“The tissues match,” she went on, “but the hide outside is different.”
“How different?” he asked.
“It’s harder. More like scaly armor.” She ran a hand through her hair. “It has to be a mutation. And it must be a result of the nuclear radiation from the Trinity Site. There can’t be any other explanation.”
“Trinity,” he said slowly, and remembered what he had heard, what he had read. In 1945 the first atomic device had been exploded near White Sands at the Trinity Site. It had seemed, at that time, in the midst of the desert, nothing more than a large and powerful bomb. It had been only much later, too late for Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that the atomic bomb had been found to be more than “just” a bomb.
“That was over thirty-five years ago,” the herpetologist mused aloud. “Think of the countless generations of lizards as they grew larger and larger, the smaller ones down there dying off or being eaten by the others.”
“How did they survive undetected all these years?” Chato asked.
The woman shrugged. “Who knows? Except that it’s still not very populous there. Lots of desert and sand, and they could miss being noticed.”
“And maybe,” Chato said, “they just recently reached a size where they might be noticed.”
“Hey, wait a minute!” you are no doubt muttering to yourself. “This isn’t a Lyz piece! Furthermore, doesn’t this guy ramble on enough in the comments section of the reviews here as it is? What the hell is going on?”
Well, your eyes do not deceive you. Our host, the lovely Ms. Kingsley, has graciously granted me the opportunity to put up a review for the site. And why not? After all…I am her number one fan.
Anyway, this will be (hopefully) the first in a series of reviews looking at various B-books. Expect most, if not all, of them to feature giant rogue critters, or flat-out kaiju, which will surprise no one who’s spent any amount of time conversing with me. This way, I stay in the wheelhouse of the site, but can touch on things Lyz doesn’t, since Lyz tends to review more respectable literature when she does so. As a bonus, a lot of the books I’m eyeballing for future reviews are dirt cheap. I paid more for the shipping than the book itself for my initial subject, and my likely next subject will be the same. That also benefits anyone that wants to find a copy for themselves.
Before we begin, allow me to provide you with an idea of my approach to my reviews. Naturally, I won’t be able to hit the scientific stuff the way Lyz does, seeing as how I’m not a scientist – I don’t even play one on TV – but, as someone who really enjoys science, I will hopefully be able to avoid embarrassing myself on that front if nothing else. I probably won’t get as worked up over them as she has, I suspect, because it’s not my field. (Unless they’re really egregious. Think Deep Blue Sea…not that that movie didn’t give me enough reasons to become angry at it.) I also won’t be going for a blow-by-blow approach in my reviews, as Lyz does in hers. I think that style works much better for movie reviews. For the most part, I will try to avoid major spoilers, at least if I think the book is worth a read. If I do need to spoil something major, I’ll give you fair warning.
Obviously, coming across a good, even great, book would be wonderful. I am under no illusion that I’m likely to encounter such a thing with these books. However, as someone who loves “so bad they’re entertaining” movies (a better, less contradictory expression than “so bad they’re good,” in my opinion), I will also be happy to have a book that is so stupid I can’t help but enjoy it. As an example, the original Gojira is probably my favorite movie ever. It is a masterpiece of mood and emotion; it contains some truly great cinematography, effects, music, and plain ol’ city-stompin’. However, I also unabashedly and unironically love Godzilla vs. Megalon. I love it the way I love Plan Nine from Outer Space: namely, I derive so much genuine entertainment from it that it transcends concepts of “good” and “bad.” I can recognize the many glaring faults in both movies, but when I’m in the moment watching them, I am having way too much fun to give a damn. Now, should I encounter the Platonic ideal of kaiju stories, I will make a point to say so. Otherwise, take any recommendations with a grain of salt. If you are not a person who can enjoy the twisted charms of Robot Monster or Birdemic, well, you’re very unlikely to enjoy a book that I do. Although I might rightly wonder what you’re doing here if that’s the case.
All right, what say I actually get to the review?
