Saturday, December 30, 2023

A Gun for France

According to IMDB, Charles Tenney Jackson (1874-1955) wrote the novels The Golden Fetter (1917), The Show (1927), and The Eagle of the Sea (1926). Jackson also wrote hundreds of stories for magazines, including Argosy, The Popular Magazine, and Short Stories. He also penned a number of stories for Adventure, which is where I discovered his February 1943 entry "A Gun for France". I'm always in the mood for buried treasure and nautical adventure, so the illustrations by Samuel Cahan immediately spoke to me.

The story begins in Timego in the West Indies as Bill Jett stares at a sunken 65-foot yacht lying in Morani Cove. Jett was piloting the ship, along with a handful of mates, on the way up up from Trinidad. But, the engine went out and the ship was steered into the cove and then promptly disappeared under seven fathoms of water. Jett explains how the crew had picked up a Frenchman named Lenier, an escaped prisoner off the coast of a Guiana prison, and how the man had went overboard in an accident. This is important. Also, Jett's skipper is a guy named Ordel. That's important too.

Later, Jett overhears Ordel talking with a notorious rum-runner about important boxes that are still on the yacht. Apparently, the two – plus a mysterious third partner-in-crime – are arranging a dive underwater to salvage these boxes from the ship. They don't want Jett to learn of the cargo, nor do they want to reveal their nefarious doings. That's up to Jett and the readers to discover. 

At roughly 12 two-column pages, Jackson's nautical salvage-heist plays out like a grand adventure. Jett teams up with his only real ally on the island, a Malay boy that helps him discreetly uncover the plot while outwitting Ordel. The wild card is the appearance of the third partner in the trio of criminals, but as you can probably guess, it all ties back to the escaped prisoner. 

Jackson's writing did require some short note-taking, but it was a very light chore. His prose is filled with a lot of description, with the escapism reading like a tourist guide to exotic locales - 80-foot cliffs nestling the calm Caribbean and its white sands and even keels. Readers enjoy these stories because it takes them away from the dull 9-5 grind. In that regard, “A Gun for France” easily does the getaway trick. Highly recommended. 

Friday, December 29, 2023

The Island Monster

I've recently become enamored with the writings of Arthur D. Howden Smith (1887-1945), particularly his glossy magazine stories. His offering “Pirate's Lair”, published in the October 1933 issue of Blue Book, was mesmerizing as a highly-charged revenge yarn on the high seas. Thumbing through more back issues of Blue Book, I found his August 1937 novella The Island Monster and had to read it.

The first-person narrative is told by Terry O'Malley, an adventuresome newspaper reporter that globe-trots for sensational stories. While back in his office in New York, a Major Rattray walks in and introduces himself as an officer in King's African Rifles, a British Colonial Auxiliary force. With a letter of explanation, Rattray explains to O'Malley that his fiancĂ© went to work for a man named Lipscomb Hope, a scientist that focuses on breeding different types of animals together – like pythons and crocodiles. In letters that she writes to Rattray, she happily advises him that she will continue to work for Hope and that she will need to postpone their wedding arrangement. But it is just a front. Beneath the stamps on each envelope is a small hand-written message urging Rattray to come rescue her from the hideous experiments and the psychotic Hope. She's in real danger.

Rattray and O'Malley immediately form a plan to go to the Bahamas and rescue the young woman from the dastardly Hope. In doing so, they hire a pilot and yacht captain that can navigate the scientist's well-placed fortified encampment in Nassau. The foursome discuss the base's defenses, including robot machines that spit lead from watchtowers and hideous mutant pythons that patrol the churning waters leading into the base's spacious lagoon. 

It is obvious that Smith's writing is heavily influenced by H.G. Wells' 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. But, the high-adventure adrenaline remains the same as my prior Smith reading of “Pirate's Lair”. While not a revenge yarn, this is still a hard-hitting violent affair as the group battle the monsters, bomb the camp, and ultimately attempt to rescue the vulnerable beauty in distress. Aside from some racist things that were unfortunately a product of the time, this story was just so easy to read and enjoy. It's a simple formula, but Smith seems to excel when he allows himself very little to work with. The old adage of “keep it simple stupid” works just as well in 2023 as it did in 1937. The Island Monster is a recommended read for adventure fans.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

The Lantern Man

Having read four of Jon Bassoff's nine novels to date, I'm convinced he might be the most talented and thought-provoking author in the business. When writing a blog dedicated to reviewing vintage fiction, of which many of its authors are long dead, it is unusual for me to even refer to a writer as still being alive and relevant. Yes, Bassoff is alive (and well I hope) and continuing to write amazing books that defy any specific genre. He's as much a murder-mystery guy as a horror writer, as much a crime-fiction stalwart as a noir enthusiast. If Bassoff was a filmmaker, nods to David Lynch would certainly be warranted. He's that good.

In The Lantern Man, originally published in 2020 by Down and Out Books, Bassoff once again takes his readers into a dark strip of American Gothic, a Bible Belt of the Devil where small-town killings somehow find a shaded pathway to a not-so-idyllic family. Like his previous novels in Corrosion and Beneath Cruel Waters, The Lantern Man is set in a small community nestled in a rural stretch of Colorado mountains. It is here that mining was once prominent, and like any mining town, there are inevitable childhood rumors of a murderous miner that steals away children in the night to feast on their flesh. This rumor of “The Lantern Man” plays a big part in the murder of a teenage girl. Did a killer miner from days gone by murder her or was it a young man named Stormy Greiner?

The book is presented in a pretty innovative way, with comparisons made to House of Leaves (Mark Danielewski) or Dracula (Bram Stoker). The book is presented as texts, but made up of diary entries that feature footnotes written by a detective. It is a form of ergodic literature where the reader is forced into a sort of game to review all of the book's passages and clues. It isn't a heavy lift and can be read seamlessly from beginning to end. 

