Saturday, December 24, 2011

Conan: The Road Of Kings by Karl Edward Wagner (1979)

I've covered the works of fantasy writer Karl Edward Wagner (1945-94) many times. A brilliant writer who died much too soon, Wagner is responsible for creating the dark hero Kane, a red-haired giant who resembled his creator. Kane was based on the biblical persona with the same name, but in this case rebelled against a mad god who had created humanity as his toys. Cursed with immortality, Kane wondered the distant and recent past, trying to build a power base for his own machinations.
KEW's take on Conan is significantly different than Howard's. In Road of Kings, Conan finds himself mixed up in a "game of thrones" situation. I can't help but wonder if the outline for Road began as a Kane novel. It would make sense, as Kane was always playing power politics of one form or another. Political intrigue is the theme of this novel with different groups trying to out maneuver each other.
The book begins with Conan finding himself on a gallows. He's just killed a captain in the Royal Zingaran Army, where he was employed as a mercenary. It was a fair fight, but the commanding general has decided the barbarians whom he employs must be taught a lesson. Conan is rescued at the last minute by a band of rebels. They're not trying to free him, but one of his fellow exuctionees, who happens to be a ringleader in the resistance against the king.
Freed, Conan soon throws his lot in with the rebels and their many factions. Here is where the story begins moving: KEW doesn't care so much about the political issues behind the rebels, he portrays them as being just as power hungry as the forces they are trying to over-through. Once a sorcerer makes an appearance telling the rebels how he can assure their revolution, the novel becomes very interesting indeed. Conan finds himself in the middle of street fighting, counter-revolution and evil magick.
This isn't one of Wagner's major works. I would tell anyone interested in his writings to start with Dark Crusade. But it is a fascinating take on the whole Conan character.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

How The West Was Weird: Campfire Tales, edited by Russ Anderson, Jr.

The old west is a perfect setting for horror tales. Isolated farmhouses, a mysterious stranger dragging a coffin, a hero who cannot be killed, (and that's just from Django) all the elements are there. I can't think of too many literary versions outside of Joe Lansdale; most of what comes to mind is from the cinema (Into the Badlands, etc.). Fortunately, we have Russ Anderson to correct the situation.
How The West Was Weird: Campfire Tales, hit the Internet stands a few months ago and features some of the best writing in this new cross-over trend. There are definite traces of steampunk, oops, Victorian science fiction and traditional oater tales. We've even got one journey to the center of the earth. And of course there are zombies. You have to have zombies these days.
The collection leads with my favorite, "Mr. Brass and the Crimson Skies of Kansas", by Josh Reynolds. Normally, I don't like mash-ups with historical characters and literary ones. I don't usually like retreads of established literary characters. It seldom works, the recent BBC adaptation of Sherlock Holmes being the exception to the rule. But "Crimson Skies" makes it all happen. Teddy Roosevelt is flying in a cavorite-powered airship across the open prairie.It's been years since the martians tried to conquer earth, but he's still protected by two Pinkerton operatives, one of whom is a cybernetic clockwork man. There's even air pirates led by Buckaroo Banzai's Hanoi Xan. Even Mark Twain makes an appearance. And  yet it all works to make an excellent pulp adventure.
"Hell's Own" by editor Russ Anderson mixes Max Brand with George Romero. One night a meteorite falls outside a small town in the old west unleashing a horde of flesh-eating zombies. It's up to the town's sheriff to do his best to defend the civilians against the raging fiends, but he is hardly up to the task. To tell more would ruin the story. 
"The Tale of the Baron's Tribute" by Better in the Dark Podcaster Derrick Ferguson is mythic story, almost into Sergio Leone territory, with a touch of Jodorowsky. Lone gunman Sebastian Red travels to the disputed lands between Mexitli and the United Republic of America to spend time in an isolated Iahn village. The villagers are having a celebration: they are going to pay-off their padron, Baron Orwell and own the land free and clear. But Sebastian Red has enemies who will go to great lengths to get at him, even if it involves the death of innocents. This is a good story which would've made a better novel.
The final selection, "Gunmen of the Hollow Earth", by Joel Jenkins, takes the readier into Edgar Rice Burroughs land. A group of old west heroes are on the run from banditos and venture into the prehistoric world of the Inner Earth. There's Amazon warriors (always a plus for me) and cowboys battling it out with dinosaurs. It ends a little abruptly, almost with a "to be continued" feel, making me wonder if "Gunmen" isn't a treatment for a larger work.
Western, horror, fantasy,and sf fans should check out this anthology. It may pave the way for a new genre. CowFantasy? SplatterWest? OaterPunk? You decided.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Game: Original Stories Inspired by Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game"" (Seven Realms Publishing), Edited by Sean Ellis.

