Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Captors - John Farris

"This is a time of revolution, moral and political revolution, as anyone who reads a newspaper knows. Most people associate revolution with violence and a period of anarchy. We've already had a little violence, which is necessary to earn recognition, but this country is well organized against the revolutionary impulse, so a major and bloody upheaval is as unlikely as it is undesirable. For one thing, there would have to be an economic basis for it, another Great Depression, a worldwide economic collapse. I think we can rule out that possibility. Therefore the revolution now taking place will remain youthful, a student revolt; the working class wont be involved at all. In fact this class is the greatest enemy the revolution has because the values of the proletariat are, as Elijah Jordan proposed, the values of institutions, not individuals." 

TOR books, September 1985
A lot of the fun I have reading these "tawdry" paperbacks from the past is seeing how little things have changed in society. Yeah, technology is full speed on the rails to hell, but its passengers, namely us, Americans from the 'burbs and the cities, are still the same miserable fucked up lot we've always been. Our hairstyles have changed, but not much else.

John Farris is one of those writers whose books are always enjoyable. He has a gift for telling a good story, whether it's horror or crime or suspense. And he's been doing it for many years. One of my favorites of his is All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By which combines Southern Gothic and Voodoo into an excellent pulpy novel that you owe it to yourself to check out if you're a horror fan. The Captors is unlike that novel, in that there is not a whiff of the supernatural to be found in its pages. Instead, it's psychological cray-cray, involving a wealthy but messed up family, a beautiful young woman, her fucked up friends and erotic shenanigans slopped all up in the house.

I've had this one on my shelf of unread books (that's the one sagging dangerously to the point of collapse!) for a long time. It's an early one by Farris, first published way back in 1969. Its story takes place in the summer of 1968, which I hear tell was quite a tumultuous year in America. No doubt, this story reflects the anxieties felt then with the war and upheaval and the seemingly impossible to cross generation gap. It tells what happens when you have a group of unbalanced and drugged up college students who take it upon themselves to claim vengeance on a symbol of the One-Percenters who've made a good living feeding of the world's unrest. A twisted game of Eat the Rich is in the offing. Wrap these ingredients up into the kidnapping of a pretty rich girl, and you have the plot of this novel. It reminded me a lot of the real life Patty Hearst kidnapping, which didn't occur until a few years after this novel was published. I expected something of a similar outcome here, sort of an erotic Stockholm Syndrome page-turner, but man, was I wrong.

"In a half-crazed and volatile world, they're allowed to sell arms and encourage aggression by doing so. If it's in our power to eliminate, completely, a source of human suffering, then we're justified, we're compelled to do it. The act of murder then becomes ethical. In a religious sense, it's holy."

I've thought about how much I could tell you of the plot without giving anything away. I hate spoiling stories for others, and this one has too many twists going for it that divulging them here would ruin the fun in reading this book. I will say it takes its time getting going. It's a slow burn of a novel for the first half, giving you the feel of the characters and their relationships with each other, instead of high drama and noise. That plays to the novel's suspense in the last half of the book. You'll get the violence and killing you've come for, but you have to be patient.

I've read several of John Farris's novels now, and I have no hesitation in recommending his books to genre fans. As with most of his books, this one can be easily had on Kindle. I've rarely seen it used, but I've seen a number of his other novels out there on dusty bookstore shelves. That's most of the fun in enjoying these old books, discovering that nothing is really new under the sun, and that your fears have already been experienced by others before you.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Deadly Edge - Richard Stark

Whatever Manny was high on--and it was clear he'd been taking some sort of drug--the peak had apparently passed during his time in the bedroom, leaving him now in a pleasant cloudy afterglow, his mind turning slowly and coming up with strange materials from the bottom of his skull. 

Berkley, 1974
One of the things that gives me pleasure is knowing that I've got more Parker novels to read. I've read about half of them now, all out of order, and have loved them all. There is nothing like entering the hardboiled world of the Parker novels to remind me of why I love the genre so much. Deadly Edge from 1971 is no exception. Richard Stark (Donald Westlake) holds true to the formula of previous Parker novels. Set up a job, complete it, divide the loot, and clean up the resulting mess that ensues. Parker is a cold-blooded professional, a man of few words, showing no emotion, and is absolutely no one to screw with.