Ultimately, the narrative is a pretty twisted venture into some really dark places. The book's protagonist, Lizzie Greiner, is immediately disclosed to the reader as a suicide victim, a young woman who burns herself to death in an old mining shack. Beside her charred body is her journal, left in a fireproof box in a way that spells out all of the events leading up to her death. 

Detective Russ Buchanan is assigned the cumbersome chore of weeding through the journal and interviewing witnesses that may hold the answer to the girl's murder. The real answer lies in the eye of the beholder – none of the evidence or witnesses provide an indisputable explanation. The author's message is purely subjective. 

The Lantern Man is an extremely rewarding reading experience. The text is a great story, saturated in family ties, mystery, and a compelling narrative. But, the presentation is equally satisfying and designed for fans of crime-fiction. No matter what genre you prefer, this novel checks off every box. Highest possible recommendation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Thurlow's Christmas Story

Did you know that the Christmas season not only brings glad tidings, but also ghost stories? Sure, the easy nod here goes to the ultimate Christmas ghost story, Charles Dickens' 1842 classic A Christmas Carol. But, references to the Christmas ghost can be dated as far back as 1730 with Round about Our Coal-Fire (aka Christmas Entertainments). 

In an effort to locate a Christmas tale for Paperback Warrior, I delved through some old anthologies and found Horrors in Hiding, a 1973 Berkley Medallion paperback edited by Sam Moskowitz and Alden H. Norton. While the cover screams Halloween, the book actually features a Christmas story called "Thurlow's Ghost Story" (misspelled in the TOC), authored by John Kendrick Bangs. The story was originally published in Harper's Weekly in 1894 as "Thurlow's Christmas Story". It turns out that Bangs was the humor editor at Harper's and was assigned with writing a holiday-themed story that year. He submitted "Thurlow's Christmas Story" as a sort of morality tale/tongue-in-cheek jab at holiday publishing deadlines.

The story is presented as a mild form of ergodic literature, meaning that the text itself represents a piece of the story. You can find this meta-story in a story in other early fiction, something like Bram Stoker's Dracula where parts of the book are diary entries. Here, the story is a statement written by Henry Thurlow, an author assigned the cumbersome task of writing a holiday-themed piece for the Idler, a Weekly Journal of Human Interest. The story's text is this statement sent to George Currier, the journal's editor. 

In the statement, Thurlow attempts to explain, in detail, why the assignment hasn't been completed, why the looming deadline is in jeopardy of tardiness, and how his own mindset is being plagued by an unknown supernatural force. Thurlow advises that several nights ago he saw his doppelganger standing at the foot of the stairs. He describes this vision as, “It was then that I first came face to face with myself – that other self, in which I recognized, developed to the full, every bit of my capacity for an evil life.” A week later, Thurlow sees the person again, describing it as, “...that figure which was my own figure, that face which was the evil counterpart of my own countenance, again rose up before me, and once more I was plunged into hopelessness.” 

As the deadline looms closer, Thurlow experiences this bizarre visitation multiple times. However, the strangest visitation occurs one night when the author's fan arrives at his doorstep to present him with a manuscript. The fan explains that he spent nearly a decade writing the story and that he feels Thurlow should publish the piece as his own. Without spoiling too much, Thurlow sheepishly accepts the manuscript and dismisses the fan. Later, Thurlow reads the manuscript and deems it to be brilliant. By using his own byline, Thurlow submits the manuscript only to find a surprising response from his editor. In a clever way, the text the reader is consuming makes up the final submission to the editor. The long and short of how the text becomes a part of the story is a real thrill.

You can read this story, including a neat write-up on Christmas ghost stories, at the Library of America's Story of the Week blog HERE.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Adventures of Red Sonja - Volume 01

In the pulp magazine pages of Magic Carpet’s January 1934 issue readers will discover Robert E. Howard’s sword-mistress Red Sonya of Rogatine. She is the star of Howard’s short story “The Shadow of the Vulture”, described as a tall Russian warrior woman who fights with a dagger, two pistols, and a sabre. While writing for Marvel, Roy Thomas obtained a copy of the story from Glenn Lord, the literary agent for Robert E. Howard’s estate. Thomas, collaborating with artist Barry Smith, modified the story to introduce a new red-haired swordswoman, Red Sonja, in the pages of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian #23 and #24 (1970). The rest is history.

To celebrate the early era of Red Sonja, Dynamite Entertainment acquired the rights to some of the character’s appearances in Marvel. These appearances are collected in a three-volume set titled The Adventures of Red Sonja. I borrowed a digital copy of Vol. 1, which collects the character’s appearances in Marvel Feature #1-#7, all published in 1975, plus the “Red Sonja” story from Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #1 (1974). Up until the Marvel Feature issues, the character had only appeared nine total times – five in Conan the Barbarian (1970), twice in The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian (1974), and twice in Kull and the Barbarians (1975). So, in essence, this collection feels like a terrific landing spot for new Red Sonja readers.

The collection begins with a three-page introduction written by Roy Thomas explaining how he created the character from Howard’s original “The Shadow of the Vulture” story. This intro is a great timeline of the early appearances of Red Sonja and Roy’s collaborations with artists like Neal Adams, Barry Smith, Ernie Chan (Ernue Chua), Dick Giordano, and of course, Frank Thorne. 

Roy’s commentary is followed by the eight-page story “Red Sonja”, which was originally published in Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #1 (1974). The original story was black and white (reprinted in color in Marvel Feature #1), and this new version is colorized by Glass House Color Design. I like all three presentations, but I find myself enjoying this new colorized version (why do I feel guilty though?). The artwork by Esteban Maroto, Neal Adams, and Ernie Chan is really something special. The story has Red Sonja on a mission to earn money working for King Ghannif in a teeming city state in Hyrkania. But the King wants to add the fiery-haired She-Devil into his harem, which backfires in a big way. Sonja is also forced into a fight with the King’s albino musclebound bodyguard. 