Well, since it was the inspiration for this whole endeavor, it’s only fair for me to start with Gila! by Kathryn Grant, née Ptacek, under the one-time pseudonym “Les Simons.” She was born in Omaha, Nebraska, which is neat as that’s pretty close to my old stamping grounds (I actually lived there for a stretch after college). Gila! was her first published novel. She wrote horror and fantasy novels fairly regularly up until 1993, when she apparently took a break; then, twenty years later, she released an anthology, and has put out the odd story since then. Based on the titles of her other novels, this appears to have been her sole foray into giant critters, although she’s got quite a few books dealing with Native Americans and/or New Mexico.
Despite a copyright date of 1981, Gila! reads like the script for a Sci-Fi Siffy Syfy original movie, albeit one with WAAAAAY more sexual escapades than is standard. After a one-page prologue establishing that, once again, radiation is at fault for mankind’s woes, we move into what would have been modern-day New Mexico, where a whole herd of humongous gila monsters, ranging in length from 15 feet to around 50 feet, stomp and chew their way through diners, ranches, and towns, and everything living in them. The governor calls on Dr. Kate Dwyer, a herpetologist at the University of New Mexico, when the charred end of a tail is found at the scene of a bus accident. As everyone tries to get a grip on the idea of giant gilas running rampant, and Kate splits her time between research and boinking her new lover, said lizards are making a beeline for Albuquerque. Can they stop the gila herd from turning New Mexico’s largest city into a titanic smorgasbord?
Let’s start with the characters. Kate, our protagonist, is pretty well-done. I would say she’s your typical take-no-nonsense female protagonist, but she does manage to be more than that. She has a sense of humor, regular human emotions, and is still good at her job. She properly researches the evidence as she gets it (no bubbling conical flasks filled with mysterious colored fluids here…sorry, Lyz); provides what helpful information she can to the authorities; and despite her obvious desire to capture one of the gilas for study, she doesn’t ruin the authorities’ attempts to kill the creatures “for science!” Hell, she doesn’t even put herself and others in danger trying to secure a specimen! What kind of scientist is she!? She also comes up with a pretty logical plan to stop the gila monsters. Oh, it’s somewhat impractical, but considering some of the plans I’ve seen in the past – hollow-nosed transport rocket, massive reflective mirror-dish, colossal spinning synthetic blood fountain* – I didn’t find it too big a stretch.
(*All of those in the same movie series, too. If you know which one, you’re a friend of mine.)
The one problem with it was the fact that a prior attack, rather similar in nature, had failed, and there is no reason to think her plan won’t fail for the same reason. The big downside here is that, once she meets her soon-to-be lover—a former coworker at the university that she apparently shared a mutual fancy for, but upon which neither acted—she spends as much time humping him like a crazed rabbit as she does studying the very real danger coming for them. She also wastes no time getting to the getting it on; they run into each other, talk for about a minute, part ways; and when he visits her later at her motel room, they share about 30 words before they start testing the structural integrity of the bed’s springs. I’ve seen more believable hook-ups in pornos. It’s fairly annoying that our competent, responsible main character suddenly turns into a refugee from a teen sex comedy whenever her lover is near. I guess it’s a step up from the norm, where the previously professional woman turns into a useless, shrieking, fainting pain in the ass. Still, I’m glad she’s our main character, as you’ll see…
Chato Del-Klinne, an Apache professor turned wandering ranch hand, is Kate’s paramour. The character’s name comes from a holy man who was arrested and executed for promoting traditional religious ceremonies in the 1870s, and a subchief who ran with Cochise and was involved in some of the last raids by American Indians before finally surrendering and later moving to a reservation in New Mexico. This is kind of interesting, but nothing comes of it.* Instead, we get repeated instances of people looking askance at Chato, especially when he’s out and about with pale, redheaded Kate. It comes to a head at a press conference, where reporters are outright racist to him. I’m no expert on race relations in America, but was this really something that would have occurred in the American southwest in this time period? To be fair, the author has spent the vast majority of her life in New Mexico, so maybe it’s not far-fetched at all. Except the press conference; I highly doubt a racist reporter would go right ahead and slur someone with a bunch of other NEWS REPORTERS right there with cameras and microphones and notepads.