In Deadly Edge, Parker has assembled a team of heist men to rob a rock concert. The first 3rd of the novel is spent detailing the heist with clockwork precision and detail. Parker and his partners Keegan, Briley and Morris hack their way into the concert venue through the roof. With every step of the job worked out in advance they're able to get in, steal the receipts, and out again without anyone getting hurt. Yeah, they'll have to tie up a few people, threaten a few lives, but the money is all they're after. Parker has made it his business to only work with professionals. Amateurs, hot heads, and punks have a bad way of screwing things up and costing lives. And this job goes down like a perfectly executed recipe. All that is left is for Parker and his partners is to split the take and go their separate ways.

Only something has gone wrong. Parker and his gang return to their hideout to discover that a 5th member of their team, an old timer named Berridge who decided to back out of the job due to bad nerves, has been left dead on the bathroom tiles, his skull caved in with a plumber's wrench.

From there, the novel shifts to Parker at home with his new girlfriend, Claire. She's just purchased a new house for her and Parker to share on his time off between jobs. She knows that Parker will never be domesticated, but hopes that their home together will be a refuge from his other life.

He went on to tell her the whole story, from beginning to end. He left out only two things: the names of the people he was with, because they wouldn't mean anything to her, and the discovery of Berridge's dead body in the house afterward. 

It's shortly after Parker has moved in with Claire that he gets word that Keegan is trying to reach him. Parker is disturbed that Keegan should try to contact him so soon after the job, and decides that he'll go to him in person to see what he wants. The murder of Berridge after the concert job has left unanswered questions. Maybe Keegan has learned something important. Turns out that Parker's hunch regarding Keegan was right. He did know something. Only he's never going talk again. Berridge's killer has come for Keegan. It's clear to Parker that someone with a sadistic flavor for torture and murder is after the team that knocked over the rock concert. And soon, they'll be coming for Parker and Claire. And so, my friends, we're off into Parker's World of violence and revenge.

I can't recommend these novels enough. They're all available again, after many years of only getting found in libraries and used bookstores. Stark's style is economic and lean. No literary tricks and self-indulgence going on here. Suspenseful and ruthless, these novels are some of the best in the world of crime literature.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. - Michael Avallone

The man's face was a grotesque mask of outraged flesh--hairless, nearly fleshless. At some time, this man had been in a great fire that had left his face a skull-like travesty of scarred tissue. His nose was merely a pair of twin holes studding the distance between the pit of a forehead and an ugly gash of mouth. His head was an encrustation of scarred, dead tissue. Only the browless eyes showed any evidence of life. And the expression they held was not...quite...sane.

ACE Books 1965
About a year ago I came across of handful of The Man From U.N.C.L.E tie-in paperbacks. They were fairly well-used but the price was low enough to go ahead and buy them. I have only the vaguest memories regarding the original TV show when it ran in the 60s. I am a bit surprised that it's not seen syndication repeats as much as crap like Gilligan's Island and Hogan's Heroes. There were a lot of cool shows that deserve another audience, and way too many shitty shows that never seem to go away. I can think of a few others that I wouldn't mind finding on independent/cable stations that still play old TV shows from the mid twentieth century. Most shows, like the two mentioned above, should just go the way of songs like "Shook Me All Night Long" and "Life in the Fast Lane" but you can bet they never will. Anyway...that's a rant for another time.

This novel tie-in is pretty much what you'd expect. A breezy spy romp featuring Napoleon Solo and his frequent partner Illya Kuryakin as they attempt to thwart the latest scheme of world domination hatched by the evil agency Thrush. In this adventure, the plan is a chemical attack on major cities that turns innocent citizens into gibbering lunatics before succumbing to death. The chief mastermind of said plot is the evil and scarred genius Mr. Golgatha. For most of the novel, Napoleon Solo works solo (yup!), with the occasional aid of Jerry Terry, girl spy. Actually, most of the time Napoleon Solo is rescuing girl spy Jerry Terry, as she seems to have a knack for fainting and getting shot more than doing anything heroic. Along the way, Napoleon Solo also tangles with the sexy and deadly Denise Fairmount, a colonel for Thrush, and a sexy bitch with 28 (or so) kills on her resumé. Golgotha is one of those maniacs that wears a cape and scares the crap out of his enemies with his gory face. He's also one of those evil geniuses who talk too much, long enough for our hero to figure out escape plots from his clutches. In this case, Golgotha is such a chump for Solo's bullshit that you end up wondering just how such an idiot can become the evil genius he portrays himself as. And he's not the only one who pulls boners (I couldn't resist!) in this novel. There's one scene wear Napoleon Solo can easily just shoot Golgotha in the head and being done with the whole nefarious plot to poison innocent civilians. Instead, Napoleon Solo and Jerry Terry just steal Golgotha's cape and uniform to make an unsuccessful escape! I mean, hapless henchmen get blown away without a thought, and somehow you don't just blast away the main bad guy when you got him cornered...major fail there in the plot!