Marvel Feature #1 follows with Thomas using an unfinished Robert E. Howard manuscript called “The Temple of Abomination” to frame his eponymous Red Sonja story. That story, originally published in the 1974 Donald M. Grant hardcover Tigers of the Sea, featured Howard’s Conan-like hero Cormac Mac Art. But, Thomas’s version has Red Sonja in a rural stretch of Nemedia forest when she stumbles upon an abandoned temple. Inside, she frees an old man chained to the wall and battles a small army of man-goats (yes man-goats!) that are sacrificing people to a slithering monstrosity in a pit. The art was created by Dick Giordano, which according to Thomas, was a guy who loved drawing women.

Some of Red Sonja’s best presentations are through the creative hands of artist Frank Thorne. He collaborated with Bruce Jones on Marvel Feature #2 “Blood of the Hunter”, #3 “Balek Lives”, #4 "Eyes of the Gorgon”, and #5 “The Bear God Walks!”. Of these stories, I found “Eyes of the Gorgon” to be the best of the bunch. Thomas returned for #6 “Beware the Sacred Sons of Set” and that story's continuation in #7 “The Battle of the Barbarians”. This last story features Red Sonja competing with Conan and Belit on a quest to recover a page from the coveted Book of Skelos.

The major complaint this volume receives is that the last story, “The Battle of the Barbarians”, ends with a cliffhanger. The story isn’t continued in this volume because Dynamite didn’t have printing rights to Conan the Barbarian. The story was continued in Conan the Barbarian #68, published by Marvel in 1970. That story, which also featured Howard’s hero King Kull (and Brule), wrapped up the arc introduced by Thomas in Marvel Feature #6. So, it’s quite a letdown to get this far into the volume and discover it unfinished. But the second volume of The Adventures of Red Sonja features a written recap of those events.  

Overall, I’m delighted with his volume and found it a nostalgic and enjoyable romp through the ages with Red Sonja. If you are interested in more, The Adventures of Red Sonja Volume 2 features Red Sonja #1-#7 (1977) and Volume 3 features issues #8-#14. Dynamite also released a volume titled The Further Adventures of Red Sonja which features more appearances of her in later issues of The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Ki-Gor - And the Stolen Empire

I enjoyed my first experience with pulp jungle hero Ki-Gor in his debut appearance, “King of the Jungle”, from the Winter 1938 issue of Jungle Stories. This story is captured in a large omnibus containing the first six Ki-Gor stories, Ki-Gor the Complete Series Volume 1, published by Altus Press. Returning to the African jungles, I swung into the action again with the second Ki-Gor story “Ki-Gor and the Stolen Empire”. It was published in the Summer 1939 issue of Jungle Stories under the house pseudonym of John Peter Drummond. It remains unclear to me who the real author was. 

“King of the Jungle” was a slower-paced origin story explaining that Ki-Gor was brought to the African jungles as a young boy by his Scottish missionary father. Unfortunately, his father was killed by a tribe of natives and the Ki-Gor grew into manhood by surviving in the jungle. A woman named Helene crashed her plane in the jungle, so Ki-Gor comes to her aid and the two become friends.

“And the Stolen Empire” is a much different story, heavy on action and heroics while speeding by a rapid pace. While clearly a Tarzan imposter, that doesn’t necessarily mean this story was inferior. I loved it just as much as the Tarzan novels I’ve read.

In the story, Ki-Gor and Helene are taken captive by a white dictator named Julio. Through a variety of criminal empires, Julio has amassed a great deal of wealth and power. In expanding his business operations, the crime-lord created a huge African military complex aptly called Africopolis. From this central point, Julio and his fanatics can conquer huge swaths of territory while strongarming numerous tribes to join his growing army. 

Like an Edgar Rice Burroughs page-turner, the action centers around catch and rescue as both Ki-Gor and Helene are captured twice by Julio’s military might, both times escaping into the jungle to find support. Their allies arrive in the form of hundreds of chimpanzees led by an Egyptian who established a secret paradise in Africa known as Memphre. It all sounds rather confusing, but ultimately it is two factions – one peaceful in Memphre and another more hostile and savage in Africopolis.

There’s not much more a pulp fan can ask for as the heroes (Helene every bit the hero as Ki-Gor) are thrust into lightning-quick adventures in rugged mountain fighting, firefights, prison breaks, and animal attacks. I love that Helene shows off her shooting skills with the Lee-Endfield, creating an enjoyable dynamic duo. Ki-Gor’s physical fighting prowess is complimented well with the more modern efficiencies of Helene’s sniper attack. The addition of the chimpanzee army was a lot of fun, as well as the mystery surrounding the hidden jungle city of Memphre. In some ways it reminded me of Tarzan discovering Opal. 

As if I needed more motivation in devouring these Ki-Gor stories, “And the Stolen Empire” just launched me into the realms of Ki-Gor superfan mania. I can’t wait to jump into the next installment, “Ki-Gor and the Giant Gorilla-Men”!

Buy a copy HERE.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The Time of Terror

The kidnapping-heist crime novel The Time of Terror by Lionel White (1905-1985) was first published as a hardcover in 1960 and later abridged to fit the page count as an Ace Double paperback in 1961. The original text of the novel has been reprinted by Stark House Press and paired with 1958’s Too Young to Die.

Long Island, New York couple Christian and Elizabeth (“Call me, Bet!”) are living the suburban American dream. Christian has a good job with an electronics business he helped found, and Bet spends her days raising her two little kids with the help of a live-in nanny and housekeeper.

