Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Devil Wind

It’s 1985ish and I’m a young adolescent walking around our local K-Mart department store with my $5 allowance for the week. I’m typically scoping out the latest Hardy Boys installment, those cool “modern” ones with the explosive painted covers, or an R-rated movie novelization (living in the bible-belt, R-rated flicks were off the table, so my only option was to read the novelizations). But today…I see the incredible covers for a series of young-adult horror paperbacks called Dark Forces. I snag Devil Wind, the fourth installment, and camp out in my porch rocker to consume black magic, the occult, and the Dark Forces. I don’t recall the quality of the book, but I do remember enjoying it and picking up a few other books in the series before moving on to Stephen King, John Saul, and Dean Koontz.
Bantam published 15 Dark Forces young-adult paperbacks from 1983-1984. These were all stand-alone novels - roughly 160 pages – that challenged for market superiority among the crowded ranks of Point Horror, Goosebumps, Private School, and prolific author Christopher Pike (Kevin McFadden). That guy was everywhere. The series was authored by a rotating blend of writers including Scott Siegel, Les Logan, Bruce Coville, and Jane Polcovar. The collaboration of Paul Alexander and Laurie Bridges produced three series installments - Magic Show, Devil Wind, and Swamp Witch

For funsies, I tracked down a copy of Devil Wind and gave it an adult spin nearly 40 years removed from my first experience with the book.
The novel stars Peter Wardwell, a high schooler living in the small coastal New England town of Northport Bay. In the book’s opening pages, readers learn that a dilapidated house was recently demolished, and Peter found an old whistle in the rubble. With his new whistle, and his family’s boat, he takes his sweetheart Mary Jane (human not plant) to a small, hidden cove he discovers down the coast. Mary Jane immediately gets the creeps there and the place reeks of rotted flesh. But Peter insists they stick around and soon pulls out his whistle and takes a blow. A thick fog rolls in and the two become separated. Peter falls into a deep slumber and Mary Jane is rescued by a salty sailor. The two soon find Peter and bring him back home. Only, this isn't really Peter.
Over the course of the book readers experience Peter’s transformation from a kind American boy into a Satanic warlock from the 1700s. You see Northport Bay experienced a curse from Simon Wardwell, Peter’s great-great-gr….you get the point. Simon died in the little cove, along with his sadistic followers. But, when Peter blew the whistle, his body was possessed by this creepy Satan-worshiper. Between Mary Jane, the salty sailor, and a wise old woman in town, they must stop Peter from raising Hell on Northport Bay on Halloween.

As a breezy horror paperback, Devil Wind is a lot of fun to read. The four key characters made a great team-up to fight the forces of evil, complimented by the authors' emphasis on character development (despite the short page count). It's a young-adult novel, so don't expect any Jack Ketchum or Bryan Smith slaughterhouse action. Instead, the storyline is your classic small-town horror that places average people into extreme situations. I got the vibe of John Carpenter's excellent The Fog, so if that's your palette, then this should please any age group. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Conan - Conan Volume 1: The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories (Dark Horse)

In 2003, Dark Horse Comics launched their first Conan title after acquiring the rights to the character. Prior to the Dark Horse debut, Conan was featured prominently in Conan the Barbarian, Savage Sword of Conan, Conan the King, and Conan the Adventurer published by Marvel and Curtis. Dark Horse would later lose the character's licensing in 2018, returning the Cimmerian hero back to Marvel. As of this writing, Titan now owns the rights.

Like Marvel, Dark Horse launched several Conan titles and gained the rights to reprint the prior Marvel issues as omnibus editions. Under the Dark Horse brand, the titles Conan (2003-2008), Conan the Cimmerian (2008-2010), Conan: Road of Kings (2010-2012), Conan the Barbarian (2012-2014), Conan the Avenger (2014-2016), and Conan the Slayer (2016-2017) were created as brand-new comics created by a variety of writers and artists. Additionally, several mini-series titles were released over the course of the 14-year Dark Horse run.

