Monday, November 20, 2017

Traveler #5: Road War

Traveler #5: Road War, by D.B. Drumm
February, 1985  Dell Books

Probably the best way I could describe this fifth volume of Traveler, which is once again courtesy John Shirley, would be “a post-nuke Cannonball Run.” Seriously, Road War is all about a diverse group of cutthroats who engage in a race to discover a perhaps-mythical cache of gold. And, as with Shirley’s past Traveler output, it’s basically an extended action scene, one that doesn’t let up from first page to last.

It’s still 15 years after 1989, when WWIII went down, so time hasn’t really moved on much in the past few volumes, even though we learn the third volume was “months before.” It must be some short time after the previous volume, as Traveler is still hanging out with Link, the muscle-bound black guy he met in the climax of that installment, a former Green Beret so big that an M-16 looks like a “toy” in his hands. To tell the truth I kept confusing Link with Orwell, Traveler’s black buddy back in the third volume – not to sound racist or anything. The characters are just very familiar, and are basically just ciphers for Traveler to talk to, so it isn’t just him driving around alone in his “Meat Wagon” armored van. And another character in the book also confuses Link and Orwell, so there.

But anyway Traveler and Link are hanging out in a bar in the Drift, in the desert ruins of Nevada; a radiation-poisoned prospector known as the Old Man in the Hole gets in front of everyone, throws out some platters of beaten gold with maps scrawled on them, and claims he found a huge stash of gold out in them thar hills. The old man is a notorious bastard, prone to lying and deceit. He claims he’s telling everyone this because he himself will have no use for the gold, as he’s dying of stomach cancer – and also because he hopes everyone kills each other while hunting for it. For gold can still buy a passage to peace here in the post-apocalypse; supposedly there are areas relatively unscathed by radiation, but it costs a pretty penny to get there.

Then the Old Man starts off a gunfight which results in him getting killed – the tumor blown out of his stomach via shotgun and splattering on the wall. As ever Shirley provides his tale with customary ultra-gore, which is how I demand it. But be warned, friends, Road War is the first Shirley offering yet that does not offer any of his weird creature feature radiation-spawn mutants or any of his just-as-outrageous sex scenes! I mean for once poor old Traveler doesn’t even get laid, folks. As for the monsters, perhaps Shirley felt he’d gone overboard with them in the previous volume, which was stuffed to the mutated gills with various disgusting monsters. This time the only monsters are the human survivors of WWIII.

Chief among them is The Spike, leader of a gang of roadrats called The Wasps. The roadrats have appeared throughout the series, and are basically the mohawked, heavy metal-wearing barbarians of Road Warrior. The Spike is suitably horrific, with teeth filed to fangs and the usual screwed-up punk aesthetic; she even claims she wants to cut her “tits” off and cauterize the wound, because they just get in the way. Traveler runs into The Spike and her obedient roadrats in the bar, sparking a rivalry that will last throughout the novel. For of course, she is one of the people who sets off on the gold-hunt, as do Traveler and Link.

Traveler for his part could care little about the gold, but Link’s all fired up about it, so what the hell? “Let’s go get killed,” Traveler says; our hero is in an especially cynical mood this time around, but that only serves to make the usually-dark humor of the series all the more humorous. But man he’s like a post-nuke Philip Magellan in this one; there’s a total Marksman moment where Traveler ties a bunch of freshly-killed corpses to the back of the Meat Wagon and barrels past the Wasps, cutting the cord so that the corpses sprawl in the van’s wake as a warning.

The book really is just an extended chase scene, but it’s delivered incredibly well. Traveler and Link get in one battle after another; even “quiet” interludes, like when they pull off for a rest or to save apparently-stranded motorists, turn into full-bore action scenes. So really it has much in common with the action movies of the day; Shirley even provides a sort of soundtrack, with Traveler at one point hauling out a boom box to blare out the window as a distraction, blasting “Raw Power” by Iggy & the Stooges: “Early punk-metal rock. The raw stuff.” Link even gets in on it in a later, entertaining part where he gets behind the wheel of the Meat Wagon and comes to Traveler’s rescue, the Stooges scaring the shit out of the latest enemy they’ve encountered.

There’s even a bit of action-comedy banter between Traveler and Link, usually delivered while the bullets are flying, like when Link blows away a dude who tries to crawl into the Meat Wagon and his blood and brains splash inside – “Don’t mess up my car, bro,” complains Traveler. A bit more comedy comes via Jamaica Jack, a Drift resident captured by the Wasps and freed by Traveler and Link, at the latter’s request – Traveler as ever doesn’t go out of his way to help people, trusting no one. But Jamaica Jack doesn’t make as much impact in the narrative as I thought he might. Nor does Rosalita, a sexy Hispanic gal used as a sex-slave by The Spike(!); she rides along in the Meat Wagon with Traveler and Link, but does not engage in what I figured would be the obligatory sex scene with Traveler. Instead, she becomes Link’s woman, mostly because he’s the only one who can speak to her in Spanish.

Action is constant and energetically-delivered throughout; you never get the sense that Shirley’s just going through the motions like you would in the work of a lesser writer – like say Joseph Rosenberger. He writes every action scene as if it’s his first, with copious gore and gunplay and deadpan dialog. Some highlights would be an encounter with the Glory Boys – aka what remains of the US Army – in a ghost town, as well as a pitched battle with the “digmen” who live beneath the earth and try to catch Traveler and Link with their sticky, gladiator-style nets. And of course there are countless fights with the Wasps, The Spike increasingly desperate to kill Traveler, and vice versa.

Throughout the race our heroes keep encountering a dragster, which sometimes shoots at them as it flies by. At length – and the book occurs over two or three days – we discover that the dragster is occupied by Hill and Margolin, the two remaining members of Traveler’s old CIA Special Forces squad (Orwell, from the third volume, being the third). This is the first Traveler’s seen them since 1989, and they are ruined versions of their former selves, their minds warped by the neurotoxins Traveler himself was dosed with, back in ’89. But unlike Traveler, they were never cured of the effects, to the point that Margolin in particular has become like a machine gun-carrying Cassandra, prone to visions, just one step away from full-blown insanity.

The four manage to locate the hidden gold, which is buried in a ravine surrounded by a colony of hostile digmen. But The Spike and her sole remaining follower get the jump on our heroes, with the Spike using Traveler as a decoy for any traps the Old Man might’ve left behind (of which there are a few). The gold does indeed exist, but Traveler’s heightened senses detect something unusual about it. Not that it matters, as The Spike gets locked inside the vault due to one of those traps – and suffers one grisly fate, as we learn the Old Man really was a bastard, as the gold is radioactive and whoever finds it will die from it, just as the Old Man himself did. Plus he’s even left some food behind for whoever gets locked in the vault so they’ll live longer – to suffer longer!

There are so many pitched battles throughout Road War that the last one with the digmen doesn’t make much of an impression, but Margolin does suffer in the skirmish, offing himself via heroic sacrifice. As if proving how pointless everything is in this hellish post-nuke USA, Traveler, after going through hell to find it, basically shrugs off the lost cache of gold, and he and Hill give Link their gold maps so Link and Rosalita can go find happiness. Meanwhile Traveler’s decided to head on south to hook up with Indian galpal Jan again, last seen in the third volume. Hill says he’ll go along, which means Traveler will have a new co-riding buddy next time around.

I’ve enjoyed every volume yet of Shirley’s Traveler. He doesn’t waste the reader’s time with padding or digressive nonsense, and instead delivers a thrill-a-minute action story with plenty of gore. Not to mention a heaping helping of dark comedy. You can tell he was having fun as he wrote it, and that fun carries over to the reader.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Coming Of The Terrans

The Coming Of The Terrans, by Leigh Brackett
No month stated, 1967  Ace Books

A few years after Ace published The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman and The Sword Of Rhiannon, they published this fine collection of Leigh Brackett stories that had originally appeared in various pulp sci-fi mags. This book collects both early and later Brackett, the tales spanning from 1948 to 1963 – in fact the sole two sci-fi stories Brackett wrote in the ‘60s are collected here, and I wonder if writing them is what inspired her to go back and revise “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” and “Black Amazon of Mars” for their Ace Double expansions.

All of the stories collected in The Coming Of The Terrans have an anti-Earthman, anti-colonialism vibe, more so than any other Brackett tales I’ve yet read. The “Terrans” are either foolish interlopers, well-meaning incompetents, or rugged individualists out to help the Martians. All of them, that is, save for the hero of the first yarn, Captain Burk Winters; but then, “Beast-Jewel of Mars” has a different vibe than the other stories collected here, and is more along the lines of the sci-fi action tales of Eric John Stark. Winters is even reminiscent of Stark (who actually hadn’t been created by Brackett yet, so maybe it should be vice versa), with sun-darkened skin; however he has sun-bleached, almost white hair. This one’s my favorite tale here, mixing sci-fi, action, and even nightmarish body-horror straight out of Island Of Lost Souls.

