Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Weapon Makers - A.E. van Vogt

But each time she caught the desperate defeatism with a tight-lipped resistance. The House of Isher could not afford to destroy such a secret. Some day, it might play a vital part in preserving the Imperial House from resurgent enemies. She smiled at the intensity of her indecision. And there was no doubt in her mind that so long as the ship remained in existence the hours would seem long, and the Crown would be in mortal danger.

Tempo Books, cover art Paul Lehr
So yeah, I have both this book and its companion "novel" The Weapon Shops of Isher, which is supposed to come before this one but was built from stories published after the original serial publication of "The Weapon Makers" from February to April, 1943 in Astounding Science Fiction. If you think that's confusing, just wait.

I was supposed to read The Weapon Shops of Isher first, then this one. That's because it was published in novel form in 1952, a year after the other novel. It was again republished as One Against Eternity as part of an Ace Double. But really, I don't think it matters which one should be read first because, like most of the A.E. van Vogt stories and novels I've read, The Weapon Makers doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of sense by the time you're done.

Not to say that's a bad thing. This novel is such a Snap-Crackle-Whiz-Bang-Pulp of a Science Fiction adventure that plot and logic goes out the window in all the shit that's going on.

This one is about Captain Robert Hedrock and the struggle between the House of Isher and the Weapon Shops. The current Empress is the beautiful Innelda Isher who, at the start of the novel has just ordered the capture and death sentence of Hedrock for being a spy. Hedrock gets advance notice of this order and manages to escape Innelda Isher's soldiers from a banquet hall,  seeking sanctuary at the The Weapon Shops headquarters. Much to Hedrock's consternation, the Weapon Makers have issued their own death sentence on Hedrock, because they believe he is a spy for the House of Isher. You see, there's been a several thousand year long uneasy balance between the House of Isher and the Weapon Shops, which were designed to build and store weapons that could only be used in self defense against a tyrannical government. These Weapon Shops came about after the destruction of around a billion people in a war that just about destroyed the Earth and around the same time House of Isher rose to power from the nuclear ashes.

So anyway, Hedrock manages to flee the Weapon Makers  and escape into an underground laboratory where he's promptly attacked by a giant rat! The giant rat is the by-product of experiments that Hedrock has been conducting for the past several hundred years in an attempt to understand and harness the radioactive chain of events that made him immortal thousands of years ago. That's right, Hedrock is immortal...just go with it. Anyway, Hedrock is now on the hunt for a cat named Derd Kershaw, who has apparently come up with a design for an interstellar rocket ship that both the Weapon Shops and the House of Isher are determined to get their hands on. Apparently having this method of space travel at one's control insures superiority over one's enemies. Don't ask me why.

Hedrock's seach for Derk Kershaw leads him to twin brothers Gil and Dan Neeland. It turns out that Gil is looking for his brother Dan, who was involved in the rocket design that Derd Kershaw was overseeing. Through a confusing series of events Hedrock gets a job as a rocket designer for a suspicious dude named Greer, but when Hedrock reports to Greer he discovers that the building they're working in is really a hangar hiding the Kershaw's rocket ship! I'm throwing the exclamation point in because that's how things move in this novel.

Ed Valigursky cover art from 1970

So Hedrock dupes Greer long enough to tie him up, providing the opportunity to investigate the ability of the ship they're in. But, Greer has been in communication with security commanders from the House of Isher and they've now surrounded the hidden rocket ship with 800 cannons, or something, forcing Hedrock to assume Neeland's identity, after which he manages equip part of the ship with an interstellar drive and make his escape by blasting off into space, where he travels at many times the speed of light, ending up on a planet where he's captured by a species of giant spider-like aliens so advanced that they're capable of fusing identities through telepathy, allowing Hedrock to return to Earth under Neeland's identity!

(Whew! ...catching my breath here)

Back on Earth, Hedrock makes a giant man which then attacks the cities of the Empire, forcing the House of Isher and the Weapon Shops to form an alliance against the destruction of their cities.

At least I think that's what happens.

