Showing posts sorted by relevance for query The Spider. Sort by date Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by relevance for query The Spider. Sort by date Show all posts

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Saint #06 - Alias the Saint

With novels, novelettes, and short stories spanning from 1928 to 1997 (not to mention movies, TV, comics, and radio), The Saint is one of the most enduring characters in thrilling adventure fiction. Even more amazingly, all this literary output was done under the authorship of just one man, Leslie Charteris (1907-1993), until 1964 when ghost writers started carrying the load for the popular British series. Many of the paperbacks in the series are actually two or three novellas packaged together in one volume. Today, we’ll tackle Alias the Saint from 1931, a collection of three novellas that originally appeared in The Thriller magazine in the U.K.

Simon Templar is The Saint, a nickname derived from his initials, ST. Always a charming and debonair sophisticate with a cheeky sense of humor, the character evolved over the years from a vigilante and gentleman thief (a’la Robin Hood) to a spy and all-purpose global adventurer. He solves mysteries, executes elaborate heists, wastes Nazis, and charms lots of babes. Worldwide law enforcement, particularly Scotland Yard, wants him behind bars and they are always present to warn the folk hero thief to behave himself when he arrives in their territory. However, the cops aren’t shy about enlisting his help when they are in need of a superior mind. Most of the books and stories have been reprinted many times, so you should have no problem finding loads of content if Simon Templar is up your alley.

Here are capsule reviews of the three novellas comprising Alias The Saint.

“The Story of a Dead Man”

This was the first published novella in The Saint series. We get to meet Inspector Teal of Scotland Yard, a recurring character in the series whose professional goal is to lock up the legendary Simon Templar. For that reason, Teal is appropriately skeptical to find Templar working in a benign London office job like a legit citizen. Templar’s droll interactions with both Teal and his coworkers make for some funny reading, and Charteris’ writing style is head-and-shoulders above his American pulp contemporaries.

By today’s standards (or even 1950s standards), the pacing is a little off. There’s way too much time setting up the characters before the mystery plot begins. Once it does, it’s a messy little tale of a dead swindling businessman. The story is more than a little confusing thanks to too many characters and subplots, but the characters are vividly drawn, and the prose is superb. It took some focus and re-reading to ensure I didn’t lose the thread.

In this one, Templar is more Sherlock Holmes than James Bond, but he gets to kick ass a couple times in the narrative coupled with some lethal gunplay. In the introduction to a newer edition, the author said that “The Story of a Dead Man” definitely isn’t his best work, but neither is it his worst. I certainly enjoyed it enough to move onto the next novella.

“The Impossible Crime”

Simon Templar has his eye on a guy running an import business who may also be a heroin smuggler for a fugitive Chicago mobster. The smuggler receives calling cards (the stick figure logo with the halo) from The Saint, so he’s understandably nervous. An opening scene in which The Saint visits the terrorized smuggler recalls something American readers may recognize from The Shadow or The Spider stories of the same era.

This core of the story is a locked-room mystery in the tradition of John Dickson Carr. Interestingly, Templar is asked by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Teal to assist in the investigation of a man shot to death in a locked room with no sign of a weapon. The victim happens to be the smuggler Templar has been investigating on his own leaving us with a whodunnit and a howdunnit.

There’s some decent gunplay, a sub-plot involving s kidnapped girl, and some genuinely funny quips from Templar. The locked room mystery is solved - twice, in fact - and the payoff is clever as hell. Overall, “The Impossible Crime” still feels a bit dated, but it’s a far better story than its predecessor in this collection.

“The National Debt”

A female chemist is kidnapped and forced into indentured servitude by some crooks with an evil plan, and The Saint goes undercover to investigate the matter and rescue the woman. The challenge is that the woman doesn’t seem to want to leave. Is she hypnotized? Drugged?

More interestingly, the question remains what the kidnappers want with the chemist and what is she developing for them? It’s a mystery to be solved by Templar, and it’s also the strongest of the three stories in this collection despite a rather abrupt conclusion. The action veers a bit into Doc Savage territory without becoming too cartoonish on the journey.

Conclusion

It would be totally unfair to judge a wildly popular mystery-adventure series that lasted 70 years on the basis of this collection of the character’s first novellas. However, I actually enjoyed this introduction to Simon Templar even if the novellas failed to live up to the promise of the lurid cover art found on reprints decades later.

The Saint is a fantastic character, and I’m excited to read more of his later adventures after Charteris found his footing. I’ve been told that The Saint in Miami from 1940 is a high watermark in the series. Watch this space in the future for more on this iconic series.

You can buy Saint novels HERE

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Paperback Warrior Unmasking - The Repulsive Horror of Russell Gray

In the late 1930s, an enigmatic author named “Russell Gray” began churning out ultra-violent and repulsive horror stories for pulp magazines including Terror Tales, Sinister Stories, and Dime Mystery Magazine. These stories were like nothing America had ever seen before, and a modern reprint publisher called Ramble House has compiled two volumes of Gray’s stories for modern readers to experience.

The first volume is titled Hostesses in Hell and the second is My Touch Brings Death. The stories in both collections were chosen by genre expert John Pelan who also provides introductions to both volumes bringing valuable context to the stories and the author.

First thing’s first: Who was Russell Gray?

Russell Gray and Harrison Storm were pseudonyms utilized by Bruno Fischer for his specific brand of graphic horror stories. Fischer went on to become a successful author of paperback original crime and suspense novels in the 1950s, but those skills were honed as a pulp magazine author who cranked out a million words per year at his peak production.

In a modern world filled with graphic “extreme” horror, I was interested in putting the Russell Gray stories to the test. Do they hold up after 80 years? Can they be shocking to a jaded modern reviewer who has seen it all? I sampled a set of stories from the Hostesses in Hell volume to see what all the fuss is about.

“Hostesses in Hell”

The opening story originally appeared in Terror Tales March-April 1939 issue. The narrator is an inexperienced recreational sailor named Jay who takes seven women on his boat for a ride up and down the ocean shoreline. A spontaneous storm disorients Captain Jay and by the time visibility is restored, the small boat and its passengers are far from the mainland with the only safety being a nearby island. Jay’s boat is paralyzed, so they head for the island in search of help and shelter.

