Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Trail of the Cloven Hoof by Arlton Eadie

The Dancing Tuatara Press imprint of Ramble House has once again rescued a lost thriller from obscurity. Kudos go to John Pelan who located the complete book length adventure which had been serialized in Weird Tales during the 1930's. Although the editor of that magazine had chopped the original novel into bits for inclusion as a serial, Pelan discovered the complete adventure had been published in book form. His hard work has resulted in the first reissue of the 1935 novel.
In the introduction, John Pelan describes how the original serial version of Cloven didn't seem up to Eadie's usual high standards. Although I haven't read the serial version, I do think I understand why Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright might've cut the original down to size: it tends to run on too long in some sections. After the fourth or fifth description of the isolated moors of England, you want to move onto an new passage. And there is also an annoying tendency of the author to phonetically render the local dialect. Not to mention his snobby descriptions of the lower classes.
The novel starts with Hugh Trenchard, late of medical school, on a walking tour of England. He finds himself in an isolated village where one Silas Marle is battling the "Terror of the Moor", a half-human, half-stag creature. Hugh is later joined by his old school mate Ronnie Brewster, a local doctor. Let's see, there is Lucien Felger a foreigner who runs a near-by insane asylum with sinister connections. Also in this cast is Sergent Jopling, the regional police officer. There's at least one mysterious woman. Add a few disappearing bodies, and we have the standard British pre-WW2 thriller.
I would dismiss this book as not up to the usual high standards of what Tuatara reproduces were it not for the final chapters. Let me say that the last few chapters redeem the whole novel. I was hit by some surprises I didn't see coming and a gripping conclusion. Which makes the entire book worth reading.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Naming of Parts by Tim Lebbon

I usually don't care for zombie books or movies. Every since George Romero and company spooked everyone with Night of the Living Dead, they all seem to be retreads. And really, just how many times can you revisit that theme without making it seem boring? I thought once S. King got into the game, it would be over. Now even AMC has jumped on the corpse wagon with The Walking Dead (which I'll probably watch once it comes out on DVD).
But Tim Lebbon's short novel, Naming of Parts, struck me as a different angle which might be worth reading. How would a 12-year-old boy deal with the complete collapse of the world around him? What if he wakes up one morning to find dad blasting away with a shotgun at the next door neighbors for now apparent reason? This is the plot of the book.
It's a short read, you can get through it in one sentence. I doubt the entire book is 60 pages. But it is a page turner and has some odd angles. For instance, the zombie outbreak effects every living thing, even foxes are described as standing aimlessly by the side of the road. I wish the book hadn't ended so abruptly, but it's still worth the time if you can find it.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Dolphins of Altair (1967) by Margaret St. Clair

1967's The Dolphins of Altair is the beginning of Margaret St. Clair's "psychedelic" period. It would continue on with The Shadow People (1969) and conclude with The Dancers of Noyo (1973). Although the plots of the book are significantly different, her use of the California coast, environmentalism, and counter-cultures all link these books. They are also told in the first person.
Dolphins is told from the viewpoint of a dolphin historian named Amtor. At the beginning of the novel, the dolphins, or sea people as they refer to themselves, have become distressed.The seas are becoming increasing polluted. Humans are capturing and placing dolphins into naval research stations for underwater warfare training. The dolphins form a council and decide to reach out telepathically to three people: Madeline Paxton, a secretary at the Half Moon Bay naval research station; Sven Erikson, a former soldier and dock worker; and Dr. Edward Lawrence, a clinical psychiatrist who works for the US navy.
Madeline proves to the most receptive to the Dolphins' cries for help. Sven later joins her. Finally, Dr. Lawrence hires a boat to drop him off on the a rock far off the California coast. Together, they concoct a plan to free the imprisoned dolphins from the research station. Using Sven as a courier, they steal a powerful under water mine from a weapons shipment and give it to the dolphins. The mine is then dropped by one of the dolphins into a deep trench off the coast where it explodes, causing an earthquake. The earthquake, timed to be a minor one and on a Sunday evening to minimize loss of human life, bursts open the dolphin pens, freeing the sea people to the open ocean.
But then Dr. Lawrence disappears from the rock, with no explanation given. Moments later, the rock is strafed by a navy plane. Several of the dolphins are killed and Madeline is wounded. Why did Dr. Lawrence betray them? Do the dolphins have time to come up with a new strategy now that war between them and the "splits" (humans) seem to be immediate?
The launching point for the novel seems to have been the US Navy Marine Mammal Program where dolphins were studied for their ability to hunt for mines and rescue seamen. The navy has always claimed no dolphins were ever trained to attack humans. Obviously, the very concept of dolphins being manipulated by humans was offensive to St. Clair.
One of the more interesting ideas put forth in the book is that humans and dolphins originated from the same species. According to the dolphin historian, millions of years ago, the commons ancestors of both creatures migrated to earth from a planet in orbit around the star Altair. Over the millennia, some of the settlers stayed on land while others returned to their natural environment, the water. At some point in the distant past, the land dwellers began mating with terrestrial primates, producing humans. This is the origin of "The Covenant" mentioned in Dancers of Noyo.
The book is well-plotted and easy to dissolve into. Much of it consists of conversations between the dolphins and their human allies trying to figure out the least destructive means to strike back at the surface dwellers. This could be the original ecological science fiction novel. There are no themes of magick or Wicca in this novel.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Margaret St. Clair Ephemera

As my obsession with the mysterious Science Fiction writer Margaret St. Clair continues, I find myself forced to seek-out tangential material. Recently, I obtained a copy of Margaret St. Clair: Space Frontierswoman (1986) and a men's' magazine, Dude, which contained one of her short stories. I'm sure more material exists and perhaps one day I will find that elusive photograph of her.
Margaret St. Clair: Space Frontierswoman (2nd revised edition) is volume 15 of Galactic Central, "Biographies for the Avid Reader". It was put together by Gordon Benson, Jr. and describes itself as a "working biography". Format-wise, it can be described as a chap book, is printed by photocopying, and appears to have been set in type with an early home computer graphic program. It's a mere 10 pages in length, but does attempt a complete listing of all her short stories and novels. 113 stories are listed as having been published, as well as 11 books. There is also a third section listing the 8 "Oona and Jik" stories as having been published from 1947-49. I haven't encountered these stories as of yet. It's a concise little listing, but contains no new biographical information.
The Dude magazine was one of the many publications aimed at the swinging bachelor which appeared in the wake of Hugh Hefner's success. It was published from 1956 to 1976 on a bi-monthly basis. Most of the articles dealt with the good life: European women, French stage shows, and booze. In September of 1959, Margaret St. Clair published a short story in it entitled "The Lost One". It's not mentioned in any anthology of her works.
I mention this short story because it has become my favourite one by her. "The Lost One" shows St. Clair at the top of her game and clearly demonstrates her ability as a writer. The plot is simple: a divorced lawyer goes to a bar to drink his troubles away and meets a mysterious, beautiful woman. She tells him how much he resembles her dead husband and they go home together. Weeks later, the lawyer feels a longing for the mysterious woman and returns to the same bar where he sees her with another man. To tell anymore would ruin the story, but I will say the ending hit me with a brick to the head.
Hopefully, I will find more material by and about her in the future.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Diamondback: It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

