Showing posts with label Pulp. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pulp. Show all posts

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.

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.

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.

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.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

A Gun for France

According to IMDB, Charles Tenney Jackson (1874-1955) wrote the novels The Golden Fetter (1917), The Show (1927), and The Eagle of the Sea (1926). Jackson also wrote hundreds of stories for magazines, including Argosy, The Popular Magazine, and Short Stories. He also penned a number of stories for Adventure, which is where I discovered his February 1943 entry "A Gun for France". I'm always in the mood for buried treasure and nautical adventure, so the illustrations by Samuel Cahan immediately spoke to me.

The story begins in Timego in the West Indies as Bill Jett stares at a sunken 65-foot yacht lying in Morani Cove. Jett was piloting the ship, along with a handful of mates, on the way up up from Trinidad. But, the engine went out and the ship was steered into the cove and then promptly disappeared under seven fathoms of water. Jett explains how the crew had picked up a Frenchman named Lenier, an escaped prisoner off the coast of a Guiana prison, and how the man had went overboard in an accident. This is important. Also, Jett's skipper is a guy named Ordel. That's important too.

Later, Jett overhears Ordel talking with a notorious rum-runner about important boxes that are still on the yacht. Apparently, the two – plus a mysterious third partner-in-crime – are arranging a dive underwater to salvage these boxes from the ship. They don't want Jett to learn of the cargo, nor do they want to reveal their nefarious doings. That's up to Jett and the readers to discover. 

At roughly 12 two-column pages, Jackson's nautical salvage-heist plays out like a grand adventure. Jett teams up with his only real ally on the island, a Malay boy that helps him discreetly uncover the plot while outwitting Ordel. The wild card is the appearance of the third partner in the trio of criminals, but as you can probably guess, it all ties back to the escaped prisoner. 

Jackson's writing did require some short note-taking, but it was a very light chore. His prose is filled with a lot of description, with the escapism reading like a tourist guide to exotic locales - 80-foot cliffs nestling the calm Caribbean and its white sands and even keels. Readers enjoy these stories because it takes them away from the dull 9-5 grind. In that regard, “A Gun for France” easily does the getaway trick. Highly recommended. 

Friday, December 29, 2023

The Island Monster

I've recently become enamored with the writings of Arthur D. Howden Smith (1887-1945), particularly his glossy magazine stories. His offering “Pirate's Lair”, published in the October 1933 issue of Blue Book, was mesmerizing as a highly-charged revenge yarn on the high seas. Thumbing through more back issues of Blue Book, I found his August 1937 novella The Island Monster and had to read it.

The first-person narrative is told by Terry O'Malley, an adventuresome newspaper reporter that globe-trots for sensational stories. While back in his office in New York, a Major Rattray walks in and introduces himself as an officer in King's African Rifles, a British Colonial Auxiliary force. With a letter of explanation, Rattray explains to O'Malley that his fiancĂ© went to work for a man named Lipscomb Hope, a scientist that focuses on breeding different types of animals together – like pythons and crocodiles. In letters that she writes to Rattray, she happily advises him that she will continue to work for Hope and that she will need to postpone their wedding arrangement. But it is just a front. Beneath the stamps on each envelope is a small hand-written message urging Rattray to come rescue her from the hideous experiments and the psychotic Hope. She's in real danger.

Rattray and O'Malley immediately form a plan to go to the Bahamas and rescue the young woman from the dastardly Hope. In doing so, they hire a pilot and yacht captain that can navigate the scientist's well-placed fortified encampment in Nassau. The foursome discuss the base's defenses, including robot machines that spit lead from watchtowers and hideous mutant pythons that patrol the churning waters leading into the base's spacious lagoon. 

It is obvious that Smith's writing is heavily influenced by H.G. Wells' 1896 novel The Island of Doctor Moreau. But, the high-adventure adrenaline remains the same as my prior Smith reading of “Pirate's Lair”. While not a revenge yarn, this is still a hard-hitting violent affair as the group battle the monsters, bomb the camp, and ultimately attempt to rescue the vulnerable beauty in distress. Aside from some racist things that were unfortunately a product of the time, this story was just so easy to read and enjoy. It's a simple formula, but Smith seems to excel when he allows himself very little to work with. The old adage of “keep it simple stupid” works just as well in 2023 as it did in 1937. The Island Monster is a recommended read for adventure fans.

Monday, December 25, 2023

Thurlow's Christmas Story

Did you know that the Christmas season not only brings glad tidings, but also ghost stories? Sure, the easy nod here goes to the ultimate Christmas ghost story, Charles Dickens' 1842 classic A Christmas Carol. But, references to the Christmas ghost can be dated as far back as 1730 with Round about Our Coal-Fire (aka Christmas Entertainments). 

In an effort to locate a Christmas tale for Paperback Warrior, I delved through some old anthologies and found Horrors in Hiding, a 1973 Berkley Medallion paperback edited by Sam Moskowitz and Alden H. Norton. While the cover screams Halloween, the book actually features a Christmas story called "Thurlow's Ghost Story" (misspelled in the TOC), authored by John Kendrick Bangs. The story was originally published in Harper's Weekly in 1894 as "Thurlow's Christmas Story". It turns out that Bangs was the humor editor at Harper's and was assigned with writing a holiday-themed story that year. He submitted "Thurlow's Christmas Story" as a sort of morality tale/tongue-in-cheek jab at holiday publishing deadlines.

The story is presented as a mild form of ergodic literature, meaning that the text itself represents a piece of the story. You can find this meta-story in a story in other early fiction, something like Bram Stoker's Dracula where parts of the book are diary entries. Here, the story is a statement written by Henry Thurlow, an author assigned the cumbersome task of writing a holiday-themed piece for the Idler, a Weekly Journal of Human Interest. The story's text is this statement sent to George Currier, the journal's editor. 

