Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Sharpshooter #14: Las Vegas Vengeance

The Sharpshooter #14: Las Vegas Vengeance, by Bruno Rossi
No month stated, 1975  Leisure Books

John Marshall, who wrote the earlier #10: Hit Man, returns to The Sharpshooter for his second and final volume. But then there were only two more volumes of the series left, anyway – I mean can you believe it?? We’re almost to the end of this twisted, disjointed, but usually-entertaining “saga.” This was also the last volume to carry a number.

Like with his previous entry, Marshall is clearly writing a “real” Sharpshooter novel, which is to say he wasn’t writing a Marksman manuscript that was magically transformed into a Sharpshooter in the “editing” stage. His Johnny Rock is the same as the one in the first volume, a guy whose parents were killed by the Mafia, and unlike Philip “The Marksman” Magellan he doesn’t have a penchant for drugging people and cutting off their heads. Marshall not only refers to that first Sharpshooter yarn but also mentions his own Hit Man. I mean it’s almost enough to make a guy weep – actual continuity in The Sharpshooter!

We learn that the first volume was “well over a year ago” and the tenth volume was ten weeks ago. “Johnny” (as Marshall refers to him) has killed 278 mobsters in the past year; when we meet him, he has just arrived in Las Vegas for a well-earned vacation. Marshall clearly has taken Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel On Her Majesy’s Secret Service (1963) as inspiration, with gaudy Vegas standing in for Casino Royale and Johnny standing in for Bond, even down to the “cruel mouth” Fleming gave Bond. Like that Bond novel, Johnny encounters an ultra-gorgeous but “galacial” brunette beauty at the tables and watches as she bets – and wins – with an almost casual disregard. When he follows her later on, he comes upon her just as she’s about to commit suicide.

And just like Tracy in OHMSS, the young lady is Italian and involved with organized crime – but here it’s not her dad who runs it, but her husband who was in it. He was the cash collector for the mob’s various Vegas interests, but was gunned down by the family when it turned out he was skimming profits. This Johnny learns in a nicely-done scene between the two; the lady turns out to be named Elisa Parendetti, and because her husband was Mafia the family now looks out for her. Thus she “can’t lose” in any of the casinos, much to her dismay – she hates “dirty money” and is about to blow her brains out in her new Maserati when Johnny comes upon her.

Johnny makes the mob widow an offer: if she listens to his story but isn’t interested in his offer, she can not only go ahead and kill herself but he’ll finish her off if necessary. He tells her he’s the infamous Sharpshooter, and proposes that together they’d make a winning team: with her mob-world contacts she could feed Johnny info and he could take out the Vegas Mafia. She of course takes him up on the offer, then insists he get in her Maserati so they can go back to her place: “You’re going to get the best tail of your life,” she promises. But all you fellow pervs out there looking for some hot ‘70s sleaze action will be disappointed, for once again Marshall is stricty an off-page kind of writer when it comes to the sex scenes…though curiously, as I’ll elaborate upon presently, he has no such qualms when it comes to the rape scenes.

The Johnny-Elisa team not only reminds the reader of the Johnny-Iris Toscado team of the first volume, but also of the Johnny-Ginny Reid team of Marshall’s own previous volume. Only here the relationship isn’t nearly as developed. In fact, Elisa ultimately provides zilch, either to Johnny’s mob-busting efforts or to the narrative itself. She’s there to trade exposition with Johnny, to cook and serve him his meals, and to have off-page sex with him. And speaking of exposition, Marshall, despite a strong opening with Johnny and Elisa’s first meeting, is soon back to the same tricks as in Hit Man, with countless scenes of Johnny sitting around and expositing on what he’s planning to do…after which Marshall will describe Johnny doing exactly that. And even worse, in each case it all goes down just as Johnny planned.

For new stuff, Johnny has a Travis Bickle-style derringer holder on his forerm; a flex of his muscle and the two-shot gun jumps into his hand. This is employed in a memorable scene where an unusually-gullible Johnny is briefly in the clutches of a dirty cop – one who claims to be taking Johnny “down to the station” but is really planning to blow his head off and collect his mob reward. Johnny’s also back to his disguise trickery, spending portions of the novel going around as a hippie. In a humorously go-nowhere subplot, Elisa occasionally dresses up like “the hippie’s wife,” but we never see what the intention of this, as she goes off on her own.

