Saturday, January 28, 2023

Conan - The Scarlet Citadel

The January, 1933 issue of Weird Tales featured the Robert E. Howard story “The Scarlet Citadel”. It was later included in the King Conan (1953) and Conan the Usurper (1967) collections. The story was published more recently in The Conan Chronicles Vol. 2 (2001) and Conan of Cimmeria Vol. 1 (2003).

“The Scarlet Citadel” features Howard's famed Conan the Cimmerian in a much later period of his life. Readers discover that Conan is now an older, wiser warrior that has taken the crown of Aquilonia. King Conan receives a message from the king of Ophir claiming that the emperor of the nearby region Koth is threatening his kingdom. Ophir needs Aquilonia's assistance, so King Conan generously leads an army of 5,000 knights to fight Koth's invasion. 

Upon arrival, Conan discovers that it was a trap. Both Ophir and Koth's leaders were working together to ensnare the hero. Their secret weapon is Tsotha-Lanti, an evil sorcerer that captures Conan and places him in a deep, multi-chambered dungeon in a high tower. It is here that Conan experiences horrifying creatures that have been created or altered by the “mad scientist” Tsotha-Lanti. His biggest rival is a giant, slithering serpent that seems to guard the dungeon's cavernous hallways. 

In an attempt to escape, Conan frees a powerful wizard named Pelias. In a short backstory, Pelias explains to Conan that he was a rival of Tsotha-Lanti before being captured and imprisoned for ten years by the mad sorcerer. As the story continues, there's a prison escape, Conan riding a flying dragon (?), and an epic showdown as Conan and Pelias extract their revenge.

This story is on par with “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Rogues in the House” in terms of pure storytelling excellence. The escapism, extraordinary sense of adventure, and suspenseful dungeon horror are key elements that catapult the story into the higher echelons of Howard's literary showcase. His attention to detail grips the reader with an ominous overtone that promises nothing short of death and bloody destruction. Howard's lengthy paragraph describing Tsotha's castle overlooking the city, its lone road with steep, daunting hills on each side, makes for an impregnable tomb. This description makes Conan's dazzling, unorthodox escape more powerful and entertaining. 

As a fan of Conan's younger years – thieving, wandering, soldiering – I neglect to read many of his royalty adventures. As King Conan, “The Scarlet Citadel” is about as good as it gets. This older and wiser hero was just a real pleasure to read and understand. As an aside, this story was adapted by Roy Thomas and Frank Brunner in Savage Sword of Conan #30 (1977) and in King Conan: The Scarlet Citadel (2011). I highly recommend reading the original story and then the comic adaptations if you need more visuals. Howard's imagery is enough, in my humble opinion. Highly recommdended!

Friday, January 27, 2023

The Happy Man

Eric C. Higgs is a Southern California writer who has only published three novels in his career, including The Happy Man, a 1985 Paperjacks release with an unlikely cult following. The short novel has recently found new life as a reprint from Valancourt Books. 

Our narrator is Charles Ripley, a typical suburbanite in Chula Vista, California - right near San Diego, three-miles from the Mexican border. He works for a defense contractor and lives a dull suburban life with his wife. Things change when new neighbors move in next door. Their names are Ruskin and Sybil Marsh, and Charles takes the time to invite them over for a drink in their first night in the neighborhood. The couples hit it off, and a transformative friendship is formed. 

The first chapter (a flash-forward in the novel’s greater timeline) spoils the trajectory of the book, and the paperback would have been better if the reader could have read about Charles’ evolution more organically. Instead, you’re told right off the bat that things get rather violent for the people in Charles’ immediate orbit. 

Despite this foreshadowing misstep, The Happy Man is a really well-written novel. The story of Charles and his conflicted relationship with his new neighbors made for compulsive reading. It was particularly fascinating to see how the new neighbors altered the behavior of the entire subdivision based solely on the force of their influence. Things get decidedly wild as the book heats up - both sexually and violently. Swingers parties. Secret societies. Drug use. Mysterious murders. And things way darker. 

It’s not a perfect book. The big revelation about the neighbors wasn’t all that surprising and the sudden shift to a culty horror novel was a bit clumsy and abrupt. Despite all that, I found myself enjoying The Happy Man immensely. Recommended. 

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Battling Britons #04 - Future War Special

Paperback Warrior generally offers two types of reviews. The first, and most common, is the experienced examination of a novel or a story based on a prior history with the author, book, or series title. For example, we can talk for miles about Mack Bolan, Matthew Scudder, or Quarry because we have a fondness for the character, authors, and series and have read a great deal on the subject. The second type of review is what I refer to as the discovery review. This is our writings and musings of a book, author, or genre that we don't have as much experience with. Our discovery is more of an emotional thing – how it affects us directly and the interest it creates in pursuing the author, future books, or related series titles. 

This review is pure discovery, prompted by our genuine love for the fanzines and articles compiled, edited, and written by Justin Marriott and his colleagues. Marriott is a literary scholar of paperbacks, comics, magazines, and pulps, all of the stuff we live and breathe here at PW. Normally, we try to refrain from discovery reviews, but even more so, we generally don't review books about books. It seems silly to review reviews, right? But, Marriott's newest endeavor, his second run of a series of books called Battling Britons, prompted me to learn more about British war comics. Honestly, I had never heard the term until I read about Marriott's series launch a year ago. 

I ordered a copy of the newest issue of Battling Britons, number four, published in November, 2022. The theme for this issue is "Future War Special", covering a variety of war and science-fiction titles, comics, strips, and graphic novels. The only experience I've had with any British comics, sadly, is 2000AD character Judge Dredd. That's probably par for the course for snooty Americans like myself who solely dabble in the US branded comic companies like Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image, and Boom. In my defense, I only read books related to one title, X-Men. So, I'm a snoot among snoots I suppose. 

My first impression is that Battling Britons is a 160 page book with a kick-ass glossy cover and design created by Paperback Warrior reader and fan Bill Cunningham. This guy does fantastic work with everything he touches (like the MAM Quarterly books) and this is no different. I would also speculate that Battling Britons might be Marriott's most professional fanzine, a well-structured book that maximizes each page size with an abundance of book covers, columns, articles, and a whopping amount of information on the subject. Granted, the interior pages are black and white, but the content and scope of the material more than make up for that small nuisance. 

