Saturday, June 29, 2024

Solomon Kane - The Right Hand of Doom

Robert E. Howard's 16th century Puritan hero Solomon Kane made his first appearance in the August, 1928 issue of Weird Tales. The stories that feature the character are a good mix of sword-and-sorcery and horror, and I really enjoyed my first experience with the character in “Skulls in the Stars". I went back to the foggy moors and terrifying towns for another Solomon Kane story, “The Right Hand of Doom”. The story was never published in Howard's lifetime having been rejected by Weird Tales. The first publication was in the book Red Shadows (Grant 1968). It has appeared numerous times over the years. My version is in the Baen collection titled Solomon Kane from 1995. It has a Ken Kelly cover and an introduction by horror author Ramsey Campbell. 

This story seems to take place before “Skulls in the Stars”, although chronology doesn't matter in any of these. In that story, Kane is deciding which road to take to Torkertown and then proceeds to a haunted path. In “The Right Hand of Doom”, Kane is staying overnight in an English inn at least a day's ride from Torkertown. It's in this inn's bar that Kane has an interaction with a loud-mouthed traitor.

A man named John Redly prances into the inn and declares that a necromancer will be executed by hanging. Kane already knows about the relationship between the necromancer and Redly. After Redly boasts about the necromancer's capture, and hints that he was paid for helping with the capture, Kane is quick to scold the man. He tells Redly that the necromancer surely was worthy of death, but that the necromancer trusted Redly as a friend and that friendship was broken for a few filthy coins. He goes on to say he thinks Redly and the necromancer will meet in Hell some day. Strong words.

Kane goes to bed, but his sleep is disturbed when he hears a scampering outside as if something is crawling up the wall. He grabs his rapier (sword) and goes into the next room where Redly is sleeping. Kane is shocked to see a large spider making its way to Redly's throat, eventually crushing the man's neck in one fatal squeeze. On further inspection, he discovers it is a human hand! Kane thrusts his rapier through the hand and proceeds to toss it into the fire off-page. 

The next morning Kane interviews a young man to determine what the necromancer's experiences were in jail and if anything peculiar happened. The man says that the necromancer's last wish was to have his hand cut off. I won't ruin the surprise for you, but you get where this is going. 

This story reminded me of another Robert E. Howard work called “Mistress of Death”, which was later adapted into a Conan comic called “Curse of the Undead-Man” in Savage Sword of Conan #1. In that story, a sorcerer is publicly executed but his severed finger becomes reanimated and finds its way back to the dead sorcerer. Both the finger in that story and the hand in this one feature a magic ring. It also reminds me of the 1981 Michael Caine film The Hand

While Solomon Kane isn't prominent in this short horror story, I still found “The Right Hand of Doom” enjoyable. The dialogue between Kane and Redly at the beginning of the story is well worth the price of admission. Kane's cool and perceptive eyes just ooze off the page and resonate like a veteran gunslinger staring down a boastful cardsharp. The condemnation he heaps on Redly is cold-blooded brilliance. I absolutely love these Kane stories and I'm finding this character to be one of my favorites of the Howard bibliography. 

Get a copy of a Solomon Kane omnibus HERE.

Friday, June 28, 2024

Reid Bennett #01 - Dead in the Water

Author Ted Wood (1931-2019) was born as Edward John Wood in Shoreham, Sussex, England. He joined the RAF Coastal Command and in 1954 he immigrated to Canada. Wood worked as a Toronto police officer for three years and then became a creative director for an advertising firm. As a writer, he scripted radio, stage plays, and television dramas including Encounter (1952) and the CBC Show of the Week (1964). 

In 1983, Wood tried his hand at writing full-length original novels. His debut, Dead in the Water, was published by Scribner in hardcover and later as a paperback by Bantam in 1984 (cover by Steve Gorman). Thankfully, the book was a hit due in part to a likable Chief of Police named Reid Bennett. Wood wrote a total of 10 books in the series from 1983 to 1995. I always like to start at the beginning, so I dove in for Dead in the Water to get the proper introduction to Wood's hero. 

