Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Message from a Ghost

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Bait

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Edge #04 - Killer's Breed

The Edge series by George Gilman (Terry Harknett, 1936-2019) promises to be “The Most Violent Westerns in Print,” but the fourth installment, Killer’s Breed from 1974, is actually a flashback origin story documenting Edge’s adventures fighting in the American Civil War.

The paperback begins in the Post-Civil War era when Josiah “Edge” Hedges finds himself recuperating from a near-death experience where his life as a Union soldier is flashing before his eyes for the heart of the novel.

And with the turn of the page, the reader is back in June 1861 along the Ohio-West Virginia border with Union Cavalry Lieutenant Joe Hedges. He’s serving under Major General George McClellon and his troops are marching into the Battle of Phillipi in what is now West Virginia, the first land combat of the war. The author describes the fighting scenes with vivid portrayals of violence and gore, just like he does in the western novels of the series.

From battle to battle Edge rides with his unit, and the reader gets to watch him harden as person while making smart tactical decisions for himself and the men under his command. It’s difficult to understate the skull-crushing violence and spattered blood and brain tissue depicted in the pages of each battle. Consider yourself warned.

Overall, this was a very satisfying war novel that did a fine job depicting the chaos and brutality of battles on the ground. It wasn’t much of a western, but if a gory fictional chronicle of Civil War combat sounds appealing, you can’t do much better.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Never Forget, Never Forgive

Washington State native Clayton Fox (1920-2008) wrote for the pulp Westerns and then transitioned into paperback original novels. He eventually became a writer for the TV show Rawhide. Two of his non-western novels were published as Ace Doubles, including Never Forget, Never Forgive from 1961.

Our hero is small-town police detective Thaddus Zilch. He lost his previous job for coming down too hard on racketeers, so he’s giving it another shot with a different Sheriff in a different town nestled in Washington State logging country. He’s a good narrator and a pretty excellent cop.

Within 30 minutes of his new job starting, a skeleton is found in the woods, and Zilch is assigned the case. There is a bullet hole in the skull from a .22 caliber rifle. The location of the hole means murder or hunting accident, so Zilch has a cold case to solve.

Meanwhile, Zilch meets Connie, the pretty owner of the local diner. He learns that a decade ago, three men raped Connie and left her pregnant with her now 10 year-old son. She was never able to identify the rapists, and the whole town knows her tragic story. Zilch quickly (a little too quickly, to be honest) falls in love with Connie, who is still dealing with the psychological scars left behind from her attack.

Little by little, evidence seems to mount that the skeleton in the woods may have been one of Connie’s rapists. It’s a pretty interesting mystery for Zilch to solve involving forensic science and a decade-old vendetta. As the romance between Connie and Zilch intensifies, he is forced to face the possibility that Connie has gone full-on Death Wish upon her rapists. This is the central mystery of the novel.

I really liked this book - mostly because the writing and the characters were uniformly terrific. My only criticism was that the murder mystery itself was so, so easy to solve. The author telegraphed the twist ending early in the novel making it the most tepid surprise I can recall. Despite this, I genuinely enjoyed the paperback and will seek out other works by Clayton Fox. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Earl Drake #11 - Operation Deathmaker

Earl Drake, the successful action hero created by Dan J. Marlowe (1917-1986) began his literary life as a violent crook in 1962. Over time, the character was pressed into service as a U.S. Government secret agent, which brings us to this 11th installment from 1974, Operation Deathmaker.

Drake’s girlfriend is Hazel, and she’s been part of the series for a long time at this point. Melissa, Hazel’s college-age niece, is visiting Los Angeles on a vacation. When Drake is dropping her at the airport, Melissa is kidnapped by a team of professionals.

Because of his tenuous legal history as a fugitive from justice, Drake chooses to not involve police and to recover Melissa himself. This opens the door to sleuthing, chases, car-bombings, wiretaps, tradecraft and lots and lots of men’s adventure action — all anchored by Marlowe’s excellent, seasoned writing.

Unlike Drake’s heist books or his spy books, this one is Drake recovering a kidnapped girl on a very personal mission. It’s an excellent stand-alone mystery-adventure that doesn’t not require much character history from the series.

Is the kidnapping a ransom job to swipe some of Hazel and Drake’s loot? Or is this a vendetta mission to make Drake suffer? Or did young Melissa stage this kidnapping for her own reasons? These are the options Drake explores along the way.

Drake’s hunt for this missing girl takes on the qualities of a procedural mystery for much of the paperback and then an action-filled, violent vendetta novel for the climactic conclusion. It’s a damn fine men’s adventure paperback that almost - but not quite - lives up to the heights of the series’ opening two novels, The Name of the Game is Death and One Endless Hour. In any case, this one is an easy recommendation. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Martin Collins #01 - The Colonel

Patrick A. Davis is a U.S. Air Force veteran and former commercial airline pilot who began writing military-based conspiracy thrillers in 1998 before finding a series character named Martin Collins for a three-book run. The debut is called The Colonel from 2001.

Our hero and first-person narrator is widower Martin Collins. When we meet him, he is living in rural Northern Virginia with a grass airplane runway while enjoying his retirement from the Air Force Office of Special Investigations. He took a job as Chief of Police in a town of about 2,000 residents and a seven-man police department. When Martin left the federal government, he promised his boss he would come back as a consultant investigator for the rare homicide investigation that arose involving Air Force personnel.