The confrontation with the dirty cop is the highlight of the novel, with Marshall doling out some nice suspense even though every single reader knows what the outcome will be. Here too he shows a nice touch with dialog. But for the majority of the novel he’s content to dole out exposition for the dialog, with Johnny lounging around after the latest Elisa-prepared meal and stating, “After this I shall…” Otherwise the “action scenes” follow the usual template of the series, with Johnny planting explosives and killing scads of villains en masse; especially lame is a “climactic sequence” where Johnny takes out practically all of the villains off-page. In fact this is so lame that Marshall has to introduce a new “main villain” in the veritable 11th hour so Johnny can have someone new to kill (and Marshall can meet the page requirement).

Instead, Marshall focuses more on the capture, rape, and rescuing of Elisa. Those dirty cops strike again, finding Elisa’s fingerprints in Johnny’s hotel, and soon enough a Mafia crew is sent out to round her up. They get her just as she’s in the shower, Johnny having just left to handle more mob-busting business; of course, Elisa has fallen in love with Johnny as expected. The creeps take her to a remote ranch and set about gang-raping her. Marshall goes into full-bore sleaze territory here, including even sodomy: “It was as though her rectal passage was being ripped apart.” As ever, the bland, meat-and-potatoes nature of the humdrum writing makes these sleazy scenes even sleazier.

By the time Johnny tracks her down, poor Elisa’s been raped so much that she’s plumb insane. Johnny kills the rapists and takes her back to a hotel, later having her doctor look at her. By novel’s end Elisa is so far gone that she’s burning mob money and babbling like a child; Johnny calls the one good cop on the force and tells him to come pick her up! And with that Johnny makes his leave from Las Vegas, having broken the local mob apart – and the dude still hasn’t even taken his vacation. This was it for Marshall on the series, and while his two stories are okay, he’s really only just a rung or two above Paul Hofrichter.

And you’ve gotta love Ken Barr’s typically-outstanding cover art. It practically screams “Cint Eastwood is…!!”

Monday, January 14, 2019

Conan The Freebooter (Conan #3)

Conan The Freebooter, by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague De Camp
November, 1986  Ace Books
(Original Lancer Books edition 1968)

I had a tough time with this third volume of Conan. In fact I read it over a year ago, but at the time I found myself skimming the collected stories, to the point that when I “finished” the book I didn’t have any idea how to review it! So I waited a while until getting back to the series, only to find my interest again sagging at times. I guess the tales here didn’t pull me in like the ones in the previous books did, other that is than “Black Colossus.” But it also appeared that Robert E. Howard himself was bored; in the stories collected here, Conan is usually in a supporting status.

At least the posthumous tinkering isn’t as egregious this time; Lin Carter is a no-show, and L. Sprague De Camp only works his “magic” on two of the tales, where he again demonstrates he has no real understanding of Conan. This is especially true in a story he and Carter later wrote that isn’t actually in Conan The Freebooter but takes place within this time period (or at least this time period as defined by De Camp and Carter), but I’ll get to that one anon. Even the Howard originals here sort of come off like repeats of his previous ones, or vice versa.

“Hawks Over Shem” opens the book, and this is one of the two stories Sprague edited; it was first published in 1955, and De Camp tinkered with a Howard manuscript titled “Hawks Over Egypt,” which featured the character Diego de Guzman. I’ve never looked for Howard’s original, but I wonder if it’s as all-over-the-map as this one is. The plot changes constantly and Conan spends long stretches off-page, providing an early indication of the ensuing stories and novellas.

I like the opening, though, because it reminds me of John Milius’s Conan film; Conan’s slinking through the dingy streets of Asgalun in Shem and runs into a Hyrkanian archer-thief who becomes his best bed. All sort of like the relationship between Conan and Subotai in the movie. After Conan bashes the guy in the head for following him, they become BFFs; he says his name is Farouz. While drinking at nearby tavern Conan exposits (there’s lots of expositing throughout the book) that he’s come here to get revenge on some guy, and Farouz says what the hell, let’s do it now.

