Saturday, January 20, 2024

Ki-Gor - And the Giant Gorilla-Men

We continue our examination of the Jungle Stories pulp published by Fiction House from 1938 to 1954. The reason is simple – the fantastic Tarzan clone Ki-Gor, who was featured in all 58 issues as the lead story. The house pseudonym was John Peter Drummond, but the real writers were a revolving door of staff and hired pens. The best way to read these Ki-Gor stories is the excellent omnibus editions published by Altus Press, starting with Ki-Gor: The Complete Series Volume 1

“Ki-Gor and the Giant Gorilla-Men” was featured in the third issue of Jungle Stories, which released in 1939. 

The story begins with Ki-Gor hunting on the edge of the Congo jungle. He's desperate for meat, but must fight a lion to save his kill. Bringing it back to his girlfriend, Helene (read my prior reviews HERE for her story), the two enjoy their cozy fireside dinner on the tundra. But, their enjoyment is short-lived when a giant gorilla approaches the fire and snatches Helene. 

This action-packed story contains a propulsive plot development as Ki-Gor races to save Helene from the mysterious gorilla. However, as Ki-Gor quickly discovers, there is an entire army of giant gorillas bent on making his life a living Hell. As Ki-Gor struggles in savage hand-to-hand combat with the gorillas, Helene keeps getting further and further away. This is really where the story excels and the author's uses a frantic pace, laced with a much-needed sense of urgency, to present the jungle savagery to the reader.

Ki-Gor meets an American black man named George Spelvin on his rescue mission. George was an American Pullman porter and ship's cook who just happened to step off into Africa while on a trip. Through perseverance, and a lot of luck, the Cincinnati native was able to become a Masai chief, a sort of tribal leader among the black natives. George brings a unique dose of humor and goodhearted fun to the story, and becomes a series mainstay in future issues. 

Of the Ki-Gor stories I've read so far, this one is by far the most descriptive. The author saturates the pages in a dense, nearly unholy atmosphere as the two heroes ascend through tall, mist-shrouded mountains where the sky is nearly unseen. These deep tombs of forest and jungle provide an atmospheric landscape that is disturbing and unsettling. The visuals of these two men facing impossible odds while tracking through a foreign land to battle giant gorillas was just awe-inspiring to me. I loved the descriptions of these places, the breathtaking escapism, and most importantly, the heavy-handed action wallop the story delivers. While the villain is really bizarre and brought the story down a notch, it wasn't all in vain. I loved the storytelling and the promise of what happens to Ki-Gor and Helene next. Highly recommended! 

Buy a copy HERE.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Night Shoot

In researching Scottish author David Sodergren, a review blurb I read described his fiction as “modern horror for vintage fans”. That sort of stuck with me when I borrowed a friend's paperback of Sodergren's Night Shoot. The book was self-published in 2019, one year after the author's acclaimed debut The Forgotten Island. As a fan of vintage slasher flicks, I was excited to sample Sodergren's writing.

Night Shoot's past-tense, third-person narrative (you have to be specific these days) features Elspeth Murray as the protagonist. In the book's early introduction, readers learn that Elspeth is in her fourth year of film school to become a professional set designer. She lives with her girlfriend Sandy and the two seem to be reaching a milestone in their relationship. 

Elspeth's class has paired her up with a small crew of classmates that must complete a film as their final exam. The group is mostly misfits that are working on a low-budget horror movie called The Haunting of Lacey Carmichael. While some of the film has been shot at the school, the director has called in a family favor to his father to use an estranged uncle's cavernous manor house to shoot the majority of the film. There's a lot more to it, but giving anything else away is giving you the steak before the sizzle. 

The rule is that the film crew has to get in and out of the house in one day, allowing just a few hours of shooting time before the rigid 8PM deadline to get the Hell out. This rule is important to the owner of the place, a stuffy old fart that doesn't appreciate the tedious task of having young snot-nosed kids ruining the woodwork. As the film crew sets up in the giant mansion, a hideous “something” is in the attic watching and waiting. 

In a fast-paced 80s slasher style, each of the film crew is knocked off in heinous fashion. It follows the beloved formula of ticking off the characters until the final girl is left alone in the house with the “something”. I was getting some serious Linda Blair vibes from the VHS classic Hell Night (1981), but also shades of the flick Curtains (1983) and the lost gem The House That Vanished (1973). Setting is always important for these stories and the use of an enormous manor house nestled on a cliff overlooking the North Sea was pretty spectacular. Kudos to the author for using every square foot of the house's interior, with chase scenes spilling into offices, hallways, attics, bedrooms, rooftops, and closets. 