I'm telling you this novel shifts gears so many times that I was never really sure what was going on by halfway through it. The whole story moves like a dream, where shit just happens without any seeming design or logic. Somewhere in his career, A.E. van Vogt determined that in order to hold a reader's attention he'd have to keep the action fast and furious, and logic be damned. Much of this was a result of his novels being structured, or cobbled together, by previously published short stories from the pulps. At least this is true of his novels from the 50s. It was also during the 50s that A.E. van Vogt was involved in L.Ron Hubbard's Dianetics centers in California. So make of that what you will.

Most of A.E. van Vogt's novels are easily found in used bookstores for really cheap. It seems they were never out of print, finding new readers every generation. It's understandable because, in spite of their flaws, they're pretty fun to read. They're the stuff that inspired many more "sophisticated" novels that came after in Science Fiction. So take 'em for what they are.

Monday, January 2, 2017

High Lawless - T.V. Olsen

Channing's fingers flexed lightly over the Colt butt; he let his hand drop. You draw lightning once, he thought, and you can't turn back. He had been fool enough to think he could escape it once, mustanging in the lonely hills, only to find himself embroiled again. Once a man drew trouble in this raw country, it marked him. Like the brand of Cain his father had always been fond of throwing up to him. 

2016 has been short and difficult year for too many on the planet and most of us are glad to see it pass. I had a long holiday weekend, of sorts, so I had time to read something that I think is good for the soul, an old Gold Medal western. I'm not as well read in westerns as others are. I came really late to the game in reading these classics. I've long been a fan of hard-boiled fiction, since my mid-teens, but my only exposure to westerns had been occasionally reading a Louis L'Amour novel left in the squadron room at my Air Force base. 

I got more familiar with the genre thanks in part to the terrific blog Pulp Serenade. I went off to the used bookstores with a nice helpful list of writers and books to look for. I found a double novel paperback of T.V. Olsen, including this novel, High Lawless, from 1960. 

The plot is a simple tale of vengeance after Ed Channing's partner and friend gets fleeced of their entire business proceeds by slick cardshark, Costello. Channing confronts Costello at the poker table, only to see his pal take a bullet from Costello that was aimed for him. Costello gets away, his buddy dies, and the chase is on. Channing tracks Costello to the Anchor ranch where Costello had taken cover under his crooked uncle Santee Dyker's protection. Dyker has surrounded himself with a bunch of no-good gunnies in preparation for a range war. When Channing shows up at the Anchor to confront Costello he gets himself horsewhipped for his troubles. What follows is a plot involving shootings, a torture, a couple of fistfights, a couple of kidnappings, a stampede, and a final showdown outside a saloon! 

I liked this novel just fine. It had an appropriate laconic hardboiled vibe about it that always appeals to me. I can't speak to its predictability and such, since I haven't read as many westerns as others have. Certainly Channing is an archetype western hero, a loner looking to settle down but getting pulled back into the life by forces beyond his control. There is a love interest as well that Channing has to contend with. It's not spoiling anything to say how that will turn out. But thankfully, that lovey stuff doesn't slow down the pace of this novel in any way. There are plenty of bad guys to round up and bring to justice before getting to that huggy kissee stuff! 

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Savage Night - Jim Thompson

That was the week that Jake tried to frame me.
It was the week he tried to kill me.
It was the week Fay and I began brawling.
It was the week Ruthie...
Jesus! Jesus God, that week! Even now--and what do I have to worry about now?--it rips the guts out of me to think about it.

Black Lizard Books, 1985
It sounds like Hell Week, sort of.

I thought it appropriate to blow out 2016's posts with a psycho-noir masterpiece, Savage Night by Jim Thompson. I picked up my Black Lizard edition of this novel about 30 years ago from a store long since closed. Like most of us, I discovered these noir classics through Black Lizard reprints. Same thing with Harry Whittington and Dan J. Marlowe. Several years later Black Lizard was picked up by Random House and the novels were re-issued in trade paperback at a price of $10 instead of $3.95, which kind of sucked for readers at the time. But that's how the publishing world goes.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun(?) dipping back into the paranoid psycho-sexual nightmare of crime and madness that Jim Thompson was so good at bringing to the page. This one, from 1953 follows a hitman named Charlie Bigger on assignment to rub out a potential mob witness, Jake Winroy, before Winroy can testify and bring a whole heap of trouble down on men of influential standing.