So what is initially promised to be the plot of the story is resolved within a few pages; Conan and Farouz break into the royal chamber – Conan’s target, Othbaal, is one of the rulers here – and kill him without much fuss. The storyline then sort of focuses on a busty redhead named Rufia; apparently once owned by Farouz, but then belonging to Othbaal, but now trying to maneuver her way into the graces of nutcase King Akhirom, who rules the city with an iron fist. I suspect the Rufia stuff was more central to the original Howard tale, but here comes off like, well, like material from a completely unrelated story.

Akhirom is at least interesting, a ranting and raving madman with delusions of godhood. Conan takes a break as we focus on Rufia, who doesn’t come off as a very likable character. It’s especially frustrating because the entire narrative seems to build up to Conan meeting her, but this doesn’t happen until the very final sentences and the story ends with Conan hauling her off – he does of course get a new woman each story. Much more interesting than Rufia is Zeriti, a witch in an Anita “The Great Tyrant” Pallenberg sort of vein. She schemes to get hold of Rufia for her own twisted ends, torturing her in the finale.

It’s all just very random and disjointed. Conan returns long enough to arbitrarily decide he wants to track down Zeriti, and of course comes upon her just as she’s torturing Rufia. She summons some creature from the darkness, and our hero Conan just sort of stands around while the other characters deal with everything. He doesn’t even fight the demon, which disappears(!). Then he picks up Rufia and takes off, and here the story mercifully ends.

“Black Colossus” follows, and it’s my favorite in the book by far. This one’s solely by Howard; I read the original version as published in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian (Del Rey, 2003). This is a very cool tale, even though it has elements from other Conan yarns. But one can see how Leigh Brackett was so inspired by Howard, as this story is quite similar to the Eric John Stark novella Queen Of The Martian Catacombs, particularly in how an ancient menance has risen in the desert and is slowly invading the surrounding areas.

But I’d say Brackett handled the setup a lot better, if only because she kept her protagonist in the action throughout. “Black Colossus” is unfortunately yet another story in which Conan disappears for long stretches. He’s absent until the story is well underway; we get a too-long but otherwise sort of cool opening in which a thief breaks into an ancient Egypt-style crypt, thus unleashing a ghost or malevolent entity or what have you. Then we get lovely Princess Yasmela, ruler of Khojara, having a bad dream – she’s awakened by the ghostly presence of Natohk, the Veiled One, whose army is slowly coming upon Khoraja. He is the spirit unleashed in the opening, and he basically tells Yasmela that her hot little body will soon be his.

This finally leads us to Conan – Yasmela and her maid get nice and nude and pray to the old god Mitra, who tells Yasmella to go out on the street and offer her kingdom to the first man she sees. Sure enough, it’s Conan himself, skulking around the dark streets and looking for a tavern. Howard proves once again that his Hyboria is a strange amalgamation of barbaric and High Middle Ages; Conan, when Yasmella presents him to her slackjawed military leaders, is bedecked in full plate armor. I remember as a young geek this is one of the things that always annoyed me about Marvel’s Conan comics…about the most they’d ever give Conan was a helmet or something.

The tale simmers on and on, with Conan marshalling the army to take on Nahtok’s horde. Strangely though, Howard keeps the climactic battles off-page, for the most part, and even worse when Conan’s around he’s playing general and isn’t even in the fray. Some characters are killed off-page and we only learn about it thanks to Howard’s usual reliance on exposition. But still, it’s all like a pulp version of the Iliad, with lots of chariot battles and the like. I found the finale a bit underwhelming, though, with Conan merely throwing a sword through Natohk. That said, the story ends with Conan about to get some fresh after-battle booty courtesy Yasmella.

“Shadows In The Dark” – This one’s a bonus, because it’s not in Conan The Freebooter. It’s actually in Conan The Swordsman (Berkley, 1978). I only include it here for two reasons – one, because chonologically it takes place right after “Black Colossus,” and two, so as to warn others to avoid it. This short story is L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter at their very worst. Even someone with zero knowledge of Howard’s originals will know something is amiss within the first pages, in which Conan, now raised to a high military rank in Khoraja, stomps about the palace, pouting that Princess Yasmella doesn’t spend any time with him! And when he pleads with her for more time together and Yasmella says the people would frown on their princess consorting with a barbarian, Conan suggests that they get married!!

