Saturday, March 25, 2023

Conan - The Blood-Stained God

Robert E. Howard created a fictional character named Kirby O' Donnell in the 1930s. O' Donnell was a treasure hunter from the U.S. that disguised himself as a Kurdish merchant. There were two published stories starring the character, “Swords of Shahrazar” (Top-Notch, October 1934) and “The Treasures of Tartary” (Thrilling Adventures, January 1935). The third story, “The Curse of the Bloodstained God”, was not published during Howard's lifetime. Instead, it was discovered in Howard's unpublished manuscripts. It was revised by L. Sprague de Camp and replaced O' Donnell with Conan. It was re-titled “The Blood-Stained God” and was first published in Tales of Conan (Gnome Press, 1955). The story was also featured in Fantastic Universe (April 1956). Additionally, it was reprinted in the paperback Conan of Cimmeria (Lancer, 1969). Howard's original O'Donnell version was published in Swords of Shahrazar (Orbit, 1976). As clarification, my review is de Camp's Conan version of the story.

After serving for approximately two years as a soldier in Turan, Conan sets off solo in search of a fabled treasure in the Kezankian Mountains. Before the rugged action begins, Conan is in the city and sees a man being tortured by a group of men. After a scuffle that knocks Conan unconscious, he awakens to meet an Iranistani named Sassan. This man reveals to Conan that he is in search of the treasure and that a former prince and his companion were the torturers (this was rather confusing). Sassan and Conan decide to team together to search for the treasure.

In the mountains, Conan and Sassan are attacked by the prince and his companion, who are then attacked by a small army of Kezankians that are protecting the treasure from invaders. This fight ends up with everyone dead except Conan, Sassan, and the prince. The three find the temple and Sassan is killed by a booby trap. In an obligatory fashion, the prince attempts to kill Conan and is shocked when the real guardian of the treasure reveals itself. 

I feel like these treasure-hunting Conan stories all end in the same fashion - the hero never gains the gold. The protective baddie always prevents wealth and prosperity, forcing Conan to live his wild and restless lifestyle. What saves “The Blood-Stained God” is the action sequences that escort Conan and Sassan through the dangerous mountain pass. The oncoming army and two key criminals (not Conan and Sassan!) let the arrows fly, increasing the need to find the treasure by destroying each other. I also enjoyed Conan's easy problem-solving to avoid a similar fate that killed Sassan. The treasure’s protector was a lot of fun, but predictable. Recommended, but there are better Conan stories out there. 

Friday, March 24, 2023

Modesty Blaise - Pieces of Modesty

Pieces of Modesty is a collection of six Modesty Blaise short stories by Peter O’Donnell written in the 1960s and compiled into one paperback volume published in 1972. The book remains available today as a paperback reprint and ebook.

For the uninitiated, Modesty Blaise is a former Baltic organized crime boss who retired and now works as a British spy along with her hyper-competent sidekick, Willie Garvin. The series began as a comic strip and evolved into a popular series of novels. Pieces of Modesty is the first of two short story collections written by O’Donnell.

“A Better Day to Die”

Modesty and Willie are traveling through a Latin American Banana Republic, so Modesty can say goodbye to an old member of her criminal network who is now dying at the ancient age of 60. A mishap with their car leaves Modesty bumming a ride in a school bus with a missionary preacher and his students. On the ride, Modesty has to endure the pacifist reverend’s diatribe against the violence Modesty has deployed throughout her life.

The excitement heats up with the bus is forced off the road by guerrillas who take the passengers hostage. Will the preacher change his stance when Modesty does her thing to save their collective hides? This story is pure awesomeness and made me wish straight-up action-adventure short stories were more of a phenomena outside the pulps.

“The Giggle-Wrecker”

The British government wants a wannabe defector scientist out of East Berlin and working in London for the Good Guys. However, bringing a valuable human asset from the other side of the Iron Curtain is no easy feat. The solution? Modesty Blaise and Willie Garvin.

This reminds me of a heist story where a team of professionals needs to smuggle contraband out of a secured area and everything goes to holy hell in the process. Tack on a very clever twist ending and we have some very fun reading, indeed.

“I Had a Date with Lady Janet”

This story is noteworthy in the Modesty Blaise universe because it’s the only one narrated in the first person by Modesty’s badass, Cockney sidekick, Willie Garvin,. When not running missions with “The Princess,” Willie runs a pub 25 miles from London called The Treadmill.

In the story, Willie is involved in a casual dating situation with a one-legged gentry gal named Lady Janet. One night before a date with Janet, Willie learns that Modesty has been kidnapped by an old nemesis looking to exact revenge. Will Willie break his date with Lady Janet to rescue Modesty? You betcha.

This is another great story, and having Willie as a narrator was a lot of fun. It really was his adventure - like a Sherlock story featuring an adventure of Watson. Don’t skip this one. Savor it.

