Nasty, Nasty Part II: Birds, Bugs, Blowflies, and Buh-alligators
I love alliteration so much I've been known to do some silly things in my day just to preserve it. Just ask my cousins, Fabian, Fatima, Faustus, and their long-suffering brother, Bart.
Anyway, this is the second in our however-many-it-takes part series on critter and/or British "nasty" books. The first part was here if you missed it. I only got in one British novel this time, and I'm starting with critter-book roots-rock, if you will - a long-short-story/short-novella that was one of the earliest (but strongest) examples of the genre. From there I've continued onto some more obscure titles that hopefully needed reviewing. So here we go...
“The Birds” - Daphne DuMaurier (in Kiss Me Again, Stranger) Pocket Books, 1953
As great as Hitchcock’s film is, the original source is even more powerful because it gets right into the situation and cuts out the overlong meet-cute first half of the film. Birds in a seaside community (and possibly worldwide) react to a sudden cold spell by becoming organized and aggressive, attacking humans. One family barricade themselves in their house and try to survive; apparently they’re one of the few, because the story grows more and more apocalyptic. DuMaurier usually writes quieter stories, but proves here that she had no problem doing action, and this story stays intense without sacrificing atmosphere. The movie is essential viewing but by no means should it stop you from reading the novella.
The Fire Ants - Saul Wernick (Award Books, 1976)
Being raised in Mississippi, I have a healthy respect for the sting of a fire ant, but no real fear of them. Unless something really odd happens you're not likely to be covered with them. We used to kick their mounds over and bomb them with firecrackers and seldom got stung. So it's a bit odd to me how the people in this novel react when confronted with them. They won't go within fifty feet of a fire ant mound, and to enter a field where they live mans certain death. Granted, this is supposed to be a mutant super-powered strain of them, and there are a lot of the little buggers, but still, it seems overblown. Anyway, fire arnts show up in a farming community and stung-to-death corpses start showing up. Jaws-style, a local senator who owns a resort nearby tries to suppress news of the infestation lest it cost him clientele. Meanwhile, farmers can’t work their fields because the ants have set up shop there, and they won’t let the authorities burn or poison the fields because a fanatical reverend has them convinced that the Lord sent the ants as due punishment for sins. The farm folk view the fancy resort as a den of iniquity and soon the superstitious hicks are shooting it out with the corrupt senator’s thugs, and the legion of ants becomes a secondary problem. There are some well-done action scenes (it’s not surprising that Wernick got to write the first of the “new” Mack Bolan series, The New War, as a ghost writer) but it’s not really much as a killer-bugs-on-the-warpath horror novel, and it’s overlong at 220 small-print pages. Not bad, really, but not delivering on what you’re probably looking for when you pick it up.
Bugged! - Donald F. Glut (Manor Books, 1974)
Strange, goofy horror-mystery in which an old fraternity of professors is the target of attacks by a variety of insects. Some are pretty straightforward, with beetles, ants, and mantises swarming to eat their victims, but others are a bit more quirky (termites eat a staircase to make a guy fall, and a butterfly lures one man into falling on a rake!). Bees, dragonflies, moths, bedbugs, flies, and black widow spiders all kill people in rather repetitive ways. A pulp-magazine-loving cop and the daughter of the first victim try to determine if this is nature gone amuck or the work of some mad-scientist supervillain. It’s all wacky enough that I kept expecting Batman to show up any minute. It’s an obvious homage to old pulp stories but it’s weird because people don’t react in sensical ways (a girl who’s just seen her father eaten alive just wants to call a cab!) and the writing, while competent, still isn’t very good. Not quite what I’d want from a bug-attack book, even though there are lots and lots of those. Ultimately silly, with bits from the point of view of the leaders of the bug hoards, and heaped-on melodramatics toward the end.
Blowfly - David Loman (Star, 1984)
Standard British nasty in which trillions of hybrid blowflies descend on Britain, eager to lay their eggs and not particular about the flesh they lay it in being dead yet. The flies can’t bite, but they still lots of people by swarming all over them in such numbers that they’re suffocated under the sheer mass of flies. And those who survive the fly assaults often get to look forward to clumps of maggots hatching in their skin or even in their intestines. The authorities bombard the countryside with all sorts of insecticide but every time they think they’ve got them all massive new swarm shows up, and it looks like a plague of filthy insects may be unstoppable. There’s lots of fly-attack action and some of it is pretty gruesome, with babies being smothered, people vomiting up flies they were choking on, flies emerging from an opened colon during an operation, etc. The book is still not great, though, because characterization is especially weak. The writing’s not bad (though overly British) but, even though Loman does try, the characters are so weak I never felt like the book had any protagonists, and so it wasn’t very involving. But it did deliver plenty of gruesome infestation action, which is an essential thing in any book like this, so I can’t fault it there. It’s kind of hard to believe that there could be that many flies, but I can play along. A subplot about a “Manfly” superhero TV show seems tagged on as a joke. Not great, but you’ll get your money’s worth in fly attacks.
The Night of the Toy Dragons - Barney Cohen (Berkley Medallion, 1977)
Weird title covering for another alligators-in-the-sewer tale. The alligators happen to be albino midgets, more like carnivorous lizards, and they’re aggressively breeding in the sewers of NYC, chowing down on anyone unwary enough to go down there. And they’re breeding in such numbers that they’ll soon be a threat to the surface world. The mini-gators attack in swarms like reptilian piranha, leaving skeletons in their wake, and once the authorities figure out what they’re dealing with (which takes a damn long time) they send down troops with gas and flamethrowers to destroy their nesting grounds. This could be a good book but for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on the writing just isn’t absorbing. Cohen tries to create interesting characters but despite his attempts they remain so unmemorable they make no impression and you almost get left without a protagonist to follow. He does keep the action moving but it’s too mundane to have much impact and you’re left with an uninvolving, mediocre story that should be better than it is, and an ending that comes across as a "I wasn't really sure how to end this" white flag. Still, fans of critters-on-the-loose horror may want to check out this obscurity, regardless.
And that's all I managed to read for now. It's kinda tough reading too many of these in a row, because, let's face it, the plots run toward the similar. They can't really help it. No matter how creative you get, it's gonna end up as critters eat people, authorities become aware of critters, methods to stop critters are deployed and they're wiped out (except for a couple so we can have a sequel). But, I've amassed quite an arsenal of these things and I full intend to keep chipping away at 'em, so, stay tuned, same bat/bug/gator/spider/fish/rat channel.
Meanwhile, you can read me being ever-so-screamingly-funny on Twitter. Another of our blog alumni, Kicker of Elves (so named, I think, because the lazy mofuck posts here 'bout as often as Santy Claus, but when he does it's like getting a good present ) is also on Twitter and is a great guy to follow. And there may be more Twitter stuff if you poke around but due to the nature of it, that's classified! Shhhhh!