Anyway, since this is just the 1st novel in about two dozen to follow, it's clearly not to be held to the highest literary standards. If our characters didn't do dumb things we wouldn't have half the stories that exist. As it is, I was able to finish this novel in an afternoon, so I can't complain about it getting a bit silly. That's probably the point of it all anyway, right?

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Bordersnakes - James Crumley

"Well," Milo says, "let's see. Connie's married to a banker with shady connections. Connie's dead, crooked brother-in-law is both a banker and connected to one of the border familias. Maybe Western art and banks are good places to hide drug money...Shit, I don't know.

Warner Books Paperbacks - September 1997
Bordersnakes, by James Crumley, goes so over the top in its violence and vice that it almost turns into a satire of the blood-n-thunder-n-guts romance genre that guys over 50 who dig this sort of stuff really go for. I mean I've read some violent books in my time, but dang! this is one of the most violent. Its heroes, Milo Milodragovitch and C.W. Sughrue do the sort of fightin', fuckin' and drinkin' that would kill an keyboard pussy like myself. And pretty much bury any other Average Joe to boot! As far as plots go, there isn't much of one except for a bunch of drinking, fighting and fucking episodes strung together across an American Southwest roadtrip undertaken in the name of vengeance. That's really all you need to know to get into it. The quote above kind of recaps a bit of it. Mostly the "shit, I don't know" part. Someone stole Milo's inheritance, and someone left Sughrue gut-shot and left to die outside a bordertown tavern. The two detectives stew in their separate misery awhile, then collectively decide to team up and go after the motherfuckers responsible!

Don't get me wrong though. Reading this novel was a joy. I had a week of Arizona roadtrips to do myself, so I threw this book into the backpack for company. It was the right choice to suit my mood. Heads explode, guts explode, coke is snorted, tequila is consumed (by the bucketload!), fists are thrown, chicks are screwed...I mean this is Guy Shit Testosterone stuff with a capital T. There are also some brutal scenes that push the edge of squeamishness. I found myself squirming a few times in discomfort at the bad shit that is done within these pages. It's a grindhouse ride, to be sure, and none of it would work if it wasn't for Crumley's poetic writing style. He carries the novel all the way with a confidence that would crush lesser writers. Little phrases like "smiles as tentative as neon in the sunshine" snap off of just about every page. There have been more than enough comparisons to writers like Raymond Chandler in blurbs for Crumley's novels, but take it from me, James Crumley is one of a kind. I've read about half of his novels now, and I've yet to be disappointed in the kick they provide. There is an initial adjustment that needs to be made in starting one of his books however. Nice opening lines meander into digressions that seem random and pointless, but stick with it. It's worth it. I wouldn't recommend starting his works with this one. Go back to one of his earlier novels that feature Milo or Sughrue alone. Either The Last Good Kiss or The Wrong Case are great for newcomers. If you like those books you'll have a blast with this one.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Death Wish - Brian Garfield

"These young scum grow up in a welfare state where they see that violence goes unpunished and the old virtues are for stupid pious fools. What can we expect of them that's any better than this random vicious despair? These radicals keep arsenals in their attics and advocate the overthrow of an economic system which has graduated more people out of poverty than any other system in history. They arm themselves to attack honest hard-working citizens like you and me, and to shoot down beleaguered policemen, and what happens? The public is propagandized into outrage over the behavior of the police in defending themselves and the public!"

Fawcett Crest Paperback
The white man roars!

Well, it's not that simple. I pulled the passage above from a speech by one of Paul Benjamin's coworkers. It comes about halfway into the novel, after Paul has returned to work for the first time since his wife's brutal murder at the hands of random muggers. At this point in the novel, various versions of this speech have been uttered by a number of characters. They're frightened, angry and holed up in a city that is drowning in crime and chaos.

But are they really?

The interesting thing about this novel is that it's a case of strong suspicion equaling strong evidence. The upper middle class people in Paul Benjamin's circle are, for the most part, right of center on the political spectrum, suspicious of others encroaching into the world they grew up in, convinced that a fine line of defense by the police is all that protects them from the murder and rape that surrounds them. Paul Benjamin was the exception to that philosophy, The ultimate bleeding heart liberal, a friend calls him. Until a random act of violence destroys his family, that is.