Bigger comes to the town of Peardale in disguise as a student attending a teacher's college. He's been hired to kill Winroy before his trial date. His orders are to make the hit look like an accident. Bigger's boss is a shadowy kingpin referred to only as The Man. Charlie Bigger cuts a strange figure as a hitman. At barely 5 feet tall, bad teeth and poor eyesight, he hardly presents an imposing figure of menace. Lifts in his shoes, contact lenses and dentures help somewhat. Years of being called Sonny, and treated like a boy by women have hardened Bigger into something of a time bomb. Our only background on Bigger's violent life is given to us through an article in a True Detective magazine, much like the kind Thompson himself used to write.

Bigger is no sooner in town and taking residence in Winroy's home as a student boarder when he's in deep with a couple of unsettling dames in Fay (Winroy's wife) and Ruthie, Ruthie is another student, hired by the Winroys to come in and clean up house a few hours each day. Ruthie has an unsettling deformity which Bigger finds both horrifying and appealing. He relates to Ruthie as a misfit. Fay is a hardened dame with a past as a nightclub singer, hooking up with Jake during his Cadillac days and now living a frustrated existence with a washed out drunk. Jake is a clown, given to fits of drunken panic. He believes, rightly, that Bigger's arrival in town means his number is finally up.

Also thrown into the cast is fellow boarder, Kendall, a kindly older gentleman who seems to take more than a passing interest in Bigger's success as a student. Then there is Sheriff Summers, who has his own suspicions about our hero.

All of this makes for a pressure cooker of mounting paranoia for Charlie Bigger as he tries to navigate his way between lust for Ruthie and overtures from Fay and the fawning attentions from Kendall. Alone that makes for a nice setup, but Thompson isn't interested in pure plot to drive a story. His books are all about voice and where that voice is coming from. His protagonists are seething with hangups that often betray them.

For example, at one point midway through the novel, Bigger interrupts his story to tell us about a bizarre encounter with a writer he once met while he was hitchhiking through Vermont. This writer had a load of manuscripts in his car that he equated with manure. The writer also lived on a farm where he kept goats that fertilized a field of vaginas. He tells Bigger that he used to grow breasts and asses and legs, but finally settled for vaginas because there was no demand for the other stuff.

Throughout the novel the characters speak in broken patterns, as though having to constantly interrupt themselves before spilling their true intentions. It's something that becomes more and more apparent as the novel progresses, with Bigger often telling the reader that he feels as though he's disappearing. Disintegrating seems more like it. Ruthie stutters as she speaks, Bigger and Fay halt their words before they're half spoken, and by the end of the novel we have Bigger and Ruthie communicating only through grunts and gestures.

A whole lotta of weird for what's supposed to be a dime caper.

I'm sure a lot of study has gone into Thompson's novels, but one has to remember that Thompson wrote these with the necessity of making a living, not provoking college professors. There wasn't time to polish and rewrite. These are first draft fits of anger and humor, never forget the savage humor,  that make reading these novels so compelling. Thompson had enough bitter experience at life and work to dish it back plenty at the casual reader who happened upon one of his books at the drugstore rack. I like to picture him laughing to himself as he typed out scenes featuring a field of vaginas, or a guy hiding out in a barrel of mincemeat, or a protagonist laying it to a woman with a deformed leg. That's the fun I get out of these books.

Most noir fans have already read this novel. Many more have read his more famous The Killer Inside Me. There is nothing out there like them, and it's too bad that their popularity didn't come at a time when Thompson could have personally got the benefit of it.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Redheads Die Quickly - Gil Brewer

He looked up and she had just stepped out from behind the bushes. She had her shorts on and the torn yellow jersey. She moved slowly and she looked pale and sheened with sweat, and as if she might have been crying. Her hair was damp and snarled, and brown pine needles clung in its dark richness. Lipstick was smeared all around her mouth.  - On a Sunday Afternoon - Gil Brewer

Gil Brewer
My favorite anthologies of the past few years is David Rachels's collection of Gil Brewer's short stories Redheads Die Quickly. It's a collection of 25 crime stories originally published in Manhunt and other Detective magazines of the 50s. Not a dud in the bunch, all of them featuring the classic Gil Brewer themes of sexual lust, booze and dangerous women.

