Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Gila! by Les Simons (1981): Big Lizard in My Backyard

Boasting one of the purest examples of vintage horror paperback cover art, Gila! is a title burned into my brain from discovering it when it first appeared in the spinner rack of my local library. I was 10 years old when it was published by Signet Books in October 1981, and mesmerized by the carnival barker-like tagline, as well as its back cover copy that luridly mixed sex and death into one noxious stew that froze my child's brain. Plus that exclamation point!

I don't recall if I actually read the book, I doubt it, but I cannot forget the sense of the forbidden, the aura of "don't let an adult see you looking at it" that came off it like a miasma. I was taken by the stark simplicity of the cover art, familiar with movies like Them! (there's that exclamation point again!) and other giant-animals-run-amuck movies thanks not only to Saturday afternoon creature double features but also my endless hunger for devouring the weekly TV Guide and monster movie books checked out from that same library. Gazing at that lurid, gaudy cover enflamed my imagination, about the same way dinosaur picture books did. Thanks be to the wonderful artist Tom Hallman for his mad skillz.

"Les Simons" is the one-time pseudonym of Kathryn Ptacek, who wrote and edited a fair amount of horror fiction and nonfiction in the Eighties and Nineties, and still puts out short stories today. Born in Omaha in 1952, she was raised in Albuquerque, and much of her fiction is set in the American Southwest and utilizes local native mythologies. The anthology Ptacek edited in 1988, Women of Darkness, is a terrific high point of the era, featuring only women writers (there was a second volume as well, which I haven't read and was only issued in a Tor hardcover). She was married to esteemed "quiet horror" writer and editor Charles L. Grant from 1982 until his death in 2006.


Grant & Ptacek, c. late 1970s

Now, four decades later, and Gila! is hard to find these days, and try as I might I cannot remember how I came to have a beat-up copy in my library. I used to be good at that, remembering when and where I'd gotten the books in my collection, but as the years have piled on and the shelves get bigger, I can't keep that info in my head anymore. No matter. I read this guy in a couple days, the kind of book you don't expend a lot of mental energy on, it's pure pulp with all that entails.


Swedish edition, 1983, title translates as Nightmare without End!

Main characters are having sex in the midst of all the monster mayhem, disposable stock characters arrive on the scene and spout cliches, everyone says everyone's name a million times in conversation, dated references to native peoples, simplistic musings on the environment, war, nuclear power. And oh yeah, the depiction of giant, nuclear-radiated Gilas chomping on us poor humans! It all veers close to the inanity of gore "classick" Eat Them Alive; no attempt at gritty realism, but only the absurd descriptions of violence and carnage. And yes, the cover art is a thing that happens...

The Gila monster reached its massive head down and began chewing on the bodies at its feet, pawing through them as though searching for a choice morsel. Legs, arms, and torsos disappeared into the cavernous maw. Disjointed bones, flesh still clinging to them, were scattered...

Recommended reading for all you monster maniacs, you know who you are!

6 comments:

Treebeard said...

It’s funny how everything human in these books date so quickly—politics, culture, language, technology, etc—and only the monsters have a timeless quality. Other than the freak size increase, the Gila Monster hasn’t changed in a million years. And why should it? Same with crabs, sharks, dinosaurs, worms or whatever monstrous beasts these books throw at us. To me this is the real, horrific takeaway of these stories: that we, for all our pretensions of progress, civilization and culture, are really just disposable, delusional, meme-spewing monkey freaks, while the “primitive” animals are forces of nature who have no need of our big-brained ape nonsense as they tear us apart and devour us alive like overgrown rodents.

Will Errickson said...

Treebeard, I don't know if I've ever agreed with a comment more!

Zwolf said...

(Zwolf, just in case it doesn't post my name, as usual).

It's been a long time since I read this "critter" book, but I do remember that it's better than the Giant Gila Monster movie, at least (and if you have that on DVD you almost certainly have The Killer Shrews, because it seems sometimes that it's illegal to sell one without the other. Oddly, I think the Killer Shrews is actually *good*). If nothing else, the Gila! book doesn't have that fella singing those annoying songs...

I've had this book for, jeez, close to half a century, and never knew that "Les Simons" was Kathryn Ptacek. I'm familiar with her work, but somehow that escaped me. Good detective work, there! These books are super-trashy, but once in a while, there's nothing like a "critter" book. I've got a shelf (and a half) dedicated just to them. Even started writing one once... it was a NaNoWriMo-on-speed experiment to see if I could write a novel in a week. I failed miserably. So the world's been deprived of _Choir of Worms_. It's probably for the best... :)

Anyway, excellent review, as always.

Dr. Jerrold Coe said...

I agree about agreeing with Treebeard's comment! And I'm happy to see an update with such a primal, protean example of TOO MUCH HORROR FICTION! Love that sleazy, sex crazed bed hopping and bourgeois scheming that turns up in creature features and disaster stories of the time. I'll say there's a charm to the unrelated 50s film, not quite the tight storytelling or performances of The Killer Shrews but again, a kind of protean appeal. It's a step up on The Giant Leeches, anyways. It doesn't really matter who the characters are or what they're doing, it's all red meat for the monster. To quote Stephen Thrower (writing about low budget slasher films) "These are my new friends, and I can't wait to watch them die."

James Seger said...

Gila! is available as a cheap ($4) ebook under Kathryn's name with a less cool cover. She has a bunch of other ebooks too, but I haven't been sure which ones to pick up next (Gila! is the only one with an exclamation point, so of course I bought that first).

Adam Allbright said...

Had no idea this was Kathryn Ptacek !! GILA! is another one that I've been searching for for FAR too long. Have never seen it in the wild.