“A Perfect Night to Break Your Neck”

Modesty and Willie are enjoying catching up with some old friends over dinner in France. As they're leaving the restaurant, the group is attacked by knife-wielding thugs. Why on earth would someone mount an attack so ham-handed and lacking finesse? The mystery deepens as the attacks keep coming in different venues.

I had trouble connecting with this story or even understanding the stakes and character motivations. You may have better luck. Alternatively, it can safely be skipped altogether.

“Salamander Four”

Modesty Blaise is working a side-hustle as a model for a sculptor in Finland, because, well, of course she is. And during the weeks of modeling for the artist, a lovemaking relationship ensues. One night during the sexual afterglow, a severely-wounded man comes to the house after having been pursued by gunmen through the night. Modesty and her sculptor provide the man sanctuary in the house.

The adventure thrusts Modesty into the world of industrial espionage and gentlemen thieves. Bonus points for some cool knife work from Willie Garvin. This story is another winner.

“The Soo Girl Charity”

The final story of the collection has an oddly comical set-up. A wealthy industrialist jerk pinches Modesty’s ass on the street, and she decides that he owes her $5,000 for the pleasure. She and Willie plan a complicated operation to collect the money through a safecracking burglary heist.

During the burglary itself, the duo stumbles upon indicators that the target is into something way more sinister than pinching bottoms, and the story unfolds from there. This is a great heist story with a clever plan for revenge and a handful of surprises along the way. Whatever you do, don’t skip this one.

Paperback Warrior Assessment

Pieces of Modesty is one of the finest single-author, recurring-character, short story collections I’ve ever read. There just aren’t enough short story collections from the action-adventure paperback era, so savor this one. Highest recommendation.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

The Elric Saga #01 - Elric of Melnibone

Like a lot of the critically praised books we review here at Paperback Warrior, Elric of Melnibone can lead anyone down their own rabbit hole researching the novel, series, and grand mythos associated with the character. Elric first appeared in Michael Moorcock's novella “The Dreaming City”, published in Science Fantasy in June, 1961. More Elric stories and novellas were published through the early to mid-1960s in Science Fantasy

Moorcock's desired reading order for fans to fully grasp the Elric Saga begins with the first full-length novel to feature the character, Elric Of Melnibone. It was published in the UK in 1972 by Hutchinson. It was published by Lancer the same year under the title The Dreaming City. The most collectible, and arguably desirable, publications of the novel is DAW's 1976 paperback version, Elric of Melnibone, with incredible cover art by Michael Whelan. This review is based on the version that is included in Gallery/Saga Press's The Elric Saga Vol. 1, a 2022 hardcover omnibus that collects the series first three full-length paperbacks and a foreword by Neil Gaiman. This omnibus is also presented as an audio book narrated by the incredible voice of Samuel Roukin. 

At 180ish pages, Elric of Melnibone sets the table for new readers as an origin novel that kicks off the fantasy series properly. Elric is the emperor of the island kingdom of Melnibone, also called Dragon Isle. Elric is the 428th emperor to sit on the ruby throne, but he's a plagued leader. Described as a thin sickly albino, Elric must rely on special potions and magic to stay alive. In essence, he is sort of like a vampire relying on blood to exist. His rival to the throne is his cousin Yyrkoon, a mastermind that is consistently plotting methods to ascend to power. Complicating this familial power struggle is Cymoril, Elric's love interest and sister of Yyrkoon (which means Elric is really in love with his cousin?). 

Melnibone was once the world's dominating superpower, but centuries have eroded the kingdom's prosperity and left them merely a shell of their former glory. However, Melnibone still maintains a flourishing trading business that is sought after by rival kingdoms. In the book's opening chapters, Elric and Yyrkoon are on a war barge fighting one of these rivals when Yyrkoon capitalizes on Elric's weakened state and throws him into the deep sea. 

I won't ruin the whole surprise, but Elric doesn't die. Instead, he lives to avenge this murder attempt by exiling Yyrkoon from Melnibone. But, Yyrkoon captures Cymoril and escapes into the Young Kingdoms far away. As Elric desperately tries to locate Cymoril, he must fight Yyrkoon. It is this search for Elric's love that makes up the bulk of the book's narrative. Elric is forced to find a magical sword called Stormbringer that “possesses” it's wielder. The sword craves killing and feeds its wielder in the same ways as Elric's magic potions. To kill Yyrkoon, Elric needs Stormbringer, but must also face the fact that the sword will be his new master. 

