Saturday, July 20, 2024

Wolfshead

If I may take some liberties here, I'm introducing my review of Robert E. Howard's horror tale “Wolfshead” with a fun tidbit of how this story became published. I'm summarizing pages 76-77 of The Last Celt: Bio-Bibliography of Robert E. Howard, specifically the chapter “Lone Star Fictioneer” by the book's editor Glenn Lord.

After Howard's first two published stories, “Spear and Fang” (Weird Tales, July 1925) and “In the Forest of Villefere” (Weird Tales, Aug 1925), Howard went to work writing “Wolfshead” (a sequel to "In the Forest..."), a supernatural narrative featuring a werewolf terrorizing an assortment of characters in a castle. Weird Tales accepted the story and paid Howard $40. The plan was for “Wolfshead” to be the lead cover story for the April 1926 issue. While artist E.M. Stevenson was completing the cover art, he discovered that he had either misplaced the story or simply lost it. Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright contacted Howard and asked him to mail a carbon copy of the story as a replacement. Unfortunately, Howard never made one so he had to re-write the story from memory. Eventually the original manuscript was found prior to publication and Wright paid Howard an additional $10 due to the mistake.

That is a goofy way to begin my review of “Wolfshead”, but on that introduction you have learned that “Wolfshead” was the lead story for the April 1926 issue of Weird Tales and it was only the author's third story to be published (outside of his local school paper). And...what a story it is!

In first-person narration, an unnamed individual is explaining to a group of soldiers that despite their adventures on wind-lashed seas they have never experienced “hair-raising, horror-crawling fear”. To demonstrate that the narrator has seen terror first-hand, he recounts a time that he was invited to a castle.

Dom Vicente sends an invitation for the narrator to join him and a gathering of guests to a vacation on the African coast. Here, Vicente had cleared the jungle and built a huge castle, complete with storehouses and a nearby village of slaves and workforce. The narrator accepts the invitation and joins the guests at the castle for a few days of flirting and drinking. With his Spanish friend de Seville, the narrator explains that upon first impression he dislikes a man named De Montour. He feels that the man isn't trust worthy and may have a hidden agenda of some kind.

That night, De Montour enters the narrator's bedroom and kindly warns him to lock his bedroom door at night. Things are apparently amiss in the castle. The next morning the narrator and guests learn that a villager was ripped to shreds by some sort of animal. Suspicions are aroused when a guest is attacked in the house. The narrator places his bets that De Montour isn't all that he appears to be. As the narrative continues, the killer is revealed with a backstory on lycanthropy.

While some may disagree, “Wolfshead” is an entertaining, fleshed-out tale that captures the imagery and imaginations of several genres – horror, swashbuckling, action-adventure, locked-room mystery, and even fantasy (to a minor degree). The suspect is pretty easy to pinpoint but the fun is just getting to the reveal and explanation of the attacks. While there is an isolation among the prey, the castle halls are still frenzied with accusations and suspicions. When the reveal is made, the story makes an advancement into sword-fighting and minor military campaign. Overall, just a versatile story that should appeal to readers in the broadest of terms. I didn't read "In the Forest of Villefere", but I feel like the events in that story were relayed here. 

Roy Thomas penned a 1999 comic adaptation of this story for Cross Plains Comics. Kull the Conqueror #8 (May 1973) features an adaptation of the story with Kull inserted as the main character. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that the werewolf horror film series Howling used this story as an obvious blueprint for the fifth installment, Howling V: The Rebirth (written by Clive Turner), which is a fantastic film and a real highlight of that otherwise sub-par series.

You can get the Lancer paperback collection, which includes and is titled after this story, HERE

Friday, July 19, 2024

Ship Trial

New Yorker Frank De Felitta (1921-2016) served in WW2 and began his writing career in the 1940s working on radio programs like The Whistler. In the 1950s, he wrote for anthology television shows like Suspense, Tales of Tomorrow, and Danger. As a novelist, De Felitta hit the big-time with his late 70s bestsellers Audrey Rose and The Entity, both of which were adapted to film. De Felitta has been on my radar for a long time simply because he directed one of my favorite horror films ever, 1981's Dark Night of the Scarecrow. I'm trying out his writing with a review of Sea Trial, a 1980 nautical-thriller originally published by Avon with a cover by Ed Scarisbrick. Pictured is the 1982 Avon paperback with a cover by Victor Gadino.

New Yorkers Phil and Tracey are lovers and both are married - but not to each other. When Tracey's spouse reports to a remote overseas job it coincides with Phil's timing to take a "solo" vacation away from the wife and kids. The two Manhattan yuppies meet up in Coral Gables, Florida for a two-week private cruise with a salty charter Captain named McCracken and his wife Penny. It is the perfect getaway for infidelity and hot romance. But, there's something seriously wrong with McCracken and Penny.

On board the 800-foot luxury yacht, Phil and Tracey, who pretend to be married, are initially treated like a king and queen, basking in the sun while being served 24 hours a day by the two hosts. Yet, McCracken seems particularly aggressive in gaining Phil's backstory, often testing him with odd questions about boating (newsflash: Phil doesn't boat) and physical feats of blue-collar strength (newsflash: Phil is a white-collar lightweight). Likewise, Penny is ritually subservient to McCracken and often takes potshots at Tracey for her “easy” life in New York. Slowly, this aquatic paradise is turning into a nit-picky Hell. But, things are about to get much worse.

