“Classic tales of creatures from beyond” is the promise made by editor Mike Ashley in the latest collection in the Science Fiction Classics range of the British Library, fourteen pieces from between 1899 and 1961 to represent the Menace of the Monster; perhaps a subgenre that immediately skews the stories, Ashley’s normally excellent curation has gathered some which are below his usual standard, with many of the early offerings following a template lacking in curiosity though this does highlight the evolution of style and content, the concluding stories quite literally written in another era.
Rightly opening the anthology is of The War of the Worlds as abridged by H G Wells himself for the “compact summary” which was originally accompanied by the illustrations of Johan Briedé, but his masterpiece loses the spirit and insight of the novel, little more than a distillation of devastation which is devoid of all but the broadest topography, nor does it contain within it any spark which would encourage a reader to tackle the grand and groundbreaking work from which it has been culled.
First published in 1911 but set in the then-future of 1915, with hindsight The Cloud-Men of Owen Oliver is shockingly prescient, envisioning the world at war, Britain besieged, martial law enforced and the media under strict control, “the communication of false news” punishable by death. “It is common knowledge that a great darkness set in during the later weeks of August, 1914” he writes, though the immediate and overwhelming invasion here was by clouds, possibly sentient, definitely deadly; echoing Wells’ black smoke and the structure of his novel, conceived and written as a short piece it does not suffer by its inclusion.
The earliest piece is appropriately pre-historic as The Dragon of St Paul’s of Reginald Bacchus and C Ranger Gull is awoken from ice and transported to London where it escapes and wreaks havoc; the opening section focusing on character, that approach is swiftly abandoned and the story spirals down predictably, though it is notable for the parallels with Larry Cohen‘s Q – The Winged Serpent and for crystallising the central idea which defines much of the genre: “The order of nature was disturbed.”
Coutts Brisbane’s incongruously titled De Profundis opens as though it is to become a prototype of The Blob in the manifestation and action of its infestation but quickly reveals its threat to be of a different order altogether, but as another story where the “monster” is the whole of the concept rather than a springboard to explore deeper ideas, it is an escape narrative of little depth.
A stylistic step forward into shadow, H P Lovecraft is represented by Dagon; effective and evocative, his use of language sophisticated and sinister, it is followed by John Martin Leahy’s equally atmospheric In Amundsen’s Tent, constructed around an unseen presence stalking an ill-fated Antarctic expedition across the ice; almost a travelling companion to Lovecraft’s work, Ashley ponders whether it was an influence on At the Mountains of Madness and John W Campbell’s Who Goes There?
Credited to Draycott Dell and Edgar Wallace, the short adaptation of King Kong is a story which should be familiar to most, written with great momentum, every moment of action squeezed in to the exclusion of character, the key presence of Ann Darrow entirely passive and manhandled, kidnapped, apehandled, almost mute other than her screaming as though to give either her or Kong humanity would distract from the spectacle.
A very different approach from the simplistic, unthinking and instinctive “monsters” presented so far is taken by Nelson S Bond as he discovers The Monster from Nowhere, so unknowable is the organism inspired by Edwin A Abbott’s Flatland, yet despite the possibility Bond uses his premise simply to unleash chaos.
Part of A E van Vogt’s Voyage of the Space Beagle, the first trip off-planet leads to Discord in Scarlet, a more ambitious venture taken off-course by trite dialogue as the manly men in spacesuits wield their ato-guns against the lifeform of extraordinary ability and apparent hostility which they find free-floating in deep space; despite being scientists, they crew speak with unhesitant certainty in unprecedented circumstances, heedless of the minimal data upon which they base their conclusions.
A contrast to this, shorter and more thoughtful is John Christopher’s Monster, a tail of two parts, one of the titular ambassador and its underwater civilisation, farmers of seaweed and herders of whales, the first of any of the organisms central to the collection to be presented in such a way, before switching to a human perspective to provide tragic context.
Returning to deep space but with an adaptable approach which would have been alien to van Vogt is James White and his Resident Physician of Sector General Hospital, the patients and doctors a menagerie of civilised species cooperating for the greater good even as they are presented with the mystery of an unknown arrival whose treatments cause the opposite result of what their symptoms suggest, a medical and moral conundrum which requires constant re-evaluation and intellectual leaps.
Seen through the eyes of an adopted child, despite being silent and immobile the Personal Monster of Idris Seabright manages to generate a great deal of character and emotion into its compact form before an unexpected reversal, while although the twist of Marcia Kamien’s Alien Invasion is quite obvious, at only four pages it is sweetly written and genuine in its intent.
Concluding the Menace of the Monster and almost offering an appraisal of the collection and the public perception of the genre is the courtroom battle documented by Eric Frank Russell in The Witness as a lone alien is put on trial by a jury of those who are unavoidably not its peers, the prosecution playing on their fears while the defence must make them realise it is in fact their own prejudices, the comic tone belying the serious themes which underlie what is probably the best work included.