I've never met Derrick Ferguson, but he seems like the kind of guy I'd hang out with. Every week he and a fellow cinemaphile Tom Deja broadcast podcast Better In the Dark, a show recorded in Derrick's basement. For the longest time I would listen to the show while I worked on refinishing my upstairs bathroom. I became so enamored over the show I would quit grouting tile just to find more episodes for listening. To listen to Derrick and Tom play off each other, their love for New York City movie houses, their encyclopedic knowledge of obscure TV shows, well, it made the job of ripping out lap boards much easier.
But now I'm finished with the remodeling.
Guess I'll have to tile another floor just to justify listening to their show.
I'd known Derrick was a writer every since listening to the show. However, his books can be difficult to find. Since he was also a pulp fan like myself, I was determined to find at least one of them. And the first one I've ran across is Diamondback.
Ferguson has described the novel as his attempt at doing a modern spaghetti western film in book form. I have to admit, all the elements are there: the stranger coming to town, the rival gangs, the beautiful saloon girl. It's set in the mythical town of Denbrook, which is a corrupt major United States city (I picture Philadelphia, but then I'm right next door to the city Where All The Brothers Love Each Other). And it is also one of the bloodiest books I have ever read.
The plot is simple: Denbrook's major crime lord Titus Hegemon is planning to retire and turn his operation over to his loyal lieutenant, Nickleby Laloosh. He has one big score left. Hegemon's paid for a gun shipment which will roll into town born in the guts of three tractor trailer trucks. To make sure he doesn't have any problems, Hegemon pays to have the Denbrook police round-up all the rival crime bosses and hold them till the deal is sealed. It looks to be a good plan.
But he hasn't planned on Diamondback Vogel showing up in town. Diamondback is a legendary gunman whom everyone had thought dead. Within 24 hours of his arrival, the city of Denbrook is ripped apart by gang war. And the trucks have yet to arrive.
When they do, it causes a battle right out of a WW2 movie. There are factions too numerous to mention all trying to get their hands on those guns and they manage to shoot each other to pieces within minutes of the weapons' arrival.
I should also mention the lack of any admirable personages in this novel. Everyone is playing their own game, trying to outsmart, their rivals. No one is the least bit sympathetic, save Diamondback, who does let an innocent person flee the carnage.
A sequel is promised.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Rite of Passage by Alexi Panshin

Alexi and Cory Panshin wrote one of the best histories of early science fiction, The World Beyond the Hill, in 1989. I found the book at a bookstore in Wichita, Ks when I lived there in the early 90's and read it cover-to-cover in one sitting. So it was a surprise to me when I found this neat little book at Indian Path Books a few weeks ago. Needless to say, it ended up in my "To read" pile.
Winner of the 1968 Nebula award, Rite of Passage shows the influence of the dean of American science fiction, Robert Heinlein. As a matter of fact, Panshin even discusses the book's creation here and how Heinlein figured into the writing. I note that Mr. Panshin lives nearby in Quakertown, PA. He also lists Harper Lee as an influence on the novel, which anyone familiar with To Kill a Mockingbird will understand.
The novel follows several years in the life of Mia Havero, who lives on a massive interstellar star ship nearly two hundred years in the future. Obviously there was a huge advancement in technology from the present since the first of the interstellar ships was completed in 2041. Sometime afterwards, a series of wars, brought on by overpopulation, led to the destruction of Earth. Fortunately, a number of other planets outside our solar system had been colonized, so humanity was able to survive. The ship in which Mia lives was made by hollowing out an asteroid. It was built to haul colonists across the galaxy, but the scientists and engineers piloting the ship decided to stay on board after the last colonists were delivered.
Told from the viewpoint an older Mia, the story begins with her moving out of one quadrant of the ship into another at the age of twelve. Her parents having split up, Mia is raised by her father, who has a prominent position in the ship's society. She yearns to be a "synthesist", a person who has accumulated a general, but expansive, amount of knowledge. Her best friend Jimmy, also twelve, wants to be a ordinologist, or classifier of information.
There is one small hurdle they with both have to overcome: The Trial. At age fourteen, after extensive survival training, all children are dropped off the ship at the nearest inhabitable planet. They are expected to survive on their own for one month. At the end of a month, they are picked up. If they manage to survive on their own, the child is now considered an adult and welcomed in the ship's community with all rights and responsibilities. There are no exceptions.
Much of the book leading up to The Trial consists of Mia's recollections of her interactions with other kids and daily life on the ship. She spends a lot of time reading up on ethics at the encouragement of her tutor, Mr. Mbele. She also learns how to ride a horse, since the kids are dropped on primitive planets with them for transportation.
Because of resource limitations, the population of the ship is strictly controlled. Families seldom have more than one or two children. One of the source of disgust is the colonial planets, whom the ship trades information and knowledge with to get needed raw materials. The ship people refer to the colonists as "mudeaters" who practice primitive "free birth". The ship itself has a eugenicists who approves and encourages birthing based on genetic records.
The final test of Mia's class before undergoing The Trial is a tiger hunt. A group of kids are sent out into a wilderness park with their adult survival instructor in pursuit of a full grown tiger. When they do encounter the tiger, they have to kill it using only the knives they carry and whatever rocks can be found. Amazingly, they do it with few injuries. It's Panshin's credit as a writer that he can make this passage so believable.
Mia is finally dropped with her class on a planet known as Tintera. There has been little contact with the planet since it was colonized a 150 years previously. The kids split-up, Mia deciding to spend her month on Trial exploring the planet.
What she encounters is a society similar in technology and organization to what the United States knew at the Civil War. She manages to confront a band of ruffians on horseback before getting bushwhacked. Mia's nursed back to health by an old man named Kutsov who lives alone. She learns enough about the society where she's been dropped to rescue her best friend Jimmy from a territorial prison. They both manage to hide out in the woods until the month has passed and the pick-up ship arrives.
Half of her trial class never make it back to the ship. After hearings are held in the ship's assembly, the citizens decide to punish the inhabitants of Tintera in the worst way possible. I won't spoil the ending of the book for those who want to read it. But I will say the over riding message is how the worst deeds can be justified by the best intentions. Consider Crime and Punishment: it's remarkably simple to justify killing an old woman.
Rite of Passage shows the mark of the time in which it was written. Panshin assumes it would be easy to organize a self-contained society with few internal problems. But this is a minor point. It's a landmark book which needs to be read.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Change the Sky and other Stories (1974) by Margaret St. Clair

This is the third and final of Margaret St. Clair's short story collections. Published over ten years after Three Worlds of Futurity and almost ten years before The Best of Margaret St. Clair. Change the Sky consists mostly of her short fiction from the 1950's. When you consider she published over a 100 stories from the late 1940's till the early 60's, this was a very productive period for her. The stories vary in quality, which is what you can expect from such a prolific author. Only three appear in the other collections.
The best of the lost has to be "The Goddess on the Street Corner". It's a sad tale which would have fitted into The Twilight Zone. The story concerns an alcoholic pensioner who finds an ancient Greek goddess on a city street. He takes her home and feeds her bourbon, hoping to restore the deity's powers. The story has a bitter sweet ending, which was not entirely expected.
Military themes abound. "The Death of Each Day" has a gunner trying to escape a war-torn city in the future. "Then Fly Our Greetings" is about a scientist trying to create a humane weapon and it's horrifying results. "Fort Iron" has an officer trying to restore a sense of purpose in an ancient fort. St. Clair takes a dim view of the military mind. One character describes it as hitching a jet plane to an oxcart.
This is a good representative sample of her work from the end of science fiction's golden age.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The House of Souls (1923) by Arthur Machen

