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.