I read several of these Dark Horse books when they first appeared, but eventually switched my reading to the stuff that normally appears here at Paperback Warrior – crime-fiction, action-adventure, and westerns. 2024 marks 20 years since Dark Horse published Conan #1, so I thought I would rewind, reread, and review these titles in order, beginning with the first series, Conan. Dark Horse has conveniently placed most of their Conan issues into trade paperback and hardcover editions. My first review is Conan Volume 1: The FrostGiant’s Daughter. This book includes Conan #0 through #7 (one-half of issue #7) and it was published in 2005. You can get the book for about $25 retail.

The issues collected in the book were drawn by Canadian artist Cary Nord, who stuck around to sketch most of the title’s first 44 issues. In an interview with the book’s writer, Kurt Busiek, Nord explained that he got into Conan through the Savage Sword of Conan magazine. In describing the Hyborian Age, Nord stated, “The world of Conan is visually stunning. Conan journeys through every environment you can imagine, encounters dozens of new cultures and races of men, sexy women, fantastic villains, apes, dragons, monsters, and he kicks ass through it all!”. His artistic style draws influences from Barry Smith and Frank Frazetta, two iconic artists associated with the Conan franchise.

Boston native Kurt Busiek wrote nearly all the title’s 51 issues, drawing from his 20 years of comic experience at the time. Busiek broke into comics in 1983 by writing a back-up story in Green Lantern. If you can name the title or character, there is a good chance Busiek contributed. He has worked for Dark Horse, DC, Wildstorm, Image, Marvel, Topps, Dynamite, and Eclipse. Prior to Conan, his most praised work was the team-up with Alex Ross to pen the Marvels limited series in 1993.

Another major addition to the book is the inking by Dave Stewart. One can easily see his careful treatment of Nord’s sketches. The inking, also done with computer, doesn’t cover up Nord’s lines and allows some interesting contrasts between the gray and darker tones. Often, Stewart will leave some aspects of Nord’s art faintly inked to suggest different scenes or story tones.

Surprisingly, the book kicks off after Conan’s death. In the first issue, which was #0 "The Legend", a Prince and his servant Wazir find an underground chamber that housed King Conan’s riches, complete with a large statue of the character seated on a throne. Later, Wazir recounts to the Prince that the Nemedians kept meticulous records and displays a scroll. On it is the familiar slogan, “Know, O’Prince, that between the years with the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities…”. The scroll serves the reader by outlining the various lands and their historic tribes and people including Aquilonia and the coming of Conan the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand. This page is a partial splash page with astounding art and inks. This issue ends with Wazir continuing to tell the Conan history to the Prince, which on the last panel begins with Conan at 16 years of age and venturing into the lands of the Aesir.”

The next portion begins with Conan #01 "Out of the Darksome Hills" and sets up how Conan became aligned with the Aesirs at the beginning of Robert E. Howard’s 1934 story, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter”. Busiek is careful to gently explore the periods of time in between Howard’s stories. The writer makes it very clear in the letters section of these early issues that his focus is on the Howard stories with a complete disregard of Lin Carter and L. Spraguede Camp’s contributions (or anyone else for that matter). In “Out of the Darksome Hills”, the title page is a glorious splash of Conan decapitating a Vanirmen as he attempts to rape a young woman.

The story features the Vanirmen raiding an Aesir village, nearly burning it to the ground and slaying the women and children. The Aesir warriors are gone, so Conan, who just happens to be in the area, comes to the village’s aid in fighting off the Vanirmen. Later, Niord, the tribal leader arrives, and after Conan battles an Aesir, he invites Conan to spend the night in storytelling with booze. When Niord’s daughter Henga goes to Conan at night, Henga’s admirer Sjarl becomes secretly angry and begins to plot with another warrior on a way to betray Conan and either kill him or trade him as a slave. The following morning, a fully armored Conan joins the Aesir as they journey northward to attack the Vanirmen. Conan’s appearance here decked out in armor resembles the Barry Smith and Alfredo Alcala drawing on page 18 of Savage Sword of Conan #2. 

The book’s next section is issue #02 “The Frost Giant’s Daughter”. I won’t go into too much detail of the story, as you can read my review of Howard’s 1934 story HERE. But this comic adaptation stays very true to the original Howard story with beautiful artwork by Nord. He captures the ivory-skinned woman perfectly, with an emphasis on her eyes and the glowing sheen that captivates the weary hero. There is a gigantic splash page that introduces the two frost giants and rivals even the version from Savage Sword of Conan. I prefer the original treatment, but this is really something special between Nord and Busiek.