Martin is called back into service coinciding with the discovery of a brutal murder in Arlington, Virginia of a U.S. Air Force Colonel named Margaret who was slaughtered in her home along with her two young children. The case is assigned to a local homicide detective named Simon Santos who requests Martin’s assistance in the investigation.

Simon is a fascinating character. He’s a dapper multimillionaire polymath who works as a police detective for the thrill of the chase. Other cops resent him but respect his mental firepower. Reading about the personal wealth and opulence he leverages to solve cases is a ton of fun.

Martin is partnered with a pretty and smart young investigator named Amanda. They take care of most of the fieldwork and consult periodically with Simon who plays the Sherlock Holmes/Nero Wolfe role in the ensemble. The victim’s job was in the Pentagon’s airplane safety inspection unit, not exactly at the tip of the spear for likely murder targets.

The publisher packaged the paperback to mimic the look of a W.E.B. Griffin military fiction novel (Griffin also blurbed the paperback), but The Colonel is more of a tight police procedural. Davis’ writing is filled with “inside Washington” skullduggery and political corruption reminiscent of James Cody’s The D.C. Man series from the 1970s.

The murder solution was twisty and well-conceived and there was plenty of bloody, murderous violence to please the men’s adventure crowd. There was really nothing to dislike about this series debut, and it’s an easy recommendation for fans of political-intrigue and police procedural mysteries. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Hangman's Territory

Jack M. Bickham (1930-1997) wrote predominantly westerns during his career while also teaching writing at the University of Oklahoma. Hangman’s Territory was half of a 1961 Ace Double later reprinted as a stand-alone paperback.

Our hero is Eck Jackson and he’s on his way to Rimrock, Montana at the request of a friend. The town has been taken over by Ebeneezer Taunt, who is acting as a self-appointed judge, jury and executioner along with a phalanx of gunmen. Taunt has a hard-on for hanging and has erected a six-rope gallows in the center of town to kill a half-dozen men with one lever pull. To bolster the credibility of his fiefdom, Taunt is importing an Ohio lawyer named John Powers to be his public prosecutor.

When we meet Powers, he’s actually an honest and earnest lawyer who accepts the job remotely with a legitimate interest in bringing law and order to a western town. He packs up his wife and heads west to become a public servant to the people of Rimrock. Will he buy-into Taunt’s perverted version of justice or will he stand up for what is right?

Bubbling under the surface of the tensions is a conflict between sheep herders and cattle farmers. Both groups want to use the same public lands for grazing, but the valley upon which the town sits just isn’t big enough to accommodate both the cattle people and the sheep people. In the world of western fiction, this is what is known as a “range war” when things turn violent. For his part, Judge Taunt, his lawman, and his hangman are all siding with the cattlemen.

The comic relief of the novel lies in the character of Boom Boom O’Malley, a redheaded ruffian explosives man who dresses in crazy outfits and is always looking for a fight. The author renamed and rebranded the character later in his career for his Wildcat O’Shea successful series of westerns written under the name Jeff Clinton (Hat Tip to the Six-Gun Justice website for also noticing the same thing).

The author brings all the characters together for an actioned-packed conflict that’s both exciting and violent. Overall, this was a very satisfying, quick-read western and an easy recommendation to fans of the genre. Bickham was a pro whose books deserve to be reprinted and remembered.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Bamboo Camp #10

According to his obituary in The Washington Post, author Franklin M. Davis Jr. (1918-1981) served with U.S. armored forces in Europe during WWII. He earned a Bronze Star as an operations officer in the armored regiment and later commanded a tank-infantry force. In 1967, Davis joined the 199th Light Infantry Brigade for combat in the Vietnam War. He was wounded in action and won a Purple Heart and four decorations from the Republic of Vietnam. He retired as an Army Major General. 

What better author than Davis to write harrowing adventure paperbacks like Spearhead (1957), A Medal for Frankie (1959) and Kiss the Tiger (1961). As a longtime combat specialist, Davis used his experience to write over 10 paperbacks in the 1950s and 1960s. My first experience with the author is his 1962 Monarch (#236) WWII novel Bamboo Camp #10. Knowing nothing about the author, I admit I purchased the book due to artist Bob Stanley's captivating cover art. 

This relatively short paperback (143 pages) features protagonist Harley Frazier, a U.S. Army Lieutenant, who is mired in the war-torn jungles of the Burmese Campaign during WWII. As the novel begins, Frazier and his men are attempting recon in the dense swamps and fields. They find one of their men brutally tortured, murdered, and hung like a scarecrow as a warning to any foes of the Japanese. After some back and forth action, Frazier's forces are cut to pieces in a grueling firefight. With no way to repel the hordes of Japanese soldiers, Frazier and the few remaining men are forced to surrender.

The rest of the book is reminiscent of any good prison-break story. Frazier and the men are transported long distances and arrive at a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, just like the title suggests. Frazier learns there are 300 prisoners broken up into groups of 20-30 men in various camps. Thankfully, Frazier befriends the Australian forces and quickly learns the ropes to survive in the brutality of captivity. As time goes on, and his health continues to decline, Frazier and the Australians hatch a plan to escape.