It's a little hard to say much about a book where so much has already been said. This is one of Arthur Machen's best short story collections and I recommend it heartily. Consisting of his masterful "The Great God Pan" novella and others, this collection gives an excellent overview of macabre writing at the turn of the century. Full of Victorian shudders.
Few writers have ever been able to make the ordinary so supernatural. In Machen's writing, there's always the survival of something ancient and evil behind every bush and shrub.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Games of Neith (1960) by Margret St. Clair

The Games of Neith was released in 1960 as an Ace twin to Kenneth Blummer's The Earth Gods are Coming. It's one of the last whimsical science fiction novels Margaret St. Clair would write before getting down to the "serious" novel writing she began with Sign of the Labrys. You do get the feeling from reading it that she was getting fed-up with all the rockets and ray guns of golden age SF.
In the far future, humanity has settled on the planet Gwethym. Because of the religious riots which had taken place when the planet was populated, the people of Gwethym have decided to worship an artificial goddess called "Neith". Neith really doesn't stand for much, but she looks nice and radiant on her pedestal and provides an outlet for religious sentiments. However, the followers of the rival god Jovis are still plentiful and long for the day when their deity will become prominent.
The book begins with a discussion between the high priestess of Neith, Anassa, and her consort, Wan. Anassa has just survived another assassination attempt by a devotee of Jovis. There's an "energy leak" taking place on Gwethym and the Jovians blame the worship of Neith for bringing it about. The energy leak (a vague concept) seems to have caused by spaceships using a hyper drive.
Eventually Anassa and Wan take an ocean voyage to find the source of the leak. They are tipped off by some sailors who have encountered an old man living among ancient machines. Since the machines appear to be the work of the "old ones", the humanoids who inhabited the planet eons before the humans arrived, they may hold the key to stopping the energy leak.
I would classify this as the weakest Margaret St. Clair novel of the ones I've read. It has all the feel of something banged out quickly for the publisher. There are a few threads which seem to have been recycled from short story attempts. As Neith was published toward the end of her productive short story career, this may have been the result of trying to merge several ideas in a coherent whole.
One for Dame St. Clair enthusiasts only.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Man Who Saved Britian (2006) by Simon Winder

I really must confess to never having read a single one of Ian Flemming's James Bond novels. But as a kid growing up in the 60's and 70's it was impossible to miss their impact on popular culture. My interest in Eurospy phenomena has always been the off-shoots: James Eastwood, The Man from Uncle, Where the Spys Are. But writer Simon Winder has made it all unnecessary for me to do so since he's published this amusing little book.
Subtitled A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond, the book is a document about Winder's love/hate affair with Bond James Bond. He re-accounts how he saw Live and Let Die at a local theater while munching on a rum flavored chocolate bar. As a young adult he would travel the world as a book seller trying to cop a very Bondian attitude to the various countries he visited (much to the amusement of the wait staff). Although he views Bond as a hopeless bit of nostalgia for the late British Empire, he admits Sean Connery does look might real behind the wheel of a fast automobile.
I could go on for pages about this book: it's a non-stop delight to read. Winder is able to put Ian Flemming, Bond's creator, into perspective and muse on all the second banana actors who battled 007. He writes about being in a nation that was in decline in the 1970's and the difficulties of raising kids in a modern age. But I'll let the reader experience his witty comments for themselves.
This is one of the best "fan" publications I have ever read. Devoid of postmodern babble and full of love/disgust for it's subject.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Dancers of Noyo (1973) by Margaret St. Clair

This was the last novel by Margaret St. Clair, published in 1973. Other than a few short stories and commentaries, I can find no other writing by her after this. Why did she quit writing novels? The answer to this question may never be known. But, as Dancers has never been republished, I suspect the lackluster reception the book received may have been a contributing factor. I'm sure the Aquarian portrayal in the novel- whom the narrator calls "Mandarins"- didn't help it much with the intended audience.
Sometime in the near future, the west coast of the United States has been decimated by a horrendous form of cancer known as the "bone melt". After the disease runs it's course, California reorganizes itself into the Republic of California. Some of the survivors live in the coastal towns. Others have taken to the forest and live in "tribes" or communes. To keep the younger generation in check, the older tribal people start obtaining synthetic human "Dancers". These Dancers enforce the tribal will by making young people join in marathon group dances. They also force them to take psycho-active drugs as a form of vision quest. If any of the kids get too rebellious, they can be sent outside the tribe on the "grail quest". And those who do get sent on the quest have a tendency to return a psychological mess.
The dancers enforce their authority with tribal militias known as "The Avengers". Guns are almost unknown in this post-apocalyptic hippie society, but bows are easily made and arrows can kill. Furthermore, the dancers have begun working with "chemical-conscience men". These are hardened criminals the republic have found easier to control with drugs as opposed to prison. Many are on mood controlling drugs because they were vicious killers.
The novel is told from the point of view of Sam MacGregor, although his tribal name is "Bright Moon". His age is never given, but you get the idea he's around 20-years-old. Sent off by his tribe at Noyo to study with an authentic native American medicine man, Sam returns to his tribal village one evening and refuses to join in the marathon dance. For his insubordination, the tribe's Dancer orders Sam to leave their territory and go on the Grail Journey.
Pursued by a pack of Avengers who are determined to see that Sam meets with an accident on his path, Sam managers to make his way into other tribal lands. Along the way he experiences out of body sensations. Sometimes he's put into the mind of a government agent before the fall of civilization. Other times he's a man named Bennett, who was the cellular template for all the android Dancers. After a bad run-in with a chemical-conscious man who was a serial killer before the treatment, Sam enters the land of the Navarro tribe. But the tribe has vanished. All he finds remaining of it is a young woman chained to a rock, left to die in the rising tide.
Sam rescues the woman who turns out to be Francesca O'Hare, the daughter of the man who created the android Dancers. Her father, whom she describes as ripped out of his mind on drugs, has recently died. She can't figure out why her tribe's Dancer wanted her dead, but she thinks it may have something to do with what she learned before her father died. Sam joins forces with her and flees north to the nearest settlement- Ukiah -outside of tribal control. Together they will do what is needed to bring down the tyranny of the Dancers.
Dancers is similar to both The Sign of the Labyrs and The Shadow People with the use of a first-person male narrator. It falls under the category of science fantasy as it too has elements of both science fiction and fantasy literature. The reader is given a lot of medical herbalism information as Sam carries a small medicine man bag with him. However he's not above using magical rites when they seem appropriate.
St. Clair is particular biting in her depiction of the Mandarins, the aging hippie tribal leaders who will do anything to stay in power. Since Sam was raised in a communal nursery, he really has no idea who is his mother. There's an older tribal woman called "Jade Dawn" who claims to be his mother, but he's not sure. As the local county agent says of the Mandarins: "They're too stoned, usually, to make anybody do anything."
The author still manages to pack the creep factor into the book when needed. There's a chilling scene where Sam and Francesca break into her father's hidden laboratory. It's dark and unoccupied by anything human. The increasingly psychotic O'Hare had booby-trapped the lab not only with chemical poisons, but other android creations. They are forced to navigate their way through the dark labyrinth while avoiding Hunters, Diggers, and other nightmare creatures.
It's sad this would be Margaret St. Clair's final novel. What amazing books she might have penned in the final years of her life.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Message from the Eocene (1964) by Margaret St. Clair