Night Shoot is a 230-page horror novel for the casual mop-headed rental-store veterans out there. I love a good 70s and 80s romp where the actress evades the masked man through campgrounds, houses (big or small), malls, schools, barns, and mines. If you love that stuff, then Night Shoot is a popcorn classic. I can't wait to read more of this author.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, January 8, 2024

David: Warrior and King

Author Frank G. Slaughter (1908-2001) concentrated his writing efforts on medical-suspense novels and historical fiction. As C.V. Terry, Slaughter authored sweeping adventure fiction that incorporated buccaneers and early medical surgeons, evident in titles like Buccaneer Surgeon (1954) and Buccaneer Doctor (1955). I've enjoyed his historical fiction set in the early days of Florida, including Apalachee Gold (1954), which was my first experience with the author. But, Slaughter also authored a number of historical fiction that is based off of the Holy Bible. These “biblical history” titles included full-length novels about figures like Ruth, Simon, Mary, and Paul

In reading the Bible, specifically books Samuel and Chronicles, a grand adventure presents itself concerning one of the most iconic figures in religion, King David of Israel. When I was a kid, church was mandatory, and sitting through endless sermons was cumbersome for my restless spirit. But, the most exciting aspect of attending church was the scriptures about David, a fierce warrior who bested the Philistine giant. Later, as an adult, I had always considered David's story as one of the best and earliest adventure accounts in literature. I had longed for a book that would incorporate the actual scripture, but in a novel format that would take some liberties in fleshing out the complete, awe-inspiring life of David. Thankfully, I discovered that Slaughter had that idea in the early 1960s. 

David: Warrior and King was published by World Publishing Company as a hardcover in 1962 and then published by Permabook a year later in paperback. Today, you can find it as an ebook HERE

At 400 pages, the novel begins with David as a young shepherd boy in Bethlehem. Readers learn that David's brother is Eliab, a soldier for King Saul in the Israeli military. David is a skillful hunter, displaying his bravery to Eliab with the hunting and slaying of a pesky jackal. In the early pages of the book, the prophet Samuel anoints David's head with oil and declares that he will eventually become Israel's king. This prophecy shapes the book's narrative as readers embark on the inevitable journey to the throne.

David's life spills onto the pages in a compelling, easy to read format that doesn't take anything away from scripture. Slaughter's novel showcases the shepherd boy and the stark contrast to Saul, an angry, mentally unstable king that eventually skirts God's will to pursue selfish interests. 

In the book's opening half, readers learn of David's first love, his epic battle with Goliath, and his eventual marriage to Saul's daughter. His friendship with Jonathan and Joab are central to the book as David matures under Saul's watchful eye. As the half closes, David and his small band of soldiers have become enemies of Saul. This harrowing event sets into motion a cat-and-mouse game through the hills and mountains as David avoids Saul's wrath while also positioning himself politically to gain the throne. 

In the second half, David's reign is presented through world-building and intricate political moves that incorporate the usual strife and treason among the most trusted allies. Perhaps the most important part of David's story is his eventual downfall, a mistrust between himself and God. These chapters show a hardened David, one that will even murder his own loyalists to pursue what his heart desires. David's yearning and fascination for Bathsheba, a married woman, leads him to some pretty dark places. God's will reshapes not only David's life, but his family's generations to come. This monumental event sparks a drastic change for Israel's future king. 

David: Warrior and King is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Slaughter's meticulous detail to geography, historical events, and the people of this era is just extraordinary. Chapters of the book also connect directly to scripture, which is highlighted for the reader with direct passages from the Bible. As a casual men's action-adventure fan, you'll enjoy this march through the military ranks, the sweeping fights across endless battlefields, and the extreme compromises David faces as an enemy of the state. If you enjoy fantasy epics, there is enough world-building, tribes, and swordplay to soak up the narrative. 

If you are a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, David's life and history, as shown in the Bible, is an important part of your own religion. No matter your faith, King David is iconic. If you aren't of the faith, then the book should still be enjoyable as an action-packed novel. But, hopefully, Slaughter's novel will peak your curiosity and lead you on a path to the written scripture and ultimately...God. 

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Conan - The Devil in Iron

Robert E. Howard's Conan short “The Devil in Iron” first appeared in the August 1934 issue of Weird Tales. It was later reprinted in paperback by Lancer in 1968 as a part of the Conan the Wanderer collection, later reprinted by Ace with a cover painted by Boris Vallejo. The story was adapted into comic form in the October 1976 issue of The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian with a cover also painted by Vallejo. 

