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.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Agatha Christie Double Feature

From the time I left school I wanted to find something, but I didn't yet know what that something was going to be. It was just something I was looking for in a vague, unsatisfied sort of way. It was somewhere. Sooner or later I'd know all about it. It might perhaps be a girl. . . . I like girls, but no girl I had met so far had been important. . . . You liked them all right, but then you went on to the next one quite gladly. They were like the jobs I took. All right for a bit, and then you got fed up with them and you wanted to move on to the next one. I'd gone from one thing to another ever since I'd left school. 

Yup, Agatha Christie knew, as does anyone else who has read enough crime fiction, that a restless and bored young man will soon find himself in deep kimchi. Especially where spooky dames are concerned!

I had a few days off work and was in the mood for a more relaxing kind of read, so I pulled a couple Agatha Christie novels off the shelf to dig into. I used to devour her novels back in Jr. High. I think I read all of the Poirot's by the time I was in 10th grade. Same thing with the Lew Archer novels. On the surface, no two private eyes could be more dissimilar than Archer and Poirot. But thinking about it now, both detectives dug into to the psychological torment of their cases instead of going around beating people up and shooting people. They were novels of dialog, questions and answers, delving into the past and unearthing secrets that lead to crimes of the present.

These two novels are stand-alones in the Christie catalog. Endless Night was published in 1968, the same year that Beggars Banquet was released by the Rolling Stones. Reading the novel, I tried to envision the narrator, Michael Rogers, in the time when "Sympathy for the Devil" might have been played in swinging London pads. And for the first part of the book I could. Rogers had the restless and dissatisfied voice of many noirish antiheroes of the 50's and early 60's. His laconic and somewhat cynical voice is music to the aficionado's ear. And you don't have to be a genius to know that, no matter how much he seems to confess to you, he's still hiding something in reserve. He thinks that perhaps he's found that something he'd been looking for when discovering the crumbling estate The Towers on Gypsy's Acre. A place abandoned and rumored to be cursed. It's even got a local gypsy woman named Mrs. Lee who promises to tell our hero his fortune if he crosses her palm with silver. Naturally she sees evil forebodings in Michael Rogers's future and warns him off Gypsy's Acre.

One day, while exploring Gypsy's Acre after a public auction, he meets Ellie Guteman. Ellie is one of those dreamy, somewhat haunted goth-girl types that walk in mystery. She and Rogers strike up a conversation over the uneasy beauty of Gypsy's Acre and soon they fall in love. Rogers learns that Ellie is an American heiress, sheltered by an army of advocates, lawyers and shifty relatives. Upon her twenty-first birthday, Ellie will have a fortune at her control. For the first time, Rogers tells us that he's found love and purpose. Ellie surprises him by purchasing The Towers, and the two of them hire an architect to rebuild the crumbling estate and live "happily ever-after."

Here is where the novel shifts gears from Gold Medal territory to Gothic Romance. The young lovers live on Gypsy's Acre in the midst of ancient curses, meddling relatives and ominous warnings to leave before unspeakable evil consumes them. Ellie injures her ankle in a fall and Greta, her childhood au pair and companion moves in with them to help run the staff. Greta is described as a Valkyrie by Rogers, who takes an immediate distrust to her. Her beauty and power are undeniable, but he resents the hold she seems to have over his new bride Ellie. It's almost all very Dark Shadows, with simmering emotions stewing in ancient curses, figures in the woods and modern threats left on dead birds. But it's a slow burning stew, with not a single murder occurring until well past two-thirds of the novel.

For the second Christie novel, I read Murder at Hazelmoor. This one is another stand-alone mystery published way back in 1931, but could have easily featured either Poirot or Miss Marple as the detective. Instead, we have a plucky young woman named Emily Trefusis doing the sleuthing. Emily has a personal stake in the mystery at Hazelmoor because it's her fiancé, Jim Pearson, who's got his neck on the chopping block as the chief suspect in the murder of old Captain Trevelyan. The murder has taken place, as proper old British murders should, during a dark winter storm. As an added bonus, the murder occurs during a séance in which our main suspects are six miles removed from the dastardly scene of the crime. The séance in this case is a game of "table turning" in which spirits tap their messages out through a series of knocks on a table. Think of a Ouija board only without a board and planchette. It's during the table turning that the spirits warn our amateur occultists that Trevelyan is being murdered. The game then breaks up immediately as its participants believe one of them is displaying remarkable bad taste. Ahh...but wouldn't you know, the spirits never lie.