This is the other half of the Ace double book which is paired with Three Worlds of Futurity. I suspect this novel was written for Ace and twined with the story collection when the publisher needed something else to match. As with all of her novels which I've read by Margaret St. Clair, this one is dedicated to her husband Eric, described in the author info as a "well-known writer of children's stories". The same bio piece lists her interests as sports cars, amateur astronomy, cooking, classical antiquity, gem cutting, and mandolin playing. Quite the polymath, she was.
Message from the Eocene begins several billion years in the earth's past. Technically speaking, this would have been the Paleoproterozoic Era. A humanoid creature only known as Tharg is trying to escape the lighting bolts being hurled at him by an unknown source. He's on the surface of the primitive planet Earth on an important mission for the floating city, Synon. He's a member of a specialized group known as "divers" who travel to the dangerous planetary surface in search of valuable minerals needed by the city. Tharg has been entrusted with a container carrying a mysterious book for delivery to the sister city of Gwynor. He's not sure who is tossing the lighting bolts at him, but suspects they are from their enemies, the Veidimi.
When he's captured it turns out the source of the lighting was the Vaeaa, the "half-mythical overlords" who secretly control the third planet from the sun. By now, Tharg has had the chance to open the case holding the book and find out why it's so important. The book is a guide to the secrets of the universe and was sent to Tharg's people by another advanced civilization. But the Vaeaa representatives disapprove of the book. They are strict materialists who feel threatened by it. They give Tharg a psychoactive drug to test out the book's power, then decide to destroy it. Tharg's last effort is to toss the book (in it's container) into an active volcano, where it will be safe until the right life form can find it. His consciousness now separated from his body by the drug, Tharg drifts away from the Vaeaa's in peace.
As Tharg drifts across the ages, he watches his people rise and fall. The Vaeaa overlords vanish too, but not before planting a projector on Pluto designed to prevent any further books from reaching whatever life might arise on Earth. Soon life does arise on the third planet and Tharg decides to contact it when the life forms have reached a level of maturity equal to his former civilization.
His first attempts at contact are rather amusing. His subject is a Quaker family living in New England in the first half of the 19th century. They become convinced their house is haunted from all the strange noises and apparitions Tharg creates while trying to make contact. They leave the house, but Tharg finds himself trapped in it for years. Once he is able to leave, he decides to make a different connection.
The next part of the book concerns a French mining engineer and his wife. She's "sensitive" to psychic phenomena and they're on the island of New Caladonia where he's overseeing a deep mine. One day the mine is filled with strange geometric shapes and the miners refuse to go down to work. The engineer sends his wife down to investigate. After a series of altercations with the locals, the miners, and finally Tharg, the book is uncovered. But it all ends rather disappointingly.
The final section of the book has Tharg trying to find a way to stop the Plutonian projector as he feels another book must be on it's way to the human civilization. Strange sites are seen all over the planet in preparation for the arrival.
Although it seems to be working the same groove as 2001, this book is a lot more fun.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Three Worlds of Futurity (1964) by Margaret St. Clair

Margaret St. Clair's first collection short fiction was actually the second half of an Ace "double" book. Turn it upside down, flip it over and you have Message from the Eocene, also by her, as the companion book. I'll get to the Eocene later, but today, let's concentrate on this collection.
The book has but 5 tales: "The Everlasting Food", "Idris' Pig", "The Rages", "Roberta", and "The Island of the Hands". Three of the stories were originally published under different titles. I'm assuming the new titles are the ones she originally wanted to use. The earliest was written in 1949, the latest in 1962. With the exception of "Idris' Pig", none of these stories were included in The Best of Margaret St. Clair.
The first story, "The Everlasting Food", is the best one in the set. After a violent thunderstorm, Richard Dekker discovers his Venusian wife Issa has become imortal. Although she can't share her immortality with him, she can make their son immortal. She flees across the oceans of Venus (this was written in 1949) with the boy and her half-sister in pursuit. Although the ending is a little contrived, the story still holds up well as an excellent romance. Little touches, such as the title "Pamir", are what make it excellent. In typical St. Clair fashion, many of the terms invented for the story are never explained.
"Idris' Pig" is a screwball comedy set on Mars. Not quite Ray Bradbury's Mars, but a neat place just the same. "The Rages" is told from the point of a man who lives for his next ration of euphoria pills from the government. Finally, there's another romance, "The Island of the Hands", which attempts to answer the old question as to what should your inner self should desire.
The stories in this book don't have the same zing as the ones in Best of. The tend to be more serious, more introspective. The one exception is 1962's Roberta, which combines murder, science fiction, and sex change.
A nice little collection, which is a good companion to The Best of Margaret St. Clair.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sign of the Labrys (1963) by Margret St. Clair

Sign of the Labrys seems to be the one Margret St Clair novel people remember. Although the cover art has little to do with the book itself (big surprise there), the blurb on the back proudly proclaims: "Women are writing science fiction!" And we are told that it is "Fresh! Imaginative! Inventive!" Just like a loaf of wonder bread. I do hope she got some mileage out of this book, first published in 1963. At least some fame would compensate for the covers.
Written from the point of its protagonist, Sam Sewell, Labrys can best be described as a science fantasy idea novel. Although the hero uses science to further his ends, he also delves into the realm of fantasy, and he does it for idealistic reasons. It's also one of the first novels which treats Wicca as a bonafide religion. In some ways, this book is a statement of faith.
It's a post-apocalyptic book which takes place 10 years after 90% of humanity have been wiped out from scientifically created yeasts. Most of the survivors of the plague are living in underground bunkers built for the nuclear war which never came. The survivors are scaveging off the land- most of the trees having been destroyed-and burying the dead.
The novel begins with Sam recieving a visit from FBY agent Clifford Ames. It's never mentioned what FBY stands for, although Federal Bureau of Yeasts might be a good guess. The FBY is the only thing which passes for a government, since most of the plague survivors can't stand being in close proximity to one another. The FBY man is searching for a woman named Despoina (Greek: "Mistress") and he thinks Sewell may have been in contact with her. The FBY suspects her to be a "sower", which is to say a lunatic who deliberately spreads deadly microorganisms.
Although Sewell just wants to be left alone to live his life on E level in the underground bunker, he soon finds out that other people are interested in him. Someone leaves a mystical ring in his posession, he sees the sign of the labrys ( a double-headed fighting ax) on the cave walls, and mysterious figures whisper "Blessed be" in the darkness. Ames returns, dies in a struggle with Sewell, forcing Sewell to venture into the lower levels in search of truth.
On his way down he encounters a mycologist named Kyra who is doing research in what remains of the government labs in her sector. Through the use of mirror gazing and narcotics, she is able to help him look into his soul. Sewell has visions of another life where he danced around the fire and was chased by animals She's also able to get Sewell into the next level, G.
G level turns out to be where all the self-appointed important people reside. They had fled underground in anticipation of nuclear war. After a casual encounter with a woman on this level results in her death, he begins to suspect he may be carrying a deadly yeast infection. By now he's developed the ability to see inside people. A very intelligent dog is able to show him the way to the final level, H.
At level H, Sewell meets Despoina, in all her pagan majesty. He's initiated into the Kraft, just as the FBY attacks. Sewell manages to make it back up to Kyra at the F level, where they plan on making contact with Despoina, but the FBY attacks once again, this time with super cool carbon dioxide gas, intent on freezing everything out of existence. Sewell and Kyra manage to escape the feds through the use of extra-sensory powers. Their goal is to regroup with Despoina's Krafters and strike back at the FBY.
One of the interesting things about the novel is the use of a labrys as a symbol for Wicca. Today, most Wiccian initiates use the pentagram. Once upon a time, the ankh was in vogue, but the five-pointed star seems to have won out. In Greece today, the labrys is used as a symbol of paganism. In North America, it's usually seen as a lesbian symbol (the amazons were supposed to have fought with a labrys). I suspect that St. Clair, having a background in Greek and Roman studies, wanted to associate the Wiccan religion with ancient Greece as much as possible.
Labrys suffers from some of the loose ends which I've started noticing in St. Clair's other writings. At a crucial point in the plot of the book, we find out the pre-plague civilization had developed matter transmitters. OK...if they could send a physical object anywhere, what protection would an underground bomb shelter furnish? Did the matter transmitters become standard just before the plague? And what's with the secret clan of the Wiccans? Where did they come from?
Once again, St. Clair wrote a good novel, just not the great one I'd hoped to find with this book.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Shadow People by Margaret St. Clair