Here's the thing. I have no Earthly idea what some of these columns are referring to considering I know zilch about British comics. But damned if my interest isn't peaked, and my education a little better after reading through the book. Titles like Commando, Starblazer, Rogue Trooper/War Machine, and 2000AD look absolutely amazing and I found myself questioning my existence for 46 years around the sun without having this stuff in my life. Where have I been? 

This series title offers eight regular columns and 14 features that are related to the "Future War" theme. 

Highlights:

“A Brief History of Time (Travel in British Comics)”, is four pages about comics and story arcs featuring time travel in world war settings. Starlord 1977's strip “Timequake”, for example, features a bleak alternative future where the Germans prevailed in WW2. Another variation of that comes in the form of “The Sentinels”, featured in Misty 1977. 

There are two articles with James Bacon discussing the reboot of Rogue Trooper, which was informative to me because I never knew about the first version. Now I know, and knowing is half the battle, right? 

“Savage by Name, Savage by Nature” is six awesome pages featuring a look at Bill Savage, a character that appeared in the early issues of 2000AD. The character and premise sounds cool as Hell. A vigilante -esque guy, Savage, is fighting a force called the Volgan who have invaded England. Double-barreled shotguns and grimaced faces make this one look like a must have.

“Pocket Rockets” concerns the anthology comic book series Starblazer, which ran 281 issues from 1979 through 1991. The article is written by Alan Holloway and reviews 18 stories appearing in the series in the 1980s. These stories range from classic science-fiction, fantasy, sword and sorcery, and even space crime-noir. These write-ups and the issue cover art makes me want to retire and just read Starblazer all day. 

Battling Britons was an unfamiliar, new journey for me, but one I'm glad I took. This was a resourceful, intelligent book about books designed in an easy to follow format. The amount of information collected on these British publications including titles, characters, history, writers, and industry was staggering. Justin Marriott continues to produce the best fanzines on the planet and Battling Britons continues his greatness. Recommended. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Armless O'Neil #01 - Seekers of the Glittering Fetish

Armless O’Neil is a hardboiled adventurer who starred in 12 pulp novellas by Dan Cushman (1909-2001) between 1945 and 1953. The stories have been compiled into two collections by Steeger Books including the first adventure, “Seekers of the Glittering Fetish” - originally from Jungle Stories Magazine.

Armless O’Neil isn’t exactly armless. He does have a steel hook projecting from the left sleeve of his jacket in place of an arm, but the right hand seems to be intact. He’s described as being ugly, but an “Irish ugliness which a person would enjoy looking upon.”

The story takes place in the port city of Brazzaville, what is now known as the Republic of Congo, back when it was a French colony — a combination of Wikipedia and Google Maps are good supplements to a Dan Cushman story. We join Armless in a seedy tavern where he’s meeting an acquaintance named Swede to discuss some rare blue diamonds.

It quickly becomes clear that the Swede won’t show at the meeting because he was double-crossed and murdered by his business partner, the Dutchman. Armless has zero interest in doing business with the Dutchman because of his practice of flaying the skin off African natives.

Recovering the cache of missing diamonds is the focus of this story. Armless has a sidekick named Tommy who falls in love with a girl along the way in a nice subplot. Cushman writes shockingly violent fight scenes — among the best I can recall in pulp fiction. Having a sharpened hook for a hand sure helps.

Armless is a gruff and charmless character, but you’ll find yourself rooting for him nonetheless.

If you’re sensitive to antiquated African stereotypes, you may want to skip this one as the natives are all of the ooga-booga variety. But if you enjoy old-fashioned hardboiled treasure hunt stories, you’re bound to enjoy this one.

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Children of the Dragon

From my research, author Frank Robinson is a retired New York judge and an expert on coin values and collecting. He only authored one work of fiction in his short writing career. The book is Children of the Dragon, published in 1978 by Avon. Admittedly, a 450 page paperback isn't normally something I'm interested in reading, but the novel's cover art is extraordinary. It was painted by popular Spanish artist Manuel Perez Clemente, referred to as Sanjulian. His career work includes characters like Conan, Vampirella and magazines like Eerie, Creepy, and Famous Monsters of Filmland. In stereotypical fashion, I was totally prepared to judge a book by its cover. 

As a long fantasy novel, Robinson spends some time building the world the story exists in. It's a fictional place called Bergharran, similar to Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age. There are regions (countries), dialects, languages, cultures, and so forth that are explained in great detail. But, overall I speculate that Robinson mirrored parts of the book after the Timurid Empire of the 15th century, what is known now as modern Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and portions of North India and Turkey. Bergharran is experiencing an age similar to a post-Civil War. The Tnemghadi (the North) defeated the Urhemmedhi (the South) and they now rule with an iron fist as a tyrannical empire. The book's sprawling landscape fits the book's narrative, a storyline that encompasses 20ish years of Bergharran history. 

Over the course of time, the book examines several characters and their growth from poverty to royalty, most playing a supporting role to the chief protagonist, a man named Jehan Henghmani. He's married with two daughters, and in the opening pages it is explained that he had been captured by the Emperor of Tnemghadi. Jehan, a bandit by trade, is able to break his bonds and kill the executioner assigned to behead him. Because of this, and his inability to escape the dungeon, the Emperor imposes a strict punishment. He is to be tortured each day for the rest of his life. Any dungeon master that allows this prisoner to die under torture will receive the same punishment as Jehan. Further, he is fed only human flesh. These torture scenes, which is sometimes described in great detail, were extremely vile and disturbing. After years of abuse, Jehan's wife and kids are brought in and raped repeatedly in front of him. 

Eventually, Jehan is able to escape his Hell and begins to create a new group of roving bandits. But, instead of stealing from the Tnemghadi, he wants to destroy them. The next 300 pages are saturated with Jehan's creation of a large military force that collides with Tnemghadi's reign. There are large swaths of land and regions that are slowly devoured through calculated battles. In essence, Jehan rises to become a new leader through military tactics. This is where the problem lies - the book's focus on continental reformation.