“Beast-Jewel of Mars” is from the Winter, 1948 issue of Planet Stories (I’ll link to the Internet Archive where scans of the magazines are available for free download). This is a great opening to the anthology, and it’s prime Brackett. One thing added to this Ace anthology is a date for each story, something unstated in the original pulp versions – we’re informed that “Beast-Jewel of Mars” takes place in 1998. Good grief, in the real 1998 I was barely making a living, driving a beaten-up Volkswagen Rabbit, but damn if I don’t look back on those pre-marriage/pre-responsibility days with nostalgia. Anyway, in the 1998 of Leigh Brackett – and I wonder if the dates for each story were arbitrarily determined by Ace, and not Brackett herself – space exploration is rampant and humans have ingratiated themselved onto all the already-populated planets.

When we meet him Burk Winters is landing in the spaceport of Kahora, one of the few places on Mars where Terrans are allowed. It’s a domed city straight out of Logan’s Run, with all the comforts of home. As the tales in the collection progress, we will see how Kahora grows and prospers, but in this earliest-set tale it’s more of a waystation. Winters has come here on a mission, one for which he’s apparently given up his commission. His fiance, Jill, supposedly died in a “flier” crash in the Martian desert, but Winters suspects there was foul play, as Jill had become involved with the Martian drug Shanga – so memorably featured in “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” with a bit more detail about it in The Secret Of Sinharat. In fact, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” featured a reference to this very story, though the reference was edited out in the Ace Double expansion.

Shanga, known as “the going-back,” is a drug that makes its user regress down through the phases of evolution. Sounds horrific, but apparently it evokes feelings of euphoria in the user. Speaking of drugs, Winters enjoys calming his nerves with “Venusian cigarettes,” which we’re informed have a sedative effect. (Part of me believes – wants to believe – that noted sci-fi geek Jimi Hendrix had this paperback in his collection.) He contacts a Martian named Kor Hal who runs the local Shanga operation, but learns that the Shanga of Kahora, used only by visiting Earthmen, is a pale reflection of the real thing, which Kor Hal says was created by the people of Caer Dhu, 500,000 years ago. Readers of The Sword of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings of Mars will recall Caer Dhu was the domain of the Serpent Men, the Dhuvians, but that was a million years before…so one suspects regular ol’ Martians must’ve moved in afterwards.

Winters plunks down heavy cash and is taken by flier to Valkis, Low Canal city that’s been in other Brackett tales. Here he sees real Shanga, which the Martians don’t touch – it wiped out the people of Caer Dhu in a single generation. It’s run via giant prisms that harness celestial light or somesuch, and Winters is taken up in the “magnificent, unholy sensation” of Shanga. He regresses to beast, and then is challenged by a regal, bare-breasted woman (the Martian and Venusian women are always bare-breasted in Brackett, by the way – it’s like the eternal style on these planets). Still in beast form, “Burk,” as Brackett refers to our hero when a beast, is chased through the streets of Valkis, the angry Martians herding him up to the ruins of Old Valkis, which once loomed over the now-vanished sea. 

The Terran-hatred is strongest in this story, and thus it could use a more proactive Earthman hero. Winters though, back in normal form, is locked in an arena with other Shanga sufferers, some of them so regressed that they’re so hideous they can’t bear description. And here Winters discovers Jill, still alive, but regressed almost permanently into an almost missing link sort of thing. The Martian lady who challenged Winters is the Lady Fand, who rules Old Valkis, bringing the Terran Shanga-sufferers out each night for the amusement of the locals. Using his wiles – not to mention the unbelievable lack of security – Winters is able to sneak out, catch Fand, and put her under the Shanga lights, that night – and we see why the Martians forever swore off Shanga. Features a rushed but bloody ending in which the Shanga freaks wreak vengeance on the Martians, and Winters escapes with Jill, to alert Terran authorities – per the sidenote in “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” he was successful, and Lady Fand’s Shanga ring was crushed.

“Mars Minus Bisha” follows, and immediately we detect a different vibe. This one’s a heartbreaker, folks – who’d expect such an emotional tale from an old sci-fi pulp mag? Originally appearing in the January, 1954 issue of Planet Stories, this one lacks the action and violence of “Beast-Jewel of Mars” but makes up for it with characters you grow to care about. In earlier yarns Brackett’s protagonists were almost ciphers, but here we have Fraser, a doctor who has come here to Mars to study viruses. He’s sequestered in a Quonset hut in the desert, almost forbidden from contact with the locals. The year given in this Ace edition – but not the original story – is 2016.

One day a Martian desert woman storms up to the hut on one of those “lizardlike mounts” the Martians are always riding, and dumps off her daughter, whom she says is sick. Then the mother takes off. The child is named Bisha and she’s around seven. Gradually Fraser will learn that Bisha has affected her tribe with a sleeping sickness, reminiscent of the one in Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude, to the point that the entire tribe was in such jeopardy that the child was ordered to be put to death – the Martians having none of the “humanity” of Terrans in such matters.

But the mother instead snuck Bisha off to Fraser, hoping this strange Terran doctor might cure her…and apparently raise her, as the mom isn’t coming back. Thus begins a compelling drama between Fraser and his new charge, with Brackett subtly hitting all the right notes, like when Fraser realizes belatedly that he’s just gotten a family. Soon he’s talking to the brooding young Bisha about Earth and the home they’ll share when he takes her back with him. But then Fraser begins blacking out, going into minor comas for several hours at stretch. When he tells a local about it, the local instantly knows Bisha is with him, thus setting off a tense finale in which the two attempt to escape across the desert via “trac-car” before Bisha’s former tribesmen can stop them. Be prepared to have your heart ripped out and stomped on.

Next up is “The Last Days of Shandakor,” from the January, 1952 issue of Startling Stories.  The book gives the date as 2024. This one’s unique, at least so far as the other Brackett stories I’ve read, in that it’s in first-person. Our narrator is John Ross, a “planetary anthropologist” who knows more about Mars than most Martians do. Then one day in a Barrakesh tavern he sees a strange native in a billowing cloak with coal-black eyes – eyes like no Martian Ross has ever seen – and realizes he’s looking at a “new” Martian race. The fact that the other Martians give this dude wide berth, almost pretending he’s not there, only adds to the mystery.

The strange Martian’s name is Corin (Brackett did love her Celtic names), and he claims to be from the lost city of Shandakor, which is dying. Ross talks Corin into letting him tag along on the journey back, knowing that Corin plans to kill him – which he does, though Ross defends himself. Afterwards Corin kills himself, refusing to take a Terran into Shandakor. Ross looks for the first time at Corin’s uncovered face, and it is almost reptillian. Ross, thirsty and alone, is jumped by a pair of hulking barbarians; turns out a barbarian army has surrounded Shandakor, refusing to go inside, even though the ciy appears to be unguarded. They take Ross’s money and push him into the city, telling him the people of Shandakor are rich, with water to spare.

Ross finds a literal ghost town, populated with the usual human-type Martians and other Martians such as he’s never seen, walking around, doing business, etc. But there is absolutely no sound, and no one sees him. Brackett mentions that some of these beings have wings, and others have the snakelike features of Corin; she doesn’t elaborate, only stating these are “the lost races of Mars.” My suspicion is we are to assume the people of Shandakor are the descendants of the “Halflings” which proliferated in the time of The Sword Of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings Of Mars, and this is where they segregated themselves from the human-stock Martians who gradually took control of the planet. 

Eventually Ross learns that these “ghosts” are recordings pulled from the very stones of Shandakor, a sort of bizarre security device to keep away the superstitious barbarians. In truth Shandakor is peopled by a few thousand survivors, all of them with similar features as Corin. One of them is a “girl-child” named Duani who wants to keep Ross almost as a pet, claiming she’s never seen a real Terran before. Ross is enslaved, his job to clean the gears of the strange machine that runs the holograms. He learns about Shandakor and falls in love with Duani; this is the second tale in which a Terran protagonist plans to take a Martian girl back to Earth with him, though here it’s a different sort of love, Ross belatedly realizing how damn hot Duani is (plus her being topless all the time doesn’t hurt).

But prepare to be gutted, once again – Brackett it appears went more for emotional, poignant finales in her later yarns, and this one’s no exception. The people of Shandakor know their time is limited, and thus willingly go to the Place of Sleep, which is like a euthenasia center or something. When it’s Duani’s turn, Ross freaks and smashes the hologram machinery, so that the barbarians can come in – and a devastated Duani is glad Ross is only a human, so he will never know how horrible his actions were. Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton deemed this “the last and best” of Brackett’s Martian tales, but I disagree – it’s great and all, but I prefer the more action-centric tales.

“Purple Priestess of Mars” follows, and it really is the last of Brackett’s Martian tales, the last story she published to occur on the Red Planet. It’s from the October, 1964 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and it’s the shortest tale collected here, not to mention the most Lovecraftian. It also has a different vibe, in that the Terran “hero” is a liberal academic Brackett clearly dislikes. I read somewhere that Leigh Brackett hated liberalism (I also read somewhere online that her mid-‘70s The Book of Skaith trilogy was like an anti-liberalism diatribe), and that’s very apparent here.