Michael Moorcock is absolutely brilliant with this heroic tale featuring the beloved Elric. In the big picture, Elric is an incarnation of the Eternal Champion, a warrior that is created by the gods and reborn repeatedly. Moorcock's other series titles like Hawkmoon, Erekos, and Corum feature incarnations of the Eternal Champion, just in different universes that make up Moorcock's robust multiverse. However, readers don't need to read these other titles to appreciate this novel. This is an origin tale that gets the reader acquainted with Elric and his mission ahead. It has jealousy, action, nautical adventure, sword-and-sorcery, fantasy, and world building sprinkled into a rather simple plot. It is good versus evil, but tells a broader story of the responsibilities of power. There are numerous underlying themes that reflect political strife and upheaval, a common theme for Moorcock.

Elric of Melnibone is a mandatory read if you have even the smallest desire to read a fantasy novel. It is an easy book to dive into and its characters and frenzied pace are captivating. Highest possible recommendation.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Captain Clive's Dreamworld

To date, Jon Bassoff has authored nine novels of dark crime-fiction and nightmarish horror. I read his debut novel, Corrosion, originally published in 2013, and really enjoyed it. The author has popped up on several “best of the year” lists over the last decade, including his novel Captain Clive's Dreamworld. It was published in 2020 by Eraserhead Press and received an audio book treatment by Blackstone Publishing. The book gained high praise on Amazon's reviews, which caught my eye while shopping for the next horror title to read. 

Deputy Sam Hardy works in a low-life, scum-ridden town plagued by violence and poverty. When a dead prostitute is found with her throat cut, Sam becomes a suspect in her murder. In an odd chain of events, Sam is instructed to move out of town to a place called Angels and Hope. The Sheriff sets Sam up to be the lone lawman of this sleepy desert town. Angels and Hope's claim to fame is a giant amusement park built by a zany entrepreneur named Captain Clive. But, the town is wonky and made up of two-faced citizens that seem to be hiding secrets. These characters evolve from the warm welcoming committee to malevolent tormentors over the course of the book.

Captain Clive's Dreamworld is a weird book, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's presented in a dreamlike way that ultimately conveys the book's title. At times it's like the quirky Twilight Zone episode “Stopover in a Quiet Town”, with the protagonist discovering that his small town is just a reproduction. Other times, Bassoff's writing is dark erotica, complete with disturbingly graphic sex scenes that mostly involve rape or incest. In that regard, it isn't a far cry from the likes of Jack Ketchum or Bryan Smith, two authors I mostly stay away from. Perhaps the best comparison is that of Bentley Little – a little of this and a little of that to make an outlandish horror story memorable. 

Bassoff is a terrific writer that can get the most out of his characters through heartache, emotional angst, homicidal thoughts, and guilt. This gauntlet of emotions lies before the reader to enjoy or combat, which makes the reading  a rip-roar, gut-wrenching event. The reader feels something – good, bad, squeamish - which is what every author desires. There was also a great story here worth telling. It's a cyclical narrative with a plot development that offered some horrifying surprises. 

If  perverted horror is really your thing, then you'll love Captain Clive's Dreamworld. Honestly, I was just lukewarm on some of the provocative stuff, but the story as a whole was good enough for me to...thrust onward I suppose. 

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Conan - The Frost-Giant's Daughter

“The Frost-Giant's Daughter” was written by Robert E. Howard in the early 1930s. The story, featuring Conan the Cimmerian, was originally rejected by Weird Tales, so Howard changed the character to Amra of Akbitana and called the story “The Gods of the North”. It was accepted and published by The Fantasy Fan #7 in March, 1934. As a Conan story, its original, more popular form, “The Frost-Giant's Daughter”, was published in The Coming of Conan (Gnome Press, 1953) and Conan of Cimmeria (Lancer, 1969). At just 10 paperback pages, it ranks in the top echelon of Conan literature. 

The titular hero has returned to his homeland in Cimmeria, but grows a hunger for battle. He decides to participate in a raid into Vanaheim with his old barbaric friends the Aesirs. As the story begins, Conan is the last remaining combatant of the Aesirs and an enemy named Heimdul is the sole member left of Vanaheim's fighting forces. They both lock into battle and Conan kills Heimdul, but collapses from exhaustion on the hard frozen ground. 

Conan awakens to feminine laughter and then sees a beautiful ivory-skinned woman in front of him. She's naked and barefoot, yet dancing on the snow. Lusting for this cold-weather maiden, Conan trails the woman for miles through the frozen wastelands. Growing tired, he suddenly realizes that the woman has led him to her two brothers, savage frost giants. They want to cut Conan's heart out for some sort of ritual sacrifice. Forced into battle, Conan kills both giants and then the woman vanishes in a blue flame after asking her father, a god named Ymir, for help. Conan collapses yet again, but this time awakens to find another band of Aesir comrades by his side. 

Conan explains that his encounter with the strange woman and the Aesir don't believe him. They also fail to locate any tracks made by the woman. One Aesir warrior confesses that he does believe what Conan is saying is true and explains that this woman is Atali, the daughter of the god Ymir. The Aesir still refuses to believe Conan's account, but are surprised to see that the warrior is holding a piece of the woman's clothing in his hand. 