Days out at sea, McCracken informs the couple that the ship has malfunctioned and that supplies will need to be rationed. Additionally, due to loss of power the ship is being pulled by a current to carry them further out to sea instead of into more popular trading waters where they have a possibility of rescue. The De Felitta's narrative transforms into a survival-horror ordeal as the four face harrowing circumstances that test their emotional and physical prowess. When Phil finds a shipping log of McCracken's prior customers he notices that they have all been rated on a scale from one to ten based on endurance and internal fortitude. What the heck is going on?

While the book's synopsis suggested something supernatural, Ship Trial evolved into something much different. The novel's first half is a slothful voyage as the four characters talk about their experiences and personal lives. There is also a good bit of tepid, non-graphic lovemaking between Phil and Tracey and a ton of cooking and tasting delicacies. As much as these events seemed trivial and unnecessary, it sets up the second half of the book splendidly. When the author makes the switch from lollygagging to “oh my God we're all gonna die” the abruptness adds to the entertainment. It's like rubbernecking on the highway to see just how bad the carnage really is and then rear-ending the car in front of you. Sea Trial turns the corner and prepares for a fast-paced ride to oblivion. 

If you love survival-horror or maybe just the high-seas tension and suspense of Charles Williams (Aground, Dead Calm), Sea Trial is worth its weight in gold. I loved this book and I think you will too.

Note - If you want more survival-horror aspects of nautical adventure, read our reviews for Kenneth Roberts' Boon Island, Hammond Innes' The White South, Jack London's The Sea-Wolf, and Max Brand's The Luck of the SpindriftBuy a copy of Sea Trial HERE

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Tea Party

Charles L. Grant(1942-2006) was a popular horror, science-fiction, and fantasy writer that began writing short-fiction in the late 1960s before becoming a full-time novelist in 1976. If you browse any used book store chances are you will find a Grant book. He was extremely prolific, used at least eight different pseudonyms, and dabbled in a little bit of everything from television tie-in novels to editing the 12-book anthology series Shadows. He served as both President of the Horror Writers Association and Secretary of Science-Fiction Writers of America. 

The Tea Party was published in 1985 by Pocket Books with a cover by Lisa Falkenstern (fun fact: she took a cover-art course from Pocket Books' art director Milton Charles) The genre of “dark fantasy” applies to the novel in part due to Grant's incorporation of reincarnation, immortality, and parallel universes. I would imagine somewhere in the dense narrative is a cautionary tale on real estate overdevelopment and the erosion of the small town.

In a small Connecticut farming community, lies an abandoned mansion known as Winterrest. The house's history dates back to the 1700s and is ripe with historical deaths and disappearances. A Seattle native named Doug moves to the tiny town after accidentally killing a man and serving four years in prison. Doug is overachieving by dating two characters in the book, Judy and Liz, and all three of these people are as interesting as an empty soup can.

The tiny hamlet begins to experience unusual phenomenon - mini-earthquakes, hurricanes, fires, and landslides. The town residents begin to behave strangely each time they interact with Winterrest. 

A bizarre real-estate agent, who may be the Devil, invites a group of the residents to afternoon high tea at the house. When they arrive, the man explains that the house is awakening and needs to eat people to sustain its soul. No, seriously. It's there. Apparently there are other Winterrest houses existing as well.

The Tea Party is just an absolute literary mess with no clear path to a conclusive and definitive narrative. Nothing makes any sense. Grant has a plethora of ideas which never seem to fully come to fruition. I managed to endure until page 264 of 320 pages before calling it quits and moving on to much better books. If you made it to the end then you receive my fondest praise and admiration. 

Winterrest and this novel are now being repossessed by the Paperback Warrior Bank and permanently placed in the Hall of Shame. 

Monday, July 15, 2024

Johnny Ortiz #01 - Murder in the Walls

Richard Martin Stern (1915-2001) won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel for his novel The Bright Road to Fear. His most notable novel is the 1973 disaster-fiction work The Tower, which was adapted into the blockbuster film The Towering Inferno. While Stern drifted towards disaster-fiction later in his career, he did develop and author a series of detective novels starring a half-Apache policeman named Johnny Ortiz. The six-book series ran from 1971 through 1990. I'm starting with the debut, Murder in the Walls

As I wrote in my introduction to the Brash Books introduction of Dakota, a newer version of the 1975 Pinnacle novel authored by former screenwriter Gilbert Ralston, the success of Tony Hillerman's 1970 book The Blessing Way, featuring Navajo tribal police, may have kick started a sub-genre of the police-procedural. After the publication, Brian Garfield authored two novels starring a Navajo police officer and there was aforementioned Dakota series featuring a Piegan/Shoshoni as a licensed private-eye. So, it makes sense that Stern may have capitalized on the Hillerman success by writing his own Native American police-procedurals.

Johnny Ortiz is a thirty-year old police lieutenant working in a small northern New Mexico town called Santo Cristo. His father was half-Anglo and half-Spanish and his mother was Apache. He was educated on a reservation school and attended State University. He speaks Apache Athabascan, Spanish, and English and it is mentioned that he fought in a war, which I deducted to be America's involvement in the Vietnam War. 