From there it devolves into the usual cliché fantasy junk these two authors seemed to love…Conan heads out with a small retinue on some mission to free Yasmella’s brother. It goes on and on, with the expected supernatural trimmings and random betrayals. Conan’s ostensibly on the mission so as to free Yasmella’s brother so he can rule and thus Conan and Yasmella can be together more(!), but what’s especially dumb is that by story’s end Conan has had a sudden change of heart and just goes on his merry way, not returning to Khoraja. But yeah, don’t seek this one out.

“Shadows In the Moonlight” is the actual next story in the collection, and is an all-Howard yarn; I read the original version as reprinted in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian, where it appears under the title Howard gave it, “Iron Shadows In The Moon.” This one has many similarities with the superior “Queen Of The Black Coast,” which is interesting given that it was written directly before it – I almost suspect Howard wasn’t happy with this one and reworked some of the elements in that later tale.

There are also similarities to “Hawks Over Shem,” in that the story opens with Conan promptly getting revenge on some guy he’s been hunting for a while. Along the way he manages to save yet another nubile wench, Olivia, a perennially-distraught type who both clings to and shies away from Conan for the rest of the tale. She’s pretty annoying, but she’s also a princess, same as Yasmella was. As a sidenote, I find it interesting that in his “edits” De Camp never includes minor references to the previous tales, say for example Conan briefly ruminating on what led him here after the events of “Black Colossus.” Obviously such a thing wouldn’t be in Howard’s original, but you’d think De Camp would’ve figured he could tinker with these stories to make the book seem more like one multi-chaptered story instead of a sequence of random short stories.

Making their escape, Conan and Olivia find refuge on an island. Here the story reminds me of the later epic, in that Olivia has a dream – which goes on for pages – about these creatures that once lived on the island and might, gasp, still be here. Then some pirates come along and Conan goes to powow with them, getting knocked out for his efforts. Here ensues another stretch where Conan takes a bit of a break, and we must deal with Olivia, who spends most of her time either worrying or passing out from worrying. She does at least manage to free Conan from the pirates.

This is another one where you get the feeling Howard added a “supernatural” element to appease the Weird Tales editors. The thing that has been following them around the island turns out to be a giant ape with vampire fangs. A humorously-nonchalant Conan (he’s basically like, “Oh, it’s one of those things”) makes short work of it, and then Howard decides the true climax is Conan making himself the new leader of the pirates – that is, after Olivia’s dream has come true and a bunch of castle statues have come to life and gone on the attack.

“The Road Of The Eagles” is next, and this is another non-Conan yarn that De Camp has tinkered with. It’s so lame that on this second reading of Conan The Freebooter it took me over three weeks to finish it – that’s how little I wanted to return to the tale. It too is similar to “Hawks Over Shem” in that it’s clearly several unrelated storylines jammed together; the majority of the tale is about some Zamoran dancer babe trying to free her brother, and meanwhile Conan’s hanging out with some pirates and seeking revenge on a commander who betrayed them. I honestly can’t remember much else about it, other than it’s another where Conan sort of stands around while other characters finish each other off in the finale, clearly because Conan wasn’t even there in Howard’s original version.

“A Witch Shall Be Born” is the mercy shot that finally finishes off this drag of a book; it’s another Howard original, and I read the version featured in The Bloody Crown of Conan (Del Rey, 2005). Considered one of Howard’s best Conan tales, “Witch” provided inspiration for one of the most famous scenes in Milius’s Conan (though to be fair, the scene was originally in Oliver Stone’s script): Conan being crucified. Parts of the plot also appeared in the sadly-lackluster Conan The Destroyer (1984). And yet for all that, this is another Conan story in which the hero barely appears. 

There’s a bit of a “shudder pulp” vibe to this one, mostly due to the cruel horrors bodacious babe Queen Taramis of Khauran endures throughout. First she’s awoken from a nightmare – a recurring image throughout the book – to find a sister she has long thought dead glaring at her. This is Salome, Taramis’s twin, who was born with the sign of the witch (a crescent shape on her breast – which she of course happily shows off), and thus castigated from Khauran per tradition. But, as Salome relates via endless exposition, she was found by a sorceror from Khitai who raised her to be a super-powerful witch for real. Now she’s back for some hot vengeance, baby!