I love the author's descriptive storytelling and the quick pace of the action. However, one of the real highlights to his story is the relationship between Frazier and his superior, Lieutenant Captain Macey. In a 15 page side-story in the middle of the book, Davis tells readers about Frazier and Macey growing up in the same city and attending school together. Later, when both join the military, they end up on the same base. Frazier meets a beautiful woman named Zona and the two strike up a friendship. Frazier learns that Zona is actually married to Macey. The two learn that Macey is having numerous affairs with various women in town, so Frazier and Zona engage in a heated secret romance of their own. 

The element that Davis uses for the book's narrative, and the inspiration for Frazier to live, is the fact that he feels he must protect Macey. He feels that his romance with Zona means that he owes Macey his life. Additionally, as Frazier weakens and borders on bad health and near-death, his memories of Zona eases the burden and forces him to fight the good fight to escape his torturous conditions.

I absolutely loved this book, although it doesn't really cover any new ground in terms of the traditional prison-break story. There are a few torture scenes, but nothing too graphic. Davis creates two prison leaders that are evil and fully committed to debauchery. They make perfect enemies for Frazier and the heroes. In some ways, with the jungle atmosphere, the book is similar to the dozens and dozens of Vietnam War POW/MIA novels. In other ways, it seems like a longer tale that would fit snugly in the pages of a Men's Action-Adventure Magazine (MAMs). Again, that Bob Stanley cover art is just so awesome. Bamboo Camp #10 is recommended for readers and collectors.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

Flesh Parade

In the 1960s, Lawrence Block wrote many, many sleazy sex paperbacks under a variety of pseudonyms. Most were pretty mediocre, but some were kind of excellent in their own way. Flesh Parade is one of the good ones. It was published in 1962 under the pseudonym Andrew Shaw, and remains available today as a paperback, e-book, or audiobook.

Our “hero” is 21 year-old Tony Cross, and he is fresh out of the U.S. Air Force and looking to start a new life pumping gas or changing tires in his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia. He sees a pretty girl at the bus station, and decides to go to Cleveland with her in hopes of an encounter.

Along the way, Tony gets off the bus to get laid, and temporarily settles down in a small town. There he is propositioned by a bartender to commit a smuggling crime in and out of Canada with a woman the bartender assigns him. On this trip, he discovers the wonders of marijuana.

In a normal Lawrence Block novel, this would have been the spark for a series of criminal misadventures. However, this is a 1960s sex book written under a pseudonym. The paperback is really a coming-of-age story about a guy choosing to travel across the country getting laid at every stop. He does some pretty immoral things along the way, and the listener reader is left wondering if he will find any kind of ethical redemption or even love?

As far as plots go, it’s actually fairly weak. The sex scenes are plenty hot for the era and somewhat disturbing at times. Tony is not a good person, and you should not be rooting for him. He leaves a trail of broken hearts and broken lives behind and treats women as conquests. But he’s a dysfunctional character in a completely interesting way.

The reason you should read and enjoy this novels because the writing is very crisp. It’s noticeably a Lawrence Block novel, almost a darker prototype for the Chip Harrison books from slightly later in his career. The pages flew by and left the reader wondering how Tony would get out of one mess only to find himself enmeshed in another.

Flesh Parade is not a sleaze fiction masterpiece. If you’re looking for that, check out the novels of Orrie Hitt. But I think you could do a lot worse than this book. It was compelling as hell and you should check it out if you’re into this type of thing. Recommended. Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Eagle Has Landed

Henry “Harry” Patterson (1929-2022) became a household name using the pseudonym of Jack Higgins. The British author was prolific from 1959 through 1974, producing 34 novels including a six-book series of spy-fiction starring secret agent Paul Chavasse. Patterson used pseudonyms like Jack Higgins, Martin Fallon, Hugh Marlowe, James Graham as well as variations of his own name. But, the author didn't achieve global success until 1975 when he produced the WW2 thriller The Eagle Has Landed, written under the Jack Higgins name. The book has sold over 50 million copies and was made into a film of the same name in 1976.

Surprisingly, the novel begins in the present day with Jack Higgins himself discovering a hidden grave inside a British cemetery. This concealed grave states that Lieutenant-Colonel Kurt Steiner and 13 German paratroopers were killed in action on November 13, 1943. How these Germans were killed in England is the bulk of the novel's narrative. The author takes the reader back in time to relive the events that led up to the concealment of this mysterious grave. 

Without digging too far into the details, the book is about a secret German mission to capture, or kill, English Prime-Minister Winston Churchhill. The concept begins with a sort of lackadaisical whim pitched by Adolph Hitler. But, Obertst Radl (translation is basically Colonel Radl) begins to experiment with the idea, eventually bringing the whole plan to fruition. To accomplish the feat, the Germans rely on a disgraced Colonel named Kurt Steiner (a real badass!) and a captured IRA terrorist named Liam Devlin (an even badder badass!). 

Higgins takes some time to flesh out the backstories of both Steiner and Devlin, both of which will appear in more Higgins novels in the future. In fact, Liam Devlin is probably the high-water mark for Higgins repeat characters, appearing in this book, it's sequel The Eagle Has Flown, two other novels and cameos in the Sean Dillon series. The backstories are developed well and place most of the book's action on the shoulders of these two characters. But, it isn't fair to really say anyone is a main character considering the story is so crowded with emphasized personnel.  