The opening paragraphs of the book hit like a ton of bricks and instantly reminded me of tight-fisted characters from a Max Allan Collins or Mickey Spillane novel:

“Three of them were working on the girl. The biggest was zipping his fly and laughing while the other two took over, trying for the two-at-once trick. I was off duty. My gun was locked in the safe at the station and I'd changed into plain clothes, so they didn't even know I was a policeman. It wouldn't have mattered to the big one, anyway. He went six four, maybe two eighty. He figured he was Superman. Until I stuck two fingers into his throat. It could have ended there, with one dead, if the second one hadn't come at me. I pinned him but the third one didn't take the hit and so I had to break the arm on the one I was holding and put the third one down. He had a knife so I hurt him.”

It's a deadpan narrative, but it is extremely effective when combined with Wood's stellar, cool-as-ice writing style. His prose is short and to the point, presented in third-person narrative from Bennett. 

As the opening chapter continues, readers learn that Bennett was arrested and found innocent of any wrongdoing. But, the press and city pounded him to the ground and the effect ruined his marriage. Bennett packed up and went where no one could bother him, a small drinking village with a fishing problem called Murphy's Harbour in Ontario. Bennett accepts the role as the coastal town's sole police officer. Sure, he gets a little help from a makeshift deputy, an old WWII veteran with a bum-leg and a yellow hide. But his real assistance comes by way of an obedient German Shepherd named Sam. The dog plays a huge role in the book. 

The book's mystery involves Bennett investigating the disappearance of three men who were originally with a woman named Angela. She reports them missing but initially refuses to provide any details on what the men were doing in the middle of nowhere in a boat at 10PM at night. When one of the men washes up Bennett is surprised to learn he works for a security agency. Someone killed him and then made off with the other two, or they conspired to kill the agent to further their agenda. Bennett and readers need answers.

As a debut novel, Wood works his ass off providing just enough details to keep the case both mysterious and compelling. I read the book in one sitting and found myself rallying behind the Reid Bennett character. He's short on words, has a keen eye for details, and does some really interesting things to get people talking. Part of his action-oriented, fisticuffs experience is presented in short remembrance of his time as U.S. Marine in the Vietnam War. But, his history on the police force really delves into the criminal psyche. I learned a few new tidbits of criminality that have been lost to me over the last 250 crime-fiction novels I've read. Additionally, the chemistry between Sam, the good police dog, and Reid was a welcome change of pace. Reid developed certain key words that instruct Sam on what to do when there is danger. This is no Timmy-Lassie affair. Wood hammers in the violence when necessary and I really enjoyed the mix of savageness and procedural-fiction. 

Dead in the Water was just fantastic and I can't wait to pick up Bennett's next case with Murder on Ice (1984). I may also try the author's other hero, a bodyguard named John Locke that lasted three novels under Wood's pseudonym of Jack Barnao.

Wednesday, June 26, 2024

The Evil Wish

Jean Potts, who lived most of her life in New York City, began her writing career by contributing short stories to the glossy magazines of the early to mid-20th century. Her first full-length novel, Someone to Remember, was published in 1943. She would go on to write 15 original novels, most of which have been published in twofer collections by Stark House Press. I've read a few and wanted to continue my pursuit of her work with The Evil Wish. It was originally published in hardcover by Scribner in 1962 and then later as a paperback by Ace. It now exists an affordable reprint by Stark House. 

In my prior Potts experiences I sampled traditional whodunits, complete with suspects and red herrings, in the 1966 novel The Footsteps on the Stairs and the author's 1972 novel The Troublemaker. However, The Evil Wish is a very different type of novel, one that emphasizes the concept of murder without actually doing the ghastly deed. In a unique presentation, The Evil Wish becomes a white-knuckle, unsettling pot-boiler that doesn't need an invitation to turn the pages. It's a mesmerizing, devilish descent into an unyielding conundrum – to kill or not to kill. That's the question. And it burns like a wildfire. 