The story begins with a Yuetshi man deposited on the coast of Xapur, an abandoned island, after a storm disrupts his fishing. When exploring the island, a thunderous boom echoes causing the man to go investigate the source of the sound. He stumbles on a large domed structure that has been broken open. Inside, the man tries to take a shiny dagger from a giant corpse (mummified?). The corpse awakens and kills the man. 

Like a lot of Conan stories, there's a political war waging. A lord by the name of Agha is ordered by Turan's king to quell a recent uprising near the border. A team of guerrilla fighters, made up of kozaki bandits, is pillaging Turan's interior. Their leader is Conan. An elaborate trap is formed that places a young maiden named Octavia on the abandoned island of Xapur (the one now housing a giant!). Here, they will lead Conan to Octavia in a snare that will allow Agha and his soldiers to hunt and kill the barbarian. It sounds way more complicated than it really is, but there are numerous plot holes here that Howard doesn't shore up. 

Off-page events transpire and the trap is in motion. Octavia is on the island. Conan sails to the island. The two run into the giant. Fairly simple. Conan quickly learns that the giant is made of iron (thus the story title) and that he will need something other than brute strength to outwit the behemoth. By the story's end, Conan has “taken” the girl's kisses and makes a path to lead her to his tent. Maybe they will make marshmallows?

If you can sense my tone, this wasn't one of my favorites Conan stories authored by Howard. The abandoned island producing a city was really bizarre and felt rushed. I'm not sure if the “Dagon” featured here has any connection with H.P. Lovecraft lore, but this Dagon is the name of a city, not a deity. The giant's colossal nature, or threat, didn't seem to affect me much after reading Conan's battles with far more menacing beasts. This was a boss-fight that didn't quite pan out. I recommend a pass on "The Devil in Iron".

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, January 5, 2024

Night of the Mannequins

Texas-born Stephen Graham Jones (b. 1972) contributes to horror, crime, and science-fiction genres. He has earned critical praise for his novels The Only Good Indians and My Heart is a Chainsaw. He is also a multiple winner of the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson literary awards. Reading the praise, I jumped into his novella Night of the Mannequins not only to experience Jones for the first time, but also because mannequins are downright terrifying.

There isn't a lot to this little story. The plot is fairly simple and straight-forward. A kid named Sawyer is killing off his friends to protect their families from being killed by a mannequin. But, to jump to that extremity, there are events leading up to this.

Sawyer and his friends find a discarded dummy in the forest. “Manny” becomes the group mascot and gets hauled around from place to place kinda like Pete the Pup in The Little Rascals – only Pete was real and this mannequin isn't. However, for Sawyer that all changes. 

The group play a joke on their friend at the theater and place Manny in a seat, then they go complain to management that somebody in the crowd is being too loud. But, the joke is on Sawyer when he witnesses Manny getting out of his seat and walking out of the theater. Is Manny real? Is IT alive? 

Sawyer believes that one of his friends, and their family members, is run over in the street by Manny. He also believes Manny is stealing food from the neighborhood and eating in some hunkered-down locale in the woods. It's really out there man. But, to protect all of the innocent family members from being murdered, Sawyer decides he will just take a less violent approach and kill his friends before Manny can. If his friends can't be slashed to death by the slasher, then innocent lives will be spared.

Night of the Mannequins is a goofy serial-killer-slasher novel that is told from Sawyer's perspective. I have a minor beef with these types of stories because I don't want to be trapped in the mind of a lunatic. Some readers, and horror fans, love this sort of thing. I'm borderline with it. I like that Jones knows how to get into the story and get out quickly, leaving a short space here to do his thing. At 144 pages, this book is a real breeze that's enjoyable and fun without any excess baggage. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Tarzan #05 - Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar

In 1916, the November and December issues of All-Story Cavalier Weekly featured the fifth Tarzan serial, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. It was later published as a novel by McClurg in 1918. The book marks the return of the jungle hero to the treasure city of Opar, a lost colony of Atlantis that first appeared in The Return of Tarzan (1913).

In Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, author Richard A. Lupoff suggests that Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar may be considered the last novel in the original Tarzan chronology. He states, “The quality is not very great, the plot is still a continuation of the original elements introduced in earlier books.” 

Based on this warning, and my displeasure with the fourth Tarzan novel, The Son of Tarzan, I'm not sure why I pursued the series more. Partially, I was hoping that this novel would have a bit of fantasy or sci-fi elements in providing more emphasis on Opar and Tarzan's presence there. But, I quickly learned that isn't the case. This is another chase-the-chaser that is chasing Jane and her kidnapper.