We also meet 38 year-old Frank Mace, a downtrodden guy in a downscale New York suburb. Frank is a laid-off factory worker whose family has left him. Frank feels that the only answer to turning his life around is an immediate influx of cash. As such, Frank decides to rob a supermarket without formulating much of a coherent plan.

Upon arrival at the grocery store, Frank encounters an unattended little kid - Bet’s kid - and snatches the boy up concocting a kidnapping-for-ransom scheme on the fly. And away we go with a wild paperback crime yarn.

In the opening chapters of The Time of Terror, the author adopts the conversational narration style employed in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels where the third-person omniscient narrator has personality and provides commentary - even acknowledging that there is a reader to whom he’s speaking. It makes for a fun read, and White has the chops to do it well.

The perspective shifts between the police, the local newspaper, the FBI, the victim family, and our kidnapper are quick and well-executed. The plot developments are of the forehead-slapping, one-damn-thing-after-another variety and you’ll have a hard time looking away from this slow-motion noir trainwreck of a crime story.

Overall, it was a pretty great book. The first half a stronger than the second half, but White never disappoints. If you enjoy heists-gone-wrong paperbacks, you can safely add this one to your reading list.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Doc Savage #93 - Tunnel Terror

I'm no authority on Doc Savage. I've read a handful of pulp stories featuring the Man of Bronze and his bickering all-star team of supporting characters. I've enjoyed the stories for the most part, but always found the plot-development to build to a disappointing reveal as to who, or what, was creating the hideous, menacing, and all-consuming evil that plagued society for roughly 130-paperback pages. In some books the reveal is senseless, like in Quest of Qui (July 1935) when the mysterious glowing liquid found in the New York harbor is left unanswered. Or, why Vikings appeared ageless in the story. But, with a new mindset and determination, I journeyed into the dark to experience the August 1940 story Tunnel Terror, which was authored by William G. Bogart and reprinted as a Bantam paperback (#93) in February 1979.

Engaging the part of my brain that loves Scooby-Doo and Hardy Boys, I read and enjoyed Tunnel Terror. The book begins with a drifting laborer named Hardrock Hennesey wishing he was in the safety of New York City instead of an undisclosed Western-American mining town. While walking along a rural highway, Hennesey experiences a strange fog that seems to instantly dry out people into a brittle, crispy husk. Someone call Doc Savage!

For sake of time, I'll fast-forward through the complex mini-mystery of how Savage is brought from New York to the mining town. Instead, we get Savage, Renny, Ham, and Monk arriving by plane with their two pointless pets, a pig and a runt-sized ape. Together, they begin interviewing Hennesey and the mining supervisors. The goal is to figure out what the fog is and how it scientifically works. But, the fog can't be duplicated or analyzed until someone can actually find it. The secret is in the mines, specifically an unexplored section that hints at a lost race of giant people that commanded torture and sacrifices. Are the giant people still alive? Are they haunting the mines? Only Savage can find the answer.

Tunnel Terror has a great pace and for the most part is very entertaining. The addition of an engineer's brother, a woman named Chick Lancaster, added a little something extra to the narrative. Her team-up with Savage takes place outside of the mining town and involves an investigation into a missing governor. How his capture ties into the weird fog and dried-up people is the detective journey readers embark on. Overall, nothing to dislike here. Tunnel Terror may be one of my favorites of my small Doc Savage sample size. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Moon of Madness, Moon of Fear!

Cleveland, Ohio native George Alec Effinger (1947-2002) won Hugo and Nebula awards for his 1988 novelette Schrodinger’s Kitten. Collectively, the science-fiction author wrote over 25 novels including four novelizations of the Planet of the Apes television series. Effinger contributed stories to magazines like Haunt of Horror and Fantastic. In the 1970s, Effinger authored comic book stories for publishers like DC and Marvel, including titles like Fantastic Four, Journey into Mystery, and Sword of Sorcery. My first experience with the writer is his story "Moon of Madness, Moon of Fear", originally published in the first issue of the short-lived Marvel Comics series Chamber of Chills (1972-1976).

The story begins in the gloomy hills of Bavaria as a young man is seen running from wolves in the forest at night. Effinger warns readers that old-wives’ tales might have a grain of truth. The story then goes back just a few hours and shows four young people preparing for a camping trip into the Bavarian wilderness. They receive a warning from an old woman that the residents live by the moon, including both man and wolf. 

Later that night, by the light of the moon, the four people come to the aid of a man found surrounded by wolves in the forest. They bring him to the light of their fire and the group band together to fend off a pack of snarling wolves that have surrounded them. But, as the first rays of sunlight pierce the sky, the young travelers meet their fate. 

The presentation is the team of Dan Adkins (Eerie, Creepy) and his assistant at the time, P. Craig Russell. This was one of Russell’s first comic jobs, as he would later go on to provide artwork for titles like Robin, Batman, Justice League, and Sandman. The book’s cover was penciled by Gil Kane. 

This was neat story with a unique twist on the werewolf formula. The traditional horror concept of a full moon transforming human to wolf is skillfully used by Effinger. The writing is short and to the point, with a careful emphasis on folklore underlined in a form of truth. An entertaining story plus terrific visuals makes this an easy recommendation for spooky 1970s comic book fans. 

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The Black Farm

Contemporary New England author Elias Weatherow started his horror-writing career with online short fiction, and his popularity blossomed as he produced several well-received novels. His masterwork to date is The Black Farm, and I can honestly say that I’ve never read anything quite like it.

Dig the premise:

Nick (our narrator) and Jess are a severely-depressed couple who decide to commit suicide together in one of the grimmest Chapter One openers you’ll ever read. The tragic couple swallows a fistful of pills each and dies in each other’s arms. And then their adventure begins.

Nick awakens, not in heaven or hell, but in a horrific purgatory reserved for suicides. It’s called The Black Farm, and it’s a terrifying place filled with aggressive rotting slugs and a variety of disgusting, murderous creatures. If they kill you, you are simply reincarnated back at The Black Farm to be haunted, hunted and abused for an eternity.

