Monday, November 6, 2017

Never Die Alone - Donald Goines

It seems as if half of Los Angeles' finest detectives raided my old apartment. Now I'm not sure it's related to the trip that Billy made. I can't think of any other motherfuckin' reason for the police to come storming into where I had lived. From the information that I have been able to gather, the boys in blue were put out because I hadn't sat still and waited for them. If it hadn't been for me using a little foresight, I think I would have been behind bars at this moment, instead of writing these notes down. 

Holloway House Publishing Company, cover photography by Jeffrey
The only thing that Donald Goines was missing was an editor. His novels were written, according to sources I've read, to support a drug habit, and were churned out in first drafts and sold at a furious pace to keep his demons at bay. I've read a handful of his novels over the years and have liked every one of them, but finish them wishing that someone had tamed the force that produced them. But perhaps they wouldn't have that voice and grit that make them urban fiction classics. That voice! In the space of 4 years, from 1971 to 1975, he published 16 crime novels. In 1974 he was gunned down in his home. The person(s) responsible have never been determined.

Goines wrote of the life he lived as an addict and people he knew. Never Die Alone is sort of all over the place, but has a way of holding up by its own narrative drive. It begins with a young writer, Paul Pawlowski, preparing to go to a job interview for a "leftwing" newspaper. We're given a lot of detail in Paul's ancestry that is never part of the plot. In the second chapter we're introduced to King David, known on the streets as King Cobra, who is returning from 5 years in California. King David left New York owing money to a lot of bad characters, including a small-time gangster named Moon. Arrangements are made for King David to pay Moon back, with the understanding that Moon will not sic his henchmen on David. Moon agrees, figuring that he'll let an up and comer in the underworld named Mike take care of King David after collecting the money owed. Mike has personal reasons for getting even with King David, because David once robbed his mother of her government check and beat her and him with a Coke bottle in the process. King David was a pusher and con artist, who has left a trail of junkies and victims in his path.

Of course, as things always do in crime novels, things get fucked up really fast. King David survives the sloppy hit job on him, barely, leaving one hoodlum half dead with a knife wound to his eye and witnesses, including Paul Pawloski and Mike's sister, Edna who was used as a kind of honey-trap on David. Paul manages to get King David to a hospital before he succumbs to his wounds. David's last request to the doctors in the hospital is that Paul inherit his Cadillac and all his possessions in it, including a journal that he kept of his time in California. Meanwhile, Moon is frantic that the botched hit on King David is going to bring the heat down on him. He sends out more henchmen to eliminate Mike and Edna. Well...you guessed it. That hit goes down bad as well. Edna is murdered, but Mike manages to kill Moon's flunkies in the process. All of Moon's henchmen are terrible shots, and that while people get killed, it's never the right people. Now Mike, bleeding from his wounds, is coming back for Moon. Meanwhile, Paul is home in his apartment reading King David's journal of his time in Los Angeles living in hotels and pushing heroin while passing it off as cocaine. David has affairs with a couple of young women who find him more customers looking for kicks. In the process, he falls in love with a girl named Juanita, who spurns his offers. She'll take his coke, but she ain't about to shack up with no two-bit jive-ass pusher and con man. Bad, bad move on her part as we'll learn.

King David's journal serves as sort of a novel within a novel, as it's presented as it was written by King David. We learn really quickly that King David was a monster, double-crossing and betraying just about anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. I wonder if Goines had intended this journal to be a novel on its own, but got hemmed in by the first person point of view, then built the characters of Paul and Moon and the New York scenes around it instead.

Of course, there is no telling. So, in the end we have a flawed, but in its own a way a brilliantly flawed, novel of pimps and pushers and...writers! Strange brew and not for the timid. This novel gets violent and nasty before things come to a resolution.

In the end, I give it a recommendation. If you find any of Goines' novels out there, check them out.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

It produced in me, this figure in the clear twilight, I remember, two distinct gasps of emotion, which were sharply, the shock of my first and that of my second surprise. My second was a violent perception of the mistake of my first: the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed. There came to me thus a bewilderment of vision of which, after these years, there is no living view that I can hope to give. An unknown man in a lonely place is a permitted object of fear to a young woman privately bred; and the figure that faced me was - a few more seconds assured me - as little anyone else I knew as it was the image that had been in my mind.

The ghost of Peter Quint in a scene from The Innocents, based on The Turn of the Screw.

In other words, she saw a ghost!