“The Frost-Giant's Daughter” has a special kind of frosty ambiance. Howard's descriptions of the battlefield, cold weather, the beautiful woman, and the frost giants themselves was just so vivid. The opening dialogue between Conan and Heimdul seemed epic, despite the fact that the reader never experienced the actual battle. For such a short story, the whole narrative felt this way due to the storytelling and pace. Conan's realization that the dream was reality was a fitting ending and proved to his comrades that his sanity, along with his fighting spirit, was still fully intact. Howard absolutely nailed this Conan story and I'm surprised it wasn't picked up by one of the publishers of that era in its original form. 

Friday, March 17, 2023

The Bride Wore Black

Up until 1940, Cornell Woolrich was mostly writing shorter works about the rich and privileged, like Times Square (1929) and Children of the Ritz (1927). After 1932's Manhattan Love Song, eight years passed before another Woorich novel was published. This hiatus set the table for a re-structure of Woolrich's subject matter and a new direction for his literature. 

In 1940, The Bride Wore Black (aka Beware the Lady) was published, the first novel-length suspense thriller from Woorich. The novel kickstarted a crime-fiction career that flourished for twenty years, producing over 15 masterworks of suspense and landing Woolrich in the upper echelons of crime-fiction authors and pioneers. 

The Bride Wore Black is presented in five separate parts, each titled as the last name of a potential victim. In between, the author includes a small portion of insight from the eyes of the murderer, an unnamed woman Hellbent on revenge. Then, another short narrative featuring insight on the victim, and then a paragraph serving as the postmortem. In this presentation, each part is set as its own short-story or novella. These parts eventually connect to make a spectacular whole, but the pure pleasure lies in the construction. 

The first victim is a man named Bliss, lured to the top of a building for an engagement party. It is here that he meets the beauty, a mysterious woman rejecting men while searching for someone special. Bliss, unfortunately, falls for the trap and takes a deadly tumble. His friend, a man named Corey, remembers the woman's eyes moments before Bliss's death. This tidbit will be of some use later in the book.

This same set-up is used as various men meet their demise after gaining some contact with this dark female avenger. The murders are clever, a cross between diabolic (shot with an arrow, suffocated) to quiet death (poisoning). All of these are written with a sense of white-knuckled dread. After Bliss, readers realize that they will be reading the last moments of life for all of these poor unfortunate men. 

Perhaps the most compelling and shocking is Moran. On his last day, his wife is lured out of town with a telegram informing her of her mother's sudden sickness. This was a way to isolate Moran, but there's a catch. He is left caring for his young son. When a woman arrives at the house, promising she is the teacher, Moran's son immediately rejects the visitor, explaining that she isn't his who she claims to be. Prone to fibbing, his warning falls on deaf ears and Moran is led into a macabre, murderous game of hide and seek. 

The Bride Wore Black is a masterpiece that essentially helped define the suspense-thriller market. The novel's use of certainty – a predetermined sentencing for each character – is oddly a paradox of suspense. Readers realize the outcome before death arrives. There is a void of uncertainty, but the build-up to death and murder creates an emotional stirring that's hard to suppress. Woolrich purposefully cranks the wrench, tightening the intensity until the last gasp. If Hitchcock was the master of visual suspense, then Woolrich was certainly his equal with literature. The Bride Wore Black is a must-read.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Homicide Handicap

Florida resident Bob McKnight authored 11 short novels published as Ace Doubles between 1957 and 1963. He also wrote a bunch of non-fiction books on horse race handicapping and didn’t forge into fiction until the ripe old age of 51. Homicide Handicap was his last Ace novel from 1963.

Sox Bradley is a thoroughbred racehorse trainer and our narrator in this 100-page conventional mystery. His wealthy ex-wife, Carla, owns a bunch of racehorses, and Sox still works for her despite the marriage being long over. When Carla’s dead body is found stashed away at her Florida mansion, the cops naturally question Sox for the murder.

Yes, this is another one of those paperbacks where the falsely-accused protagonist needs to solve a murder to save his own hide, and it’s a pretty enjoyable iteration of this trope. Sox is a decent main character despite a lack of charisma, and the setting in the world of thoroughbred horse training was an interesting glimpse behind the curtain of a sports subculture. I learned a thing or two along the way that will make me a hit at cocktail parties when the topic of horse racing arises.

There’s a sweet girl interested in Sox and a handful of likely suspects with motive and opportunity. There’s not much action other than a couple of peripheral murders that narrows the field of suspects. You’ll see the solution coming from a furlong away, but it will only serve to make you feel smart in the final chapter when your suspicions are confirmed.