First Salome hands Taramis over to Constantius, evil ruler of a mercenary army; in fact, posing as Taramis, Salome has even opened the city gates to Constatius and his horde. But anyway a leering Salome commands Constantius to lock Taramis up in the dungeon, but allows him to have his way with her first. Eventually we get to one of Howard’s more famous scenes; after a sort of narrative jump-cut to some weeks in the future, we finally come upon Conan as he’s nailed to a tree. Conan, again serving in a mercenary capacity, has been stirring up the army that “Taramis” is not who she says she is – for of course Salome has been posing as her sister.

Unlike in the film, Conan doesn’t die on the cross, though he does take out a vulture looking for an easy meal. In the story he’s saved by a guy on horseback who turns out to be an infamous bandit leader. The guy makes Conan walk through the desert as a test; if he survives, he’ll give him some water. We learn via a letter that seven months pass, and when we meet him again Conan is of course fully recovered, and basically he’s become the leader of the bandits without the other guy realizing it. He dispenses some sweet revenge to the guy – sending him off into the desert – and goes about marshalling the bandit warriors to launch an attack on Khauran.

But this is another one where Conan just sits out large portions of the narrative. There’s even a running subplot about some Khauran native who loves Taramis and is sneaking around the gutters of the city, picking up choice intel – like confirmation that the queen on the throne is an imposter, and the real Taramis is in a dungeon. Speaking of which we get more shudder pulp stuff with occasional cutovers to Taramis enduring some new torture at the hands of Salome. But anyway the big battle is again relayed via exposition, with Salome learning that her much-vaunted warriors have been taken out by a bandit army.

The finale is even reminiscent of “Black Colossus,” with minor characters killing off main characters while Conan’s off-page, but this time Howard doesn’t have the excuse of being posthumously messed with. He once again blows any cool potential with Conan going up against a witch, instead having someone else take care of Salome…who manages to hang onto life long enough to unleash a demon, again like the previous yarn. Even more lame, the demon is killed by some arrows courtesy Conan’s archers. It’s all so anticlimactic, but at least in the end Conan gets to crucify the guy who did the same to him at the start of the tale.

Well, I was happy to be done with this volume of Conan, and I sincerely hope the next one is better.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Justin Perry: The Assassin #3: Born To Kill

Justin Perry: The Assassin #3: Born To Kill, by John D. Revere
October, 1984  Pinnacle Books

I needed some weirdness in my life, so I decided it was finally time to get back to Justin Perry: The Assassin. And if anything Hal “John D. Revere” Bennett turns in an installment just as flat-out weird as the others, with the added bonus that in this one we get to see an 8 year-old Justin Perry screw a chicken!! Even crazier: the sequence is masterfully written, insofar as it plumbs into our protagonist’s twisted psyche!

It seems something was going on behind the scenes at Pinnacle; this volume was published a full year after the previous one, and this time it carries the short-lived “Pinnacle Crossfire” label. However the events take place in October of 1983, which leads me to believe that the manuscript was held from publication for whatever reason…either soon-to-collapse Pinnacle was struggling to stay afloat and didn’t have the resources to funnel into this strange series, or they just didn’t want to deal with it and thus put it off as long as possible.

It becomes more and more apparent to me that Bennett really had something up his sleeve with Justin Perry: The Assassin, particularly in how each book plants seeds for the final volume. In fact something jumped out at me this time and I’ve got a hunch I’m right…Justin Perry, as we’ll recall, reports to the “Old Man,” chief of the CIA’s Special Assignments Division. In other words, “SAD,” though Bennett never refers to it as such. And Justin’s recurring enemy throughout the series is SADIF, aka The “Sons And Daughters In Freedom,” a more twisted version of SPECTRE. But as we discover in the final volume, SADIF is just a cover for the Halley Society, which hopes to take over the world with the passing of Halley’s Comet in ’86, using Justin’s, uh, seed to impregnate their women through the millennia. Justin learns his entire life has been a lie – he’s been groomed from birth for this special destiny, and the Old Man himself is the “Grand Halley” who has orchestrated the grooming. So anyway, here’s what just occurred to me: perhaps “SADIF” really stands for “Special Assignments Division Is Fake,” or “False.” Possibly yet another clue Bennett has been planting from the first volume.