At 390 paperback pages, The Eagle Has Landed is one of Higgins' most ambitious novels. It's quite complex in the structure of the mission and all of the moving parts in Germany and England. With 12 characters, the narrative consistently changes location and scenery as the reader is thrust into high-level military strategy and politics within this robust cast of characters. If you want just straight-up action, I'd stick with Higgins' prior 34 novels. This book is a real beast.

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Died on a Rainy Sunday

Joan Aiken (1924-2994) was the daughter of poet Conrad Aiken and the sister of author Jane Aiken Hodge. After working for the United Nations Information Centre in London, Aiken joined the magazine Argosy and began learning the trade of professional writing. She authored shorts for the likes of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Vogue. As a novelist, Aiken wrote over 100 novels in genres such as mystery, supernatural fiction, and children's literature. She won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for her novel Night Fall in 1972. 

I've managed to collect a few of Aiken's books, but never ventured beyond the covers until now. I decided to sample her bibliography by reading the 1961 mystery-suspense title Died on a Rainy Sunday. The book was originally published by Dell and later reprinted in 1982 by Chivers Press' Black Dagger Crime Series as a hardcover. 

British married couple Jane and Tom Roland have just moved into a brand new house in the quiet English countryside. The two have two children and have maxed out their budget and finances. Things are looking dour. But, Jane, a veteran of the script-writing business, receives a call from an old colleague. They want to hire her to produce a documentary script on British porcelain (sounds dreadful) in London. The problem is that it's a 9-5 job which requires Jane to commute round-trip by train. With Tom working as an architect, who will watch the couple's two little children? Enter the mysterious Myfanwy McGregor. 

Mrs. McGregor and her little daughter Susan accept a babysitting gig to watch the couple's two children during the day. However, Mrs. McGregor makes it very clear that she will leave the two children alone in the house if Jane is one second late. Along with this bizarre motherly behavior, Mrs. McGregor also has a weird diet, provokes Jane and Tom's daughter into a trance-like paranoia, and seems to hide an ulterior motive. What the heck is happening in this British Hell House?

At just under 130 pages, Joan Aiken's mystery-suspense novel is a tight page-turner that orchestrates an eerie vibe while maintaining a traditional romantic intrigue. Jane's affection for a neighbor takes center stage along with the slow erosion of her marriage to Tom. The mystery is unveiled with 30 pages to go, making the long chase scene a really effective climax. While Aiken isn't as good as Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, this novel reminded me of her writing, specifically a 1955 short called “The Strange Children”, which is also a creepy babysitting tale. If you like that sort of thing, then this is an easy recommendation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Chip Harrison #03 - Make Out with Murder

The Chip Harrison series by Lawrence Block is a very interesting anomaly in his career. The first two books are first-person adolescent sex romps ostensibly authored by a horny teenage boy named Chip Harrison. The novels are delightful coming-of-age narratives written in the colloquial style of J.D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye.

Thereafter, Block resurrected the character for two more novels and a short story that fall squarely into the mystery genre. 1974’s Make Out With Murder is the the third Chip Harrison paperback, but the first Chip Harrison mystery.

The story is an overt Nero Wolfe pastiche or parody. In his quest to find “A Job with a Future,” Chip accepts an apprenticeship with a quirky armchair private investigator named Leo Haig. Chip does the legwork on the streets, and Leo connects the dots to solve the cases with his allegedly-superior mind.

The underlying mystery in this installment involves a hippie chick who dies of a heroin overdose. Chip is convinced it was a murder and sets out to solve the case with Leo directing traffic from his home.

It’s a pretty basic mystery of the “interview lots of people and get your ass kicked occasionally” variety. But analyzing this as a mystery novel misses the point: This is a Chip Harrison novel, and he’s one of the most lovable lead characters in genre fiction. He’s earnest and funny and smart and wants to get laid like a normal, young guy. He’s the kind of narrator you want to spend time with regardless of the plot.

There are lots of references to the works of other mystery authors including Rex Stout, Ross Macdonald, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Fredric Brown. Fans of the whodunnit genre will have a good time here. It’s not Block’s masterpiece, but it’s definitely a breezy, fun read. Recommended. 

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Ki-Gor - And the Secret Legions of Simba

The Winter 1939-1940 issue of Jungle Stories featured the fourth Ki-Gor story, “Ki-Gor and the Secret Legions of Simba”. If you aren't familiar with the character, you can read reviews of the first three Ki-Gor stories HERE. The idea is that Ki-Gor grew up in the jungles of Africa after his father, a Scottish missionary, was murdered by natives. Ki-Gor, in his mid-20s, comes to the rescue of a downed female pilot named Helene and the two become lovers. In the third Ki-Gor story, “Ki-Gor and the Giant Gorilla-Men”, the story ends with both the series hero, Helene, and their friend George, being rescued in Africa by a British expeditionary ship. 

On the north shore of Long Island, New York, Helene's parents are anxiously awaiting the return of their daughter. Globally, news reports have run rampant of Helene's discovery in Africa and her rescue by the British. Like a fish-out-of-water story, Helene brings Ki-Gor to the civilized world to introduce him to modern efficiencies. But, as one can imagine, it is all strange and very uncomfortable for Ki-Gor. He opts to be flown back to his home in Africa while Helene agrees it is best if she remains in modern society. 

