Wednesday, February 28, 2024

The Eagle Has Landed

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Died on a Rainy Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Chip Harrison #03 - Make Out with Murder

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of the book HERE.

Saturday, February 10, 2024

Ki-Gor - And the Secret Legions of Simba

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Come Easy - Go Easy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, January 20, 2024

Ki-Gor - And the Giant Gorilla-Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy HERE.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Night Shoot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, January 8, 2024

David: Warrior and King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Conan - The Devil in Iron

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Friday, January 5, 2024

Night of the Mannequins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Tarzan #05 - Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

Monday, January 1, 2024

Dark Harvest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

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.

Wednesday, December 27, 2023

The Lantern Man

Having read four of Jon Bassoff's nine novels to date, I'm convinced he might be the most talented and thought-provoking author in the business. When writing a blog dedicated to reviewing vintage fiction, of which many of its authors are long dead, it is unusual for me to even refer to a writer as still being alive and relevant. Yes, Bassoff is alive (and well I hope) and continuing to write amazing books that defy any specific genre. He's as much a murder-mystery guy as a horror writer, as much a crime-fiction stalwart as a noir enthusiast. If Bassoff was a filmmaker, nods to David Lynch would certainly be warranted. He's that good.

In The Lantern Man, originally published in 2020 by Down and Out Books, Bassoff once again takes his readers into a dark strip of American Gothic, a Bible Belt of the Devil where small-town killings somehow find a shaded pathway to a not-so-idyllic family. Like his previous novels in Corrosion and Beneath Cruel Waters, The Lantern Man is set in a small community nestled in a rural stretch of Colorado mountains. It is here that mining was once prominent, and like any mining town, there are inevitable childhood rumors of a murderous miner that steals away children in the night to feast on their flesh. This rumor of “The Lantern Man” plays a big part in the murder of a teenage girl. Did a killer miner from days gone by murder her or was it a young man named Stormy Greiner?

The book is presented in a pretty innovative way, with comparisons made to House of Leaves (Mark Danielewski) or Dracula (Bram Stoker). The book is presented as texts, but made up of diary entries that feature footnotes written by a detective. It is a form of ergodic literature where the reader is forced into a sort of game to review all of the book's passages and clues. It isn't a heavy lift and can be read seamlessly from beginning to end. 

Ultimately, the narrative is a pretty twisted venture into some really dark places. The book's protagonist, Lizzie Greiner, is immediately disclosed to the reader as a suicide victim, a young woman who burns herself to death in an old mining shack. Beside her charred body is her journal, left in a fireproof box in a way that spells out all of the events leading up to her death. 

Detective Russ Buchanan is assigned the cumbersome chore of weeding through the journal and interviewing witnesses that may hold the answer to the girl's murder. The real answer lies in the eye of the beholder – none of the evidence or witnesses provide an indisputable explanation. The author's message is purely subjective. 

The Lantern Man is an extremely rewarding reading experience. The text is a great story, saturated in family ties, mystery, and a compelling narrative. But, the presentation is equally satisfying and designed for fans of crime-fiction. No matter what genre you prefer, this novel checks off every box. Highest possible recommendation.

Buy a copy of this book HERE.

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.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

The Adventures of Red Sonja - Volume 01

In the pulp magazine pages of Magic Carpet’s January 1934 issue readers will discover Robert E. Howard’s sword-mistress Red Sonya of Rogatine. She is the star of Howard’s short story “The Shadow of the Vulture”, described as a tall Russian warrior woman who fights with a dagger, two pistols, and a sabre. While writing for Marvel, Roy Thomas obtained a copy of the story from Glenn Lord, the literary agent for Robert E. Howard’s estate. Thomas, collaborating with artist Barry Smith, modified the story to introduce a new red-haired swordswoman, Red Sonja, in the pages of Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian #23 and #24 (1970). The rest is history.

To celebrate the early era of Red Sonja, Dynamite Entertainment acquired the rights to some of the character’s appearances in Marvel. These appearances are collected in a three-volume set titled The Adventures of Red Sonja. I borrowed a digital copy of Vol. 1, which collects the character’s appearances in Marvel Feature #1-#7, all published in 1975, plus the “Red Sonja” story from Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #1 (1974). Up until the Marvel Feature issues, the character had only appeared nine total times – five in Conan the Barbarian (1970), twice in The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian (1974), and twice in Kull and the Barbarians (1975). So, in essence, this collection feels like a terrific landing spot for new Red Sonja readers.

The collection begins with a three-page introduction written by Roy Thomas explaining how he created the character from Howard’s original “The Shadow of the Vulture” story. This intro is a great timeline of the early appearances of Red Sonja and Roy’s collaborations with artists like Neal Adams, Barry Smith, Ernie Chan (Ernue Chua), Dick Giordano, and of course, Frank Thorne. 