(*The name thing isn’t once brought up, it has nothing to do with his character, and I only discovered this naming scheme by accident while doing some research. Either the author thought her readers would get it without shoving it down their throats, or it was just something she did to tickle herself. Both are commendable, or at least benign. It’s just odd. A detail like this generally means something in a story; here it’s completely pointless.)
Anyway, Chato does little outside of regularly rock Kate’s world; in fact, he basically just tags along with her wherever she goes because he’s her walking, talking sex toy. He contributes next to nothing to the proceedings; isn’t particularly memorable as a character; and outside the sex scenes he could be removed from the story with little noticeable effect. He has one possibly interesting piece of his past (he served in Vietnam, and is very unhappy about the whole experience); unfortunately, it’s brought up as an afterthought and then promptly discarded.
The only other character of note is Governor Bubba J. Roy. Based on a description we’re given, he’s supposed to be a stereotypical Texan good ol’ boy, which makes the attempts at capturing a Texan’s speech patterns and accent all the more bizarre. Have a taste:
“Ah’m well aware of y’all’s reppytation as a herpe, herpo, er, hippotoligist.”
“And Ah thought of y’all immediately, ‘specially after readin’ that article ’bout y’all in the na-yoospahper. Now, whyn’t y’all come with me?”
I speak with some authority on this: I’ve lived in Texas for 12 years now and have heard plenty of natives talk. Not one of them have talked like this. Maybe I haven’t been to the right parts of the state, but I’m as sure on this as I’m sure that no one here uses “y’all” to address a single person. It’s like a character Jeff Foxworthy rejected from his comedy bits for being “over the top.” I seriously expected him to start denying sexual relations with an intern at some point. Or possibly ask for a mint julep and worry about having the vapors.
I will say that one thing I liked about the main characters was, while disbelieving, no one flat out refuses to accept giant carnivorous lizards when sufficient evidence is provided. While she can’t fathom gilas big enough to account for that chunk of tail, Kate doesn’t ignore the evidence, especially when she comes across a tooth, and later an eyewitness. Chato takes a bit more convincing, but not to an infuriating degree. The governor blessedly doesn’t turn into a Mayor Vaughn clone when the chips are down, calling out the National Guard to stop the gila herd once it’s proven without a doubt that that’s the problem.
Thinking of clichéd characters, there are others that pop up throughout. I was a bit surprised a supremely sleazy journalist we meet early on ends up having nothing to do with the story; he shows up to be a creep in the governor’s office, and the next time he pops up, he dies. I’m not complaining, mind, as his initial appearance had me dreading his return. We get some actual hormonal teenagers, because the main characters just acting like them apparently wasn’t enough. No prize for guessing what happens to them. (Actually, it’s mentioned in passing that one of them survived.) One scene happens at a revival, complete with big, sweaty, loudmouthed, money-grubbing, hypocritical televangelist type. The worst is the National Guard, who are portrayed as bumbling incompetents on a level I’ve rarely come across. At one point they manage to get into a six-car pile-up WITH FUCKING TANKS. That is a special level of, well, special right there, if you get my drift. At least they are then promptly devoured. Come to think of it, there’s a plus: All these tired old stereotypes get eaten. Kind of like how cinematic serial killers prune out the douchebags and morons from the gene pool. Gila monsters: nature’s slashers.
At least the Army, while not successful at stopping the rampage, is presented as competent. No EEEEEEEEEVIL military leaders here. In fact, no human villains at all. That was rather refreshing.
All right, so the players in our tale are mostly a bust. However, we don’t read something called Gila! because we’re expecting nuanced characterization. So, let’s get to the good stuff!