When this story was written, the entire planet was thrust into World War II, and this story has that “current affair” element. Ki-Gor agrees to return to Africa to spy on a dictator named Julio (the villain from the second Ki-Gor story “Ki-Gor and the Stolen Empire”) and then report it back to British intelligence. The idea is that Julio is assisting the Axis Powers in festering a relatively large military campaign built to destroy the garrisons of French and British forces in the Cameroons. 

While “Ki-Gor and the Giant Gorilla-Men” is my favorite of the four stories I've read so far, the “and the Secret Legions of Simba” is the least enjoyable. There is a tiny bit of aviation-action added to the mix, which removed me too far from the jungle adventure the stories are built on. Additionally, the author attempts to inject too much into the story, making it a fast-paced convoluted idea that never really works. While I enjoyed the story, there are far better Ki-Gor offerings to come I'm sure. This story serves as a bridge between stories in the timeline and helps reunite both Ki-Gor and Helene at the end. 

You can read this story along with five other stories, all in chronological order from 1938-1940, in the Altus Press omnibus Ki-Gor: The Complete Series Volume One. Buy a copy HERE.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Come Easy - Go Easy

For a guy with over 90 novels to his name, British author of American thrillers James Hadley Chase (real name: Rene Raymond, 1906-1985) had a remarkably-good batting average. As such, his 1960 femme-fatale heist noir novel, Come Easy - Go Easy, seemed like a good choice for an effortless and quality read.

Our narrator is Chet, a locksmith specializing in safes. One night he’s dispatched to a service call at the home of a rich jackass who lost his key. Chet pops the lock and sees a half-million bucks in cash just sitting in the safe. That’s the kind of thing that gets a guy thinking…

Chet mentions it to his co-worker Roy, and the guys start scheming. Anyone who reads a lot of heist novels will see that their plan is harebrained and riddled with pitfalls. And, of course, the whole thing goes sideways in the most delightful way possible. I won’t spoil it for you here, but these guys find themselves in a fabulous mess.

The book becomes a man-on-the-run novel and then the author channels Gil Brewer or Harry Whittington for the heart of the novel as Chet hides from the law in a small town among a benevolent boss with sexy young wife driving Chet to more bad decisions.

It’s a heist novel - two, in fact. It’s a prison break novel. It’s a femme fatale novel. It’s a man on the run novel. It’s everything that’s good about noir paperbacks from the 1950s and 1960s. It also the best novel by Chase - by far - that I’ve ever read. If you like the best work of Gil Brewer and Harry Whittington , this is up there with it. Don’t skip this one. I’m dead serious.

Come Easy - Go Easy has been reprinted a bazillion times over the past 60+ years, but you should buy the Stark House version which also includes his novel In A Vain Shadow and an intro by Rick Ollerman. Buy that version HERE.

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Ki-Gor - And the Giant Gorilla-Men

We continue our examination of the Jungle Stories pulp published by Fiction House from 1938 to 1954. The reason is simple – the fantastic Tarzan clone Ki-Gor, who was featured in all 58 issues as the lead story. The house pseudonym was John Peter Drummond, but the real writers were a revolving door of staff and hired pens. The best way to read these Ki-Gor stories is the excellent omnibus editions published by Altus Press, starting with Ki-Gor: The Complete Series Volume 1

“Ki-Gor and the Giant Gorilla-Men” was featured in the third issue of Jungle Stories, which released in 1939. 

The story begins with Ki-Gor hunting on the edge of the Congo jungle. He's desperate for meat, but must fight a lion to save his kill. Bringing it back to his girlfriend, Helene (read my prior reviews HERE for her story), the two enjoy their cozy fireside dinner on the tundra. But, their enjoyment is short-lived when a giant gorilla approaches the fire and snatches Helene. 

This action-packed story contains a propulsive plot development as Ki-Gor races to save Helene from the mysterious gorilla. However, as Ki-Gor quickly discovers, there is an entire army of giant gorillas bent on making his life a living Hell. As Ki-Gor struggles in savage hand-to-hand combat with the gorillas, Helene keeps getting further and further away. This is really where the story excels and the author's uses a frantic pace, laced with a much-needed sense of urgency, to present the jungle savagery to the reader.

Ki-Gor meets an American black man named George Spelvin on his rescue mission. George was an American Pullman porter and ship's cook who just happened to step off into Africa while on a trip. Through perseverance, and a lot of luck, the Cincinnati native was able to become a Masai chief, a sort of tribal leader among the black natives. George brings a unique dose of humor and goodhearted fun to the story, and becomes a series mainstay in future issues. 

Of the Ki-Gor stories I've read so far, this one is by far the most descriptive. The author saturates the pages in a dense, nearly unholy atmosphere as the two heroes ascend through tall, mist-shrouded mountains where the sky is nearly unseen. These deep tombs of forest and jungle provide an atmospheric landscape that is disturbing and unsettling. The visuals of these two men facing impossible odds while tracking through a foreign land to battle giant gorillas was just awe-inspiring to me. I loved the descriptions of these places, the breathtaking escapism, and most importantly, the heavy-handed action wallop the story delivers. While the villain is really bizarre and brought the story down a notch, it wasn't all in vain. I loved the storytelling and the promise of what happens to Ki-Gor and Helene next. Highly recommended! 