In a spacious New England house, thirty-something sisters Marcia and Lucy avoid life and discomfort while living with their well-to-do father, a successful doctor with a practice in the home. The first two floors are the trio's domicile and the top floors are rented to tenants. Marcia is an alcoholic involved in an affair with a married man. Lucy has never committed to love and behaves like a frightened recluse. Both have serious social issues. 

The two have shared a habit since childhood of listening through the basement vent as their father talks to patients and a revolving door of pretty nurses. One night they hear the unthinkable. Old Daddy is marrying the hot young nurse that is clearly in it for the money. If that isn't off-putting enough, Daddy's language suggests that his grown adult-children need to get a life. But, Potts carefully, and sadistically, places the reader into the minds of these two attention-starved sisters. The reader sometimes isn't aware of what is real and what is really being imagined by the delusional duo. 

As the narrative unfolds, a plan of attack develops. What if Marcia and Lucy conspire to not only knock off “pretty young thing” but also Daddy himself? They could waddle in misery and comfortable discomfort in the confines of their own home without Daddy's condemnation. However, the plan backfires when it never comes to fruition. An unexpected death is wrenched into these smooth turning wheels that deteriorates and destroys the murder plan. This is where Potts absolutely shines. By fixating on a murder that can't physically happen, the sisters turn on each other in frustration. The finale is a coffee date from Hell. 

While I haven't read them all I can't foresee another Potts novel surpassing The Evil Wish. It is such an engrossing, all-consuming psychological story that twists and turns into a wretched lifeless state. While it may seem cold and heartless, Potts spruces up the storyline with a tongue-in-cheek look at death and the weird fascination we all have on the old business of murder. The Evil Wish is everything you could possibly wish for in a vintage crime-noir. Recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, June 24, 2024

God's Warrior

Frank Slaughter was a best-selling novelist and successful surgeon. His specialty was both medical thrillers, like Air Surgeon and Surgeon's Choice, but also Biblical historical novels based on the Old and New Testament's most iconic people. I recently read his 1962 Biblical novel David: Warrior and King and decided I would try another based on my love of the writings of Paul in the New Testament. He is one of the most cherished apostles in the Bible and he experienced a life of turmoil and abuse while teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Slaughter's novel God's Warrior is a fictional novel based upon historical records, Biblical scripture, and some guesswork on the part of the author to fill in some of the gaps left from the records. The book was published as a hardcover by Doubleday in 1967 and as a Pocket Book paperback a year later.

The author lays the book out beginning with Paul's young adult life in Book I, “Tarsus”, and his death in Book VII, “Rome”. In Tarsus, Saul (the early name for Paul) is working for his father as a tent and sail maker. He meets Joseph of Cyprus and the two strike up a friendship. Joseph invites Saul to a university to listen to a Greek stoic philosopher. This is an early indication that Saul is willing to go against the grain when it comes to his Jewish upbringing. He has an open mind and is willing to educate himself on the culture, philosophy, and religions of the area. Because of his determination, Saul convinces his father to allow him to go to Jerusalem to become educated. 

In Jerusalem, Saul is attempting to donate money to God at the local temple. In that time, there were different denominations of money. The money-handlers were there to switch the currency to the common medium exchange in the temple. As was often the case, the money-handlers stole money this way and Saul immediately sees the con and is quick to respond. It is this early indication that Saul's life will be an extremely difficult one. Constant turmoil and chaos was the life of Paul, the crusading apostle. 

In early conversations and letters from his friend Joseph (and later Luke), Saul learns of a man named Jesus that traveled through Israel spreading the message of salvation. Jesus stated he was the Messiah that was written about in the Hebrew scriptures (what we know today as the Old Testament) and that his coming meant that the Jewish customs and way of life had ended. Moses's Law was no more. Saul learns Jesus was crucified by the Romans (and Jews) at a place called Golgotha.  

