Monday, June 17, 2024

Dark of the Moon

William Ross used combinations of his name, as well as pseudonyms like Marilyn Ross, Clarissa Ross, Dan Roberts, and Ellen Randolph to write hundreds of gothic paperbacks through the 1960s and 1970s. I’ve mostly focused on his stand-alone novels like Dark Legend, Phantom Manor, and Secret of MalletCastle. Browsing my Ross collection, I stumbled on one with an awesome sci-fi styled name and font – Dark of the Moon. The glorious painted cover was created by talented artist Carl Hantman, known for his illustrations adorning western paperbacks by Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L’Amour. The book was published in 1969 by McFadden Books using the author’s middle name of Dan. Gothics are my guilty pleasure, so I opened the door to another creepy mansion.

The book is set in 1869 in the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the ending of America’s Civil War. The protagonist is Julia, an heiress to a large estate that consists of a large mansion in New York. Julia’s marriage to a Chicago businessman named Gregory Hunt prompts strict scrutiny from Julia’s only remaining relative, Aunt Cornelia. She hires an attorney to investigate Hunt’s background. The findings aren’t positive.

Gregory Hunt lost the family fortune in the nation’s banking crisis. All that’s left is a mansion in Chicago and his meager salary as a minor officer for a New York bank. Julia is willing to dismiss Hunt’s misfortune, deciding that character is more important. However, the attorney discovers a dark past in the Hunt lineage. Gregory’s father was an alcoholic, and his brother, Norman, had a reputation for wildness. Norman was tied to the murder of a young girl that led to him leaving the country to travel abroad. Similarly, Gregory’s uncle on his father’s side was also tied to the murder of a young girl. After an investigation he was charged and executed for the crime. Not exactly a fruitful family tree.

In a peculiar sequence of events, Gregory advises Julia that he must take care of affairs in Chicago and departs immediately. Weeks go by with no word from Gregory. Later, she learns that the Chicago estate was sold and that Gregory, and his mother, moved to a farm in upstate New York. The rattled Julia decides to travel to New York for a surprise visit. When she arrives, Gregory is irate.

The author then descends the familiar literary path of placing near death experiences in Julia’s path. She’s nearly trampled by a horse, crushed by a falling chandelier, and shot. But she escapes the murder attempts while dealing with Gregory’s psychopathic tendencies, his bizarre mother, a deranged Hunt cousin, and a British military leader. Of course, Ross must pad the narrative with descriptive nightmares that plague the main character, an element that the author uses in almost every story to create action.

Is Dark of the Moon any good? It depends on your patience level and overall interest in the repetitive nature of gothic romance. Crime-noir typically uses the innocent man-on-the-run as a formula staple and these gothics utilize a vulnerable woman caught in a wicked love affair that is traditionally set in a mansion. The genre is nearly cookie-cutter in its storytelling, but the way the story is presented is key – atmosphere, a thick dread, a hint of the supernatural, and a strong female lead. Under that curriculum, Dark of the Moon is a passing grade. Recommened. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, June 15, 2024

The Dead Remember

The August, 1936 issue of Argosy featured a horror western short-story titled “The Dead Remember”. The author was Robert E. Howard, a veteran of both westerns and horror stories. Howard was closely linked with Weird Tales along side his contemporaries in H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. He made $17.50 for the submission. Since then, the story has circulated in collections like Horror Times Ten (Berkley 1967), Pigeons from Hell (Ace 1979), and The Horror Stories of Robert E. Howard (Del Rey 2008). My version is in a paperback called Trails in Darkness, originally published in June 1996 by Baen. 

This 12-page story features a rough 'n ready cowhand named Jim Gordon. One night he visits an acquaintance, an African-American man named Joel and his wife Jezebel. Joel and Jim begin shooting craps and drinking tequila and Joel takes all of Jim's money. The obligatory accusation of cheating arises and Jim fatally shoots Joel twice in the belly. Jezebel runs out and attempts to fire an old musket, but it misfires and Jim fatally shoots Jezebel in the chest. In her dying words, she screams this curse at Jim:

“You've killed Joel and you've killed me, but by God, you won't live to brag about it. I curse you by the big snake and the black swamp and the white cock. Before this day rolls around again you'll be branding the devil's cows in Hell. You'll see, I'll come to you when the time's ripe and ready.”