Buy a copy HERE.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Night Shoot

In researching Scottish author David Sodergren, a review blurb I read described his fiction as “modern horror for vintage fans”. That sort of stuck with me when I borrowed a friend's paperback of Sodergren's Night Shoot. The book was self-published in 2019, one year after the author's acclaimed debut The Forgotten Island. As a fan of vintage slasher flicks, I was excited to sample Sodergren's writing.

Night Shoot's past-tense, third-person narrative (you have to be specific these days) features Elspeth Murray as the protagonist. In the book's early introduction, readers learn that Elspeth is in her fourth year of film school to become a professional set designer. She lives with her girlfriend Sandy and the two seem to be reaching a milestone in their relationship. 

Elspeth's class has paired her up with a small crew of classmates that must complete a film as their final exam. The group is mostly misfits that are working on a low-budget horror movie called The Haunting of Lacey Carmichael. While some of the film has been shot at the school, the director has called in a family favor to his father to use an estranged uncle's cavernous manor house to shoot the majority of the film. There's a lot more to it, but giving anything else away is giving you the steak before the sizzle. 

The rule is that the film crew has to get in and out of the house in one day, allowing just a few hours of shooting time before the rigid 8PM deadline to get the Hell out. This rule is important to the owner of the place, a stuffy old fart that doesn't appreciate the tedious task of having young snot-nosed kids ruining the woodwork. As the film crew sets up in the giant mansion, a hideous “something” is in the attic watching and waiting. 

In a fast-paced 80s slasher style, each of the film crew is knocked off in heinous fashion. It follows the beloved formula of ticking off the characters until the final girl is left alone in the house with the “something”. I was getting some serious Linda Blair vibes from the VHS classic Hell Night (1981), but also shades of the flick Curtains (1983) and the lost gem The House That Vanished (1973). Setting is always important for these stories and the use of an enormous manor house nestled on a cliff overlooking the North Sea was pretty spectacular. Kudos to the author for using every square foot of the house's interior, with chase scenes spilling into offices, hallways, attics, bedrooms, rooftops, and closets. 

Night Shoot is a 230-page horror novel for the casual mop-headed rental-store veterans out there. I love a good 70s and 80s romp where the actress evades the masked man through campgrounds, houses (big or small), malls, schools, barns, and mines. If you love that stuff, then Night Shoot is a popcorn classic. I can't wait to read more of this author.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, January 8, 2024

David: Warrior and King

Author Frank G. Slaughter (1908-2001) concentrated his writing efforts on medical-suspense novels and historical fiction. As C.V. Terry, Slaughter authored sweeping adventure fiction that incorporated buccaneers and early medical surgeons, evident in titles like Buccaneer Surgeon (1954) and Buccaneer Doctor (1955). I've enjoyed his historical fiction set in the early days of Florida, including Apalachee Gold (1954), which was my first experience with the author. But, Slaughter also authored a number of historical fiction that is based off of the Holy Bible. These “biblical history” titles included full-length novels about figures like Ruth, Simon, Mary, and Paul

In reading the Bible, specifically books Samuel and Chronicles, a grand adventure presents itself concerning one of the most iconic figures in religion, King David of Israel. When I was a kid, church was mandatory, and sitting through endless sermons was cumbersome for my restless spirit. But, the most exciting aspect of attending church was the scriptures about David, a fierce warrior who bested the Philistine giant. Later, as an adult, I had always considered David's story as one of the best and earliest adventure accounts in literature. I had longed for a book that would incorporate the actual scripture, but in a novel format that would take some liberties in fleshing out the complete, awe-inspiring life of David. Thankfully, I discovered that Slaughter had that idea in the early 1960s. 

David: Warrior and King was published by World Publishing Company as a hardcover in 1962 and then published by Permabook a year later in paperback. Today, you can find it as an ebook HERE

At 400 pages, the novel begins with David as a young shepherd boy in Bethlehem. Readers learn that David's brother is Eliab, a soldier for King Saul in the Israeli military. David is a skillful hunter, displaying his bravery to Eliab with the hunting and slaying of a pesky jackal. In the early pages of the book, the prophet Samuel anoints David's head with oil and declares that he will eventually become Israel's king. This prophecy shapes the book's narrative as readers embark on the inevitable journey to the throne.

David's life spills onto the pages in a compelling, easy to read format that doesn't take anything away from scripture. Slaughter's novel showcases the shepherd boy and the stark contrast to Saul, an angry, mentally unstable king that eventually skirts God's will to pursue selfish interests. 

In the book's opening half, readers learn of David's first love, his epic battle with Goliath, and his eventual marriage to Saul's daughter. His friendship with Jonathan and Joab are central to the book as David matures under Saul's watchful eye. As the half closes, David and his small band of soldiers have become enemies of Saul. This harrowing event sets into motion a cat-and-mouse game through the hills and mountains as David avoids Saul's wrath while also positioning himself politically to gain the throne. 

In the second half, David's reign is presented through world-building and intricate political moves that incorporate the usual strife and treason among the most trusted allies. Perhaps the most important part of David's story is his eventual downfall, a mistrust between himself and God. These chapters show a hardened David, one that will even murder his own loyalists to pursue what his heart desires. David's yearning and fascination for Bathsheba, a married woman, leads him to some pretty dark places. God's will reshapes not only David's life, but his family's generations to come. This monumental event sparks a drastic change for Israel's future king. 