The administrator of The Black Farm is a disgusting, corpulent creature called The Pig. The only way out of The Black Farm is to allow yourself to be eaten by The Pig which allows you to move onto another realm that may be better or worse than the farm. Tough choice.

For his part, Nick chooses to try to survive the horrors of this dark fantasy hellscape in hopes of reuniting with Jess and somehow protecting her in a way that he was unable to on Earth. Over time, the novel adopts the story arc of a men’s-adventure paperback of the 1970s in a dark fantasy setting with Nick on an armed mission to save a damsel in distress from an army of bad guys.

The author is a vivid extreme horror writer who set this novel in a dark fantasy otherworld allowing him to spread his creative and perverse wings. The world-building is simply fantastic. The violence and gore are indeed extreme. Torture scenes are bookended by bone-crunching fight scenes and non-stop action.

If you can handle some stomach-turning scenes, you’re bound to appreciate The Black Farm. The author has also written a sequel, which I will one day read and review. First, I need some earthbound violent adventures before I partake in more of The Pig’s nightmare world. Highly recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Pirate's Lair

I'm always searching for the next great sea-adventure. In my quest for a good nautical romp, I started thumbing through digital copies of Blue Book from the early 20th century. I found a copy of the October, 1933 issue, featuring an incredible cover painting by Joseph Chenoweth, and decided to try a story called “Pirate's Lair”. It was written by Arthur D. Howden Smith, a prolific pulp writer for the magazine Adventure, who created a number of popular serials featuring characters like Captain McConaughy, Swain the Viking, and Grey Maiden

“Pirates Lair” introduces Captain Cahoon, a courageous New England ship-captain of the Cotuit Lass schooner. The ship is off the coast of Cuba when it is assaulted and boarded by a cutthroat crew of pirates captained by Gomez, a vicious scoundrel that the crew members call “One-Eyed”. After lining up Cahoon's crew, Gomez's men tie all 18 sailors and two boys with their hands behind their back. Cahoon knows what is to come, the dreaded “over the side” dumping as each man is thrown from the ship to drown in the ocean depths or to be mauled by hungry sharks. This part of Smith's story has such a profound impact on Cahoon and the readers – he's the last man that Gomez pushes off. As each man hits the water, splashing and gasping for air, Cahoon can hear the men's voices in his head and the mothers of the boys that asked that Cahoon look after their babies on the voyage.

The narrative moves into a more gritty, action-oriented second act as Cahoon, the last man over the side, dives deep into the water and brutalizes his lungs in a desperate swim to the pirates ship. By using a piece of their ship underwater, Cahoon is able to free his bonds. Through the evening, he swims to the shoreline to discover the pirates lair, a small village that the bastards use to drink, fight, and rape various women they have enslaved. Like a mean and gritty Mack Bolan revenge yarn, Smith's narrative explodes into a frenzy as Cahoon goes after the men who killed his crew and burned his ship. Only Cahoon isn't empty-handed. Instead, his weapon of choice is an axe.

Man, “Pirates Lair” was absolutely awesome. Smith can write his ass off and was able to inject so much emotion and doom into the opening pages that it sparked off a white-hot firestorm as the book kicked into the revenge tale. I truly felt for Cahoon's character and how much the loss of his men and ship decimated his soul. I also loved how Smith finished the story with an introspective thought as Cahoon questions the night's events. 

You can read this awesome story for free on HERE or stream it below:

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Spawn of Blackness

Carl Jacobi (1908-1997) authored short stories for the pulps like Doc Savage, Weird Tales, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Top-Notch. Many of his tales were compiled into short story collections published by Arkham House including Revelations in Black (1947), Portraits in Moonlight (1964), and Disclosures in Scarlet (1972). My first experience with the author was his short story “Spawn of Blackness”, which was originally published in the October, 1939 issue of Strange Stories

The story begins with a ferocious pace as Dr. James Haxton, the story's protagonist, is introduced as racing through the city streets at midnight to answer a disturbing call from his old friend Stephen Fay. Haxton had received a call from his friend that something terrible had happened to him and that he needed urgent medical help. 

Arriving at Fay's home, Haxton and readers are brought up to speed on the astonishing events that have led to Fay lying in a bloody heap. From his bed, Fay explains that he had taken a trip to a South African village. While there he purchased a small wooden statue of a large rat. Upon returning to the US, he showed the statue to an anthropology expert that recognized it as a religious fixture used by a tribe in New Guinea. Learning of its history, Fay dropped an old piece of black cloth over it. But, sometime in the night, the rat came alive and burrowed through the wall. Fay describes it as “...a gray shape and a head with red eyes and white gleaming teeth.” The rat creature threw itself at Fay ripping and tearing.

“Spawn of Blackness” wasn't particularly scary, but it was a real pleasure to read. Jacobi's approach is more of the arm-chair detective style as the hero Haxton tries to solve the mystery behind the savage rat attacks. Is the rat real or some figment of the overworked scientist? The author also included some great usage of colors, particularly the scientific approach of black absorbing all of the primary colors. There's some use of the concept that is crucial to the story's ending. Overall, a very entertaining story. 

Friday, December 8, 2023

Kane - Darkness Weaves

In 1970, Knoxville, TN native Karl Edward Wagner authored a short novel titled Darkness Weaves with Many Shades. It was published by Powell as a “gothic fantasy” with cover art by Bill Hughes. By 1978, Wagner had revised the book as Darkness Weaves. It was published by Coronet in Europe with a cover by Chris Achilleos. It was also published in a more popular edition the same year by Warner Books with an equally great cover by Frank Frazetta. That version was reprinted again in 1983. The ebook version was published by Gateway in 2014. The novel is also included in a large omnibus titled Gods in Darkness, which was published in 2002 by Night Shade Books with a cover by Ken Kelly.