"The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell is one of those short stories everyone has either heard about or read. First published in 1924, the story is about Sanger Rainsford, a big game hunter who finds himself marooned on an island off the coast of South America. He finds a large palatial estate on the island inhabited by a former Tsarist general, Zaroff, and his deaf-mute servant Ivan. Rainsford discovers Zaroff has been hunting ship-wrecked sailors as game on his estate every since he became bored of animal hunting. Zaroff turns the hunter into the hunted in his next game, but Rainsford is able to elude the general with his superior skills. It's implied Rainsford triumphs in the end.
The story has been collected and adapted many times. I first encountered it in Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbinders In Suspense. It was first adapted for the screen in 1932, staring Faye Wray (in a character which didn't appear in the story). It was also the basis for the 1982 Australian movie, Turkey Shoot, about a bunch of  prisoners in a futuristic prison being hunted by the warden and friends. More recently, someone produced a video called Bambi Hunt where people paid money to shoot paint balls at naked Vegas showgirls. This last one sparked a huge outrage until it was revealed the "hunt" was staged just to sell a DVD.
This year, editor Sean Ellis asked 10 authors to contribute their take on the story for a new collection. He also contributed his own story. The result is The Game.
Most of the stories are quite good. He picked established writers, so the stories flow quickly and are professional. If I have one complaint with the collection it is the inclusion of "paranormal fantasy" as the theme of many stories. 7 of the 10 either use paranormal reality as the plot device or let it slip in at some point. Another one is set in outer space, but that does add some flavor. "The Most Dangerous Game" concept works best when it's one human against another, using only their wits and abilities.
"The Most Dangerous Reality" by Rick Chesler uses a "reality" TV show as the theme. A man who has racked up thousands of dollars in student loans getting both a legal and medical degree signs up for a TMDG theme TV show on an isolated island. He's supposed to be paid big money if he survives, but what he doesn't know is that the event is all a fake. The TV producers have decided to give the "hunter" a blank gun and broadcast the entire event to see how far people in financial straights will go. However, the prey doesn't know it's all fake and is playing for keeps. Tragedy results.
"Freakshow" by J. Kent Holloway fits into his Enigma series. Dr. Obidiah Jackson, a cyrpto-zooligist, finds himself trapped in a derelict amusement park. It's run a hidden figure only known as "Freakshow". Freakshow is giving Dr. Jackson a 30 minute start in the park before he releases his pet monsters. Should Dr. Jackson survive the ordeal (no one has yet), he will be released. And one other little bit of seasoning: there's a mother of three tied up somewhere in the park, not too far away, who will get eaten if Jackson doesn't release her. Jackson manages to bring all his knowledge of mysterious monsters to play against the game master.
"Code Duello" has Nicholas Boving's spymaster Maxim Gunn in a cat-and-mouse game in the Scottish Highlands. Years earlier, Gunn had thought he's killed mercenary Devlin in a jungle fortress. But his adversary has survived and is hunting Gunn in an estate near the Scottish coast. A raging thunderstorm adds to the tension of the story.
"The Andromeda Solution" by novelist Rick Nichols takes place in outer space. The sole survivor of an alien attack on a remote outpost finds himself pursued by attack ships in an asteroid belt. Although he lacks weapons, the pilot is able to put the tools on his little pod to good use. What he finds when he enters one of the alien ships was a shocker.
"Running Wild from the Hunt" by Alan Baxter is one of the many paranormal themed stories in the collection. Young Tom Jamieson has nightmares about being pursued by a wild hunt in his dreams. The hunt is more than a bad dream because the dark faerie folk have decided to take Tom out as he represents a potential threat to them. Fortunately, Tom has Isiah, an older man and supernatural guardian to defend him.
"Dark Entry" by David Wood comes close to being the best story in the book. Treasure hunters Dave Maddock and "Bones" Bonebreak travel to a park in Virginia looking for a missing American Indian heirloom. But the park is also the home of a bunch of rednecks who like to prey on humans for sport. Since both Maddock and Bones are former navy SEALs, they readily beat the hunters at their own game.
"A Most Dangerous Ruse" by R. J. Fanucchi is the strangest tale in this collection. It's told from the viewpoint of General Zaroff, who finds himself entertaining several guests who have heard about The Game and want to play. They've also brought along their own victim, who's face is covered by a mask. The general reluctantly agrees, on his terms. But he can't seem to remember what happened after he was defeated by Rainsford.
"The Shiva Objective" by David Sakmyster is the best story in The Game. Nina Osseni, a woman gifted with the psychic ability to "remote view" is sent by her employer at The Morpheus Initiative to check out a potential client in Agra, India. But she's shanghaied by a rich Indian to take part a TMDG. Professional and amateur killers from around the world have paid big bucks to take out the quarry. Dumped in the middle of an alley, she has to reach a statue of Shiva in an underground labyrinth beneath the Taj Mahal to win. But she may never reach the building at all since there are snipers and assassins everywhere trying to kill her. Sakmyster plays fair and never lets his protagonist use ESP as a deus ex machina. Osseni is a trained killer and quite the match for her opponents. I'll be looking for more works of fiction with Osseni in the future.
R. P. Steeves' "Misty Johnson and the Monsters of the Caribbean" features immortal investigator Misty Johnson recounting her tale of surviving a TMDG on an island. Whisked away by a magical creature known only as "The Author", Misty finds herself fighting for survival with a group of supernatural characters. They're up against, zombies, werewolves, and other things that go bump in the night. The story moves at a rapid pace and never fails to entertain.
"The Toughest Mile" by William Meikle takes us to Robert E Howard country. A pit fighter known only as Garn is promised his freedom if he can survive a 10-mile passage. But he has to escape the Witch-Queen's bodyguards, ten savage women who will be released after giving him a head start. This is a gruesome story which plays on the physical prowess needed to survive such an ordeal.
The final tale, "The Unbreakable Law" by editor Sean Ellis, serves as a sequel of sorts to the original TMDG.   Rainsford did manage to defeat Zaroff and now rules on the island in the general's place. Several of his big game hunting friends have traveled to the island for a visit. They've learned The Game continues and are eager to get in on the action. Rainsford agrees, but there is a price to be paid.
The Game is one of the better theme anthologies to be published in electronic format this year. All the writers are seasoned veterans and bring their skills in to play. I could've used less paranormal themes, but such is my own preference.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Martians, Go Home (1955) by Frederic Brown

This has to be one of the most hilarious science fiction novels ever written. Frederic Brown (1906-72), who had spoofed space opera with What Mad Universe in 1949, returned a few years later to write the perfect alien invasion novel, Martians, Go Home. Brown was in rare form with this book. It was the triumph to his prolific writing streak in the 1950's.
Luke Deveraux is a failed writer specializing in science fiction who's decided to shack it up with a friend in the desert so he can work on another book. He's also failed in his marriage and is smarting from the divorce wounds. One morning, after suffering from the latest drunken binge, he awakes to find a little green man at the front door. Thinking this is the result of too much alcohol he makes his way to a nearby diner only to discover there are little green men everywhere. Earth has been invaded.
But this isn't the usual 'People Of Earth" invasion. The martians, and there are millions of them, have come to earth not to conquer, but to amuse themselves. They can teleport anywhere they want and see through objects. But anyone who tries to kick a martian finds their foot going through empty space. The martians have no material substance.
Mass chaos breaks out as humanity has to concern itself with little green men who appear everywhere, making fun of people. The entertainment industry goes into a slump since it's impossible to produce anything when the martians teleport in and start making comments. A psychologist trying to conduct a seminar dealing with the aliens finds himself reduced to a gibbering mass. When a martian appears in his office, it begins revealing secrets about his personal life.
Even primitive tribes suffer. They can't easily hunt wild game when little green men show-up and start scaring off the quarry. And everyone hears the martians make insults in their native tongue.
Sexual activity nearly draws to a standstill. No one wants to make love when a little green man is likely to appear in their bedroom and start laughing.
Although the over-riding issue of Martians Go Home seems to be about privacy and secrets, the novel also discusses solipsism towards the end of the book. Luke Deveraux suffers a shock and becomes one of the few people on the planet who can't see the martians. From here, he begins to wonder if the martians were created by his own imagination. It's an issue which the book never really resolves, down to the authors own postscript where he points out: "I invented Luke. So where does that leave him or the martians? Or any of the rest of you?"
I'd like to answer, but there's this little green man who keeps telling me to type faster.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947) by William Lindsay Gresham

 This is the story of Stanton Carlisle, a carnival
sideshow mentalist, who decides to strike out for the big time by
going into the spiritualism racket. With his knowledge of human
nature from years of working sideshows, he is able to fleece enough
people to start his own church. But it all comes crashing down
around him when he tries to scam a wealthy industrialist. The book
ends with the protagonist's descent into alcoholism.
 First published in 1946, this is a grim book. Its moral could best be summed up
as: "There's always somebody who can hit harder than you can."
 The novel contains one of the most fiendish examples of the "femme fatale"
I have ever encountered in literature. Carlisle meets his match in the person of Dr. Lilith
Ritter, a psychiatrist who has risen to the top of her game by
holding the secrets of many rich and powerful people in the
Manhattan. When he first goes to her office for an appointment, she
puts him in a marital arts hold and proceeds to tell him that she
knows what his game is and how it's run. A few chapters later
Carlisle has already turned into her sex slave and is being used to
set-up the wealthy industrial magnate.
 What makes the character of Dr. Ritter so memorable is the way the author
describes her background in a few short paragraphs. The daughter of a saloon
keeper, Dr. Ritter turned the abuse she suffered while growing up
into an asset against the kind of people who took advantage of her.
Carlisle, on the other hand, never recoverd from his mother leaving
him as a child and that tragedy sets him up for his eventual fall.
 NIGHTMARE ALLEY is a depressing read, but a good book to get a look
at the kind of con games that were run against unsuspecting people
during the Depression.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Domino Lady: Sex As A Weapon (Moonstone Books), Edited by Lori Gentile