In the statement, Thurlow attempts to explain, in detail, why the assignment hasn't been completed, why the looming deadline is in jeopardy of tardiness, and how his own mindset is being plagued by an unknown supernatural force. Thurlow advises that several nights ago he saw his doppelganger standing at the foot of the stairs. He describes this vision as, “It was then that I first came face to face with myself – that other self, in which I recognized, developed to the full, every bit of my capacity for an evil life.” A week later, Thurlow sees the person again, describing it as, “...that figure which was my own figure, that face which was the evil counterpart of my own countenance, again rose up before me, and once more I was plunged into hopelessness.” 

As the deadline looms closer, Thurlow experiences this bizarre visitation multiple times. However, the strangest visitation occurs one night when the author's fan arrives at his doorstep to present him with a manuscript. The fan explains that he spent nearly a decade writing the story and that he feels Thurlow should publish the piece as his own. Without spoiling too much, Thurlow sheepishly accepts the manuscript and dismisses the fan. Later, Thurlow reads the manuscript and deems it to be brilliant. By using his own byline, Thurlow submits the manuscript only to find a surprising response from his editor. In a clever way, the text the reader is consuming makes up the final submission to the editor. The long and short of how the text becomes a part of the story is a real thrill.

You can read this story, including a neat write-up on Christmas ghost stories, at the Library of America's Story of the Week blog HERE.

Friday, December 22, 2023

Ki-Gor - And the Stolen Empire

I enjoyed my first experience with pulp jungle hero Ki-Gor in his debut appearance, “King of the Jungle”, from the Winter 1938 issue of Jungle Stories. This story is captured in a large omnibus containing the first six Ki-Gor stories, Ki-Gor the Complete Series Volume 1, published by Altus Press. Returning to the African jungles, I swung into the action again with the second Ki-Gor story “Ki-Gor and the Stolen Empire”. It was published in the Summer 1939 issue of Jungle Stories under the house pseudonym of John Peter Drummond. It remains unclear to me who the real author was. 

“King of the Jungle” was a slower-paced origin story explaining that Ki-Gor was brought to the African jungles as a young boy by his Scottish missionary father. Unfortunately, his father was killed by a tribe of natives and the Ki-Gor grew into manhood by surviving in the jungle. A woman named Helene crashed her plane in the jungle, so Ki-Gor comes to her aid and the two become friends.

“And the Stolen Empire” is a much different story, heavy on action and heroics while speeding by a rapid pace. While clearly a Tarzan imposter, that doesn’t necessarily mean this story was inferior. I loved it just as much as the Tarzan novels I’ve read.

In the story, Ki-Gor and Helene are taken captive by a white dictator named Julio. Through a variety of criminal empires, Julio has amassed a great deal of wealth and power. In expanding his business operations, the crime-lord created a huge African military complex aptly called Africopolis. From this central point, Julio and his fanatics can conquer huge swaths of territory while strongarming numerous tribes to join his growing army. 

Like an Edgar Rice Burroughs page-turner, the action centers around catch and rescue as both Ki-Gor and Helene are captured twice by Julio’s military might, both times escaping into the jungle to find support. Their allies arrive in the form of hundreds of chimpanzees led by an Egyptian who established a secret paradise in Africa known as Memphre. It all sounds rather confusing, but ultimately it is two factions – one peaceful in Memphre and another more hostile and savage in Africopolis.

There’s not much more a pulp fan can ask for as the heroes (Helene every bit the hero as Ki-Gor) are thrust into lightning-quick adventures in rugged mountain fighting, firefights, prison breaks, and animal attacks. I love that Helene shows off her shooting skills with the Lee-Endfield, creating an enjoyable dynamic duo. Ki-Gor’s physical fighting prowess is complimented well with the more modern efficiencies of Helene’s sniper attack. The addition of the chimpanzee army was a lot of fun, as well as the mystery surrounding the hidden jungle city of Memphre. In some ways it reminded me of Tarzan discovering Opal. 

As if I needed more motivation in devouring these Ki-Gor stories, “And the Stolen Empire” just launched me into the realms of Ki-Gor superfan mania. I can’t wait to jump into the next installment, “Ki-Gor and the Giant Gorilla-Men”!

Buy a copy HERE.

Monday, December 18, 2023

Doc Savage #93 - Tunnel Terror

I'm no authority on Doc Savage. I've read a handful of pulp stories featuring the Man of Bronze and his bickering all-star team of supporting characters. I've enjoyed the stories for the most part, but always found the plot-development to build to a disappointing reveal as to who, or what, was creating the hideous, menacing, and all-consuming evil that plagued society for roughly 130-paperback pages. In some books the reveal is senseless, like in Quest of Qui (July 1935) when the mysterious glowing liquid found in the New York harbor is left unanswered. Or, why Vikings appeared ageless in the story. But, with a new mindset and determination, I journeyed into the dark to experience the August 1940 story Tunnel Terror, which was authored by William G. Bogart and reprinted as a Bantam paperback (#93) in February 1979.

Engaging the part of my brain that loves Scooby-Doo and Hardy Boys, I read and enjoyed Tunnel Terror. The book begins with a drifting laborer named Hardrock Hennesey wishing he was in the safety of New York City instead of an undisclosed Western-American mining town. While walking along a rural highway, Hennesey experiences a strange fog that seems to instantly dry out people into a brittle, crispy husk. Someone call Doc Savage!

For sake of time, I'll fast-forward through the complex mini-mystery of how Savage is brought from New York to the mining town. Instead, we get Savage, Renny, Ham, and Monk arriving by plane with their two pointless pets, a pig and a runt-sized ape. Together, they begin interviewing Hennesey and the mining supervisors. The goal is to figure out what the fog is and how it scientifically works. But, the fog can't be duplicated or analyzed until someone can actually find it. The secret is in the mines, specifically an unexplored section that hints at a lost race of giant people that commanded torture and sacrifices. Are the giant people still alive? Are they haunting the mines? Only Savage can find the answer.