Darkness Weaves introduces a character named Kane, who is best described by some fans as the very best elements of Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone. On page 163 of this 292-page paperback, Kane’s murky origin tale is told.

“Kane was one of the first true men - born into a hostile world of strange ancient beings. In this dawn world of humanity, Kane defied the insane god who had created his race – an experiment that had turned out far from the creator’s expectations. This demented elder god dabbled at creating a race of mindless creatures whose only existence would be to amuse and delight him. He almost succeeded, until Kane rebelled against this stifling paradise and spurred the young race to independent will. He killed his own brother, who sought to oppose his heresy, thus bringing violent death as well as rebellion to the infant mankind. Disgusted at the failure of his depraved design, the god abandoned his creation. And for his act of defiance, Kane was cursed with immortality – doomed to roam this world under the shadow of violence and death.”

Wagner’s villain protagonist (yes Kane is an evil guy) is born out of the combination of Biblical prophecy found in the book of Genesis – that of Satan rebelling against God and falling from grace to a cursed oblivion and that of Cain, who committed the first sin in the Bible by murdering his brother Abel. Readers learn that Kane never ages and has a fast-healing factor that is like Marvel’s Wolverine. His wounds heal at a remarkably fast pace. While Kane can surely die (we think), his skill in combat is unprecedented. No one can best him in battle, so the fatal blow to head or heart never seems to occur. In one vivid series of images presented to an evil priestess (more on her later), readers see Kane battling through toppled towers, fire-scarred cities and engaged in combat with giant demons or running up castle stairways fleeing from werewolves. It is easy to gain this feeling of epic greatness associated with the character. There is a lot to unpack here, but the author brilliantly shields the reader from Kane’s detailed past. Instead, only one tale is to be told, and Darkness Weaves presents that story – two empires colliding as Kane wrestle’s control of a navy fleet.

Without giving too much of the story away, the general premise is that two men track down Kane in a coffin-filled, rain-drenched cave to make a proposal. An island federation known as the Thovnosian Empire is ruled by a monarch named Maril. There’s a backstory of family relations and betrayal that led to Maril torturing and supposedly killing his wife Effrel after she had an affair with his nephew. But the horribly mutilated wife secretly survived and is now preparing an awesome military campaign to crush Maril and take over the empire.

Kane has a connection to this empire because they formed the federation to defeat him. In his early buccaneering days, Kane ravished these island coasts with his army of cutthroat pirates. So, who better to lead Effrel’s navy fleet than Kane? If Kane accepts the job, his reward will be a hand in the spoils of war – his own island kingdom. But, Kane secretly is planning on helping Effrel win the war so he can eventually overthrow her.

This is an epic book despite its rather short length of less than 400-pages. Wagner sets the table with some world building while also presenting histories for the major characters that make up the two warring factions. While there is plenty of action, readers do need to exercise patience while the author builds to the grand finale. There are numerous side-plots featuring characters involved with each other, fighting with one another, spying on the campaigns, and ultimately betraying family and friends in a quest for greed. The violence is gore-soaked and barbaric, but nothing extremely graphic or disturbing.

Additionally, Wagner’s writing is a mix of fantasy and sword-and-sorcery. There’s a Lovecraft-like dark fiction etched into the finer details of the plot, mainly how Effrel has a secret alliance with an other-worldly cosmic horror. This part of the story involves sacrifices, pentagrams, body-swapping, and tentacles – lots of tentacles.

Darkness Weaves is one of the very best sword-and-sorcery novels I’ve read. While soaked in all of the 1970s weirdness, it still has a unique literary escapism that reaches Shakespeare-styled revenge-drama. Wagner is an incredible writer that doesn’t give too much away with his style and presentation. I can’t wait to read even more of these Kane novels and short stories.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Ki-Gor - King of the Jungle

Jungle Stories was published quarterly by Fiction House, a pulp division of Glen-Kel Publishing, from 1938 to 1954 – 58 total issues. These magazines each featured a lead novel starring a Tarzan clone named Ki-Gor. The house pseudonym for the stories was John Peter Drummond (except the first credited to real author John Murray Reynolds), but the actual authors were Dan Cushman, James McKimmey, Stanley Mullen, Robert Turner, and W. Scott Peacock. 

My introduction to this prolific jungle hero is “King of the Jungle”, the very first Ki-Gor story. It was originally published in the 1938 Winter issue of Jungle Stories and later collected in the omnibus Ki-Gor: The Complete Series Volume 1 by Altus Press. 

Pilot Helene Vaughn is flying across equatorial Africa when she loses her engine. The female pilot is quick to release all of her fuel in preparation for the treetop crash, thus avoiding a deadly explosion on impact. She awakens after the crash and begins a walk through the dense jungle foliage in hopes of finding anyone that can help her. When she's stopped by a jaguar, a six-foot bare-foot man with blue eyes and long hair comes to her rescue, fighting the jaguar and stabbing it to death with a steel knife. This is Helene's introduction to Ki-Gor, King of the Jungle.

The brawny hero takes Helene back to his cave and speaks some broken English with her. Later that night, the two fend off a vicious attack by the Wungubas, a fierce African tribe that have warred with Ki-Gor for years. When the two successfully survive the onslaught, Ki-Gor takes Helene to a small abandoned cabin. It is here that the hero's origin story is revealed through a diary entry and photograph.

Ki-Gor's real name is Robert. He was the son of John Kilgour, a missionary who came to this part of Africa in 1917. On a mildewed piece of notebook paper, Helene reads that Chief Kranta of the Wunguba tribe grew unfriendly with Kilgour's work in the region. On the diary page, Kilgour describes Kranta as "...there seems to be evil back of his beadlike eyes." Piecing this together with what Kil-Gor explains, it is revealed to readers and Helene that John was killed by the Wungubas around the time that Robert was seven or eight years old. Kil-Gor has survived in the jungle for over 20 years.