To be clear, Homicide Handicap isn’t a mystery masterpiece, but it was an enjoyable diversion about as good as a typical long-story from Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. The novel has never been reprinted, but many Ace Double collectors probably have a copy that’s been sitting on their shelves for decades. The other side of the paperback is The Dead and the Deadly by Louis Trimble. It’s a good pairing as both authors knew how to execute a formulaic mystery. 

Monday, March 13, 2023

Double Indemnity

James M. Cain hit a homerun with his femme fatale crime-fiction novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. The bestselling novel was adapted to film seven times, converted into an opera, a radio drama and a play. It is considered one of the best novels of the 20th century. So, how would Cain ever top it? Well, he really never did, but he came really close with Double Indemnity. This novel was originally published in Liberty in 1936. The book was later published in 1943 in the collection Three of a Kind, an omnibus containing Double Indemnity as well as two additional works by Cain, Career in C Major and The Embezzler

Like The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity is told in the first-person as a sort of “if you are reading this then I'm in the deathhouse” kind of book. The protagonist is Walter Huff, an insurance agent in Beverly Hills. Like Cain's character Frank Chambers, Huff is a strategist who helps plot a murder when he falls for a young seductress named Phyllis. The problem is that Phyllis is married to a wealthy guy named Nirdlinger, one of Huff's clients. After Huff falls for Phyllis, the two collaborate on knocking Nirdlinger off to cash in on an accident policy. 

Like most of the femme fatale novels, which Cain perfected for similar novelists like Gil Brewer and Orrie Hitt, the murder plan develops into treachery, jealousy, lust, greed, and plain 'ole lyin' and cheatin'. The murder hits a major snag when Huff learns that Phyllis may have played him for a fool in hopes to run away with another guy. But, Huff gains some insight through Phyllis's gorgeous stepdaughter, whom he ultimately falls in love with. 

This book is rather short, but packs a punch. The gauntlet that Huff runs from A to Z in hopes to successfully murder for love, then backtrack to kill for vengeance is clever, compelling, and masterfully written. It's a tug-of-war as Huff clamors with the concept of murder, the ultimate sin. There's a deep mystery centralized as the narrative rotates different characters off the playing field. Who is truly innocent is one of the book's most perplexing questions. But, thankfully Cain keeps the characters to a minimum, keeping the plot development tight as the story expands outward into a brisk “man on the run” concept. 

Double Indemnity was adapted to film in 1944 by mystery powerhouse novelist Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder. It was filmed again in 1973 and staged as a play in 2011. It's a prevalent bookend that butts up nicely with The Postman Always Rings Twice. While inferior to that masterpiece, Double Indemnity is still a mandatory read for any crime-fiction fan worth his salt. Highly recommended!

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Conan - The Road of the Eagles (aka Way of the Swords, Conan Man of Destiny)

The December, 1955 Fantastic Universe issue featured an L. Sprague de Camp Conan story called “Conan, Man of Destiny”. This story was taken from a Robert E. Howard manuscript, originally titled “The Road of the Eagles”, discovered by Glenn Lord, about the Ottoman Empire featuring a hero named Ivan Sablianka. Howard's original version was edited by Lord and published in the Donald Grant collection Road of Azrael as “The Way of the Swords”. de Camp changed the title “Conan, Man of Destiny” to “The Road of the Eagles”. That story – de Camp's version – was later published in Lancer's 1968 collection Conan the Freebooter as by both de Camp and Howard. The comic adaptation appears in The Savage Sword of Conan #38

“The Road of the Eagles” continues where “Shadows in the Moonlight” leaves off. Conan and his pirates, now referred to as the Red Brotherhood, are attacked by Yildiz, the king of Turan and his General Artaban. Meanwhile, a young woman named Roxana escapes the ransacking and destruction of her village by a man named Kurusk Khan. Roxana, and a small army of Hyrkanians, runs into Artaban and he explains to her that he was in debt to Yildiz and basically attacked Conan's pirate crew to just pay off debt. Now, he is sort of rethinking his decision to serve Yildiz and wants to go independent and do his own thing with his army. 

With Artaban's change of heart, Roxana also reveals that the chief rival to Yildiz is Prince Teyaspa, her lover. She tells Artaban that Teyaspa is in a dungeon jail and he agrees to assist her with liberating him. While this is happening, Conan, nearly playing a bit part by this point, is running around with his surviving pirates trying to find and kill Yildiz. Here is where the story becomes very complicated and rather convoluted. Which, seems to be a pattern now with de Camp's reworking of Howard's stories that were never meant to feature Conan or The Hyborian Age. 

My understanding is that the castle where Teyaspa is imprisoned is simultaneously attacked by the Hyrkanians wanting revenge for their village destruction and Conan and his Red Brotherhood that want to find and kill Artaban before they seek Yildiz. Then, you have Artaban and Roxana attempting the prison break for Teyaspa. Honestly, this is like Game of Thrones on drugs that just leads to a Shakespeare-styled tragic ending. But, before the suicides (yes, they happen) the best part of the story reveals itself. Conan vs vampires!