The events of issue two spill over into the opening pages of #03 “At the Back of the North Wind”. Like the early issues of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, the young Conan is wearing a horned helmet in these early Dark Horse stories. The opening pages feature a conversation between Conan and Niord that addresses the helmet. After Conan’s protective gear is broken in battle, he borrows some of the Aesir’s tools to fix the helmet. Niord scoffs at the idea and suggests Conan should just get another. The Cimmerian responds that the helmet was created by his father, a blacksmith, and then explains that his father said a man who treated his tools well would get good service from them in return. It is a really touching aspect that proves Conan is somewhat sentimental, exposing his human condition versus savage destroyer.

The next morning, Conan helps the Aesir with tracking a band of Vanirmen who have escaped pursuit eastward. Behind the scenes, Sjarl plans to ambush Conan and sell him to a slaver. The Aesir eventually catch up to the Vanirmen and begin the slaughter. However, the Vanir leader Tir offers himself up as a surrender, volunteering to be executed so his men can be enslaved instead of killed. Once the execution is complete and the prisoners are chained, all Hell breaks loose as the group of tired warriors are attacked by armored warriors wielding giant hammers (they resemble the crazed post-apocalyptic warriors of Mad Max: Fury Road). They soon overpower the group, Conan is betrayed by Sjarl, and the issue ends with the unconscious hero being drug on a sledge through the wind and snow. It’s a powerful finale that resonates with so much turmoil and iron-fisted fortitude. Yet, Conan’s downfall ultimately was a woman.

The next section is issue #04 “Gates of Paradise”, featuring a drugged Conan imprisoned in a monolithic castle. The series thus far featured a through story of Conan aspiring to reach the land of Hyperborea, a place that the hero envisions as a utopian paradise where people can live eternally in a state of bliss and pleasure. However, Hyperborea’s creature comforts are only enjoyed by the sorcerers that rule the castle, a group of ancient beings that live eternally by capturing people, drugging them, and forcefully taking their souls. Due to the centuries of living this harmonious lifestyle, the sorcerers jump from the castle’s walls to their death in a ritual called the Day of Farewell.  

Conan is rescued from his drugged stupor by a Turanian woman named Iasmini. She provides a yellow lotus plant for the hero to grind up and drink. Soon, Conan schemes a way to free himself and the prisoners by giving the plant discreetly to the prisoners. This was such a colorful part of the storyline with the inking containing brilliant shades of green, yellow, and purple to match the tone. It is a graphic narrative that just transforms the pages into something truly special. While the storylines are different, the concept of Conan co-existing in a prison of slaves reminds me of  Roy Thomas’ “Lair of the Beast-Men”, a story featured in Conan the Barbarian #2. The Thomas story has more of an Edgar RiceBurroughs feel than Robert Howard, and oddly enough Nord harnesses that ERB vibe at the end of this issue and the beginning of the next.

In the title’s fifth issue, "Ashes and Dust”, Conan looks like Tarzan with his near-nakedness and muscular physique. The start of the story even features Conan fighting four hungry lions. When the hero makes his escape from that side of the castle, Busiak takes a moment to fill the reader in with the history of Hyperborea from the viewpoint of the supreme sorcerer. Other than the history of the land, there isn’t a lot that happens in this issue. The pages end with Conan and the prisoners rebelling and taking the attack to the sorcerers and their army.