On the island, the group is greeted by a man claiming to be a medical doctor who looks more like a wild-eyed muscleman. He claims to run a hotel of sorts on the island where Jay and the ladies can stay until they can arrange for transport back to the mainland. Upon arrival at the large colonial house, the doctor confesses that the building is actually a sanitarium for the incurably insane.

This being a short-story, things go from creepy to violent and scary rather quickly. The women are naked, lunatics have escaped, and freakishly-deformed creatures begin menacing the island’s guests. It’s legitimately scary stuff and, as promised, extremely violent and disturbing. Overall, an outstanding pulp horror story.

“The Gargoyles of Madness”

This story originally ran in the August 1939 issue of Uncanny Tales. It opens with a police patrolman shooting a purse snatcher dead in the street. Newspaper reporter Glen Kane is covering the shooting when things get weird. The mugger was a prominent local banker who apparently lost his mind and attempted to rob the lady on the street while his face was contorted like a gargoyle. Even weirder: The intended victim had a gargoyle figurine in her purse. Readers of horror fiction can connect the dots faster than the cops or Newsman Gil.

Violent crimes by upscale citizens spread through the city. All the crimes involve tiny gargoyle statues and perps driven to madness. It’s almost as if getting your hands on a gargoyle figure makes you take on the features of the creature and go nuts in the process. When Gil tries to report on this odd phenomena, his editor spikes the story.

Things escalate as Gil investigates. The story’s climax is an orgy of naked breasts, whips. saliva and blood. The punchline recalls stories from The Spider or The Shadow in which an evil villain devises a scheme to inflict madness upon a populace unless he can be stopped by the pulp hero. Bottom line: an unnerving pulp story with some good gore, but not particularly terrifying.

“School Mistress of the Mad”

This one first saw print in the January-February 1939 issue of Terror Tales. “Doom” is the name of a town nestled in the mountains populated by an inferior race of idiots looked down upon by the good people of nearby Amton. Chet is on sabbatical from his city job chilling out in sleepy Amton when he meets a beautiful woman named Linda driving through town headed into Doom. Stopping to ask directions, she discloses that she’s been hired as the new schoolteacher for the Town of Doom. As she drives deeper into the mountains, Chet can’t get her off his mind.

Chet learns that Doom was settled during the American Revolutionary War by a family named Gring who have reproduced and lived there ever since with no contact from the outside world. Generations of inbreeding have made the Gring clan into beast-like idiots.

The idea of the Grings hiring a beautiful schoolteacher in an illiterate town without a school defies logic. Meanwhile, several young women from the town of Amton have become missing lately. Could the Grings be taking some illegal measures to increase Doom’s genetic diversity? Chet sets off to Doom to investigate and maybe save Linda from the hillbillies fifteen miles away.

The author does a great job of building the dread and suspense for the reader who’s left wondering how bad it could be in Doom. I’m happy to report that the Grings clan is worse than you could imagine. This story is chilling and frightening if you enjoy satanic hillbilly stories in the vein of Deliverance or The Hills Have Eyes. It’s hard to believe that the story 82 years-old and still packs such a visceral punch.

Overall Assessment:

For fans of suspenseful horror not afraid of some bloody exploitive violence, Russell Gray is the real deal. Hostesses in Hell may be the most consistently solid single-author horror anthologies I’ve read since Stephen King’s Night Shift. It’s so good that I’ve ordered Volume 2 (My Touch Brings Death) and can’t wait for the paperback to arrive. I’m a huge fan of Bruno Fischer’s crime-fiction novels, but his extreme pulp horror may be the best stuff he ever wrote. Highest recommendation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Conan - The Castle of Terror

Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp teamed together to author “The Castle of Terror”, a short story starring Robert E. Howard's Conan. The story was first published in the Lancer paperback collection Conan of Cimmeria (1969), which was later reprinted by Ace. Additionally, the story was featured in Sphere Books omnibus collection The Conan Chronicles (1989). The story was adapted into comic format in Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #105. That comic story was also collected in Dark Horse's The Chronicles of Conan Vol. 13: Whispering Shadows and Other Stories (2007).

What I enjoyed about this story is that the authors wanted to expand on Howard's “The Vale of Lost Women”, which was never published in the author's lifetime. This era of Conan's life begins after “The Queen of the Black Coast”, with the titular hero in the jungles of Kush. It is here that he becomes the tribal chief of the Bamulas, which is outlined in “The Vale of Lost Women”. Carter and de Camp further explore that concept in the beginning of “The Castle of Terror”.

In the story's opening pages, Conan is on the run across the flat prairies of Kush. It is revealed that Conan was the Bamula tribal chief for approximately one year. But, a harsh drought occurred in the region and the tribe felt that Conan was the reason for the hardship. Ousted from power and forced into exile, Conan now finds himself with dwindling supplies and chased by lions. At dusk, Conan stumbles onto a strange scene, a crumbled Gothic-styled castle atop a stretch of dead grass. The pursuing lions stop their pursuit and refuse to go near the old house. Hoping to escape the rain, Conan goes inside.

While Conan is seeking shelter in the house, a band of Stygian slave raiders is also seeking shelter from the elements. They too go inside the cavernous house. Inside, Conan has an experience of astral projection, seeing himself outside of his body. Spiritually, he's attacked by hundreds of ghosts before awakening from his trance. At the top of a staircase, Conan witnesses the slaughter of the Stygians by a hideous hundred-headed spider-like creature. Escaping the house, Conan is forced to kill the remaining Stygian.