Inside the dark cavernous tunnel system below the castle are ravenous hairy cave creatures called brylukas. They are vampiric in nature and attack Conan and his crew. This portion of the narrative is just brimming over with intense action-adventure as the titular hero attempts to climb through the cave's passageways while fighting off these savage monsters. This is more of what I want from Conan – brawn versus monsters, evil men, and sorcerers. Unfortunately, this exhilarating story within the story of Conan's escape from the creatures comes at the very end and is very short-lived. 

“The Road of the Eagles” is an okay read, but requires patience and pen on paper (or a handy phone notepad) just to keep up with who is chasing whom and for what reason – revenge, power, loot, women, etc. If you can dedicate 45 mins of heavy concentration, then the story totally works. If you are looking for just casual escapism, look elsewhere. 

Friday, March 10, 2023

Rosemary's Baby

American author Ira Levin (1929-2007) struck gold in 1967 with his second novel, Rosemary’s Baby, selling four-million copies and counting. The novel’s iconic standing was solidified by the 1968 film adaptation by Roman Polanski (Full Disclosure: I’ve never seen it). The novel remains in-print today in every format imaginable. 

Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse are upgrading their Manhattan apartment to an exclusive, in-demand building called The Bramford. After signing the lease, the couple learns that the building has a dark past. Historic residents were accused of cannibalism, child murder and witchcraft. Decades ago, the building was thought to be cursed.

Despite these warnings, Guy and Rosemary move into Apartment 7B. Rosemary quickly makes a friend who promptly commits suicide. This brings her directly into the orbit of her busybody neighbors who all seem very interested in Rosemary’s fertility. 

Rosemary’s husband Guy is a struggling actor, but something about The Bramford has him acting quite different than normal. One night Rosemary has a vivid dream that her neighbors and Guy were involved in a dark ritual of sorts. When Rosemary awakens, she’s covered in scratches and soon learns that she’s pregnant. 

Levin does a great job of writing Rosemary as a naive ingenue from Nebraska, and she seems to be the only character willfully blind to the subtle manipulation of all the other characters and what may be growing in her womb. The novel is a slow burn to be sure, but the creeping dread that rises in the reader displays some really adept horror writing with a gentle touch. Scary? A little. Unnerving? Bullseye! Recommended? Definitely. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

Harry Stoner #01 - The Lime Pit

Jonathan Valin was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1947. He graduated from University of Chicago, and now works for Fi, a music criticism magazine he helped create. In the middle of his career were 11 mystery novels starring a Cincinnati detective named Harry Stoner. As a fan of 1980s crime-fiction, I decided to begin the series with the very first novel, The Lime Pit, published in 1980 as a hardcover by Dodd Mead.

Throughout the course of The Lime Pit, readers gain tidbits about Harry Stoner's life. The first thing we learn is that he served in the U.S. military as an M.P. during the Vietnam War. He has killed people before, and at one point he worked in Cincinnati's District Attorney's office. Now, Stoner is a private detective making ends meet taking on cases in America's mid-western heartland. As the book begins, Stoner is responding to an inquiry made by a Cincinnati man named Hugo Cratz.

Cratz is an elderly man living in the average community of North Clifton. He advises Stoner that a young woman he befriended, Cindy Ann, has gone missing. After the police dismiss the case, Cratz wants to hire Stoner to find her. The problem is that Cratz can barely rub two nickels together, so Stoner realizes he's probably working the case pro brono. The last place Cindy Ann was seen was with the controversial neighborhood couple. When Stoner interviews the couple, they tell him that Cratz is just hurt that his girl has run off with a biker. But, there isn't enough conviction in their story to fully satisfy Stoner. Combining this with Cratz's account that the weird couple are actually human sex traffickers peddling young women to Cincinnati's upper-crust thrusts Stoner into the investigation.

I read some online reviews about Valin's writing style and tend to agree with all of them. First and foremost, the guy can write his ass off. Second, his dialogue is convincing – this is how real people talk. So much that Valin even analyzes his own work by mentioning characters in other books fail to possess enough validity. He encourages his readers that his work is the real deal. I like that element and it reminded me of the great horror writer Brian Keene and his real-world presentation of average blue-collar people behaving in ways that genuinely seem valid and real. 

The Lime Pit drags readers through some really dark places within sex trafficking, politics, sports, and the lifestyles of the rich and richer. It's gritty, often disturbing, and very violent. Stoner is the capable protagonist guiding the readers through this seedy underworld. He doesn't necessarily break the law in an attempt to punish the lawbreakers, but he skirts the edges in a captivating way. I found comparisons to Loren Estleman's Amos Walker mysteries, with both detectives stalking their way through blue-collar towns to obtain justice. In fact, the first Amos Walker installment, Motor City Blue, has a similar plot to The Lime Pit, and was published the same year.