Margaret Sinclair turned to writing books in the 1960's. I don't know why her short story output declines after 1960, but I think it may have had to do with monetary reasons. Science Fiction and Fantasy became big sellers in the Age of Aquarius. Authors are often forced to write to pay the bills. Although the genesis of this novel may have been in the back of her mind for years, the second part seems to have been created for the specific era it was written.
The Shadow People
is very much a product of it's time (1969), but it has influences which go back to the early part of the last century and beyond. As if Arthur Machen had wandered into the Fillmore Ballroom. Gary Gygax, one of the creators of the Dungeons and Dragons game, lists it as an influence. St. Clair quotes selectively from Robert Kirk's 17th century tract on faeries, The Secret Commonwealth. I suspect she used Commonwealth as a guide while writing this novel.
But enough with my speculations. Dame St. Clair is no longer with us, so she can't clear-up all my wondering about her motivations.
The Shadow People begins with the Summer of Love in California, although no specific years are given. The narrator, Dick Aldridge, works for a "hip" newspaper in the Berkley area. His girlfriend Carol is an up-and-coming photographer. Although they are deeply in love, one night Carol storms out of Dick's apartment after an argument. She's gone for several days and Dick decides to check out her basement flat. He finds evidence of a struggle, and decides to go to the police. After the police shuffle him off, Dick takes a bus out to Monterrey to see if she's staying with an older couple they both know (perhaps a stand in for the author and her husband?). Dick finds the isolated house vacant with no sign of Carol or the older couple, but plenty of uncollected mail in the box. And on the way back he runs into a fringe character known as Carl Hood, who mentions Carol may have left "the skin of the world."
Still searching for Carol, he later encounters, Fay, the maid at his room in the Shasta Hotel. She also mentions that Carol may have "left the skin of the world." Now Dick has to know what this all means and begs Fay to tell him. She doesn't tell him much about who abducted Carol, but does show him the path to an underground world where his girl friend may have been taken. And so begins the crux of the book.
Dick, taking food with him (Fay has warned him against eating or drinking anything in the underworld), makes the perilous journey underground from an isolated cellar to vast caverns, until he crosses a subterranean river into the world of the "silent people". Along the way he picks up an enchanted sword (which appears to be a Wiccan ceremonial sword from the description) which pulses when it senses danger. And there is plenty of danger in this underworld.
The underworld is populated by elves, who a distantly related to humans. They come in several varieties- gray, black, green, and white. All are dangerous, but more to each other than to the humans on the surface. On occasion, they make foraging trips to the "bright world"(surface) and steal whatever they need. They feed primarily on atter-corn, a bitter meal made with psychoactive fungus, which produces hallucinogenic effects. But they also feed on human flesh when they can get it. Dick is attacked by them several times, but they seem to be incapable of much group action, since any blood spilled during a confrontation drives them into attacking each other.
I don't want to spoil too much of the plot, but Dick does eventually make it back to the surface. He finds three years have passed (time passage being different in the underworld), the Summer of Love squashed, and the forces of reaction in control. The novel shifts gears at this point, turning into another "winter of our discontent" book. This is what leads me to believe the first section was mostly written years before the second, with the latter written to make the narrative more "relevant" to the current target audience.
And it's the above-ground final section of the book where it runs out of gas. There's some kind of nascent fascist state in formation, but we never get much of a picture of it. People are required to wear ID tags, but you never find out how this came about in the three years Dick was underground, other than a brief mention of law-and-order politicians. There's rioting in the street and some mentions of government conspiracies. The book even mentions the CIA may want the atter-corn for chemical warfare, but this reads as an afterthought, instead of a crucial plot device.
Finally, three years have allowed robotic devices to be created which can police the population and run bulldozers. There's a few pages where Dick discovers how the hills around Berkley where removed accidentally on purpose and used to fill in the San Francisco Bay. This came about in three years? I know people believed anything was possible in the 60's (the US did put a man on the moon), but such a time scale is pushing the willing suspension of disbelief.
What really frustrated me were the characters of Carl Hood and Fay. Carl turns out to be some sinister figure with connections above and below ground. But you never really find out who or what he's working with or toward. Fay has more information about the underworld than she lets on, but her role in the novel is never fully resolved. There's defiantly a relation between both characters, but we don't find out what it is till the end of the book. And we never find out how said relationship figures into the big picture.
In conclusion, The Shadow People is a good book, but could've been a great one. We may never know why a writer of Margaret St. Clair's caliber left so many loose ends in the novel. But she did create a horrifying vision of the underworld which influenced many writers.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Starwolf by Edmond Hamilton

Edmond Hamilton (1904-1977) was one of the true giants of golden age science fiction. He managed to create the space opera sub-genre and crank out a series of pulp novels under the Captain Future imprint. There are stories of him typing so fast the typewriter would move across his desk. Later he would marry fellow writer Leigh Brackett and they would collaborate on many other novels. However, as he was constantly writing, Hamilton was loathe to see his earlier works into print. Much of what he published in the 30's and 40's didn't see print again until after he died.
In the late 1960's, Hamilton wrote three novels as part of an sf series. Series novels were all the rage at the time and someone had decided an outer space theme might prove successful. Known as the Starwolf trilogy, they consist of three separate novels: The Weapon From Beyond, The Closed Worlds and World of the Starwolves. In 1982, Ace Science Fiction issued them as one paperback collection, Starwolf. I'm told the first novel was adapted for Japanese television in the late 1970's, but I haven't had a chance to see it.
The trilogy follows the adventures of Morgan Chane, fully human, but adopted by the Starwolves at an early age. In the far future, his missionary parents had traveled from Wales on Earth to Varna, the home planet of a race of humanoid interstellar raiders, known as the Starwolves. Chane's parent's had hoped to save the Starwolves from their savage ways, but the missionaries perished from the excessive gravity and climate of Varna. Chane was raised by the Starwolves, who resemble human tigers with their golden fur. Later, when he came of age, he went with them on raids all over the galactic rim in search of treasure and booty. All of it came to an end when he killed a Starwolf in self- defense while arguing over the spoils of a raid. With an entire extended clan of Starwolves after him, he was forced to flee in a damaged spaceship.
Chane survives long enough to join up with a band of human mercenaries from Earth. Earth, now an impoverished planet, does supply most of the paid guns in the galaxy in the form of soldiers-of-fortune. Chane decides to stay with the mercenary band which rescued him. However, none of the other mercs, save the band's commander, Dilullo, know that Chane is a former Starwolf. Since Starwolves are usually shot on sight, they decide to keep his origin a secret.
The first novel, The Weapon from Beyond, touches briefly on Chane's origins. Most of it involves the mercenary band he's joined and their mission. A planet with vast mineral wealth has hired the mercenaries to seek out and destroy a weapon of vast power which they believe possessed by a rival planetary system. The mercenaries do find the weapon, but it turns out to be a star ship left over by an ancient intergalactic race. Chane earns respect from his new brothers-in-arms as the Varnan gravity of his youth has conditioned him to be far more powerful than the average human.
The next novel, The Closed Worlds, has Chane and the mercenaries traveling to a planet in search of a missing scientist. The brother of a rich star freight owner has disappeared on the planet Arkuun while searching for traces of another ancient Interstellar civilization. Their mission is ultimately successful, but not before Chane has encountered the radiantly beautiful Arkuun woman Vreya.
The series concludes with World of the Starwolves, easily the best one of the series. In this novel, Chane is forced to return to the Starwolve home planet of Varna and deal with the blood feud which cast him out. Searching for a missing work of art known as "The Singing Suns", Chane has led the other mercenaries into a trap. Although Chane manages to escape, the only way to free the other mercs is by leading the Starwolves to the very treasure planet where the stolen Singing Suns are kept. As before, Chane escapes with his strength and guile.
The quality of the writing varies. Most of the time it is standard action-and- adventure, with little thought given to the science behind Chane's galactic civilization. But no one could write about "booming suns" better than Hamilton. Toward the conclusion of the second novel, Chane encounters a device capable of transferring consciousness to any point in space. Here, the book enters 2001: A Space Odyssey territory with the wonders of the universe a-glow.
It's a shame the series ended after three books. I would've like to have seen where Hamilton would've taken Morgan Chane.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen

#1. Hell! Said the Duchess by Michael Arlen. An unexpectedly chilling tale of demonic possession by this most charming author. -"13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels", by Karl Edward Wagner.

Michael Arlen (born Dikran Kouyoumdjian, 1895-1956), was a writer of novels in Great Britian during the early part of the 20th century. He's known as the originator of the "Falcon" detective series and many humorous novels involving the tribulations of the English upper classes. Resembling something out of Bright Young Things, he cut quite a figure in proper society.
Which makes Hell! Said the Duchess all that more bizarre. Imagine, if you will, a Pre-WW2 British novel of manners with characters named Major-General Sir Giles Prest-Olive and the Hon. Basil Icelin. Have scenes where riots are halted to allow a baby carriage and a nurse to cross the barricades. Also include high-born English women whose honor is questioned. Add some bumbling detectives. Sounds like an Evelyn Waugh work, doesn't it?
OK, now mix in a serial killer named "Jane the Ripper", who is identified by her exotic perfume. Ad a bizarre alternate universe England in 1938 where Fascist Oswald Mosely is the war minister. Through in a mad scientist in drag. Now we should be in Charles Birkin territory. But we're not.
Hell! reads as the shotgun wedding of a P. G. Wodenhouse and Dennis Wheatley. We have droll humor and conspiracies. Police inspectors concerned about the lower classes being stirred and a satanic killer. Most of the novel is humorous, until the final thirty or so pages where it turns into something dark and deadly. I can't help but wonder if, while deciding to close the book, Arlen took up his pen and thought:"Let's give those Bertie Woosters some real nightmares!"
The novel begins with an account of Duchess Mary Dove. Much beloved of her staff and people, she has had scandalous rumors tossed about lately concerning her nighttime activities. Although she claims to be retiring at 10 PM sharp, various people have seen her hanging out with the lower classes in gin mills and coffee shops well into the morning hours. A detective is brought in to investigate. Scotland Yard intervenes. Could she also be the same "Jane the Ripper" who's been cutting up young men around London? Might this be an attempt to stir up the working classes against their betters by communists and anarchists?
As I have said before, 4/5 of this book resides in the chuckling smart set territory. But the final section is as dark as anything Arthur Machen could conceive. And I think this is why Hell! has resonated with aficionados of horror fiction for so long.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Best of Margaret St.Clair (1985)

Naturalist, bohemian, academic, pagan revivalist, and writer, Margaret St. Clair (1911-1995) is largely forgotten today. She began publishing her fiction in the late 1940's in the declining pulp science fiction market and continued to be featured in the same magazines through the 50's and early 60's. Around 1956 she published her first sf novel, The Green Queen, and would go onto write another seven novels until 1973. None of her novels or short story collections (three) are available in print. The Best of Margaret St. Clair was issued in 1985 by a small press in Chicago. The only mention of her life I've encountered is this brief.
As I read through these stories, I was struck by how many I'd read in other collections while growing up. "Child of the Void" was featured in Tomorrow's Children (1967) and "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles" in Alfred Hitchock's Monster Museum(1965). "Brenda", first published in Weird Tales, was adapted for an episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery (not that good, but worth seeing if you've read the story).
Every story in this collection is pure gold. Most have the snap, biting ending which turns sf conventions of the 50's on their head. Most of them have aged very well. "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnoles" works as a wicked satire of modern sales techniques and of Lord Dunsany's fantasy stories. "Short in the Chest" has a robotic psychologist giving disastrous advice to the military. My own favourite in this collection, "The New Ritual", works as a woman's interest story, a pastoral, and fantasy fiction.
The truly sad issue is the lack of any interest in her writing, outside a few fans. Here's a woman who wrote countless stories and novels over a twenty year span, then ceased her output. Why? Writer's block? Health issues? It would be good to know.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Come Die With Me by James Eastwood

(AKA: Diamonds Are Deadly)
The third and final Anna Zordan novel is the best one of the trilogy. Too bad there were no more issued after this one was published in 1969. Perhaps the whole spy craze was starting to die down, maybe author James Eastwood wanted to move on to other writing. The world may never know why the series ended so soon. And the conclusion of Come Die hints there will be more to come. It has been forty years...we're still waiting.
The plot for this novel involves a script for a TV series by a British production company which was submitted to the "home office" for approval. As per the Official Secrets act, this sort of thing must've been routine. The series involves assassinations, sabatogue and political unrest designed to bring the UK down. In the interest of public safety, the production company was told that maybe this wasn't the best time to be creating a TV show on these topics and the idea was shelved.
But someone has started carrying out a series of terrorist activities. All of them are following the suppressed series. And someone just murdered the Prime Minister.
Enter Sarratt, the chief of the super secret intelligence service only known as "The Studio". Madam Minister once again summons the spy master to her house (kids playing in the background) and sets him loose. Naturally, he dispatches Anna Zordan after the script writer, who's fleeing for his life. Anna tracks him down quickly and gets at the bottom of his problems (hint: it has to do with family issues).
There's a side plot developing involving a financial wunderkind and his femme fatale traveling companion. They are detoured to an isolated island in the Mediterranean where a master criminal plots world domination. The mastermind has plans for Anna too and lures her to the island.
We learn a little bit more about Sarratt in this book. For instance, his lonliness is partly due to a wife who died 20 years earlier in childbirth. This explains his fascination with both Anna and the Minister. But we never do get a clear description of what he looks like. Perhaps this is part of the mystery.
It's a shame the series ended with this book. It was really taking off at this point.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Medusa by E. H. Visiak