I really don't know if anyone reads Henry James anymore. To be sure, he's an acquired taste. Even among students of English Lit in various campuses across the country, he's probably hopelessly ignored now in the 21st century. And, much as I've enjoyed his novels, his prose can be aggravating to wade through. Sentences strewn with multiple commas, and asides, for which the perceptive reader, providing an intense concentration, illuminates, as it were, the depths beyond the surface of the events related to the passage of plot, a deeper understanding of...well, you get my drift here. Henry James is tough to read!

That said, his short novel The Turn of the Screw really is one of the best ghost stories you'll have the pleasure of enjoying once you give into its style. In keeping with the season, I thought it would be fun (whaaa? reading Henry James is fun???) to revisit his most famous ghost story set in an isolated manor deep within the English countryside.

The plot is relatively a simple one. A young governess is hired by the uncle of two small children, Miles and Flora, to oversee their care and education at his isolated country estate. The conditions of the governess's employment is that she, under no circumstances, communicates with, or otherwise disturb him, regarding their care. She is to take full charge over their well-being completely, leaving him free to pursue his bachelor ways alone in London. The job seems to be a delightful one for our young governess, until the ghosts of the prior governess, Miss Jessel,  and Peter Quint, the late groundskeeper, appear. We learn that Peter Quint and Miss Jessel enjoyed a sexual relationship before their untimely deaths. A relationship contaminated with hints of cruelty and violence. Convinced that their spirits have returned to corrupt the innocent children under her care, our young governess steels herself to confront the evil spirits and save her young charges.

There is a lot of psychological meat for the reader, and scholars, to chew on here. Are the ghosts real? Are they figments of the governess's imagination? Has her infatuation with her distant employer influenced her perception of her young charges? Are the children truly innocent, or have they been corrupted already by the late Peter Quint and Miss Jessel?

James has a ball with this story. It's steeped in gothic trappings, and a sly reference to The Mysteries of Udolpho (a gothic classic that I'll probably get around to reading at some point) is made. It's been adapted for film several times, and even had a major influence on a Dark Shadows plot-line. I think it's worth reading for anyone who considers themselves a horror fan. A good old fashioned ghost story, no matter how literate, never goes out of style. And this one is one of the best.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

It Came from the Drive-In

Betty Jane screamed and struggled to no avail against the brutish SS guards. "You'll pay for this! I'm a cheerleader at Denton High!"  

In a moment Betty Jane was stripped down to her white cone-shaped bra and panty-girdle and beige stockings. Flicking her riding crop, Elsie walked about her, studying Betty Jane closely. She playfully tugged at Betty Jane's blond ponytail.   - "Plan 10 From Inner Space" by Karl Edward Wagner

DAW Books February 1996. Cover by Vincent Di Fate

Yikes! Poor Betty Jane! I hope her boyfriend can rescue her in time before those evil Nazi bastards have their way with her!

So being the right time of the year for completely over the top horror fun, It Came from the Drive-In, edited by Norman Partridge and Martin H. Greenberg (what anthology didn't this guy edit?) provides more than a fare share of the stuff your grandmother warned you about! This was one of those perfect anthologies that screamed at you from bookshelves of your favorite bookstore twenty-some years ago. Every story in this collection is a lurid homage to those awesome drive-in movies last seen sometime in the late seventies before video rental stores moved into the strip malls.

With titles like "Die, Baby, Die, Die, Die" and "The Blood on Satan's Harley" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Danged" you're guaranteed to find something you're not supposed to like in this collection. Partridge and Greenberg put together these all original stories in the true spirit of grindhouse glory.

Horror sometimes takes itself a bit too seriously, and my biggest gripe against it these past few years (decades!) is that it's lost its mojo. It's supposed to be like a carnival ride, like candy that rots your teeth. Horror is supposed to be that girl by the lockers who smokes Marlboros while mocking the kids on the football team. And the scruffier, naughtier and sexier, the better as far as I'm concerned. That's the stuff that pulls me in. I know a ton of people will probably disagree with me and that's cool, but I've always looked for the strings dangling that rubber vampire bat and skeleton instead of something that's just there to depress me or gross me out. These stories by Ed Gorman, Nancy A. Collins, Norman Partridge, etc. take that spirit of horror/science fiction and make it fun. It was this kind of spirit that...(shameless plug coming up!) I wrote my first published novel, SIRENS, with. Whether I succeeded or not is up to readers, what few I get, to decide.