Tunnel Terror has a great pace and for the most part is very entertaining. The addition of an engineer's brother, a woman named Chick Lancaster, added a little something extra to the narrative. Her team-up with Savage takes place outside of the mining town and involves an investigation into a missing governor. How his capture ties into the weird fog and dried-up people is the detective journey readers embark on. Overall, nothing to dislike here. Tunnel Terror may be one of my favorites of my small Doc Savage sample size. Recommended.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, December 11, 2023

Pirate's Lair

I'm always searching for the next great sea-adventure. In my quest for a good nautical romp, I started thumbing through digital copies of Blue Book from the early 20th century. I found a copy of the October, 1933 issue, featuring an incredible cover painting by Joseph Chenoweth, and decided to try a story called “Pirate's Lair”. It was written by Arthur D. Howden Smith, a prolific pulp writer for the magazine Adventure, who created a number of popular serials featuring characters like Captain McConaughy, Swain the Viking, and Grey Maiden

“Pirates Lair” introduces Captain Cahoon, a courageous New England ship-captain of the Cotuit Lass schooner. The ship is off the coast of Cuba when it is assaulted and boarded by a cutthroat crew of pirates captained by Gomez, a vicious scoundrel that the crew members call “One-Eyed”. After lining up Cahoon's crew, Gomez's men tie all 18 sailors and two boys with their hands behind their back. Cahoon knows what is to come, the dreaded “over the side” dumping as each man is thrown from the ship to drown in the ocean depths or to be mauled by hungry sharks. This part of Smith's story has such a profound impact on Cahoon and the readers – he's the last man that Gomez pushes off. As each man hits the water, splashing and gasping for air, Cahoon can hear the men's voices in his head and the mothers of the boys that asked that Cahoon look after their babies on the voyage.

The narrative moves into a more gritty, action-oriented second act as Cahoon, the last man over the side, dives deep into the water and brutalizes his lungs in a desperate swim to the pirates ship. By using a piece of their ship underwater, Cahoon is able to free his bonds. Through the evening, he swims to the shoreline to discover the pirates lair, a small village that the bastards use to drink, fight, and rape various women they have enslaved. Like a mean and gritty Mack Bolan revenge yarn, Smith's narrative explodes into a frenzy as Cahoon goes after the men who killed his crew and burned his ship. Only Cahoon isn't empty-handed. Instead, his weapon of choice is an axe.

Man, “Pirates Lair” was absolutely awesome. Smith can write his ass off and was able to inject so much emotion and doom into the opening pages that it sparked off a white-hot firestorm as the book kicked into the revenge tale. I truly felt for Cahoon's character and how much the loss of his men and ship decimated his soul. I also loved how Smith finished the story with an introspective thought as Cahoon questions the night's events. 

You can read this awesome story for free on HERE or stream it below:

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Spawn of Blackness

Carl Jacobi (1908-1997) authored short stories for the pulps like Doc Savage, Weird Tales, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Top-Notch. Many of his tales were compiled into short story collections published by Arkham House including Revelations in Black (1947), Portraits in Moonlight (1964), and Disclosures in Scarlet (1972). My first experience with the author was his short story “Spawn of Blackness”, which was originally published in the October, 1939 issue of Strange Stories

The story begins with a ferocious pace as Dr. James Haxton, the story's protagonist, is introduced as racing through the city streets at midnight to answer a disturbing call from his old friend Stephen Fay. Haxton had received a call from his friend that something terrible had happened to him and that he needed urgent medical help. 

Arriving at Fay's home, Haxton and readers are brought up to speed on the astonishing events that have led to Fay lying in a bloody heap. From his bed, Fay explains that he had taken a trip to a South African village. While there he purchased a small wooden statue of a large rat. Upon returning to the US, he showed the statue to an anthropology expert that recognized it as a religious fixture used by a tribe in New Guinea. Learning of its history, Fay dropped an old piece of black cloth over it. But, sometime in the night, the rat came alive and burrowed through the wall. Fay describes it as “...a gray shape and a head with red eyes and white gleaming teeth.” The rat creature threw itself at Fay ripping and tearing.

“Spawn of Blackness” wasn't particularly scary, but it was a real pleasure to read. Jacobi's approach is more of the arm-chair detective style as the hero Haxton tries to solve the mystery behind the savage rat attacks. Is the rat real or some figment of the overworked scientist? The author also included some great usage of colors, particularly the scientific approach of black absorbing all of the primary colors. There's some use of the concept that is crucial to the story's ending. Overall, a very entertaining story. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Ki-Gor - King of the Jungle

Jungle Stories was published quarterly by Fiction House, a pulp division of Glen-Kel Publishing, from 1938 to 1954 – 58 total issues. These magazines each featured a lead novel starring a Tarzan clone named Ki-Gor. The house pseudonym for the stories was John Peter Drummond (except the first credited to real author John Murray Reynolds), but the actual authors were Dan Cushman, James McKimmey, Stanley Mullen, Robert Turner, and W. Scott Peacock. 

My introduction to this prolific jungle hero is “King of the Jungle”, the very first Ki-Gor story. It was originally published in the 1938 Winter issue of Jungle Stories and later collected in the omnibus Ki-Gor: The Complete Series Volume 1 by Altus Press. 

Pilot Helene Vaughn is flying across equatorial Africa when she loses her engine. The female pilot is quick to release all of her fuel in preparation for the treetop crash, thus avoiding a deadly explosion on impact. She awakens after the crash and begins a walk through the dense jungle foliage in hopes of finding anyone that can help her. When she's stopped by a jaguar, a six-foot bare-foot man with blue eyes and long hair comes to her rescue, fighting the jaguar and stabbing it to death with a steel knife. This is Helene's introduction to Ki-Gor, King of the Jungle.

The brawny hero takes Helene back to his cave and speaks some broken English with her. Later that night, the two fend off a vicious attack by the Wungubas, a fierce African tribe that have warred with Ki-Gor for years. When the two successfully survive the onslaught, Ki-Gor takes Helene to a small abandoned cabin. It is here that the hero's origin story is revealed through a diary entry and photograph.

Ki-Gor's real name is Robert. He was the son of John Kilgour, a missionary who came to this part of Africa in 1917. On a mildewed piece of notebook paper, Helene reads that Chief Kranta of the Wunguba tribe grew unfriendly with Kilgour's work in the region. On the diary page, Kilgour describes Kranta as "...there seems to be evil back of his beadlike eyes." Piecing this together with what Kil-Gor explains, it is revealed to readers and Helene that John was killed by the Wungubas around the time that Robert was seven or eight years old. Kil-Gor has survived in the jungle for over 20 years.