The series debut, Murder in the Walls, has Ortiz investigating the murder of a prostitute. Simultaneously, he is also investigating the murder of a Mexican man. Considering this little place doesn't experience many murders, Ortiz is thinking the two must be related. The investigation then digs into the history of both victims and how they tie into illegal art trafficking (the tension!) across the border. There isn't much action, although Ortiz does show off his ability to track men. Mainly the novel is two storylines that feature the main character dating an African-American anthropologist (she helps on cases) and the city bureaucracy determining the placement of a new highway through the town. Not exactly white-knuckle stuff here. 

For the most part, Johnny Ortiz is really boring. Stern doesn't help his case by providing readers very little history of the character. Aside from the description in this review there just isn't anything else to go off of. Are there other police in the city? Is he the only lawman? There isn't any mention of other police officers assisting in the investigation nor does Ortiz report to anyone. Further, he doesn't have a lot of personality, instead he just says “chica” a lot and shows off extremely white teeth. 

Ortiz's investigation also asks some really silly questions. Like, this prostitute is found with a broken neck. Yet, Ortiz asks the medical examiner if the attack was possibly inflicted by Karate. Or, he is an excellent tracker and lives in New Mexico but when his girlfriend makes mention of a type of lava rock he doesn't know what it is. Yet, the rock is everywhere in town. I know. I know. I'm grumbling over small things. But, considering the lack of action it puts a bigger light on details. 

I may try another Johnny Ortiz novel at some point in the future. Murder in the Walls certainly isn't terrible, but life is short and there are better series titles I'd like to explore further. In the meantime I may just venture back to a certain precinct in an unnamed city in the northeast and read those books.

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Red Shadows

Robert E. Howard's “Red Shadows” story featured Puritan hero Solomon Kane. Howard had initially pitched the story to Argosy but was met with a rejection. Weird Tales paid the author $80 for the story and published it in the August, 1928 issue of Weird Tales (Vol. 12 No. 2, interior art by Hugh Rankin). At this link HERE you can read letters that Howard wrote about the submission and rejection from Argosy and how he originally wrote the subject matter for the Weird Tales audience. It is an interesting read.

Howard's story begins in the mountains of France and ends in an African jungle. Unlike some of the earlier Kane stories I've read, “Red Shadows” is a bit longer and has an extensive feel. It isn't confined to a lone road through a foggy moor or crammed into a stuffy beer-swilling inn. As previously mentioned, the narrative begins with Kane in a French forest discovering a village in ruin. A dying girl explains to Kane that a man named Le Loup (meaning The Wolf) led marauders into the village and they “robbed, slew, and burned” everyone. In her dying breath she describes Le Loup as the Wolf that stabbed her. As she lay dying in Kane's arms he swears he will kill them all. 

Later, the scene shifts to Le Loup discussing the dwindling numbers in his ranks due to Kane systematically killing each member. The men describe Kane as looking like Satan. When Le Loup's remaining party enter a cave to steal treasure, Kane is there waiting in the darkness. He kills nearly everyone, but is foiled by Le Loup when the villainous leader escapes into a nearby tunnel. Kane can hear Le Loup laughing as he makes his escape. His freedom will be short-lived. 

The story changes scenery from France to African jungles when Kane, who has tracked Le Loup, leaves a ship on the shore and embarks into the dense foliage. He meets an African shaman named N'Longa in a violent way and is later captured by a stealthy Le Loup. He ties both Kane and N'Longa to a stake and prepares to have them burned. Yet, N'Longa has a magical ability to leave his body and take over the bodies of both the dead and the living. This ability plays a huge part in the story's epic finale involving a savage avenging ape, a fight to the death with Le Loup, and a reanimated corpse. 

Needless to say there is a lot to unpack here. The story borders on horror with the jungle terrors and the astral projection (?) of N'Longa's spirit. It also had a "Wolves Beyond the Border” vibe, an unfinished story that Howard penned featuring Conan and bizarre rituals along the Pictish border. The ape frenzy conjures Kipling and Burroughs, but that's not to say “Red Shadows” lacks identity. This is a fantastic story with a touch of vigilante justice and a solid reinforcement that Solomon Kane is a noble fighting-man (if anyone ever doubted). I like the injection of human compassion, which is consistently a trait Kane possesses in Howard's pages. 

What's really interesting about Howard's story is that the heroism remains intact with the star, but the performance is shifted to N'Longa to save the day. This is the first appearance of N'Longa and he will return again in “Hills of the Dead”, a 1930 story that was published in Weird Tales. N'Longa provides Kane a magical juju staff in that story, something that becomes iconic in visual imagery of Kane holding the wooden Staff of Solomon.

“Red Shadows” was reprinted in the collection Red Shadows by Donald M. Grant in 1928 (red binding) and 1971 (gray binding). It was also featured in numerous collections including the Solomon Kane paperback (Baen 1995) and the Savage Tales of Solomon Kane (Del Rey 2004). The comic adaptation appears in Marvel Premier #33-34 (1976/1977), a six-issue Marvel series called The Sword of Solomon Kane (1985), and a four-issue series from Dark Horse (2011) simply called Solomon Kane Red Shadows

Friday, July 12, 2024

Godin #01 - Thirty Days Hath September

Under the pseudonym Owen John, Welsh author (and accountant!) Leonard Owen-John (1918-1995) wrote seven espionage paperbacks featuring a Russian-born MI6 operative named Haggai Godin. The first novel in the series was Thirty Days Hath September from 1966 and - fair warning - it’s hard as hell to find.

The premise of this novel is amazing. It opens on September 1 with a man named David Lyman waking up in a windowless concrete room containing nothing but a bed, a jug of water, a ream of blank paper and several pencils. His direction? Write a daily diary.