For, like the typical uber-liberal, our “hero,” a government social worker named Harvey Seldon, is a sanctimonious know-nothing know-it-all, the kind of guy who thinks he knows what the Martians need more than the Martians themselves do, even though he’s never even been to Mars. This is his first time, coming into the Kahora spaceport, which we learn is now a city of eight vast domes. Also, humans have more so integrated with the Martians, the date for this story being given as 2031. Seldon even looks down on the crewmember of the transport ship that’s brought him here to Mars, but accepts the man’s offer to hang out with some real, live Martians that night. Seldon practices some positive reinforcement antics to groove himself up; Brackett really had the nascent liberal movement figured out.

That night Seldon goes out of his way to apologize for the previous Terran “exploitation” of Mars (you could even say it’s the first stop of his Martian Apology Tour), even correcting the natives that there was never any “human sacrifice” in the “mad moon” religion of yore. Despite the fact that the locals insist there was. But as we’ll recall, Seldon knows better than everyone, and insists that the legends that there was once a cult that worshipped a supposedly-lost race on Mars’s moon Phobos, referred to as Denedron by the Martians (Deimos is called “Vashna,” by the way), is all make believe courtesy the first Terrans who came to Mars, lying “adventurers” all of them.

Then he’s drugged and these Martians sneak Seldon through the streets and the desert to Jekkara, the anything-goes Low Canal city from previous Brackett joints which is still forbidden to Terrans even at this late date. Here he is thrust into a religious ceremony, given a drink that is possibly drugged, and sees a lovely native gal named Lella, wearing a silver mask like the gal on the cover painting, leading a group of worshippers. Then a demonic “eye” opens, and Seldon loses his marbles – could this “mad moon” demon really exist, and demand a regular sacrifice? The Martians take Seldon back to Kahora, claiming that this was “the only way” they could get him to see the reality of this bloodthirsty religion, which can only be found in the hills outside Jekkara; they plead with him to tell his superiors about it, so it can be stamped out and the demon destroyed. No one else has believed their story, but they figured if an actual government employee saw it for himself, something could be done.

Instead, Seldon flees back to Earth and convinces himself it was all a drug trip. As if her wit couldn’t get any more acidic, Brackett delivers a finale in which a psychoanalyst listens to Seldon’s story and tells him it was all a manifestation of his mind, the demonic eye he thought he saw merely a sign from his subconscious that he needs to accept the fact that he is a “latent homosexual.” All this is exactly what Seldon needs to hear, the supernatural explained away in a fashion he can accept, and thus he can get back to being a sanctimonious jerk. And then a letter arrives from Mars, telling him Lella awaits him at the next moon…

The final tale is “The Road To Sinharat,” from the May, 1963 issue of Amazing Stories. This one gets back to the novella length of the other tales, and also somewhat has the vibe of the more action-centric yarns. It also seems to have served Brackett with some inspiration for The Secret Of Sinharat, mostly in the details of the titular location; in that 1964 Ace expansion, we learn that a constant wind in Sinharat has the sound of ghostly screaming, something I don’t believe was mentioned in the original “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” version of the story. The year given is 2038.

We’re back to the third-person narration, and our hero is Dr. Matthew Carey, who is so reminiscent of Matt Carse of The Sword Of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings Of Mars, from the similar name to the same occupation, that you wonder why Brackett didn’t just make it the same character. Like Carse, Carey’s a rugged archeologist, very much in the Indiana Jones mold, and he’s been at it for a while, his hair getting touches of gray. When we meet him Carey’s run afoul of the United Worlds Planetary Assistance Committee, yet another Terran government body of liberal do-gooders who think they know what’s best for Mars. In this case the Committee, led by one Winthorpe, plan to use science to transform the deserts of Mars into oceans and forests. They care little that the Martians themselves do not want this to happen – the humans know better. But they want to arrest Carey on grounds that they believe he’s so stirred up the natives to the point of revolution.

Carey though recalls something like this happened in Mars’s dim past. Brackett skillfully divulges Carey’s plan as the narrative progresses, to the point that we don’t even initially know why he wants to go to mythical Sinharat, ancient abode of the Ramas, those Martians who used their own science to gain immortality. Carey evades the police (for some reason, Interpol is after him – even operating here on Mars – led by a bloodhound of an agent named Waters), and hooks up with an old tomb-raiding Martian pal named Derrech. Along with them comes Derrech’s sexy sister Arrin, who you won’t be surprised to know traipses around in that traditional Martian garb of kilt and no top – however it appears that Martian women are mostly all small-breasted, as Brackett seems to consistently use that description for them.

The action starts in Jekkara, and we get references to barbarian leader Kynon, from “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” which Brackett would soon expand as The Secret Of Sinharat. Carey refers to this as the last time Sinharat reached the public conscious, but he knows that there might be something in the Rama archives that can stop the so-called Rehabilitation Project from terraforming Mars. Carey also makes the interesting comment that he knows, from “a pretty good authority,” that there is a water well hidden in Sinharat. Could that “authority” be none other than Eric John Stark? 

So begins a journey across the Low Canals of southern Mars, heading up north to the Drylands of the barbarians of Kesh and Shun, the group travelling in a barge that’s pulled along the dried-out canals by those lizard beasts. There’s sporadic action, like when in Valkis a group of barbarians storm the barge while Derech and his crew are off in the city; they’re no doubt muscle paid for by Waters, who knows Derech is secretly transporting the fugitive Matthew Carey. But as mentioned Carey’s no wimp, and, naked, he hefts a war axe and starts screaming at them, having learned long ago how to “go Martian” and fool people into thinking he’s a Dryland barbarian. Brackett uses the phrase “go Martian” in the same connotation as “go postal,” a phrase that wouldn’t even be coined for a few more decades.

Soon Carey’s going all the way with it, wearing a leather armor kilt and harness – ie, just as depicted on Gray Morrow’s great cover art, which you might have noticed from my overlong writeup actually depicts characters and incidents from the book, which is cool. When Carey and friends arrive in Sinharat, they find the warriors of Kesh and Shun surrounding the place, and Interpol agent Waters hiding within the city – Waters having guessed where Carey was headed. But Brackett doesn’t give us a bloodthirsty finale, instead having our heroes trick their way into Sinharat, and Carey finding the material he wants, visually recorded on ancient Rama technology.

Instead, the finale is more on the lines of drama, with Carey presenting the recordings to the Committee, he and his comrades having been safely flown out of Sinharat before the barbarians could close in. Here we get the humorous note that a Committee translator speaks in Esperanto! Well, I guess that seemed “futuristic” in 1963. But we see that the Ramas tried to terraform Mars long in the past, only with disastrous results – to the point that the Committee determines that they will not in fact bring water to the Martians. Thus, revolution is averted.

Brackett’s writing throughout is strong as ever: concise, evocative, and poetic. Special mention must be made of her brief Preface, in which she discusses how science has now confirmed that there is not and has never been life on Mars – but she still vouches for the truth of these stories. “After all, I was there.” But I have to say, it would be a damn shame if this is why Brackett’s work fell out of favor, and was out of print for so long – who cares if there isn’t life on Mars, or any of the other planets in the solar system? That doesn’t detract from the enjoyment value of Brackett’s work; the stories collected here are the very definition of escapism. And I think Leigh Brackett has become my new favorite writer.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Assignment: Israel (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #26)

Assignment: Israel, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

I had low expectations for this volume of Nick Carter: Killmaster, another one by Manning Lee Stokes – not due to Stokes, as I always find something enjoyable about his books – but because the plot didn’t much grab me, about the Killmaster staving off a potential Middle East war, one that Israel would falsely be blamed for starting. I like the more fantastical Killmaster plots, and this one appeared to be more on the mundane level, a la other Stokes joints like Mission To Venice.

And while that’s true, it turned out that Assignment: Isreal was very entertaining, and moved at a fast clip, particularly when compared to Stokes’s other series entries. In other words, there’s very little of the padding and stalling one finds in the typical Stokes work, and for once he even provides a good villain for our hero: Gunter Gerhardt, infamous “Butcher” of WWII, a Nazi soldier who was known as “the German T. E. Lawrence” due to his skills in desert warfare.

Gerhardt, or “G.G.” as he’s constantly referred to, is now William Lucy, a British mercenary who works around the Middle East. His current plot has him coming up with a mission for Syria: he will take a group of Syrian soldiers, dress them in Israeli Army uniforms, slip across the border to Jordan, and massacre a village, leaving behind the corpses of a few Israeli “soldiers” – in reality, Israelis G.G. killed in an earlier raid and put in uniforms to leave as decoys. To test his mettle and see if there’s still any “thrill” in killing, G.G. himself guns down those captured Israelis, including women and kids, shocking even the bloodthirsty Syrian troops under his command. The ultimate goal is a Middle Eastern war, one funded by China, G.G.’s secret backer.

As usual, Nick Carter’s on vacation when we meet him, shacking up with an old flame named Peg in a ski resort in Gstaad, Switzerland. Stokes doesn’t go full-bore with the explicit detail, but we get enough to know these two are having a grand old time. Then Nick discovers a tape hidden beneath the bed and kicks himself for losing his skills and not detecting it. He sends Peg off and lies in wait for whoever placed it. It turns out to be the fat old cleaning woman, who was paid to do it by two East Germans; also, she put the tape there before Nick’s arrival, as the Germans were interested in Peg, whose husband is a noted industrialist.