“The Castle of Terror” includes Conan reflecting on the old stories he heard as a child about King Kull of Atlantis, one of Robert E. Howard's other characters, the prototype for Conan. Conan recalls the stories of Serpent People inhabiting the land prior to mankind, an element that plays into the Kull mythos, including the very first sword-and-sorcery story in the US, “The Shadow Kingdom”, featuring King Kull. Additionally, the idea of natives refusing to follow Conan across a type of forbidden or sacred ground was used in Howard's “The Black Stranger”, which later was morphed into Treasure of Tranicos. But, instead of natives, “The Castle of Terror” uses lions. Arguably, the Kull short story “Skull of Silence” has comparisons as well, complete with Kull charging into a monolithic black house reportedly haunted by a cosmic horror.

This may be one of my favorite stories by Carter and de Camp. I love the eerie atmosphere and its similarity to an old Hammer Horror or Universal vampire flick. The concept of weary travelers attacked by a supernatural entity in a dark castle is sometimes overused, but in this story it works really well. The descriptions of the house, the creepy atmosphere, and the sense of urgency placed on the character to escape the lions was perfectly crafted. It's a remarkable combination and a mandatory read for fans of dark fantasy and horror.

Buy a copy of this book HERE 

Friday, September 15, 2023

Chronicles of Counter-Earth #01 - Tarnsman of Gor

There are many different names given to the Gor series of sword and planet adventures. Some refer to it as The Chronicles of Counter-Earth or The Gorean Saga, other monikers exist like The Saga of Tarl Cabot, Gorean Cycle, Gorean Chronicles, and Counter-Earth Saga. Additionally, some readers refer to is as How To Place a Dog Collar on Your Lover in 5 Easy Steps. The series was authored by John Lange Jr under the pseudonym of John Norman. The series ran 37 total installments between 1966 and 2022. The novels have been published by a combination of DAW Books, Ballantine, and Open Road Media. They currently exist in digital and audio versions.

The first thing you need to know about the series is that it is a controversial one. In these books, the author depicts women in an unfavorable light, often showcasing them as material possessions serving as abused collar-bound slaves. These women submit themselves to men by dropping to their knees and placing their arms in a position where it would suggest they are begging. These female slaves are known as kajira. The popular series spawned a subculture lifestyle known as Gorean with its own language. I'm not choosing this platform to either praise or criticize anyone who likes the series or its influence. You do you, and I'll do me. I'm simply sampling the series based on my newfound love for fantasy and science-fiction novels. Nothing more, nothing less.

Before reading the debut, Tarnsman of Gor, I discovered that the early novels in this series are pure sword-and-sorcery  heavily influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom series (1912-1943). After reading the first few chapters, I discovered it is darn-near a complete ripoff of A Princess of Mars. But, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. 

At the beginning of the book, readers are introduced to a British man named Tarl Cabot, residing in present-day (read that as the 1960s) America. We learn that his mother died when he was young and his father seemingly disappeared. Tarl becomes well-educated at Oxford University and later becomes a professor at a New England college in America. While on a hiking and camping vacation in the rural mountains of New Hampshire, Tarl stumbles on an electronic device that allows him to use his thumbprint to access a document. The device is a makeshift letter from his father dated 1640. Soon, a spaceship appears and beams up Tarl.

Tarl awakens to find that his father is alive and well and a senior leader in a tower city called Ka-Ro-Ba. This city exists on a planet called Gor, which is “hidden” in the same solar system as Earth. The planet is ruled by a mysterious sect of supreme beings known as Priest-Kings and the leaders they have chosen for society are provided insights on the planet's dynamics – like the fact that it is round. The rest of society – those in a lower class – are fed misleading information to keep them on the lower rungs of survival. The lower classes think that Gor is flat. They also don't have access to any modern technology, or have the ability to rise above their intellectual levels. So, most of Gor exists on the same technological level of...say Earth's Bronze Age. Weapons are swords, daggers, shields, spears, etc. But, the most popular vehicles are large winged birds called Tarn, which all of Gor's military seem to ride. 

Without going too far down the rabbit hole here, Gor's various nations tend to war with each other. The winner gets that nation's home stone, which is just a rock with the name of the nation printed on it. Apparently if your nation captures another nation's home stone, then you control that nation. So, the nation of Ar is getting a little too big for their pants, so young Tarl is educated in Gorean culture, including how to fight with the various weapons and how to control and ride the Tarn animals. Why? Because he is going to fly into Ar undercover and steal their home stone. Which makes up the bulk of this series debut. 

Here at Paperback Warrior, we just call them how we see them. I sat down one Saturday for a couple of hours and read this 220-page paperback from cover to cover in one sitting. I was never bored by it. By suspending my disbelief on some of the ridiculous hero saves, I found myself thoroughly entertained. Lange certainly took some liberties with Burroughs' Barsoom series, including the first and last chapters of the book, and I had some hesitation on reading past the first chapter because of it. But, I'm glad I did because this is pure adventure from start to finish.

The book's monomyth story kicks into high-gear when Tarl is “shot down” over the skies of Ar. Landing in the jungle with the King of Ar's spunky daughter Talena, he must contend with giant Spider People, a fight to the death with a master swordsman and survive being crucified on a boat and drawn-and-quartered by flying birds. All of this is carefully navigated as Tarl contends with two brutal villains on a quest to disrupt the power of Ar while questioning his own nation's mission on Gor.

In some ways, this fish-out-of-water tale reminded me of Lin Carter's own Burroughs' rip-off series Zanthodon, albeit a more advanced version in terms of society and landscape. I prefer the Carter series more, but there was nothing about Tarnsman of Gor that was unsatisfactory. In fact, this early indication suggests that Tarl is a hero that disputes the idea of slavery and punishment of women. In one scene he frees a slave girl destined for death, and throughout the narrative he continually promotes equality between himself and Talena. He frees more slaves and has a more respectful view of women than...say...Conan. The most despicable treatment of women I've ever experienced in fiction is William W. Johnstone's Out of the Ashes series, which sets the gold standard in terms of male chauvinism. But, as I've noted, this series apparently retains some quality in the early installments.   