Every fan of mid-century noir knows who Gil Brewer is by now, thanks to a number of his novels getting republished for new readers. I've been lucky finding a handful of his Gold Medal and Monarch paperbacks over the years and have liked them all. I grew up in Tampa Florida, near where Brewer lived for much of his life, and the setting of most of his fiction. Noir stories in the Florida heat, whether in a motel on the beach or a corrupt southern town, are my comfort food. My first exposure to Gil Brewer was reading The Red Scarf  in a single afternoon and from then on I was hooked. I haven't come across a novel of his yet that I didn't like. Sure, some of them are better than others, and some could have used a tighter hand at editing, but they're perfect examples of booze and sex filled nightmares of mid-century crime fiction. He's the flip-side of the far more famous and successful John D. MacDonald, They're scruffier, less polished novels than MacDonald's books, Sort of like the debutant's slutty cousins, and I love them just as much.

Redheads Die Quickly show Brewer's skill at putting together tight, psychotic and nightmarish tales of obsession and murder within just a few pages. They're "get-in-get-out and skip the fancy guitar solo" kind of cuts that you find on the best punk albums that your friends never listened to. Stories like "On a Sunday Afternoon" about a picnic gone horribly, horribly bad, or "The Black Suitcase" about a man's decent into madness during a yacht party, to name a few. Or the brutal story "Moonshine" with its gut-punching ending. Adultery, drinking binges, blackouts, robbery, sex, murder, oh man just wrap that stuff up in a bunch of short stories and how can you not like it?

This collection also includes an informative introduction on Gil Brewer's life and work written by David Rachels. Also included is a bibliography of Gil Brewer's short stories. If there ever ends up being another collection produced, I'll be one of the first to buy it.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Everybody's Watching Me - Mickey Spillane

Her face seemed to laugh at me. A curious laugh. A bewildering laugh. There was a sparkling dance to her eyes she kept half veiled and her mouth parted just a little bit. He tongue touched the tip of her teeth, withdrew and she said, "Now is the time for something else, Joe. Now is for a woman going back a long time who sees somebody she could have loved then."

I looked at her and held my breath. She was so completely beautiful and I didn't want to make a fool of myself. Not yet.

"Now is the time for you to kiss me, Joe," she said.

I tasted her.

MANHUNT, April 1953
I don't have the original issued of MANHUNT that this short novel by Mickey Spillane first appeared in. I wish I did though. Just about every story I've read that was originally printed in MANHUNT I've enjoyed. Sadly, I was born too late. I wish that someone would maybe anthologize stories from MANHUNT in single collections, the way they do WEIRD TALES, or ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE. Maybe one day. Or even better, make the original issues available on Kindle.

I got the opportunity to read this story in PULP MASTERS, edited by Ed Gorman and Marting H. Greenberg. If you find this collection I recommend picking it up. It's got short novels by John D. MacDonald, James M. Cain, Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake and Harry Whittington that originally appeared in Men's magazines or digests. All very good and entertaining stories.

I wouldn't rank "Everybody's Watching Me" by Mickey Spillane as one of my favorites. There is plenty of action and bad guys and a hot dame named Helen Troy in it, but there were long passages of dialog that through me a bit, and some pages of filler. Also, I think Spillane was hemmed in a bit by trying to tell the story of a gang war strictly from Joe Boyle's perspective. Often to the point of having the plot progress via awkward scenes of Joe eavesdropping on talky bad guys.

As a simple tale of revenge it's a good one, though. Joe Boyle delivers a note to chief badguy Mike Renzo, telling him that he's gonna find his guts all over the floor for killing a gambler named Cooley. The note is signed by someone named Vetter. Vetter is a shadowy assassin for hire who's been icing various mobsters in different cities. No one knows who Vetter is or what he looks like. Renzo decides to have our hero Joe Boyle followed so that he could finger the mysterious Vetter. Along the way Joy Boyle hooks up with Helen Troy, a chanteuse of sorts for Renzo's nightclub. He also gets tangled up with the cops who would also like to get their mitts on Vetter, preferably after he puts Renzo on ice. Two birds with one stone, kind of thing.