Another thing that quickly becomes apparent is that with Born To Kill Bennett is doing a riff on the James Bond film Dr. No (yes, the film and not the original novel). We’ve got a Jamaica setting, a native sidekick for Bond, a SPECTRE-like evil organization, a duplicitous but of course ultra-sexy villainess, and a plot that hinges on a US space launch. The only thing lacking is the colorful main villain, but Justin himself is so whacked-out that we don’t really need one…I mean folks this is a guy who screws a girl and then tosses her to a bunch of sharks, later musing over the fact that he’s “still hard” as he thinks of her body being ripped apart. And he’s the hero!!

If our protagonist is messed up, the so-called plot is even worse. Bennett jumps all over the place in this one, to the extent that Justin himself sits around and mulls over what the “real” threat is he’s supposed to be stopping. We get our first indication of this straight off the bat – not to mention a healthy reminder of how weird and lurid this series is – when in the opening pages a young opera usher in Germany gets so excited via his sexual fantasies that he rushes off to the restroom to jerk off! And just as he is “shooting his milk into the sink” he hears a scream out in the theater…to find a German government official has been beheaded in his private box. The first thirty pages continue this trend, with various government officials around Europe and the UK getting their heads cut off in mysterious circumstances, the killer or killers never apprehended.

When we finally meet him, Justin’s in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, checking out the “exquisite English breasts” of Dr. Janice Madison, a British specialist in chickens and other fowls who has been called here to help Justin on his latest case. Plus sleep with him a bunch – this installment is noteworthy in that the sex scenes are not only more explicit, but for once they are not focused on Justin having sex with unattractive women, as previous volumes have been. Justin needs Janice’s expertise due to the rash of chicken attacks which have recently occurred here in Jamaica, with another happening in Florida – perhaps not-so-coincidentally, not very far from Cape Canaveral. The Old Man is worried that all this might have something to do with the Challenger launch, coming up the next week. 

Justin’s certain the chicken attacks, random European beheadings, and space shuttle thing are all connected, though certainly some of them are red herrings. In the meantime Janice Madison is blown up by a bazooka on her way to the airport, and then a Jamaican cop tries to kill Justin. He’s yet another undercover SADIF operative, and fellow CIA agent Lucas Waugh shows up just in time to see Justin kill the man – who by the way has a somewhat feminine form and shrieks “sexually” as Justin strangles him, just so we don’t forget for one hot second how deeply perverted this series is. 

Very much a Fleming sort of character, Lucas Waugh is a black Jew a la Sammy Davis Jr, one who has his own harem in the Bahamas, but quickly rents some time at the local cathouse so he and Justin can engage in a days-long orgy while discussing this latest caper. Also throughout there is a lot of focus placed on sperm – “I’m filled with come” is a recurring phrase, believe it or not, from both Justin and Lucas – which is doubtless yet another uh, seed-planting for the revelations of the final volume, where Justin’s sperm is so important to the Halley freaks that they bottle it up for preservation through the ages. Personally though if I was hanging out with guys who randomly announced they were “full of come,” I’d think it was high time to get myself some new friends. 

Meanwhile, a blonde babe in a sports car takes pot shots at Justin, and he mulls over this a bit, then heads on to Florida; he’s decided that the space shuttle factor is the true threat, with the chicken attacks a sort of bizarre diversion. And speaking of bizarre, folks…well, we get a random flashback where eight year-old Justin Perry decides one day, apropos of nothing, to “screw a chicken.” This he does, and the chicken promptly dies as soon as Justin inserts himself. I stand by what I wrote above – this entire sequence is masterfully done, despite how sick it is, and it is yet another indication of Bennett’s strengths as a writer. For we read as an increasingly-uncomfortable Justin, who at this time is staying on the farm of his grandparents, is served chicken and dumplings that very night, and he’s of course frantic that this is the very same chicken he just fucked to death.