Everyone has seen the movie that was based on Garfield's 1972 novel, And by now most everyone has seen the four sequels that have followed it. Those films don't bother much with the tragic psychosis experienced by Paul Benjamin. Instead, they're more feel-good flicks for the armchair streetfighter that percolates inside most of us. They're "movies for guys who like movies" as TNT used to say. The novel doesn't let us off so easily. It doesn't give us the release of getting to share Paul's retribution on the scum that destroyed his family. Instead, it's only in the final 4th of the novel that the first would-be mugger is killed. And just who is that scumbag mugger? Just a petty junkie living on the fringes in the park, as scared as the citizens he prays upon.

And more murders follow. More of life's losers that opt for the easiest opportunity to take a few dollars, or to hock a stolen TV, or to joyride in a stolen car.

There is an ugly current voiced in the novel that hasn't ever gone away. Over four decades later it's still fueling hatred inside of us. Here in Arizona we're subjected to a celebrity sheriff that has made a career of persecuting and accusing others not "like us" for the crime in our state. Arizona also boasts a semi-literate former governor (who now has designs on becoming VP of the U.S.!) who stated that our deserts were full of headless bodies. We have a community of angry retirees that would happily wall their town off to separate themselves from the "illegals" and welfare slobs who come here to either steal jobs or live off the system, it's never clear which. They've convinced themselves that they're the only generation that worked for what they have. We have a would-be political party who believes in shooting first and aiming later. We have people running for president who stoke fear in society, appealing to the worst of us for their own gain. The strongest lobby in Washington keeps banging a drum that things would be better if everybody was armed.

This book and movie tapped a nerve that's not pretty.

For more on this, check out the excellent review by Cullen Gallagher over at Pulp Serenade.

Dang! Aren't books supposed to be an escape?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Dhalgren - Samuel R. Delany

From the edge of the sidewalk, three-quarters of the disk was visible above the houses. The clouds dulled it enough to squint at, but it went up, covering the roofs, and up, and up, and up. What they could see of it filled half the visible sky. And, Kid realized, half of the sky is huge! But that fell away into impossibility. Or unvertifiability, anyway. The rim was a broil of gold. Everything was like burning metal.

Bantam Books, January 1975
Dhalgren, by Samuel Delany was an undertaking. This is a book that pops up from time to time on lists of difficult novels, long novels, cult novels, whatever. It has crossed my orbit for many years, the first time being in 1979 when I was in 10th grade and a history teacher in high school gave me his copy. I didn't have what it took then to finish it, and it moved in my collection through the years to finally getting lost somewhere in the middle of the road in someplace I shacked up in. But this year I finally decided it's a book I should give a go at reading. Just to say I did it. 

Published in 1974 (or so) this is Delany's look at the 60s in a long (long!) long-winded novel of an amnesiac and possible mental patient who enters the city of Bellona and lives among its outcast residents. Known only as The Kid, our hero has sex, writes poetry, runs a gang, has sex, helps a family move, talks about poetry, has threesomes, and...Yes, this means there is a lot of talking and sex in the novel. The city of Bellona is a terrific creation. It burns, its streets and parks shift inexplicably in relation, buildings crumble, stores remain stocked, its population is migratory, and time inside is relative. The passage of years is meaningless, the measure of time is pointless. Things move forward to refract inward. Society is broken down among straights, gays, men, women, gangs, recluses, whites, blacks and racial tensions and mutual survival. Kid crosses currents with each layer through the novel, and is corrupt or insane or...Well this is left to the reader to determine. 

Since this is the 60s within a drop of water under an 800 page lens, refracted through a prism and reflected from a mirror there is one omission that I couldn't help noticing. That being the Vietnam War. Or maybe that war is the burning ruins of Bellona and the roving Scorpions therein? 

A lot has been made of the sex in the novel. I didn't mind it, wasn't bothered by it, and think that sex would have been more shocking to Sci-Fi readers in 1974 than in the 21st century.

What I could have skipped? Well that would be some of the mind-numbing long passages that detail the mundane routines of people interacting. Lifting a cup, turning a bedsheet, moving a box, putting on pants, repeating questions. All the things that editors would slash from a manuscript today. I'll give that it's there for a reason, and I'll accept that Delany deliberately made this novel an effort to finish. Some readers don't mind that. Other readers will toss the book aside. 