Lots of beatings and shootings ensue, which make it vintage Spillane. Boyle and Helen also get torqued up for each other at various times in the story, until the finale when the shit all hits the fan and the bad guys scream like dames. The surprise ending isn't really a surprise if you've read enough Mickey Spillane, but it's still fun getting there. This would have made a pretty cool late night noir movie from the 50's.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Border Town Girl - John D. MacDonald

"As she sucked smoke into her lungs she looked around the room. Brown and green grass rug. Wicker furniture. Metal bed painted a liverish green. The mattress sagged toward the middle from all directions. Her two suitcases were on stands by the far wall, the lids open. A stocking dangled out of one, almost to the floor. 

Fawcett Gold Medal 

I've had this JDM paperback on my shelf for many years. Most certainly I got it from one of the handful of used bookstores in Phoenix that have now closed. Thinking about the bookstores that have closed is always a bit depressing, so pulling an old paperback off the shelf at home and escaping into a bygone time is comfort for the soul. 

Anyway, as you might notice from other reviews, or not, Border Town Girl is actually two novellas by JDM. The first one, "Border Town Girl" was originally published in DIME DETECTIVE MAGAZINE as "Five Star Fugitive" back in 1950. JDM was a master at laying down a fast-paced pulp story, and this one has all the classic elements of pulp action. The beginning is a corker. A hard-nosed moll named Diana Saybree is laying low in a motel on the border of Texas and Mexico waiting for a drug deal to go down. Diana is pure pulp slattern with her cigarettes and sexy underwear, stockings hanging from suitcase, rye on the dresser and sweaty flesh on the bedsheets. Unfortunately, before her contact from Mexico arrives she's knocked over by a hood, leaving her without the payoff dough she's been trusted with. Just south of the border is Lane Sanson, a regular Joe who had notoriety several years before for penning a bestseller about the war. Now he's on the bum, spending the last of his money on tequila and hookers. One hooker sets him up for a roll which ends up with him getting confused for the smuggler that Diana Saybree is waiting for. Enter the scene, Christy, one psycho killer ex-circus strong man who gets kinky thrills torturing his victims before snuffing them out. And Christy can't wait to get his mitts on Diana's hot little bod!

The 2nd story in the novel is simply titled "Linda" and I believe it was original to this two-fer published in 1956. Linda is described as a babe born with a "morality gene missing" who is married to all-round good guy (and hapless dupe) Paul Cowley. Paul is a plant engineer who married Linda after she returns from a wild life and shady past in California. Paul works with a hotshot sales guy named Brandon Jeffries, known to all as Jeff. Jeff and his wife Stella become social friends with Paul and Linda. Before long, Linda and Jeff start to work a plan for both couples to embark on a shared vacation to a remote beach in Florida. It'll be a kick, they promise, both couples taking in the sun, the beach, the fishing, and...well you can probably see it coming right? Betrayal and murder. This is another terrific yarn that'll have you hooked within the first few paragraphs. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Weird Menace from the Pulps!

I'm not gone but but I'm probably forgotten by now. It's been over a month! Shame on my lazy ass! I could make an excuse that I've started my 3rd novel, and that would be true, but mostly it's just getting into that time of year when things get a little crazy for all of us. But I thought I'd come back to share some thoughts on some of my favorite pulp stuff that we love around here. That is the highly inappropriate (for their time!) Weird Menace yarn. Some time back I wrote a column for Dark Moon Digest about Weird Menace, and I thought that, given the season, it would be fun to share it.  