You see, David is a British national on loan to the U.S. Air Force as a missile researcher, and his captors are Chinese. The action of the novel is interspersed with David’s diary entries revealing his evolving state of mind and the reasons for this unusual kidnapping. His questioning by his Chinese captor is unorthodox, but it’s made clear that the captors demands must be met by October 1st.

The slow-burn interrogation scenes and the geopolitical revelations in this 175-page novel are next-level excellent. The background explaining the kidnappers rationale is so smart, and the reader becomes smarter while reading it.

Eventually, the U.S. Air Force grows concerned with David’s disappearance and engages the CIA to rescue the captive scientist. Because David is a Brit, the CIA loops MI6 into the mix to find and rescue him.

The ostensible hero of the series is MI6’s Haggai Godin, but he doesn’t make an appearance until well-over halfway through the novel — raising questions about whether this book was truly written with an eye towards a series character. In any case, he is a badass hero, enigmatic and brimming with competence. When we first meet him 100 pages into the 175-page paperback, it’s obvious why the author chose to bring him back for six further installments. But be aware he’s not the protagonist of this novel in any way.

As the September 30 deadline approaches, the tension increases and the action scenes showcase Godin’s particular set of skills. The climax is an action set piece consistent with the best men’s adventure novels of the era and provide a welcome counterpoint to the more cerebral tone of the hostage manipulation comprising most of the book. The ending also solidifies my position that this was written as a one-off stand-alone novel.

Most espionage paperbacks are either stupid and easy to follow (The Baroness, Killmaster) or smart and overly-complex (John LeCarre, Robert Ludlum). The cool thing about Thirty Days Hath September is that it’s smart as hell, yet easy to follow. It’s also one of the best spy novels I’ve ever read. The fact that it hasn’t been reprinted in 58 years is a crime against literature. This one is a true lost masterpiece. Highest recommendation. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Raven #02 - A Time of Ghosts

British publisher Corgi took advantage of the 1970s sword-and-sorcery fascination by publishing five books starring a female warrior named Raven. I reviewed the series debut, Swordmistres of Chaos, and wanted to check back into the series to continue the blade slingin' fun. A Time of Ghosts, the series second installment, originally published in 1978 by Corgi and later reprinted by Ace in 1987 with a painted cover by Luis Royo. 

As the book begins, Raven, the nearly transparent magician Argor, and her sorcerer colleague Spellbinder are sparring with a young blonde-haired swordsman named Silver. He has joined the trio for their next great adventure. Soon, Spellbinder senses a dark force at work in the land, something that will bring Raven closer to her destiny of being the Chaos-Bringer. Argor, who can travel in and out of dimensions, advises the group that Lifebane has created a rift in the world with a bold political move.

In the series debut, Raven met the Viking-esque Lifebane and the two had a romantic fling while doing battle with a fierce opponent named Donwayne. When that book ended, readers could sense that Lifebane was “one of the good guys”. However, according to Argor, Lifebane has sailed into a nearby land and captured that King's daughter. To what end? The group needs to find Lifebane and discover why he is creating political turbulence to that part of the world. 

The first adventure has Raven and the group liberating a slave train where they pick up two more characters to join them in the fight. There is a small backstory on these characters and the history they share with Silver. That small story-arc comes to fruition as the book finalizes. But, the journey digs deeper into the relationships. After the slave train is freed, the band split up with different missions that will ultimately help solve the crisis. 

My review may seem a little disjointed but there is a lot that happens over the course of this 200-page narrative. I felt like just this book alone could have spilled into several books to compile one epic adventure. But, authors Angus Wells and Robert Holdstock (collectively listed as Richard Kirk on the cover) don't waste a single page. There is nautical adventure as the group fight slave raiders and an underwater behemoth to compose most of the book's first half. 

The novel's second half mostly consists of the group climbing a mountain range in The Lost Mountains and The Frozen Peaks (just the names beg reading!). The book's finale is a frosty affair as the group settle down to fight the main villain, a recurring character from the series debut, in an ice-fortress. 

This was one of the best books I've read all year. The epic adventure, compelling characters, rotating settings and atmosphere, and the general idea that the protagonist is on a much grander through-story is really an addictive flavoring sprinkled over this classic sword-and-sorcery tale. I'm going to have to do some searching for the next installments. Stay tuned! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, July 8, 2024

Doomsday, 1999

According to The Herald, a newspaper in Scotland, Paul MacTyre (1924-1999) was a pseudonym for Professor Robin James Adam. He joined St Andrews University in 1948 and taught there for four decades. His passion for teaching earned him accolades from his students and peers. He authored a total of three books in his lifetime, Midge (1962), Fish on a Hook (1963), and Bar Sinister (1964). My experience with the author is his debut Midge, which was published by Ace in 1963 as Doomsday, 1999 (F-201). The cover was painted by popular science-fiction artist Ed Valigursky.

The first thing you need to know is that Doomsday, 1999 isn't some sort of science-fiction novel that features life on other planets, aliens, or robots. In actuality, it is a gritty military thriller with some technical nuances. If you told me the book was written yesterday and the title was really "Doomsday, 2099" I wouldn't even question it. The author basically constructed this post-apocalyptic styled novel as military-fiction, popularized by the WW2 books that were in abundance in the mid 20th century.