And Justin’s mom has just shown up to take him back home, openly cavorting with her studly chaffeur; Justin sees them rubbing legs beneath the dinner table. Then months later Justin, back home now, is woken by his mother in the middle of the night; she happily tells him she knows how that poor chicken died, and what’s more if Justin tells anyone that she’s sleeping with her chaffeur, she’ll tell Justin’s dad about the chicken incident. Weird scenes inside the goldmine, folks!! And as we learned in the first volume – and are briefly reminded here again – Justin’s mom (and dad) were secretly members of SADIF. Again, practically every single person Justin knows is a secret member of this organization, only adding to the general head-fuckery of the series.

And yet this chicken-screwing is itself a repeating motif of the series; I mean not the chicken stuff itself, but how some bizarre, ghoulish thing in Justin’s childhood will be trolled out as an augmentation of the main plot. Last time it was weird stuff about a bunch of massacred cows; this time it’s a screwed-to-death chicken. Which is to say it’s all very thematic, but “thematic” in a way that would send an AP professor screaming in panic – that a writer as gifted as Hal Bennett would write shit as sick as all this is kind of funny. I mean I think it’s pretty incredible he even decided to wade into the murky waters of the men’s adventure genre…let alone the fact that his stuff is even more outrageous than the stuff that less-“skilled” but equally-weird writers like Russell Smith or Joseph Rosenberger churned out. (Anyone who could follow that sentence gets a no-prize; I sort of lost it myself halfway through.)

This “literary” bent is further displayed in another seemingly-arbitrary bit; first Justin, with no reason why initially offered to the reader, decides to stop in a male stripper club near Cape Canaveral. Here he muses over the housewives who pack the place and gawk at a couple men onstage with “infant-sized” units; Bennett goes off on a pages-long diatribe on what happened to the American female, and how the Kennedy era unleashed their sexual inhibitions, given their rampant fantasies about JFK. I mean it’s all like something out of, I don’t know, John Updike or whatever, the last thing you’d expect in a book titled “Born To Kill” with a cover illustration of the main character shooting a black guy in the back.

But then it gets even more bizarre, as top male stripper Garth Durant waltzes out, showing off his massive wang; he dances for the feverish women and ejaculates on them for the, uh, climax. Eventually we’ll learn Justin hasn’t just randomly stopped in here; the stripper is the nephew of the lady who was killed by chickens here in Florida. Justin interviews the dude in the very shed in which the lady was killed – and the chickens surround them and go in for the kill. They’re mutant chickens, baby – as big as dogs and rabid as Cujo. This time Bennett appears to have finally bothered researching guns, so that Justin’s earlier revolver (you know, the one with a safety and a silencer) is gone, replaced by a nifty 9mm auto; with it he blows away a couple mutant chickens.

The cover art is again faithful to the events (and yes, Justin does shoot a black man in the back at one point), with Justin finding a Jamaican guy with a bazooka lurking behind the shed, about to shoot at the Challenger as it launches! There with him is the mysterious blonde who shot at Justin back in Jamaica; turns out her nickname is “Tillie the Turd,” despite which she’s one of the most attractive women Justin’s ever seen, and he can’t wait “to get his dick up inside her” before he kills her…and kill her he will, because the Old Man has issued specific orders on this mission: no SADIF prisoners.

Justin drugs and interrogates Tillie and Durant on a yacht surrounded by sharks in a sequence which almost casually demonstrates the sleazy sadism of the series (and hero). Increasingly turned on by Tillie as he questions her – and Tillie increasingly turned on as well – Justin ends up screwing her to get her to talk: she reveals SADIF’s true plan. All the other stuff has been distraction; SADIF really is using gene-manipulation chicanery to breed prepubescent assassins! They even have women that give birth to litters of ‘em, and a fast-growth serum results in junior-aged killers in a matter of weeks. Cold and emotionless, but with innocent faces, they will be SADIF’s new secret weapon, and were already employed in Europe, where they decapitated all those government officials. So Justin learns all this during sex, after which Tillie screams “I love you!,” Justin says, “I’m sorry,” and then he tosses her still-orgasming(!) body into the ocean:

The sharks tore into her like she was raw garbage. Justin turned away from the stern, feeling quite strange. The sharks were eating his sperm too.

Well, at least he’d told her he was sorry.