Nick confronts the two German agents in a tense scene that occurs on the snowswept mountain in the dead of night. Unfortunately, the entire sequence is arbitrary and has nothing to do with the book’s plot. However Nick looks upon his easy killing of the two agents as “good practice!” Then boss David Hawk summons him to AXE HQ in DC, where Nick is appraised of a situation that involves the CIA and Israel’s Shin Bet. They’ve gotten wind of “G.G.’s” plot via overly-complicated backstory, and Nick’s to head to Tangier, where he will be reporting to a Shin Bet agent – and Hawk warns Nick it’s a woman, which of course makes Nick bridle.

In Tangier Nick meets his new boss, a ravishing brunette named Sabra. She’s capable and deadly, and even gifted with disguise talents, able to transform herself into a jawdropping blonde. But Nick deems her a “talented amateur,” as she does not have the cool efficiency of a professional. She tells Nick that she is “married to Israel,” and this to Nick is the true mark of the non-professional, as she’s become a spy for patriotic reasons. Also Sabra insists Nick forget any dreams of bedding her – maybe “after” the assignment, but not before.

Together they head to Israel, where Nick is promptly captured and tied up by a KGB duo, Gregoff and Yashmin. Shin Bet’s biggest fear is that the Russians will find Gerhardt before they do – he killed just as many Slavs as Jews and thus is equally wanted by the Russians – and these two are prepared to literally rake the coals over Nick to find out what he knows. But while Gregor, whom Nick has realized is insane and ready to snap at a moment’s notice, is down stoking the fire, Yashmin slips over and begins to “stroke” Nick. That’s just the way things roll in a Manning Lee Stokes novel, and I for one am not complaining – these kinds of books should be outrageous and exploitative.

This is a brutal sequence, with Nick pinioning the girl between his thighs and smashing her face apart. The fight with Gregor is even more brutal, as Nick, unarmed and his hands still tied, desperately tries to evade the madman’s gun. It climaxes with Nick pulling a Van Damme and launching a savate kick with both legs, breaking the bastard’s neck. He even thinks of all this as more “good practice!” From here the action moves to the desert, where Sabra has retained the services of a band of Bedouin mercenaries.

I’ve always been interested in that whole desert warrior aesthetic, from the Bedouins to the Tuaregs, and Stokes nicely captures the atmosphere. These desert warriors will be the sole army in the fight against Gerhart’s Syrian troops, across the border, but Sabra’s certain not a single one of them is trustworthy. Speaking of Sabra, she and Nick finally get it on, out in the cheap showiness of the desert one night: “Sabra wrapped her slim legs about [Nick], locked her heels high on his back and sought to devour him.” Yeah!!

Things get real when one of the Bedouins does turn traitor, and Gerhardt sends over a Syrian plane to bomb the hell out of them. Stokes is grim in the ensuing massacre, with nightmarish descriptions of dead women and children. The Bedouins are mad with rage, and Nick turns into a veritable Alexander the Great, marshalling them into a bloodthirsty force of vengeance. By this point Sabra has already turned over command of the assignment to Nick; it began, as expected, when she gave herself to him in the desert.

Nick goes on and on about a “plan” he has that might be suicidal, but he (or Stokes) never tells us what it is – instead they luck out when they sack a mop-up convoy and steal a military half-track and lots of machine guns. Here Nick is pure Killmaster, dropping down silently onto the half-track as it drives by and slicing and dicing with Hugo, his stiletto. The climax plays out on Gerhardt’s headquarters in the desert, known as “the Ravine of the Devil,” a “cross between a moonscape and the floor of hell.” Stokes suitably brings the hellish place to life, with descriptions of spooky lava formations jutting from the desert ground.

Meanwhile Sabra has declared to Nick that she loves him. Pop quiz, folks: What do you think happens to Sabra?? This actually serves to add an unexpected dramatic depth to the finale, as after a pitched battle on the Ravine of the Devil, Gerhardt escapes up a mountain, Nick in close pursuit, with no escape possible for “the Butcher.” But he’s under good cover, avoiding Nick’s steady fire. He only comes out when someone poses as a decoy for him. Guess who? And Stokes ends the tale here, abruptly but effectively, with the impassable Killmaster for once affected on an emotional level.

This was a good installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster; nothing phenomenal, but consistently entertaining and well written. Stokes is still my favorite writer on this series, and he especially shines in these earlier volumes.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Conan (Conan #1)

Conan, by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter
July, 1984  Ace Books
(original Lancer Books edition, 1968)

If you had asked me when I was 13 years old who my favorite author was, I probably would’ve said Robert E. Howard. When my men’s adventure novels phase abruptly fizzled out around that time, I found myself moving on to sci-fi and fantasy, in particular the Conan stories. At that time these Ace paperbacks were ubiquitous in bookstores, at least in my area – unfortunately though I was just a poor kid and couldn’t afford all of them. But I had this one, though I have no recollections of it, other than one or two stories – and I can’t believe it was almost exactly thirty years ago that I first read it!

These days the Ace books (which themselves were reprints of the original Lancer editions) are out of print and out of favor; Howard purists lose lots of sleep over the editing L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter did to the original Howard tales, not to mention the “pastiches” they wrote to fill in the gaps in Conan’s life. As is well known, Howard didn’t write the Conan stories in any sort of chronological order, but in response to a fan’s letter he did construct a sort of template; de Camp used this when fleshing out the Conan saga.

The Conan series ran to 12 volumes, taking Conan from youth to old king; initially most of them were published by Lancer, but after that imprint went out of business, Ace took over. The books also weren’t published in order; Conan The Adventurer, for example, while being the fifth book in the series, was actually published first. Millions of copies of these books were sold over the decades, no doubt due in large part to the cover paintings by Frank Frazetta (his work is kind of butchered on this Ace edition of Conan #1, though; the original Lancer edition shows more of the painting). Boris Vallejo’s paintings, later in the series, are also great, I think.

Anyway, for this re-read I did something a little different. For the Howard tales contained herein, I read the original, unadulterated versions, which are now readily available in a trio of Del Rey trade paperbacks that came out several years ago. (I would bet good money that these Del Rey editions haven’t sold anywhere near the amount the old Lancer/Ace editions did, though…) So I can’t speak to the tinkering de Camp/Carter did to the REH originals, though you can find copious amounts of info about this sort of thing online, particularly on Wikipedia.

Re-reading Conan #1 all these years later, in addition to finding that I hardly remembered any of the tales, I also found that the majority of them were overly repetitive. The same thing basically happens over and over again, and Conan himself doesn’t really stand out until late in the book. In this way perhaps this book isn’t the best introduction to the character, but I decided to start with it (again) anyway.

Here are the stories:

“The Legions Of The Dead” (de Camp & Carter) – Okay, I’m cheating here; this story doesn’t actually appear in Conan #1. It’s from the 1978 Bantam paperback Conan The Swordsman, which is yet another book of Conan pastiches by these two authors, written after their Lancer/Ace stuff. I included it here because this story takes place before “The Thing In The Crypt” (below), thus chronologically it was the earliest tale in Conan’s life that these two authors wrote.

Conan is just a teenager when we meet him, serving as a mercenary with an Aesir war party that has ventured into “haunted” Hyperboria; we’re informed he has left his native Cimmeria due to a “blood feud.” The Aesir are here to rescue Ranni, daughter of Njal, the Aesir leader. There isn’t much to the story, and Conan doesn’t really come to life – we’re just informed that his ideas are usually discarded by the Aesir. But through his ingenuity he’s able to rescue Ranni from the castle in which she’s imprisoned, and the Aesir escape.

The titular legion of the dead soon attack – it is an army made up of their fallen comrades, as well as other “gaunt” Hyperboreans they’ve recently killed. This is necromancy courtesy wicked Queen Vammatar of Hyperborea, an ageless beauty with “high breasts.” It was she who took Ranni captive, and now aims to get her back with her undead warriors, but Conan again saves the day; as Njal and the others fall to the sword-wielding zombies, Conan knocks Vammatar off her horse, puts Ranni on it, and the horse races off. Meanwhile Conan is caught, destined for the Hyperborean slave pens, and here the tale ends.

“The Thing In The Crypt” (de Camp and Carter) – The previous story was basically a prequel to this one, which is the official first story in Conan #1. It’s another trifle of a story, but well-known in its own right because writer/director John Milius included it in his awesome ’82 film Conan The Barbarian. (The sequence is not present in Oliver Stone’s original draft of the script.) The problem with reading “The Legions Of The Dead” before this one is that repetition I mentioned above.

I imagine Lin Carter got a chuckle out of seeing this story in the film, as it turns out “The Thing In The Crypt” started life as a story featuring Carter’s character Thongor of Lemuria. Thongor was changed to a young Conan, who when we meet him has escaped those Hyperborean slave pens and is running from wolves that chase him. He has no weapons, same as in the film, and finds a passageway into an underground crypt – again, same as in the film. But where the movie diverges is the skeleton in the crypt is inanimate, other than when Conan takes the Atlantean sword from it.