It is these chilling final words that haunt Jim. Soon he becomes paranoid and begins having accidents that nearly kill him. In the story's finale, there is a hint of a supernatural entity that comes for him. Whether it was or wasn't is in the eye of the beholder. I'd like to think it was supernatural. 

These types of “curse you” horror stories are a dime-a-dozen, but Howard sure had a knack for reeling the reader into the macabre. What makes this story interesting is the fact that it is presented in a series of letters by the various characters that interact with Jim through the story. These are all presented in a detailed way that doesn't reveal everything at once. As the letters are presented from different points of view, it is up to the reader to ascertain what is really happening. 

If you like your horror westerns then don't let this one slip your memory. After all, the dead remember. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Planet of the Apes #01 - Planet of the Apes

My childhood consisted of watching the Planet of the Apes movies, and the television show, on cable syndication repeatedly. My parents saw the original 1968 film at the drive-in and became big fans of the franchise. As I write this, I just finished watching War of the Planet Apes (2017) with them while on vacation and I’m headed into the theater shortly to see the newest film, Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes (2024).

As much as I love this series, my fandom has strictly been dedicated to the screen. I’ve never delved into the labyrinth of literary presence the franchise commands. I decided to try the original novel that launched this blockbuster franchise, Planet of the Apes, authored by Pierre Boulle and published in 1963.

The book was written in French with the title La Planete des singes, which translates to Planet of the Apes in English. The book was published in the UK as Monkey Planet. As one can imagine, the book differs from the movie. Surprisingly, the adage of “the book is better” doesn’t fit this scenario.

The book begins with Jinn and Phyllis, wealthy lovers, living in a far-flung future where space travel is available. Phyllis discovers a floating bottle containing a manuscript and the two begin reading it. From there, the narrative becomes an epistolary novel as the manuscript is presented in a first-person narration by the main character, French journalist Ulysse Merou.

In 2500, Ulysse is invited by a French scientist named Antelle and his protegee to join a long star trek through the galaxy to a place called Betelgeuse. The trip takes two years and because of the time difference, these years are the equivalent of centuries passing on Earth. As they get into the vicinity of Betelgeuse, they land their ship on a planet called Soror. The bulk of the story takes place here as the three explore the planet and become accustomed to its unique lifestyle.

The book and the film version are very similar in the first act. The three men are shocked to discover a naked human female running through the lush forest. They deem her “Nova” due to her golden sheen. Fast-forward a few pages and readers get the iconic scene where gorillas arrive on horseback and begin netting Nova and other naked human “savages” in what appears to be a wild-game hunt. Ulysse and the professor are captured and the protegee is killed. Unfortunately, the narrative’s only action is terminated as well.

The rest of the book is a slow-burn as Ulysse is placed in a laboratory and ran through a series of tests by a combination of apes, chimpanzees, and orangutans. On this planet, humans are like animals with no language skills and very little intelligence. The “monkeys” run the show and are in the place of humans in a weird reversal of evolution. Thankfully, Ulysse’s wherewithal puts him in a situation of impressing his superiors with excellent speech and physical prowess. The professor declines to a Neanderthal state after months of caged life. Ulysse also develops a romance with Nova, who is a fellow prisoner.

Like the film, a chimpanzee scientist named Zira takes an interest in Ulysse and is eventually able to free him. In the book’s finale, Ulysse, Nova and their young child escape the planet and return to Earth to discover…well I can’t ruin the surprise for you. In fact, the author has two surprises at the end, one of which I wasn’t aware of.

Circling back to my original statement, the movie is better than the book. I believe that is a popular opinion shared by many. To be fair, if I read the book with no knowledge of the films, then it is a satisfactory science-fiction novel that has a lot to say about the human condition and the decline of civilization. It’s a cautionary tale that has a mix of social commentary, a small dose of action, and an emphasis on character development (and refinement?). In that regard, the author’s vision is superb and his writing acceptable.