Robinson's book is captivating at times, and feels epic – as it should. But, the narrative is bogged down with so much political strife and turmoil that I became exhausted. This isn't a fantasy novel, nor is it science-fiction or sword and sorcery. There is no dragons or magic and there isn't anything cosmic. This is purely a fictional middle-ages type of story with normal people displaying acts of barbarism, brutality, and violence on one another. At times, the torture sequences rivaled one of the most graphic novels I've ever read, Jack Ketchum's The Girl Next Door. This isn't for the squeamish. 

If political intrigue, royalty chess games, and the pursuit of power by ruthless, self-absorbed characters is your thing, then by all means reading this book should be a pleasant experience. Robinson is a great writer and the overall storyline is superb. But, at the end of the day, it's a lengthy book and requires some patience, and I simply don't have it. 

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Temple

“The Temple” is a short story from Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) that first appeared in the September 1925 issue of Weird Tales pulp magazine. The story has been compiled in countless collections and is available as a free Kindle download. 

The story presents itself as a found “letter in a bottle” manuscript written by a German submarine captain who just sank a British ship during WW1. A member of the German crew removes a mysterious amulet from the pocket of a dead enemy seaman, and things begin to get weird. 

The German crew begins experiencing mass nightmares, babbling, and visions of floating corpses in the sea. Things get worse for the cursed crew throughout the story as insanity leads to mutiny and murder. 

Eventually, the U-Boat settles upon the bottom of the sea where there is a great temple on a large campus recalling tales of the underwater City of Atlantis. Lovecraft does a great job of creating a spooky atmosphere as our unreliable narrator explores the city and slips deeper into madness. 

While not much actually happens in the story, it’s all about the vibe. Lovecraft was a master of creeping dread caused by circumstances and forces beyond our control. Taken in that context, “The Temple” is a worthy, short read.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

Conan - Wolves Beyond the Border

I questioned whether to place “Wolves Beyond the Border” in the Conan category. Technically, it's in the same fictional universe and mentions the hero, but Conan doesn't actually appear in the story. Yet, it first appeared in the 1967 Lancer paperback Conan the Usurper, alongside other Conan classics like “The Scarlet Citadel” and “The Phoenix on the Sword”. By association alone, it seems mandatory. In fact, Howard began the story in the 1930s, but it went unfinished and unpublished. It was located in 1965 by Glenn Lord and then passed to L. Sprague de Camp to finish writing the story based on Howard's notes and summaries.

“Wolves Beyond the Border” takes place along the Pictish border. For Hyborian Age rookies, the Picts are similar to the Native American tribes of the North American continent in the 1500-1800s. If you read early frontier novels by the likes of James Fenimore Cooper (Leatherstocking Tales) or later, traditional westerns by Zane Grey (his Border Trilogy for example), the narratives mostly consist of early settlers and pioneers struggling to live in the same territorial regions as Native American tribes. So, Robert E. Howard used this as a blueprint when creating Conan stories like “The Treasure of Tranicos” and “Wolves Beyond the Border”. The Pictish borders are similar to the surrounding areas of North America's early Ohio River Valley.

This story is told in first-person narrative by a border ranger. In the early pages, this ranger (unnamed and referred to as Gault Hagar's son) witnesses a bizarre ritual by the Picts, where they torture a man and then magically place him in the body of a snake. It is a disturbing, horrific passage that surpasses even the mad-scientist terrors lurking in “The Scarlet Citadel”. This ranger sees that an Aquilonian named Lord Valerian is conspiring to secretly ally with the Picts. This is important because the story is set during a time when Conan was attempting to overthrow Aquilonia's leaders and become the new king. An alliance of Picts and Aquilonian noblemen doesn't promise success for Conan. 

At nearly 60 paperback pages, the story becomes bogged down and convoluted in the middle. The ranger hero confronts Lord Valerian and Pictish leaders at a swamp cabin and there's a fight and a capture. The beginning and end are exciting skirmishes and chase sequences, but overall I found the story to be of middling quality. From what I understand, Howard wrote the story up to the cabin meeting, and then the reigns were handed to de Camp to complete the manuscript from there. 

In the big picture of the Conan mythos, “Wolves Beyond the Border” is like the Star Wars film Rogue One. It is a separate story without the major heroes like Skywalker and Solo, but adds to the trilogy that began with Star Wars. Same principle here. While Conan isn't around, this is a behind-the-scenes political/military strategy that contributes to the events leading to Conan capturing the Aqulonian throne. If that's your type of story or if you are a Conan collector, then I'm sure there is plenty of enjoyment to be found here. Otherwise, skip it.

Friday, January 20, 2023

M.I.A. Hunter #10 - Miami Warzone

 

M.I.A. Hunter was a series of men's action-adventure novels published by Jove in the 1980s and early 1990s. The series was created by Stephen Mertz (Cody's War, Kilroy) and featured his outlines and editing with a revolving door of authors including Joe Lansdale, Arthur Moore, and Mike Newton. Crime-fiction author and popular blogger Bill Crider (1941-2018) contributed as well with his series debut, Miami Warzone. It is the 10th installment, originally published in 1988 and existing today in digital format through Wolfpack Publishing

Miami Warzone is the first domestic appearance of Mark Stone, Terrence Loughlin, and Hog Wiley, the three-man retrieval team effectively known as “M.I.A. Hunter”. The series began with dangerous missions into Southeast Asia to rescue American prisoners held captive from the Vietnam War. Stone's team was working without permission from the U.S. Government, therefore their activities were highly illegal and placed them on a C.I.A. hitlist. But, the American government caught on to Stone's skills in the same way that they caught on to The Executioner. If you can't beat them, join them. So, a U.S. Senator (Harler I think?) in book seven liberates the three hunters and places them on the federal payroll working out of Fort Bragg. You're all caught up now.

In this 10th installment, Crider introduces readers to Jack Wofford, a former teammate of Stone's during the Vietnam War. He even helped to save Stone's life during a nasty firefight at a seemingly abandoned village. In a terrific backstory, Crider tells of how Wofford's brother succumbed to drug addiction and eventually died. To avenge his brother's loss, Wofford went vigilante and began running his own one-man vice-squad. Eventually, he had enough intel and dirt on some of America's most powerful drug dealers. The D.E.A. were impressed with Wofford's talents and placed him on the payroll, similar to what happened with Stone and the C.I.A. But, on a recent undercover buy, Wofford is caught and becomes imprisoned as collateral during a Cuban and Columbian drug war. 