#13. Medusa by E. H. Visiak
If David Lindsay had written Treasure Island in the throes of a peyote-induced religious experience...Well, if Coleridge had given Melville a hand on Moby Dick after a few pipes of opium....
-KEW, 13 Best Supernatural Horror Novels

E. H. Visiak (1878-1972) was better known by his real name of Edward Harold Physick. His interests reigned from John Milton to mysticism. He was also a close friend of novelist David Lindsay, the author of A Voyage to Acturus. He was also an authority on Victorian literature, which shows up quite clearly in this book.
Medusa is a novel which floats along. It begins with the author's childhood: how his parents perished at sea, how he was raised by a Spanish priest before being sent to his grandparents in England. There are no dates given, but I assume the time frame to be the early 19th century. After being sent to a boarding school, he escapes the harsh Dickens-type environment to live with the kindly Mr. Huxtable. This arrangement doesn't last long because Mr. Huxtable needs to go on an unexplained sea voyage and decides to bring the writer along.
The whole book is written in a very verbose Victorian style. And I must say, it is a chore to read. Not quite as painful as Melmoth the Wanderer, but close. Visiak is fond of phrase after phrase carefully strung together to make a sentence.
Before and during the voyage we are introduced to one very interesting character: Obidiah Moon, a salty old sailor and maybe a pirate. If there is a Long John Silver figure in this book, it's Moon. He's got plenty of secrets to hide.
I could go into the book in more detail, but it's hard to do that without spoiling the conclusion. I will say the last 50 or so pages of Medusa exist in some kind of dream world.
An interesting book if you want a challenging read.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Chinese Visitor by James Eastwood

Today we take a look at another one of the Anna Zordan spy novels by James Eastwood. Seduce and Destroy was previously reviewed. This was the one which stimulated my interest in the whole Anna Zordan trilogy. The Chinese Visitor is the novel which introduces Anna and her British secret service boss Sarratt. It has the same subtle humor of Seduce. There are a few plot devices which seemed outlandish, but for the most part the book is excellent.
In the first chapter a Chinese trade ambassador is assassinated while visiting the grave of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery. Since this takes place around 1965 (the year the book was published), the cold war is in full swing. A mysterious woman is arrested in the scuffle after the killing, who turns out to be Anna Zordan. But she has nothing to do with the murder. She just happened to like visiting cemeteries.
Anna spends a few days in jail rather than pay a fine. She returns to her apartment to find it occupied by a mysterious stranger who wants information. It soon becomes apparent that the stranger is the killer who slaughtered both of her parents years earlier. There's a fight between her and the stranger where she over-powers the killer before putting two slugs in him (one for each parent). She calls the only person she trusts- Mr. Sarratt, who took care of her after the death of her mother and father.
The dead killer turns out to be a ruthless assassin named Hagmann. Sarratt links him to several other mysterious deaths. Soon she learns her father was working as a double agent for both the British and a sinister group known only as the Organization. Sarratt further uncovers information that the Organization is a front for a radical faction in the Chinese government intent on igniting nuclear Armageddon between the USSR and the USA. With time running out, he decides to recruit Anna into his secret service.
Although Eastwood isn't big on local culture in these books, the characters really stand-out. The prime minister whom Sarratt is beholden is obviously from the Labor Party and keeps a mistress on the side. There's an American general who's marked for death on the discovered hit list, but just can't avoid missing a dinner in his honor. And there's the leader of the Organization: Edwin Steiner, a portly American who appears to be running a charitable foundation.
Best of all is the Chinese official who runs his operation out of an outpost in Albania. Known only as "the god" throughout the book, he never appears to Steiner or the Organization. All his orders are carried out from behind a screen next to a huge Buddha statue. When he does make an appearance it's almost anticlimactic.
I've got the next book in the series on the way. Too bad there's only three.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Fire-Spirits by Paul Busson

"A strange tale of a young man's involvement with a bewitching peasant child, mountain legends, and the quest for German unification. The English translation is said to be heavily expurgated, but I haven't read the German to compare."
-13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels, by Karl Edward Wagner.

One of the delights in reading through the KEW list is finding a real gem, a book I never would have encountered had it not been for his comments. The Fire-Spirits is such an example. Here is a book I've longed to read for the past 25+ years. It proved to be worth the wait. I would go so far to say this novel is one of the best I've read in the past year. And it's good to the last page. Hopefully, someone will bring out a new translation (the copy I borrowed was printed in 1929).
I've not been able to find much about Paul Busson, other than he was an Austrian writer and journalist who lived from 1873-1924. There's not much on him in German; he's considered and obscure writer of fantastic fiction. I know The Man Who Was Born Again, another one of his novels is available in an English.
The Fire-Spirits is a novel about Peter Storck, a young man who has traveled to the Tyrolean mountain area, now part of Switzerland and Italy. He's trying to find out what happened to his Uncle Martin, who disappeared from his house near the village of Sankt Marein. It's 1809 and the area is in the midst of the violence brought about by the Napoleonic wars. The Tyrolean region has been forsaken by it's traditional protector, the emperor of Austria, and handed over to the king of Bavaria. Add to this religion-the Tyroleans are catholic, the Bavarians protestant- and you have a deadly mix. Which is why the mountain people have no love for the Bavarian militarists and are planning a revolt.
At the village, Peter meets a number of colorful characters. The hunter Serafin Federspiel, a former university student who saw his family massacred by the french. He's the lone dissenter ("Germans shouldn't be fighting Germans!) in the village when everyone wants to take up arms against Bavaria . There's the innkeeper Christian Lergetpohrer and his niece Notburga, who ends up being Peter's housekeeper. And there is the local parish priest Father Archangelus, who urges the local populace to fight for the true faith against the foreign invaders. Early in the novel, Peter falls in love with the mysterious Julia, a woman held in awe by most of the village. To list all the interesting figures in this novel would take a score card, it's best for the reader to discover them on their own.
Peter Storck takes up residence in his Uncle Martin's house which is filled with curiosities in the study and guns in the basement. Martin Storck had been an officer in the Austrian Imperial Army before resigning after striking a french nobleman. Disgraced, he cursed the emperor and retired to the mountains. Peter soon learns that the local people believe the old officer perished when he tried to spy on the "fire-spirits", mysterious lights which appear in the mountains during the equinoxes. Legend had it the lights are the products of condemned souls who are released twice a year from hell to cool themselves in the glacier. If anyone encounters them, the interloper will be dashed on the rocks below. Peter is even shown the strange lights descending the mountains through the safe distance of a telescope.
Soon, Peter becomes involved with the hunter Serafin in a plan to discover the true nature of the lights. Are they smugglers sneaking down the mountains? Actual demonic creatures? Or something else? Survival of an ancient pagan cult is hinted at throughout the novel, but only resolved in the final chapters.
The theme of possession reoccurs through the book. The innkeeper Christian shoots a Bavarian drummer boy in an initial skirmish with royal troops and begins seeing the victim in his sleep. Peter steps off the carriage as he arrives in the village to see a priest trying to exorcise a nun. It's a theme which never is fully resolved.
The description of mountain warfare is grim. Peter and the rest of the villagers end up in an ambush on a Bavarian-French campaign which is described in gruesome detail. The sack of Innsbruck by the rebels also features prominently.
The Fire-Spirits is an forgotten masterpiece of literature. I can only hope someone will bring the English translation back into print.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Thunder Jim Wade: The Complete Series by Henery Kuttner