In the story, the “thing in the crypt” is actually a “mummified” corpse with rough gray skin, and it comes to life to attack young Conan when he has the umbrage to take its sword away. Conan is understandably freaked out, but fights back – however, given that I read “The Legions Of The Dead” before this, I was like, “Conan, you just fought an entire legion of zombies – you’ve got this, man!” But admitedly, that story was written much later, and clearly the authors didn’t go to too much trouble to connect the two stories. Needless to say, Conan gets the sword and makes his escape.

Back to the film, Milius also improved on the sequence by making the sword so important that it became Conan’s main weapon – indeed the one he used to break his father’s sword, thus implying that Conan had become stronger than his father. In this story, the sword is just a sword, and it’s not mentioned again as being important in any way. I know purists dislike Conan The Barbarian, but I love it; I could care less that it isn’t faithful to Howard’s work, as it stands on its own…the movie is like a Nietzschean myth on film, and it might be my favorite movie ever. Here is a great review by someone who gets it.

“The Tower Of The Elephant” (Howard) – First published in the March, 1933 issue of Weird Tales, “The Tower Of The Elephant” is another Conan yarn that found its way (sort of) into the ’82 film; it’s even present in Oliver Stone’s original script. This was the only tale I remembered from this book. But I didn’t read this version, this time – I read the faithful reprint of “The Tower Of The Elephant” that can be found in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian (Del Rey, 2003).

I actually re-read this story several years ago, when I got that Del Rey book at the library, shortly after it was published; I recall at the time I was underwhelmed by most of Howard’s early Conan yarns, not liking them nearly as much as I had when I was a kid. And with this reading…well, I sort of felt the same. “Elephant” is a cool story, sure, but there really isn’t much to it. Conan’s in depraved Zamoria, where he wants to prove his mettle as a young thief. Promptly displaying his barbarian nature, he kills a local who has the temerity to mock him in a tavern. Oh and incidentally, the tales collected here are ones in which Conan is actually stated as wearing the damn loincloth-and-sandals ensemble he wore in every single issue of the various Marvel Comics series. So Conan’s a true barbarian here with no refinements.

Conan sneaks into the titular Tower, accompanied by a famous and portly fellow thief. On the temple grounds they are attacked by trained lions, and other evils wait inside the tower. Up top resides a Ganesha-like creature which appears to be an ancient alien, one imprisoned here by the evil wizard below. Conan just sort of stands and listens to a long speech, kills the elephant-headed alien at its bidding, then watches as the evil wizard is shrunk down in celestial vengence. Sadly, this isn’t the only story in the book where Conan just stands around.

“The Hall of the Dead” (Howard, de Camp and Carter) – This is a de Camp and Carter fleshing-out of a Howard outline; the original outline can be found in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian. Conan’s still in Zamora, still thieving, and tries to loot a deserted section of the city that’s supposedly haunted. A group of soldiers are chasing him, led by a “Gunderman.” Conan kills all of them and gets into the city, in which he finds a massive slug, which I guess just lives there. Anyway, it tries to attack him, and he kills it. He then finds that the Gunderman’s still alive, and Conan talks him into looting the place with him.

The titular hall features a bunch of skeletons which, you won’t be surprised at this point to learn, come to life and attack Conan and friend. So that’s the third tale in which our hero encounters the undead. De Camp’s dialog is incredibly lame and juvenile throughout, including even a “Let’s get out of here!” courtesy the Gunderman. The story features an O. Henry-esque finale in which the priceless jewels the duo have looted either crumble to dust or become animate – and poisonous.

“The God in the Bowl” (Howard) – This one was rejected by Weird Tales when Howard submitted it sometime in the ‘30s; it was published decades later with de Camp revisions, and that edit is included in this Ace book. However, I read the original Howard version, again collected in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian. I can see why this one was rejected. It doesn’t feel like a Conan yarn at all; it’s a locked room murder mystery in which our hero once again stands around for long portions of the narrative.

Anyway Conan’s in Nemedia, having been hired by a fallen noble to loot a temple. However Conan is wrongly accused of murder; he’s caught in the act of snooping through the temple by a guard who has come across the murdered corpse of the temple owner. Conan’s accused of murder, and there follows a tedious story of various one-off characters coming along to exposit on this or that, accusing Conan of murder, when of course he’s innocent. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the supernatural is to blame, as the dead owner had recently curated an ancient artefact of Set – another element which made it into the film, as the Set logo is even described as a two-headed snake.

Another element that made it into the film is the creature itself – here it is a massive snake with the head of a man, which of course brings to mind Thulsa Doom’s transformation to a snake in Conan The Barbarian. (Thulsa Doom of course was a villain of Howard’s other character, King Kull, but then, the ’82 movie has more in common with Kull than it does Conan, even down to the titular character, as Arnold’s Conan is just as prone to brooding as Kull was.) But otherwise the only thing I found memorable about “The God in the Bowl” was Conan constantly calling his accuser “dog.” Conan The Gangsta Rapper!

“Rogues in the House” (Howard) – The REH originals continue; this one first saw print in Weird Tales, January 1934. Once again I read the faithful reprint in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian. This turned out to be my favorite Howard story in the book, even though I had no recollection of it from my first reading, three-score years ago. It also sufficiently inspired Frank Frazetta, who chose a scene from this story for his awesome cover painting – a scene that also appeared to inspire the producers of the crappy Conan The Destroyer (1984).

Conan’s in a prison near Zamora when we meet him, having been working as a thief alongside a “Gunderman” who went rogue from his ranks – a Gunderman who is dead before the story even begins, having been hanged. Likely we are to assume it is the same Gunderman who became Conan’s sort-of ally in “The Hall of the Dead,” which I guess one could see as clever pastiching on de Camp’s part. Conan’s in pure badass mode, finally; he’s visited in prison by a nobleman named Murilo who wants Conan to kill an evil priest named Nabonidus. In return Murilo will engineer Conan’s breakout.

Conan takes the job, and manages to escape prison even when the nobleman’s plans fall through, “braining” a dumb guard with a bone and making his “leisurely” escape. Conan then takes care of unfinished business: revenge on the whore who sold him out. First he guts one of her customers, then he dumps the half-nude babe into a cesspit. After this he figures it’s “time to kill” the priest. In a nice bit of characterization, while Conan is an uncivilized barbarian, he keeps his word and he pays off his debts; he feels indebted to the nobleman, even though technically Conan freed himself.

The “rogues in the house” turn out to be Conan, Murilo, and Nabonidus himself, all of whom make it into the darkened tunnels beneath the priest’s home. Nabonidus’s apelike creature-servant Thak has taken over the place, sitting above on Nabonidus’s throne in the preist’s red robes. There’s a lot of standing around and listening and watching as Murilo and Nabonidus take turns expositing on this or that (a Howard mainstay, one I always forget about until I read him again). Then they all watch as some interlopers are killed off by Thak, using Nabonidus’s hidden weapons. The cover painting comes from Conan’s brutal but brief mortal combat with Thak. This one’s good, but a bit too much of it is composed of exposition and characters just standing around.

“The Hand Of Nergal” (Howard and Carter) – Now it’s Lin Carter’s turn to flesh out an untitled outline Howard jotted down in the ‘30s. Despite its reliance on coincidence (a Carter specialty), and the fact that Conan acts a bit out of character so far as his willingness to fight the supernatural goes, I liked this one a lot more than I expected. Conan’s serving as a mercenary in a Turanian army, battling the forces of Munthassem Khan; Carter attempts to tie back to the previous story by mentioning that Conan is riding the horse Murilo gave him. The opening is the best part, with a gore-spattered Conan on a bloody battlefield of corpses. You won’t be surprised to learn that this is the portion that’s mostly by Howard; the outline he wrote can be found, again, in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian

Carter adds supernatural stuff – a horde of demon-bats descends on the carnage, and Conan alone has the gumption to fight them off. In his escape he finds a nubile wench named Hildico who, Carter coincidence in full effect, was tasked by her ruler to come here, to a battlefield, and find Conan. Conan recently came across a talisman of sorts, just plumb found it (Carter in effect again), and it turns out this means he’s now “the chosen one” who can stop the evil Munthassem Khan, possessor of the titular Hand of Nergal. This talisman by the way also succeed in scaring off those demon-bats, which turn out to have been sent by the Khan.

This one’s kind of similar to the previous story, in that Conan stands around in a dungeon-type setting while supernatural forces come into play, but this time those spirits do all the heavy lifting and Conan just watches it all go down. His ass is saved by Hildico, who coincidence-again-be-damned knows how to use Conan’s talisman against the Khan; despite all the fuss made about Conan being chosen and whatnot, only this serving wench-type knows that you have to throw the talisman at your victim to full activate it(!). Pretty damn dumb, but Carter’s invested in the tale, so it’s entertaining despite its dumbness.