Stone receives a call from Wofford's wife stating that the D.E.A. isn't doing enough to free her husband. The trio takes the job to track down Wofford's whereabouts while also attempting to destroy the drug importing operation devouring Miami. The narrative has a tremendously high body count as the locations include park battlefields, a wild Everglades romp, the ultimate barfight, a mansion blowout, and even a shootout at an airport. 

M.I.A. Hunter isn't Hemingway and never professed to be. Instead, it's a rip-roar, ass-kicking team commando series with explosive action and a slight dose of testosterone humor (Hog is a riot!). As much as I loved the old fashioned “bring 'em back alive” Vietnam rescue missions, the idea of Stone and company working domestically is a nice change of pace. The last two novel locations, the Soviet Union and Nicaragua, were both excellent choices to move this series into another dynamic. Crider's writing style is ultra-violent, but also balances out with a quality story laced with crime-fiction elements, sex, and a buddy cop camaraderie. In other words, this one is a series standout.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

Five Decembers

The 2022 Edgar Award for Best Novel went to our friends over at Hard Case Crime for an original work called Five Decembers. The author is a successful contemporary novelist named Jonathan Moore using the pseudonym James Kestrel.

It’s Thanksgiving, 1941 and Honolulu Police Homicide Detective Joe McGrady has no idea that Japanese planes will soon be headed his way to bomb Pearl Harbor and change the world forever. McGrady spent some time in the U.S. Army before becoming a patrolman in Honolulu. Four years later, he’s a new detective who just caught his first murder case.

And what a case it is! A young man and woman are found slaughtered in a dairy farm shed on Oahu’s windward side in a bloodbath not for weak stomachs. The dairy farmer is politically-connected and one of the victims has ties to local Navy brass. McGrady is under a ton of scrutiny from his bosses, and he’s feeling the pressure to solve this thing quickly and with minimal fanfare in the news.

The author’s writing mimics the style of James Ellroy in his Los Angeles Quartet/American Tabloid period - a hardboiled cop doing his best to solve a murder case in the shadow of world-changing events — namely World War 2.

It’s a pretty standard hardboiled police procedural with international implications that receives a giant boost of storytelling nitro when the Pearl Harbor attack occurs and the war with Japan commences. At that point, this good book becomes a great one.

The fictional events that transpire during the war and thereafter were among the most creative and unexpected plots that I’ve ever read in crime-fiction. You want heartbreak and romance? It’s there. You want bone-crunching hardboiled violence? You got it. You want a clever espionage thriller? Here you go.

Don’t let anyone spoil this novel for you. It’s not just the Best Mystery Novel of 2022, it’s the finest book I’ve read in 20 years. Essential reading for paperback genre fiction fans. Highest recommendation. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Mutants

Kris Neville (1925-1980) was a St. Louis native and author that wrote a half-dozen science-fiction novels, contributed to anthologies, and authored numerous short stories for magazines and digests. My first introduction to the author is his 1966 Belmont paperback novel The Mutants. This was originally published at a shorter length as Earth Alert!, a novella that appeared in the February, 1953 issue of Imagination with artwork by W.E. Terry. Now, the good folks at Armchair Fiction have reprinted the novel as a double with Poul Anderson's The Virgin of Valkarion

Many miles outside of the moon's orbit, a space station sits in waiting as nine aliens prepare for Earth's destruction. This space station maintains a cloaking device that shields it from Earth's observation and detection. Inside, these aliens have bred a thousand male and female hybrids of alien and human life forms, referred to as mutants. Their mission is to utilize these mutants to assist in decimating Earth's population after a deadly frequency is broadcast that will turn humans against one another. The mutants will act as a “seek and destroy” crew cleaning up all the leftover humans. 

On Earth, the aliens detect one of their own hybrids, a woman named Julia. This woman discovers that she has a form of telekinesis and can talk with the aliens in her mind. Sensing the aliens' plans, she plans on contacting the U.S. Government to warn them of the incoming invasion. The aliens, hoping to stop the warning, send one of their own alien hybrids, Walter, to intercept Julia and kill her.

There really isn't much to this 150 page paperback beyond the Julia character alerting the authorities of the alien attack. The tentacled aliens in space fill a small portion of the narrative, but overall remain mysterious and unimportant to the reader. The author maintains a frantic pace, which helps elevate the lifeless plot, but there just isn't enough here to really keep anyone interested. Think of The Mutants as a cross between a tepid Terminator flick and Disney's very safe Escape to Witch Mountain. Avoid this one.

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Devil's Daughter

We really have gained some mileage out of Stark House Press's Lion Trio 3. This recently released omnibus features new editions of three rare, long out of print Lion paperbacks. We covered Sin Pit (Lion Book #198, 1954) by Paul Meskil HERE and HERE. Also, we covered Dark the Summer Dies (Lion Book #138, 1953) by Walter Untermeyer Jr. HERE. This review is for the third and final book in the collection, The Devil's Daughter. It was authored by Peter Marsh, a pseudonym for Alan Williams (1890-1945), and published as Lion Book #16, 1949. The omnibus is prefaced with an insightful article by Paperback Parade's Gary Lovisi detailing the history of these novels and reasons that they remain classics of dark crime-noir. 

The Devil's Daughter is a unique book, told in a conversational way between two people, Michael Perry and Laura. This storytelling style isn't something new, most recently having been used by Stephen King for the Hard Case Crime novel Colorado Kid (2005). Generally speaking, one would think reading a conversation shouldn't be an edge of the seat thrill-ride. However, if done well, the characters in the present day – the mood, emotions, character development – should progress to match the dark history, suspense, excitability of the past events they are presenting. In that regard, Williams is an absolute scholar and creates two dynamics, the mysteries unfolding in the past through this conversation and also the two characters adapting to each other's account as they slowly begin to change emotionally. It's a superb reading experience. 

Michael Perry runs a nightclub and resides in a posh apartment above it. He's a corrupt character that routinely uses cameras to spy on the women's restroom and microphones to listen to patron's conversations at the bar and nearby tables. While the reader can speculate that Michael is into a lot of bad stuff, on paper he is mainly just a drug dealing pervert. Laura, a stunning beauty, catches his eye and eventually he invites her upstairs to his apartment. It's here that Laura discovers mirrors on the ceiling, different types of cigarettes for drug “moods”, and the not so discreet cameras and microphones. Michael, wrought with desire for Laura, confesses he likes to have a good time. 