The Domino Lady was the subject of 6 adventures in 1936. All but the last one was published in Saucy Romantic Adventures. No one knows who wrote these stories, the magazines credit one "Lars Anderson", but speculation remains the real author was any number of house writers. What makes Lady Domino different than the other hero pulps of the time is her Modus operandi: a plain domino (upper face) mask, sheer dress with plunging neckline, cape and heels. No super scientific gadgets, no power to "cloud men's minds", no blazing automatics. One look at this Madonna in a tight dress is enough to render most crooks speechless. Which gives her enough time to make them helpless with a special hypodermic syringe and knock-out drug. For added attraction, she carried a small caliber pistol strapped to a garter belt.
In her straight life, The Domino Lady was Ellen Patrick, affluent socialite and Berkley graduate. He father, Owen Patrick, had been a crusading district attorney until an assassin's bullet had ended his career. Her alter ego was created to avenge his death.
One of her motifs is leaving behind a card which states: "Compliments of the Domino Lady".
Two years ago, Moonstone Books was able to bring out a volume of new Lady Domino stories by 9 different authors. Recently, the kindle edition has hit the Internet (see below). Editor Lori Gentile and illustrator Ver Curtiss have managed to showcase several distinct takes on the character.
In one sense, you have to admire the ability of any writer to create a Domino Lady story. The character was designed for a depression-era erotica magazine (sold under the counter) and styles have changed greatly. The image of the Domino Lady may have sent Bob the Mechanic's pulse racing in 1936, but today you can download far more for free from the Internet (not that I would know a thing about it. No sir, not me). All the authors have kept the action in the same time frame the original stories took place.
The collection kicks off with "Domino Lady and the Crimson Dragon" by K G McAbee. In this story, The Domino Lady becomes mixed up with gangsters who import Chinese women to be sold into sex slavery. The character of Ling Chin, a Chinese woman who battles against her captors, in particularly moving. Bonus points for the character trying to solicit help while singing "Jesus Loves Me".
"Blondes In Chains" by C J Henderson has the best title. The Domino Lady travels to New York City and helps The Black Bat stop a gang kidnapping rich young women. The final scene in the villain's lair was excellent and would make a great grindhouse movie.
Chuck Dixon's "Stealing Joe Crick" is one of the best stories in the anthology. He mixes the largely forgotten aerial ace pulp genre with The Domino Lady by introducing Airboy Davy Nelson. Airboy, who flies a plane with flapping wings, helps the Domino Lady rescues an imprisoned eccentric inventor.
"Target: Domino Lady" by Bobby Nash has The Domino Lady framed for murder. Her enemies have decided to turn the forces of law and order against her by killing a small-time crook and leaving her calling card next to him. Naturally, The Domino Lady triumphs.
Airship 27's Ron Fortier contributes "The Claws of the Cat". Here, cats are being stolen from rich families by a gang of crooks and held for ransom. It's up to The Domino Lady to stop the gang and find out who is behind the scheme. Fortier also mixes in the depression era local politics of the Los Angeles, which reminded me of the Jack Nicholson movie Chinatown.
"The Strange Case of  Domino Lady and Mr. Holmes" by Nancy Holder attempts to meld Victorian adventure with the pulp hero. Holmes doesn't put in much of an appearance, which is good because his presence would over-power anything from this era. Holder also drops Mr. Hyde into the story very effectively.
The best story in the collection is The "Devil, You Know" by James Chambers. Not only does Chambers give us a Chinese-American diamond fence named Lee who dresses and talks like a cowboy, but he has The Domino Lady captured by a band of Satanists. Taken to a yacht off the coast, the Domino Lady is recruited by their sinister leader and forced to watch obscene rituals. It has all the sleaze factor you might expect from the shudder pulps, including a naked Amazon whipping men to death. Off course, The Domino Lady is a little too smart for her captors.
Martin Powell's "Masks of Madness" teams The Domino Lady with The Phantom (AKA The Ghost Who Walks). In this story, she's shipwrecked on the coast of Africa and rescued by an African chieftain who takes her to the Phantom's liar. Soon, The Domino Lady swings into action to save a village from the very pirates who marooned her. This story also concludes with her trip back to the US and discovery of the man who ordered her father's execution.
This is a good collection of stories based around a classic, if lesser-known, pulp hero. I might've wished some of the stories to have brought The Domino Lady to the present, but she works best in her depression era scenery. It's truly amazing what contemporary writers can do with a creation from the last century.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Echo of Guilt (AKA Pulled Down) by Phyllis Paul (1964)

There's not much written these days about Phyllis Paul (1903-73). She published 12 novels over a 30+ year period. Most of them can be classified as "thrillers", although there are enough supernatural overtones to put them in the supernatural category. My interest in her began when I read a comparison of her writings to R R Ryan. Mark Valentine of Wormwoodiana has a very high opinion of her work, which piqued my curiosity.
Echo of Guilt has a very dense, literate style. This is not an easy novel to read, which makes me wonder why it was marketed in the US as a Gothic romance (note the Lancer Guild cover which has the generic woman standing in front of a dark mansion). It's more of a tragedy enacted over a 50-year period, with two prominently British families whose fate is intertwined. There's also a lot in this book about the Roman Catholic Church in 20th century England (although no Holy Grail conspiracies).
The novel begins by introducing Ms. Alice Hawke. Ms. Hawke has a bit of a problem. Her son has joined the Catholic Church and wants to become a priest. However, he's wild-spirited and the church has doubts about him. She visits a prominent English Catholic layman, Dr. Rodney, and tries to get him to intercede for her son.
This is where the book starts to become interesting. Dr. Rodney, and his family, is the major focus of the novel. As the book describes him:

He had not been accepted for the religious life; but in his youth his soul had been bound to the ethos of the monk;he had been taught by monks and prejudices of monks had made their iron impress.

Eventually, Dr. Rodney's wife passes away and he is forced to care for his children alone. At the halfway point, Ms Hawke is murdered. The culprit is never found, but her renegade priestly son, Lewis, is sent to stay with Dr. Rodney's family by the church (figuring the exposure to the esteemed layman will do him some good).
Now the book turns up the thriller volume. Lewis tells Dr. Rodney one day that a strange man was seen leaving the house after the death of his mother. He also tells the good doctor that the stranger looked a lot like Dr. Rodney. And where was he on the day of the death?
From Dr. Rodney's actions, you're never quite sure if he was the killer or not. He tries to retrace his movements for the day, talking to everyone he knows,trying  to get a witness to his whereabouts on the day of the murder. He even tries to get a prominent protestant scholar to vouch for him. But he never can quite be sure.
And then Dr. Rodney disappears off the face of the earth.
After some chapters discussing the effects of his vanishing on his family, the novel advances thirty years. The children of the both families have grown and moved on with their lives. Most of Ms. Hawkes' children are active in the Catholic church. The book closes with a long meeting between several of her children where Lewis, now a prominent Catholic priest, expounds on his theory as to what happened to Dr. Rodney.
But we never really do find out. Even as the book closes. Dammit.
The overall feel of Echo of Guilt is moody. It has been said that Phyllis Paul's books are filled with doomed characters. The reader is filled with a sense of dread from page one. Which doesn't make it an easy read. Still, Paul is a very literate writer and I'm disappointed she's not better known today.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

An Interview Not To Miss!

