Vintage Treasures: Strange Monsters of the Recent Past by Howard Waldrop

Vintage Treasures: Strange Monsters of the Recent Past by Howard Waldrop

Strange Monsters of the Recent Past (Ace Books, July 1991). Cover by Alan M. Clark

Howard Waldrop passed away in January of this year, and his death was a major loss. It’s common, especially for writers, to be praised as a unique talent, but in Waldrop’s case there may be no more apt description. He had an entirely unique voice. There was no one else like him.

Waldrop left behind a single solo novel and over a dozen collections, but I think the one I treasure the most was his fourth, Strange Monsters of the Recent Past, published by Ace Books in 1991. It was one of the very few to appear in mass market paperback (the other was the Locus Award-winning Night of the Cooters, reprinted by Ace in 1993).

Strange Monsters of the Recent Past contains some of his most acclaimed short fiction, including the long novelette “He-We-Await,” from Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and his famous retelling of the labors of Hercules set in the Jim Crow south, the Nebula, World Fantasy and Locus Award-nominated novella A Dozen Tough Jobs.

[Click the images for monster-sized versions.]

Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Mid-December 1987. Cover by Dennis Potokar

I heard a lot of entertaining stories about Howard Waldrop over the years. But the one that’s stayed with me the longest was told to me by Judith Berman, a Clarion student of Waldrop’s in the 90s. She told me,

Howard always asked us about ‘the thang’ at the heart of our stories. “What’s your story about?”

There was a guy who told him, “It’s about a man who invents a time machine,” but Howard shook his head asked again. After a minute the guy says, “It’s about a man who can’t face what happened to him in the war,” and Howard nodded and said, “There it is.”

I never attended Clarion and can’t recall meeting Howard Waldrop. But I haven’t written a story in the past twenty years that wasn’t influenced by Judith and her tales of Waldrop, and especially his advice to find ‘the thang’ buried in the center of our stories.

Kelly Link shares a similar tale about Waldrop, in her 2015 interview with The Spectacle, “The Thing You Want to Do So Badly.”

All writing is this weird mapping out of what’s in your head, but you have to figure out sequentially what it is you have to show people or how to lead them along to figure things out. For me, the thing that enables me to make other decisions is structure. Structure and tone. What feeling do I wish to evoke, and what rules do I wish to set myself?

There’s a writer, Howard Waldrop, who says that all writers, no matter when they are setting their story, have a personal timeframe; often childhood or adolescence or a moment in life which was traumatic or emotionally full of wonder, and so, and often when they write they draw on this landscape, those feelings, that moment in time, in order to frame how people interact, even if they’re setting stuff in the future or the past. What you want is for something to feel lived in.

Here’s a look at a half dozen of Waldrop’s most essential collections.

A selection of collections by Howard Waldrop: Strange Things in Close Up (Legend UK,
September 1989), Night of the Cooters (MarK V. Ziesing, December 1990), Going Home
Again (St. Martin’s Press, July 1998), Heart of Whitenesse (Subterranean Press,
May 2005), Things Will Never Be the Same (Old Earth Books, March 2007), and
Other Worlds, Better Lives (Old Earth Books, September 2008). Covers: Mark Salwowski,
Don Ivan Punchatz, Thomas Cole, Doug Potter, Robert T. Garcia, uncredited

In his fine obituary for Black Gate, Rich Horton summed up Waldrop’s contributions to modern SF and Fantasy.

It was in 1976, with the appearance of “Mary Margaret Road Grader” and “Custer’s Last Jump” (with Steven Utley) that it became clear that he was someone special and someone unique. He only published one solo novel, Them Bones (1984), but he continued publishing short fiction, and it was always essential reading, completely offbeat, simply absorbing in its fusion of Avram Davidsonish “unhistory” with slant pop culture references and a great deal of warmth and sympathy for his outsider characters.

I loved stories like “All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past,” “A Dozen Tough Jobs,” “The Ugly Chickens,” “Fin de Cyclé,” “Heart of Whitenesse,” and “Ninieslando.” I was extremely honored to reprint “The King of Where-I-Go” and “The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls” in my anthologies…

Howard’s loss truly leaves a gaping hole. There was simply no writer like him.

Strange Monsters of the Recent Past appeared first as a small press hardcover from Ursus Imprints in 1987 — with a slightly different title, an intro by Gardner Dozois, and missing the novella A Dozen Hard Jobs. Here’s a look at the hardcover edition for the completists in the audience.

All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past (Ursus Imprints, July 1987). Cover by Don Ivan Punchatz

Pressbooks has a fine review of the hardcover edition. Here’s an excerpt.

No one – and I mean no one at all – writes a short story like Howard Waldrop… This collection from 1987 showcases seven of those wonderful stories…

The stories are:

“All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past” — His second story ever sold, but one that took years to actually see print. What makes a Howard Waldrop story? A Grade B monster movie plot treated as if it actually occurred from the viewpoint of the national guardsman called in to help fight it…

“What Makes Hieronymous Run?” — Hieronymous, of course, is Bosch, and the research also includes Brueghel the Elder and a number of other warped Renaissance painters, whose fevered imagination comes to life in this tale.