From May through September of 1941, Henery Kuttner published five "Thunder" Jim Wade novelettes in the Thrilling Wonder Stories. Kuttner would go on to science fiction literary success for his many short stories and novels until passing away in 1958. The Thunder Jim Wade stories were all attributed to "Charles Stoddard", a house pseudonym used by the Thrilling Wonder editors. Mostly forgotten today, the stories were considered Doc Savage imitations at the time. However, Altus Press printed the complete set two years ago, so now it's possible to read them and compare.
First of all, Thunder Jim has a unique origin: he was raised in a hidden valley by descendant of an ancient Crete civilization. His father, an famous explorer, crashed his plane in the valley while surveying the area. Thunder Jim survives with the street-wise pilot Miggs, but he's only able to leave the valley as an adult. From the Creteans he's learned he secret of making a metal alloy which makes him wealthy. From Miggs, he's learned all kinds of con artist games and slight of hand tricks. Later, he hooks up with Red Argyle and Dirk Mirat, who become his assistants in all kinds of adventures. From his base of operations in the south pacific, Thunder Jim Wade searches the globe for villains worthy of his talents.
What makes the series of interest is Thunder Jim's all-purpose vehicle: The Thunderbug. The Thunderbug can fly, travel across (and under) water, or rumble over land on it's retractable treads. Made of the special Cretean alloy, it's just about impervious to bullets or standard explosives. I can't help but wonder if Gerry Anderson read one of these stories and it all came back to him when he was planning Supercar and Thunderbirds.
There are five stories in this collection. The opening story has Thunder Jim journeying back to the lost valley where he was raised to stop a band of criminals from looting the place. "The Hills of Gold" takes place near Iraq, of all places. "The Poison People" leads him to South America where a band of cut-throats are attempting to loot Inca treasure from it's rightful owners. "The Devil's Glacier" is another lost valley novelette, this time with vikings. "Waters of Death"
concludes the series in a lost southeast Asian civilization.
It's too bad the series was canceled before it got rolling. There's plenty of local atmosphere in each tale. Some of them have the feel of sketches; perhaps Kuttner had to shorten them for space limitations. Still, it's good to have all the stories back in one volume.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

SAVAGE SEASON by Joe Lansdale, read by Phil Gigante

For a change today, I'm reviewing a spoken word book, Savage Season, availible from Brilliance Audio Books. This was a 5-CD set and unabridged. Although the novel was first published in 1990, this spoken word version was recorded in 2008. It's about five hours long.
I first read this book in paperback form around 1991. I remember handing it off to a few friends who also read it. Although I'd encountered a number of Lansdale's works before, this was the first actual novel of his I'd read. And it hit me with all the hammering of his short stories. Rough situations and even rougher people. A friend and spent days quoting the snappy dialogue back and forth to each other.
The story centers around Hap Collins and Leonard Pine. Both are in their 40's and have "The Sixties" in common. Both live in a rural area of East Texas. Both work for "The Rose Fields" as laborers. And that is what they have in common. Hap is white and divorced from a woman named Trudy. He was an "activist" in the 60's. Leonard has lived alone most of his life and is Vietnam war veteran. He's also gay. But both have bonded over the years and are the best of friends.
Then one day Hap's ex-wife Trudy makes an appearance. She's done this several times before and Leonard always warns Hap to stay away from her, which he never does. But this time Trudy has a proposal to make: some of her activist friends have learned about a load of money stolen from a bank robbery. The robbery went sour and everyone of the robbers are now dead. Trudy's latest husband learned of the bank job from the last surviving member of the gang before that man died too. All Trudy needs is Hap's knowledge of the backwoods were the money was hidden. Naturally, Hap demands Leonard get cut into the deal as well.
Of course, nothing goes according to plan.
Phil Gigante does and exceptional job reading the book. His interpretative style fits the characters nicely. I'd always imagined Hap and Leonard sounding like his voices. Not so much for some of the other characters. Toward the end of the book two drug dealers make an appearance: "Soldier" and "Angel". Soldier is a psychotic killer and Angel his barbell-lifting female accomplice. One of Angel's trademarks is she seldom talks and uses one word when she does. Her character doesn't lend itself too well to interperative reading.
I recommend this audio book, but I also recommend you read the source novel first.

RETURN FROM CORMORAL (1949) by Lester Dent

This next-to-last Doc Savage novel by Lester Dent (under the house name Kenneth Robeson) has Doc and his side-kicks trying to help a scientist who's been stranded on a deserted island for the better part of six months. Macbeth Williams, the scientist, has just returned from his South Pacific sojurn with a research team. A cargo ship just happened to discover them. They'd been stranded on the Cormoral island when the foundation which bankrolled the expedition when bust.
And Williams is starting to worry about his sanity. Since returning to civilization he's developed an ability to predict the future. Since he's also the heir to a vast fortune, someone may be trying to get him committed to an insane asylum. Enter Doc and company.
The novel has a harder edge than most of the earlier Doc Savage series books. Since the pulp hero format was on the wane, Dent was was getting more hard-boiled in his approach.
For instance, this scene involving a telegraph operator :

THE telegraph office was a narrow recess in a building on Flagler Street not far from Biscayne Boulevard, and remained open all night, presided over by a round-faced man named Gridley. Gridley was a contradiction to the idea that all fat people are jolly; he had an evil temper, a sharp tongue and bad manners, qualifications which had resulted in his being shunted to this undesirable all-night job. His assets were several years seniority, a willingness to put up with low pay, although there was a qualification to this, and a brother-in-law who was district commercial agent for the company.

I'm in the process of reading the Doc Savage novels in reverse order. At some point I'll find out where they went from Super Science to Mean Streets.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Hunt Beyond the Frozen Fire by (as told to) Christa Faust

The Gabriel Hunt series continues to reward with this latest outing by mystery writer Christa Faust. In keeping with the theme, the book is listed as having been "told to" Faust. A nice Glen Orbick painting graces the cover too. It's good to see Ms. Faust generating more novels; I was quite impressed with Money Shot, her novel for Hard Case Crime (and I'm anxiously awaiting the sequel to it!).
In Beyond the Frozen Fire, Gabriel Hunt, rich adventurer and all-around hero, travels to the depths of the south polar region at the bequest of the beautiful Velda Silver, who is searching for her missing scientist father. The last known transmission from this esteemed antarctic researcher was received near an isolated polar station. Dr. Silver claimed that he could "see trees". Of course, Gabriel decides against the wishes of his brother Michael ( who stays behind doing the bookwork for the Hunt foundation) and heads south by way of New Zealand.
I should also mention the book opens with Gabriel saving the treasure-hunting Professor Fiona Rush from weapons dealers and cossacks on the Romanian boarder. How this figured into the rest of the novel puzzled me, but it did create a lively introduction.
In New Zealand, Gabriel quickly is joined by several companions. There is Rue Aparecido a fiery Brazilian woman, who also happens to be a crackerjack mechanic. Next is Maximillian ("Millie") Ventrose, Jr., a three-hundred pound, 6-f00t-seven, mountain of a man. Naturally, Velda Silver is also going along for the trip.
The action rapidly moves to the Antarctic research center where they assemble everything needed for finding the missing scientist. There's a huge Scandinavian man named Nils and a pilot called Speedo. At this point the action really starts moving along turning Frozen Fire into a superb page-turner. To describe more of the plot would be giving it away. But I will say that it involves blond Amazons, a lost world, and savage birds. And there are plenty of R-rated sex scenes.
Check out this book. You won't be disappointed.