If you enjoy over-the-top, completely senseless science-fiction adventure, then Tarnsman of Gor will deliver a good time. I can't speak for the rest of the series, but this specific book was wildly entertaining. Highly recommended! 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Gregory Hiller #03 - The Spy Who Didn't

Journeyman author Jack Laflin wrote four books in the Gregory Hiller spy series - plus a prequel explaining how a Soviet spy named Piotr Grigorivich Ilyushin eventually became the American CIA’s greatest asset. I had trouble getting into the second installment, The Spy in the White Gloves, but I didn’t want to give up on this unique character so I’m continuing into the third novel, The Spy Who Didn’t from 1966.

The opening page brings the reader up to speed on Hiller’s background as a Soviet defector who is now living as a freelance writer between CIA special assignments. However, this time the assignment stumbles into a vacationing Hiller in the form of a battered old man on a road who collapses in Hiller’s arms outside a mysterious Long Island, New York sanitarium. Before losing consciousness, the old man tells Hiller that the nation of Israel needs to be notified, and “Von Eckhardt has to be stopped!”

Hiller is quickly confronted by the escapee’s pursuers and we get to meet our pulpy cast of cartoonish villains lead by Doctor Rolf Von Eckhardt, who we immediately know is a real villain because he wears a monocle. He’s also the operator of the private sanitarium, Shady Knoll, from which the old man escaped. By page 17, Hiller is captured by the bad guys, including a human giant named Man Mountain McGill, and taken to the sanitarium. The context clues for Hiller and the reader are enough to make everyone come to the logical conclusion that Von Eckhardt is an escaped Nazi officer doing very bad things inside the sanitarium walls.

Laflin writes The Spy Who Didn’t in the over-the-top pulp fiction style of The Shadow, The Spider, or Doc Savage. It’s a lot of fun as long as you aren’t expecting a John LeCarre or Robert Ludlum spy story (in fairness, the paperback’s cover should have been a clue.) The torture scenes inside Shady Knoll were particularly brutal, and the secrets of what else is happening inside the creepy place are revealed mostly through monologues from the villain oversharing with our restrained hero.

Eventually, the action moves from beyond the sanitarium walls and into Mexico. Heller’s mission is one that’s been done in dozens of times in other, better novels, but that’s not the point. The Spy Who Didn’t is a violent and propulsive bit of pulp fiction that exists for the joy of the ride. Laflin is a good storyteller even when he is trading in genre tropes for his CIA hero. Mostly, this is a book I can recommend without reservations because it was a hell of a lot of fun. I probably won’t remember the plot details in a year, but I’ll certainly recall the good time I had in this vicarious adventure.

The Gregory Hiller Series:

0: The Spy Who Loved America (1964)
1: A Silent Kind of War (1965)
2: The Spy with the White Gloves (1965)
3: The Spy Who Didn’t (1966)
4: The Reluctant Spy (1966)

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Thane #01 - City of Doom

Warren Publishing experienced success with one of their flagship comic magazines, Creepy. The black and white magazine escaped the Comic Code Authority because their rules and regulations didn't govern magazines. While the book would mostly consist of traditional horror storytelling to match its title, by the late 1960s the contents began to alter. This era of comic and paperback publishing found success by concentrating their efforts on sword-and-sorcery tales. This was a fertile landscape dominated by the reprinting of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories in the Lancer paperbacks and the birth of the character in comic format. Additionally, this was the prime-time for artists to show off spectacular genre paintings that sometimes even surpassed the quality of the sword-and-sorcery stories they celebrated. 

In the June, 1967 issue of Creepy (#15, cover by Frank Frazetta), longtime Warren writer Archie Goodwin introduced a new barbarian for readers to cheer, Thane. This character debuts in “City of Doom” with artwork by Steve Ditko (Spider-Man, Daredevil). Uncle Creepy sets the table on the first page: “They had left Thane staked out to die on the black sand of volcanic wasteland, bait for the beaks and talons of the great albino vultures which hunt there.”

This story doesn't prove to be much of an origin tale as very little information is provided on where Thane lives and what role he serves. From the text, and the tradition of the genre, it seems as though he is an adventurer and mercenary. As the strip unfolds, readers learn that Thane was hired by Ultor, leader of a band of raiders called Scythians, to help them fight a battle. After the campaign ends, Thane was promised his share of the plunder. But, the Scythians double-cross Thane and leave him to die. Thane escapes being bound to stakes in the desert and trails his betrayers through the wasteland.

Thane is surprised when a woman calling herself Livia, the High Priestess of the ancient city of Kadith, appears on his path. She requests Thane's help in defending her city from the Scythian raiders. With a chance at vengeance, Thane follows Livia into a large fortress with plenty of winding stairways and dark halls. Soon, Thane realizes he has been betrayed again when he discovers that Livia is actually an evil servant of the city itself. Inside the fortress, the walls and floor come alive as writhing tentacles suck the flesh from bone. Thane finds Ultor being eaten alive by the hideous creature, then must find a way to slash his way through the monster to escape this terrifying living city. 

This is obviously Conan worship, with Thane displaying brutal tendencies, a fiery temper, and the typical dialogue that accompanies the Cimmerian. Like Conan exclaiming “By Crom!”, Thane declares, “By Thoth!” He also expresses his anger by calling his enemy “Scythian Dogs”, recalling Howard's hero throwing down "Stygian Dogs". Ditko's artwork, which is really the highlight, comes alive as Thane enters the dark passageways. His artwork on the bottom of page eight captures the hero's shock when he finds hordes of savages awaiting him. The wide panel on page nine showcasing Thane's sword slicing through the enemy is remarkable and reminds me of something more modern that I've seen in Conan comics (perhaps Dark Horse). The upper panels on page ten capture that same emotional intensity as Ultor screams while being eaten alive. 

This story was a lot of fun and launches what should have been a longer Thane serial for Goodwin. The character appears again in “Angel of Doom” (#16, August 1967, artist Jeff Jones), “Barbarian of Fear” (#27, June 1969, artist Tom Sutton), and “The Last Sorcerer” (#112, October 1979, artist Alex Nino). Additionally, these stories were reprinted in additional issues of Creepy. Three of these stories were completely written by Goodwin, with “Barbarian of Fear” being partially authored by Bill Parente (Vampirella, Eerie). Unfortunately, only a total of four original stories were created starring this character. While cookie-cutter at best, this hero is still entertaining in his own right. Or, I'm just sucker for this era of sword-and-sorcery. 