If you came here looking for answers I'm sorry to disappoint. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Infinity Science Fiction - June 1958

Recently a trip to Half-Price Books resulted in a sweet find for me. Two stacks of various vintage science fiction magazines. Among them are Satellite Science Fiction, Infinity Science Fiction, and If Worlds of Science Fiction, all from the 1950s. They were bundled and wrapped in plastic, and I could only see the spines of each issue but I liked the titles and the price was too good to pass up. I figured that at the worst I’d have some cool covers to admire. Getting home and opening the bundle I was delighted to find stories by Robert Silverberg, James Blish, Algis Budrys, Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke among many other names new to me. All of the magazines were in fine reading condition and most had that wonderful old-paper smell that’s like a drug to book addicts like me. Here is a look at the first one that I sampled.

Vol. 3, No. 5, June 1958. Cover by Ed Emsh

Recalled to Life – Robert Silverberg
Robert Silverberg has become one of my favorite (Science Fiction) writers purely because he makes his novels and stories seem effortless. That comes only with millions of words pounded into a typewriter and years of dedication. I know I’m several decades late to the party but it’s a real treat to read his novels now. I’ve had some personal hangups with a lot of Sci-Fi which I may or may not get to here. Silverberg has surmounted those and made reading Sci-Fi both fun and thought provoking. The first part of “Recalled to Life” is no exception. Former governor turned attorney, James Harker, (a nod to Jonathan Harker from Dracula?) is approached by one Dr. Lurie on behalf of Beller Research Laboratories seeking a legal advisor. For the past 8 years Beller Labs has been working on a method for resuscitating the recently dead. Of course this research has been undertaken in the utmost secrecy. Now, having achieved successful results, Beller Labs is ready to announce their achievement to the public. Harker’s job is to maneuver through the inevitable political and religious fallout that will ensue upon the announcement. Harker takes the job, with misgivings, and soon learns that Beller Laboratories is undergoing something of an internal power struggle of its own. Part One of the novel ends on a cliff-hanger as Harker learns that not all resuscitations are achieved with ideal results. Questions of the mind, the soul and the role of science as God abound. Luckily, I have the next issue of Infinity that concludes “Recalled to Life”, so I can find out how it all ends.

But Who Can Replace a Man? – Brian W. Aldiss
I’d heard of this story from a Brian Aldiss collection by the same name. I’m pretty sure I had that same collection way back when, but never read this story until now. It’s a cool little story about the delemna faced by robots after man’s extinction. The robots only know service to man, and have developed, or had been programmed with, a caste system of their own, mandating a pecking order among them. There are no “Three Laws of Robotics” hampering anyone in this cynical story. I’m looking forward to reading more Brian Aldiss in the future.

Pangborn’s Paradox – David Mason
This short story is a riff on the time travel paradox about traveling back in time and killing one’s grandfather. A group of eggheads debate the theory, and as luck would have it, one of them has actually invented a time machine to play the experiment out. It has a nice twist at the end.

The Way Out – Richard R. Smith
This one is a cool “military” sci-fi story about a conflict between man and a race of lizard-like aliens named Antarians.  It seems that men who’ve been captured by the Antarians have been giving up military secrets under psychic and physical torture. A certain Colonel Donovan has been tasked to oversee a project that will enable soldiers to withstand any torture without divulging classified information. There are “Catch-22” motifs that soldiers must abide, madness and the nature of reality and fantasy that make this story the best one in the issue, not counting Silverberg’s novel.

The High Ones – Poul Anderson
And lastly we come to Poul Anderson’s contribution. Anderson had a huge hurdle to cross with me after reading his stinker novel Virgin Planet. This story did nothing to elevate his stuff for me. Every attempt at reading Anderson reminds me what I hate about some vintage (and recent) Science Fiction. I don’t know if he’s popular or not among fans anymore, but I do know that scads of his books can be found in any used bookstore in any state.  This story is no different from the Virgin Planet experience. The first page in was like trying to read a first draft of prose too cute with whole paragraphs missing from it. Jarring shifts in scenes, characters chattering between themselves without propelling the story, too many exclamation points!, 8th grade nerd dialog and...I shitcanned it without going any further.

The departments are the standard letters to the editor, in this case Larry T. Shaw, fanfare poetry, current science fiction news by Larry Shaw, and reviews by Damon Knight of recent publications. Apparently Damon Knight kicked up a lot of response from readers, at least from the sampling of letters printed in this issue. There is also an announcement of the death of Henry Kuttner who died of a heart attack on February 4th, 1958 at the age of 43. 

So, in summing up, this early issue of Infinity was a nice read. I have a fondness for vintage, mid-century takes on genre fiction, clearly, and these pieces totally lived up to my expectations. I’m eagerly looking forward to reading the other issues I’ve got.