I'm glad to see that this terrific anthology hasn't disappeared, as it looks like copies are still available out there. Short stories this fun are getting rare and it's my hope that their spirit keeps rattling those rusty chains in your attic for a long time to come.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Landlady - Constance Rauch

"Ugh. How in the world did we come by this?" Sam's revulsion was as instinctive as Jessica's. The doll was made of aging, half-sticky, half-dry and corroded latex stretched over a spongy composition frame, its "skin" luridly jaundiced. It was, admittedly, a slightly naughty toy. Perhaps a novelty item sold by mail through the pages of a bygone stag magazine some thirty or forty years earlier. Its head was disproportionately larger than its body. Though it may at one time have had some kind of "human hair" wig, all that remained on the scalp was a multitude of pinholes, thus making its encephalitic head look like the work of some mad acupuncturist. The facial features, those of a coy, Kewpie doll, wore the plucked eyebrows and ruby-red cupid's-bow lips of the late twenties and early thirties.


Popular Library, June 1976


Well, it's the right time of year to read creepy novels and there are are few things scarier to me than creepy dolls. I'm also often creeped out by mannequins and ventriloquist dummies for that matter. And clearly I'm not alone since there are plenty of spooky movies and stories that feature creepy dolls. Much scarier than bizarre clowns holding balloons if you ask me.

I consider myself a pretty good horror fan, knowledgeable in all the classics and much of the obscure horror flicks and lit that is out there. I've seen a lot of movies, read a lot of books and have come to the personal opinion that most of contemporary horror fiction and film doesn't do much for me. Somewhere after the end of the 80's, horror took a turn for the formulaic gross-out, featuring serial killers for a long time. Then came the zombie apocalypse which seems to have over-run the horror market, much like elves and dragons took over the sci-fi market back in the seventies. There isn't a lot that I, as a horror fan, can turn to now that satisfies me the same way as staying up until after midnight to watch a scary movie on my old black and white TV did when I was a kid. So, when it comes to nourishing my taste for "horror" now, I mostly end up looking backward into the dusty paperbacks and movies of the past. Admittedly, most of it isn't scary, but there was a sense of spirit and soul to the movies and novels that I find is mostly (I'm not saying all) missing today.

Anyway, this is all a long-winded approach of setting up my thoughts on The Landlady, by Constance Rauch, published way back in June of 1976. I have to thank Will Errickson and his stellar blog Too Much Horror Fiction for re-introducing me to this one. Will is a far better reviewer of vintage 70's and 80's horror fiction than I am, so I encourage everyone to check his blog out. Oh yes, and while you're at it, if you're a fan of vintage horror do not miss Paperbacks From Hell.

I totally enjoyed The Landlady and blasted through most of it in a single day. It's very much a novel of its time (mid-seventies) providing a look into the social fabric of that decade with regard to marriage, class division, and manners. Jessica and Sam Porter and their infant daughter, Patience, move into an apartment in Wimbledon, New York, renting a section of a large house from eccentric old Mrs. Falconer. The setting is an obvious nod to The Stepford Wives and Burnt Offerings. The suburbs have proved a fertile inspiration for many horrific events, and the characters in Wimbledon give sly acknowledgement to such. I was also reminded of the Oxrun Station novels by Charles Grant. Jessica and Sam are clearly in a troubled marriage right from the get-go, and the meddling Mrs. Falconer wastes no time in pouncing on their fragile bond. Their home seems an open door to creepy goings on, including the discovery of a disgusting (and you'll learn just how disgusting) doll described above. Soon enough, Jessica learns that Mrs. Falconer has a long history and reputation of being a terror on her tenants. Locals look at the Falconer residence as a place of bad juju with a sordid past. Sam disappears into the city for long absences, leaving Jessica alone to deal with the paranoia surrounding their apartment. There is also the murder of a well-liked spinster in town that features prominently in the novel. Things get weirder and scarier for Jessica and Patience as events are piled on in thicker slabs of terror.

Readers today will have to re-adjust their expectations in taking on The Landlady. The climax will likely come off as ludicrous and the pacing may be too slow for many. The characters have a tendency to speak in well-mannered monologues that one would likely never hear today. But putting these minor critiques aside, I thought the book was a pretty good time. It's well written and has a way of pulling you into the plot once you give it a chance.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Price of Murder - John D MacDonald

It did not take him very long. Nerve centers and pressure points are much the same for a woman as for a man. With the flood of genuine agonizing pain came a fear that oiled her face and turned it gray. He had her in a corner and he made the words tumble out of her, a gasping torrent. Then, holding her arm, he walked her gently to the big bed. She walked with the feeble fragility of a very old woman. When the pain had faded, he made her tell him again, and asked her questions until he was certain he knew all she knew. The harsh discipline had shocked her. It made her very meek and highly affectionate. It restored him to the place of dominance. 