Before Laura agrees to fool around, she wants Michael to hear a story. Taking the bait, Michael agrees and this is how the reader is submerged into both characters' histories. Through the course of the conversation, Michael realizes he does know Laura, and that she was a part of his shady criminal past. When Laura explains that she has systematically seduced and murdered many of Michael's former allies, the novel takes a bleak, but enjoyable, turn into some really violent events. It is a race to the end as the body count stacks (in Laura's tale). Will Michael suffer the same fate?

The Devil's Daughter is a unique book for all of the storytelling techniques I've alluded to already. However, as a reading experience, the author pulls no punches. There are a lot of elements in this novel that are somewhat uncommon for 1949. The time-period was a pivotal point in crime-fiction. The 1940s was the birth of the paperback original, but also as the decade came to a close, Mickey Spillane's 1947 smash hit I, the Jury really pushed the boundaries of what writers could say and do within the context of their story. 

Williams injects the gritty, violent determination of prohibition era bootleggers and the extreme nature of their business practices smoothly into the book's narrative. It is punctuated by a captivating, unforgettable scene that is written in a tremendously violent way. It's nearly an unprecedented chapter that wasn't typical of a consumer “everyday” paperback. This culmination into ruthless aggression was an obligatory portion of the plot's development, another staple that binds these characters together in a turbulent way. 

If you enjoy clever, well-written novels that stray from the path of least resistance, then The Devil's Daughter will certainly be an entertaining, worthwhile investment. Combining this novel into a collection with the exceptional Sin Pit makes the price of admission an easy expenditure. Stark House Press has outdone themselves again. 

Monday, January 16, 2023

South Pacific Affair

We've covered a lot of Ed Lacy's (Leonard Zinberg) crime-fiction, but his rare adventure novels have mostly gone unnoticed. I discovered a $2 ebook on Amazon called South Pacific Affair, originally published by Belmont in 1961. With a fistfight, a beautiful woman, and a boat on the cover, I was hoping this nautical adventure would provide me with an excellent escape from my average suburbia.

Lacy's first-person narrative begins rather haphazardly with protagonist Ray debating marriage with an islander girl named Ruita. They are both on the fictional South Pacific island of Numaga. After the conversation, readers are left puzzled as Ray gets intoxicated, pursues a nude fat woman, and is then punched by his co-worker/friend Eddie. It infuriates me when books begin without an explanation or clue of what the Hell is happening.

Through dialogue, readers learn that Ray and Eddie sail a small shipping vessel in the South Pacific. Their main gig is obtaining and selling copra, which is essentially the insides of a coconut. It isn't a lucrative business and the duo realize that most of their proceeds are spent on supplies, women, and booze. But, Ray is disgruntled with his life after discovering his wife having an affair with a Hollywood film producer. Disgusted with love, marriage, and the 9-5 life, he partnered with Eddie to become a seaman. Then, he met Ruita and fell in love. The issue is commitment, which sometimes isn't completely embedded in the male DNA. He's been burned already and doesn't want to make the same mistake again. 

Unfortunately, that is really all that Lacy has going for him in this book. Ray and Eddie get involved in various shipments, fight with a rival, much larger crew, and have a small bout with a ship carrying natives infected with smallpox. This isn't riveting stuff and I was expecting the narrative to develop into some semblance of an adventure story or, at the very least, incorporate some sort of crime-fiction element. These things never come to fruition and the end result is an absolute dud of a novel. Stay away. There are so many better Lacy novels. 

Friday, January 13, 2023

Conan - Blood of the Serpent

S.M. Stirling (Stephen Michael Stirling, b. 1953) is a Canadian-American science-fiction and fantasy author. His literary work includes the Draka, Fifth Millennium, Shadowspawn, and Emberverse series titles. He also co-authored The General series with David Drake and teamed with Jerry Pournelle for two Falkenberg's Legion books. My first experience with Stirling is his recent Conan novel, Blood of the Serpent, published by Titan Books in 2022. It is the first official Conan novel since 2011's novelization of Conan the Barbarian

Blood of the Serpent takes place after the events in Conan the Buccaneer and before the novella “Red Nails". Conan, in his late 30s, has joined up with the Free Companions working for the leader, Zarallo. In the book's opening pages, Conan is in a bar in the southwestern portion of Stygia. It's here that he first sets eyes on Valeria, a female privateer in the Red Brotherhood. After Conan saves a gambling man's life, Valeria herself runs afoul of a reckless Stygian commander. In quick fashion, Valeria wins the fight and embarrasses the leader. 

The book's first adventure has Conan, Valeria and other mercenaries guiding a Stygian shipment of supplies and slaves to one of their massive mines. In an odd twist, Conan and Valeria must protect the Stygians when the slaves revolt, kill off their masters and run the mercenaries off. Conan admits that if he were enslaved, he would have done the same. With the slave uprising, the Stygian command is fragmented, making a perfect getaway for Conan and Valeria to conduct a gold heist. After some fights with crocodiles and other reptiles and animals, the gold heist doesn't quite work out. But, this sets up the next part of the narrative when Valeria is forced to kill the Stygian commander she skirmished with earlier. She then flees on her own, but Conan learns that the commander's brother is going to trail her, hoping for a vengeful surprise kill away from prying eyes and allies. 

The second half of the novel has Conan battling Abomean warriors deep in the jungle. He makes love to a native, frees her people, and then aligns with the Abomeans. There's also battles with apelike creatures that were right out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, but I received vibes that closely compared with that of Thak, the ape-man creatures that Conan fought in “Rogues in the House”. There were some odd moments with Conan and the native girl swinging on vines through the jungle, but eventually the book pairs right up to the opening paragraphs of “Red Nails” with Conan finding Valeria. 