As you might have deduced from my descriptions of Kate and Chato’s relationship, this book has got a lot of sex-type things in it. There are only a couple of actual sex scenes; they’re a paragraph each, and fairly softcore. Think “R” instead of “X.” However, there is a LOT of mention of various erect body parts, lots of fondling of various body parts (erect and otherwise), and about three or four scenes that end with it very obvious that more banging is about to ensue. The first two chapters both feature teen couples trying to round the bases in surprisingly public places before gila-induced mayhem puts an end to those shenanigans; and later on, another couple is rudely interrupted post-coitus. It comes off a bit rote after a while, as if the author felt she needed to throw this stuff at us regularly to keep us interested. It would have helped if she’d gone with quality over quantity, I think; a couple of good, erotic scenes would’ve been preferable to this approach. At the very least, an escalation in intensity would have been nice. You know, start slow and gentle, then build up the passion until you reach fever pitch, at which point you go all out. Kind of like actual sex, come to think of it.
At least we don’t get any lizards doing the dirty.
And what would sex be without violence? Not nearly as much fun! Well, we get a whole mess of it here. Pun intended. Interestingly, the build-up in intensity and quality missing from the sex stuff is executed just fine with the violence. First we get what would be cutaways from the action were this a movie, so the monster and gore are not revealed. Then we get people being devoured, then severed body parts strewn like Mardi Gras confetti, and finally it’s an orgy of screaming victims being messily stomped on or chewed up, pieces of flesh and pools of blood mixing with the near-constant venomous slobber the gilas produce. Lyz will be happy to read that, although livestock are put at risk more than once, and are presumably eaten as well, there are no scenes of them being masticated and mutilated. Neither do any pets get et, although to be fair I don’t recall any pets being present in the first place.
No, the honor of becoming messy messy meals for the hungry hungry gilas goes directly to the human beings. The many, many, many human beings. At times it’s like reading a sequel to those outrageous “Mars Attacks!” and “Dinosaurs Attack!” trading cards from long ago. I have a set of the latter around somewhere, so you can imagine my delight with this. Much like those cards, absolutely no one is spared: men, women, and children of all ages are dismembered, ripped apart, and wolfed down. Oh, and if you find an original copy of this, you’ll worry whether the gilas attack a fair, as shown on the front cover. Well, worry not: it ends up being the highlight of the book, with parents being eaten in front of kids, kids being eaten in front of parents, crashing Ferris wheels, out-of-control merry-go-rounds…it was everything I dreamed and more.
Thinking of the cover, I’m not sure which is more disturbing: The fact that the gila looks like it was given a snake’s head (damn you, radiation!); or the fact that the clown head topping the funhouse is 50 times more terrifying than the gila.
Since we’re talking about our titular menace, let’s go ahead with the “Science with the Rev.” portion of the review. I’m not trying to be churlish, because these things tend to add to the fun in this case; but look where this has been posted. I think it’s expected. Hell, it might even be required.
I’ll ignore the regular bugaboos of “Would gilas that big be able to move?” and “What the hell were they eating for decades before finally attacking mankind?” and “RADIATION DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY” and go to the gila habits as presented to us, starting with the ones that are fairly minor. Almost all the attacks occur at night, with a couple in the early evening. While gilas tend to be active in the morning, they are known to come out on particularly warm nights, so this is fairly innocuous. Kate and Chato actually discuss this at one point, but pretty much brush it off with, “Because mutants.”
Actually, the answer is more likely to be, “Because glowing eyes.” Yes, our gilas our described as having big, glowing, yellow eyes. Actively glowing, not just reflecting moonlight or something. Can’t have monsters roaming the night without glowing eyes, can we? Normal gilas have big black eyes, so I guess this one’s radiation’s fault. It may also be responsible for their particularly tough hides. The reason for this is clearly so guns won’t work on them, so we’ll let this pass without further comment.