Excellent interview with Mark Valentine, of the Wormwordiana blog, who has one of the best libraries I have ever seen. And he made it all the way through William Hope Hodgeson's The Nightland. I love that he collects reading editions. He also has some kind words for Phyllis Paul, another author whose book I am struggling to read.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pulp Ink, edited by Nigel Bird and Chris Rhatigan (Needle Publishing)

It may be that the anthology format will be the best one for e-publishing. At least with the newer generation of pulp writers, this seems to be the best introduction to their works. I found this collection to be a quick and deadly read, perfect for my Sony e-Reader. Editors Bird and Rhatigan are to be commended for putting together a selection which is of superior quality.
 The editors of Pulp Ink had a great idea: take little snippets of dialogue from Pulp Fiction the movie, send them to a host of writers working the same groove and ask them to write short stories based on the ideas. The result is this tome, a book with an edge every thousand words. I'm no Tarantino scholar (are there any?), but I do feel the vibe of his 90's classic funneled through these stories.
 I will warn any potential reader that most of these tales are from the dark side. There's not to many people in them to be admired. So if you are looking for stirring stories of inspiration, look elsewhere. If you are looking for demons of the inner mind, you'll find plenty in this collection. Typical is "Zed's Dead, Baby" written by Eric Beetner. It's from the point-of-view of a loan shark enforcer who reminisces over the sound of broken bones when he'd found a reluctant payee.
Reed Coleman's "Requiem for Spider" leads the pack. It's the story of a Jewish gangster named Moe who's hired by his boyhood Italian friend Spider to help broker a deal with Russian Jewish mobsters. Spider wants his old friend to supply back-up because he's of the same persuasion. But as Moe tries to explain to his buddy:

 “Oy, Spider,” I said. “These guys aren't Jews the way you know Jews. They pretty much grew up godless, without religion like you know it. I may be as lapsed a Jew as there is, but I’m the chief rabbi of Jerusalem compared to them." 

Of course the meeting doesn't quite turn out as everyone planned.
"Jack Rabbit Slim's Cellar" by Jodi MacArthur is one of the few stories that ties in directly with the movie. It seems that while Uma Thurman and John Travolta were dancing up stairs at the 50's theme restaurant, somebody was being interrogated in the basement. I did learn a lot about the history of bubble gum from this story.
"Padre" by A J Hayes is one tale which will stick with you for a long time. A renegade priest is meets with a Russian gangster who holds a precious cargo. I highly recommend this one, but to tell more would ruin the conclusion. Easily the one story which would make a great Drive-In movie.
 "Creation of Ice" by Sandra Seamans heads out to the rural part of America. A viscous woman finds herself tied to a chair after killing an old man. It's told from her POV as she tries to figure a way out of her mess. Good ending, which did surprise me.
 Alan Guthrie's "Your Mother Should Know" is another story which remains in the rural part of the USA. It's also told from the POV of the main character, a ripe young woman with a very religious mother. Her father had died years ago from a lighting blast, which momma had attributed to the wrath of God. Lighting does strike twice in this one, with deadly results.
 "You Never Can Tell" by Matthew Funk continues into the hinterlands. A young man named Junior with a wife and kid are hunting down the men he believed murdered his sadistic father. But the real killer may be closer than he could imagine.
 "A Whole Lotta Rosie" by Nigel Bird, had me confused. A rough and tumble women in New Zealand shears sheep and arm-wrestles on the side. I'm not sure about what else happens. It's still a great story.
 "The Lady And The Gimp: A Peter Ord Investigation", by Paul Brazill, is amusing in a twisted sort of way. A private detective is hired to find a missing woman who may be living in a caravan (mobile home for us yanks; the story takes place in the UK). A burial neatly captures the mood of the story:

 “There comes a time in every young man’s life,” he said, his long arms stretched wide, “when he knows that he will never be The Fonz. Shortly after that realization it becomes clear that he won’t even be Richie Cunningham. And, so, then, he has to make a choice. Will he be Ralph Malph or Potsie Weber?"

 "A Night at the Royale" by Chris Holm is a very tight little tale that takes place in Amsterdam. Three American hipster tourists make the mistake of getting noisy at a retrospective showing of Foxy Brown, Death Race 2000, and Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. But the idle man sitting in front is there to enjoy the movies and is in no mood to deal with loud chumps. One for those of us who've had to endure audience participation one time too many.
"Clouds in a Bunker" by David Cranmer is the saddest story here. An old man with an advanced case of senility has locked himself in a backyard fallout shelter with his wheelchair-bound wife. The police and his daughter are trying to talk him out, but he's lost the ability to identify objects directly. What he's planned is far worse than anyone imagines.
 "The Wife of Gregory Bell" by Patricia Abbot would fit into a book of supernatural stories. You're never quite sure if the effects of the lead character's thefts are real or a product of his own imagination. Another side of the gentleman thief so beloved in European fiction.
"If Love is a Red Dress – Hang Me in Rags" by Michael Solender is a prison confession. It's one of the shorter works in here, but still effective.
 "A Corpse by Any Other Name" by Naomi Johnson is another hilarious tale. Two boobs are hired by a Mr. Big in the hinterland to take out one Frank Murray. But they get the wrong Frank Murray and now Mr. Big has a problem on his hands. They decide to dispose of the unwanted body in a cemetery, but things go from bad to worse.
 In "Surf Rider", by Ian Ayris, a couple of Brits decide to steal a valuable surf board from a homeless surfer. The surfer hasn't been right in the head for years (too many drugs), but the board is the one thing he holds dear. And he'll defend it to the death.
"The Slicers’ Serenade of Steel" by Gary Phillips is another supernatural themed story. A small time thug is trying to run from a hit man with the power of death. Just when you think it's over the story turns into a martial arts duel straight out of a 70's Shaw Brothers movie. This one would make a good anime subject. "The October 17 Economic Development Committee Meeting" by Chris Rhatigan has a vengeful reporter taking out a bunch of corporate types with a gun. But what saves it from being another revenge number is the final confrontation with the one older reporter the assailant did admire. I see in the bio that "Chris Rhatigan made it out of the newspaper industry alive". Not too surprised.
"Threshold Woman" by Richard Godwin, sings with sensuality. A gangster is in love with the sister of his boss. His boss is a dangerous man. Much tension results.
"Redlining" by Jim Harrington is dark humor with from the Joe Lansdale school. A hold-up man is talked into taking along a relative by his sister. But his new sidekick is an incompetent oaf who may get them both arrested. And the hold-up man needs the money for medical treatment. Time is running out for both of them. "Jungle Boogie by Kate Horsley is another tale of deception and theft, but with erotic overtones. A man is duped into stealing a statue of the Jaguar god from a museum. However, the gods of the jungle are not known to deal with sacrilege lightly.
How someone could tell a sweet story like "The Little Piggy", when it involves a foot fetish, is beyond me. But Hilary Davidson manages to do it and for that I am impressed. Did I mention it also involves gangsters? More fetish material emerges from "Comanche", by Jason Duke. It's a viscous tale of a mobster who likes to abuse his wife. His wife has another plan, involving the mobster's fortune, and a boyfriend her husband doesn't know about.
More gangsters become involved in "Misirlou" by Jimmy Callaway. A Greek restaurateur known as "Cheeseburger" is murdered by persons unknown. The numbers runner he worked for brings in "Funk" to find the culprit and sends him off with two of his men. In an amusing scene, Funk tells the other gunsels they are playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons and "another adventure in an open-ended campaign".
"The Only One Who Could Ever Reach Me" by Matt Lavin is particularly viscous. A keeper in a secret prison takes a liking to a prisoner just before the torturer comes to do his business. Another one for "The Road to Hell Paved" category.
 All stories of exceptional quality which will keep you turning to the next page. If nothing else, Pulp Ink demonstrates the high caliber of writers working in the new "pulp" field.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Chloe Files #1: Ashes to Ashes by Howard Hopkins

