Happy Halloween! Enjoy “Strange Beast,” by Orrin Grey
Tonight, monsters walk the streets. Werewolves, witches, and weirder things, hungry in the darkness. Listen to them, their footfalls, coming down the sidewalk, across the driveway, up the path to your door. They knock, and when you open the door, they intone the ritual cant: “Trick or Treat!”
So here’s a treat (and a trick) for all you monsters and monster-lovers out there, from a guy who knows a thing or two about monsters. This is “Strange Beast,” by Orrin Grey. This story first appeared in Orrin’s Word Horde collection Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts. So unwrap a fun-sized candy bar, sit back, and enjoy…
by Orrin Grey
[EDITOR’S NOTE: The following manuscript has been assembled from notes left behind by Kennedy Sanchez, who was contracted with Deanna Bloom of Fetlock & Burridge to produce a book-length work entitled Last Days on Monster Island. The manuscript was never delivered, and Ms. Sanchez returned her advance seven days before she drowned in the swimming pool of her Tallahassee apartment complex. A subsequent police investigation ruled the drowning an accidental death. In reproducing the notes, sections printed entirely in italics indicate hand-written passages in the margins of the rest of the notes, which were printed out from her word processor and sometimes copied-and-pasted from websites. No actual manuscript for the proposed book was ever found, and the notes are presented here exactly as written.]
Deadline creeping up on me. I keep getting sidetracked, going off on tangents. I’m going to try one more time to get these into some kind of order before Deanna has my ass.
April 30, 1972 (Walpurgisnacht? Significant?) – Haruo Kitsube, Shinichi Kimura, Yoshio Amamoto, Ross Brenner, and Dereck Scott are kidnapped from a boat off the Florida coast by armed men in military fatigues and ski masks. (Ski masks even though it was a 93 degree day. It’s a good detail, keep that in.) They are loaded onto another boat and taken to an unnamed island north of Puerto Rico (get lat/long?) where they are held at gunpoint and forced to make a movie about a giant monster.
June 21, 1972 (Summer Solstice) – After 52 days of captivity, Haruo Kitsube leaves the island in a small boat. He is picked up 5 days later (June 26) by a Coast Guard ship. He is the only person to leave the island alive. He gives one public interview about the events on the island, and otherwise remains silent on the subject until his death in 1983. There is a hearing, which is made a matter of public record in 2002.
November 3, 2011 – James Takarada, grand-nephew (great-nephew? both are correct, pick one and stick with it) of Shinichi Kimura launches a Kickstarter to fund the production of a documentary film called Strange Beast, intended to chronicle the bizarre ordeal that cost the life of his great-uncle.
November 27, 2011 – The Kickstarter is fully funded, securing enough to finance a trip for Takarada and his crew to the island. Just over a week later (December 6) the Kickstarter reaches a stretch goal allowing them to commission effects company Thingmaker Studios to produce an exact replica of the Zeuglodon suit from the movie.
June 5, 2012 – Takarada and his crew leave Florida on board the Orca bound for what the crew has dubbed “Monster Island.” They plan to be there for the 40 year anniversary of the tragedy. This time, none of them will return.
IMDb Plot Summary for Zeuglodon Attacks! (1964): Awakened by deep-sea oil drilling, the prehistoric Zeuglodon wreaks havoc along the coast of Japan before heading toward the United States. The monster is ultimately stopped by a brave fighter pilot, a scientist, and a lovely inhabitant of the lost continent of Mu, whose people venerate the Zeuglodon and who knows the secret method of lulling it back into its thousand-year sleep. – Written by Barugon66
I need focus. There’s so many ways I could tell this story, and I need to have a consistent approach from the word go. I want to set up the background fairly succinctly without sounding too much like I’m just exposition-dumping. The meat of the story is what happens on the island each time, but we need the background in order to understand that.
The five men who were taken from the deck of Ross Brenner’s ship that sunny Sunday in April had never worked on a movie together before and, in fact, weren’t working together at the time. They were actually in Florida filming two different movies that happened to be using some of the same locations. One was an Arnold Zenda film called Isle of Blood that would later be finished using different actors, while the other was a never-completed bit of Aztecsploitation (can I say that?) called Revenge of the Jaguar God. (See if I can get the rights to use that publicity still with the terrible Jaguar God suit that looks like it has three arms.) The men had apparently hit it off and were out on Ross Brenner’s boat for a Sunday afternoon of drinking and fishing.