The book is set in a time-period that is decades after oblivion on Earth. Unlike a lot of the post-apocalypse titles made famous in the 1980s, this story doesn't have roving gangs of nomads, mutants, or bikers. There's no Mad Max stuff because all of that is in the past here. Earth has cycled through the nuclear war, the traveling gangs, and wars for leftover Beanee Weenee. Instead, what's left is a makeshift army called Guards. The  great armies are dead: British, Russian, American, Chinese. The Guards are in charge of large camps that house civilians. The civilians work as slaves getting water and tending to the Guards. They also help create a special drug. More on that in a bit.

The main character is a guy named Angus who serves as a hunter for the Guards. The hunters live in the wilderness in a team of four and are responsible for killing deer for the Guards. In turn, the hunters pretty much live on their own and are supplied just enough food and ammunition to keep on hunting. But, ammunition is almost gone and humanity is on the cusp of extinction because of the aforementioned drug. 

The Guards can keep supplies longer by making a special drug that makes the population (what little is left) sterile. They secretly feed the drug to the population and literally just count off the dead each day. Eventually, everyone will die out and Earth becomes the next Mars. However, Angus and the hunters find a Chinese jet that has crashed in the forest. They see the Guards immediately get to the jet and kill all of the passengers except a female named Major Liu. She explains that the makeshift Chinese army still has all of the same problems as the Guards, but they run things a little more gently. Angus discreetly frees Liu and the two begin to understand that they can escape all of this nonsense, kill the Guards, and free mankind. That's a loose summary of what the narrative unfolds. 

As I mentioned earlier, Doomsday, 1999 (silly title as well as the original of Midge) is a high-tech military thriller. It involves some coordinating and planning to infiltrate military outposts, a run 'n gun sequence of firefights in the forest (there's snow everywhere which is my favorite element), and a prison-break chain of events. Needless to say there is a lot of action and intrigue. 

However, there's a weird element that never really made much sense to me. There are midges (tiny little flying insects) that have mutated and have the ability to bite and burn their prey. Because of the midges, most of humanity is either attacked or killed by these burning swarms of bugs. But, the midges don't hurt Liu or Angus, which is explained because they are “nice”. There is also a telepathic connection between Liu and Angus which didn't really make much sense either. These two elements don't detract from the story, but probably do enhance it if the reader figures out what any of that really means. 

The end result is that Doomsday, 1999 is a pretty good military-fiction novel if you treat it that way. While it is doomsday for mankind, the author focuses on action to propel the narrative. Angus and Liu are very likable characters and their final mission to destroy a reactor was exhilarating. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE  

Saturday, July 6, 2024

Dagar the Invincible - Archives Vol. #1

Western Publishing Company, a Wisconsin company, made a huge splash in the world of home entertainment in the early 20th century. The company was one of the first manufacturers of paper puzzles and tabletop games. Their enterprise eventually expanded into book publishing, initially developing the line of Little Golden Books. By the middle of the century they had partnered with Walt Disney Productions, Warner Brothers, MGM, and even the estate of the popular author Edgar Rice Burroughs

From 1938 through 1961 the company published comics under a partnership with Dell. But, in 1962 Western Publishing began their own comic book company, Gold Key Comics. The marketing strategy was to license just about anything they could get their hands on. From Planet of the Apes to Star Trek nothing was out of bounds in the world of Gold Key Comics. Back then the chances were pretty high that if you watched it on television, Gold Key had an accompanying comic book to go with it. But, the company also published their own original titles as well like Doctor Solar, Magnus Robot Fighter, and Space Family Robinson. While I've read my share of Gold Key comics back in the day, a few titles escaped me, like Dagar the Invicible.

In the 1970s, the sword-and-sorcery genre was at an all-time high with the reprint publications of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian stories in paperback. Beginning in 1966, readers were able to finally read the original Conan stories in affordable paperbacks by Lancer. These books had amazing artwork and featured original published stories, but also many incomplete stories that were discovered as drafts and completed by authors Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. The books sold well and by the end of the decade countless imitators appeared – some good, some not so good. Along with paperbacks, the comic book industry quickly got involved with sword-and-sorcery. The early 1970s saw the publication of Marvel's Conan the Barbarian and Savage Sword of Conan

Gold Key marched out their sword-and-sorcery comic, Dagar the Invincible in October 1972 with the blurb “Tales of Sword and Sorcery”. The entire series was visually created by artist Jesse Santos and written by Donald F. Glut. It ran a total of 19 issues with two issues reprinting the debut (#19 published under the Whitman brand). You can still get these issues fairly cheap online or you can purchase two hardcover collections from Dark Horse that compile the entire series. Very cool. This review is on the first hardcover collection, simply titled Dagar the Invincible Archives Volume #1. This compiles issues #1-9.

Jesse Santos broke into comics in his home country of The Philippines in 1946. He drew Halakhak Kommiks' “Kidlat” before moving to the U.S. to work on comics like The Microbots and Brothers of the Spear. Along with Dagar the Invincible, Santos would later draw Gold Key's The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor and Tragg and the Sky Gods. He turned down an offer to work for Marvel on the Conan the Barbarian comic. 