“The City Of Skulls” (de Camp and Carter) – We end the anthology the way we started it: with another pastiche by de C and C. Believe it or not, this was my overall favorite story in the collection, and by a wide margin. I really liked it! The authors do an admirable job of capturing the vibe of a Howard original, but I liked this one better than any of the actual Howard originals in the book. It opens identically to the previous yarn, with Conan serving as a mercenary in a war party that’s in the process of being slaughtered. It’s a little over a month after the previous story (which is recapped, as if we didn’t just read the damn thing a few pages ago), and Conan’s in a party that is escorting sexy Princess Zosara into Hyrkania to marry “the Great Khan.”

I read somewhere that, in his “edits” of Howard’s original work, de Camp removed some of the more racist material. This accusation is thrown into doubt within the first few pages, where we come upon stuff like, “[Conan] drove the point of his tulwar straight into the slant-eyed, yellowish face,” not to mention our introduction to Conan’s new best bud, Juma: “a gigantic black from Kush.” Conan, Juma, and Zosara are captured and taken on the long journey to Shamballah, the City of Skulls, the capital of a hidden kingdom called Meru which is like at the bottom of a valley or something. Zosara is to be wedded to the depraved “god-king” ruler, and Conan and Juma are consigned to the galley of a ship as slaves.

Conan’s actually pretty badass here, “braining” dudes left and right, even with the chains of his manacles. The authors dole out lots of gore, from the opening massacre to Conan and Juma’s inevitable revolt on the slave galley. The novella ends in Shamballah, where the duo rescue the bound and nude Zosara from the god-king, who sits on a throne of skulls, worshipping a massive jade statue with many arms. It comes to life, trying to smash them, and Juma saves the day, tossing the god-king beneath the statue’s crushing feet. Features a goofy finale in which, a month later, the two safely deposit Zosara in the kingdom of the Khan she’s to marry, and Conan gossips to Juma that, unbeknownst to the Khan, Zosara’s already bearing him a heir – courtesy Conan, of course.

Overall I enjoyed Conan #1, with the caveat that none of the stories were particularly memorable. You know something’s up when the de Camp and Carter pastiche is the most entertaining story in the book! Writing-wise, Howard’s prose is head and shoulders above de Camp and Carter’s, but bear in mind that REH was a pulpster given to some seriously purple prose; he is in particular enamored with the word “ejaculated,” which isn’t used in the sleazy way you might think but instead as a dialog modifier. And he regularly uses thirty words where two would suffice. (Hey, just like my wife!!) He is also prone to exposition, and telling rather than showing. It appears that de Camp and Carter tried to mimic his style in their pastiches, but I’m unfamiliar with either man’s work outside of their Conan oeuvre. Regardless, their stories don’t have that weird fire of Howard’s original work.

On to Conan Of Cimmeria, which is one I do remember very well, if only for the masterful “Queen Of The Black Coast.”

Monday, November 6, 2017

Doomsday Warrior #12: Death American Style

Doomsday Warrior #12: Death American Style, by Ryder Stacy
November, 1987  Zebra Books

The Doomsday Warrior series gets back to its original template, jettisoning the Endworld-esque vibe of the previous volume, which as we’ll recall was lacking in the series-mandatory “Red” villains. Ryder Syvertsen brings them all back, including – unsurprisingly – main series villain Colonel Killov, whom we were led to believe was dead. As if! 

Speaking of the series template, the events of the previous volume aren’t picked up on, or even mentioned – Rockson and team when last we saw them were at the Earth’s core, hanging out with some fairy-type gal and a giant bat. Well, forget about all that. While Syvertsen does as usual refer to previous volumes, giving the series a sort of epic feel, it must be admitted he’s rather lazy about it. Practically every time Ted “Doomsday Warrior” Rockson reflects on the events of an earlier volume, Syvertsen states that the events were “several years ago.” So it would appear even the author was having a difficult time keeping track.

At any rate we are informed it is now June of 2095, meaning we are about six years out from the first volume, which was in 2089. The lack of Russians in the previous book is quickly addressed; we meet up with Rockson and his girlfriend Rona as they are out hunting a mutant bear, and a “Red drone” soon flies by, searching for Freefighters. Rona by the way is Rockson’s sole “conquest” this time around; his other girlfriend, Kim, is AWOL again; last time we were informed she’d gone to another Freefighter city, but this time she isn’t even mentioned.

The mutant bear hunt takes care of the “monster menace” sequence we must have each volume; after much struggle our two heroes manage to kill it and haul it back to Century City, where it is to be studied by the scientists. Here they see the Russian drone, which drops leaflets, begging any and all Freefighters, particularly Ted Rockson, to come to Washington within a few weeks for a peace conference, one that will be attended by President Zhabnov and Premier Vassily. Rockson figures it’s a trap, but it needs to be put to the vote to see if a party will indeed venture to DC to see if it’s legit. 

Along with the Russians, Syvertsen brings back something else that’s been missing: the purple-prosed sex! Rockson and Rona engage in the usual explicit-but-goofy tryst, back in Rockson’s room in Century City, a scene that isn’t as explicit as some that came before, but at least it’s there – not to mention featuring lines like, “The fur triangle between [Rona’s] thighs was like a forest after a rain. A rain of her own desire.” But poor Rona’s given short shrift – she bangs Rockson and then is cast aside, Rockson refusing to allow her to go along on the journey to DC. This has happened a lot lately; whereas Rona used to be a member of the “Rock team” in earlier volumes, more and more she’s now kept on the sidelines when “the boys” go out into the radiated wasteland to kick Commie ass.

It wouldn’t be Doomsday Warrior if we also didn’t get to see some of the politics in Century City; after too many pages elapse in various debates about whether they should or should not send a party to DC, Rockson stands up and says he will go, taking full responsibility as military leader of Century City. This leads into the other recurring element – the journey out into the blasted US, complete, as ever, with an encounter with nuke-freaked weather. This time it’s a sandstorm, and even Syvertsen sort of jokes through the narrative that the sandstorm strikes almost immediately after Rock and team leaves Century City so as to “get it out of the way.”

All the other stuff happens, right on cue – the team comes across a small town outside of destroyed Kansas City, where htey feast and party with the corn-worshipping citizens. But sure enough they’re all drugged and bound, doomed to be burned at the stake as offerings to the god. Only dimwitted giant Archer, with his practically-inhuman tolerance levels, is able to fight off the tranquilizing drug long enough to free Rockson – who guides dumb Archer via the telepathy Rockson learned back in the third volume (as we’re reminded via a footnote). Soon they escape the “damned place,” capping off a bizarre bit of Kansas-bashing that runs through the first half of the book. Even Rona, before having that “lusty but loving sex” with Rockson, is wearing a t-shirt with the proclamation “I’ve seen Kasas and it sucked!”

Speaking of that Rockson-Rona bit, there’s a healthy heaping of sleaze in the opening quarter of Death American Style. Whereas most other volumes will have an arbitrary bit where we see life through the eyes of an American suffering beneath the Red yoke in this nuke-ravaged future, this time we instead take an arbitrary tour through the sex-slave pens of a slavemaster who is selling stock to the Russians for the upcoming peace conference. Here we see disgusting, mutated “she-things,” as well as three-breasted mutant babes, whom we are reminded are incredibly valuable.

On the mutant topic, Syvertsen seems to want to make a bigger thing than usual out of the fact that Rockson himself is one, and in fact the “only member” of his team who is one. This is more Rona-neglecting on the author’s part, as Rona is a “star-pattern mutant” same as Rockson. But this time around it’s harped on quite a bit that Rockson is different from his buddies, and also there is the interesting element that Rockson, the “Ultimate American” is fighting for the America of the past – an America that Rockson never was a part of, given the fact he’s a mutant. In fact he broods a few times over the fact that, soon enough, only mutants like himself will be left in America, and at that point what sort of country will it be?

Meanwhile all the Russian characters are back in force: there’s decadent and obese Zhabnov fretting over the arrival of his uncle, Premier Vassily, who himself mostly relays orders through his black manservant, Prince Rahallah. Vassily this time wants true peace, unlike the unacceptable offers he made Rockson back in the fourth volume. Then there’s Colonel Killov, last seen in volume #9 (“over two years ago,” we’re informed), where it was implied he died in the climax. In backstory we learn he struggled like a “rat” for life, and eventually made his way to the Middle East, where he hired a group of radical Islamic terrorists led by Dhul Qarnain, “the Hand of Allah.”

So with Death American Style Syvertsen gives us one of the few things so far missing from Doomsday Warrior: Muslim terrorists. However Dhul’s people don’t amount to much, despite much buildup; they spend most of the narrative on a massive oil tanker as it makes its way to the US, an executioner beheading two members who attempt to steal extra food. But in the climactic action scene they don’t put up much of a fight, no match for the battle-hardened Freefighters, and Rockson pulls an Indiana Jones cheat when he’s confronted by a sword-bearing Dhul Qanrain in the final pages.