Living with the curse of seeing nine of the series’ high-budget films, the book left me a little winded. I still want to read more novels associated with the franchise, but keep in mind that the later novels aren’t written by this author and are all based on the film and television productions – similar to other big franchises like Star Wars, Alien, Star Trek, and Predator.

Get the book HERE

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Sea Curse

Robert E. Howard earned $17 when he sold his story “Sea Curse” to Weird Tales. The magazine published the story in the May 1928 (Vol. 11 Number 5) issue with a Curtis C. Senf cover. This selection falls into the category of Howard's horror/weird stories and has been featured in dozens of publications over the past 94 years including Marchers of Vahalla (Sphere 1977), The Howard Collector (Ace 1979), and Shadow Kingdoms (Wildside 2004). My reading of the story is from a paperback titled Eons of the Night, published by Baen in 1996 with a Ken Kelly cover.

“Sea Curse” is set in the small coastal village called Faring. Howard used this same town for his stories “Restless Waters” (pub 1969, aka “The Horror at the Window”), “Out of the Deep” (pub. 1967), and his poem “A Legend of Faring Town” (pub 1975). Don't be thrown off by the impression that these stories are somehow connected. They aren't. The characters are specific to just the story and never spill into the other tales.

The story begins as readers learn of old Moll Farrell, a rumored witch that has very little to say to anyone, minds her own business, and makes a living from gathering clams and driftwood while raising her young niece. This is a fishing town, which brings lots of weathered sailors in and out of the harbor. Unfortunately, two of the very worst hang around Faring – John Kulrek and his pal Lie-lip Canool. Off-page, Kulrek rapes and kills Moll's niece, casting her broken little body into the raging sea. 

After a few days, the young girl drifts to shore, cold and lifeless. Word quickly makes it to the village and they all run to the coastline. Standing over the dead girl, a drunken Kulrek raises his drink and says, “A health to the wench's ghost!”. Immediately, Moll Farrell screams a curse on Kulrek with the main point being addressed to Canool:

“You shall be the death of John Kulrek and he shall be the death or you! You shall bring John Kulrek to the doors of Hell and John Kulrek shall bring you to the gallows-tree! I set the seal of death upon your brow, John Kulrek! You shall live in terror and die in horror far out upon the cold grey sea!”

Kulrek and his small crew set sail at dawn on a long voyage. Months later, Canool arrives in town and tells the village that Kulrek deserted ship in Sumatra after a fight with the skipper. 

Later, the narrator of the story, a “harum-scarum” lad (no name provided) and his friend Joe are out in the water in a thick white fog. They hear the sounds of a large boat, but can't make out the direction. They spend hours drifting through the fog honing in on the sound of the oars. They finally locate a gloomy rotten galley and climb aboard the rickety planks. I won't ruin the surprise for you, but they discover a horrifying sight that ties into Kulrek's desertion and departure from Canool. Moll Farrell's curse comes to fruition in a terrifying climax.

I can't say enough great things about this Robert E. Howard horror story. While the idea of a curse being wielded to avenge the loss of a loved one or friend is overused in these types of stories, the format works perfectly for this eerie tale. Howard's writing is so descriptive with the veiled sea, grey fogs, and the shivering end of the wharf. I love the way he presents the story's most emotional and moving aspect, the grisly discovery of the young girl. He does it in such a smooth, elegant way that hits like a fist on a hollow coffin:

“All the while beyond the shoals, we heard the never-ceasing droning of the heaving, restless grey monster, and in the dim light of the ghostly dawn Moll Farrell's girl came home. The tides bore her gently across the wet sands and laid her almost at her own door. Virgin-white she was, and her arms folded across her still bosom; calm was her face, and the gray tides sighed about her slender limbs.”

That is just such a powerful description that contrasts with the loud-mouthed drunken rage of the girl's killer. As Moll Farrell screams the curse, Howard digs in deep with rage and despair clashing with insults and warnings for the two sailors. It's nothing short of brilliant. 