"King of the Jungle" has a fragmented narrative that doesn't allow a lot of character development or growth. But, it is the first story and I understand the series improves over time. I really enjoyed the story for what it was and found that Ki-Gor's relationship with Helene could spark some future interest. I also love this fiery feud with the Wunguba tribe and the hero's ability to use a special blend of mystical "powder" to provide dreamlike visions for Helene. This addition has an E. Hoffmann Price feel to the character. 

Obviously, there are a ton of Tarzan imitators. Just like there are tons of James Bond, Conan, Mike Hammer, and The Shadow imitators. The borrowed idea of a white man surviving the death of a parent in an exotic jungle doesn't steer me away. I enjoy a good jungle romp and these Ki-Gor stories certainly seem to provide that. If you love that type of presentation, then this is a mandatory read.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, December 2, 2023

The Coast of Hate

Frederick Nebel (1903-1967) was second only to Erle Stanley Gardner in total number of stories published in Black Mask. The New York native sold his first story to the magazine in 1926, launching a prolific career that included stories for Danger Trail, Dime Detective, Air Stories, Northwest Stories, and Detective Fiction Weekly among others. His pseudonyms included Grimes Hill, Eric Lewis, and Lewis Nebel. I stumbled on his nautical adventure novella The Coast of Hate, which was first published in the January, 1930 issue of Action Stories. It was also collected in a black and white omnibus of Action Stories that was published by Odyssey in 1981, complete with an introduction by the great Will Murray explaining how Action Stories was the “alternate Argosy”. You can read the issue for free on HERE.

The novella begins by introducing readers to action-man Jack Ridlon. It is explained that Ridlon was a one-time sailing master in the island trading and shipping business. After saving and acquiring a plantation on the Borneo coast, a poor crop and a tidal wave completely flushed him out. He's now back to the drawing board as a free-lance adventurer searching for a quick fortune in Macassar, a small city on the coast of South Africa. 

In town, Ridlon meets an old businessman named McGarry. He offers Ridlon a skipper's position on a shipping schooner called the Flying Moon. The old man describes it as “...a two-masted schooner, fast and with a fair bottom. But, there's something queer in the wind behind her.” What McGarry is referring to is the death of the ship's prior Captain and the bizarre interest in the ship from a guy named McKimm. McGarry has the ship loaded up and she's ready to haul up the coast. Ridlon explains he has a girl waiting back in Singaproe and he needs the money. The two agree that Ridlon is the man for the Flying Moon and the telling of the tale begins.

The night before the ship's sail, Ridlon stirs up some action in a local dive. After a rowdy fisticuffs, Ridlon drags an old seaman named Captain Plummer out of the bar and sobers him up. Hesitantly, Plummer agrees to join Ridlon on the trip. The next day, Ridlon and Plummer discover they have some additional hands and one interesting guest, a guy named Starkey that paid for a passage on the ship. His destination isn't unusual, but his curiosity about the ship and a little clay Buddha statue peaks Ridlon's interest. What is the guy's true intention?

Nebel absolutely writes his butt off on this action-packed nautical adventure. The Coast of Hate has one of the finest pirate battles I've ever read. The action heats up in the fourth chapter, “Beyond the Jungle”, when the Flying Moon drops anchors at four fathoms on the coast of the Pahlawan Lagoon. After reaching their destination, Ridlon, Starkey, and Plummer go ashore to have dinner with a local businessman. But, when Starkey disappears, Ridlon and Plummer go on a wild goose chase to find the traveler. When they look out at their ship, they find their own crew in a fierce battle with pirates led by McKimm, the guy who was originally interested in the ship. 

The author includes violent knife fights, blazing guns, fist-fights, and jungle savagery as the crew battles McKimm's forces. Nebel is a sensational writer, penning these action sequences in a style similar to a rowdy boxing announcer on old-time radio– calling each vicious blow with a powerful bravado for the listening audience. Check out the imagery of this oceanic battle between knife-wielding combatants: 

“He plowed after him, churning the water, his knife between his teeth. It was the Ridlon of eight or ten years ago, the high-stepping young blood who had roved wild beaches, downed yellow mutinies, and fought bushmen on the raw New Guinea Coast. McKimm must have reasoned that the shore was too far away. He turned, treading water, his knife raised and gripped hard. His face was a blur in the gloom, fringed with the ripples that gleamed intermittently. Ridlon forged toward him, trailing a phosphorescent wake. They met in five fathoms, gleaming wetly. Steel flashed, missed and churned up the water. Ridlon shot his legs behind him and cannoned through. They came to grips, went beneath the surface, turned about and over and pushed their blades toward each other.”

Or, this description of the tough drunkard Captain Plummer:

“There was old Plummer, his face smeared with blood but his jaw set like a steel chisel – his hair plastered over his ears, his eyes burning fiercely. Plummer slugging his way into a knot of cursing, hard-fighting case-hards, many of whom had not so long ago thrown jibes at him in the Yellow Lantern. Plummer, stark sober was a different man from Plummer the drunkard. He was brimstone, rough on rats.”

I could probably write for days about this simple 17-page adventure tale. Frederick L. Nebel was really something special and I'm so thankful that exists to still salvage these old magazines and stories in quality scans for legions of readers. They are doing God's work when it comes to these vintage magazines. Do yourself a favor and read this awesome Nebel story, then chase down some of the independent publishers that keep publishing awesome vintage adventure stories in affordable collections.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Solomon Kane - The Skull in the Stars

One of Robert E. Howard's most iconic characters, along with Bran Mak Morn, Conan, and Kull, is Solomon Kane. The character's first published appearance was in a short story called “Red Shadows”, which was published in the August, 1928 issue of Weird Tales. Mixing sword-and-sorcery and horror, Howard's Solomon Kane stories feature a late 16th century Puritan who adventures around the world fighting evil. 