Rockson and team spend almost the entire trip on an appropriated diesel tractor trailer, stolen from the Russians. When they get to DC, Rockson splits the team up to scope the place – and then promptly announces himself to the Russians. Here Zhabnov again makes a fool of himself, and an increasingly-sickly Vassily pleads with Rockson to consider terms for peace, as he stresses that once he, Vassily, is dead, chaos will overtake the world. But right on cue Killov attacks as the peace conference is just starting, decimating the attendees from afar via combat helicopters.

The finale is a bit rushed; Rockson and Rahallah escape, discovering that their comrades have been captured – Archer and Zhabnov now prisoners of Killov, who will use them as barter. Hooking up with Rockson’s team and Vassily’s surviving imperial guard, they launch a two-pronged attack, Rahallah leading some scuba divers and Rockson driving that tractor trailer right onto the deck of Killov’s oil tanker. The sporadic action is nearly as gory as ever, but nothing outrageous. And Killov, of course, escapes once again.

Overall Death American Style gets the series back on-track after the sort-of experimentation of the previous couple volumes, and I appreciated how Syvertsen this time around tried to get in the heads of his characters a bit more. That being said, he’s taking no pains to make the series more literary, or even better-written; this one’s written in an even more juvenile sort of tone than the others. For example, at one point we’re informed that some fish, feasting on the bodyparts thrown into the water during Killov’s attack, get so full that they swim back home and “take the phone off the hook!” But then this goofy, bizarre vibe is part of the Doomsday Warrior charm.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon, by Arthur Byron Cover
December, 1980  Jove Books

Flash Gordon came out when I was around six, but I didn’t see it until the following year, when it was on HBO. I watched it all the time, loving the visuals and the Darth Vader-esque henchman Klytus; it wasn’t as good as Star Wars, but there was something cool about it. I didn’t understand why all the adults said it was stupid.

About seven years ago the movie came out on Blu Ray and I bought it for the heck of it…it was the first time I’d seen it since 1981, or whenever it was on HBO. The first thing that occurred to me was that it was more Barbarella than Barbarella at times; I’m a huge fan of Barbarella, that mix of kinkiness, psychedelia, and intentional camp, and Flash Gordon is along the exact same lines. The part where Dr. Zarkov’s capsule is sucked into an astral whirlpool could actually be a scene from Barbarella, and I choked on my cheap wine when, late in the film, a bound Prince Barin (aka future 007 Timothy Dalton) delivered the deadpan line, “Tell me more of this Houdini.”

In the meantime I’d grown to love the original ‘30s-‘40s Flash Gordon comic strip by Alex Raymond (not to mention the excellent – and faithful – serial version). Raymond’s Flash Gordon is planetary romance as it should be done: on the level, but as escapist as could be, with clear-cut heroes and villains and a healthy heaping of kinkiness. In fact it’s this dark, perverted side of Flash Gordon, strong in the initial Raymond strips and the ’36 serial – as well as in this 1980 film – that makes me prefer it as an adult to Star Wars (which to tell the truth I can’t stand anymore).

The Acidemic review of the ’36 Flash Gordon serial (link above) inspired me to go back and revisit the ’80 film. I still like it, and I’d still rather watch it than Star Wars. I saw some online reviews that claimed this novelization was even more kinky than the film, giving the story even more of a spicy pulps vibe, with talk of group sex and drugs and various sadomasochistic stuff. So of course, I got the book posthaste. But folks, I hate to report that those reviews are a bit exagerrated, not to mention misleading. In fact, the novelization is more along the lines of a collaboration between say Ron Goulart and Howard Rheingold.

Sadly there was never a novelization of Barbarella, but if there had been, it likely would’ve been a lot like this. Arthur Byron Cover pens his novelization as if it were 1967 instead of 1980; his Flash Gordon has more in common with the psychedelic sixties than the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, filled with full-bore psychedelia and New Agey concepts. Meditation, drugs, trances, astral voyaging into the cosmos, references to Jefferson Airplane, the works. There’s even a leftist spin to the narrative as would be expected by one of those hippie-lit authors of the ‘60s; Flash’s opening section, for example, begins with an arbitrary diatribe against Vietnam, Nixon, etc.

This ‘60s vibe is particularly evident in Flash Gordon himself. In Raymond’s original strip, Flash was an elite human being, a professional athlete who was also part of the upper crust of society. This was slightly retained in the ’36 serial; in the just-as-entertaining 1979 animated feature, he was changed to a government agent. But in the ’80 film, all of that is removed and Flash is just a dumb jock. Not so in Cover’s novelization; Flash is a paragon of leftist virtue-signaling (even Dale Arden thinks of him as “such a liberal”), constantly pondering his own emotions and the emotions of others, even complaining about the “sexist, male-dominated societies” of the day.

In other words, Cover’s Flash Gordon is a total snowflake, folks, and in this day and age would probably have his own daytime talk show. Yet at the same time he’s a powerhouse NFL quarterback, New York Jets, and just won the SuperBowl for them. Cover provides inordinate background for each of the main characters, and we learn that Flash was born in Alabama, raised by his dad when his mom died in childbirth, and lost his southern accent from listening to the sports announcers for football games on the radio all the time. He is fully in tune with the cosmos, though, having attained a sort of “spiritual awareness” that makes him more than human – but less of an emphathetic character than the film version, or even the original Raymond version of the character (who was pretty much a cipher).

These inordinate backgrounds extend to Dale Arden and Dr. Hans Zarkov; the former we learn in some of that “spicy” stuff other reviewers have mentioned became involved, temporarily, with group sex due to an overly-demanding boyfriend. But there’s no detail (indeed, there’s no sex at all in the book), and Dale in fact comes off as pretty unlikable in the novel. Easily triggering the sensitive types of today, the Dale Arden of Raymond’s strip was a classic damsel in distress, always in need of Flash to save her. Cover tries to invest his Dale with more of a “city girl” sort of gumption, but mostly this extends to her whoring past. As it is, Dale is still a damsel in distress, and spends the majority of the tale waiting for Flash (or some other man) to save her.

Whereas the film, in my view, capably mixes the action with the comedy, the novel unfortunately falls flat in the attempt. For Cover has fallen prey to one of the biggest sins, in my book – the characters themselves don’t take anything seriously. Despite that the Earth is about to be destroyed by the machinations of Ming the Merciless, and despite that our heroes are plunged into one desperate situation after the next, they still find the oppurtunity to trade knowing banter, mocking everything. 

This is the sort of stuff the reader endures throughout:

“We’ve all been under a strain,” said Dale. 

“Absolutely,” said Flash. “Unexplained phenomena invariably lend life a surreal texture that makes us all subject to Sartre’s nausea.” 

“I couldn’t have put that better myself,” said Zarkov.

Or like when Dale is certain she’s about to be taken advantage of by whatever aliens they encounter, upon their arrival on Mongo – a certainy, by the way, borne from her knowledge of “spicy pulps:”

“In other words, Dale, [Zarkov is] saying the universe is too sophisticated a place for you to have to worry about being taken against your will,” said Flash. “The chances are your adventures will be much more exotic.” 

“Absolutely,” said Zarkov. “Let’s forget these hoary cliches of spicy pulp fiction and come to grips with the sheer inventiveness of reality, you know, like a genuine Chekhovian character.”

Mind you, this is after the trio have taken a trip through a sort of black hole and crash-landed on an alien planet, where they stand and watch, trading such dialog, as a platoon of alien soldiers march toward them. This sort of thing occurs throughout the novel, and is intended as “knowing” comedy. You can judge for yourself how funny it actually is.

Granted, all this might be in the original Lorenzo Semple, Jr. script, but the filmmakers wisely didn’t translate it to the screen. The movie I think can still be enjoyed as straight but fun adventure as well as a knowing parody – I should know, as I experienced it both ways, the former as a kid and the latter as a (drunk) adult. The novel though fails in the attempt; its mixture of high-brow “literature” and low-brow self-mockery (not to mention annoyingly-frequent pop culture references like Frank Frazetta, the Blue Meanies, Captain America, Fellini, etc – even Erica Jong’s Fear Of Flying) comes off as unwieldy on the page.

And while Flash may be a jock in the film, in the novelization he is as distant to the reader as some Timothy Learyian concept of a psychedelic demigod, so ascended from mundane, worldly concerns that the reader cannot connect with him. I mean every other page we’re reading how Flash “immers[es] his soul into his corporeal self” and the like. Thus the action scenes, what few there are, suffer – and suffer drastically. Zarkov and Dale themselves fail to come much to life; in fact, Zarkov and Flash are so similar in the novel that I had a hard time telling them apart, something you could never say about the original comic strip or the ’36 serial, not to mention the 1980 film itself.

The narrative is basically identical to the film; only in the incidentals does it differ, usually in backgrounds for various characters and, as mentioned, dialog. About the only “new” thing is we learn that Flash saw Dale before he boarded the doomed airplane with her, something one could figure from the film, anyway, given a line of dialog from Flash about seeing her before. But here we learn that Flash has come out to the woods to find “spiritual awareness” after his SuperBowl victory, and Dale, an independent travel agent, has come here to escape that group-sexing boyfriend…though we learn in incidental dialog that in the meantime she’s done a bunch of country boys while staying here. As I say, Dale’s a bit of a whore in the book.