Donald F. Glut began his writing career by working with Warren Publishing and their black and white magazines Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella as well as the Skywald Publication Psycho. Along with writing Dagar the Invincible, Glut teamed with Santos on The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor, and Tragg and the Sky Gods. He would later move on to writing for Marvel books like Captain America, Savage Sword of Conan, and Thor as well as the DC Comics titles House of Mystery and House of Secrets

The first issue is a true origin story, “The Sword of Dagar”, explaining how Dagar became the heroic fantasy warrior. The era is explained vaguely as a “time when Gods and Demons walked the Earth as men and certain men possessed the best and worst qualities of both”. From what I gather, this particular world is a combination of prehistoric elements and the Middle Ages militant kingdoms complete with rival leadership and classes. Glut specifies it is the twilight years between the end of the stone age and the beginning of Babylon. 

In the opening pages of the first issue, Dagar is battling a saber-tooth tiger while reflecting on his life and heritage. In a flashback sequence, readers see young Dagar admiring his grandfather's battle helmet. In an onslaught of brutality a swarm of invaders ride into town and slay every Tulgoian except Dagar and his grandfather. Thus, a sworn oath is made that Dagar will train under his grandfather's tutelage and become INVINCIBLE! After a few years of training, the grandfather dies and Dagar is shown wearing an animal skin and holding a sword. He plans to find the one named Scorpio that led the assault on his people. He also states repeatedly that he will take on a life of fighting for money. I didn't quite grasp the significance of this. 

In this issue's second part, “Castle of the Skull”, an old man asks Dagar to journey to a cursed castle and rescue his daughter. The narrative really picks up the action and gets Dagar into dark hallways slaying skeletons with a magical mace. There is a little trick ending that recalls some of the surprises found in the horror comics of the time (hint: the young beautiful woman is really an old hag). 

The second issue, “The Beast Within”, Dagar takes on a job finding a beautiful woman's missing brother. But, little does he realize that the missing man is actually a werewolf who disappears during a full moon to keep from killing his loved ones. When Dagar teams up the werewolf they hunt down Scorpio to another monolithic castle (there are a lot of those). The finale comes when both are forced to fight an enormous lizard. This story reminded me so much of the Conan stories, complete with the cavernous castle and behemoth reptile. 

The third issue features one of my favorite covers of the series. Let's face it, every cover in this series is simply awe-inspiring, but the use of the red castle, the cliff, the vampire bat creature set against a moody backdrop of purple just invokes so much color and imagery into this sword-and-sorcery affair. The story in this one is called “Wrath of the Vampires” and has a demonic beginning. Dagar rides up on a ghoulish scene as a woman is being sacrificed on an altar. But, instead of saving her he rides off and says to himself he only fights for money. Either that is totally badass or just plain despicable...I can't decide which. Dagar gets an explanation from a guy that the girl has been sacrificed on Blood Mountain to a race of vampires that prey upon the community. On the quest to find and free the girl he gets himself imprisoned by a sadistic creature called King Desmos. Dagar breaks free and teams up with some hideous monsters that have been abused by Desmos to fight their way through the savage hordes. At the end, Dagar and his new lover, Graylin, ride off into the sunset.

In “Vengeance-Sweet Vengeance”, issue five's story, the Dagar and Scorpio confrontation is promised to deliver the goods. In the beginning, Dagar is following a map he obtained that supposedly leads to Scorpio. Fortunately (or unfortunately), he stumbles upon some sort of floating wormhole that immediately jets him into Scorpio's coveted stronghold. As being the only guy in the building half nude wearing animal skins, Dagar is immediately recognized and forced into captivity. The only logical use for him is to deposit him in the gladiator games to fight lions and stuff. After fighting free of the arena, Dagar goes into an underground tunnel and teams up with an old man who gives him advice on how to fight Scorpio. There's some drugged out colors and designs swirling all over this issue with a stinging final boss fight of Dagar fighting a gigantic scorpion. The end proves this through story has reached its conclusion and Scorpio has been vanquished. Revenge complete.

Issue six is a real turning point for the series and sees more narration in third-person instead of Dagar speaking to himself to narrate the story for readers. I was waiting for this type of storytelling to emerge. It makes the comic a bit more modern. I hate when the heroes of the golden age would say things to themselves like, “I must pick up this sword and go down that hallway to fight the beast”. Instead, the narrator does that much better by telling us the story and then allowing the art and dialogue to supplement it. 

In this story, “Another World...Another Time”, Dagar journeys back to his lover Graylin but instead hears her cries from another world. It seems Graylin went off searching for Dagar and accidentally went into an “oracle cave”. Dagar finds the cave and journeys through it to discover a savage prehistoric playground of dinosaurs and volcanoes. Basically, this is Donald Glut conjuring his Edgar Rice Burroughs' styled comic Tragg and the Sky Gods into a Dagar book. One of the cave-men from Tragg, a guy named Jarn, teams up with Dagar in this issue to rescue Graylin from an evil sorcerer named Zerg. There is a bunch of dinosaur fighting and weird hypnotic stuff before the end that sees Dagar and Graylin once again on horseback riding off into another adventure in their own time. 

The sixth issue is broken down into two separate stories with the first being “Treasure of Nai-Po-Gah”. This story is right out of Conan with the two hunting for treasure in a seemingly abandoned city. When Dagar removes a jewel from a large statue they hear a man calling for help. In interviewing the man, who seems to be trapped in a well, Dagar has a moment of clarity – he only fights for money! But Graylin insists he help the man. Dagar should have stuck with his code here because once the man is free he turns into a giant demon named Zu-Borr that creates a ton of chaos for the two lovers. That story ends and a new one begins titled “Demon of the Temple”, a short narrative that features Graylin and Dagar fighting a monster and a mad mage. 