My introduction to the character is the January, 1929 issue of Weird Tales which features a Solomon Kane short called “Skulls in the Stars”. In the story, Kane is departing a small town in England and is faced with two separate roads to reach his next destination, a village called Torkertown. In the opening paragraph, Howard offers one road as a shorter, more direct route for Kane across a barren upland moor and the second option as a longer tortuous route through a dreadful swamp. Debating the decision, a boy passing by warns – downright prohibits – Kane from taking the moor road. He urges that Kane avoid the moor road because it is haunted by some sort of foul horror that claims men for his victims. Naturally, the adventuring Kane decides to travel the moor road.

Providing any additional insight into this story may spoil your enjoyment, so I'll stray from further plot points. But, Howard's story is just an exceptional blend of supernatural horror and the traditional monomyth of a hero's journey through danger. The author's descriptions of horrifying things lying in wait along the isolated, non-traveled road is superb. I love this:

“Then the thing began to take on shape, vague and indistinct. Two hideous eyes flamed at him – eyes which held all the stark horror which has been the heritage of man since the fearful dawn ages – eyes frightful and insane, with an insanity transcending earthly insanity. The form of the thing was misty and vague, a brain-shattering travesty on the human form, like, yet horribly unlike.”

What I really like about the Kane character, which I'm introduced to in this macabre tale, is his use of two long pistols as well as a rapier sword. There is a unique dynamic approach to the hero's skill-set, which will introduce yet another weapon to his repertoire – a magical staff – in future stories. He's a Puritan, with an eye for injustice and evil and a heart dedicated to the power of all things good. 

With just one story as my trial size, I can see why this character receives so much admiration and loyalty. “Skulls in the Stars” is one of the finest stories I've read this year. Highly recommended!

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

Punk & Other Stories

Cleve Adams (1885-1949) was a hardboiled crime-fiction author for the pulp magazines whose premature death robbed him from seeing his work be rediscovered in the paperback era. Author and literary scholar Ben Boulden has resurrected four of Adams’ best novellas from 1937-1941 into a modern volume called Punk & Other Stories. I’ve heard good things about Adams’ writing, so I was excited to dive into the title story from the March 1938 issue of Detective Fiction Weekly.

“Punk” is narrated by Jerry, whose job is collecting coins from slot machines and pinball games located in disreputable taverns. Jerry has two childhood friends: Big Ed, a local hood who owns the machines Jerry services and Slats, an honest police detective.

About a month ago, Jerry murdered a guy who also used to work for Big Ed. The cops are looking for the dead guy and suspect foul play. There’s a lot going on in this novelette: a love triangle, political corruption, more murders, mutilation, a frame-up and lots of hardboiled, tough-guy patter.

Adams was a solid writer with an ear for dialogue, and his style never slips into parody (like, say, Robert Leslie Bellem’s Dan Turner: Hollywood Detective). Like a lot of pulp writing of the 1930s, the novella is over-plotted with way too much happening. To his credit, the author does a nice job keeping all the plates spinning. It’s also plenty violent and action-packed with a tidy ending.

I’m thankful that a forward-leaning editor put this collection together, and I intend to dip back into it in the future. For reference, the other novellas are:

“Default With Doom” (1937)
“Frame for a Lady” (1938)
“Forty Pains” (1941)

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Friday, November 3, 2023

Barsoom #02 - The Gods of Mars

The second of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series of sword-and-planet novels is The Gods of Mars. It was originally published as a five-part serial in The All-Story between January to May, 1913. In September, 1918 the serial was compiled into a full-length novel and published by A.C. McClurg. I thoroughly enjoyed the series debut, A Princess of Mars, and I encourage you to read my review of that novel HERE.

In events that aren't particularly clear, John Carter is transported back to Mars after his ten year absence from the Red Planet. The hero apparently died on Earth, and when he awakens it is in the afterlife area of Mars known as the Valley Dor. Think of this place as a sort of purgatory. When Carter arrives here, he witnesses a race of Green Martians savagely attacked by flesh-sucking “Plant Men”. If this purgatory isn't horrible enough, any survivors of the Plant Men vampire-like monstrosities are then consumed by the “gods” of the place, a white-skinned race called Therns, which also eat their victims. 

These opening chapters depicting the events associated with Carter's arrival in Valley Dor are similar to  the horrifying descriptions found in Dante's Inferno. Burroughs' pulls no punches submerging these opening segments into a nightmarish not-so-traditional horror setting. Even in 2023, Burroughs proves to be quite the impactful horror writer (intentional or not). The descriptions of the howls from the cliffs and the “sucking” of blood and flesh were just so memorable. These chapters are amazing. 

This descent into “Hell” continues when Carter, and his old friend Tars Tarkas (Tars is here searching for Carter) escape the Thurns (with a slave girl). However, their escape is short-lived when they run into another race of Gods populating this part of Mars. The Black Pirates of Barsoom, referred to as “First Born” are an ancient race of Martians that feed off of the Therns. Carter and Tars are transported to the underground caves of Omean, a giant prison empire controlled by a “goddess” calling herself Iss. 

There is more action, horror, swashbuckling, science-fiction, sword-and-planet, fantasy, and genre-defying literature in this 190 page paperback than countless other genre novels combined. The Gods of Mars is a more superior work than A Princess of Mars and takes into consideration a lot of religious theory. Valley Dor is a self-indulgent scam created by self-proclaimed Gods to further their own interests. The concept of multiple races in combat over religion is parallel to our own culture now. Burroughs uses aspects of religion, politics, and world history to create Mars' culture, lineage, and all of the various empires, races, and competitors vying for superiority through aggression. It's really a mesmerizing mix that is equally entertaining as it is clever. 

Like the Tarzan novels, Burroughs does fall into his own literary traps with events that are cyclical. In the Tarzan series, Tarzan eventually has a son that displays all of the same heroic characteristics. The same can be said for this series as Carter discovers he has a son on Mars that is an expert swordsman. Tarzan's love interest is often captured by various bad guys and the story revolves around her rescue. The same is found here as Carter jaunts from place to place freeing his enslaved lover and friends. Often, I found that the story was an endless cycle of “capture and rescue”, which I've come to accept as the signature of Burroughs writing style. Love it or leave it. 

