The Monster From Earth’s End by Murray Leinster is another recent estate sale find. Murry Leinster isn’t my favorite author but always writes an entertaining story. Leinster was a pseudonym. His real name is William F. Jenkins, under which he’s better known as the inventor of the front-projection process used in movie special effects during the 1960s and 1970s. In the SF world, he’s known as an early explorer of the parallel universe story, the originator of the term “First Contact”, and the idea of a Universal Translator, a handy device that later became common in SF and even beyond, thanks to its use on Star Trek.
The Monster from Earth’s End is not a groundbreaking novel. It’s billed as a science fiction “horror” story but fans of Stephen King or Dean Koontz aren’t likely to be very horrified. Despite the back cover blurb about bloody deaths and mysterious disappearances, and despite the front cover artwork of a beautiful nude woman being hoisted into the air by strands of green slime, the novel is pretty tame. It focuses much more on the characters and the science fiction aspects of the story than on the horror.
The plot is something of a cross between Gilligan’s Island, Who Goes There? and Day of the Triffids. Our protagonists operate a small military base on remote Gow Island, used as a refueling stop and storage depot for military and scientific planes doing research in the Antarctic.
“The island was a pile of dark rocks in an ocean which reached out endlessly from its shores. The winds of all the world blew around it, and seas marched three-quarters of the way around the globe to hurl themselves thunderously against its cliffs.”
Actually the island is not entirely dark rocks. It has a variety of wooded areas convenient as hiding places for spooky monsters and even an extra-spooky swampy area heated by underground hot springs. But the island has no animal life larger than harmless snakes and sea birds. There is a dock near the rocky shore for cargo ships. The inland base has a runway, some warehouses, a mess hall, radio shack, and a few other buildings.
The primary characters are Drake, the administrative officer; Nora, the executive assistant Drake would like to notice him; and Beecham, a research biologist. There are 20 people on the island including quite a few supporting characters. There’s Spaulding, an officer who’s been stuck on the island too long and through overwork has become a bit irrational and paranoid. Hollister, the island’s chief mechanic, who can improvise a solution to any problem that crops up. Tom Beldon is a younger military man who’s made it his job to protect Drake from harm. There’s Sparks the radio guy, the cook and his assistant, and assorted other stock characters who seem to inhabit every remote base. Leinster does a great of job of giving every character a backstory and role to play as the plot unfolds.
As the story opens, an unscheduled cargo plane has stirred up excitement. It’s a research plane carrying scientists and crates of plant specimens from a newly discovered area in the Antarctic, an oasis of life heated by underground hot springs where life has evolved isolated from the rest of the world for untold years. As the plane approaches, something goes wrong. Over the radio, they hear shouts for a gun, shots fired, and then silence. The plane manages a crash landing. There’s no one aboard but the pilot, who shoots himself before they can reach him to find out what happened. All the passengers are missing and one of the crates of botanical specimens is scattered inside the plane.
The wrecked plane is blocking the runway, so the only way to get on or off the island now is by sea. After reporting the incident, base personal are asked to preserve the botanical specimens as best they can. Beecham takes the tree-like specimens from the broken crate and plants them near the island’s swampy hot spring area. The undamaged crates of specimens he moves into a warehouse for storage. Hollistor is set on the task of moving the wrecked plane from the runway.
That night the horrors begin. The dead pilot’s body vanishes. A dog dies mysteriously. Within a day, people start disappearing. Strange venomous insects turn up on the island. Evidence accumulates that some type of beast is loose on the island; something strong enough to kill a man and bend rifles in half. It comes and goes without being seen. Spaulding jumps to more and more irrational explanations, from prehistoric birds to invisible monsters. Drake does his best to keep the base from panicking. And, like any good leading man in a science fiction novel, he insists on reason.
“In the real world, everything follows natural laws. Impossible things do not happen. There is an explanation for everything that does happen. The explanation links it to other things. There are no isolated phenomena. There are only isolated observations, and sometimes there are false observations. But everything real is rational. There was a rational reason for everything that had taken place on Gow Island. The problem was to find it.”
He’s helped out here by Beecham, the biologist who spends most of the book gathering evidence and testing theories. How many horror novels these days have protagonists who fight unseen horrors using the scientific method? When Beecham’s research leads him to an extraordinary conclusion, he asks Drake to double-check his evidence and come up with his own theory:
“I’ve been guessing at things, Drake, and I’ve got some evidence. Pitiably little, but evidence. Will you look at it? I think that just possibly there’s a very simple explanation for everything that’s happened. I want to show you the evidence and have you come to your own opinion. If it’s the same as mine, we’ll know what to do. What I suspect is perfectly reasonable. There’ve been legends about it. People have believed it for centuries. Nothing superstitious, Drake! I’m not talking about an actual discovery of werewolves, or anything like that. It’s quite natural. It’s even inevitable from a biologist’s standpoint. But I want somebody to look at the evidence with an open mind.”
But Beecham’s theory may be too late. Bad weather has cut off the base from sea rescue and Hollister needs more time to clear the runway — time they may not have. They’re forced to retreat to the buildings for safety when they learn they’re facing not one impossible creature but a multitude. Can they hold out until help arrives? Do they dare go outside to finish clearing the runway? Or should they try to hold out until the weather allows help from the Navy. Even if help arrives, can they chance a run for the docks? Who will die next? Will Drake ever get a chance to be alone with Nora? Will Beecham find a way to stop the invisible killers? The answers to all these questions await in this compact 175-page novel. Even if it’s not scary it is a fun read.
I’ve since discovered the book was the basis of an apparently awful 1966 Roger Corman film titled The Navy vs the Night Monsters, staring Mamie van Doren and Anthony Eisley. I haven’t seen it yet, but I found the trailer on YouTube.