The big two concern their eating habits. First, the gilas are constantly drooling venom everywhere as they eat, and I can only assume it’s an “Eww, gross!” thing since this would be impractical, wasteful, and counter to what they actually use it for. Venomous snakes, as we know, can actively inject venom using their powerful muscles to force it out of their venom glands, through their hollow fangs, and into the victim. They use it primarily for killing speedy prey; it being an excellent defense is a bonus. Gilas lack the hollowed-out fangs and musculature to actively inject anything; their venom is produced in glands in their lower jaw, and when they bite very small outer grooves on their teeth simply channel the venom into the wounds. Due to this delivery system, they have been noted to flip over after biting, no doubt allowing gravity to assist with the flow. They also tend to latch on like a bulldog, to give the venom time to get where it needs to go.
More importantly, though, gila venom seems to be a defensive weapon, rather than offensive. While they will eat insects, amphibians, birds, other lizards, and rodents, these would be anything slow enough to be caught by a gila monster, and small enough to be more or less swallowed whole. Fast-acting toxins aren’t really needed for that (though they do have a potent neurotoxin, similar to coral snake venom in toxicity). More pertinently, their main food are eggs, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you why you don’t need venom to catch that particular snack. I think this one bugged me the most, since “Icky!” isn’t a good enough reason for this silliness.
The other sticking point is the description of the gilas regularly chewing on their prey. Dr. Dwyer says at some point that gilas chew with a side-to-side motion. Uhh…no, they don’t. Chewing is pretty much a mammalian thing, since other animals tend to lack strong jaws, crushing teeth, and cheeks. Once again, gila monsters wouldn’t even need to chew, since they eat things small enough to swallow whole. At most, they’d maybe have to crush something in their mouth first, like a particularly large egg. That’s not chewing. Even if they did chew, the sideways sawing motion described here wouldn’t make any sense given their normal dietary habits. In the book, it comes off like a more active version of what a shark does. You know how sharks bite down, then shake their heads from side to side so their teeth literally saw into their prey? That’s what these gilas do, except they can actively move their jaws, no shaking required.
Why can’t the monsters just swallow people whole? I mean, it worked for Tremors, right? (That wonderful “pick up the hat” scene notwithstanding.) Know why this is in here? So their victims can be dismembered, decapitated, and bisected. Seriously, about half a dozen people are scooped up and bitten in half throughout, and body parts regularly litter the sites of their attacks. You know what, though? I’m okay with that, because it makes for much more entertaining reading. Let’s just ignore the fact that these constantly-ravenous beasts repeatedly leave behind truckloads of meaty morsels, shall we?
As far as errors of other types, I did not pick up on any glaring grammatical or spelling errors. In fact, I don’t think I encountered any typos whatsoever, which is pretty incredible. (There’s a book I own that I might end up reviewing just to warn everyone about how badly it was written.) No continuity glitches that I caught, not much repetition outside of the regular reference to the glowing yellow eyes. Oh, and the bisections. So, well done to Ms. Grant. Whatever you may think of the content, the technical aspects of her writing are damn good.
The bottom line:
I am giving this one a solid recommendation. It’s nothing groundbreaking, and all but one of the characters are rather weak and uninteresting, but the writing is sound, and there’s a lot of really fun monster mayhem to savor. It’s also well-paced, so that you never go long without the gila monsters showing up again. At just over 160 pages, it won’t take you too long to read; so even if you don’t like it, you won’t have wasted too much time. It’s like a die-hard fan of Dead Alive decided to write their own version of The Giant Gila Monster. If you willingly watch movies like Megapirahna or the Sharknado series, and have a blast doing so, you’re the audience for Gila!
Although there do not appear to be any other giant monster books by Grant, there do seem to be at least one or two other monster ones. I must admit that, despite my overall enjoyment of this book, I’m a bit leery of the others; Kate does not appear to be in any of them. Instead, the main character is Chato, and he has a different woman as his companion (by which I mean sex toy) in two of them. If I do decide to press on, I hope she develops him as a character. I can’t imagine Chato as he was in this book carrying an entire story by himself.