When Saul's father becomes ill, he travels back to Tarsus and meets a young doctor named Luke. This strikes up an early friendship between the two that will dominate most of Saul's life. When Paul travels back to his teachings, he begins his own church teaching Jewish customs that are deeply rooted in the law of Moses (requiring sacrifices, strict code). When he learns in Damascus of a Christian movement, he begins losing members of his congregation to this new assembly of followers of Jesus Christ. Saul is summoned by the High Priest and assigned the role of Scribe of Sanhedrin and the re-enforcement that he should continue his Jewish teachings at the Synagogue of the Libertines. Saul's church stands in defiance of a new church of Christians led by Simon Peter, a man who knew and followed Jesus until his crucifixion on the cross. A man who was designated by Jesus to be the rock that the new church is built upon. 

Later, Saul begins working with the local government and High Priest in locating and discovering Christians and is paramount in their eventual execution. There is a chapter that shows the earliest Martyr, a Christian named Stephen, that is stoned to death for his beliefs. Saul is there and is an instrument in Stephen's martyrdom. On a road to Damascus, Saul encounters the Lord and is brought to his knees in disbelief. Jesus asks Saul why he is persecuting Christians. Saul is struck blind during the meeting and told by Jesus to arise and go into the city and he will be told what to do. In the city, he meet a weaver named Ananias who tells Saul she was instructed by the Lord to heal him. Saul immediately “sees the light” and is transformed into a follower of Christ when he becomes healed.

The second half of the book is Saul's transformation into Paul the Apostle and his crusades through the Middle-East, the Mediterranean, and parts of Asia. Often Paul clashes with Simon Peter, who is still hanging on to part of the Law of Moses despite being told by both Jesus and Paul that the old way is no more (my personal opinion on Simon developing Catholicism and their hybrid of Old and New Testament rituals). The two debate at what is known as the Incident at Antioch. 

Of course a bulk of the second half narrative is church-building, the planting of Christian churches through missionary work that was often condemned by the local authorities. Paul is often beaten, jailed, thrown out of town, and considered a criminal. His life in Corinth, the relationships with Priscilla and Aquila, and his travels around the region of Galatia and Phrgia are well documented here. The book's finale is the journey back to Jerusalem and Paul's long imprisonment there while consorting with Timothy and Luke to write down his testimony. His death came during Nero's reign and there is some mentions of Simon Peter being crucified upside down. 

If you love an epic adventure novel, then hands down God's Warrior is an absolute treasure. However, if you are Christian like myself that have read and studied Paul's scripture in the New Testament, then you will find Frank Slaughter's account meticulously align with the Bible. There is freedom here to expand upon the scriptures and to fill in the blanks to connect major pieces of history. In doing so, the author presents a grand epic of Paul's chaotic, but important role in developing the Christian church and ushering in Jesus Christ's message - God's grace saves, works don't. Unlike other religions that teach “what you can do for God”, Christianity's message is crystal clear - “what God did for you”. That message dominates God's Warrior as well as the New Testament teachings. But again, if you aren't a Biblical scholar or even a Christian, this is a fantastic adventure novel. Highly recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, June 22, 2024

Savage Sword of Conan #02 (Curtis)

The Savage Sword of Conan #2 was published in October, 1974. For a complete history of the making of this magazine title, including reviews of the contents of issue one, check out my review HERE. This installment of the series has an awesome Neal Adams cover and once again features content inspired by the works of Robert E. Howard. This issue features:

“Black Colossus” - Roy Thomas/John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala
“Chronicles of the Sword” - Lin Carter/Al Milgrom, Alan Weiss, Joe Staton
“Black Mark Chapter II” - Gil Kane
“The Beast from the Abyss” - Steve Englehart/Howard Chaykin 

In addition to the stories and articles, this issue's stand-alone panel is illustrated by Mike Zeck.