The series seventh issue puts Dagar on the high seas in "Two Swords Against Zora-Zal". The hero is out fishing on the shore when a band of pirates net him and force him into a galley slave ship. While brutally rowing for days and days Dagar strikes up a friendship with a fellow slave named Durak. When the ship anchors on the Island of Queen Zora-Zal, Dagar and Durak are put to work building a giant tower. After an escape attempt an evil sorcerer throws Dagar into a deep well to fight another monster (recurring theme here). Dagar wins and then leads Durak to overthrow their captors and free the island. At the end Durak says farewell to Dagar and steers the galley ship off to adventure. 

In the following issue, Dagar returns back to the city only to find that his beloved Graylin has been drug off with other women to a smoking crater on Mount Bargoll. This story, "The Red Ruby of Garloth", shows a little more compassion from Dagar. Since he only fights for money, he wants to rescue Graylin only. However, a young girl gives Dagar her only possession, a necklace, to help find her mother. Dagar refuses the necklace and is shown dropping the other coins he was paid into the dirt. He tracks Graylin to the mountain and finds it riddled with the undead! A zombie named Kagra is using a magical gem to resurrect dead people. However, the deal requires a sacrifice - one live one for one dead one. Dagar puts an end to the transactions and with Graylin's help they destroy the place. 

"The Night of the Serpent" closes out this volume, the lead story in issue nine. Dagar and Graylin watch as a large sloth is fatally poisoned by a coiling giant serpent. The two are headed to the city of Yang-Dorr where 

Dagar hopes to place his sword for hire, but they get distracted in the swamps. It is here that the tribe of nomadic black warriors known as Zargani use their spears and battleaxes to hunt and survive. The tribe's chieftain, Torgus, and his wife Renya are out walking when Renya drinks from the same river that the injured giant serpent retreated to. Renya gets poisoned and Torgus is desperate for a cure. Readers are treated to a flashback sequence explaining how Nar-Kal, a sorcerer, obtained the Magical Eye of the God Org-Ra. It is explained that Nar-Kal is actually in control of the giant serpent and each time the snake kills then Nar-Kal becomes more powerful. Torgus needs to stop Nar-Kal so his beloved wife can heal. There is a brief fight between Dagar and Torgus before the two realize they are better as allies fighting Nar-Kal. The story ends with with both Dagar and Graylin enjoying time with the Zargani couple.

At nine meaty issues, sword-and-sorcery fans will find plenty to like about Dagar and his adventures through this savage land. Obviously there is a huge nod to Conan, but I never felt like the writing and art was at that level - no matter who was writing or drawing Conan over at Marvel. This is more of a third-tier type of series that is still wildly enjoyable and reeks of nostalgic pleasure. The art is good, the writing is okay. It just isn't something that is mandatory or suggested unless you really love this genre, era, and brand. Gold Key has a cult following cemented by titles like Dagar. For me, I got enough out of it to want to read more...just give me a few months. This collection has so much material and it's a little bit of a chore to get through it all. But, if you like this genre then by all means you need to at least sample Dagar the Invincible. 

Friday, July 5, 2024

The Other Woman

The Other Woman by Charles Burgess was a Beacon Books title from 1960 that has found new life as a reprint from Black Gat Books. It’s a femme fatale crime novel masquerading as a sleazy sex book. The identity and bio of the author remains a vexing mystery with no help from the internet.

The novel itself is pretty solid. Our narrator is Florida real estate agent Neil Cowan who has a buyer for 40 acres on the lake that would be perfect for a new housing development. The buyer is John Royal, a wealthy town patriarch married to Emmaline, his voluptuous and much-younger bride.

Of course, Neil is completely taken by Emmaline. Who wouldn’t be? She’s elegant, smart and sexy. She’s also got the vibe of a woman looking for trouble. Neil is happily married himself, but this is a 1960 sleaze-crime novel, so the rules are different.

It takes no time at all before Neil and Emmaline commence a hot and heavy affair and even less time before she’s suggesting to Neil that murdering her husband will allow them to be together with all his money.

A sizable percentage of books from this era all have the same setup, but The Other Woman takes an abrupt left turn and becomes an honest-to-goodness murder mystery with Neil at the helm of the whodunnit. There are twists and turns and frame-ups and red-herrings and everything you like from a vintage crime thriller.

Burgess was a solid writer and he ties up the plot with a logical and compelling solution. There are hundreds of books from this era about a wrongfully-accused man solving a crime to clear his own name, yet The Other Woman is as good as they come. It’s literary comfort food and an easy recommendation.