As near as history can tell, the kidnappers were only targeting director Haruo Kitsube, cinematographer Shinichi Kimura, and suit actor Yoshio Amamoto. The three men had previously collaborated on the 1964 film Zeuglodon Attacks! The kidnapping appears to have been spearheaded by Norman Cohen, a militant and what we would today call an eco-terrorist who was also a monster movie aficionado. He had seen and loved Zeuglodon Attacks! and wanted the three men to make a sequel from his own script called Zeuglodon Returns. He had even gotten hold of the original costume from the film somehow. He intended his production to be a propaganda film, expanding on the first feature’s criticism of US oil interests and foreign policy.
Yeah, Kennedy, that’s not exposition-y at all. 🙁 See if I can track down how Cohen got his hands on the original Zeuglodon suit, since it becomes pretty central to the narrative here.
From The Dark of the Matinee Blog entry on Zeuglodon Attacks!: Here’s the thing about the Zeuglodon that sets it apart from pretty much every other kaiju: it was a real thing. Actually called a Basilosaurus, the name Zeuglodon was proposed by paleontologist Sir Richard Owen after it was discovered that the Basilosaurus was really a kind of marine mammal—sort of like a prehistoric whale—and not the reptile that the –saurus suffix would imply. Over the years the name Zeuglodon found its way into the public imagination, thanks in part of a bunch of people discovering “sea serpents” that they stuck with the moniker.
The titular beast in Zeuglodon Attacks! looks a bit like a blue whale, but with arms and legs. There’s also a row of fins or flippers down the side, which don’t really match too well with the physiology of a whale, but which, being big and rubber and floppy, help disguise somewhat the suit’s human occupant. Suit actor Yoshio Amamoto walked with a particular hunched-forward gait when playing the Zeuglodon, allowing these fins and the tail to drag the ground, giving the Zeuglodon’s movements a particular creeping effect which still holds up remarkably well among rubber suits of the time.
Reconstructing the events on the island that preceded the first tragedy is crucial, but also difficult, as we have no records to go on except Haruo Kitsube’s one brief interview, and the transcripts from the hearing. In the interview and the transcripts he called the conditions in which the filmmakers were kept “brutal,” “abhorrent,” and “terrifying.”
The men were kept in a cave near the shore, where they also did much of the filming. “There were guns trained on us at all times,” Kitsube said in the transcripts, “and we were never alone.”
Though Cohen and his men had brought them cameras and supplies, they had very little in the way of lighting or sound equipment, and almost nothing with which to produce special effects. With the help of the men who were guarding them, Kitsube and the others built a miniature city in the cave, constructed primarily out of cardboard, plywood, and stacked up rocks.
“There’s no way anyone could have made an actual movie in those conditions,” critic Aiden Bullock said in probably the only scholarly piece written about the events on “Monster Island” prior to the launch of Takarada’s Kickstarter, “and they had to have known it. That situation was always going to end in tragedy.”
I need to figure out how much of the interview and transcripts I can quote in the book. Maybe Deanna can help me with that, though I’m afraid to ask.
From the only recorded interview with Haruo Kitsube after the island: “I saw them shoot [Yoshio], but there was no blood, because he was still wearing the suit. The bullets just went in and left clean black holes, like Swiss cheese. So it didn’t seem real, just a bad special effect. Then he fell, down from the ledge and onto the rocks and the surf. We couldn’t get to his body, they couldn’t get to it, so we just left him. As I was sailing away, I could still see him there, bobbing as the waves slapped him against the rocks. But it wasn’t him, it wasn’t my friend, it was just the suit, the Zeuglodon, going down to sleep again in the ocean. That’s how I saw him last, how I left him there.”
Takarada and his crew arrived on “Monster Island” in good spirits. They had just wrapped up a very successful Kickstarter, and they were filming the movie they’d been talking about since film school. In the first video from the island—sent out as part of an update to Kickstarter backers—you can see them making land, the camera lens splattered with droplets of water. It’s a rainy day, but everyone is laughing and joking as Takarada attempts to narrate, calling the island a “forbidding place.” From somewhere off camera a female voice, probably belonging to boom mic operator Mackenzie “Mack” Sheraton, intones, “It’s an ugly planet. A bug planet.” Takarada gives her a dirty look before the camera switches off.