If you love nautical stories, then you'll be seduced by the coastal atmosphere of Faring and the chill of this ghostly seaside tale. Highest possible recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, June 5, 2024

Stark House Anthology Vol. 01

Stark House Press put together four fantastic anthologies of magazine stories from Manhunt, and to celebrate the publisher’s 25th Anniversary, they are releasing another short fiction anthology from a wider variety of 20th Century crime fiction sources. As such, it should come as no surprise that The Stark House Anthology is a masterpiece.

Editors Rick Ollerman and Gregory Shepard canvassed digests including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Magazine, Manhunt and many obscure publications to curate this collection that appears to be genetically-engineered to appeal to Paperback Warrior readers.

The anthology boasts 30 stories from crime fiction royalty including Harry Whittington, Fletcher Flora, Fredric Brown, Gil Brewer, and Peter Rabe. They also included a never-published short novel called “So Curse the Day” by Jada M. Davis, author of the 1952 paperback One For Hell.

At 458 pages, you’re bound to find something to enjoy here. Reviewing a short story anthology is a fool’s errand, but here are some quick blurbs of stories I read on my first pass-through.

The Tormented” by James McKimmey

The story originally appeared in the August 1967 issue of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Magazine. The setup is simple. Vince Ecker is a redneck hunter. David Farrel is an over-educated clerical worker. Somehow, they go hunting together on land owned by a wealthy investment tycoon, and Ecker learns where the tycoon stashes his cash. Sounds like it’s time for a heist. As expected, this is a very well-orchestrated crime story consistent with McKimmey’s longer works.

“Nothing in My Way” by Orrie Hitt

Orrie Hitt was the best sleaze-fiction author of his era because his best works were often sexy crime novels incognito. This short story was from Smashing Detective Stories July 1955 issue. The story is about a man who fakes his death for the insurance money and then surgically changes his face so no one will recognize he’s still alive. But in order to enjoy the life insurance money, he needs to get it from his no-good, slutty widow. This is a fantastic story with a great twist ending. Make this one a priority.

“Secretaries Make Such Nice Wives” by A.S. Fleischman

This is probably the shortest story in the book. Taken from the Toronto Star Weekly in 1946, it’s a fun little tale about a man and his wife who are taken hostage and forced to drive the bad guy across the border from Tijuana to San Diego. The driver needs to alert the border police without tipping off the carjacker. The story is just setting up a decent punchline at the end. It’s definitely worth the five minutes of your time it will take you to read it.

“The Geek Girl” by Day Keene

This delightful tale of carny-noir by Day Keene was originally published in Australia’s ADAM magazine in 1953, so we are lucky to find it resurrected here. Opening day of the Carnival passing through Langley is here, and our narrator Morgan (“the talker”) walks the reader through the advance work that makes the road show possible. In town, he meets a beautiful mute girl in trouble with the law and hires her to be a trumped-up geek exhibit on the midway. The story of the geek girl is not a crime story as much as it’s a dramatic and compelling carnival vs. corrupt townie story. But don’t skip this one. It’s a lost classic.

Final Assessment

The editors clearly put a ton of work into The Stark House Anthology and it shows. For 25 years, the publisher has been unearthing and reprinting the finest paperback novels of the 20th century. I hope they continue to compile short fiction from the era because this collection is a total gem. Highest recommendation. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE

Saturday, June 1, 2024

Conan - Savage Sword of Conan #01 (Curtis)

At one time, Curtis Magazines was Marvel Comics' distributor and an affiliated company. Under this imprint, Marvel launched a number of magazine formatted titles that weren't regulated by the Comics Code Authority. It was Marvel editor-in-chief Editor Stan Lee's vision to enter the black-and-white magazine market to compete with Warren Publishing, a company that had found success with more taboo themes (bare butts and breasts) in their Eerie, Creepy, and Vampirella titles. 

The first of the Curtis books was Savage Tales, published in May 1971 – complete with a John Buscema cover of Conan holding a severed human head. Publisher Martin Goodman (founder of Timely/Marvel) didn't want to publish these types of books and insisted that Savage Tales cease publication after just one issue. Goodman left Marvel in 1972, setting the stage for Roy Thomas and the company to revamp their magazine line, launching more Savage Tales issues in October 1973 as well as a Marvel Monster Group brand with titles like Tales of the Zombie, Dracula Lives!, and Monsters Unleashed

This brings us to the focus of this review, Conan the Cimmerian, which was created by author Robert E. Howard. When Savage Tales began republication in October 1973, the title's second issue through the fifth (1973-1974) all featured Conan stories and the character on the front page. Due to the success of the character in these books, and the Conan the Barbarian color comic that launched in 1970, the company decided that Conan's market worth supported his own magazine. 