"King of the Jungle" has a fragmented narrative that doesn't allow a lot of character development or growth. But, it is the first story and I understand the series improves over time. I really enjoyed the story for what it was and found that Ki-Gor's relationship with Helene could spark some future interest. I also love this fiery feud with the Wunguba tribe and the hero's ability to use a special blend of mystical "powder" to provide dreamlike visions for Helene. This addition has an E. Hoffmann Price feel to the character. 

Obviously, there are a ton of Tarzan imitators. Just like there are tons of James Bond, Conan, Mike Hammer, and The Shadow imitators. The borrowed idea of a white man surviving the death of a parent in an exotic jungle doesn't steer me away. I enjoy a good jungle romp and these Ki-Gor stories certainly seem to provide that. If you love that type of presentation, then this is a mandatory read.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Martin Fallon #01 - Cry of the Hunter

In 1959, while teaching at James Graham College, thirty-year old British military veteran Harry Patterson (aka Jack Higgins) began writing action-adventure novels. I've read a great deal of them, but wanted to experience the author's early efforts at mastering his future bestselling craft. I decided to read Cry of the Hunter. It was published in 1960 by John Long as a hardcover and is now available everywhere in multiple formats. 

Martin Fallon served the Irish Republican Army for years. Simply referred to as “The Organization”, Fallon fought valiantly for the cause. As a schoolboy, he idolized the I.R.A., and later joined their crusade at the age of 17. At 22, he became a leader of the Organization in Ulster. He was eventually arrested and served nine long years in prison (even escaping once) Now, at age 40, Fallon lives a complacent life in the countryside writing books (under two pseudonyms) and sipping whiskey. But, the past always has a way of rearing its ugly head.

One night, Fallon receives some unexpected visitors. It's his former I.R.A. colleague O'Hara with a young trainee and an old blind woman. What are the three up to? They advise Fallon that the old woman's son, a guy named Rogan, is a hair-brained lunatic that leads “The Organization” now. But, the police finally caught up to him and are holding the gunman in custody. Rogan shot a police officer, crippled another, and the legal system will plan for a much-publicized hanging. O'Hara wants Rogan out, and knows that Fallon is just the right man to spring him. He also senses that Fallon isn't content with the dull lifestyle he's created for himself. After hearing from Rogan's son, Fallon agrees to the prison break.

Higgins' novel uses a flexible recycled plot. The concept of the prior criminal coming to the aid of another has been used in westerns as the retired, rehabilitated outlaw recommits to criminality to save a former partner or relationship. Or, it can be used as a crucial plot point for crime-fiction, typically as a former criminal-turned-cop is forced into the underworld to save a badguy from his past. The only hindrance to Higgins' use of the plot is there is no prior relationship between Fallon and Rogan. Fallon just sees himself in the new leader and possibly wants to change Rogan's path of failure.

Cry of the Hunter is an unusual Higgins novel due to the confined setting. The book isn't a globe-trotting affair through desert, sea, and high mountain peaks. In fact, the entire book mostly takes place in just a few blocks of a suburban sprawl. Fallon's time with the readers is spent moving from house to house to avoid the police while also attempting to reconvene with former I.R.A. colleagues for safe harbor. Ultimately, the author introduces a young boy to help Fallon, creating a heartfelt bond between the two that forces the protagonist to see the sins of his past by idolizing the I.R.A. when he was the boy's age. Overall, the novel fits snugly into what I would consider a crime-noir genre more than any Jack Higgins staple of high-octane, high-adventure. This is a very different novel written by an inexperienced, yet entertaining, Harry Patterson.

Higgins himself grew up in Belfast and was exposed to political and religious violence in Northern Ireland at an early age. His novels often feature Irish Republican Army elements. Interesting enough, the character of Martin Fallon would reemerge years later as the star of 1973's A Prayer for the Dying, in which a mob boss makes a pitch to Fallon to assassinate a rival. I enjoyed Cry of the Hunter enough to warrant reading that novel as well. Additionally, the author's most admired hero is that of Sean Dillon, a recurring character that appeared in 22 novels as a former IRA assassin.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

The Coast of Hate

Frederick Nebel (1903-1967) was second only to Erle Stanley Gardner in total number of stories published in Black Mask. The New York native sold his first story to the magazine in 1926, launching a prolific career that included stories for Danger Trail, Dime Detective, Air Stories, Northwest Stories, and Detective Fiction Weekly among others. His pseudonyms included Grimes Hill, Eric Lewis, and Lewis Nebel. I stumbled on his nautical adventure novella The Coast of Hate, which was first published in the January, 1930 issue of Action Stories. It was also collected in a black and white omnibus of Action Stories that was published by Odyssey in 1981, complete with an introduction by the great Will Murray explaining how Action Stories was the “alternate Argosy”. You can read the issue for free on HERE.

The novella begins by introducing readers to action-man Jack Ridlon. It is explained that Ridlon was a one-time sailing master in the island trading and shipping business. After saving and acquiring a plantation on the Borneo coast, a poor crop and a tidal wave completely flushed him out. He's now back to the drawing board as a free-lance adventurer searching for a quick fortune in Macassar, a small city on the coast of South Africa. 

In town, Ridlon meets an old businessman named McGarry. He offers Ridlon a skipper's position on a shipping schooner called the Flying Moon. The old man describes it as “...a two-masted schooner, fast and with a fair bottom. But, there's something queer in the wind behind her.” What McGarry is referring to is the death of the ship's prior Captain and the bizarre interest in the ship from a guy named McKimm. McGarry has the ship loaded up and she's ready to haul up the coast. Ridlon explains he has a girl waiting back in Singaproe and he needs the money. The two agree that Ridlon is the man for the Flying Moon and the telling of the tale begins.

