For 2022, I’ve been wanting to write more ‘creature features’ and generally improve my short story writing. My partner got me a Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual for my birthday so I came up with the idea of writing a story every week based on a different creature from that – All There in the (Monster) Manual. Hope you enjoy!
This Week’s Inspiration: Barlgura
The Eighth Wonder of the World, a monstrous ape known as ‘The King’, was stolen from his island home and put on nightly display in the heart of Times Square. But tonight that all changes thanks to one lowly janitor.
A baleful moan echoed from behind the curtains. Theodore swept between seats, a wave of peanut shells, candy wrappers and cigarette butts rolling ahead of his broom. The cry rattled around the empty theatre, full of pain and loneliness and loss. Theodore shivered and glanced toward the stage, behind the orchestra pit and the heavy velvet drapes.
Rich people were pigs. They dropped their trash underfoot wherever they pleased, secure in the knowledge that it was never going to be them who had to pick it back up. Night after night, Theodore built little hills at the end of each row and then swept them all away as he came back up the aisle. The theatre was tremendous, biggest in the city. Dimly lit even with all the cleaning lamps on thanks to its sheer size. Other cleaners swept the balcony overhead and the smaller, individual balconies that overlooked the stage.
More moans and the sound of impossibly heavy links of chain crashing against one another came from behind the curtain. The King was agitated tonight. Theodore pretended to ignore it, as the other janitors did, while he worked his way down to the front rows. Sharing a space with an animal of that size triggered something in a person’s brain. Made them feel like hiding themselves in the smallest, safest hole they could find. Theodore wasn’t planning on hiding though, not tonight.
When he was nearly done, Theodore looked over his shoulder and checked no one was watching. Still carrying his pushbroom, Theodore made his way around the orchestra pit and slipped behind the curtains to the stage. It was even darker than the rest of the theatre. Animal musk clogged Theodore’s nostrils.
The scale of the beast never failed to impress. There was a reason they billed him as the Eighth Wonder of the World. Cage bars as thick as Theodore’s waist ringed around him. Enormous chains and cuffs manacled his wrists. Sensing movement, the King raised his head and looked to Theodore with huge, sad eyes, dark and surprisingly intelligent. Set in a face with crude but almost human features, wide nostrils and fat, leathery lips.
“How’s it going tonight, boss?” Theodore said. “Feeling restless?”
The size of a house, the great ape turned toward the bars. Links of chain clicked and a band of metal rubbed against the King’s broadly muscular chest. Old scars crisscrossed the King’s flesh. Rocklike muscles shifted under his bristly, black hair, although after a few months in captivity they were turning soft. The King had aged rapidly since he was captured. Patches of his fur were turning grey. He’d lost weight, and the lines in his face had a slackness to them.
“You missing it? Your island? They call you a king, but-,”
Theodore had been there that first night when the King was revealed to the world. The theatre had been completely packed with high society types and journalists. No way Theodore could afford a ticket, of course. He and some of the other custodial staff snuck onto one of the gantries far above the stage to watch what promised to be a historic moment. And it hadn’t disappointed, the director fellow who’d captured the ape really did know how to put on a show. Those ‘native’ girls dancing around with hardly a stitch on. Huge puppets used as stand-ins for various monsters and dinosaurs as the director told the audience about their adventures on the island. Theodore never understood why he didn’t bring back a few dinosaurs instead. I mean, the King was the King but a few of those dinosaurs sounded like they’d be just as impressive and easier to keep caged. It was all like something out of one of the dimestore paperbacks Theodore liked to read, although he had to sound out some of the words since he’d only been homeschooled. Then the white woman was brought out as a ‘sacrifice’, blonde haired, blue-eyed, and they revealed the Eighth Wonder of the World himself. He was breathtaking, awe inspiring. Such raw, animal power somehow captured and chained by man’s ingenuity. Truly the image of overthrown royalty and a creature from a different and much more savage time.
And Theodore saw it almost all go wrong. A herd of journalists closed in, flashbulbs popping and crackling in their cameras. The giant gorilla looked frightened for the blonde woman, at least that’s how it seemed. He’d tried to rip himself free, straining against the chains, roaring. The actors on stage scattered. A ripple of genuine terror went through the audience. Some, probably the smartest amongst them, wordlessly abandoned their seats and made for the exits at just the right pace to maintain some dignity.