Many have compared this novel to the Robert Jordan (James Oliver Rigney Jr.) Conan books, and that might be a fair comparison. But, Stirling is rougher around the edges, incorporating lots of gore and ultra-violence. He's far from Robert E. Howard (isn't everybody?), but still can tell a quality story that has the overall feel of Conan. I would have preferred the titular hero to do less talking, have a little more bravado compared to Valeria, and be more authoritative. I don't believe de Camp, Howard, or Carter's versions of Conan would have a return of the gold, but instead would have involved some way for the hero to lose it in a self-serving, selfish attempt to get rich quick.

I enjoyed Stirling's flashbacks to classic Conan adventures from the past. Conan recounts events from “Rogues in the House” and “Tower of the Elephant”, and I also really liked the purposeful continuity right into Howard's “Red Nails” novella. It is seamless, and maintains the same pace and formula that made that story so outstanding. As a bonus, the book even has “Red Nails” at the end to preserve one long story. If you bought the hardcover, there are also illustrations by Roberto De La Torre included. If you wanted to finish this particular portion of Conan's life, Roland Green's Conan and the Gods of the Mountain completes this story arc and dismisses Valeria's future participation.  

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Men's Adventure Quarterly #05

I can remember watching all of the old war films on TBS as a kid. My father had them on and I always camped out on the living floor to watch all of the action. I can remember repeated watches of The Dirty Dozen, The Wild Geese, Attack Force Z, and Devil's Brigade. Heck, my parents just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary and “their song” is Mike Curb Congregation's “Burning Bridges”, the closing credits theme music of Kelly's Heroes. Needless to say, the team-based, do-or-die missions was ingrained into my childhood.

I was happy to learn that Bob Deis and Bill Cunningham's fifth issue of Men's Adventure Quarterly (MAQ) was dedicated to the team-combat “Dirty Mission” sub-genre of military-fiction and men's action-adventure. 

In the issue's opening pages, Deis traces the history of the concept, citing the 1965 novel and 1967 movie The Dirty Dozen as a possible catalyst for the numerous stories that appeared in men's adventure magazines. As Deis illustrates, the story that inspired The Dirty Dozen, “The Filthy Thirteen”, was published in 1944 in True: The Man's Magazine. Deis's opener is punctuated by glorious vintage artwork by Frank McCarthy, Norm Eastman, and popular Spanish comic book artist Vincent Sagrelles. 

The magazine's opening pages also features a short article by Bill Cunningham. He spotlights various films that featured unusual, unfortunate heroes partaking in dangerous military missions. Kudos to Cunningham for including one of my favorites, Uncommon Valor

Paperback Warrior is a big fan of Justin Marriott's magazines focusing on vintage books, pulps, comics, and more. One of his most recent projects is a series of fanzines dedicated to the British war comics and comic strips of the mid to late 20th century, Battling Britons. Using simple terms, he explains that the bigger British comic companies were Fleetway IPC and DC Thomson. These are like the Marvel and DC companies in the U.S. One of the things I found most interesting is that British monthly publications featured “pocketbooks”, 64-page stories that were sometimes written by military veterans. This provided a sense of realism and technical detail. Marriott's article is laced with spectacular comic panels from the likes of Battle Picture Weekly and Warlord as well as covers of Commando

The bulk of MAQ5 is dedicated to Eva Lynd, an iconic model that posed for MAM artists like Al Rossi, James Bama, and Samson Pollen. One of her most popular pairings was with artist Norm Eastman, which is a working relationship that Deis expands upon. There are numerous art panels and magazine covers to feast your eyes upon, including several that feature both Lynd and iconic male model/actor Steve Holland. In addition, Deis also briefly covers Lynd's work with artist Al Rossi, which was something I honed in on as a paperback fan. Book covers include Orrie Hitt's Women's Ward, Don Bartell's Strange Lovers, and one of the best books I read in 2022, Nude in the Sand, by John Burton Thompson. I really enjoyed the inclusion of fake movie posters portraying Lynd and Holland in action-packed military yarns. These are “fan” movie posters created by Vance Capley and David Goode, originally featured on a now defunct blog called Goode Stuff. Personally, I'm dying to see Fortress of the Damned. But, one can only dream of a film matching the power and vivid imagery of the faux poster.

Glorious Trash blog superstar Joe Kenney offers up a unique insight into his childhood. Kenney explains how he was submerged into the men's action-adventure genre, specifically MAMs and how they spawned his undying love for late 20th century paperbacks. I enjoy Kenney's blog and it was interesting to learn more about his life and what brought him to this wild dance. 

Most of the book's second half is dedicated to outrageous dirty mission stories, a majority featuring scantily-clad women. Stories like “The Captive Stalag”, “Lace Panty Guerillas”, “The Wild Lace Panty”, “Death Doll Platoon”, and the “Nazi Sex Circus”. The vivid artwork from Fernando Fernadez, Bruce Minney, and Gil Cohen enhances these stories and articles. These tales also feature female models like Lisa Karan, Carole Landis, and contemporary photographer/model Mala Mastroberte.

I seem to say the exact same thing after reading each new issue of MAQ: This is their best issue! I don't know where Cunningham and Deis find the time, energy, and dedication for all of these vintage magazines, artwork, reference material, books, the MAM CULTURE, to be featured in such a classy, professional way. This duo has side-projects, blogs, their own enjoyment, and families to tend to on top of what appears to be a full-time job creating these MAQ volumes. My hat remains tipped to their labors of love. MAQ #5 is...well Hell, it's their best issue yet!

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

The Cheaters

Ledru S. Baker Jr. served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during WW2. In 1951, his short literary career began with the bestselling Fawcett Gold Medal paperback And By My Love. He followed with three more novels before his death in 1967. Cutting Edge Books has released nearly all of Baker's works, including The Cheaters, originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1952. The book is available in both digital and physical editions as a stand-alone or as part of the Ledru Baker Jr Reader, an omnibus also containing Brute Madness and And Be My Love

Orchestra musician and bandleader Jack Griffith works at a posh Hollywood night club that is controlled by the Syndicate, specifically a Mafioso named Moss Morrison. One evening, Griffith is summoned to a meeting with Morrison and offered a peculiar proposal. Morrison wants to divorce his wife, a hot ticket named Mardi, but needs something on her to avoid a huge payout in alimony. Sensing his wife's attraction to Jack, Morrison offers Jack a large sum of money if he can swindle Mardi into a romantic fling. Griffith accepts the deal, but after meeting Mardi he falls in love with her. 