“Flying Saucer Rock and Roll” — This is probably one of my top three favorite Waldrop stories, and one of my top 20 favorite short stories. The reasons are two-fold: number one, it’s that good; number two, I heard Waldrop read it out loud. If you ever get the chance to hear Waldrop read a story, do take it…

“He-We-Await” — A little bit of Ancient Egypt and the return of an awaited messiah, but not quite the type you might have been thinking of.

Marzaat reviewed the paperback edition, including A Dozen Tough Jobs.

“All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past” — This story has a fun premise: every single monster and alien menace from 1950s sf movies comes to Earth to wreck death and destruction…

“Helpless, Helpless” — A story of the Artificials Plague which strikes the robots, androids, and artificial intelligences of a future society. The tone reminded me a bit of Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year (with some bits of humor from psychotic, sometimes violent machines)…

“Fair Game” — This story of Ernest Hemingway hunting a Wild Man plaguing a Bavarian village had more emotion in it than usual for a Waldrop story and made me realize that he’s capable of adopting his style to the subject matter… one of his better ones.

“The Lions Are Asleep This Night” — One of Waldrop’s best. Sure the idea — a boy writing a Jacobean style revenge drama around African history — is pretty simple but the execution was nicely done in both the details of this alternate history and the protagonist’s character…. a lot more warmth than the usual Waldrop story.

“He-Who-Await” — The strange tale of Sekhemetumi and [an] attempt to rejuvenate him via cloning and Egyptian magic so he can see the “Sun rise 5000 years from his time…”

A Dozen Tough Jobs — One of Waldrop’s better efforts… a clever retelling of Hercules’ Twelve Labors only in the Deep South of 1926 and 1927… I liked the wonderful job Waldrop did in creating the world of this story which seemed so real, a South slightly tinged by what I suppose would be called “magic realism.” (There is a Diana-like character with a yard full of animals and a Cybil character who prophesizes and gates of ivory and horn.)… This story had style, coherence, emotion, and a point like none other of Waldrop’s that I’ve read except “Heirs of the Perisphere.”

Strange Monsters of the Recent Past includes a foreword by Lewis Shiner, the Nebula nominee “The Lions Are Asleep This Night,” the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus nominee “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll,” and the Locus, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award nominee for Best Novella, A Dozen Tough Jobs.

Here’s the complete Table of Contents.

Foreword: The Left-Handed Muse, by Lewis Shiner
“All About Strange Monsters of the Recent Past” (Shayol #4, Winter 1980)
“Helpless, Helpless” (Light Years and Dark, November 1984)
“Fair Game” (Afterlives, August 1986)
“What Makes Heironymous Run?” (Shayol #7, Fall/Winter 1985)
“The Lions Are Asleep This Night” (Omni, August 1986) — Nebula nominee
“Flying Saucer Rock & Roll” (Omni, January 1985) — Hugo, Nebula, Locus nominee
“He-We-Await” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Mid-December 1987)
“A Dozen Tough Jobs” (A Dozen Tough Jobs, April 1989) — Locus, Nebula, World Fantasy Award nominee

Our previous coverage of Howard Waldrop includes:

Howard Waldrop’s “The Ugly Chickens” (2012)
Birthday Reviews: Howard Waldrop’s “Kindermarchen” by Steven H Silver (2018)
Random Reviews: “Night of the Cooters” by Steven H Silver (2022)
Bad Things Come in Threes: Terry Bisson (February 12, 1942 – January 10, 2024), Howard Waldrop (September 15, 1946 – January 14, 2024), Tom Purdom (April 19, 1936 – January 14, 2024): A Tripartite Obituary by Rich Horton (2024)

Strange Monsters of the Recent Past was published by Ace Books in July, 1991. It is 214 pages, priced at $3.95. The cover is by Alan M. Clark. It has been out of print since 1991, and there is no digital edition.

See all our recent Vintage Treasures here.

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Rage Against the Pusheen

I come across a copy of Them Bones at my local used bookshop last year and picked it up on a whim. Hadn’t a single notion who Waldrop was much less anything about his work. Them Bones was easily the best book I’d read in 2023 and it quickly entered into my top five overall. It was such a great surprise. I’m so glad I gave it a chance.

Adrian Simmons

I met Howard Waldrop several times at various Texas sff conventions, but honestly can’t say that I’ve ever read anything by him (although I did hear him read some things, which were quite good).

To fill this gap in my knowledge, I’ve ordered “Strange Monsters of the Recent Past”


I did have the enjoyment of hearing him read several stories at a convention once, including ugly chickens. Another story wasn’t even finished, so he described one scene with a boom box playing beside him to set the mood. I am sorry to hear we have lost such a unique talent.

Eugene R.

Completely agree with the Pressbooks review of “Flying Saucer Rock & Roll”: hearing Mr. Waldrop read one of his stories was worth the price of admission, which at Readercon meant staying up for the midnight Saturday/Sunday timeslot in which he would do so.

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