But the chains had been made too well, along with the band of metal around the King’s chest and collar at his throat. The King pulled and twisted but couldn’t break free. The director cleared the stage and reassured the audience, who were soon nervously laughing along with him. Laughing at what fools they’d been to think they were actually in danger. The great ape eventually weakened and settled down, defeated.
Something broke inside the King that night, Theodore believed. He’d never been beaten before. Occasionally he tried to get free again but he never came as close as that first night. They never moved the King. He had performances every evening, almost always to a sold out house, and he was too dangerous to move. They’d practically had to rebuild half the theatre around him when they first moved him here, to make sure everything was properly reinforced. They fed him, when he would eat, and cleaned him as best they could to keep the smell down. If the director and his investors had their way, the King would eventually die on that stage.
Theodore walked to the bars of the cage. Early on, he’d have never dared get so close. He could see bald patches and huge sores weeping on the King’s backside and back. Bedsores from being stuck in one place, unable to move, for too long. The King’s giant hand quivered as it reached for Theodore. Each of his hands was as big as Theodore’s entire body. The chains around his wrists could be shortened or lengthened for the performance. They had just enough slack in them to reach the bars. The King raised one thick finger. Theodore placed his hand over the leathery fingertip and felt the warmth.
“Weren’t so long ago, this country put people in chains as well,” Theodore said. “No sin that money can’t answer. They don’t worship no king more than that.”
The King grunted and snuffled as if with agreement. With those dark eyes, maybe he really did understand. The King must have understood some things or otherwise why should Theodore care what happened to the big monkey? If he was just some dumb, unfeeling animal?
Taking his broom in case he was discovered, so he had an excuse to be skulking around, Theodore moved away from the cage and headed backstage. It was quiet, abandoned. Props from the show, dinosaur puppets that required several people to operate them simultaneously, and racks of native girl costumes, cluttered the area. Overhead were gantries and machinery, some attached to monstrous rolls of chain, like something that would connect to the anchors of a ship. On the wall behind where the King sat were a series of enormous levers.
The cage, the chains, they all had different parts in the show as well as keeping the King trapped. Watching from the shadows, Theodore had seen how they operated. No one paid any attention to an old, black janitor with a broom in his hand. He’d watched, and he’d learned how they worked. They weren’t locked up or secured in any way. Clearly the director and his people didn’t think anyone would be fool enough to mess with them.
“I guess we really doing this,” Theodore said to himself.
Theodore went straight to the electrical controls first, and threw the switch to connect them. Motors chattered and rumbled to life. The sound carried through the empty theatre but at that time of night no one was likely to pay it much attention. Theodore went to the first of the levers. It was heavy and stiff enough that it took Theodore some real muscle to move it. On the other side of the wall, on stage, the massive cage started to rise. The machinery made a loud grinding noise, usually covered by orchestral music during the actual performance. Through the wall, Theodore heard the King grunting.
Now the chains. Theodore muscled the lever up and then reversed it. Normally, they kept the chains loose enough that the King could eat and scratch himself but not so slack that he could build up the momentum to break free. Huge drums revolved overhead, giving the chains as much slack as they had to give. The great ape started to shift around, hooting softly.
The machinery was still humming. Theodore grabbed another lever and wrenched it down. The metal band around the King’s chest unlocked and opened with a loud clang, hinging free. The King hooted and thrashed the heavy chains around his wrists. Theodore hurried around again to the stage. The King pulled free of the wall and looked like he was struggling to sit up.
“Come on, now, you can do it,” Theodore said. “I’m sorry, I can’t get you back to your home but-, it ain’t right. Ain’t right what they done to you.”
The King glanced over, uncertain. Lips pulled back from canines as long as Theodore’s shins. With obvious effort, the great ape struggled to his feet. Blisters covered his back and rear. Bones and joints popped, as loud as gunshots even when muffled by the beast’s dense flesh. Wrenching forward, he broke the collar around his neck. The King turned on the manacle and chain around his right wrist. With enough slack, he could use the power of both arms. Machinery groaned and snapped. Suddenly, a whole section of wall collapsed and showered Theodore with debris. The King broke free. He applied the same amount of force to the chain on his left wrist, snapping it like rotten wood. Theodore watched, amazed. The giant ape was impressive enough in repose but seeing something of that size, that strong, in action, was almost a religious experience. Theodore felt like he was witnessing a force of nature rather than an animal, a tornado, a tidal wave. Set free, the house-sized primate was unstoppable.