The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian was launched in August 1974 and ran consistently until July 1995. There were 235 issues and one annual during the book's impressive 21 year run. The series, especially the early issues, have all been collected in massive trade and omnibus editions from Marvel, Dark Horse, and even Titan. While I don't condone scanned copies, you can easily find the entire run scanned for digital devices for a few bucks if you don't want to bend and turn your purchased paper collections. Additionally, I see the used magazines in comic shops and book stores for $5-$20 each. I'm just saying they are around if you want to read them. 

The Savage Sword of Conan #01 has a Boris Vallejo cover and features seven sections:

“Curse of the Undead-Man” - Roy Thomas/John Buscema and Pablo Marcos
“A Hyperborean Oath” - Roy Thomas
“Red Sonja” - Roy Thomas/Esteban Maroto/Neal Adams/Ernie Chua
“Conan's Women Warriors” - Fred Blosser
“The Birth of Blackmark” - Gil Kane
“An Atlantean in Aquilonia” - Glenn Lord
“The Frost Giant's Daughter” - Roy Thomas/Barry Smith

In addition, three pages of artwork - Alfred Alcala/Esteban Maroto/Roy Krenkel.

In "Curse of the Undead-Man", Roy Thomas freely adapts Robert E. Howard's horror story "Mistress of Death" into a Conan offering. The Cimmerian hero is in Zamora waiting to join "some teetotaling general's army" and finds a trio of painted ladies looking to party. He is encouraged to look for gold in the city (read that as stealing) and is ambushed by three mysterious robed figures. A moment later he is attacked again by four ruffians and Red Sonja comes to his aid. 

Sonja explains that earlier that day the King of Zamora ordered a public execution of a sorcerer named Costrano. After the death, Costrano's apprentices schemed a way to resurrect the sorcerer. Conan stumbles on the sorcerer's severed jeweled-finger in the alley and throws it on the ground. The finger makes its way to Costrano's corpse and he is resurrected by the power of the ring. 

Later, Conan and Red Sonja team to fight Costrano and rescue a young woman he is attempting to sacrifice on an altar. The story ends with some playful joking between the two heroes.

This was an average Conan story with the typical ingredients - sorcerers, thieves, and swordplay. I'm not familiar with Howard's story, so I can't compare the two. For these pages, I specifically enjoyed the darker inks on page seven and the facial expressions on page ten. The gatefold pages on 18-19 of Conan leaping at the enraged Costrano is absolutely beautiful and worth the price of admission.

"A Hyperborean Oath" serves as an introduction to the magazine courtesy of Roy Thomas. He explains that the magazine will mostly consist of comic adaptations of REH stories.

"Red Sonja" begins with a recap of the events from Conan the Barbarian #24 (1972). In that story, "The Song of Red Sonja", Sonja tricked "a northern barbarian" named Conan into helping her gain the Serpent-Tiara. However, the jewelry was transformed into a giant dragon-thing that forced the two to team together to defend themselves. 

In this "Red Sonja" story, the narrative continues as the she-devil returns the Serpent-Tiara to the man who hired her to retrieve it, King Ghannif of Pah-Dishah. However, instead of paying Sonja for the job, he imprisons here to be part of his harem. Through the story, Sonja initially tries to fight for her freedom, but eventually conceives a plan to seduce Ghannif. After killing the King, she fights to the death with his loyal follower, a swordsman named Trolus.

This was an entertaining story that featured far better illustrations by Maroto, Adams, and Chua of Red Sonja than Barry Smith's version. She looks much younger here and more athletic. Plus, Smith's weird silver chain mail is replaced with more of a swimsuit attire. This would be the same look that artist Frank Thorne would use in 1978. The fight scene was great and I loved the dialogue between the two warriors. It was an early dive into Red Sonja's character and her efforts to avoid killing Trolus. She attempts to convince him to do the right thing and understand a better future. But, these things always end in death. 