If you enjoy a great mystery filled with diverse characters, the The Lime Pit is sure to please. I loved this book and I'm anxious to read more Harry Stoner novels.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Two Truths and a Lie

Sarah Pinkster is a contemporary fantasy and science-fiction author currently living in Baltimore. In 2020, Tor Books released her 34-page creepy novella called “Two Truths and a Lie” that won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards for Best Novelette. It’s available for two-bucks as an ebook. 

Marco and Stella were friends back in high school who lost touch over the years. When Marco’s unpopular older brother Denny dies, Stella resurfaces in Marco’s life to attend the funeral and pay her respects. Stella even offers to help Marco clean out Denny’s house. 

Denny was a hoarder, so going through his house with her old friend isn’t a pleasant task. The upside is that the manual labor of filling trash bags with Denny’s detritus gives Stella and Marco a chance to catch up with one another. 

As the two are cleaning and chatting, Stella asks Marco if he remembers a local children’s TV show from their childhood called “The Uncle Bob Show.“ Marco answers that he does recall the show and that his deceased brother had been in the studio audience for at least one episode decades ago. Their shared vague recollection was that the low-budget kid’s program was a sinister turn on "Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood."

In the heaps of junk in Dennis’ home, they find a VHS tape from "The Uncle Bob Show" and pop it into the VCR. The show’s format is bizarre, and the stories told by Uncle Bob to his youthful audience are unnerving. I’ll let you read the novella yourself to get the gist. This leads to Stella conducting her own investigation into the show’s history from back in the 1980s and things get seriously creepy. 

"Two Truths and a Lie" is a story playing with the vague and largely repressed memories we all have from our childhoods. Pinkster’s writing is solid throughout. The ending didn’t really work for me, but I love the concept enough to recommend the novella without reservations. 

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Conan - The Hand of Nergal

The Conan paperback published by Lancer in 1967 is a treasure trove of excellent short stories starring Robert E. Howard's brawny hero Conan the Cimmerian. Along with Howard shorts like “Rogues in the House”, “Tower of the Elephant”, and “The God in the Bowl”, the book also features stories outlined or half-completed by Howard and finished by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter. One of the second to last stories in Conan is “The Hand of Nergal”. It was originally a fragmented story authored by Howard  in the 1930s. Lin Carter completed the story and titled it. Along with appearances in Conan, “The Hand of Nergal” was also featured in The Conan Chronicles (1989) and Beyond the Gates of Dream (1969). 

What I really enjoy about Conan stories and novels is that the environment and time period is variable. Conan could be a thief, soldier, gladiator, or royalty. In this story, Conan is a mercenary warrior fighting in Turan's civil war. Serving Turan, Conan is thrust into a planned battle to defeat rebellious forces led by a guy named Khan. In the heat of the fight, an army of large, demonic bats swoops down to the battlefield and begin to attack the Turan forces. 

Among the chaos of death and destruction, Conan locks into a fierce battle with one of the bats. Magically, the bat nearly places Conan into a cold-induced coma, but a strange amulet that the hero picked up days before seems to repel the creature. Later, Conan meets a bloody and battered female and they are ushered to the city of Yaralet to assist with killing the rebel leader Khan. 

Through a sorcerer, Conan learns that Khan controls these bat creatures using a precious stone known as Hand of Nergal. Conan and others eventually find Khan's throne room, deep in the bowels of a cave system hidden under the city, and a final battle ensues. There's a touch of cosmic horror and a lot of magic as Conan's forces eventually break Khan's curse and free Turan (I think). 

I really enjoyed this story and found Carter's stroke of science-fiction and fantasy a great blend with the more “on the nose” carnage that Howard's Conan typically creates. The Carter and Howard chemistry worked well, in my opinion, on the Kull stories, and I got that same sense of adventure, dark sorcery, and utter doom here. The balance of brawn and pure strength contending with magic is a recurring theme in Conan literature, and this story is a showcase of that strong storytelling. 

Many Robert E. Howard readers and fans aren't thrilled with the pastiche authors like Carter and de Sprague, but I'm definitely enjoying my voyage through all of these old paperback collections. It is pure escapism and I'm loving it because of stories like “The Hand of Nergal”. 

Friday, March 3, 2023

Catspaw Ordeal

Edward S. Aarons struck gold in 1955 with the first of his successful espionage series starring CIA operative Sam Durell. This is considered the second, more prosperous half of Aarons' writing career. The first half consists of roughly 20 crime-fiction and mystery novels authored under his own name and the pseudonym of Edward Ronns. We've slowly consumed Aarons' crime-fiction work here at Paperback Warrior, and continue that trend with a look at the author's 1950 paperback Catspaw Ordeal, published under the name Edward Ronns. It was published by Fawcett Gold Medal at least twice, once in 1950 as #133 and again in 1958 as #766, both with different cover art. It was also published by Phantom in 1954 and Gaywood Press in 1952, both of these with variations of the 1950 Fawcett cover by William Downes.