In this novel, Tarzan's investments have dwindled and he needs more capital. He journeys back to the city of Opar to steal gold. While there, he is knocked unconscious by a boulder and awakens with amnesia. This leaves him roaming the jungle in a primitive state similar to his boyhood. Only he says silly things repeatedly like “pretty pebbles”. He also denies Opar's high-priestess La once again. She's in love with Tarzan and he wants nothing to do with her. At this point she's one of the few characters that can successfully remain in one place for five books. I'm just saying...I would at least entertain the decision.

Meanwhile, Burroughs has to have Jane kidnapped. It's apparently what his readers desire in every Tarzan novel. So, Jane is captured this time by ivory and slave traders led by Achmet Zek. Thrown into the mix is a disgraced Belgian officer named Albert Werper. He spends his time attempting to grab a bag of jewels – pretty pebbles – from whoever and whatever chapter they are in. 

The narrative is like the old film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. People chasing people who are chasing money. Werper chases the jewels, Tarzan chases the jewels, La chases Tarzan, Mugambi chases Tarzan and Jane, and the slave traders chase after the Opar gold, the pretty pebbles, and the reader's attention – which is in serious jeopardy if you make it to page 100. None of this would be dull and lifeless if Burroughs didn't recycle the plot. But, he does and this is an absolute mess. 

Seriously, just skip this book and jump ahead to Tarzan the Untamed and its military-themed narrative amidst World War I.

Monday, January 1, 2024

Dark Harvest

According to trusty Wikipedia, Norman Partridge (b. 1958) has authored two detective novels starring a retired boxer named Jack Baddalach. He won his first Bram Stoker award in 1992 for his collection Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales. He also won Stoker awards in 2001 for The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists and in 2006 for Dark Harvest. In scanning retail bookshelves, and movies on various streamers, I can't seem to escape Dark Harvest. It's available in digital, physical, and audio versions and was also adapted into a 2023 film and released by MGM. Accepting it as an omen, I decided to just give the book a whirl. 

The novel is set in an unnamed Midwestern small town on and around Halloween night. The town is unlike any other because it has a strict set of rules that are enforced by a macabre annual contest. Here's the setup:

Every year on Halloween, one male citizen journeys into a town cornfield and digs up a small boy-sized corpse. Using a process unknown to readers (and I'd speculate the author), this corpse comes to life and is provided some sort of jack-o-lantern head and vines and tendrils that make up arms and legs. Injected into its torso is a big bag of delicious candy. The animated corpse then has only one mission. The corpse must make it to the old church before midnight. The corpse is named The October Boy, but some refer to it as Sawtooth Jack. Oh, and the corpse can legally kill anyone in its way.

Okay, with me so far? Continue on...

A week or so before Halloween, the teenage male boys are placed into a type of solitude by their parents to starve them. The purpose is because on Halloween night, the male kids are let out and they must hunt and kill the corpse. Like a Capture the Flag kind of thing. Whoever the lucky kid is that can successfully kill the corpse before it reaches the old church wins the annual prize – a free pass to get out of town and his parents get a ton of money. The kids are starved purposefully so they will go after the corpse in an aggressive way to eat the candy inside. 

You're probably thinking, what sort of puny prize allows someone to just leave town. Well, that's the kicker. You see in this town no one can ever leave. The only way out is by winning the prize. Also, if you are a female, well you're just completely trapped in town forever because females aren't allowed to compete in the game.

Dark Harvest is one-part Stephen King in its The Walk and The Running Man dystopian contest. The other part is similar to Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, based on a small hamlet's annual weirdness. Partridge's writing is like a bleak crime-fiction novel, with plenty of pistol and shotgun blasts to compete with many men's action-adventure paperbacks. He also uses a quick and punchy prose that delivers a smooth, short-sentence presentation for his readers. I liked the more masculine wording Partridge uses to describe cars, motors, guts, and gunshots. He has a gritty, more realistic style that isn't punted away by the dark fantasy make-believe of the overall story.

My real complaint with Dark Harvest (besides the irritating present-tense narrative) is a popular one. The book's violent wrap-up doesn't provide any explanation as to why the town is the way it is. If you are looking for closure, none will be found. The mystery of the magical corpse, why the game is played, and the overall necessity of the corpse's death is left unanswered. Reading Dark Harvest reminded me of why I gave up on Lost by the second season. I had a sense of urgency to know the answer. In that regard, the reading experience was unsatisfactory. But, getting to that conclusion was actually a lot of fun. Your mileage may vary. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.