They set up camp near the cave where the previous filmmakers were held captive. The cave is a long one that opens at one end near the beach, and then runs along the shore to some cliffs where it empties over a rocky inlet, the one where Yoshio Amamoto’s body was left in the surf. Inside the cave, Takarada’s crew film a startling discovery. It appears in the video footage as a sort of mirage; impossible to make out at first, slowly coalescing as the hand-held camera adjusts to light and focus, until you can see that it’s the remains of the model city built by the previous filmmakers, now rendered down to rubble by time, rather than the stomping feet of the enraged Zeuglodon.
That first video, which shows the crew arriving on the island, setting up camp, and exploring the cave, is the only one that ever goes out successfully as an update to Kickstarter backers. Records indicate that the crew were left on the island with some kind of satellite array for posting Internet updates, but it appears never to have worked reliably, and that first video was uploaded by Takarada’s partner once the ship returned to the mainland.
It ends with a shot that feels prophetic in hindsight, unaccompanied by explanation or voiceover. The camera looks down from the cliff at the rocky inlet where Yoshio Amamoto’s body was left bobbing in the surf as Haruo Kitsube sailed away. Now there is nothing to see, just smooth rocks being beaten again and again by the water.
Jesus, Kennedy, find a tone. Are you gonna do this super-serious, or scholarly, or what? Are you reporting? Are you eulogizing? Make up your mind!
Establish a rough timeline of events on the island. What do I have to work with? Early video, probably shot as updates to be sent to Kickstarter backers, mostly showing the crew getting ready to shoot, exploring the island. The island is small, if there weren’t any plants or rocks you could probably see from one side to the other. The videos prominently feature Eugene Cullenrock, the suit actor hired to wear the repro Zeuglodon suit for the documentary. He shows up several times wearing the suit, usually without the top part on, so it’s just legs and tail. Even when he wears the top part, he doesn’t slouch like Amamoto did, so the flippers just kind of jump around whenever he moves. Several times in the videos he talks about how heavy the suit is, or how hot, even though it’s raining in pretty much every shot.
(Is there a rainy season north of Puerto Rico in June? How do I figure that out?)
Comb through my notes, find out where it starts to really go wrong. It’s somewhere in those videos. Re-watch them, look close. When is it? Where is the first indicator? Mack tells Eugene not to wear the suit when they’re not filming. It’s probably not supposed to go out in the backer video, would have gotten edited before the video was actually sent, but they’re talking in the background of a shot Takarada is trying to get. “We don’t have another one of those,” she’s saying, and he says something like, “I’m the one in charge of the suit,” and she says, “Just don’t wear it when we’re not using it,” and he asks what she means and she says, “I saw you when I got up to pee.” He seems angry, indignant. The camera moves away after that.
The Orca was supposed to pick up Takarada and his crew on June 26, but when they arrived they found the camp deserted. Tents had been shredded, but most of the equipment was still intact, though some of it had been damaged by rain. Most of the rest of the information we have about what happened during those last days comes from video and audio files salvaged from that equipment.
We’re getting into Weekly World News territory here, so pick a tone and stick with it. How credulous do I want to sound?
I’m transcribing the notes from my first viewing of footage recovered from one of the hand-held cameras:
Okay, we’re in night vision mode now, and the camera is on the ground. Mackenzie(?) is sleeping in the foreground, or pretending to sleep, maybe, I don’t know which. They’re outside, but I think I can see a tent in the background. Just a big pale shape. It isn’t raining for once.
(Later note added: I’m pretty sure this was Mack, trying to catch Eugene on tape walking around the camp in the Zeuglodon suit. Time stamp puts it after the argument caught on the other tape.)
How long are they going to shoot nothing?
Oh shit! Okay, that was a foot. A foot just came down in the background, but it didn’t look human. It was, okay, I’m rewinding here, it was the Zeuglodon foot, absolutely. So I guess someone is walking around in the suit? There’s the edges of the flippers, maybe. I wish night vision didn’t make this so hard to make out. Yeah, there’s the flippers, but they don’t look like they did before. Why not? Is he walking different?
There’s a notebook, waterproof, where Takarada kept notes on the production, mostly secret from the rest of the crew. The majority of it isn’t helpful—movie stuff, written primarily in some kind of quasi-indecipherable personal shorthand, but there’s something about the escalating tensions toward the end of the notebook. (What do I have to do to get permission to quote from this?)