The Gods of Mars is extraordinary even with the above-mentioned flaws. It is a high water mark  of Burroughs literary legacy and one that may not be topped with future series installments. I'll be the judge of that as I continue my journey through Barsoom. However, this novel is a mandatory read.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Atomic Werewolves and Man-Eating Plants

The pulp-fiction and men's action-adventure connoisseurs Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle are back at it again with a brand new volume for their Men's Adventure Library series (published by New Texture). The book is aptly titled Atomic Werewolves and Man-Eating Plants and it is a beautiful collection of vintage men's adventure magazine stories about ghosts, aliens, robots, vampires, werewolves, and creepy rats. Like many of their prior offerings, this book is available in an expanded hardcover edition as well as paperback.  

The collection begins with “A Century of Weird Tales”, written by PulpFest organizer Mike Chomko. This is an informative history on Weird Tales magazine's history, including full color cover panels by the likes of Virgil Finlay, Matt Fox, and Margaret Brundage. Chomko illustrates how Weird Tales really found its identity in 1924 when Farnsworth Wright assumed the editorial role. At that point, the magazine began a prosperous creative flow populated by some of the best writers of the 20th century – Robert Bloch, Robert E. Howard, Henry Kuttner, Hugh B. Cave, and Manly Wade Wellman, as well as artists like Hannes Bok, Jack Williamson, and Margaret Brundage. 

In “Weasels Ripped Their Flesh”, horror editor, critic, and author Stefan Dziemianowicz examines the influx of early, weird pulp-fiction stories that appeared in the mid to later 20th century Men's Action-Adventure Magazines (MAMs for short). Dziemianowicz points out that these MAM editors would often browse back issues of old pulp magazines to find riveting stories they could feature in their own publications. Titles like Cavalier, Fury, Men, and Peril featured stories previously authored by the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon. The article also includes artwork by John Leone and James Bingham.

Both Deis and Doyle offer their own experienced insight on “A Turn for the Weird:, a massive 27-page essay that not only explores the richness of weird pulp-fiction stories in the pages of MAMs, but also serves as an informative introduction on the many stories that saturate this impressive short-story collection. The duo also use this medium to explore the idea of MAMs historically featuring brawny, barrel-chested heroes that were impervious to harm. They show a stark contrast between the usual flavor of MAM writing to the more harrowing horror and terror tales that were sprinkled in. In these stories, readers welcomed the change and grew to accept that these heroes were prone to “fear, panic, mutilation, and fatalism.” The text also examines how the violence and savagery of these MAM stories served as an unexpected coping tool for military veterans that predominately bought and read these publications.

The stories culled from the MAMs and presented here offer a variety of creatures, traditional horror, science-fiction, and just plain 'ole weird writing. The authors featured include Gardner F. Fox, H.P. Lovecraft, Manly Wade Wellman, Rick Rubin, and Theodore Sturgeon. For eye candy, glorious artwork from John Leone, Basil Gogos, Mark Schneider, Vic Prezio, Clarence Doore, Dwight Howe, Fernando Fernandez, John Duillo, Norm Eastman, George Cross, and Mort Kunstler to name a few.

Needless to say, if you love horror, science-fiction, pulp-fiction, MAMs, or collectively the amazing body of work created by both Robert Deis and Wyatt Doyle, then this book is a mandatory addition to your library. With a title like Atomic Werewolves and Man-Eating Plants, why wouldn't it be? 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Sunday, October 29, 2023

Voodoo! A Chrestomathy of Necromancy

Bill Pronzini (b. 1943) saw his first novel, The Stalker, published in 1971. His writing career has flourished with over 50 stand-alone novels as well as numerous novels in his series titles like Carpenter and Quincannon and Nameless Detective. Aside from being a prolific author, Pronzini's career is often celebrated for his anthology editing. He has collaborated with the likes of Martin Greenberg, Barry Malzberg, and Carol-Lynn Waugh for nearly 100 short-story collections in genres like crime-fiction, horror, and western. One of the first Pronzini anthologies I read was Voodoo! A Chrestomathy of Necromancy. It was published as a hardcover by Arbor House in 1980.

This collection is presented in three parts. Part 1: Traditional Voodoo features stories by Cornell Woolrich, W.B. Seabrook, Robert Bloch, Carl Jacobi, and Henry S. Whitehead. Part II is Voodoo Elsewhere and Otherwise, consisting of stories by Robert Louis Stevenson, John Russell, Edward Hoch, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Bryce Walton, and Morris West. The final part is The “Ultimate” Voodoo, which is simply one tale by Henry Slesar. 

The stories in this volume are culled from numerous pulps like Weird Tales, Dime Mystery, Rogue, and Adventure. One original story appears here, “Exu”, by Edward D. Hoch. 

In sampling the collection, I began with Robert Bloch's story “Mother of Serpents”. Pronzini's introduction states that the story was first appeared in Weird Tales in 1936. Bloch was only nineteen years of age when the story was published, two years after the author's first professional sale to Weird Tales in 1934. “Mother of Serpents” is a fictional tale based on factual events (presumably the leadership of Fabre Geffrard). It tells the story of a new, unnamed president arriving to power in Haiti. This new leader wants to remove the “old world” from the country. The narrative takes readers through the president's life as a boy, his mother's mastery of the dark arts, and the horrific event that mires his presidency in the very thing he wants to eliminate – voodoo. It's a great story that accomplishes a great deal despite the short length. Of note is the strained, bizarre relationship between the president and his mother, an element that Bloch will successfully use later in his smash hit Psycho

Bryce Walton was a staff correspondent for Leatherneck Magazine, and after WWII transitioned into writing for the mystery, detective, western, and sci-fi pulps. Walton's contribution to Voodoo! is his short “The Devi Doll”, which originally appeared in Dime Mystery in 1947. In the story, New York artist Earl breaks up with his girlfriend Crita, a French woman who has a hobby of voodoo. But, Crita knows that Earl really broke up with her because the new girl, Jean, is extremely wealthy. When Earl makes his case that he no longer loves Crita, she curses him. Later, Earl finds that a small, miniature version of Crita is “growing” out of his shoulder. Crita whispers terrifying things to Earl, which eventually leads to terrible things happening to Jean. Walton's writing is terrific with a smooth prose that serves as a sort of countdown to Earl's demise.   