Cover throws his full literary powers into the rampant description that takes up much of the narrative, bringing to life Mongo and its colorful inhabitants (the film is a damn riot of color, and looks phenomenal when compared to the washed-out looking movies of today), yet for all that I had a hard time forming mental pictures from his descriptions. He does however make Ming’s wanton daughter Aura come off as suitably sexy – and here in the novel it’s not only implied that Aura and Ming have a sexual relationship (one that begins, usually, with Ming whipping her before leading on to the main event), but also that Aura gets off on sodomy.

Otherwise, the novel doesn’t offer much new – just as I say in the incidentals. Like Flash’s awesome “Flash” shirt was given to him by an anonymous female fan, and he wears it in the hopes that she’ll see him in it. Or that Vader-esque Klytus recently went through some sort of transformation which robbed him of his soul, but gave him all sorts of cybernetic powers. Or that Ming the Merciless has no concept of good or evil but is so in tune with the cosmos that he can bend it to his will when meditating. Oh, and we also learn that Dale’s had her tubes tied – this after Flash delivers to her the line “We’ll tell our kids someday,” a line that made it into the film, but here Dale wonders, “Should I tell him about my operation?”

I don’t know…on the whole I’d have to say Cover’s novelization of Flash Gordon really annoyed me, with its pedantic, sanctimonious, ultra-snowflake of a protagonist, and the New Agey vibe didn’t mesh well with the “knowing” in-jokery. Indeed, much of the dialog falls flat throughout. And given the superheroic nature of the protagonsts, not to mention the sad fact that they themselves don’t take anything seriously, the novel fails to make much of an impression. Unlike the film, which certainly does.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Revenger #4: The Stiletto Signature

The Revenger #4: The Stiletto Signature, by Jon Messmann
October, 1974  Signet Books

Jon Messmann continues his “Burt Hirschfeld writing The Executioner” schtick with this fourth volume of The Revenger that’s once again heavy on the introspection, usually at the expense of the action. That being said, The Stiletto Signature has more sex than the previous three volumes, with hero Ben Martin scoring with two uber-sexy babes – several times over, in extra-smutty detail, which is how I demand my sleaze.

Surprisingly, given the “sex slavery” plot promised on the back cover, we don’t really get much about it; indeed, the sex slave stuff, which serves to get Ben Martin engaged on this particular hit, is given narrative short-shrift. The villain of the piece, a Sicilian mafioso named Vito Cavallo who has taken over the family of Don Genossanto (killed in the previous volume), runs a business in which Sicilian girls are imported to the US and sold to men who keep them in their homes ostensibly as maids and whatnot, but who really use them for sex. Martin’s distant cousin Rosa has become a victim of Cavallo, having been imported from Sicily for this sexual slavery, and murdered when Ben went around looking for her; Ben, who never even knew Rosa, was requested by her family back in Sicily to find out what happened to their daughter. Little did they know they were writing The Revenger himself.

But in reality the crux of Stiletto Signature is more about Ben plotting against Cavallo and trying to get evidence of the sex slavery business and who is helping the Mafioso run it. Cavallo was brought over by old Don Genossanto a few years ago, and has now used his native savagery to get to the top of the heap. He has brought back many of the savage old Mafia ways, in particular murdering turncoats and special enemies with a stiletto; the use of this particular instrument has become Cavallo’s “signature.”

The series takes a turn expected from so many of these other ‘70s lone wolf vigilante novels; Ben is contacted by a police chief who is not only a secret supporter of Ben’s vigilante work, but who also wants to secretly endorse him. This is Captain Leo Hendricks, who has become a fan of Ben’s over the past few years. When Ben goes to see the corpse of his cousin in the morgue, Hendricks has him hauled in, having suspected that the infamous Revenger might eventually try to become involved in this latest mobland plot.

Hendricks, after getting a grudging Ben to admit he is the Ben Martin who is supposedly dead but who is really the Revenger, tells our hero all about Cavallo’s sex slavery operation. If they can figure out how Cavallo is running it, who his financers are, they can bring him down legally. Ben takes the job and sets his sights on Carter Van Rhyne, a jet-setter type who employed Ben’s murdered cousin as a “housemaid.” Ben goes to Van Rhyne’s mansion, just flat-out asking about his cousin – and then telling a nonplussed Van Rhyne that she’s dead. Ben also trades interested looks with Larel, Van Rhyne’s hot-stuff sister.

Action is minimal, as usual; the Mafia tries to put out a hit on this mysterious guy looking into Van Rhyne’s business – for of course it turns out Van Rhyne is up to his neck in the whole sex-slave operation – and Ben fools them with a handy mannequin he puts in the front seat of his car. He guns them down casually, as usual mostly sticking to a revolver or a rifle for his mob-busting. However this volume puts a bit more focus on Ben’s ‘Nam past, in particular where it comes to his preparations for his various attacks.

Laurel unsurprisingly becomes Ben’s first conquest in the novel; she is gradually drawn to his side, initially disbelieving her brother’s role in any Mafia business, but soon pledging to help Ben stop him. She has a secret apartment in the city, and there the two enjoy the first of what will ultimately be a few explicitly-rendered sex scenes; Messmann actually has ‘em go at it twice, back to back, but bear in mind the sex scenes themselves are written in the “literary” vibe Messmann employs for the series: “[Ben] touches…the calyx of ecstasy” and the like. So while the hardcore screwin’ is fairly graphic throughout, it is couched in that same sort of highfalutin style that Burt Hirschfeld would use in his own novels, to the point that the reader doesn’t know whether he should be getting hot and bothered or reaching for a dictionary.

Eventually the action transitions to Sicily, as Ben heads to Cavallo’s hometown to disrupt his plans there. But even here the sex slave stuff isn’t much explored; throughout we only learn about the financial aspects of it, or how exactly Cavallo is bringing the girls over. Rather it’s all about Ben shaming Cavallo by exploiting the overly-masculine dictates of the old world. Which is to say, Ben screws the virgin Cavallo plans to marry! Pretending to be Cavallo himself, Ben ingratiates himself into the local community, all of whom look up to Cavallo with much fear and respect. Due to various reasons, Cavallo has never actually met the girl he is to marry, nor her parents, so Ben successfully bluffs his way into their presence and makes off with the babe, claiming that he has decided to marry her earlier than expected.

Her name is Norma, and Ben takes her virginity in another explicit sequence, one that, as with the material with Laurel, actually features back-to-back banging. Turns out Norma is “built for sex” despite being a virgin…and when Ben drops the bomb that he isn’t Cavallo, thus “despoiling” the girl forever (we are informed that these old-school Sicilians would rather their daughters die than lose their virginity before marriage), she takes it placidly. Ben for his part feels “stained” for the heartless deed he’s done, but hell, you can’t call yourself “The Revenger” without ruffling a few feathers.

Once Ben has called Cavallo back in New York to blab that he just banged his bride-to-be, Norma drops a bomb of her own: she’s known from the start that Ben was not Cavallo, having managed to find some photos of the man. She went along with Ben because she sensed he would be her savior, taking her from the life she does not want with Cavallo. So Messmann gets his cake and eats it, too – Ben thus is not a liar-rapist, but a hero after all. Anyway, Norma soon takes off to hang out with a girlfriend, and we’re into the homestretch.

The finale sees Ben fighting against time as he tries to make various connecting flights and arrive in the US a few hours before Cavallo’s latest shipment of sex-slaves, which are being transported first by a Sicilian fishing boat, then to a private plane, and finally to a lumber mill truck that waits for them at Kennedy Airport. Carter Van Rhyne is so involved with Cavallo that the distribution center of Van Ryne’s lumber mill is secretly used as a sort of waystation for the imported women, who are then shipped out separately across the US. Ben wants to get there before them, set up an ambush, and end the entire affair that night.

Laurel of course manages to go along with Ben on his assault, which sees him blasting from afar Cavallo and the ten mobsters he’s brought along with him. Here Ben again uses his .38, as well as a Mossburg rifle. It’s not an action-centric finale, playing more on chaos and Laurel’s fear that her brother will be killed. And Ben for his part bizarrely enough tries to take Cavallo alive, wanting to deliver him to Captain Hendricks, who will then go about the process of legally taking down Cavallo’s operation. But seriously, what kind of “Revenger” would Ben be if he didn’t kill his man – first shooting off his kneecaps and then his ear for the desired intel, and then finally blowing him away when Cavallo lurches at him with his stiletto?

The story ends with Ben once again boffing Laurel in literary-smut fashion, with the intimation that Laurel is going to be Ben’s woman…for a time. It would appear that Messmann is giving up on the ongoing storyline of the previous three volumes; as we’ll recall, Ben was also quite serious about his leading lady in the last volume, even debating at book’s end if he was going to return to her. 

Messmann’s writing is good as ever, though – at least, if you’re looking for a little literary-style stuff with your mob-busting action. But at this point, Ben Martin is not much different from Messmann’s other series character of the time, Jefferson Boone; both are presented as more worldly and sophisticated than the average man of action, prone to brooding and introspection, well-versed in history and poetry and what-all. But so far I like this series better.