Check out the Creepy trades collecting the issues HERE

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Solomon Kane - The Right Hand of Doom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get a copy of a Solomon Kane omnibus HERE.

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Conan - The Tower of the Elephant

Robert E. Howard scholars typically cite “The Tower of the Elephant” as the best representation of Conan the Cimmerian literature. The story first appeared in the March 1933 issue of Weird Tales. It later appeared in the 1946 Arkham collection Skull-Face and Others, the 1953 Gnome Press hardcover The Coming of Conan, the 1968 Lancer paperback Conan, and a 1975 hardcover collection by Donald Grant simply titled The Tower of the Elephant. It was adapted into comic form three times, Conan the Barbarian #4, Savage Sword of Conan #24, and Conan #20-22

The story begins with a young Conan arriving in Arenjun, the “City of Thieves”. It’s in this city that he overhears a conversation involving some drunk men talking about theft and coveted wealth. A boisterous Kothian mentions a place called The Tower of the Elephant, and the impossibility of ever robbing it of its vast riches. Conan, who loves a sparring challenge, disputes the notion, matching wits with the Kothian over the possibility. Agitated with the conversation, a candle is extinguished and Conan quickly kills the loud-mouthed Kothian under cover of darkness. Challenge accepted - rob the Tower of the Elephant!

At night, Conan begins his attempt to climb the smooth-walled tower. He finds that the structure itself is surrounded by rings of thick shrubbery, like a grassy moat. Surprisingly, another thief, a seasoned pro named Taurus, “Prince of Thieves”, has the same plan to infiltrate the tower and runs into Conan. Taurus kills deadly, fierce lions with poison gas and Conan strangles one of the guards. Using a grappling hook, both Taurus and Conan ascend the tower and enter through a window. It’s here that Taurus is somehow poisoned in a doorway, and Conan finds an alien being named Yag-kosha. This alien explains to Conan that he became imprisoned in the tower by an evil sorcerer named Yara. For Conan to capture the riches, and a famed ruby elephant heart, he must contend with the sorcerer, a giant, hideous spider, and figure out a way to free Yag-kosha.

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. 

Considering this is a tale concerning a savage, alpha male, Howard is still able to create a colorful, cautionary tale about greed and its effect on the human condition. Metaphorically, Yag-kosha could be the billionaire trapped by his own wealth. Or the idea that the upper class is a very ugly thing. Conan’s role as the anti-hero, purely a rouge scoundrel that's self-serving, justly receives his comeuppance. Regardless of its social, not-so-preachy commentary, "The Tower of the Elephant" is an enjoyable, rousing pulp sword-and-sorcery tale that lives up to its long-lasting legacy. It doesn’t get much better than this. Highly recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The Enforcer #01 - The Enforcer

Lancer released The Enforcer in 1973. It was the debut of a series that lasted four volumes with the publishing group before Manor purchased the line and released two more (including reprinting some with better art). The series was written and created by Andrew Sugar, who would later contribute for Argosy as well as books in The Israeli Commandos line. After one stand-alone title, Yank, the author seemed to retire from writing around 1979.  No other published works are known. Oddly, there’s some mystery behind this particular creator. Some have speculated that Andrew Sugar was actually a woman named Andrea Sugar. However, according to the Glorious Trash blog, a fan and former Sugar colleague states this is false. Blogger and author Paul Bishop discovered evidence from a court case (her lawsuit over naming rights of Dirty Harry film franchise) that he lived his later years as a woman – Andrea Sugar.

While The Enforcer appears to be another entry in the popular “vigilante revenge” sub-genre, don’t let the cover fool you. There are very little comparisons contrary to the book’s obvious knock-off of The Executioner styled covers. The cover suggests this is a “great new series”. It’s not. It also shows us a Mack Bolan clone holding a handgun. That’s not in the book. The tagline of, “The contract’s out from the Mafia masters – get the Enforcer before he gets us!” has absolutely nothing to do with this book. There’s no Mafia, no contract and the Enforcer isn’t out to get anyone. The book’s jacket is a scam just begging for you to spend your hard earned .95 cents on this guy instead of Bolan. I hope you didn’t.

Alex Jason is a successful author and lives in a nice apartment complex in New York. In the book’s opening chapters, we learn that Jason is in the final stages of stomach cancer and weights roughly 100-pounds. He’s not exactly in tip-top fighting shape regardless of his martial arts background. Aside from controlling his pain using inner self-control called Ki, he spends his dying days depleting his funds and having heavily detailed sex with his girlfriend (who at one-point wishes Jason had two penises to please her with). Jason entertains an offer from a mysterious hologram – he can live an additional two years if he can contribute his services to the John Anryn Institute. How is this possible for a terminal Cancer patient? Simple. A guy named Flack has invented successful body growing (and cloning). Frankenstein influences in a men’s action adventure tale?

In what of the most outrageous storylines of any genre series, Flack can simply place Jason’s mind in perfect bodies that he has grown from cells. While these bodies are healthy, strong and enamored with ginormous penises, they do have a flaw. After about 90 days the body will essentially melt and Jason will need to be replaced in a new body. Each time this happens…the brain waves become a little duller. It’s not a flawless process but Jason understands the risks. Soon Flack and his institute has Jason in laser beam training, an important part of his first mission – destroying oil wells in Cuba to spur a dictatorship’s downfall. After meeting, and screwing, a trainer named Brunie (also a cloned body), Jason is off to Cuba (?) to shoot the oil well with a laser beam. Unfortunately, his raft sinks along with most of his supplies. Considering Jason has no prior military experience and writes books for a living, he is soon captured by the dictator and forced into a three-month prison sentence of torture and penis flicking (by another man).

There are so many things wrong with this book that I can’t possibly outline them all here. 