In "Conan's Women Warriors", Conan devotee Fred Blosser provides a written commentary on the various women that have appeared in Conan literature and the Conan the Barbarian comics. The article contains paragraphs on Valeria, Belit, Yasmina, Salome, and of course, Red Sonja. 

Gil Kane's Blackmark was originally published by Bantam in 1971 (S5871) as a 119-page graphic novel paperback. It was scripted by Archie Goodwin and sold for .75 cents at the time. Some consider it to be the first American graphic novel, but I think Fawcett Gold Medal's 1950 paperback Mansion of Evil earns that award. The publisher had a limited number of copies they produced to test the waters for a graphic novel paperback. The book failed to make a splash and was shelved. Its contents was formatted to stretch to magazine-size pages (basically three paperback pages on one magazine page) and made it into the Savage Sword of Conan. The first part appears in this issue.

The author explains that Earth was devastated by nuclear weapons years ago. A new Earth has been formed from the ashes consisting of wastelands sprinkled with nomads, gangs, and small kingdoms housing castles and farms. The wealthy have a power source that allows travel by boat. The poor are left to travel on foot, often contending with harsh elements and even harsher humans. There are also mutants, monsters, and telepathic beings in this new Earth. 

The story begins with a couple, Marnie and Zeph, traveling by horse and wagon across the precarious landscape of Demon Waste. When they stop for the night, Zeph leaves to find supplies and Marnie is left to her thoughts of being infertile and the possibility of motherhood escaping her. 

Out of the darkness two men ride up on horseback, one of which is a wounded leader named King Amarix. They explain to Marnie that Amarix had been cast out by his own people due to believing old science can make Earth live again. As Amarix lay dying by the firelight he psychically uploads all of his knowledge and thoughts into Marnie. He tells her that she can take the knowledge, and his money, and spread into the community in hopes for a better future. He also magically makes Marnie fertile again. 

Later, Zeph and Marnie make it to a farming town and have a child. But, Zeph realizes that Marnie was "cursed" by Amarix, a man he feels is nothing but a demonic witch. Zeph calls the baby Blackmark and this portion of the book ends. Next issue it continues with "Death and Destiny..."

I really enjoyed this portion of the book and loved the smaller panels of artwork. Gil Kane is a legend in the comic book world and his art never ceases to amaze me. The story is ripe with Christianity tones. Marnie is a Virgin Mary, being blessed by God (Amarix) to birth a Messiah that will save the world. The idea that Amarix was shunned by his own people is reminiscent of Israel's failure to obey God, casting him out in favor of endless idols and pagan worship. I'm anxious to see where the story goes from here.

Glenn Lord's "An Atlantean in Aquilonia" is an essay on Robert E. Howard's Kull. This is a great history on the character with an emphasis on Kull's influence on Conan's conception. I actually used a lot of this article in my review of King Kull and also the podcast episode dedicated to the character. You can listen HERE

The final story here is a reprinting of "The Frost Giant's Daughter" from Savage Tales #1. You can read my review of Howard's story HERE. This may be the most popular adaptation of the story in comic format. Barry Smith's pencils are just superb and perfectly illustrate the savageness of the fight on the icy tundra. The fight with Hymdul in the opening pages and the first up-close look at the Frost Giants on page 70 are real highlights of the entire issue. This is an iconic piece of Conan literature and the adaptation is awesome. I do have to say I love Cary Nord's art in the Dark Horse version as well. Both are fantastic.

There you have it. The first issue of The Savage Sword of Conan. The two original stories here were enjoyable, but the reprinting of the Blackmark and "The Frost Giant's Daughter" were real highlights. From a Conan collector's standpoint, additional written commentary from Glenn Lord on Kull and the conception of "The Phoenix on the Sword" was a great addition as well.

Next up is issue two featuring "Black Colossus", a King Kull story, more Blackmark, and a history of sword-and-sorcery by Lin Carter. See you there! 

Get a copy of the giant omnibus collecting these early issues HERE.