Danny Archer is a 29-year old former Navy veteran that has settled down in Southwich, Connecticut on the Long Island Sound. Archer is married to a woman named Roz and the two have reached a complacent part of marriage, void of excitement or interest. Archer is not only tied to Roz via marriage, but he also works for her father, a guy named Stanley, who runs a local factory. All of this normal suburbia boredom is shattered when Archer's old flame shows up.

Secretly, Archer has never really gotten over Della Chambers. When she arrives in town, Roz immediately senses that Archer can't resist Della's magnetic pull. When Roz leaves town for a few days, Archer finds himself in a murder investigation. In his own home, Archer finds a dead guy huddled over his office desk. Della is somehow involved, but also a man named Burke Wiley, Archer's old shipmate that supposedly died when their ship was sunk in WW2. Archer believes either Wiley or Della killed the man, but then things become even more complicated when Wiley explains a counterfeiting plot that could make them all super wealthy. 

Obviously, there is a lot going on in this relatively short 170-page paperback. Archer's marriage complications are front and center, but the moving parts begin to tear away part of the protagonist's own sanity. He begins to question his past, and the how his work at the factory is somehow tied into Roz and this seemingly dead-man-from-the-grave, Wiley. But, the core of Aarons' complex plot is a murder mystery. The cops have targeted Archer as the prime suspect, but he can't quite explain where these other characters tie into his personal ordeals at home. It makes for a fascinating, whirlwind of possibilities as Archer walks a balance beam of right and wrong. 

Like most of Aarons' crime-fiction, he uses the same locale and atmosphere. His novels are typically quiet, rural lakeside or oceanfront cottages and houses draped in a thick fog that is symbolic of the criminality slowly descending on the main character or their close friends and family. These locations are nearly always the American Northeast, which makes sense considering Aarons' grew up in Pennsylvania and lived in Connecticut (also the home of Fawcett Gold Medal). While Catspaw Ordeal isn't the best that Aarons' early crime-fiction has to offer (try 1953's The Net for a must-read), it is more than serviceable and a pure pleasure to read. Recommended.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Murgunstrumm

Strange Tales #7 was published in January, 1933 and included stories by Clark Ashton Smith, Henry Whitehead, and Robert E. Howard. One of the issue's highlights is a short novel called Murgunstrumm, authored by Hugh B. Cave (1910-2004). This vampiric horror tale was reprinted by Carcosa Press in Cave's first hardcover collection, Murgunstrumm and Others, in 1977. Thanks to Pulp Fiction Bookstore, the novella is now available as an affordable stand-alone ebook.

In flashback, readers learn that young lovers Paul and Ruth were wrongfully admitted into an insane asylum. The basis for their involuntary confinement to the asylum is hysteria based on their experiences in and around a roadside inn called The Gray Toad. As the novelette begins, Paul is executing his elaborate plan to escape the asylum and return to the inn to destroy the hideous creature he encountered there. He desperately wants to free Ruth and prove to the doctors that they aren't insane.

On the outside, Paul gains help from his friend's driver, a savvy guy named Jeremy. Together, the two head to the inn to learn more about the creatures in an effort to destroy them. Murgunstrumm happens to be the inn's caretaker, a hunched decrepit servant that may feed on human flesh! Inside the inn, the duo comes face to face with the vampire creatures in both human, wolf, and bat form. However, the biggest surprise is when they discover Ruth inside. How did she escape the asylum?!?

Cave absolutely nails the atmosphere of a Universal monster flick. Considering this was published a year after the studio's famed Dracula film, the vibe was probably an easy one to conjure. The author's descriptions of the title character and the creatures that inhabit the inn were traditionally chilling. I also found the amount of gunfire in the story to be a little above average for this sort of horror storytelling. I think the contrast between the guns and the simple crosses made from bed sheets was striking – holy relics with more impact than bullets. Additionally, as an early 20th century horror offering, the town, creatures, and characters were reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft, but that's probably a common comparison. 

If you enjoy vampire literature, chances are, you probably have read Murgunstrumm already. If not, then you are in for a real treat. Hugh B. Cave is a great storyteller and this is the perfect showcase of his talent. It is also a good reminder for me to track down more of his work. 

Note - I'm sure our readers are growing tired of the constant Stephen King comparisons, but I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that King's own vampire novel, Salem's Lot, featured the Marsten House as home to the vampire. In Cave's tale, the vampires live in the town of Marssen. Coincidence? Probably, but King was a pulp fan. 

Buy a copy of this story HERE