Haffner Press, October 2010

Weird Menace tales made their unsavory reputation in magazines like Thrilling Mysteries, Dime Mystery, Terror Tales, Horror Stories, and Spicy Mysteries to name just a few. Their popularity took place in the early to mid-thirties, always featuring a semi-clad, or totally nude, damsel facing torture at the hands of a maniacal beast of seemingly supernatural origins. The trick, however, almost always strictly followed by Weird Menace writers in the demands of editors, was to reveal that the supernatural trappings were invariably grounded in reality. The monsters were unmasked to be someone introduced early in the story; an uncle, a scientist, a supposed ally and always motivated by greed, lust and madness. The hero of the story endures pain and torture almost beyond endurance to find that last reserve of strength available within him to send an iron fist crashing into the demonic visage of the monster and his minions, thereby saving his sweetheart from a terrible death devised in the most imaginative torture traps invented. Death by boiling oil, buzzing saws, flaming knives, being skinned alive…if you can imagine it, it’s probably been written about in one of these stories. These lurid torture pieces had a pretty good run for a while, before getting pushed under the counter by an audience worried about impressionable minds lapping them up. And the covers alone are worth the price of admission.

Cover by H. J. Ward

Now, many horror fans are rediscovering these wet nuggets of the past. Fun as they are, most of these stories are pretty dreadful to read. By that I mean, not well written and often monotonous in their all too obvious conclusions. But that said, there are a number of writers who turned in some thrilling stories that show just how exciting such a seemingly trite premise can be.

Hugh B. Cave is one fine example. Cave spent a lifetime, well into his nineties, turning out exiting, well written stories of all genres. Some of his best Weird Menace tales from the thirties were collected by Karl Edward Wagner into an anthology entitled Death Stalks the Night, published in 1995 by Fedogan & Bremer books. Each story in this collection remains true to the Weird Menace formula, with its square-jawed, intrepid heroes and their comely, virginal girlfriends suffering hellish torments by villains who would give modern slashers like Freddy Krueger and Leatherface a run for their money. Cave’s stories hit the ground running and don’t stop for a second to give the hero, nor the reader, a moment to catch their breath. Another compilation of Cave’s horror tales from this era can be found in Murgunstrumm and Others, published way back in 1977 and, again, collected and edited by Karl Edward Wagner. The yarns in Murgunstrumm stray a bit from the Weird Menace formula in order to find homes in magazines like Weird Tales, and Strange Tales, which were the main stomping grounds of writers like H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. But with the exception of Howard’s tales, Hugh B. Cave’s stories are as different from those writers as wine is to beer. And for my money, much as I like Lovecraft and his acolytes, I’ll take the “hellzapoppin” pace of Cave’s stories any day.

Cover by Rudolph Zirm

Another cool writer of Weird Menace stories was Science Fiction’s own Henry Kuttner. Kuttner got his start producing stories for Thrilling Mysteries and Spicy Mysteries in addition to Weird Tales and could match Cave easily in devising gruesome hurdles of torture for his heroes and heroines.

Take for example Kuttner’s story “The Devil Rides” published in 1936 September issue of Thrilling Mysteries and reprinted in 2010 in Terror in the House – The Early Kuttner published by Haffner Press. “In her mouth, held tightly in place by a strap buckled about her neck, was a bit, and reins trailed from her torn lips, dragging on the ground as she inched herself painfully forward…As he saw that to the girl’s hands and feet had been nailed horseshoes, hammered until they were narrow enough to fit.” Pretty nasty, even for today’s hardened readers.

It’s hardly the kind of thing fans of Kuttner’s Fantasy and Science Fiction stories would imagine Kuttner would come up with, considering his often whimsical tales published in those genres.

Other writers who produced some pretty kick-ass Weird Menace stories include Arthur Leo Zagat, Wyatt Blasingame, and one of my current favorites of the genre, Wayne Rogers. These old pulp stories have been finding a new audience thanks to e-Readers. Their take on horror may have been tempered somewhat by would-be censors of the day, but their brand has never really gone away. It doesn’t take a scholar to recognize their descendents in the horror comics of the 1950’s, the slasher films of the 1980’s to the torture-porn horror of the 2000’s. 

To the modern horror fan interested in looking back there is two volumes of Weird Menace tales that I highly recommend. James Reasoner has put together two nifty volumes of Weird Menace tales featuring a variety of writers bringing their talents to the old tradition. Writers like Bill Crider, Keith West, John C. Hocking, and Mel Odom to name just a few. 

Have fun! Oh, and don’t forget to bring your own barfbag.