Fawcett Gold Medal

That's an interesting passage from The Price of Murder by John D. MacDonald in that it illustrates one of several times that women in this 1957 novel expect and get off on male domination, whether emotional or physical. In fact, none of the women represent well in this novel. I think it's more due to the genre and the times than any misogynistic attitudes by MacDonald. I've read almost all of his novels and there aren't many where you'll find an independent, strong female character that isn't a femme fatale or an insane nympho. Otherwise, women are good good girls who are expected to make good wives and mothers. Perhaps it's something that male readers expected. But I get why female readers wouldn't appreciate the books now. Even the Travis McGee novels have dated badly when it comes to attitudes towards women. I'm not knocking the book for it, it's just something that is pretty jarring reading today. Not that we don't still have a long way to go in 2017, but that's another lecture for another time. Still, it's fun to climb into the heads of the girls gone wrong in these books.

The Price of Murder is an excellent example of character studies wrapped in a crime novel, something MacDonald was very good at. Most of the first half of the book is a series of backstories for our starring roles. We have Lee Bronson, a college English instructor and war veteran. His brother Danny Bronson, a three time loser and small-time hood with a history of bad luck. And making their lives hell is one of those terrific JDM villains named Johnny Keefler, a sadistic parole officer with a prosthetic hand and a maniacal hatred for anyone who has broken the law. Lucille Bronson is Lee Bronson's wife. She's described as a "silky and membranous and pneumatic little trap." In addition to Lucille, there is Drusilla Catton, a "dark, reckless, full-bodied, hot-blooded" woman who has no issue flirting with danger and trouble when it comes to men.

A couple of people get brutally murdered in this novel, and you'll have no trouble guessing who two of them are out of this small cast I've given you. The main plot concerns a recovered stash of ransom money that Danny Bronson has a chance to get his hands on. Unfortunately, the ransom money is tied to a foiled kidnapping and murder case of a pair of wealthy twin boys that happened years earlier. Danny Bronson only learns about it from his time screwing Drusilla Catton, who happens to be married to a failing (and ailing) businessman named Burt Catton. Burt Catton's pal and lawyer, Paul Verney, is offered a chance to purchase the several hundred thousand dollars of ransom money at a deep discount, with the intent to launder it and save both him and Catton from financial ruin. Danny Bronson intends to extort the whole boodle from them and head south of the border. Hot on Danny Bronson's trail is the psychotic Johnny Keefler. Making things worse is that Danny makes the fatal mistake of trusting his sister-in-law, the bored and restless Lucille Bronson, with his plans.

This novel rips along nicely and the early backstories only intensify the motives and drives of the characters involved. I read it in two days while prepping for a medical procedure and it was a nice diversion. My only complaint, and it's a common issue I have with some of MacDonald's books, is that in the final thirty pages or so you can see him trying to wrap everything up into a complete and final resolution. Some of the later McGee novels don't aim as hard for this as the early non-McGee novels do. But that's a minor quibble in what are some really terrific crime novels by one of my favorite writers. This one can be found easily used or for your Kindle.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Bullet for Cinderella - John D. MacDonald

I do not like to think about the next half hour. He put the gag back in my mouth. He had his strong hands, and he had the small sharp knife, and he had a sadistic knowledge of the nerve ends. From time to time he would stop and wait until I quieted down, then loosen the gag and question me. The pain and humiliation made me weep like a child. Once I fainted. Finally he was satisfied. He had learned how much I thought of Ruth. He had learned that we had to go where the money was hidden by boat. 

Fawcett Gold Medal

This is my second time reading A Bullet for Cinderella by John D. MacDonald. Many years ago I came across a whole stash of his non-Travis McGee novels in a used bookstore and I bought most of them over the weeks I visited the place. I worked a night shift on the security team for a resort and had plenty of downtime to read. MacDonald's novels kept me company through the quiet hours of the night after the lobby bars had closed and the most of the staff had checked out. I remembered that this one was a particularly good one, but had forgotten pretty much all of the plot. Reading it again was a blast. I put it up there with Soft Touch as a favorite.

The setup is a classic noir opener. Tal Howard (MacDonald had a knack for coming up with unique names) comes to the town of Hillston on a mission to find a hidden stash of $60,000 in stolen loot. He learns about the hidden money from his Army pal, Timmy Warden, who admitted to embezzling the money from his brother's lumber company back before the war. Howard and Warden were fellow P.O.W's in North Korea. It's during their shared time in the POW camp that Warden confesses to Howard that he'd stolen from his own brother at the urging of his brother's wife. Warden hopes to make it back home and make amends with his brother and return the money. Unfortunately, Warden succumbs to a sickness and dies in the camp. Feverish, dying and remorseful, he tells Howard someone named Cindy knows where the money would be hidden. Only Cindy would know.

Howard returns home from the war with a bad case of PTSD and memories of Warden's confession. He loses his job, loses his girlfriend, and loses any sense of purpose in life. He figures that if he could find the money Warden stole, he can make a new start. But first, he's got to find the mysterious Cindy.

But things aren't going to be so easy for our hero, Tal Howard. He's not the only one who got word about the $60 grand hidden somewhere in Hillston. Turns out, another fellow P.O.W. survivor named Earl Fitzmartin has been a few steps ahead of him. Fitzmartin is one of those classic John D. MacDonald sociopaths that he's so good at creating. Think of Cape Fear and Max Cady (or the movie versions played by Robert Mitchum and Robert De Niro) and you got a good idea of the type of bad guy Fitzmartin is. Torture, rape, theft, murder, it doesn't matter to Fitzmartin what he has to do to get what he wants. And he wants that money.

Like I said, I really enjoyed this novel. It's from 1955 and you have the typical MacDonald observations on society, now read from a historical perspective. Reading it in 2017 you realize how little things have changed in human nature and our "modern" fears of the breakdown of society. I'm pretty sure it's still in print, since every few years we see reprints of MacDonald's Travis McGee novels in bookstores.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Moment of Power - Burt Hirschfeld

An amplified rock group blared out its charged sound in the dining room. The floor had been cleared and was alive with movement as the Ambassadors and Secretaries, businessmen and ladies of no visible means, Cabinet members and their wives, jerked and twisted, hopped and swayed, eyes fixed in space, faces grim and concentrated. 

Avon, December 1971
I really had no clue regarding the plot of this potboiler by Burt Hirschfeld, published back in 1971. The blurb on the back of the  novel indicates political intrigue in Washington DC, but not much else beyond that. I assumed that it might be a literary soap opera along the likes of Aspen or Acapulco only set among the political climate of the nation's capital. Instead I got a strange novel that, given today's political turmoil and dysfunction, seems oddly topical in spite of being published 40-some years ago.

In Moment of Power, we have a nation that's capable of sending a manned mission to Mars while it has yet to legalize abortion. References to Vietnam and the Bay of Pigs are made, as well as the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations. I don't think Nixon is mentioned at all. So the reader is placed in a time that seems contemporary as to the year the book was published, yet there is a sabotaged manned mission to Mars that kicks off the plot. Mini-skirts and thin ties are the fashion, Madison Avenue mores dictate the trends and martinis are consumed with the same frequency as double scotches. An illegal abortion figures heavily as a side plot to the the turmoil of the main story. Affairs are pursued, women are not equal to men in terms of careers and power, a Press Secretary dates a woman of 23, an aging intellectual pursues young girls with abandon, and a President of the United States just might be an impostor placed by a foreign power.

And that is the real plot of this novel. It could have been marketed as a novel of espionage, but instead of going full-board espionage, Hirschfeld chooses to fill the pages with hook-ups and sex and flashbacks interspersed with the growing suspicion, and ultimately paranoid fear, that President of the United States, Gunther Harrison, is indeed a foreign agent impostor who has somehow taken the place of the real Gunther Harrison. This suspicion eventually consumes our main characters; Press Secretary Guy Pompey and Secretary of Defense Ralph Jacobs. Their problem is how should they deal with a man whom everyone believes is the real POTUS while they're convinced otherwise.

I'd hate to ruin any of the plot by revealing what happens in its 450 pages. I enjoyed the heck out of it. Burt Hirschfeld is a master at hooking the reader into following a variety of characters as they maneuver their way through intrigue, honor and deceit. I kept wondering how Hirschfeld would pull off the big reveal of the novel and ultimately I was not disappointed.

This one is a whole heaping dose of good old fashioned fun. With all the crap that's being dumped upon us in today's toxic (insane!) political world, this novel proved to be a somewhat pleasant diversion. If you come across a used copy of it somewhere go ahead and grab it. Maybe you can get lucky and read it on the beaches of Acapulco while the shit hits the fan here in the states.