“Eugene says he isn’t using the suit at night, Mack says he is, that she’s seen him. She showed him footage on her camera, and he knocked it right out of her hands. I asked him when he’d cooled down, and he said that it ‘wasn’t me, godammit!’ I saw the footage, though, it was someone. And Eugene can’t get into the suit by himself.”
In a later entry: “Now Eugene is seeing things, too. Sounds at night, weird lights. It isn’t just him and Mack, everyone has complained about something. And then, last night, when I got up to take a leak, I went outside my tent, away from camp. There were lights on in the cave, so I went to go look. I thought maybe someone had gotten up, was shooting something, or maybe I could get to the bottom of what’s been making everybody crazy lately. I was sleepy, so I didn’t realize until I was standing at the mouth of the cave that the lights weren’t the color of any of our lights. They were blue, or maybe green, or maybe purple.”
The page has been erased here, hard enough to tear through the paper and render a section illegible. The part that can be read starts back up: “there was something standing at the far end of the passage. I can’t describe it, I’m not going to try. It was all mouth, I’ll say that much, really messed up. And then it was gone.”
After that, a sentence is scribbled out thoroughly enough that it can’t be salvaged, and below it is written: “The boat won’t be back for several more days.”
From that point, Takarada’s notebook becomes increasingly unreliable. Pages are torn from it, whole passages erased and re-written. The last legible words in the notebook are: “This is the end. I feel it. Everything has gone wrong.”
People isolated on an island growing fractious, going crazy, disappearing, that’s all fine and good. That’s some Unsolved Mysteries shit, but it’s salable, as Deanna would say. I can tie in some Roanoke stuff, there’s lots of opportunities to sound totally rational while also being open-ended and a little exploitative. It’s these last two videos that are the problem.
The handheld cameras that the crew was using are time-stamped, so we can tell when things are happening. This one is June 21, starting at 11:57pm.
It’s night vision again. I don’t know who’s holding the camera. They’re leaving the camp, whoever they are, and going into the cave. They’re maybe looking through the camera, because they stumble a lot, point the camera down at their feet, then back up. Down, then back up. One time when it goes down, it comes back up on what would be a jump scare in one of those found footage horror movies that are so big right now. It’s Eugene, standing in the middle of what’s left the miniature city on the floor of the cave. He’s staring straight at whoever’s holding the camera, but his eyes are glazed over. It’s like he doesn’t see them at all. Maybe he has been sleepwalking all this time.
Then there’s a sound. Up til now, the video has been silent except for the hiss of the mic, the breathing of whoever’s carrying the camera, the distant sound of the ocean, like from a shell held up to your ear. Now, though, there’s this sound from somewhere deeper in the cave. What would I call it, in the book? A roar? A bellow? What do they call the sound that a whale makes? Songs, they call them songs, but this isn’t a song, or is it? The planets in their orbits are supposed to make songs, right, and this is kind of like that? If I didn’t know better, I’d think the cave itself was making the sound. And maybe it is. Rock groaning together, wind blowing through, I dunno. It sounds old, though, somehow, and it sounds hurt. So badly hurt.
The video moves past Eugene. Whoever’s holding the camera doesn’t talk to him. They get most of the way to the far end of the cave. There’s something there. Something that’s casting its own light. It’s impossible to tell the color, because the night vision of the camera washes everything green, but the light doesn’t seem like a lamp or a spotlight, it seems like a glow, something organic, though again, I don’t know how I can tell. The camera starts to turn the corner, but then the screen pixelates out, so you can’t really see what’s there, just that it’s big, and glowing, and making that sound that, up close now, I want to move toward, and run away from, and I’m just sitting in my apartment with my headphones plugged into my laptop.
This one is time-stamped June 22, 2:14am.
The camera is on the floor of what I can only assume is Mackenzie’s tent. She’s sitting cross-legged, holding it with her feet, probably, pointing it up at her face. She’s got the viewfinder turned around to face her, because she keeps looking down at it, checking to make sure that it’s still watching. Night vision is off, and there’s a lantern sitting somewhere off-camera, providing the only light. In its unflattering glare, we can see that she’s been crying, but she’s struggling not to cry now.
“Gram,” she says, reading off a piece of paper that she’s holding in her right hand, her eyes going to the paper, to the lens of the camera, to the viewfinder, to the wall of the tent, back to the paper. “I wrote this down, because I didn’t want to get it wrong, to forget. I hope I can say it all. I hope this gets to you someday, that you get to see me, hear me.”