The aptly titled “Day of Farewell” closes out this trade with the title’s sixth issue. The first page is an incredible splash of Conan’s face and right shoulder as he screams, “At them, men of Asgard! At them, free warriors!”. The eyes and blood-spattered hair convey so much brutality and savageness. This is Conan! The issue is action-packed as the Cimmerian fights the Hyperborean hordes to free himself and his fellow prisoners. There is a bit of sadness when Conan discovers that Iasmini sacrificed herself to free him. Page 13 is visually incredible as Conan’s back is against the edge of the castle’s walls, suspended hundreds of feet in the air. Page 19 is equally stunning with the hero surrounded by darkness and gloom while staring at the bones and corpses of the many who have jumped from the castle. Oh, and there are giant ants that Conan begins fighting. Page 22 emphasizes a part of the story where the Northmen believe that their burned bodies rise in the air on smoke, as if climbing a stairway to the realm of the gods. This is a splash page as Conan is burning the corpses and staring upwards out of the gruesome chasm. The book ends on a bit of a cliffhanger (or cliffclimber?) as Conan begins scaling the walls to go and kill the sorcerers. This trade does go into the first 14 pages of issue #7, but I stopped here because I want to read issue 7 in its entirety. I'm OCD like that. 

Unlike Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian, which I love, I felt that Busiak sticks more to the gritty Robert E. Howard storytelling. Conan isn’t cartoonish, nor is he the Hollywood “Ah-nold”. He is a grim-faced serious character that uses a combination of sharp cunning and backbreaking strength to overcome the most challenging obstacles. If I haven’t already overstated it, Nord’s artwork is marvelous and captures the Barry Smith look and feel of Conan – the Barry Smith that had reached his own identity after being heavily influenced by Jack Kirby in the early Conan the Barbarian issues. Both Smith and Frazetta had a unique wildness that Nord captures perfectly while also doing something wholly different when combining Dave Stewart’s phenomenal inks.

I forgot how good these issues were and I’m looking forward to reading more of them. Hopefully, you are on board for the journey through the Conan comics, including Marvel and Titan. 

Buy a copy of this volume HERE.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Return to Vikki

John Tomerlin (1930-2014) was a screenwriter and novelist — mostly in the science-fiction genre — who authored a Fawcett Gold Medal heist novel in 1959 called Return to Vikki. The exciting paperback has returned from the dead as an ebook, paperback, and audiobook from Cutting Edge Books.

Frank Shelby lives an idyllic suburban life with a good job and a pretty wife. This is all upended one day when his past comes knocking from his prior life back east in the form of a mob henchman. You see, before he was Frank Shelby, he was a master thief named Connor, now a wanted man and a fugitive. Frank’s wife has no clue about her husband’s double-life.

The visitor makes him a deal: travel back to Manhattan to meet with a mob boss about “one more job” or deal with the police and the repercussions of his old life. Making up an excuse to his wife, Frank travels back east to learn more.

Before he knows it, Frank finds himself at a mob-owned titty-bar called Club Xanadu only to find the titular Vikki dancing on stage. Frank and Vikki used to be an item before Frank dipped out and left the criminal life without saying goodbye to Vikki. Once he finally gets an audience with the mob boss, it is explained that the job requires “stealing an entire bank” — not robbing it, stealing it.

The mobster further explains that what he’s talking about is a bank that is moving across New York City from one location to another. This will involve packing up the vault and all of the assets and physically moving it across the city. It will take a man like Frank, with a particular set of skills to pull off a heist this audacious. The racketeer makes Frank an offer he can’t refuse, and the planning begins.

Along the way there’s a murder frame-up, a random beating, and extensive sexual temptation. Perhaps there was a bit too much happening, and the paperback would have been better with less mid-novel clutter and a greater focus on the heist planning and execution? In any case, it’s never particularly hard to follow.

Never fear, the novel gets back on track for the final act of the heist and its aftermath. The robbery itself is creatively-executed and the moral dilemmas surrounding it were completely compelling. The aftermath has an audacious action set piece and a killing evoking an early James Bond film.

Overall, Return to Vikki was a remarkably good - and twice mispackaged - heist novel that fans of Lionel White and Richard Stark will enjoy immensely. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Message from a Ghost

Those of you familiar with our goth reviews will recognize the name William Ross, a Canadian author that wrote hundreds of novels in the genre including over 30 books in the Dark Shadows television tie-in series. His pseudonyms include Marilyn Ross, Clarissa Ross, Dan Ross, Dana Ross, Laura Brooks, Lydia Colby, and a host of others. I've read over a handful of the Ross goths and the mileage varies. I decided to try his 1971 stand-alone novel Message from a Ghost, authored under his Marilyn Ross pseudonym and published by Paperback Library. 

