Gonzalez, Ana Bertha Lepe, Lorena Velazquez. Written by Jose Maria Fernandez Unsain and Alfreda Verla Jr. Directed by Rugelio A. Gonzalez.

   I spend October reading scary books and watching old monster movies, and last month had its share of highs and lows: THE BODY SNATCHER, INVISIBLE GHOST, WHITE ZOMBIE, GODZILLA, BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and others too humorous to mention. Some were brilliant, some abysmal, but nothing else this year was quite like SHIP OF MONSTERS.

   In fact, I don’t think there’s been a movie like this since THE PHANTOM EMPIRE (1935) a Musical-Comedy-Western-Sci-Fi serial of bizarre proportions. SHIP goes it one or two better, with Monsters and Babes, and being a feature film, it has the advantage of brevity (the soul of wit) over the Gene Autry chapter play.

   The story here has something to do with the planet Venus, populated by beautiful women ever since all the men killed each other in senseless wars. Nothing daunted, but perhaps a bit short-sighted, the Queen of Venus sends agents Gamma and Beta (the improbably-cantilevered Lepe and Velazquez) around the Galaxy to round up more males.

   Turns out the Venusian Vixens haven’t been able to find any guys, but to their credit (or in order to meet a quota) they have rounded up a goodly assortment of male monsters, kept in check by an imposing robot named Thor. With this entourage they land on Earth and meet Mexican Singing Cowboy Eulalio Gonzalez, proprietor of a one-cow ranch, who seems to split his time between singing in the saddle and Munchausening at the local cantina — which leads to predictable complications later on when he tries to warn everyone about the Monsters, but I’m getting ahead of the story.

   Gonzalez’s singing may be a matter of personal taste, but what he lacks in euphony he makes up for in persistence. He sings on every possible occasion and sometimes for no reason at all. He falls in love and he sings. He rides into town and he sings. He fights monsters and he sings. No one believes his warnings, and… you guessed it. He even does a duet with a vampiress trying to suck his blood.

   Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you about the Vampiress. Turns out someone in Venusian HR screwed up and one of the space-gals (Velazquez, fondly remembered from DOCTOR OF DOOM [reviewed here ] is a vampire who decides to commandeer Thor the Robot (remember him?), free the monsters, conquer the Earth and gosh-knows what all.

   And oh yes: it’s up to Gonzalez to beat up the monsters, thwart her evil plans and romance the other Venus-Babe.

   This is Silliness on an epic scale, and everyone gives it its props. There’s a nifty set for the interior of the space ship, gruesome monster makeup, a flashy robot (who reappeared in one of the AZTEC MUMMY movies) and a plot that seems made up as it goes along, just like the games us kids used to play.

   In all, a film to sit back and enjoy, if you can switch off the brain for a bit. As for Gonzalez’s singing – is it too late to give the Nobel Prize to the guy who invented Fast-Forward?


EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS – The Monster Men. Ace #F-182, paperback, 1963. Cover by Frank Frazetta. First published by A. C. McClurg & Co., hardcover, March 1929. Cover by J. Allen St. John. Several other reprint editions exist.

   I was maybe 14 years old when I read a review of this book in Castle of Frankenstein magazine. I had a dollar at the time, so I got on the bus and went downtown to a place called the Paperback Gallery, a little bookstore that sold only paperbacks.

   It was there I picked up my first samples of Fu Manchu, Doc Savage, Mr Moto, Charlie Chan, the first EC reprints….. and got a copy of this. Came back home with enough left over for two chocolate bars, and had a high old time with it.

   And there it was, still on my shelf after all these years & tears & fears, just in time for Halloween.

   Reading The Monster Men in the wisdom of my advancing years, I found myself bemused by ERB’s awful prose and delighted by the pace he imparts to the story. Never mind Characterization; that don’t enter into it. It’s set on a tropical island in the South Seas, off Java and Borneo, and I wondered idly if Conrad’s Marlow might cruise by, or perhaps Somerset Maugham in search of a tale of human interest. But (SPOILER ALERT!) they didn’t.

   What does happen owes more than a nod to H.G. Wells’ Island of Dr Moreau, with an unhinged scientist, his lovely daughter and a small entourage on a tropical island where he can conduct his experiments in creating Men in relative privacy.

   Unfortunately, the mad medico’s first twelve attempts have produced only shambling monsters (hence the title of the piece) and the failures have addled him to the point where he vows to wed his daughter to Number Thirteen -– which, to everyone’s surprise, emerges from the vat looking like a Greek statue with a becoming tan.