About the Author:

The identity of the author Charles Burgess remains a mystery. Here’s what we know:

Novels:

Backfire (Australia, Phantom, 1959)

The Other Woman (Beacon, 1960)

Short Fiction:

“I’d Die for You” (Manhunt, Oct 1958) 

True Crime: as by Charles L. Burgess:

"Never Kill a Cop!" (Complete Detective Cases, Jan 1947)

"Case of the Buck-Happy Brunette" (Revealing Detective Cases, Aug 1949)

"A Killer with Women" (Underworld Detective, Dec 1951)

"Laughing Stranger from Dalton, Georgia" (Official Detective Stories, Feb 1956)

"Fat Man Blues" (True Crime, May 1956)

Paperback Warrior engaged Florida’s most prestigious private investigative firm to locate the author and his heirs. While there were many solid leads, our gumshoe was unable to definitively solve the case. More on this story as it develops. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Shakedown for Murder

Ed Lacy, real name Leonard S. Zinberg, experienced success with his diverse 1957 private-eye novel, Room to Swing. The book introduced the first creditable African-American PI, New Yorker Touie Moore. For his achievement, Lacy was awarded the Edgar for Best Novel and heaps of respect and accolades from his contemporaries. The following year, Lacy was productive as ever with three new crime-fiction novels, Breathe No More, My Lady, Shakedown for Murder, and Be Careful How You Live (aka Dead End). Stark House Press published two of these novels, Breathe No More, My Lady and Shakedown for Murder as a twofer edition with an introduction by Cullen Gallagher. I chose to read Shakedown... first.

Lacy welcomes readers with a two-page death-dealing scene in which a Dr. Edward Barnes is murdered while making a house call to an apparent friend or longtime colleague. As Barnes collapses by the heavy Buick, the reader is bewildered on what led to this sudden fatal attack and the events that transpired previously. By providing this initial shock, Lacy braces readers for a rip-roar ride through a small town of suspects, agendas, love affairs, and an unlikely hero.

In the opening chapters, single fifty-something Matt Lund arrives for a one-week vacation in a New York coastal town called End Harbor. He's there to visit his adult son Dan, who is married to Bessie and they have a young son named Andy. Matt brings his fat cat with him as well, the only semblance that he has any local relationships other than the jailbirds he babysits as a cop working in a prison back in the city. In first-person perspective, Matt explains that he really would rather be at home snoozing his vacation away instead of being grandpa. But, he's a good sport about it and tries to inject some life and fun into his trip. But, things go off the rails when the local hick cop discovers the corpse of Dr. Barnes.

Lund is a humorous likable guy that displays an ineptitude for modern efficiencies and behavior while still maintaining a veneer of an experienced lawman. On a supermarket run, Lund impresses his grandson by pointing out to the local cop that Barnes didn't accidentally die. He cites specific evidence on the Buick that suggests foul play. The cop doesn't appreciate Lund, who in reality has never worked any investigation beyond petty theft, and tells him to butt out. When Bessie's good friend, a wacky old guy that drives a taxi with reckless abandonment, is jailed for the Barnes murder, Lund is forced into the investigation. 

Lacy always has a thing or two to say about racism in his books and often provides subtext surrounding social issues of the time. Lund's pairing with a Native American woman introduces the town's history of bigotry and hatred towards her ethnicity. The author also adds some insight on getting older and walking the balance beam of working and staying active to retiring and accepting the advancement of years. 

As a crime-fiction novel, Lacy adds in the traditional genre tropes – gumshoe investigation, interviews, weeding out suspects, and discovering possible motives for the murder. If you enjoy mid 20th century crime-fiction, few will write it better than Ed Lacy. Get Shakedown for Murder HERE

Monday, July 1, 2024

Dark Shadows #02 - Victoria Winters

I’ve been making my way through the literary work of William Ross, evident with seven of the author’s novels reviewed right here on the blog. Ross used a myriad of pseudonyms throughout his career to become the most popular and prolific scribe of gothic paperbacks through the 1960s and 1970s. His body of work also contains 33 paperbacks that serve as television tie-ins to the supernatural soap opera Dark Shadows. I read and reviewed the first installment, Dark Shadows, and wanted to revisit the series in hopes of a better experience. I plunged into the foggy seaside village of Collinsport for the series second installment, Victoria Winters (1967).

As I mentioned in my Dark Shadows review, these stories have their own continuity and feature ideas and characters that don’t appear in the television show. For example, Collins House features Roger Collins, a middle-aged man who doesn’t appear in the television show. In the first novel, young Victoria Winters takes a job at Collins House as a governess to Elizabeth’s nephew David. In Victoria Winters, Victoria has a few weeks off from work due to David and his cousin being away from Collins House on holiday. This sets up the book’s premise for Victoria to be tormented again by ghosts and human foes.

Elizabeth agrees to allow a businessman named Henry and his two daughters a temporary residence at Collins House. Henry’s daughter Dorothy is recuperating from a brain surgery and will need her older sister Rachel and the quiet salty air of Maine’s coast to rehabilitate.

Victoria soon begins seeing a mysterious woman in Collins House that resembles a dead woman named Stella Hastings. How can she be alive after plunging from a cliff to her death? To complicate things more, Vicki sees a figure lurking around Roger Collins’ boat. There’s also a mysterious man named Paul Caine who professes to be an artist, yet knows nothing about art. Like most of Ross’s novels, and the novel before this one, Victoria is attacked numerous times and the list of suspects ranges from the groundskeeper to Henry himself. When attacks aren’t happening, the author sprinkles in Victoria’s nightmares to pad out the pages (a common trait with Ross).

Victoria Winters is actually a pretty good crime-fiction mystery. If you take away the fact that this is a Dark Shadows novel, and strictly read it as a stand-alone mystery, then I think you’ll be more appreciative of the slow formula. There is a great deal of dialogue, like Dark Shadows, but the development is quick, and the overall mystery is compelling. The suspect list is a diverse one and I must admit that the abandoned wing of Collins House is creepy even without vampires and werewolves stalking the corridors. If you enjoy Ross’s gothics, or just like a confined mystery, then Victoria Winters is a fine choice. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE