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Killer by David Drake & Karl Edward Wagner3 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsWhat is there to say about a book with dialogue like “Do you see any sign of his lungs?” Not a whole lot, really, other than that line ought to tell you right off the bat if this is the book for you, or not. Killer could just as well be titled Alien in Ancient Rome. It is probably the sort of thing one ought to expect when combining Drake’s fondness for ancient history and military action with the late Wagner’s horror influence. Wagner was better known in his lifetime for the horror anthologies he edited than for his own stories. A marauding-space-monster-on-the-loose tale taking its inspirational cues not from other works of horror lit, but from gory Hollywood creature features (and Ridley Scott’s classic film in particular), Killer commendably enough tries nothing more than to push all of the hot buttons that those films push. Couple that kind of prurient storytelling efficiency with the novelty of the ancient Roman setting, plus some humor and some decent characterizations, and you have a book that is good, not-so-clean, nasty fun for readers with strong stomachs.

The story has to do with the discovery of a bizarre “lizard-ape” by our hero, a Roman hunter named Lycon, who first sees the “sauropithecus” (or “phile,” to give it its alien name) in its cage as it is being herded into Rome to satisfy the bloodlust of the Colloseum crowds, tearing up Christians and sundry riffraff. No sooner does the first chapter end, than the beast breaks out of its cage (by picking the lock) and starts maiming everything in sight. Delighted, the sadistic emperor Domitian charges Lycon with finding and capturing this beast for his pleasure. But accompanying Lycon is the enigmatic Egyptian hunter N’Sumu, who is enigmatic for a good reason. He is in actuality the alien RyRylee, responsible for the creature in the first place, and whose extraterrestrial superiors are undoubtedly unhappy about the thought of having to wipe out all life on yet another planet in case the ravening monster happens to be a pregnant female. Because if it is, look out! The reproduction process is like an unstoppable fusillade of Uzi fire, and the earth would have to be sterilized for its own good, you see.

Drake and Wagner do well setting up a few scares, but most frequently they settle for letting the viscera flow. The story never strays terribly far from horror formula, but has an energy that mitigates that fact. And there is a tongue-in-cheek quality to the tale that lets you know all along that the authors are just having a whale of a time. A few sequences are quite funny in a humanistic sort of way, and the characterizations have more depth than you might expect. Lycon and his friend Vanones have to live, like everyone else, under a constant reign of terror by a mad emperor, a fear which is only augmented for the two men as they literally follow a trail of mangled bodies around Rome looking for this damn thing.

On the negative side, as this was a book published during the Reagan years, there’s a gratuitous and arguably homophobic subplot detailing Lycon’s worry that one of his sons may be on the receiving end of sexual advances by his tutor. While you can’t deny the depiction of parental concern is convincing (and the concern here is, to be fair, more about pedophilia than homosexuality), the subplot feels anachronistic and unnecessary. Truth be told, the sexual mores of the ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t comparable to those of 20th century Americans. It’s all just out of place in this story.

Still, this book’s main goal is to kick your ass and gross you out in equal measure, a goal attained gleefully, honestly and with no quarter given to the squeamish. If you’re on your own one dark and stormy night, and you’ve watched all the watchable horror movies your streaming services have to offer, you could do worse than curl up with Killer.