THE MENACE OF THE MONSTER: Classic Tales of Creatures from Beyond edited by Mike Ashley
British Library, p/b, £8.99
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Words change. Once ‘monster’ just meant large. That evolved into a monster being big, bad and probably scary. The monster under the bed was likely to eat you or carry you off. Now the term monster is given to the behaviour of someone or something, and they don’t have to be large on size. What is large are the evil intentions towards other humans? Monster has gone from describing a size to delineating a behaviour. In SF, fantasy or horror, a monster can cover any aspect though more usually is related to its appearance or behaviour.
This book, another in the excellent series produced by the British Library, contains fourteen stories covering all aspects of monsterhood with another comprehensive introduction from editor Mike Ashley.
Alien invasions have produced all kinds of monsters, one of the most enduring being the Martians in H.G.Wells’s ‘The War of The Worlds’. This version (1920) is an abbreviated version of the original novel but with all the expected ingredients of invasion and aftermath. In ‘The Cloud-Men’ by Owen Oliver (1911), the aliens are cylinder-shaped and appear inside mist and kill by drowning the victims. As they appear and then vanish without warning, there is no explanation of the events. The invader in ‘De Profundis’ by Coutts Brisbane (1914) is not extra-terrestrial but from underground as vast armies of vicious, poisonous ants emerge from holes in the ground. This story could be a comment on the events at the start of WWI.
Marcia Kamien’s story, ‘Alien Invasion’ (1954), turns the idea of invasion on its head as the dénouement suggests that it is Earth that is conduction the invasion – by impregnating Venusian women – and we are the monsters.
While these stories have multiple monsters, the majority of stories stick to a single entity. Some of the terror arises from the creature being brought back from newly explored countries. In ‘The Dragon of St. Paul’s by Reginald Bacchus & C. Ranger Gull (1899), a winged prehistorical creature (pterodactyl) is found frozen in Arctic ice and, when thawed out, revives and uses St Pauls Cathedral as it’s eerie. Most know of King Kong from the movie. The story here (‘King Kong’ (1933)) is credited to Draycott Dell & Edgar Wallace and is an abridged version of the film tie-in novel. The creature brought back from Peru in ‘The Monster from Nowhere’ by Nelson S. Bond (1939) is monstrous in the sense that, though it is dangerous, it defies explanation being composed of rapidly moving shapes. The theory is that it is a projection from a world with four dimensions.
H.P.Lovecraft’s monster in ‘Dagon’ (1919) has the narrator writing down his experiences of a monstrous meeting while adrift in the Pacific in the hours before he expects it to catch up with and kill him. The question remains as to whether the monster is real or the result of being at sea with no food and water. A script was also found ‘In Amundsen’s Tent’ by John Martin Leahy (1928). The Antarctic explorer Roald Amundsen did indeed leave a tent at the South Pole with a letter for Scott, who he believed was close behind. In this story, the expedition that finds the tent also finds an undescribed monster within. The narrator is the only one that does not look inside and so retains his sanity.
Not all monsters visit our Solar System. The space ship Beagle encounters one in the void between galaxies. In ‘Discord in Scarlet’ by A.E. van Vogt (1939), the crew’s instinct is to capture it and add it to the collection aboard. It is more intelligent and formidable than they expect using this serendipitous meeting to try an implant eggs into human bodies for gestation. If this sounds a bit Alienish – this came first.
Idris Seabright’s ‘Personal Monster’ (1955) is found by Babs in the ash pit at the bottom of the garden. She daren’t tell anyone about it as she thinks it is some kind of personal punishment because she lied to her parents.
Some monsters can be misunderstood. ‘Monster’ by John Christopher (1950) is mostly told from the point of view of the aquatic creatures that are in need of help with survival. For them, the air is very much like space to us, and they construct a special suit to allow one of their race to go up to the air/water interface. Humans are more likely to shoot first and not ask questions until it is too late. The monster on ‘The Witness’ by Eric Frank Russell (1951) is not big but small and green and is trying to be accepted as a refugee on Earth.
Anyone familiar with James White’s Sector General stories will be delighted to revisit ‘Resident Physician’ (1961). The setting is a huge space habitat catering for the medical needs of a wide variety of aliens. Conway is given the care of a huge alien. At first, it is presumed to be dangerous as it was apparently accompanied by a physician of which no trace can be found. The assumption is that the alien has eaten it. As with the other Sector General stories, this presents a puzzle that Conway has to unravel before he can give his patient the appropriate treatment.
The stories in this volume sometimes reflect the political situation and fears of the populace at the time it was written, the monster being an allegory of something else. Setting aside the social conventions of the time in which they were written, all aspects of the soubriquet’ monster’ can be found here. Like the other books in this series, this is very well worth dipping into.