Used copies of Voodoo! A Chrestomathy of Necromancy are out there. You can also get a real bargain by searching for the giant Arbor House Necropolis hardcover. It was published in 1981 and not only features the entirety of Voodoo!, but also collects two other Pronzini-edited anthologies about mummies and ghouls. Spooky, and darn-near mandatory for vintage-fiction readers. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Tarzan #04 - The Son of Tarzan

On page 196 of the 1963 Ballantine paperback of The Son of Tarzan, two characters discuss and recap the major plot points of the novel. Nothing orchestrates the ultimate mess Edgar Rice Burroughs created than the conversation these two characters have. 

In it, a dying villain advises Korak, the son of Tarzan (more on that later), that the girl he is searching for isn't with him. He then explains to Korak that he was hired to steal this girl by another guy, and he is the one that now has the girl. Bluntly, Korak responds that he just left that guy and was sent back here to gain the true wherabouts of the girl. The villain explains the girl was originally captured from a Sheik, who had captured her from a royal French family. The guy that hired him wanted to take the girl to London. After he captured her, the Sheik re-captured her and now she's in his village (soon to be owned by the Sheik's half-brother).

Can you follow this convoluted human-trafficking mess? It is a literary nightmare to follow.

For the record, I absolutely love the first three Tarzan novels, Tarzan of the Apes, The Return of Tarzan, and The Beasts of Tarzan, and you can read my energetic praise of those books here on the blog. I was really excited to jump into this fourth series installment, The Son of Tarzan. The novel was first published in All-Story Weekly as a six-part serial from December 4, 1915 through January 8, 1916. It was then packaged as a full-length novel and published by A.C. McClurg in 1917. 

Let's unpack this. The son of Tarzan is a boy named Jack. He was the infant that was supposedly kidnapped by two villains in the last book (spoiler, he wasn't). Fast-forward ten years from the events of the prior novel, The Beasts of Tarzan, and the Clayton family – John/Jack/Jane -  live in London while also managing a sprawling estate in Africa. Jack manages to run away from home in order to guide a familiar Ape named Akut back to Dover in Africa. Akut is the ape that Tarzan befriended in the last book, who now is being used unfairly as a showpiece for the paying public.

In an extraordinary series of events, Jack and Akut are left stranded in the African jungle. The author sort of recycles Tarzan of the Apes to fit the narrative of this book. The first-half of The Son of Tarzan is a coming-of-age tale as Jack transforms from London schoolboy to fierce and confident king of the jungle, Korak the Killer. Despite the over-utilized “fish out of water” formula, watching Korak become the second-coming of Tarzan was awesome. He's a strong, lethal, and intelligent lad that certainly embodies everything we love about his father. With a title of The Son of Tarzan, I was totally committed to a novel about Korak. However, Burroughs messes it all up.

The entire second-half is nothing short of a disaster. As I alluded to earlier, a young French girl named Meriem is snatched by human-traffickers and given to an evil Sheik. In his village, she's routinely beaten by both the Sheik and an old lady. Thankfully, she's captured from the Sheik, but soon finds that the duo who kidnap her are nearly as awful as the Sheik. I lost track of how many times Meriem is passed back and forth between these two guys, the Sheik, the Sheik's half-brother, Korak, and Tarzan and Jane. Ultimately, the best part of this whole fiasco is the time she spends with both Korak and Akut. Meriem falls in love with Korak (obviously) and becomes familiar with not only surviving in the jungle, but thriving. She is the embodiment of Tarzan's Jane. Easy to connect the dots.

As if Tarzan needed another name (he's already John Clayton, Tarzan, Lord Greystoke), he is referred to as Big Bwana in this book (Jane is My Dear). Burroughs disguises that Bwana is Tarzan until the book's climax,” but it isn't hard to figure it out. 

The narrative spins its wheels with the “pass Meriem back and forth” sequence, but there were some emotional investments made into Meriem's relationship with Bwana and My Dar as well as the aforementioned chemistry with Korak. Beyond that, I really disliked the novel's flow and dependence on the human-trafficking plot. Burroughs spent a great deal of time passing Jane around in the last novel, and it seemed like this was just more of the same. 

Hopefully, the series' fifth installment, Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar, takes more of a fantasy or science-fiction flavoring instead of human plight. But, the synopsis of the book suggests that Jane has been kidnapped again. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Conan - Conan

Many of Robert E. Howard's Conan the Cimmerian short-stories were out of print for decades, or had steep auction house pricing that prevented casual fans from reading them. Aside from one Ace paperback, and a series of Gnome Press hardcovers, these previously published stories existed in back-issues of Weird Tales

Beginning in the late 1960s, Lancer began publishing affordable paperbacks collecting these original Robert E. Howard published Conan stories. In addition, these collections also included unpublished Conan manuscripts and new material edited or authored by Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. You can journey down any pulp sword-and-sorcery rabbit-hole and read more about the development of these Lancer paperbacks, the discovery of manuscripts by Howard heirs' literary agent Glenn Lord, and both the praise and criticism of Conan pastiche writing, which is included in these Lancer editions. 

I want to simply highlight the stories including in each paperback, beginning with the very first Lancer edition aptly titled Conan. The collection was first published in 1967 and features a Frank Frazetta cover. The paperback, weighing in at just 221 pages, includes two of Howard's most respected and well-known Conan stories, “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Rogues in the House”, with the latter selection influencing the book's cover art. 

“Introduction” - As I alluded to earlier, the development of the Lancer paperbacks is a much talked about event that populates the sword-and-sorcery community. In this five page introduction, author L. Sprague de Camp introduces readers to Robert E. Howard with a brief biography. He also cites a specific letter that Howard wrote to fellow author Clark Ashton Smith explaining how the Conan character was created. In addition, de Camp analyzes the term “heroic fantasy” and how it came to fruition. 