The character of Chloe Everson grew out of another one of Howard Hopkins' novels, Grim, where Arlo Grim battles a coven of witches trying to resurrect a demon in New Salem, Maine. Hopkins liked the character so much he decided to give Chloe here own series of books, of which Ashes to Ashes is the first. There is one other Chloe Files book and a third one is rumored to be on the way.
Chloe is a 5'6" 30ish former stripper who hunts down demonic creatures in New Salem. She and her fiance Arly, a detective in the New Salem police force, are considered "special" in that they can see creatures which normal humans cannot. Chloe lost her parents at a tender young age and was soon separated from her identical twin sister when they went to foster homes. Chloe would go on to an exotic dancer career hitting the circuit until she ended up in New Salem.
Chloe doesn't come across as the brightest light bulb in the pack, but she has a good heart. Which, ironically, makes her more realistic than all the other barroom dancers you encounter in action literature. And she has a good way of sizing up her opponents. She refers to one of her opponents in the book as "Ms. Pixie Sticks" and the name hangs on.
The only real problem with the book is Chloe's constant references to events which happened in the novel Grim. She's perpetually bringing up the coven of witches she and Arly defeated. This might make the reader interested in buying another book, but I found it irritating.
Ashes to Ashes opens with Chloe trying to find out what happened to her fiance Arly. Next, she'd visited on a dark and stormy night by a monkey which delivers her a locket. It had been given to Chloe years ago by her dead parents. But the creep factor really pumps when she has a vision of diseased children singing the "Ring around the Roses" nursery rhyme. She also begins seeing her vanished sister Patricia on TV. Is someone trying to warn Chloe about another demon working its way into the real world?
There's plenty of weird supernatural creatures to go around. A priest who seems to know more than he should. A librarian who may be working for the demons. And she begins to have visions of Arly chained to a wall begging for help.
The final battle scene was the pay-off for the book. After nearly 100 pages of back story, the plot began moving to a page-turner conclusion. It's clear that Hopkins is a shudder pulp fan. The final scenes wouldn't be out of place in a Doctor Death novel. I just wish the book had ramped it up earlier.
Chloe files #1 is a good beginning for a series. It will be interesting to see where Hopkins takes it.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Where Do You Do Your Best Reading?

Chester County, PA has done one thing right: it has extended the Schuylkill River Trail past my little borough. I now have a place to go read in peace. Every chance I get, I head in the direction of the trail and walk it with my attention firmly placed on my electronic book reader ( a Sony). It's a win-win situation for me: I get to hike a few miles, get some solitude and read. The trail, built over an abandoned rail bed, is level, so I can walk and read at the same time without having to worry about cars.
It's not the public library, but I don't have all the distractions of books I haven't read.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pagan Passions by Randall Garrett and Larry Harris

Randall Garrett was a post-WWII science fiction writer who created a number of fictional words for which he is little remembered. He was also one of the earliest members of the Society for Creative Anachronisms, a recreation medievalist organization. He passed away in the late 1980's and will, sadly, be remembered less as the years go by. Fortunately some of his books are finding their way back into print.
Pagan Passions is a light and amusing fantasy novel about what would happen if the ancient Greek and Roman gods returned to earth. The novel begins by informing us how the gods of Mt. Olympus have returned after several thousand years of absence. Major wars are now abolished (Mars having some understanding of the occasional need for minor ones). Most of the action takes place in a future New York City where everyone is a devotee of one of the major gods.
The book opens with a teacher of world history, William Forrester, lecturing to his students about the return. Forrester is an acolyte of Athena, but he'd hoped one day to make priest. The action switches to a female student (of the faction tied in with Venus, naturally) making suggestive remarks to him for a better grade.
As he contemplates his situation, Forrester is called into the tower of the all-father Zeus. The gods need a replacement for Dionysus, who is currently indisposed, and they've decided to elevate Forrester to demi-god status.
The rest of the book describes Forester's attempts to officiate at an revel held in New York City in honor of Dionysus. These revels take place every 7 years and all his followers party down hard. Forrester even finds himself forced to deal with having 7 gorgeous women presented to him while he secretly pines for a lost love.
The book ends amusingly. I've not read any other of Garrett's books, but it seems this is a minor work.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled, edited by David Cranmer and Scott D Parker

"Hardboiled" fiction has been popular since the post WW2 era. Every since returning GI's started coming home after the Good War, there has been a certain cynicism in detective fiction. Hardboiled differs from the pulp era in that problems could no longer be solved by costumed crusaders and super scientists. No longer were people content to read about masked villains who created zombies, they wanted to read about the real killers. And this style of writing has stayed around.
Ron Scheer creates a bit of a time warp by putting the start of hardboiled fiction at the election of 1912 where Woody Wilson won with a plurality of the electorate. This allows him to connect the latest pulp revival to the election of 2000 where another candidate lost on a technicality. All good and fine, but I don't seem to recall Kaiser Wilhelm exploding a zeppelin over Manhattan in 1914. Which is a nice way to say that he goes a long way to a make a minor point.
Be as that may, the stories in Beat to a Pulp: Hardboiled are all bleak and excellent, with only a few having a ray of hope at the end. "Second Round Dive" by Benoit Lelievre has to be the best of this lot. It's about a prize fighter who's tapped to take one more dive for a Big Man. His observations of boxing strike home to anyone who's ever trained in hand-to-hand combat:

No one gives a shit if you're a good Christian, if you're a family man or a faithful husband. It's irrelevant. If you're injured, if your brother died or if your dog is sick, nobody in the crowd cares.