   At which point the plot kicks into high gear, with a pirate attack, treachery within the ranks, head-hunters, a Monster rally, daring rescues, pitched battles and over it all, Number Thirteen, now known as Bulan, braving the jungle perils as one to the manner born.

   I should be ashamed to admit how much I enjoyed this. Burrough’s prose is so bad I sometimes suspect him of parody, but he keeps it moving without too much of the padding that marred the Tarzan books I tried to read back in the day. The story did eventually get to where most Burroughs books go: Everyone chasing each other around in the jungle, but in this one it seems a bit less protracted.

   Burroughs even surprised me with a bit of insight on the nature of the Soul here. He reflects a mind-set common in SF early in the 20th century, when artificial insemination was first used on animals, that a man-made creature would have no soul — an idea that surfaced in Alraune and elsewhere.

   Here, Bulan ponders his artificial origins and essential soullessness, then looks about him at the men he has encountered — pirates, thieves, and his mad creator — only to conclude that the Soul must be worth much less than the value men seem to attach to it.

   And this, oddly enough, is the kind of thing one does find in the tales of Conrad and Maugham in those same South Seas of fiction. Maybe not enough to elevate The Monster Men to the ranks of Great Literature, but it adds a bit of thoughtfulness to a ripping yarn.


JACK FINNEY – The Body Snatchers. Dell First Edition #42, paperback original, 1955. First serialized in Collier’s, November 26 – December 24, 1954. Reprinted many times. Adapted into film four times: (1) as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956; Kevin McCarthy; directed by Don Siegel). (2) as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1974; Donald Sutherland; directed by PHilip Kaufman). (3) as Body Snatchers (1993; directed by Abel Ferrara). (4) as The Invasion (2007; Daniel Craig).

   The basis of a classic movie and many remakes, and a fine novel in its own right: vivid, suspenseful and full of implausibility about which the reader gives no damn.

   The story is too well-known to outline here, so I’ll just say Finney does a clever job of starting out small (patients of a small-town Doctor complain that there’s something funny about their friends and family) and building to the kind of edgy action and trickling suspense that made Sci-Fi fun in the old days. He also manages to make a 190-page book about Alien Invasion seem leisurely — but not slow-paced.

   But there’s a duality lurking around here, based on an off-hand bit mentioned in passing: Once the Pods have taken a human identity, they begin to lose interest in that person’s daily activities. (Naturally, being Pods, they’re more into spreading pod-dom or selling Amway or whatever.) So gutters need to be cleaned, the trash cans on Main Street don’t get emptied, storefront windows grow dusty, and the whole town takes on an air of seedy neglect.

   Well, in 1954, when Finney wrote the book, all this was actually happening: as the Suburb and the Strip Mall began to replace the Small Town, that little icon of Norman Rockwell America became every bit as seamy and run-down as Finney describes. And in a very real sense, The Body Snatchers sings a requiem for the cruel death of a cherished memory. There’s an oddly heart-rending chapter where the hero walks through his town, thinks of what it was and sees what it has become, that should strike home with anyone who grew up in pre-war America (or, like me, in the tawdry shadows of big empty department stores, dusty restaurants and faded movie palaces) and it adds a dimension of compelling nostalgia to an already fine thriller.

   The Body Snatchers deserves its rep as a taut thriller, but I shall treasure its melancholy edge long after the plot twists and chase scenes have passed from memory.

ROBERT SHECKLEY “Subsistence Level.” Galaxy Science Fiction, August 1954. Collected in Shards of Space (Bantam J2443, paperback original, July 1962) and The Collected Short Fiction of Robert Sheckley: Book Three (Pulphouse, hardcover/softcover, 1991).

   As a young writer Robert Sheckley was a perfect fit for the early days of Galaxy magazine. H. L. Gold, its agoraphobic editor, was looking for literary quality for the science fiction he published, not necessarily technical expertise, and the magazine was known for its emphasis on the effect that technology had on the human race, often with a satirical and/or ironic twist.

   Which was, of course, Robert Shckley’s forte. Although this story is not one of Sheckley’s better known ones — it’s never been reprinted except in two collections of his own work — it serves to show the point very well. “Subsistence Level” is the tale of a pioneer in the age of space, a man with a wanderlust and a fear of being crowded, and ready to move on when he runs out of elbow room.

   And his wife, determined to make their marriage a success against the advice of her mother, is forced to move along with him. When the Gobi Desert gets filled up, and so does the Southern Polar Cap, their next stop? The asteroid belt.