The lead story is “Black Colossus”, a 36-pager that is broken down into three parts. The inspiration is Robert E. Howard's story, which originally appeared for the first time in Weird Tales, June 1933. It has been reprinted numerous times in print format with and without the minor edits made by L. Sprague de Camp. To my knowledge this issue features the first adaptation of the story in comic format. The adaptation was reprinted again by Marvel in their Marvel Treasury Edition #15 as a colorized edition. I won't go into the details of the story because I already covered it in great detail HERE

The story's short intro is simply “Black Colossus”, the second chapter of the story is titled “Hordes of the Veiled One” and the last chapter is “Chariot of the Man-Demon”. Each title insert is a one-page panel carefully constructed by Buscema and Alcala. I love the title page to chapter two with Princess Yasmela, partially clothed, crawling towards the darkness of the pit-spawned incubus. It is just an incredible mix of light and dark with a lot of lines in the foreground to make it look more chaotic as the scene shifts to the dark right corner. As I mentioned in my review of Dark Horse's first issue of Conan, “Out of the Darksome Hills”, that Cary Nord's depiction of an armored Conan slightly resembles page 18 of this issue as Conan is fully decked out like a gladiator. 

The story stays true to Robert E. Howard's version and it's a great read. This is on par with “The Frost Giant's Daughter” (reviewed HERE) in terms of this magazine's most iconic moments. I may sound like a broken record but the art is just spectacular. Page 27's Thugra Khotanlike on the skeletal black camel is awe-inspiring and seems to draw influence from the 1865 painting by Gustave Dore, “Death on the Pale Horse (Revelation)”. This story gains a sequel in the next issue. 

Some fans dislike author Lin Carter, but I have genuinely enjoyed his literary work and the contributions he made to science-fiction and sword-and-sorcery/fantasy. His informal history of the sword-and-sorcery genre, “Chronicles of the Sword”, is just fascinating. Carter points to early literature like Beowulf and Hercules mythology as a catalyst to what would eventually form sword-and-sorcery. He also examines Lord Dunsay's “The Gods of Pegana” and “The Sword of Welleran” among others, citing the “at the Edge of the World” as a sort of gyroscope utilized for the genre”. Obviously, Carter delves into the works of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard and their impact on the Weird Tales publication. 

The second chapter of Blackmark continues in this issue. As I alluded to in my review of the first issue, this content was originally published in the 1971 Bantam paperback Blackmark. The smaller graphic novel pages have been formatted to magazine size and the book's contents were spread over the first four issues of Savage Sword of Conan

In this portion of the story, Blackmark looks to be about 10 years old and has began practicing swordplay in between working for his father Zeph. While Blackmark is away from the village, an armed group of horseback riders attack and begin slaughtering the citizens. When Blackmark sees the smoke he runs to the village to see his father fighting the men with a staff. After his father is murdered, Blackmark is forced to watch his mother being raped and killed. The men leave Blackmark as a survivor so he can tell others about their strength and dominance. Later, Blackmark is captured by slave raiders.

This was a real turning point in the story and sets up Blackmark's adolescent years and subsequent arena fights as a slave (featured in the next issue). Again, Gil Kane is a phenomenal artist and his storytelling skills propel the narrative in a smooth and unforced way. While a lot has happened to Blackmark, from birth to jaded young man, the narrative is spread enough to allow readers to imagine and fill in the gaps in these characters' lives off the page.

Up to Kull's appearance in this issue's story, “The Beast from the Abyss”, the character had appeared numerous times in comic format. The hero is seen in Conan's vision in the very first issue of Conan the Barbarian in July, 1970. He later appeared in Creatures on the Loose #10 (Mar1971),  Monsters on the Prowl #16 (Jan 1972), Conan the Barbarian #25 (Jan 1973) and #37 (Jan 1974), Tomb of Dracula #26 (Jul 1974). Of course he had his own short-lived title as well, Kull the Conqueror #1-10 (1971-1973) and Kull the Destroyer #11-28 (1973-1978) prior to “The Beast from the Abyss”. 

“The Beast from the Abyss” is adapted from the story “Black Abyss”. This work was left unfinished by Robert E. Howard with Lin Carter finishing the story (beginning with Chapter 3) and it was first published in the Lancer paperback King Kull in 1967. I enjoyed that story immensely and I was happy it was adapted into comic form by Steve Englehart (Batman, Daredevil, Doctor Strange) and drawn by Howard Chaykin (Star Wars, Batman, Punisher)

Kull is in Kamula on business and enjoying a dance routine with Baron Ergon. Kull's friend and confidant Brule, the Pictish Warrior, storms into the room and advises that his tribal brother Grogar has been captured from somewhere in the palace. The duo venture back to the place the man was last seen and discover another corpse. From inside the wall they hear a strange piping sound - “the sort of music dead men dance to on the scarlet floors of Hell!”