Roy’s commentary is followed by the eight-page story “Red Sonja”, which was originally published in Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian #1 (1974). The original story was black and white (reprinted in color in Marvel Feature #1), and this new version is colorized by Glass House Color Design. I like all three presentations, but I find myself enjoying this new colorized version (why do I feel guilty though?). The artwork by Esteban Maroto, Neal Adams, and Ernie Chan is really something special. The story has Red Sonja on a mission to earn money working for King Ghannif in a teeming city state in Hyrkania. But the King wants to add the fiery-haired She-Devil into his harem, which backfires in a big way. Sonja is also forced into a fight with the King’s albino musclebound bodyguard. 

Marvel Feature #1 follows with Thomas using an unfinished Robert E. Howard manuscript called “The Temple of Abomination” to frame his eponymous Red Sonja story. That story, originally published in the 1974 Donald M. Grant hardcover Tigers of the Sea, featured Howard’s Conan-like hero Cormac Mac Art. But, Thomas’s version has Red Sonja in a rural stretch of Nemedia forest when she stumbles upon an abandoned temple. Inside, she frees an old man chained to the wall and battles a small army of man-goats (yes man-goats!) that are sacrificing people to a slithering monstrosity in a pit. The art was created by Dick Giordano, which according to Thomas, was a guy who loved drawing women.

Some of Red Sonja’s best presentations are through the creative hands of artist Frank Thorne. He collaborated with Bruce Jones on Marvel Feature #2 “Blood of the Hunter”, #3 “Balek Lives”, #4 "Eyes of the Gorgon”, and #5 “The Bear God Walks!”. Of these stories, I found “Eyes of the Gorgon” to be the best of the bunch. Thomas returned for #6 “Beware the Sacred Sons of Set” and that story's continuation in #7 “The Battle of the Barbarians”. This last story features Red Sonja competing with Conan and Belit on a quest to recover a page from the coveted Book of Skelos.

The major complaint this volume receives is that the last story, “The Battle of the Barbarians”, ends with a cliffhanger. The story isn’t continued in this volume because Dynamite didn’t have printing rights to Conan the Barbarian. The story was continued in Conan the Barbarian #68, published by Marvel in 1970. That story, which also featured Howard’s hero King Kull (and Brule), wrapped up the arc introduced by Thomas in Marvel Feature #6. So, it’s quite a letdown to get this far into the volume and discover it unfinished. But the second volume of The Adventures of Red Sonja features a written recap of those events.  

Overall, I’m delighted with his volume and found it a nostalgic and enjoyable romp through the ages with Red Sonja. If you are interested in more, The Adventures of Red Sonja Volume 2 features Red Sonja #1-#7 (1977) and Volume 3 features issues #8-#14. Dynamite also released a volume titled The Further Adventures of Red Sonja which features more appearances of her in later issues of The Savage Sword of Conan the Barbarian.

Buy a copy of this book 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.

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The Time of Terror

The kidnapping-heist crime novel The Time of Terror by Lionel White (1905-1985) was first published as a hardcover in 1960 and later abridged to fit the page count as an Ace Double paperback in 1961. The original text of the novel has been reprinted by Stark House Press and paired with 1958’s Too Young to Die.

Long Island, New York couple Christian and Elizabeth (“Call me, Bet!”) are living the suburban American dream. Christian has a good job with an electronics business he helped found, and Bet spends her days raising her two little kids with the help of a live-in nanny and housekeeper.

We also meet 38 year-old Frank Mace, a downtrodden guy in a downscale New York suburb. Frank is a laid-off factory worker whose family has left him. Frank feels that the only answer to turning his life around is an immediate influx of cash. As such, Frank decides to rob a supermarket without formulating much of a coherent plan.

Upon arrival at the grocery store, Frank encounters an unattended little kid - Bet’s kid - and snatches the boy up concocting a kidnapping-for-ransom scheme on the fly. And away we go with a wild paperback crime yarn.

In the opening chapters of The Time of Terror, the author adopts the conversational narration style employed in Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels where the third-person omniscient narrator has personality and provides commentary - even acknowledging that there is a reader to whom he’s speaking. It makes for a fun read, and White has the chops to do it well.

The perspective shifts between the police, the local newspaper, the FBI, the victim family, and our kidnapper are quick and well-executed. The plot developments are of the forehead-slapping, one-damn-thing-after-another variety and you’ll have a hard time looking away from this slow-motion noir trainwreck of a crime story.

Overall, it was a pretty great book. The first half a stronger than the second half, but White never disappoints. If you enjoy heists-gone-wrong paperbacks, you can safely add this one to your reading list.

Buy a copy of this book 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.