“Letter from Robert E. Howard to P. Schuyler Miller” - This is four and a half pages showcasing a letter that Howard wrote to the science-fiction writer and educator Miller. In the letter, Howard explains the Hyborian nations and comparisons to medieval Europe, Asia, and Africa. The letter also displays Howard's explanation of Conan as the king of Aquilonia for many years. This letter was originally published in the The Coming of Conan hardcover by Gnome Press in 1953.

“The Hyborian Age, Part 1” - Howard's 14-page essay outlining the entire Hyborian kingdom and the rise and fall of the various cultures that make up the sprawling landscape. This was originally contained in the The Phantagraph in 1936, and subsequently in the volumes The Coming of Conan, King Kull, and Skull-Face and Others.

“The Thing in the Crypt” - Some find fault that this book, which is a celebration of Robert E. Howard's Conan creation, offers a non-Howard work as the first fictional story in the collection. “The Thing in the Crypt” was authored by L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, but the reason it is the first actual story in the collection is because the books, edited by Carter and de Camp, are a road map of Conan's chronological life. This story features Conan as a teenager who just escaped a slave pen after being captured after a raid in Asgard. Later, there is a story that Bjorn Nayberg authored (with assists from Carter and de Camp), “Legions of the Dead”, that predates the events in this story. It is found in Conan the Swordsman. In “The Thing in the Crypt”, Conan finds a cave containing a mummified corpse holding a sword. When he takes the sword, the mummy comes to life and the two battle. This story also influenced a similar scene in the Conan the Barbarian film. “The Thing in the Crypt” first appears in this story collection. 

“The Tower of the Elephant” - This first appeared in the March, 1933 issue of Weird Tales. A young Conan arrives in Arenjun and overhears a conversation about the wealth and riches contained in a tall structure deemed The Tower of the Elephant. Always looking for thieving opportunities, Conan climbs the tower with the help of another thief, Taurus. Conan discovers cosmic horror inside the tower and fights to escape. Howard’s endless imagination just flows onto the page with this wild, action-packed adventure. It quickly pulls you into the story with just a few opening paragraphs. The author's prose is just so smooth and stimulating, providing excellent plot development and pacing.

“The Hall of the Dead” - This was a fragmented Conan the Cimmerian document created by Howard and then re-worked by L. Sprague de Camp. This version was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction's February 1967 issue. Like many other stories, the era of “The Hall of the Dead” is set during Conan's thieving years, around 18-20ish. It picks up when Conan enters an abandoned, ancient city called Larsha. In a hot-pursuit is a group of Zamorian soldiers who have been assigned to arrest Conan for theft. As Conan explores this abandoned city, he teams up with another thief as the two fight giant slugs and other baddies that are protecting gold within this abandoned city. There's nothing to really dislike about “The Hall of the Dead”, but loyalist complaints favor Howard's original version, which is shorter and features some differences in Nestor's actions in the story and the disappearance of the giant slug. In essence, I felt the story as a whole, regardless of writer, effectively placed Conan in a gloomy post-apocalyptic setting of an abandoned city, albeit a very short visit, and that was very rewarding. 

“The God in the Bowl” - This Robert E. Howard story wasn't published in the author's lifetime. It was rejected by pulp magazine Weird Tales, and after Howard's death, went undiscovered until 1951. It was then edited by L. Sprague de Camp and first published in Space Science-Fiction's September, 1952 issue. The premise reveals that “thief” Conan accepts a job from Nemedia's Governor's son to break into an antique house to steal a precious diadem. This diadem is being kept in a sarcophagus that was apparently discovered in the dark realm of Stygia. However, there is a monster lurking in the house and and the overnight clerk is found dead. The story has a really unique flavor for a Conan story and nearly borders on detective-fiction. Overall, I can recommend “The God in the Bowl”, but there are plenty of other Conan stories you should be reading before this one.

“Rogues in the House” - This story first appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales in January, 1934. That same year, it was also featured in a short story collection, Terror by Night, published by Selwyn and Blount. The premise has Conan being assisted by an aristocrat to escape prison. In a series of wild events, Conan, the aristocrat, and a priest are trapped inside of a large house. The house contains a number of deadly traps used to enslave and kill the priest's political rivals. But, this story also influenced the Conan paperback's front cover with Conan battling Thak, an ape-like creature that prowls the house. This story is one of my all-time favorites by Howard and is filled with political intrigue, action, and savage violence. A must read.

“The Hand of Nergal” - Originally a fragmented story authored by Howard  in the 1930s, Lin Carter completed the manuscript and titled it. Along with appearances in Conan, “The Hand of Nergal” was also featured in The Conan Chronicles and Beyond the Gates of Dream. In the story, Conan is a mercenary serving Turan. In the heat of battle, Conan is battling these crazy giant bats when he nearly falls unconscious. Thankfully, Conan had discovered a strange amulet days before, which helps to repel the bats. Conan meets a female warrior and the two of them journey to the city of Yaralet to battle the sorcerer responsible for conjuring up these crazy bats. I really enjoyed this story and found Carter's stroke of science-fiction and fantasy a great blend with the more “on the nose” carnage that Howard's Conan typically creates. The Carter and Howard blend worked well, in my opinion, on the Kull stories, and you get that same sense of adventure, dark sorcery, and utter doom in this story.

“The City of Skulls” - This paperback collection is the first appearance of this story, which was originally titled “Chains of Shamballah” in the first printing's table of contents. This is one of only two stories in the collection that is authored by both Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp, void of any Robert E. Howard writing. In this story, Conan's military unit is massacred, leaving only himself, his friend Juma, and a princess alive. The three are taken captive and forced across mountains, through bitter cold winds, and into a warm jungle called Shamballah, the City of Skulls. It's an epic story with Conan and Juma eventually sold into slavery aboard a ship and the princess being promised to a Toad-God-Thing. The story locations are described so well and thrust these characters – unwillingly – into the heart of madness with high altitudes and low temperatures. Mix in the ruthless rowing expedition as testaments to Conan's internal fortitude to soldier on. That's why we read these harrowing adventure tales. Carter and de Camp can tell a great story and I feel like “The City of Skulls” is a worthy addition to this stellar Conan collection. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.