Just when you think Baker's smooth prose is surely leading into the overused “innocent man on the run” formula, the talented author switches the narrative entirely. Instead, Griffith figures out the whole setup while falling in love with a clever and sexy waitress. When she's taken captive by the Mob, Griffith recalls his WW2 days of fighting the Italians in brutal, bloody combat. With an iron-fisted vengeance, Griffith takes the fight to the Mob.

Baker's writing is exceptional and injects a heavy dose of realism and violence for a 1952 novel. The Cheaters mixes the grit and grime of Donald Hamilton (Matt Helm) with the sarcastic afterglow of Mickey Spillane (Mike Hammer). Baker's writing is just so engaging and produces a strong, emotional reaction. An example:

    They looked up, and their startled faces gave me all the time I needed. I shot the first one through the head; his skull and hair rose magically. I snarled and turned to the other one as the noise and blast of the gun, the smell in the room and the power I received from the recoil took me away from Los Angeles and threw me back to the Po Valley.

    I swung the gun toward the other one. He had risen, and his hand was pawing inside the coat when I said: “Hell's waitin'! Good-by!” at the same instant that I fired.

    The first shot threw him back into the chair. The second one caught him in his throat and ripped out the back of his head. I guess it did, because there were little pieces of bone on the window like flys trapped on flypaper. 

If you have a penchant for strong, “fight or die” heroes forced into inevitable violence, then The Cheaters will surely hit you like a ton of bricks. This is uncompromising, unwavering crime-fiction.

Monday, January 9, 2023

Carnival Girl

Cutting Edge Books has performed a marvelous job preserving mid-20th century fiction. The publisher's new editions of classic titles by the likes of Howard Hunt, Ovid Demaris, Ralph Dennis, and March Hastings position these vintage, sometimes expensive literary works, into the spotlight for a whole new generation of crime-fiction and mystery fans. 

One of the authors that Cutting Edge has focused on is Stuart James, an underrated crime-noir author that also served as a staff writer and sports reporter for magazines and newspapers. James also became an editor for Midwood Books, a subsidiary of paperback powerhouse Tower Publications. I thoroughly enjoyed the Cutting Edge editions of James' novels Frisco Flat (1960) and Judge Not My Sins (1951). I was happy to discover another Cutting Edge title, Carnival Girl, authored by Max Gareth, a pseudonym employed by James. The novel was originally published in 1960 by a small, low-budget publishing house called Chariot Books, home of other underrated novelists like Arthur Adlon and John Burton Thompson

Norma is a gorgeous Midwestern girl raised by an alcoholic single mom. When she's nearly raped by her drunken stepfather, Norma runs away from home. In the book's opening pages, readers find Norma at an Indiana diner using her last dime for food and coffee. Thankfully, the waitress displays some pity, and arranges for her to catch a ride “west” with a truck-driving customer. However, Norma doesn't realize that the waitress earned an extra tip by selling her to the highest bidder. On a lonely stretch of blacktop, the trucker rapes Norma before she escapes to a nearby farm. After being sized-up by a farm laborer, she manages to escape what is perceived as an attempted rape by flagging down two people traveling with the carnival.

The carny duo (slang for employees of a carnival) convinces Norma that she can make it in the carnival as a stripper. Back then, a fan favorite at rural, small town carnivals is the peep show, where men and boys with enough coins could enter a tent to watch naked women dance. Norma learns a few tricks and before long she is the carnival's number one attraction. But, she draws the attention of three specific men.

Speed is the good guy daredevil that performs motorcycle tricks. He falls in love with Norma, but she doesn't have the same feelings for him. Instead, Norma is lusting after Lee, the bad boy carnival drummer. There's also a man named Frank, who pitches Norma a lot of cash to come to St. Louis to work his nightclub. But, she later learns that Frank is in deep with the Mob and if she takes his job, she'll be passed around as a prostitute making a meager living lying on her back for criminals. It's a twisty, hot triangle with innocent Norma caught in the middle. 

With Carnival Girl, Stuart James completes a vivid, often disturbing character study of this young, unfortunate woman and her abrupt, violent end of innocence. Like Judge Not My Sins proved, James was such a clever storyteller with an uncanny ability to make his characters lifelike. By using a common crime-noir trope, the traveling carnival, James is able to submerge this inexperienced character into a world of depravity. Norma is a living doll thrust into dangerous situations and guided by seedy men with below-the-belt motivations. 

Carnival Girl isn't the proverbial happily ever after story of love on the run, but instead a more provocative look at young men and women pursuing carnal desires no matter the cost. It is these types of stories that made Stuart James such a talented, organic storyteller. 

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Conan - The Curse of the Monolith

Worlds of Fantasy magazine featured “Conan and the Cenotaph” in their first published issue in 1968. The story was authored by Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp and was later featured in the 1969 Lancer paperback Conan of Cimmeria under the title “The Curse of the Monolith”. It was also featured in the 1971 anthology Warlocks and Warriors as well as Sphere Books' 1989 collection The Conan Chronicles. The story was later adapted into comic form in Savage Sword of Conan #33.

The story takes place right after “The City of Skulls” and finds the titular hero serving as a captain to King Yildiz of Turan. He's assigned the duty of delivering a letter to King Shu of Kusan, a minor kingdom in Khitai far to the East (and almost off the map). The letter is to encourage an alliance between Turan and Kusan, an alliance that Shu happily agrees to. Upon meeting Conan, he sends his agreement in the way of a letter to be carried back to King Yildiz. He also sends Duke Feng, a guide and escort to accompany Conan back to the western border of Kusan. Feng has two servants and avoids any sort of manual labor, a trait that Conan fiercely despises. But, when Feng offers Conan a treasure, his interest and possible kinship is peaked. 

Feng explains to Conan that he knows where a large treasure is held at the top of a mountain nearby. He encourages Conan to suit up in armor and to accompany him to a black monolith of stone to acquire the treasure. Why does he need Conan? Apparently there are savages nearby that could attack Feng while he is dealing with the treasure grab. With Conan by his side, watching his back, the treasure can be gained and split. Conan agrees and the two go to the monolith.