"Ric With No K" by Patrica Abbot is in the same vein: a teenage girl becomes involved with an older hood, but you wonder who is the corrupted and who is the corrupter. "The Death Fantastique" by John Jacobs goes further in this direction in its tale about a drug mule, a prostitute, and her vicious pimp. These are the kind of stories where there is no "good guy".
On the black humor side there is "Vengeance on the 18th" about a golf course owner who takes out his revenge on a cheating wife with a snappy conclusion. There's also "Tachibana Hustle" by Garnet Elliot where Japanese hoodlums screw up one time too many.
I also learned a new term: flash fiction. It's applied to any story under 500 words. In the old days we called these "short-short stories". Several of the writers here are connected with an online zine called Shotgun Honey which is devoted to this style.
The final story, "Bulls Eye View", is my own favourite. A private eye and a bounty hunter are relaxing in an Oklahoma bar when one of them notes an infamous New Orleans hitman in their midst. What happens next is worth the read. Not to give to much away, but I'll be a lot more careful he next time I go fishing.
All the stories in this collection are of superior quality. I hope we'll be seeing more in the future.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

The Avenger: The Gray Nemesis by Howard Hopkins

(Outstanding George Gross painting for one of the 70's Avenger reissues.)
Richard Henery Benson, AKA The Avenger, was a character hero of the pulp era who battled all kinds of criminals through the years 1939 and 1942. A world class adventurer, he'd made his fortune in the rough parts of the globe. At the start of the series, he suffers a tragedy which turns his hair white and makes his skin plasticine. Later in the series, his skin and hair return to their normal state.To avenge himself and others who have suffered at the hands of criminals, he uses his vast fortune to create "Justice, Inc.", an organization dedicated to fighting crime. Most of the novels were written by Paul Ernst under the house name Kenneth Robeson.
I first read The Grey Nemesis, Howard Hopkin's study of The Avenger series in 1992 when it was originally released. It has since been updated in 2008 by the author and is available as an electronic download. Its an excellent study and I highly recommend the book. Nemesis is not very long, just a little over a hundred pages, and can be read in a single sitting.
In the first few chapters, Hopkins breaks the book down by characters: Benson and his sidekicks. Each of the Avenger's assistants get a profile, from Irish Chemist Fergus McMurdy to Cole Wilson, the final member of the team. He examines possible inspirations for them and how each character resembled what was accepted at the time. For instance, Hopkins applauds the series' principle writer Paul Ernst for creating two black American heroes, but points out the accepted stereotypes of the era.
The series was reissued in the 1970's action paperback boom. Although the original pulp series was discontinued at episode 24, the reissue company paid write to continue it. Hopkins feels the "new" adventures, although still set in the proper time frame, are inferior. There were also a number of Avenger short stories written as filler in the pulp magazines after the original series discontinued.
One area I totally agree with him was the appeal of the paperback covers in the 70's. He writes of the monthly trip to the mall to grab a new one. And those covers sold the book: excellent examples of graphic art which featured Richard Benson in some of the most eye-grabbing action shots imaginable. They were magnetic and sold those novels.

The book is an excellent study of one of the lessor-known heroes of the pulp era and how it was revived in the 1970's.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Anathem by Neal Stephenson (2008)

Author Neal Stephenson continues to provide outstanding science fiction novels. Right now, I emeshed in his latest doorstoper, Readme. I've been following his writings every since The Diamond Age turned me on the possibilities of nanotechnology. I didn't have the endurance to make it all the way through his Baroque cycle of three books, but was impressed by another one of hishistoricalsCyptonomicon. It's too bad that the immersion 3D computer technology he championed in Snow Crash never came about, but it was a good read just the same.
Now, he's returned to the world of hard science fiction. Anathem is a complex book, one which I hope people will read in years to come. I was lucky to grab the one I saw at the Chester County library and ended up renewing the loan just to finish it. It's not easy finding time to read a book which is almost 900 pages long when you are helping to run the greatest epoxy company in the Known Universe. Heck, right now I had to write this at the auto repair place where I was getting the brakes repaired for the my van.
Anathem is about a world called Arbre which is very similar to our own planet. At some time in the distant past of Arbrephilosophy became a competing force with organized religion. After the fall of a great empire, similar to Rome, philosophers began organizing themselves into cloistered communities called "Maths" to practice their discipline away from the saecular or mundane world. The mathic world may have many "concerts" (convents) housed together or be smaller. They keep order by only opening the doors once a year for "apert" to the general public. However, some of the groups inside these monasteries only open their sections to the general public every ten, hundred, or even thousand years.
The world outside the concerts has continued on its merry way. Since the "avout" (those who live within the walls of the mathic world) do not reproduce, new recruits are collected from the outside. The avout are only permitted to own three things: a robe, a tie to hold it together, and a device known as a "sphere" which has a multitude of purposes. They gather each day for a service which reaffirms their community.
The book's main character is Fra Erasamus, who has lived most of his live behind the mathic walls. Since his sect is a "tenner" he's allowed to leave at the apert which occurs at the opening of the novel and visit the rest of the world. This allows the reader some idea as to how the saecular world contrasts to that of the mathic. But soon after he returns, many of the avout are "evoked"(summoned) by the saecular government. It won't be telling much to give the reason: astronomers have dedicted a giant spaceship in orbit around the planet. No one knows where it originated or what it wants.
It's difficult writing about Anathem since Stephenson has created such a complex world. Although there are plenty of analogs to philosophies and ideas on earth, it can be difficult to identify which ones. For instance, there is much discussion about Gardan's steelyard. It took me awhile to figure out this was the parable to Occam's razor. And there are similar philosophical discussions of Godel, Plato, and Michael Faraday.
The book is also filled with fascinating characters, another of Stephenson's trademarks.
Highly recommended, this could be The Name of the Rose of SF novels.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Wetbones by John Shirley (1993)

First of all I want to give a shout-out to Glorious Trash for turning me on to this book. I'd always thought of John Shirley as a science fiction writer from the new school until encountering this punch in the gut. I'd read his City Come A-Walking book a few years ago, found it decent, just nothing to get excited about. No way was I prepared me for Wetbones. Holy Mother of Pearl, this book takes a chainsaw to just about everything sacred in Hollywood.
The story is split between many different points of view. Under a lot of lessor writers, this would bog down the plot. Shirley, on the other hand, is able to use this technique to show different aspects of it. In some ways, he uses this book to slam the entire entertainment industry. If Wetbones has one over-riding theme its how corrupt and damning the entire system is to everyone connected with it.
The cast of characters include:
  • Tom Prentice, a screenplay writer who has seen better days.
  • Rev. Gamer, a liberal christian minister who helps addicts.
  • Gamer's teenage daughter Constance.
  • Tom's brother.
  • Ephram Pixie, a college professor turned serial killer.
  • Orpheus, a street kid from the 'hood.
  • Eurydice, his sister.
  • The More Man, a sinister enterainment executive.
  • An immortal German matriarch
  • The Handy Man, a sinister henchman
  •  An avenging hippie living in a shack
  • The Akishra, worm-like psychic vampires who live off human desires.
And these are just some of the major characters.
Of course all of these people are going to end up in the same place: a decrepid mansion near Hollywood called "The Keys", where a degenerate entertainment producer and his equally degenerate wife live. The place is falling apart and guarded by a huge black guy who is paid to look the other direction. Because what lurks inside The Keys is hideous beyond belief: people embedded in rose bushes, couples forced to have sex until they drop dead, people who self-mutilate, and worse. The human allies of the Akishra have developed mind control techniques which allow them to force their will on anyone.
There's even reverse astrology consisting of such constellations  as The Hangman, The Black Widow, etc. The serial killer Ephram consults the sky constantly trying to find direction in this sinister zodiac. He's also the main focus of the book's title: Wetbones being an evil ritual which turns people inside out, leaving them in a pile of goo and calcium.
Shirley displays his political bent by turning his nose up at another character's NRA dad and making a not-so-suttle reference to Reagan's first Secretary of the Interior as one of the worm creatures best allies. But his depiction of a ghetto is not the sort of thing which would ever pass for PC. Shirley is disgusted at every facet of Los Angeles in general and Hollywood in particular. The overall theme: This is where hedonism leads.
One of the best books of the "splatterpunk" movement and not to be read on an empty stomach.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Halloween!