The night before the ship's sail, Ridlon stirs up some action in a local dive. After a rowdy fisticuffs, Ridlon drags an old seaman named Captain Plummer out of the bar and sobers him up. Hesitantly, Plummer agrees to join Ridlon on the trip. The next day, Ridlon and Plummer discover they have some additional hands and one interesting guest, a guy named Starkey that paid for a passage on the ship. His destination isn't unusual, but his curiosity about the ship and a little clay Buddha statue peaks Ridlon's interest. What is the guy's true intention?

Nebel absolutely writes his butt off on this action-packed nautical adventure. The Coast of Hate has one of the finest pirate battles I've ever read. The action heats up in the fourth chapter, “Beyond the Jungle”, when the Flying Moon drops anchors at four fathoms on the coast of the Pahlawan Lagoon. After reaching their destination, Ridlon, Starkey, and Plummer go ashore to have dinner with a local businessman. But, when Starkey disappears, Ridlon and Plummer go on a wild goose chase to find the traveler. When they look out at their ship, they find their own crew in a fierce battle with pirates led by McKimm, the guy who was originally interested in the ship. 

The author includes violent knife fights, blazing guns, fist-fights, and jungle savagery as the crew battles McKimm's forces. Nebel is a sensational writer, penning these action sequences in a style similar to a rowdy boxing announcer on old-time radio– calling each vicious blow with a powerful bravado for the listening audience. Check out the imagery of this oceanic battle between knife-wielding combatants: 

“He plowed after him, churning the water, his knife between his teeth. It was the Ridlon of eight or ten years ago, the high-stepping young blood who had roved wild beaches, downed yellow mutinies, and fought bushmen on the raw New Guinea Coast. McKimm must have reasoned that the shore was too far away. He turned, treading water, his knife raised and gripped hard. His face was a blur in the gloom, fringed with the ripples that gleamed intermittently. Ridlon forged toward him, trailing a phosphorescent wake. They met in five fathoms, gleaming wetly. Steel flashed, missed and churned up the water. Ridlon shot his legs behind him and cannoned through. They came to grips, went beneath the surface, turned about and over and pushed their blades toward each other.”

Or, this description of the tough drunkard Captain Plummer:

“There was old Plummer, his face smeared with blood but his jaw set like a steel chisel – his hair plastered over his ears, his eyes burning fiercely. Plummer slugging his way into a knot of cursing, hard-fighting case-hards, many of whom had not so long ago thrown jibes at him in the Yellow Lantern. Plummer, stark sober was a different man from Plummer the drunkard. He was brimstone, rough on rats.”

I could probably write for days about this simple 17-page adventure tale. Frederick L. Nebel was really something special and I'm so thankful that exists to still salvage these old magazines and stories in quality scans for legions of readers. They are doing God's work when it comes to these vintage magazines. Do yourself a favor and read this awesome Nebel story, then chase down some of the independent publishers that keep publishing awesome vintage adventure stories in affordable collections.

Friday, December 1, 2023

Apache Wells

According to the Cutting Edge Books author page, Robert Steelman (1914-1994) worked for the Army as a civil electronics technician from 1936-1949 before publishing his first of many westerns in 1956. According to the author's papers at the University of Wyoming, one his earliest manuscripts was originally titled Road to the Wells. It was published by Ballantine in 1959 using the revised title Apache Wells. Cutting Edge Books have released a new version of the book in both ebook and paperback formats.

It's 1876 and seventeen-year old Joey is traveling with a wagon train across Arizona Territory. Along with his older brothers Saul and Dave, Joey's destination is the fabled golden land of California. While the perilous trek is long and dusty, the most dangerous aspect of the trip is found within. Both Saul and Dave become embroiled in a bitter rivalry concerning Saul's young wife Eda. Confined in a hostile territory ripe with Apache attacks and savagery, Dave and Eda depart to city life in Tucson, leaving Saul enraged. He decides to forego the trip to California and instead begins to carve out a homestead in Apache Wells.

Steelman's plotting is superb when Joey is forced to choose sides between his warring brothers. After an argument with Saul, Joey heads to Tucson where he is robbed by a prostitute and her pimp. Left penniless, he heads back to Saul to help him defend his newly built homestead against the raids of Apache attacks. This propulsive plot device delivers a frantic pace as readers are thrust into these violent encounters. Saul is forced to protect his young brother while also attempting to build a fortified defense against the raiders. There is an exceptional amount of detail spent on planning and defending the attacks, which I found added a tremendous sense of realism. 

However, the other plot point that Steelman cleverly balances is a familiar one – the inevitable traditional western story of land grabbing. In this case, it's a land baron that is controlling the town's businesses and assets. He needs Saul's newly acquired land to host his new shipment of cattle. When Dave agrees to side with the land baron, Joey finds himself in a fight to either protect Saul from Dave and other hired guns or from negotiating with Saul to leave the land and homestead he's fairly earned.

Apache Wells is a terrific tale that highlights the importance of family, responsibility, and commitment. Steelman's prose is written in cowboy dialect that is similar to Zane Grey or Walt Coburn. While that rich cowboy-speak may be off-putting to some, I thoroughly enjoyed the authenticity. Additionally, I liked the minor hints of Biblical components and theology as well as the various humorous bits sprinkled in courtesy of a cagey old mountain man. Thanks to Cutting Edge Books for re-introducing this great western to newer generations.

Collector's Note – Ballantine published a second printing in 1965. My version is the 1972 paperback by Ballantine with a cover by Frank McCarthy. The most admired version of the book is probably the 1975 Ballantine paperback with a painted cover by Boris Vallejo (Conan, Red Sonja).

Buy a copy of this book HERE.