The King rose to his full height. Giant fists drummed against his chest. He let out a roar of defiance, of rage, of power, that carried through the empty building. Theodore clapped his hands over his ears. The King looked again in the janitor’s direction. There was no gratitude in his face exactly, but a split-second of understanding passed between man and beast. As the echoes of the King’s roar faded, Theodore heard raised voices and frantic movement. Security heard what was happening and were on their way. The King ripped his way through the curtains and into the theatre. Rows of seats were crushed or scattered. Theodore ran, keeping his head low, not wanting to be seen anywhere near the stage or the controls.
The King exploded through the lobby of the theatre. Screams and blaring horns, even gunshots, echoed from the front of the building. They were answered by the King’s warbling roar and sounds of destruction.
Theodore hurried to the theatre’s locker rooms and recovered his hat and coat, to cover up his janitorial uniform. He slipped out of the building unseen. If questioned, he planned to tell whoever was doing the asking that he ran for his life in the midst of the chaos caused by the King’s inexplicable escape.
Outside, Theodore followed the path of destruction caused by the King. Building debris and chunks of broken pavement filled the streets. A visible trail of smashed vehicles led across Times Square and then further downtown. As Theodore looked around, he saw one vehicle which had been literally picked up and thrown into the second story of a nearby building. Lights and neon strobed over anarchy. Everywhere he looked, Theodore saw folks fleeing and screaming. Police and fire engines were already arriving. People littered the wreckage. Some were almost certainly dead, or dying. Theodore supposed he’d known the likelihood of innocents being killed or maimed was high when he released the giant ape but all he could do now was run to assist those injured or trapped. In his hat and coat, he helped out until the situation seemed to be mostly under the control of the professionals and then he followed the monster’s trail.
Dawn broke as Theodore made it to the street outside the Empire State Building. The army had been mustered to the city. Biplanes buzzed above the surrounding buildings like angry hornets, parting around the skyscraper itself. The humongous black shadow of the King climbed higher and higher, over the viewing platform and toward the peak of the tower. Craning his head back, Theodore could only just make out the massive gorilla as it reached the top.
People massed in the street to watch the aerial battle. With a jolt, Theodore recognised the director and some of his cronies from the theatre. Keeping the brim of his hat low, Theodore slipped back into the crowd. He didn’t know why he worried, none of them ever looked him in the face. Nobody ever paid attention to an old, black janitor.
Machine guns clattered. The King did his best to fight back but after months of inaction and then climbing the tallest building in the city, the giant ape was exhausted. Knocked loose, he fell from his perch and sailed out over the street. The crowd, Theodore included, stampeded to get clear as they realised the King was plunging toward them. When he hit the ground, the world shook. The King had fallen.
As soon as they were sure the vast body of the ape was dead, the crowd poured back in around it. Photographers fired off the best shots they could frame in a hurry. A few daring folk even climbed onto the corpse itself, which had cratered the tarmac beneath it. Police and a few soldiers did their best to keep people back. Theodore made it to the front of the crowd, along with the director and others from the theatre.
“Well, the airplanes got him,” one man observed, looking at blood streaming from hundreds of holes poked in the great ape’s flesh.
No, Theodore thought to himself, staring at the director and his people. Was you who killed the King.
Sean: This is another ‘what if’ story similar to The Ooze That Ate Everyone, in the sense of what if the ending had changed? What if King Kong didn’t escape that first performance but instead his restraints had just been that little bit more effective? To be honest I think there’s potential for another, even more poignant story in there where the King doesn’t die free but eventually expires on stage, every last bit of wonder squeezed out of him. Maybe I didn’t have the heart to write that story. I also kind of enjoy I guess ‘multiverse’ takes on stories, where even in different circumstances things always have their parallels and fixed moments in time, so I think that came into play a bit.
I am foremost a Gozilla fan when it comes to kaiju but I still remember the first time I watched the original King Kong in black and white. I’m not sure how old I was but probably in my early teens, during a period I used to watch a lot of the late night movies on SBS. SBS, for non-Australians, is a public service broadcaster primarily for multicultural and multilingual programming, and they would, and still do, play a lot of classic or foreign films late at night. Left a huge impression on me. I think it’s hard to conceive in this day and age just how original and inspiring an idea and film that King Kong actually was. Just an absolute trailblazer.
If you like kaiju stories anywhere near as much as I do, Sacrifice is another different take of mine on a kaiju story!
Next Week’s Inspiration: Invisible Stalker