Score: 95/100 (9.5 out of 10)
Tales of Monstrosity is a magnificent, entertaining, and—at times—terrifying short-story collection compiled by Marx Pyle.
It features horror, cryptid, and monster stories by Pyle, Scott A. Johnson, Anne C. Lynch, Sen R.L. Scherb, W.H. Horner, Carrie Gessner, Kevin Plybon, Katharine Dow, Victoria L. Scott, Jeremiah Dylan Cook, J.C. Mastro, Sophia DeSensi, Jeannie Rivera, Michael La Ronn, Marisa Wolf, Jeff Burns, Francis Fernandez, Colten Fisher, and G.K. White.
This is an extremely talented group of storytellers! About half of these contributors have won an Outstanding Creator Award (or more) in the past, either for their contributions to the Dragons of a Different Tail collection (also compiled by Pyle) or independently. For example, Jeannie Rivera is the author of the stellar Frederick Moody and the Secrets of Six Summit Lake, which won us over with its two lead characters. J.C. Mastro is the author of Academy Bound, a thrilling story about hopeful young space cadets.
Marx Pyle once again proves to be a phenomenal compiler of compelling, funny, entertaining, and thematically consistent short-stories.
Demonstrating this, this collection kicks off perfectly with El Cucuy by Scott A. Johnson, instantly the most tense and suspenseful story in the book. A father haunted by his past (both literally and figuratively) is stalked by a malevolent creature who he fears will take and kill his little daughter. This story is genuinely suspenseful as we are immediately introduced to true and dire stakes: children taken away by this terrifying, mysterious creature—El Cucuy—and later found petrified in trees, their faces still showing terror. This monstrous creature is said to lurk under your bed and to pull you away when you are sleeping and, thus, most vulnerable.
There's something familiar, morbid, and compelling about this. We've all heard stories of the Boogeyman, or the monster under the bed, or the monster in the closet. We know that at any moment, the father might lose his daughter to an unknown, unspeakable, and likely horrific fate. Any parent can empathize with the fear of losing their child. We also wonder what the father's mysterious backstory might be—the past that he continuously tries to bury and which might be responsible for the current predicament.
The Devil and Scott by W.H. Horner was another story that particularly stood out to us. First of all, it takes two figures that many of us in the literary sphere are already familiar with—F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald—and pits them against a legendary monster said to haunt the skies of New Jersey: the Jersey Devil. The Jersey Devil is a wing, flying monstrosity with a reptilian tail and mammalian body whom many in the area, including Napoleon Bonaparte's brother, have claimed to have seen as far back as colonial times. In this story, F. Scott Fitzgerald has just published his heralded Great Gatsby with little financial success. Somewhat disillusioned, he then finds his legendary imagination pushed to its limits with encounters with the Jersey Devil. Similar to El Cucuy, there seems to be real stakes as Scott and Zelda fear that their child may be carried off by the creature, which stalks and hunts them.
Not all of these stories are so dark and dire. A few of them, like The Adventures of Elena and Ned by Jeff Burns, are unserious, humorous, erotic fun. The Adventures of Elena and Ned definitely doesn't take itself too seriously, and it allows the reader to just sit back and enjoy. It features the erotic, quirky, and hilarious relationship between Elena, a private investigator, and Ned, a gargoyle who kinda becomes her pet/intimate partner. The sexual tension in this story is so over-the-top and awkward that it's impossible not to at least chuckle a little, especially when Ned finds himself trying not to be creepy and Elena keeps slipping up about her intense sexual urges. This is definitely not a story for everyone, but after reading something like Viili and the Doomsday Affair, this is pretty tame. It's no surprise that we enjoyed this story since it's by Jeff Burns, the writer who gave us Wei Ling and the Water Dragon, one of our favorite stories from Dragons of a Different Tail. Interestingly, both stories feature a quirky, funny female character and a kind-spirited mythical beast. Burns is very good at writing chemistry between these types of characters.
The Tiger's Gift by G.K. White charmed us with its terrific writing, wowing us with poetic prose involving vivid imagery involving classical elements like water and colors like blood-red and deep purple. It is arguably the most eloquently written story in this book.
Rebel with a Cause: An Obsidian Archives Story by Marx Pyle was an action-packed, faster-flowing story that explored moral dilemmas like: is it right to eliminate a threat if it is innocent and ignorant of knowing that it is a threat? This story reminded us a lot of the books and stories of Ethan Richards, particularly the Dark Elf of Oklahoma series. All of these stories involve gun-wielding mercenary types wound up in conflicts between elves, orcs, and other mythical creatures. Interestingly, the moment in this story that really stood out to us was when the character Liam attempts to impersonate the speech patterns of actor Liam Neeson and, like the Sean Connery impressions in the Francis Fernandez story we'll get to soon, it's actually quite amusing to read. Also interesting is that this story probably has the highest kill-count in the book, which is impressive considering the various bloodthirsty monsters in its many stories. Leave it to the gun-toting elf to fill the morgue.
The Greatest of All Time by Francis Fernandez is, like The Adventures of Elena and Ned, a bit of a lighthearted absurdist comedy story, also featuring a private investigator/detective. This detective is named Chuck, but you can call him “Sherlock Holmes.” No, he's not really the legendary detective from popular media, but he has deluded himself into believing that he's on par with the world's greatest detective. Chuck is semi-obsessed with maintaining the grand reputation that he believes he has by solving presumably tough murder cases that may have simpler explanations. Unfortunately, as the supposed GOAT—Greatest Detective of All Time—he believes he is now the target of a monster/killer who is out to kill the GOATs of various professions. Hi-jinx ensues.
Interesting enough, like Rebel with a Cause, the scene that stood out to us in this story was a celebrity impersonation. In this case, Chuck overhears the voice of Sean Connery on a television, and the impression is pretty spot-on:
“Ushe my liver well, young prinshe. For it ish noble and true. Shave our kingdom, Prinshe Shamshon ShilverShpoon, sho it may proshper and grow into greatnesh.”
If that doesn't make you chuckle, then you have no soul. Or maybe we're just easily amused.
Hexpad Blog:A First-Timer's Guide to the Big City by Colten Fisher featured some good world-building, presenting a city in which cryptids lurk. It's a lot like Sunnydale from Buffy. Something notable about this particular story is that it presents the idea that not all cryptids are homogenous. Some goblins will gang up on you and try to mug you. Some goblins look like hot women and will use their kung fu skills to protect you. That's what we took away from it, anyway.
Gore Vellye (The Autumn Tumult) by Anne Lynch is distinct with an Irish flare complete with Irish inflections in the language and characters like Magnus Craigie and James MacCodron. This story explores the mystery of the ominous so-called “Devil's Claw Marks” at the high steps near the local cemetery where bodies have been exposed, presumably by a wind storm. This story is actually quite tense with some red-herrings, misdirections, and surprising turns. It develops and builds relatively slowly compared to other stories in the book, but it's worth it.
This book is a very worthwhile read, written by people who clearly care about nerdy stuff like sci-fi, fantasy, mythology, horror, monsters, kaiju, cryptids, and mythical beasts.
Check it out on Amazon!