First, why would the institute want Jason to do these things? It’s 1973, why not some Vietnam specialist or other military trained professional? Second, the author spends a bulk of the middle of this book just doing day to day stuff at the prison – very mild torture, hotbox occupancy, penis flicking – with very little payoff. How does our paperback warrior escape? Brunie and his laser beam trainer, Tutley, show up to spring him from the camp. 

The book continues for another 40 pages as the team learns there is an Island of Dr. Moreau thing happening in some secret laboratory on the island. Without proper supplies and arms (the laser beams have a max capacity of 15 shots), they literally walk into the laboratory and threaten the commander with a spider in a bag. No shit. I’m not making this up. Utterly ridiculous…and fascinating. 

The book’s finale, which can’t come soon enough, circles back to the novel’s opening pages of Jason melting away on a Caribbean beach. It’s hard to imagine where the series’ will go from here – but I’m hoping less spiders in a bag, less laser beams and much, much better writing.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Wasteworld #02 - Resurrection

The men's action-adventure genre of the 1980s was a license to print money capitalizing on Cold War hysteria. Pop-culture was consistently buzzing with what was conceived as an inevitable nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Films like “The Road Warrior” and “Mad Max” proved to be catalysts spurning the post-apocalyptic movement that eventually would permeate men's action fiction. With series' like 'Doomsday Warrior', 'Deathlands' and 'Out of the Ashes', the genre spiked by the mid-80s and created a number of shorter series titles and stand-alone novels.

U.K. authors Laurence James and Angus Wells were members of the “Piccadilly Cowboys”, a faction of British writers that concentrated on violent western titles including 'Apache', 'Adam Steele' and 'Edge'. James was a tremendous contributor to the post-apocalyptic genre as well, penning a number of 'Deathlands' novels as well as a trilogy called 'Survival 2000'. Teaming with U.K. publishing house Granada, and his contemporary Angus Wells, James launched a four-book series called 'Wasteworld' in 1983 that featured vivid artwork from acclaimed illustrator Richard Clifton-Dey (Blue Oyster Cult, Ray Bradbury).

The second entry, “Resurrection”, features survivor Matthew Chance driving a worn-out Daitsu through rural Texas. Readers were first introduced to Chance in the series debut “Aftermath”, where Chance's background as United States Marine Corps pilot led to a subsequent post-nuke campaign in the Crozet Islands in the Indian Ocean. Making his way through Mexico, Chance was shipwrecked in New Orleans on a quest to find his ex-wife and family. After disposing of a defacto dictator and liberating a tunnel of mutants, “Resurrection” picks up seamlessly from those events.

The book's opening scenes pits the wiry Chance against a gigantic mutant spider. The harrowing fight is a tantalizing suggestion that this book may be an improvement over the series' disappointing debut. After the spider fight, Chance finds himself in what remains of Austin, now a fortified, smaller city ran by Chance's brutish former father-in-law, Garth Chambers. The survivor settlement is now ruled by Chambers and features only two classes – military and prisoner.

The plot of “Resurrection” solidifies when Chambers imprisons Chance leading to their ironic twists-of-fate; Chambers needs Chance as a pilot in servitude, and Chance needs the whereabouts of Chambers' daughter and grandchildren. In an unlikely alliance, Chance is forced to work with Chambers until he can learn the location of his family. That brings the book's rowdy finale into view – the inevitable showdown between the two forces. However, to avoid the elementary premise, the authors introduce a mutant army called The Nightmen that will be forced to choose sides. Ultimately, a bomb shelter housing a lone prospector named Fairweather proves to be the key in Chance's fight.

Unlike the debut, “Resurrection” is an explosive action-adventure that meets the needs of avid post-apocalyptic fiction fans. High-octane car chases, gunfights with bandits, mutant insects and two charismatic forces enhance this ordinary “bully versus drifter” western archetype. In terms of genre quality, it ranks up there with the best of 'The Last Ranger' books and equals the chaotic enjoyment of the 'Traveler' series.  These used books are expensive and difficult to find, but based on this entry, it might be a worthy investment.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Monday, January 29, 2018

Secret Agent X #1 - The Torture Test

If you ever find yourself burning out on the sullen anti-heroes of 1970's-80's paperbacks, and getting tired of the coldness, the sex and the cynicism in them, the vintage pulps are the perfect alternative. But while fabulous characters are all over the place in the pulps, finding great stories isn’t necessarily easy. 'Doc Savage', 'G-8' and 'The Spider' are classic heroes, but these stories were written for a young crowd - basically 12 to 16-years old. You get lots of action, weird villains and a brisk pace, but sometimes things collapse into such silliness that you become detached from the story rather than being carried along by it. At the other end of the spectrum are heroes like 'The Shadow' and 'The Phantom Detective'. Here the stories are a bit more adult and less fanciful, but sometimes the prose is dry, plodding and short on thrills. I love all of those characters. But I’ve found that the stories I tend to enjoy the most come from the middle of the spectrum, where you’ll find lesser-known heroes like 'Jim Hatfield', 'Operator 5' and 'Secret Agent X'.

Agent X makes his debut in “The Torture Trust” (1934), an imaginative and energetic novel full of action and atmosphere, menace and mayhem. It’s got naturalistic dialogue and there are no goofy sidekicks following the hero around. Paul Chadwick (as Brant House) handles this enigmatic character with skill, sharing Agent X’s thoughts and feelings just enough to make him human, without ever losing the aura of mystery that makes him fascinating. We’re told almost nothing about who he is (not even his name), where he came from or how he got into his dangerous profession.

In this adventure, Agent X battles an unknown trio of hooded extortionists who are terrorizing the city, torturing their victims with acid when they don’t pay up. At first, he has almost no clues to work with, but he methodically zeroes in on the villains’ identities and location, step-by-step, right through to an effective climactic confrontation. Chadwick must have realized he had something special here, because he would later recycle the story for another 'Secret Agent X' novel, “The Hooded Heroes”, in which the only real improvement was to make the villains even meaner, pouring molten lead down their victims’ throats! 