Once they arrive, Conan feels a strong magnetic force and is shocked to find that he is nothing more than a fridge magnet. With the armor on, Conan is thrust to the monolith due to the magnetism possessed in the stones of the mountain. Feng explains to Conan why he has trapped him here. Further, a jellylike monster guards the monolith and drops flesh-eating acid on its prey. With Conan trapped by Feng and facing a torturous death by the equivalent of The Blob, he must use his strength to break the power of magnetism. 

"The Curse of the Monolith" weighs in at just 20 pages and is an average story at best. There's nothing to overly dislike about the plot other than its simplistic premise. Carter and de Camp's description of the mountains and monster was vivid and provided just enough atmospheric touch to place the readers into the story. However, this was just another short Conan adventure that was rich with descriptive details but not particularly memorable. This isn't a necessary read.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Red Sonja #02 - Demon Night

Created by Roy Thomas Jr. and Barry Windsor Smith, Red Sonja made her debut in Conan the Barbarian #23 in 1973. The fiery red-headed barbarian was placed in Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Kingdom as a companion to Conan, but she flourished as a lone hero in comics, magazines, graphic novels, and other pop-culture. She also appeared in a six-book series of Ace paperbacks in the 1980s. I read and enjoyed the series debut, 1981's The Ring of Ikribu, and was gifted four more of the paperbacks by my wife as an anniversary present. I celebrated by reading the series second installment, Demon Night, published in 1982.

Red Sonja is in Eastern Zamora when she awakens to find she is the prime suspect in the assassination of Captain Voss. In reality, Lieutenant Keldum killed Voss to gain one more rung of power, setting up the strange flame-haired warrior as the fall girl. Escaping the posse, Sonja journeys into the desert and rides upon a mysterious city called Elkad. Outlining the city's gateway are the bodies of six women, clearly tortured, mutilated, and very dead. 

Sonja is welcomed into the city and learns that the Elkad are a primitive people that sacrifice virgins to an ancient alien race called the Earth-Folk. Learning of this sort of nonsense, Sonja quickly leaves (in a roundabout way) and heads into the nearby mountains to find a magician that has some control over the Earth-Folk. Aside from a few events, this is really where Sonja's portion of the story leaves off.

I enjoyed the book, but my complaint would be that it was really about a young virgin named Tiamu, an Elkad servant. When Keldum and his henchmen pursue Sonja to Elkad, they enter the city and begin throwing around their weight. Tiamu is fearful that she may be the next sacrifice to the Earth-Folk (a horrible way to die), but is raped by Keldum's rival, and second-in-command. In a sequence of events that mirrors Sonja's origin (raped and then supernaturally gifted), Tiamu begins a reign of terror on Elkad and the invading military. We're talking Carrie at the prom sort of terror. She also has a love interest with a magician's apprentice. 

Demon Night is a weird book that incorporates a lot of sorcery and fantasy elements. I'm not a fan of magic, preferring sheer, sharp-edged violence to battle the monsters and dastardly villains of the Hyborian Kingdom instead. I kept picturing the Earth-Folk aliens, buried in their mountain hideaway, as an L. Ron Hubbard creation right out of Scientology 101. Not my thing, but it didn't detract from the narrative. The authors meander a bit here and there, but overall it's a satisfactory adventure tale worth the investment and exploration. Recommended. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The Monster from Earth's End

William Fitzgerald Jenkins (1896-1975) was a prolific writer of early 20th century fiction, including numerous science-fiction, adventure, and western stories for the pulps. He used pseudonyms like William Fitzgerald, Fitzgerald Jenkins, and Louis Carter Lee. Some of his science-fiction and pulp literary work was written under the pen name Murray Leinster. My first experience with the author is his 1959 Fawcett Gold Medal paperback, The Monster from Earth's End, written by Jenkins as Leinster. In 2019, it was reprinted by Gateway as an affordable ebook.

Gow Island (not a real place) lies just 600 miles from the Antarctic ice-cap. Because of its location, the island serves as a supply depot for researchers, scientists, and employees stationed in the Antarctic. Gow Island's population of 19 people are employees that re-supply, stock, and fuel vessels that make sporadic layovers en route to their destination. Visitors arrive on a weekly basis, but normally leave within an hour. Thus, these few island inhabitants live a rather slow, sheltered life under the guidance of the island's administrator, and book protagonist, Drake. 

In the opening pages, Gow Island receives a radar message that a plane housing seven passengers and three crewmen will be arriving from Gissell Bay, Antarctica to refuel before heading back home. On board the plane are items retrieved from the icy surface – several penguins, soil samples, and some vegetation. However, Drake and company receive a disturbing, terrifying call from the plane as it approaches the island – someone, or something, is attacking the crew and gun shots are fired. For several moments there is radio silence, then the plane lands on Gow Island's airstrip on its belly. When Drake and co-workers approach the plane they hear one lone gunshot. Opening the plane's door, they are shocked to discover the pilot shot himself in the head on the runway and the rest of the crew has simply vanished. 

The Monster from Earth's End works well as a survival horror novel. The personnel on the island contend with moving the plane off of the airstrip, but also what exactly happened to create these strange circumstances. The pilot's body is moved to a warehouse, but later than night Drake hears something moving inside the building and discovers the pilot's corpse is missing. There are twigs on the plane that seem to possess some form of intelligence. As the crew's dogs begin to die horrible deaths, and an employee goes missing, the power to the island is cut. Something wants to kill its prey in the dark, far from the light. 

I can vividly recall watching John Carpenter's 1982 horror classic The Thing when I was a kid and being absolutely petrified with fear. That film was a remake of the 1951 movie The Thing from Another World which was based on the science-fiction novella "Who Goes There?" by John W. Campbell (written as Don A. Stuart). In many ways, The Monster from Earth's End sort of fits into that same universe. So much that a Wildside Press collection called Short Things featured shorts written by a selection of authors that tie into The Thing storyline. One of those short stories was "The Monster at World's End", authored by Allan Cole, which was obviously a nod to this novel. 

If you enjoy this sort of survival horror, then The Monster from Earth's End is surely a must-read. I was a little underwhelmed by the “monster”, but the pace and atmosphere of the story kept me firmly entrenched in the novel's narrative. There are some truly creepy moments, but often I felt the book hadn't aged well over the course of 60 years. Your mileage may vary, but I recommend reading the book to make up your own mind on its longevity and legacy.