David: Warrior and King is one of the best books I've read in a long time. Slaughter's meticulous detail to geography, historical events, and the people of this era is just extraordinary. Chapters of the book also connect directly to scripture, which is highlighted for the reader with direct passages from the Bible. As a casual men's action-adventure fan, you'll enjoy this march through the military ranks, the sweeping fights across endless battlefields, and the extreme compromises David faces as an enemy of the state. If you enjoy fantasy epics, there is enough world-building, tribes, and swordplay to soak up the narrative. 

If you are a Christian, Jew, or Muslim, David's life and history, as shown in the Bible, is an important part of your own religion. No matter your faith, King David is iconic. If you aren't of the faith, then the book should still be enjoyable as an action-packed novel. But, hopefully, Slaughter's novel will peak your curiosity and lead you on a path to the written scripture and ultimately...God. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Conan - The Devil in Iron

Robert E. Howard's Conan short “The Devil in Iron” first appeared in the August 1934 issue of Weird Tales. It was later reprinted in paperback by Lancer in 1968 as a part of the Conan the Wanderer collection, later reprinted by Ace with a cover painted by Boris Vallejo. The story was adapted into comic form in the October 1976 issue of The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian with a cover also painted by Vallejo. 

The story begins with a Yuetshi man deposited on the coast of Xapur, an abandoned island, after a storm disrupts his fishing. When exploring the island, a thunderous boom echoes causing the man to go investigate the source of the sound. He stumbles on a large domed structure that has been broken open. Inside, the man tries to take a shiny dagger from a giant corpse (mummified?). The corpse awakens and kills the man. 

Like a lot of Conan stories, there's a political war waging. A lord by the name of Agha is ordered by Turan's king to quell a recent uprising near the border. A team of guerrilla fighters, made up of kozaki bandits, is pillaging Turan's interior. Their leader is Conan. An elaborate trap is formed that places a young maiden named Octavia on the abandoned island of Xapur (the one now housing a giant!). Here, they will lead Conan to Octavia in a snare that will allow Agha and his soldiers to hunt and kill the barbarian. It sounds way more complicated than it really is, but there are numerous plot holes here that Howard doesn't shore up. 

Off-page events transpire and the trap is in motion. Octavia is on the island. Conan sails to the island. The two run into the giant. Fairly simple. Conan quickly learns that the giant is made of iron (thus the story title) and that he will need something other than brute strength to outwit the behemoth. By the story's end, Conan has “taken” the girl's kisses and makes a path to lead her to his tent. Maybe they will make marshmallows?

If you can sense my tone, this wasn't one of my favorites Conan stories authored by Howard. The abandoned island producing a city was really bizarre and felt rushed. I'm not sure if the “Dagon” featured here has any connection with H.P. Lovecraft lore, but this Dagon is the name of a city, not a deity. The giant's colossal nature, or threat, didn't seem to affect me much after reading Conan's battles with far more menacing beasts. This was a boss-fight that didn't quite pan out. I recommend a pass on "The Devil in Iron".

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, January 5, 2024

Night of the Mannequins

Texas-born Stephen Graham Jones (b. 1972) contributes to horror, crime, and science-fiction genres. He has earned critical praise for his novels The Only Good Indians and My Heart is a Chainsaw. He is also a multiple winner of the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson literary awards. Reading the praise, I jumped into his novella Night of the Mannequins not only to experience Jones for the first time, but also because mannequins are downright terrifying.

There isn't a lot to this little story. The plot is fairly simple and straight-forward. A kid named Sawyer is killing off his friends to protect their families from being killed by a mannequin. But, to jump to that extremity, there are events leading up to this.

Sawyer and his friends find a discarded dummy in the forest. “Manny” becomes the group mascot and gets hauled around from place to place kinda like Pete the Pup in The Little Rascals – only Pete was real and this mannequin isn't. However, for Sawyer that all changes. 

The group play a joke on their friend at the theater and place Manny in a seat, then they go complain to management that somebody in the crowd is being too loud. But, the joke is on Sawyer when he witnesses Manny getting out of his seat and walking out of the theater. Is Manny real? Is IT alive? 

Sawyer believes that one of his friends, and their family members, is run over in the street by Manny. He also believes Manny is stealing food from the neighborhood and eating in some hunkered-down locale in the woods. It's really out there man. But, to protect all of the innocent family members from being murdered, Sawyer decides he will just take a less violent approach and kill his friends before Manny can. If his friends can't be slashed to death by the slasher, then innocent lives will be spared.

Night of the Mannequins is a goofy serial-killer-slasher novel that is told from Sawyer's perspective. I have a minor beef with these types of stories because I don't want to be trapped in the mind of a lunatic. Some readers, and horror fans, love this sort of thing. I'm borderline with it. I like that Jones knows how to get into the story and get out quickly, leaving a short space here to do his thing. At 144 pages, this book is a real breeze that's enjoyable and fun without any excess baggage. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Tarzan #05 - Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar

In 1916, the November and December issues of All-Story Cavalier Weekly featured the fifth Tarzan serial, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. It was later published as a novel by McClurg in 1918. The book marks the return of the jungle hero to the treasure city of Opar, a lost colony of Atlantis that first appeared in The Return of Tarzan (1913).