Like many of the great pulp heroes, Agent X frequently goes undercover, wearing disguises and elaborate make-ups as he conducts his operations. He really takes that work seriously in “The Torture Trust”, studying film footage and voice recordings of his subjects before meticulously applying many thin layers of makeup to complete his impersonation. This is quite a contrast to 'The Shadow', 'G-8', 'The Phantom Detective' (and Agent X himself in his later novels), whose make-ups are slapped together in a few moments, often in the dark or in moving vehicles. That attention to detail pays off, both for Agent X and the author and it helps set this thriller apart. Like all the best hero pulp stories, it’s grounded in the real world… but anything can happen on the next page.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

The Tease

By the late 1960s, successful crime-noir novelist Gil Brewer was battling many personal demons. His bouts with alcoholism and severe depression both contributed to the shortening of his superlative literary career. After a successful run of Fawcett Gold Medal paperbacks, Brewer experienced a downward spiral through the publishing world, drifting to mid-echelon publishers like Monarch and Lancer. Aside from his three It Takes a Thief television tie-ins published by Ace in 1969 and 1970 and some house-name series work, Brewer's penultimate original novel in his own name was The Tease, published by Banner in 1967. It exists now as a reprint by Stark House Press

The book introduces readers to Wes McCord, a realtor and married man living in a shoreline house in Tampa, Florida. Wes is married to his very patient wife Lucille, who has lived with his lying and unfaithfulness for years. In the book's opening chapter, Lucille and Wes have a heated argument over their financial woes and Wes's sexual misbehavior at a neighborhood party. In the heat of the moment, Lucille flees to her sister's house with the solemn vow that she wants to dissolve the marriage.

That same evening, just hours after the fiery exchange with Lucille, Wes spots a half-naked vixen running along the beach. Rushing to her assistance, Wes meets Bonnie and brings her home where she claims she was assaulted by an elderly man at gunpoint in a nearby motel. While defending herself, the assailant’s gun discharged and shot the man in the chest. Fleeing the scene, she escaped down the beach and into the arms of Wes. Is that the story she maintains throughout Brewer's pulsing narrative? Thankfully, no.

With his wife out of the house, Wes finds a place in his home to hide this beautiful, sexually-charged 18-year old. When the cops arrive to ask about the footprints in the sand, Wes panics and covers for his new houseguest. The next morning, Wes reads in the local newspaper that a man from Jacksonville, Florida (fun fact: world headquarters of Paperback Warrior) named Joseph Vito was found dead in a Tampa motel. He was the prime suspect in a $325,000 bank robbery a month ago and his accomplices, including an unknown woman, were still being sought by authorities.

As Wes's emotional distress is elevated, he's faced with a number of life-altering choices. Does he defy the law and continue hiding Bonnie in hopes that she's holding $325,000 and is willing to share? Does he pursue his estranged wife and attempt to salvage their devastated marriage? Should he give into his desires and ravage this young woman in the sexual prime of life? It’s these questions that add fuel to the burning fire created by Brewer's compelling prose.

The Tease exhibits all of the vicious, savage tones that made Gil Brewer the crime-noir kingpin of his time. Like 1958's The Vengeful Virgin, the author melds sizzling lust with raw criminal intent. It's the perfect combination of hot, spirited passion and fervent greed. Bonnie's pleas for help – both mentally and physically – lead Wes into a spider-web of lies and treachery by forfeiting his career, marriage and lifestyle. 

When presented with sex, money and power, what does the everyman do? It is amazing that despite Brewer's myriad of personal problems, he was still able to orchestrate an exhilarating story in the twilight of his career. While it has yet to be reprinted, don't let the expensive second-hand price deter you from obtaining a copy of this entertaining crime-noir paperback. The Tease is simply excellent. Get a copy HERE

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Steve Holland: Paperback Hero

Michael Stradford served as the VP of A&R for Quincy Jones' Qwest Records, represented Sony Pictures Home Entertainment in both creating, producing, and overseeing content creation, and assisted in launching a film distribution platform at Warner Bros. Pictures. He has authored numerous books, including Black to the Movies and Other Pop Culture Musings and MilesStyle: The Fashion of Miles Davis. My first introduction to Stradford was an awe-inspiring 2021 book about model and actor Steve Holland, The World's Greatest Illustration Art Model. It was a follow-up to the author's first Steve Holland retrospective, Steve Holland: The Torn Shirt Sessions

The newest entry in the Steve Holland Library is Stradford's Steve Holland: Paperback Hero, which is in our wheelhouse here at Paperback Warrior. My office is wallpapered in hundreds of paperback book spines, of which, over half are probably sporting a painted cover of Steve Holland performing a breathtaking action pose while holding a gun, riding a horse, embracing a beautiful woman, or just gazing back at me with that “friendly but I mean business” stare. Typically, I buy everything with his face on it. The paperback rule of thumb is if Holland is on it, it's at the very least readable. It's like a signature of approval from the publisher, writer, and the character he embodies. 

Steve Holland: Paperback Hero is 212 glorious pages of colorful book covers indexed by genres like Spycraft, War, Westerns, Sci-Fi, etc. In Stradford's introduction, he explains that he has over a thousand Holland covers in his database, and a 45-page checklist averaging 42 titles per page. He estimates it to roughly 1900 titles sporting cover art that featured Holland. This doesn't include covers that couldn't directly be linked to Holland, but perhaps featured a likeness. Needless to say, Stradford is the world's foremost Holland historian. 

As a fan of vintage paperback fiction, I was thrilled to read Stradford's notes on the various series titles and novels. Each section features a few series titles and a summary of quantity, run length, and a brief description of the series. For example, the first section, Spycraft, features series titles like Coxeman, Nick Carter: Kill Master, and Man from O.R.G.Y. I was thrilled to see larger than life, colorful scans of the Killsquad series, featuring paintings by the legendary Bob Larkin. The artist is also featured in many of the pages, including four large panels of Conan paperbacks.