She sniffs, her eyes continuing their circuit from paper to camera to tent and back again. “I just wanted to work on a real movie, Gram. You were so damn proud of me when I did the sound for that commercial. So proud. You taped it off the TV—who does that anymore?—and you made all your friends come over and watch it, even though I wasn’t even in it, and it didn’t have credits for you to see my name. You said, ‘My Mackenzie recorded this,’ which made it sound like I was the director or something.
“I just wanted you to have something with my name in the credits, something better than that tape you kept sitting on top of the TV for months, even after I offered to put it on a DVD for you, with a label where you’d written ‘Mackenzie’s commercial!’”
Mack stops, looks to the right, as though she just heard a noise, though we don’t hear anything, even with the sound turned all the way up. She wipes her nose, looks at the paper, starts again. “Now I’m afraid that I won’t ever see you again, and you’ll never have anything with my name on it. All you’ll have is this, if the guys from the boat find it, if it can get back to you somehow. Gram, I’m sorry. I just wanted to do something you could be proud of, really proud of.”
She takes a deep breath, maybe to steady her nerves. She closes her eyes for a minute, and the silence becomes deafening before she speaks again. “But people died here,” she says. “That isn’t something that goes away. I guess you know that. When Mom died, you shut up her room, even though we really didn’t have the space. Even after you moved it all out, you kept everything, boxed it up. I remember you going through it. You knew, even then, that when people die, they don’t go. They stick around, they leave themselves in all the things they leave behind.
“The men who died here, at least one of them, he left something behind too, I think. He was pretending to be a monster when he died, and now he’s forgotten that he was ever anything else. He’s turned into what he was pretending to be, and now he doesn’t even know what that is anymore.”
Somewhere in here, we realize that it’s getting lighter outside the tent. Maybe it’s dawn, but it’s too early in the morning for dawn, and the color isn’t quite right. Blue or green or purple, or some combination of the three. “We had a costume, you know,” Mack is saying. “Like the monster the guy was pretending to be. Eugene wore it around, and he pretended to be the guy who pretended to be a monster. All that make-believe, it gets confusing, even for us. How much worse when you’re dead, when nothing makes sense anymore. I don’t blame him, I don’t want you to blame him. I don’t think it’s his fault. I guess it’s not our fault, either, not really. It wasn’t Mom’s fault that cancer got her. Death is never anyone’s fault, maybe. It just comes through, and then someone is gone, and something else is there instead. A void in the shape of a person, or the shape of a suit.”
The video begins to break up here, and there’s a roaring, and then the tent is just gone, maybe, torn away, but it’s not dark, because there’s a glow coming from something. It looks like the stars, on a totally cloudless night, or like the Northern Lights, but it isn’t far away, like either of those, it’s right there, just beside her. And if you freeze the frame at the exact right spot, between the pixelization as the video breaks up, you can see something there.
It’s translucent, but not like a ghost in an old movie. More like a jellyfish or some other deep-sea creature, and it’s filled with light. It takes a lot of looking to make out the Zeuglodon suit. There’s not much of it left. The mouth has grown, and split apart, and the flippers have become more like the arms of a starfish, so that now the whole thing opens up like a flower as it reaches out for Mackenzie before the video goes black.
I talked with Mackenzie’s grandmother when I was first researching. She told me not to use the contents of Mackenzie’s final video in the book. “Some things have trouble staying at rest,” is what she said, “and it’s better for all of us if we leave them that way.”
She didn’t want me to write the book at all, wouldn’t even have let me see the video, but it was entered into evidence in the inquest, and so I was able to get a copy. You can get a lot of things when you tell people that you’re writing a book. I don’t know that we could ever get away with quoting it, though, and maybe that really is for the best. When I first talked to Mackenzie’s grandmother, I thought she was being sentimental, or otherwise unreasonable. Now I’m starting to agree with her. And even if I do write the book, do I really want to turn it into a ghost story? Probably not. And if I did, Deanna probably wouldn’t let me.
Don’t kid yourself. You’re writing a book about people who’re dead, and every book about dead people is a ghost story, some of them just don’t know it.
Read “Strange Beast” and more in Orrin Grey’s Painted Monsters and Other Strange Beasts, available NOW from Word Horde. Ask for it by name where better books are sold.