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:


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

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