Murder at Hazelmoor is the only Christie novel in which I actually solved the murder with the clues provided. I don't know if that makes me as smart as Emily Trefusis, or just lucky. And no, it wasn't just guesswork on my part. I fully expected to have been duped but the clues are there to point to the culprit. There are loads of red herrings and everyone has a reason for doing the old codger in, but only one of them done it.

Both novels are easily found in practically any used bookstore. Happy sleuthing!

Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Female Man - Joanna Russ

A beautiful chick who swims naked and whose breasts float on the water like flowers, a chick in a rain-tight shirt who says she balls with her friends but doesn't get uptight about it, that's the real thing. 

Bantam, February 1975
Yeah, if you think you're going to find anyone like that beautiful chick in this novel, keep looking. She's not real, or never was real, or real only in the imagination of the fool that wastes his time seeking her. I don't know which, because the passage above is a single chapter out of Joanna Russ's 1975 classic The Female Man.

I didn't say "Feminist" classic, or Science Fiction classic because I don't feel equipped enough to address this book on either of those terms. What I know about Feminist Literature could be fit into a shot glass. As for Science Fiction, yes, you'll find this novel under that category, but I think it's a limiting label. It's "science" fiction in that it has time travel and parallel dimensions but I would be tempted to just call it a novel of ideas and leave it at that. As for plots, I couldn't summarize one here for you. It doesn't matter. There isn't a point to reading a book like this to see what happens next. In fact, often in the novel, I didn't know which dimension I was in, or whose voice I was listening to. Sometimes it's clear, but there are 4 viewpoints to see through in the pages that trying to find solid purchase within any one of them is frustrating. So I let the novel present itself to me on its own terms and discovered that, once I surrendered to it, I really liked it.

There are four characters: Janet, Jeannine, Joanna and Jael. Janet is from a future (not "our" future) society named Whileaway where males have been extinct for more than 800 years. Jeannine is from a contemporary (parallel?) society wherein the Great Depression continues into the 70's. There was no feminist shift in attitudes, likely no civil protest to speak of. Woman may have jobs, but their place is to marry and have children. Joanna's (Joanna Russ?) world is "our" world as it was in the 70's, and Jael's world is that in which a war of the sexes has been waging for several decades. All four women are gathered into one time and place in the novel, and all four women are the same woman living apart in their own time and place. How they relate to each other, and what each separate dimension exposes them to is what the novel is about. And let me warn you, men, mankind, the male species, the beings with the Y chromosome, do not represent here well at all.

For example, there is Cal, who is Jeannine's fiance. Cal is something of a bore, who is likely impotent as well. Cal's relationship with Jeannine is one of convenience for him, and one of nothing for her. There is no benefit to Jeannine for having Cal in her life, beyond saving her from becoming a spinster. Then there is Davy, who is Jael's boytoy. And that is in the literal sense. Davy is a robot, designed for Jael's pleasure only. The sexes live apart in Jael's world, and the men address their sexual desires by selecting certain boys to undergo surgery to change them into something resembling females. Joanna's world has your standard run of the mill jerkoff guys in it who objectify women, fear women, blame women, hate women, desire women, and...well you get the idea. Her world is our world and the women in it have learned to play the game. More on this below. Janet's world, in the future, has managed without men for so long that they're not even missed. Janet's world comes across as perhaps the most desirable of all options. So let that sink in for moment. The best option is a world without men. Perhaps it's a debate worth having that Joanna Russ intended this as a takeaway. I don't know.

This novel was published in 1975 and a woman's role in that time is not where it is today. By those standards the novel has been regarded as some as a product of its time. But, really is it?  Consider the recent cases on the news of connected young men of means and "good" upbringing basically getting away with sexually assaulting young women. They didn't just come up with the idea of violating women out of the blue. Look at the one father who pleaded for leniency for his son for "twenty minutes of action." And for every case that makes the news there is no telling how many don't, for this very reason. Go online and see how often women are harassed about their looks. Women have yet to earn what men earn for the same job. Yes, there is an exception and an example here and there of the female CEO. But step back and look at the scrutiny that female CEO must face on a day to day basis that a male executive never would. Look at the Hollywood machine churning out big budget films every year, and the roles that women are given and the double standard of sex vs violence on film. Our adult movies coat sex in lurid and violent tones. In American suburbs children are "protected" from women who dare to breastfeed in public. If you think an angry book like The Female Man is dated, then you've probably been living under a rock.

He gave her to understand that she was going to die of cancer of the womb.
She laughed.
He gave her to understand further that she was taking unfair advantage of his good manners. 
She roared.
He pursued the subject and told her that if he were not a gentleman he would ram her stinking, shitty teeth up her stinking, shitty ass. 
She shrugged.
He told her that she was so ball-breaking, shitty, stone, scum-bag, motherfucking, plug-ugly that no normal male could keep up an erection within half a mile of her.

So yeah, I liked this book a lot. I'm glad I read it. It's challenging, it's angry. It shouldn't be forgotten so easily.

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. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Hell's Our Destination - Gil Brewer

Cora was poised in a half crouch not five feet away from Bliss's agonized, pleading face. She was wearing only a jaggedly torn remnant of yellow jacket over her shoulders. She stood there with her hands out, her head thrust forward, absolutely silent, frighteningly beautiful, her long finely sculptured legs pale against the dark green. 

Gold Medal, October 1953
Hell’s Our Destination is an earlier novel from Gil Brewer, and falls into that ever popular “swamp-noir” genre in which characters drink a lot, sweat a lot and feed upon their lusts toward no good endings. Who doesn’t like a good swamp noir romp? This one has all the right ingredients: buried loot, an eccentric loner, ex-cons out of their element, and sweaty babes who smoke cigarettes and disrobe a lot. We have two such dames in this novel. Vern, a raven-haired good girl from town, and Cora, the sultry blond from the city whose sideways glances give the menfolk pause.

There isn’t much surprise that’s ahead for someone who has made a steady diet of reading noir paperbacks from this period. You know a couple chapters in that Cora is no good and is going to screw at least one of the guys over before the end. In this case she’s got three suckers to pick from. The most obvious being our hapless “hero” of the novel, Simon.

Simon hasn’t had it so well these past years. He’s been obsessing over a wad of stolen loot that he knows is hidden out there somewhere in the swamp. Six years before he took two hundred dollars to help a traveler named Fred hide the loot. Problem is that he doesn’t know exactly where Fred hid the loot, just that it’s a couple hours up the river from his cabin, by two crossed “trees.” Simon figures that he’s going to get the money eventually, but waiting for the opportunity has eaten into his soul. It’s also but a halt to his relationship with Vern. With the money he figures he can make a life for the two of them, leave the swamp behind them forever. But until then…well…there’s booze and the bible to carry him along. But Vern can’t wait forever.

Simon reads about a payroll heist, and that Fred is sent up for it. The money is missing of course because Fred has hidden it in the swamp. Simon figures that he’d have to wait for Fred’s release from prison in order to get the money. But Fred is killed days after getting paroled, and Simon has no choice but to wait for Fred’s killer to show up looking for a tour guide into the swamp.

In the meantime Simon has to deal with a couple of smartass insurance detectives sniffing around. They figure that Fred disposed of the stolen loot in Simon’s swamp. They needle Simon. They dose him with a Mutt and Jeff routine. They wear him down with insinuations. One of them in particular, Steggins, seems to have plenty of time to just hang around the swamp in his skiff, fishing and whatnot, just waiting for Simon to make a move. If that isn’t bad enough, Fred’s old partner Bliss shows up. Bliss seems to figure Simon isn’t as simple as he tries to be. He tells Simon that it’s best for him that he shacks up in Simon’s cabin for a while, just to keep the heat off. Oh, yeah, and what about that missing loot his old buddy Fred made off with?

Then there is Cora. Ah...Cora, that icy blond who parades around Simon’s cabin flashing her legs and blowing smoke at him. Her method of attack is to play at a city gal looking for a local guide to take her out on a photography safari. She’s hot and bored and maybe willing to share a hot afternoon in Simon’s cot, but first, the guided tour into the swamp. As if she doesn’t know what’s buried there.

These characters come and go in Simon’s cabin to the point that you begin to wonder if they’re not manifestations of Simon’s torment.  He’s been putting life on hold for a false promise that his mind is getting as tattered as his old bible. Personally, I’d avoid a guy like Simon. Yeah, maybe Cora might be able to trip me up a couple of time, but I’ll know not to follow her anywhere near any quicksand. 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Conan and the Spider God - L. Sprague de Camp

Cautiously, Conan felt his way down the stone stair, peering ahead as far as the torch could throw its feeble beams. He found himself in a spacious passage, higher than his head and wider than his outstretched arms. No sound save the hiss of the flaring torch, so faint as to be barely audible even to his keen ears, dispelled the sepulchral silence. The smell of carrion rowelled his nostrils.

Bantam - December 1980

I blame it on a soul sucking corporate gig in a cubicle. I really do. Imagine Conan sitting in front of a keyboard and monitor displaying another multi-tabbed spreadsheet that has no beginning, no end. And some stick-up-the-ass corporate VP from the Circumlocutive Sycophancy Dept interrupts his thoughts to ask him why Conan can’t just “press a button” to balance the financials on time. No doubt the scimitar would swing as crimson fountain splatters the fluorescent lights in a gory homage to Jackson Pollock and said VP’s head would fly, mouth agape, landing near the artificial potted plant, perfectly coiffed hair intact. Yeah…that’s what I’m talking, so anyway. Where was I?

That’s right, with Conan in the underground tunnels beneath Yezud, City of the Spider God. Sometimes I get carried away with escapist pulp fiction and hairy-chest barbarians who swing swords first and ask questions later. I picked this paperback up for two bucks, expecting a couple hours of blood ‘n glory and, well, sort of getting it. L. Sprague de Camp’s 1980 novel Conan and the Spider God is a fine adventure, but not quite the same Conan as Robert Howard created. That’s not a bad thing. Here, Conan is a bit more thoughtful and measured in his actions. And here too, Conan actually falls in love. But we still get the cool blood-soaked swordplay, evil sorcery and monsters that make Conan’s adventures irresistible.

The plot? Well, Conan is a captain in the Royal Guard of the king of Turan, until he goes AWOL after getting blamed for kidnapping the king’s favorite wife, Jamilah. He makes his way through a series of encounters involving a handful of shady smugglers with an ability to cast hypnotic spells, to old comrades from past adventures, thievery and taverns and jealous wenches, to finally arrive at last into the mountain city of Yezud, home of the Spider God and his nefarious priests. Turns out these priests are the real culprits behind the kidnapping of Jamilah. Their intent is to use her as some sort of political ransom plot…it doesn’t matter. In Yezud, Conan is hired as a blacksmith after using a false name. His plan is to rescue Jamilah and steal the jeweled eyes of the from the spider-god statue in the Temple of Zath. However, before any of this can happen he falls in love with Rudabeh, one of the dancing girls and servants in the Temple of the Spider. Rudabeh turns out to be more fully realized character than one would assume for a Conan story. She manages to keep Conan’s lusts at bay, convincing him that she’s not giving up the good stuff just so he can run off and leave her for some other adventure afterward. It all leads to a pretty cool finale in the underground caves beneath the Temple of the Spider God with a monstrous…well, I’ll let you guess exactly what.

Yeah, if you want the real deal when it comes to Conan you have to go to the source, Robert E. Howard. There have been scads of Conan stories and appearances since the original run back in Weird Tales, some good, some not so good. I’ve not read enough of the other Conan novels to give you an informed opinion on who measures up to the original. I’m too busy riding a tin can to an office park, wishing I was freebootin’ and wench screwin’ instead. Oh well…

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Meditations in Green - Stephen Wright

The foot rides the accelerator down to the floor.
The tires, working the road outside, pick up a rhythm from the radio, drum a rhythm onto the pavement, roll a rhythm through the body, lock a rhythm into the wheels of the head, and bam! blood explodes in the piston chambers, axles rotate along the spine, gears mesh, transmission achieved. Interstate consciousness. I could drive like this forever, swift and loose, senses drowned in a shriek, headlights boring holes in the void, because somewhere out here there must be a way home. 

Bantam Books, November 1984
Stephen Wright's 1983 novel about Vietnam, Meditations in Green isn't an easy book to read. It demands a lot from the reader. There is really no sense of plot to hang onto between long passages hallucinatory scenes military life, of war and addiction. But if you stick with it you do find the rhythm and pace of the novel in a way that mirrors the boredom and horror of war and the tolls it takes on the psyches of its combatants and victims. There are many scenes that illustrate both the mundane routine and order of military life at odds with a war that has no respect for regulations and polished boots. Anyone who has spent time in the military can appreciate the way Wright translates his experiences through the eyes of one soldier, Spec. 4 James Griffin, into the novel.

Griffin is assigned to the 1069th Military Intelligence Group, where he spends days hunched over surveillance photos of Vietnam. The 1069th is also where POW's are held and interrogated. During downtime, Griffin and his fellow soldiers smoke pot, drink, gamble, hate the military, and dream of home. The 1069th is also a microcosm of the structure and dysfunction of Army life and combat and the ways it bores into the souls of its participants. You have headcase "Trips" Triplett, virginal Indiana kid Claypool, by-the-book Major Holly, Vegetable, Simon and Wendell living among the insanity of war and reacting in kind. Routine is observed and retaliated against with massive doses of drugs, insomnia, insanity and fear. And the cracks show:

The war had gone on too long, a joke without a punchline. Da Nang already resembled a hippie ghetto. In the offices there desktops were concealed beneath dumps of neglected paperwork, personal correspondence, hometown newspapers, cock books, stale food, half-empty soda cans, and Styrofoam cups fuzzy with mold; once-aseptic walls had become infected with a creeping fungus of pinups, film and travel posters, family photographs, and crudely drawn, militantly obscene short-timers calendars. 

The chapters of the novel are broken by Meditations in Green, Griffin's dreams of nature. Green dominates the novel, in landscape, foliage, camouflage, jungles, mountains, sunsets, paint and horror. Life after coming home is spent getting high, chasing solitude, looking for solace, undergoing therapy and looking for answers that don't exist. Griffin befriends a social worker named Huey (Huette Mirandella) and entertaining Trips's planned retribution against the sergeant who killed his dog.

It's a strange book, not for everyone, but certainly one I'd recommend to readers who admire war novels. Veterans and their families would also appreciate it. It's probably not on many reading lists like the classics we all know, but it deserves an audience regardless.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Stranger in Town - Clifton Adams

"It's unbelievable," the doctor said, "the things decent men will do because of fear."

Paperback Library Edition - January 1969

My first exposure to Clifton Adams was through his terrific noir novel, Death's Sweet Song. If you get a chance to read that one, do so. Looking up other books I found that Adams wrote a fair number of westerns that are relatively easy to find in the used bookstores. I picked up a handful of those westerns including Noose for a Desperado, which is easily one of the most hard-boiled/noir westerns I'd ever read up to that point. Louis L'amour never galloped down such bleak trails! Anyway, after reading a couple of Pynchon novels I was in the mood for something a bit more fun and digestible. Stranger in Town from 1960 has been sitting in my small stack of westerns for a while now.

The plot is a simple one. In the small Colorado town of Menloe John Salem finds himself on the run from a vigilante posse out to get him for the murder of a local bully named Ed Ferguson. Ferguson done made fun of young John Salem one too many times, calling him a simpleton and whatnot, that Salem finally reached his limit and blasted Ferguson dead. Then in a fit of panic Salem steals a horse belonging to local bigshot Jake Wilson and heads for the hills. This all goes down while the Sheriff Ben McDermit is away on sheriff business. McDermit returns to Menloe to discover his deputy, Jess Webb, and a handful of Menloe citizens including Jake Wilson and the shiftless Pollard brothers, have ridden out after John Salem. Sensing trouble, Ben McDermit rides out after the posse. But, as things go in novels like this, Ben's too late. Wilson and the Pollard brothers, along with Jess Webb, have already caught up to John Salem and hung him. That's what horse thieves and killers deserve, says Jake Wilson and the gang. Disgusted, Ben McDermit fires his deputy on the spot. He then orders the posse to cut down Salem's body. In doing so, they discover a letter in one of Salem's pockets. A letter from his big brother Jute McCoy. Jute McCoy is one of those badass outlaw motherfuckers with a reputation for killing. Now, the boys from Menloe have got something to be afraid of.

So there's the setup, in a neat little package, A town waiting for an outlaw's revenge. Guilt and fear stirring up suspicions and mistrust. Any stranger riding through Menloe is suspect, Is he the one? Is this Jute McCoy coming in for vengeance on the men who hung his kid brother? Is Sheriff McDermit gonna protect them? Or do they need a new sheriff instead? Someone who isn't afraid of taking the law into their own hands when required, doing what needs to be done without wasting time on trials and juries.

Then, after several weeks a traveling gun dealer who calls himself Tom Kelso rides into town. Suspicions boil over. The Pollard brothers, shiftless and mean as ever, goad Kelso into drawing his guns and when the smoke clears, one of the Pollards lay dead in a pool of blood. Now the town wants justice. They demand that Sheriff McDermit throw Kelso in jail and hang him. The problem is, that Kelso's killing of Woody Pollard was self defense. And Kelso claims he knows nothing about anyone named Jute McCoy. Still, Kelso says, maybe Jute McCoy has every right to come into Menlow and kill the men who hung his brother. Tensions mount, mobs form, guns are drawn and people die. Still, whether Kelso is really the outlaw Jute McCoy or not isn't revealed until the very last page.

I liked this one. It has a few hiccups here and there. There are some passages repeat the groundwork and themes of the novel maybe once or twice too often. But the action is well written and the Adams paints a good picture of a town coming unraveled. I'd recommend this one to fans of hardboiled fiction.