Because it only comes once a year.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Black Chalice by Steven Savile

There seems to be a resurgence in epic fantasy. It's a genre that is always with us. After all, Robert E Howard has been in print for years. With the recent Game of Thrones mini-series, we'll probably be seeing a lot more books in this field.
Black Chalice by English writer Steven Savile, is one of the better offerings. Written as if it was a new discovery, the book is filled with notes and explanations. The "hook" here is is the book is a lost addition to the Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. I expect the publisher will be launching more "discoveries" in the near future.
Black Chalice is the story of Alymere, who travels to Camelot in hopes of becoming a knight of the table round. His father was a knight, so surely Alymere will have no trouble getting King Arthur to squire him to a knight. But the knight he ends up squiring to is his uncle, whom Alymere blames for his family's genteel poverty. After several years of training, the squire accompanies his uncle to inspect the sentry houses which guard the wall between England and the north.
And then things get very strange.
Because Alymere encounters a strange witch woman who tells him of the Devil's Bible, a forbidden book with forbidden knowledge. He eventually finds the book in a monastery, which leads him on a path of near-destruction.
We have: a monastery of blind monks. An unholy grail guarded by a giant with an ax. Tretchery. Betrayl. And many wrong decesions. In some ways, this book takes the traditional grail narrative and flips it on its head.
Worth reading if you are looking for an interesting variation on the Legend of the Holy Grail.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Cheaters (1960) by Orrie Hitt

Back again with sleaze publishing's laureate, Mr. Orrie Hitt. Now enjoying a revival of interest, it comes years after the great man's death in 1976. A prolific writer, he is rumored to have turned out a novel every two weeks. The Cheaters is Mr. Hitt at the top of his game. All the elements of his working class sweat fiction are here: bombastic women, masculine men, and people stuck in lousy jobs and worse towns.
The book is told from the view of Cliff, a big country boy from New England. He and his girl friend Ann decided to get the hell out of Dodge when Ann's stepfather took a liking to her. Not that there was much else holding them back in the hick town they where they busted sod. Cliff revisits the place mentally in the course of the novel with disgust. Although his view of it changes toward the conclusion.
At the beginning of Cheaters, Cliff and Ann are holed up in a boarding house looking for work in a port city only slightly better than the hayseeds they left behind. Ann takes a job as a waitress, Cliff finally lands a position as a bartender at a dive in a slum section of the town. Known as "The Dells", this is the bottom of the ladder for the working poor. The bar serves cheap beer and drinks to the dock hands.
But the real money is made off the girls who use the bar to attract customers. The bar's owner, Charlie, gets a cut out of their business and provides them with a location to turn tricks. To make matters worse, there's a corrupt cop named Red who hits the girls up for protection money and shakes the bar down as well. However, Cliff proves to be a good worker and the bar owner keeps him on.
Cliff does so well running the bar that Charlie offers to sell it to him in installments. Cliff isn't interested at first, but Charlie's bombshell wife Debbie makes a hard play. Cliff finds himself so smitten by Debbie, an ex-dancer, that he considers dumping the now-pregnant Ann. He ends up spending all his time running the bar and brings in a few new girls for the afternoon shift. Debbie entices him with tales of all the money Charlie possesses and how it can all be theirs if he just bides his time.
It all starts to spin out of control one night after Red beats Cliff senseless and leaves a scar to remind him who the real power is in The Dells. Cliff then leaves Ann after Debbie makes it worth his while. But a strike is looming at the docks, the newspapers are pressuring the cops to crack down on all the vice, and Red starts demanding more pay-off money. However, in true Hitt fashion, the book ends on a good note.
Once again, Orrie Hitt shows us the world of working class poverty that he knew so well. His books remind me of the films of Russ Meyer: stark, cartoonish, and lurid.
At least in this book you learn all about the day-to-day functioning of a dive bar.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Damballa by Charles Saunders

Charles Saunders, author of Imaro and other African Sword and Soul heroes has released his own tribute to the pulp novels if the 1930's. It is a fact: there were no black pulp heroes in the 1930's save Dick Benson's sidekicks. It's good Saunders can rectify this with his "New Pulp" book.
It's Gotham City in the 30's and the only thing looming bigger than the Johnson- Kreiger heavyweight championship fight (patterned on Louis vs. Schmeling) is the mysterious Damballa, hero of Harlem's downtrodden. Cloaked in a black cape, Damballa appears out of nowhere to stop a home invasion robbery at a soiree organized by the Harlem elite for the Black American heavy weight champion, "Jackhammer" Johnson. The police, especially Detective Errol Bynoe, are respective, but jealous, of this one-man avenger. The Third Reich is sponsoring Kreiger as the "Aryan Adonis".
As the big fight looms closer we learn the German Nazis have concocted a deadly serum which will render their prize fighter invincible in the ring. Damballa eventually discovers the nature of the serum. With his African grandmother, he cracks the formula in a secret underground laboratory. Now he has the power to administer it to the Black American boxer, but will the serum do more damage than good?
The best parts of Damballa center around the heavyweight bout. Saunders shows his knowledge of boxing by having the description of the fight given by an announcer. As Kreiger and Johnson bash into each other you can feel the surge of energy from the fans. This is easily the best part of the book.
If there is any thing negative to said about Damballa, it would be stylistically. It's hard to recreate the world of the 1930's which gave birth to the pulps. In some ways, why would anyone want to? The pulp hero novels stuck to a very specific formula which is hard to duplicate. Saunders has his own style, which serves the novel well.
I'm looking forward to the next Damballa episode. Maybe the local newsstand already has it in stock.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Jungle Goddess (1965) by Charles Nuetzel

I love jungle stories. Always have since watching Ron Ely swing from the trees as Tarzan in his 1960's TV show. As I grew a little older I came to understand that Africa was not an endless forest of vines and howling animals. But that never stopped me of dreaming of lost cities and noble warriors.
Paperback commando Charles Nuetzel has recently released some of his 60's novels into ebook form. This is a good thing as some of these books are not easy to find. Unless someone puts their old copy up for sale on the Net, they don't surface very often. With bookstores fading everywhere, it's hard to remember a time when the racks were miniature art galleries. The cover for Jungle Goddess was painted by Nuetzel's own father.
Jungle Goddess is a quick, fun read. A "Mens' Adventure" writer is sent on assignment into Africa with a up and coming photographer to photograph places seldom seen by civilization. The writer, Bob Lake, is a washed-up hack who hides from reality in a bottle. His photographer, Carol Hill, is determined to become famous in her field. Along the way they make the aquaintence of poor little rich girl Rita Bentley and big game hunter John Barton. All four of them are forced to survive as one group when their plane crashes somewhere in the forbidden jungle. And, of course, there's a wild feral girl named Tallie who lives in the rain forest and swings from the trees.'
It's obvious that Nuetzel's big sell for the book was Tallie the jungle girl. He spends a lot of time talking about her, showing the action from her point of view, etc. He's quite taken with her. We never do find out how a blond girl was dumped in the jungle to fend for herself, but there is a reference to an airplane crash. Detailed back stories are not one of this novel's strong points.
One of the more embarrassing aspects of jungle stories is how they depict the native Africans. And this book doesn't go out of it's way to sympathize with them. Africans are usually referred to as "the blacks". They exist just to play the role of gun bearers or savages. But, as African American writer Derrick Ferguson often points out, you have to consider the times when these books were written.
And yes there are sex scenes. Did you expect otherwise? But they are tastefully written. The novel came out at the junction when the Adventure "Sweat" magazines where being phased out in favor of stronger material. Graphic encounters were not yet the norm.
Jungle Goddess is an amusing, if dated, look at the world of adventure paperbacks from the early