The two journey through the wall's secret passageway and descend stairs into a macabre scene of the Baron, half-naked women, a piper, and Grogar laid on an altar awaiting a ghoulish fate. These crazed people are worshiping a giant slug-like creature called Zugthuu the Slitherer. The creature isn't actually named by Chaykin in the story, but the name appears in the magazine's TOC. Kull and Brule get to work fighting Zugthuu, eventually killing the monstrosity and escape with Grogar. 

The adaptation stays true to the story and successfully visualizes the demonic scene of the piper on the altar. This story borders the horror genre closely (don't they all?) and Chaykin's drawings capture the creepy vibes so well. I was really pleased with how this turned out considering the strength of the original material. 

This was another fantastic issue and one that is often cited as a real highlight of the series. It is definitely worth your time to pursue it in whatever format you prefer – trade, digital, individual issues, hardcover. Recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, June 21, 2024

Tiger Chair

Max Brooks hit a home run with his first novel, World War Z, in 2006 proving that he was an author with a knack for innovative military combat fiction. His 2024 release is a 50-page novella called Tiger Chair about an imagined Chinese invasion of the USA’s western coast.

The novel is told in the form of a letter home from a Chinese soldier occupying Los Angeles three years following the invasion of America. China took California and the land west of the Rocky Mountains but is now facing a nagging insurrection from Americans unwilling to settle for Chinese rule. Do you like the idea of modern guerrilla warfare on the streets of Hollywood? You picked the right novella.

In the process, the narrator tells his reader back home the story of the invasion and how it occurred. The recounting of the amphibious assault supported by a swarm of weaponized tiny drones was cinematic. In the process, the author takes some well-deserved shots at Hollywood’s kowtowing to the Chinese marketplace with censored media products and failing to recognize the sovereignty of Taiwan.

Because there’s not a linear plot with characters, Brooks was free to make the novella an extended thought experiment of how an invasion from China might play out. There are many astute observations about the different skill sets involved in winning a war vs. occupying a conquered nation. This is action fiction for smart people. Recommended. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2024


Like many of the new breed of acclaimed indie horror authors, Boris Bacic started as a Creepypasta short story writer on Reddit. He since has become a popular novelist with a series of unrelated small-town horror paperbacks, including 2022’s Retown.

An Oregon software salesman named Jason is dispatched to close a deal in the remote town of Riverton. The town is so off-the-beaten-path that even his car GPS approaches the dirt roads and snowy mountains with great trepidation. The closer he gets to Riverton, the more he regrets the trip as his cell phone dies and a stranger warns him to stay away.

While on the outskirts of Riverton, Jason witnesses something that was truly rattling and scary for both the reader and the character. Upon his arrival into Riverton, the author does a great job of creating an uneasy vibe. Everything is off. No one behaves normally. The locals fluctuate between indifference, rudeness and a passive hostility. Jason can’t wait to leave, and get home to his family hours away.

But it’s not that easy.

The Amazon book description gives away a major plot point that occurs 22% into the book (shame on the publisher), but I won’t spoil it here. The upshot is that leaving Riverton isn’t as easy as driving over the mountain. The entire town is under the spell of a supernatural force of some kind, and the townsfolk seem to be resigned to just lie back and take it. Could Jason be the resistance the citizens of Riverton need to break their chains?

Once the mystery of Riverton is revealed, the book stops being as scary and becomes a giant escape room mystery. Fans of the TV show Lost or Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines will feel right at home here. The revelations about the town, its caretakers, and its power are dealt out sparingly throughout the book. Some readers will be satisfied with the answers, and others will not. But no one will deny the creativity and inventiveness of this eerie novel. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE

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.