I love author Hammond Innes, but truthfully, I was drawn to the Avon paperbacks of the late 1960s. Those covers by Frank McCarthy are simply awesome, and Stradford focuses on that run specifically, with beautiful scans of the covers and a description of McCarthy's style. Another talented author, Jack Faragasso, is spotlighted in the Sci-Fi section, with a brief history and excerpts from an interview Stradford conducted. Some of Faragasso's cover art is featured here, ranging from Michael Moorcock's Hawkmoon to Lyle Kenyon Engel's Richard Blade series. 

Fans of men's action-adventure titles like Fargo, Peacemaker, The Protector, Jason Striker, The Penetrator, and The Lone Wolf are in for a visual feast in the Tough Guys section. Artwork by the likes of Mel Crair, Ron Lesser, and George Wilson are featured in full-page panels. A surprise to me was Holland on a cover of Ian Fleming's Goldfinger, painted by Frank McCarthy. There is also a larger section detailing Holland's modeling for The Spider, complete with black and white stills used for the various paintings. 

Once again, Michael Stradford has provided an amazing, visual buffet of many Steve Holland paperback covers. The amount of full-panel book scans, diversified by different genres, really shapes the impact and historic clout that Holland made in the 20th century publishing business. It's uncanny how often he appears, but this volume details the artists and notable series titles that made it happen. Overall, this is another mandatory addition for any paperback reader and collector. Recommended! More info at stevehollandbook.com

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Dragon's Fists

There's an interesting backstory behind the vintage paperback Dragon's Fists. It was published in 1974 by Award Books, a subsidiary of Universal Publishing under the pseudonym Jim Dennis. The novel was actually written by Dennis O'Neil and James Berry. O'Neil was a prolific comic book writer with works including Green Lantern, Amazing Spider-Man, Batman, and X-Men. Berry was a comic strip artist associated with the long-running Berry's World

The 1970s provided a fertile landscape for men's action-adventure paperbacks, so the proposal was for Dragon's Fists to become a series. The title page inside states #1 and the book is a clear origin story. It was designed to propel Kung-Fu master Richard Dragon, the book's main character, into a long-running publication. Unfortunately, the book wasn't a success and Award Books canceled the series. Was the novel that bad?

Through numerous flashbacks, readers learn that Richard Dragon's parents were very wealthy. Dragon, in defiance, wasted his childhood by creating a lot of chaos for himself and the family. He was kicked out of numerous schools and universities and refused to conform to his father's rules. As a young adult, Dragon became a thief in Japan and attempted to rob an older gentleman. The man ridicules Dragon, but finds that he has the ability to do good things if he can change his attitude. This man, referred to as O-Sensei, is a Kung-Fu master. He teaches Dragon martial arts and how to live life in a positive way. 

With his new skills, Dragon joins an espionage agency called G.O.O.D. (Global Organization of Organized Defense) and serves as an agent for a number of years. After he leaves the agency, Dragon becomes a martial arts teacher. In the opening pages, Dragon's friend Carolyn comes to him to ask for help. In a quick fight scene, Carolyn is kidnapped by a male villain named The Swiss. He also murders Carolyn's uncle in a quest to locate a series of numbers.

The bulk of the narrative is spent with Dragon trying to locate The Swiss in Paris. There's a number of violent fight scenes to keep readers engaged, but the story is fragmented due to the flashback sequences. It reminded me of the old Kung-Fu television show where the main character finds conflict and is reminded of some important lesson he learned from his master. The action is great, the story is convoluted, and the pace is jarring. Beyond collectible nostalgia, there probably isn't a reason to hunt this book down.

Fortunately, Richard Dragon continued in comic book format and has become a stable, popular character within the D.C. Comics universe. The character first appeared in comic book format in 1975 under the title Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter. That series lasted 18 issues. The Richard Dragon series launched again in 2004 and ran 12 issues. Since the 1970s, the character has appeared repeatedly as both a hero and villain. Most recently, Richard Dragon appeared on the television show Arrow and the animated Batman film Soul of the Dragon

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

The Empty Trap

The Empty Trap, published by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1957, is a shorter, stand-alone crime-fiction novel by John D. MacDonald. It's patterned like a traditional western yarn, albeit more savage and uncontrollable in a contemporary setting. While the story's most violent portions occur in Mexico, MacDonald leads his readers into the dry, scorching Nevada town called Oasis Springs. It is here where The Empty Trap snares Lloyd Wescott and his beautiful lover Sylvia.

In the novel's opening pages, readers are immediately introduced to Lloyd. But it's a brief introduction. You see Lloyd has skimmed nearly $100,000 from his employer, a crooked Casino calling itself The Green Oasis, and he's now a broken shell of a man about to meet death. Harry's three brutish enforcers have gang raped Sylvia to death and viciously burned and beaten Lloyd in an effort to retrieve the money. In the opening 19-pages (not for the squeamish), Lloyd is placed into a Pontiac and pushed off of a high cliff. But unbeknownst to the enforcers, Llloyd survives.

Like a rugged Spaghetti Western, Lloyd is found by an old Mexican and brought to the man's large village. The impoverished villagers slowly nurse Lloyd back to health. With his disturbing new appearance – splintered teeth, broken facial bones, spider-web of scars – Lloyd contrives a plan to avenge Sylvia's murder...and his own.

MacDonald weaves his short narrative into a series of backstories. The reader is brought full circle from Lloyd's beginnings as a hotel manager to his affair with Harry's sultry wife Sylvia. It's a timeless retelling of a man's quest to avenge the death of a loved one, but MacDonald squeezes a lot of originality out of the familiar story. Lloyd's affection for his employer's wife helps the reader identify with a flawed character (as opposed to the popular crime-fiction trend of alcohol addiction). The novel's bloody beginning sets the tone for what is ultimately a very gritty and violent tale of theft, misfortune and loss. Readers know exactly what's behind the curtain jerk, but will still be impressed by MacDonald's magic.

The Empty Trap proved to be a fulfilling reading experience. Buy a copy of the book HERE.