In Edgar Rice Burroughs: Master of Adventure, author Richard A. Lupoff suggests that Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar may be considered the last novel in the original Tarzan chronology. He states, “The quality is not very great, the plot is still a continuation of the original elements introduced in earlier books.” 

Based on this warning, and my displeasure with the fourth Tarzan novel, The Son of Tarzan, I'm not sure why I pursued the series more. Partially, I was hoping that this novel would have a bit of fantasy or sci-fi elements in providing more emphasis on Opar and Tarzan's presence there. But, I quickly learned that isn't the case. This is another chase-the-chaser that is chasing Jane and her kidnapper.

In this novel, Tarzan's investments have dwindled and he needs more capital. He journeys back to the city of Opar to steal gold. While there, he is knocked unconscious by a boulder and awakens with amnesia. This leaves him roaming the jungle in a primitive state similar to his boyhood. Only he says silly things repeatedly like “pretty pebbles”. He also denies Opar's high-priestess La once again. She's in love with Tarzan and he wants nothing to do with her. At this point she's one of the few characters that can successfully remain in one place for five books. I'm just saying...I would at least entertain the decision.

Meanwhile, Burroughs has to have Jane kidnapped. It's apparently what his readers desire in every Tarzan novel. So, Jane is captured this time by ivory and slave traders led by Achmet Zek. Thrown into the mix is a disgraced Belgian officer named Albert Werper. He spends his time attempting to grab a bag of jewels – pretty pebbles – from whoever and whatever chapter they are in. 

The narrative is like the old film It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World. People chasing people who are chasing money. Werper chases the jewels, Tarzan chases the jewels, La chases Tarzan, Mugambi chases Tarzan and Jane, and the slave traders chase after the Opar gold, the pretty pebbles, and the reader's attention – which is in serious jeopardy if you make it to page 100. None of this would be dull and lifeless if Burroughs didn't recycle the plot. But, he does and this is an absolute mess. 

Seriously, just skip this book and jump ahead to Tarzan the Untamed and its military-themed narrative amidst World War I.

Monday, January 1, 2024

Dark Harvest

According to trusty Wikipedia, Norman Partridge (b. 1958) has authored two detective novels starring a retired boxer named Jack Baddalach. He won his first Bram Stoker award in 1992 for his collection Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales. He also won Stoker awards in 2001 for The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists and in 2006 for Dark Harvest. In scanning retail bookshelves, and movies on various streamers, I can't seem to escape Dark Harvest. It's available in digital, physical, and audio versions and was also adapted into a 2023 film and released by MGM. Accepting it as an omen, I decided to just give the book a whirl. 

The novel is set in an unnamed Midwestern small town on and around Halloween night. The town is unlike any other because it has a strict set of rules that are enforced by a macabre annual contest. Here's the setup:

Every year on Halloween, one male citizen journeys into a town cornfield and digs up a small boy-sized corpse. Using a process unknown to readers (and I'd speculate the author), this corpse comes to life and is provided some sort of jack-o-lantern head and vines and tendrils that make up arms and legs. Injected into its torso is a big bag of delicious candy. The animated corpse then has only one mission. The corpse must make it to the old church before midnight. The corpse is named The October Boy, but some refer to it as Sawtooth Jack. Oh, and the corpse can legally kill anyone in its way.

Okay, with me so far? Continue on...

A week or so before Halloween, the teenage male boys are placed into a type of solitude by their parents to starve them. The purpose is because on Halloween night, the male kids are let out and they must hunt and kill the corpse. Like a Capture the Flag kind of thing. Whoever the lucky kid is that can successfully kill the corpse before it reaches the old church wins the annual prize – a free pass to get out of town and his parents get a ton of money. The kids are starved purposefully so they will go after the corpse in an aggressive way to eat the candy inside. 

You're probably thinking, what sort of puny prize allows someone to just leave town. Well, that's the kicker. You see in this town no one can ever leave. The only way out is by winning the prize. Also, if you are a female, well you're just completely trapped in town forever because females aren't allowed to compete in the game.

Dark Harvest is one-part Stephen King in its The Walk and The Running Man dystopian contest. The other part is similar to Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, based on a small hamlet's annual weirdness. Partridge's writing is like a bleak crime-fiction novel, with plenty of pistol and shotgun blasts to compete with many men's action-adventure paperbacks. He also uses a quick and punchy prose that delivers a smooth, short-sentence presentation for his readers. I liked the more masculine wording Partridge uses to describe cars, motors, guts, and gunshots. He has a gritty, more realistic style that isn't punted away by the dark fantasy make-believe of the overall story.

My real complaint with Dark Harvest (besides the irritating present-tense narrative) is a popular one. The book's violent wrap-up doesn't provide any explanation as to why the town is the way it is. If you are looking for closure, none will be found. The mystery of the magical corpse, why the game is played, and the overall necessity of the corpse's death is left unanswered. Reading Dark Harvest reminded me of why I gave up on Lost by the second season. I had a sense of urgency to know the answer. In that regard, the reading experience was unsatisfactory. But, getting to that conclusion was actually a lot of fun. Your mileage may vary. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.