The book is set in present day 1971 and features a rich protagonist named Gale Garvis. Her father died and left both her and her sister Emily millions, including a robust house in Connecticut. As the novel begins, Gale is returning home after winning several high-profile swimming competitions and discovers that Emily has become a superstitious hippie. The free-spirited sister has invited another hippie to live with the family and this deadbeat smokes all day and plays with the Ouija board. Practical sister Gale isn't having any of it and demands that the hippie beat it (there's also fear that the hippie will do anything to support his marijuana fix!). He soon skedaddles, but not after delivering a stern warning that the estate's attorney is out to kill both Gale and Emily. The girls' dead father told him guessed it...the 'ole Ouija board.

After a heated argument with Emily, Gale is encouraged to take a two-week vacation at a resort. The author makes good use of this transition by surprisingly positioning the story in a different location outside of the cavernous mansion. At the resort, Gale befriends a married couple, but also sees the evil drug-induced hippie working there in the shadows. Gale strikes up a number of other flirting friendships with stockbrokers and attorneys, including a brief exchange with a mobster. 

After the two weeks, Gale is persuaded to allow the married couple to drive her back to her home in Connecticut. But, the idea was a ruse to drug Gale. She wakes up in an old abandoned theater to the sounds of an organ. She sees the married couple and another bad guy from the resort and they are all behaving like lunatics. Things escalate when a deviant midget shows up wearing a mask and toting a gun. What is the “message from a ghost”?

William Ross's novel is really three different books – the first with the hippie stuff in Connecticut, the wining and dining at the resort, and the third as a sort of creepy prison-break story. While they all connect, it reads like three different books. The situation with Gale kidnapped in the old theater is obviously the best of the three. This last act features a number of near-escapes, a little gunplay, the crazy midget, and a sense that this nice woman could be raped and bludgeoned all exist to tighten up the narrative. There's also the possibility that a dead actress's ghost may be haunting the building. But, if you know your gothics, the supernatural is typically super rare. The reason for Gale's kidnapping hooks the readers, but the final reveal is preposterous. 

If you enjoy William Ross's traditional “beauties running from the big house”, then this is a fresh change of pace that combines goth with a mystery crime-fiction element. Message from a Ghost received loud and clear – get the book cheap or free for a satisfying read. Otherwise, you may regret the few bucks you did spend when the final reveal occurs. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, May 8, 2024


According to his bio, William E. Vance (1911-1986) taught creative writing and worked for the Federal Aviation Administration in Utah. The author's short stories first appeared in the early 1950s in magazines like Argosy and Esquire. He turned to paperback originals, penning over 40 novels including western and crime-fiction. Using the pseudonym George Cassidy, he authored more racy romance novels including The Flesh Market, Wanton Bride, Assignment: Seduction, and Sin Circus. Stark House Press chose his 1962 novel Bait to reprint as Black Gat Books #59.

Melody Frane is 17 years old and living in a one-room shack on an Arizona migratory farm. Daily, she performs hard labor and arrives home to hear the rhythmical sounds of a squeaky mattress holding her drunk mother and a hoodlum. Melody wants out, and she has the knock 'em dead good looks to rise above her sorrowful lifestyle. Her meal ticket might be Harry Ransome. 

Harry is the town's wealthy entrepreneur, holding the keys to the city through real estate, investments, and solid business savvy. However, most of his success comes from swindling young women like Melody as special concessions to close the big deal. When Harry propositions Melody for the big plays, she hesitantly accepts. Soon, she's wining and dining in Los Angeles while attending a performing arts school that hopes to firm up her mind and soul to deliver the goods. She's forced into uncompromising situations with Harry and his business associates while pining for the real love of her life, a hard-working pilot that works for Harry.

Bait was originally published by Beacon, a sleaze publisher that mostly offered very tepid sex scenes (what we would consider PG-13 today) peppered through a gripping human conflict story. Author Charles Boeckman wrote some of the best Beacon paperbacks as Alex Carter, and Bait sort of falls into the same overall theme. Vance presents the glitz and glamour of the high-dollar white-collar, but underlines it with a blue-collar “fish out of water” story of a small-town girl pressured into unfamiliarity. As a breezy read, take the Bait and enjoy. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.