   Warning: I’m about to give the essence of the story away in the quote that follows, taken directly from the story, but it goes a long way in illustrating what I was saying there up above. The couple, man and wife, have been putting in hard five-hour days getting settled on their small rock in space, bossing robots around, and:

   After helping Amelia pile the dishes into the washer, Dirk set up a projector in their living room. As a double feature flicked across the screen, they sat in durable foam-ribber chairs, just as generation of pioneers before them had done. This continuity with the past touched Amelia sharply.

THORP McCLUSKY “The Crawling Horror.” First published in Weird Tales, November 1936. Reprinted in Avon Fantasy Reader #6, 1948, and The Macabre Reader, edited by Donald A. Wollheim (Ace D-353, 1959), among others.

   This strange story is told by a farmer to a local doctor who in turn tells it to us. The farmer has rats in his house and barn, but when they begin to disappear, he gives the credit to his several cats. Then the cats start to vanish. Can his dogs be next?

   He is sitting in front of his fireplace, reaches down to pet his dog and … I’ll quote:

   “It was a slimy sort of stuff, transparent-looking, without any shape to it. It looked as though if you picked it up it would drip right through your fingers. And it was alive — don’t know how I knew that, but I was sure of it even before I looked. It was alive, and a sort of shapeless arm of it lay across the dog’s back, and covered her head. She didn’t move.”

   What do you think? What would you do?

PS. Things get worse from here. This is only the beginning.


ALLEN ADLER – Terror on Planet Ionus. Paperback Library #52-941, paperback, 1966; #63-048, 2nd printing, 1969. Originally published as Mach I: A Story of Planet Ionus Farrar Strauss & Cudahay, hardcover, 1957


   This science fiction novel, by a writer I’ve never heard of, is a knockout. Wise and gentle aliens from Ionus come to Earth to warn us that Klarkong, the monster that destroyed their planet is coming to Earth, an energy devouring monster that grows stronger no matter what you feed it.

   Earth’s only hope against this omnivorous energy monster is secret project Mach I, a super fast atomic powered ship, piloted by reckless dashing ladies man Lt. Commander Jeb Curtis, whose courage got him into the project despite his record as an insubordinate P.T. Boat commander in WW II.

   As the Ionusans warn, Klarkong is virtually unstoppable, and soon he’s in the Nevada and Southern California desert devouring all sources of energy. Helpless to fight him, the Americans have to stand by as the Soviet’s violate American air space to nuke the monster, which only sends it in a feeding frenzy for nuclear fuel.

   And where is there still nuclear power to devour? The Soviet Union, serves them right, so Klarkong heads across the Pacific.

   But the vast emptiness of the Pacific gives the desperate Americans one last chance to use Mach I where they can maneuver its incredible speeds and unleash it’s weapons safely if they can weaken Klarkong enough to kill it.

   If? The battle is down to the final paragraphs on a small island in the Pacific, Mach I’s last remaining nuclear torpedoes against a wounded Klarkong.

   This one is a pure fifties or early sixties monster movie in print, a kaiju from outer space rampaging across the world while desperate scientists and military, with a little alien help, fight and die bravely to end the menace. You can virtually see the epic unreeling in your head as you breathlessly read on.

   Granted it has little relation to actual mainstream or even pulp SF as such. It wears the cloak, but that is about all. Characterization is a B movie cliche, and actual scientific logic, or science for that matter, is zil.

   Adler isn’t unskilled as a writer of this kind of deathless prose, there just isn’t any there there beyond the basics, just like those movies we breathlessly devoured on Saturday Mornings or on late night television with all the epicurean dismissal of Klarkong himself.

   Still, it is short, great fun, slightly mad, and Klarkong a kissing cousin of Godzilla, Kronos, X the Unknown, and the Trollenberg Terror crossed with one of those Jack Kirby monsters that Marvel specialized in before turning to superheroes (Fin Fang Foom indeed) and Forbidden Planet’s monster of the Krell Id.

   If that is what you want, this book delivers in trumps.

   And give the guy this, Klarkong is a great name for an interstellar planet eater, not Galactus perhaps, but still pretty good, silvered surfing herald or not.

   Some books are full course gourmet delights.

   Others a filling home cooked meal.

   This one is a chili dog with the works and a side of greasy onion rings.

   I’m half surprised Klarkong himself didn’t eat it.

   Now, if you’ll pardon me, I need an Alka Seltzer and a nap.

Next Page »