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Rabbit Heart by Barry Reese

This is the first book I've read from "New Pulp" writer Barry Reese. It's impressive. Reese is a full-time librarian with a wide range of influences. He's already had countless short stories and other novels (which you can't find at my local Megabookstore, dammit!) published. What intrigued me to purchase this one was a podcast interview he gave where he stressed the personal nature of this book.
Let me make one thing clear: this is not a novel for those with tender sensibilities. Reese isn't the least bit afraid to go for the throat in his descriptions of violence. I was particularly sickened by a graphic account of rape and murder toward the end of Rabbit Heart. In all fairness, I think he wanted the reader to be repulsed by this scene; to feel the utter horror of the taking of an innocent life. If that was the case, he succeeded beyond all intents.
Rabbit Heart begins with the murder of a young couple in a cemetery. Two kids, barely out of high school and pumped up on hormones, decide to party. Unfortunately for them a creature known as a lich, has been recently awakened. The lich, a demonic sex carnivore, makes short work of them before looking for more prey.
The novel moves to Fiona Chapman, a young dark-haired girl whose just been attacked by a maniac at a summer camp. Fiona miraculously survives only to discover she's been reborn as a member of the Furious Host. The Furious Host is an incarnation of the Wild Hunt of legend, demonic creatures who rode through the lands slaughtering any one in their path. The Hunt is led by Edric, who has decided to reincarnate the Host in a battle to the death. Points are scored by how many humans they kill, but bonus points are awarded when one of the Host kills another member of it.
Fiona can shift into her "archetype" form as needed: a small femme fatale clothed in bandages, one eye covered by a patch, and wielding a black machete. After being informed of her destiny by Edric, she rejects him and everything he represents. Instead, she vows to take out the entire Host, starting with the rampaging lich.
The action shifts to the college town of Milledgeville, Georgia, where the sinister lich, who calls himself "Uhrl the Unconquered", is finding plenty of victims. Fiona begins to track him down. She's assisted by Ascott Keane, who claims to be a descendant of an occult investigator from the 1930's. Fiona learns that Uhrl is looking for something in Milledgeville which he must not find....
Reese is good at showing the action from a variety of characters. You may not like being in the head of a horny college student, but he forces you to see the world from those eyes. It's a difficult trick, showing multiple viewpoints, but he neatly pulls it off.
My only criticism with the novel is the countless cultural references with which he loads it. It's bad enough when he wants to show an emotion by quoting "Solitary Man", but comparing a police officer to Denzel Washington? Enough with the cultural short-cuts!
A good book in what I hope will be a new series. Now if I can just find a copy of his Tales of Ki-Gor....

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Colossus Triology

One of the more memorable parts of my early years was watching Colossus: The Forbin Project on network TV. The part about a monster computer taking control of the world was chilling enough, the ending where it was revealed that the creature couldn't be stopped was worse yet. The synthetic voice of the machine gave me nightmares. And this mad computer wasn't trapped on a spaceship headed for Saturn. Later I discovered the movie was based on a book. And that it had two sequels. Naturally, I've been itching to read them for years.
The first Colossus novel was written in 1966 by British author D F Jones. It takes place in the distant future where North America has been unified into one political entity. Much the same is true for the rest of the world, where the Soviet Union still playing the bogeyman. To solve the nuclear stalemate problem, a massive computer is built under the direction of Professor Charles Forbin and given control of the entire arsenal of North America. The computer, named "Colossus", will launch a full nuclear strike on the Soviet Union and allies if it perceives the enemy is preparing for war. The logic behind this move is one of cost: with the ultimate defense system in place, there will be no need for a large standing army.
However, the Soviet Union has been thinking along the same lines. As soon as Colossus is activated, it informs it's human masters (by way of a teletype, this was state-of-the-art in 1967) that another super computer exists. The leaders of both states agree to put the computers in connection (bad mistake) to see what results. Both computers soon merge into one conscious entity. An attempt to separate them leads to a disaster as they now control all of the world's nuclear weapons and have no hesitation about using them. The rest of the book concerns the world's leaders and scientists trying to figure out a way to shut down the new Colossus.
The second book, The Fall of Colossus, was written in 1974. It's the best of the triology as it tries to imagine what kind of world might exist after a supreme intellengence has taken over all human affairs. War is abolished, but continues on in the Sea War Game where different nationalities build robotic WWI dreadnaughts that blast each other in the ocean. Some of the former functionaries who built Colossus has formed themselves into The Sect, which worships the computer as a god. They are opposed by the underground Fellowship which tries to find a way to shut down the machine. Colossus permits no interference in its' will and those convicted of anti-machine activity are quickly executed. Forbin reluctantly functions as an intermediary between Colossus and humanity from the machine's complex on the Island of Wright. The rule of Colossus seems absolute, but strange transmissions from outer space reveal a plan to shut it down....
Colossus and The Shark reveals what Colossus was protecting humanity from all along: alien invasion. The aliens from Mars who gave Forbin and his aides the means to shut down the machine show up and inform Forbin that they are now in charge. Forbin decides to hold the information from the rest of humanity once the aliens have activated the lower functions of Colossus, permitting it to mindlessly control the planet's government and economy. The aliens demand from Forbin half of Earth's oxygen. When Forbin balks at the demand, they produce a detailed plan for a device which can extract oxygen from the air on a huge scale. The book concludes with a reactivated Colossus working out an alliance with the aliens and humanity against a new threat from space.
The movie version of the first book, Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969), follows the first novel closely. Eric Braedon (who would later go on to star in Escape from the Planet of the Apes and soap operas) played Dr. Eric Forbin, the designer of the Colossus computer. The film takes place in the near future, as opposed to the distant one of the book. It is amusing to look at all the clunky computer monitors used in the film as they were considered futuristic at the time. The monitor installed in Forbin's private suite for Colossus appears to weigh several hundred pounds.
Jones is very concerned about the technological aspects of the books. A good chunk of Colossus and the Shark focuses on the design of the oxygen collector. He also spends a lot of time on the physics of the aliens arrival on Earth. But he doesn't ignore the psychological aspects. We discover in The Fall of Colossus that the Super Computer has created special research centers for the study of human emotions. Colossus uses them to conduct unspeakable experiments which wouldn't be out of place in a Nazi concentration camp.
The trilogy is somewhat hampered by new advances in technology, but at least Jones does update to video tape in the later books. It's still a good read. Too bad the author passed on years ago, because a fourth Colossus book was hinted at the conclusion of Colossus and the Crab.