But Justin isn’t all “screw ‘em and chum ‘em” this time around…Bennett tries, and pretty much fails, to develop a romantic element with Janice Madison…who by the way urns out to have been a fake, the real Janice’s corpse having been discovered at Heathrow. And also this fake Janice with her “exquisite English breasts” didn’t die in that bazooka attack…turns out there was no female corpse in the car wreckage. The problem is, we only meet “Janice” before she exits the narrative, and she doesn’t return until the very end (where she is of course revealed to be a SADIF agent, I mean who would be surprised?). Thus the occasional soul-plumbing bit from Justin on his feelings toward her come off a bit lame. However we do get some choice lines in these soul-plumbing bits, such as: “But what had [Janice] gotten out of him of him except an awful lot of dick and enormous quantities of sperm? And what had he gotten out of her, except for probably some of the best pussy he’d had in recent memory?”

At any rate, the finale is a rushed action scene in which Justin and Lucas, both wearing form-fitting black combat suits (a recurring series element is that Justin wears such a suit, a la the cover, in the climax), stage an assault on a remote jungle hospital in Jamaica. Here Bennett delivers one of his customary uneventful action sequences, with Justin gunning down a few random guards while Lucas does all the heavy lifting, planting bombs and etc. Instead the big finale is given over to the fake Janice, who turns out to be the head of this bizarre bioscience affair in which protoplasmic things are grown into human children. Bennett even cops out of his own suspence, with Justin struggling with the fact that he’ll have to kill Janice, but then lamely having “fate” intervene thanks to a stray bullet. 

Overall though I found Born To Kill pretty entertaining, with the caveat that it doesn’t have much action, it features way too much random pontificating, and also it’s just twisted to the core. I mean folks this is a men’s adventure novel in which the hero fucks a chicken. That alone says pretty much all there is to say about Justin Perry: The Assassin. There is nothing stranger than this series in the entire men’s adventure genre…so you’re either on the bus or you aren’t.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Armageddon Rag

The Armageddon Rag, by George R.R. Martin
January, 1985  Pocket Books
(original hardcover edition 1983)

This is still the only George R.R. Martin novel I’ve ever read, and I’ve read it twice now. I first read The Armageddon Rag a little over twenty years ago. I can’t recall how I discovered this obscure novel, but I figure I was probably just searching the internet for rock novels. Something, sadly, I still do to this day. I got the original hardcover from the Dallas public library and enjoyed it, other that is than a few reservations.

Anyway long preamble short, re-reading the book brought those reservations back home. Similar to Glimpses, this is a great concept that is given a poor protagonist and a sometimes-muddled execution, with an author apparently uncertain what type of novel he wants to write. Perhaps tellingly, “Lew Shiner” is thanked as one of Martin’s rock researchers, which really brings home the similarties between the two books – not the least that they’re both by authors known for genre work who were attempting to go mainstream. Something another genre author, Norman Spinrad, did years before either of them in Passing Through The Flame.

On his website, Martin states that The Armageddon Rag was his lowest selling novel by a country mile. I’ve seen other reports that its failure led him to give up novel wrting for over a decade, branching out into TV scriptwriting before returning to books in the mid ‘90s with the sequence of fantasy novels commonly referred to as A Game Of Thrones (which I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about). The closest comparison I could think of to Martin’s style would be Stephen King – who, again perhaps tellingly, graced the novel with a glowing cover blurb.

So far as Martin’s comment that the book sold poorly goes, my assumption is it was just too soon for this particular novel. Characters here act like the ‘60s was decades ago, whereas the big events were slightly more than a decade before – the novel hinges on the aftermath of 1971. Perhaps if the novel had been published just a few years later, maybe in ’89 to coincide with Woodstock’s 20th anniversary, it might’ve fared better. Or perhaps the problem is the book is just too bloated and uncertain of itself; it veers everywhere from murder mystery to Big Chill “what happened to us?” bullshit to a somewhat-trashy rock novel, before finally shaping itself into straight-up horror fiction for the finale. One suspects that Martin should’ve chosen one genre and stuck with it.

Which is to say Martin’s writing is fine, and he brings to life his characters and various fantastical sequences, but the problem is the book is so incredibly fat. It could stand to lose a good hundred pages and still come off as too overstuffed for its own good. This is especially bothersome because much of what Martin writes about is uninteresting at best – that is, unless you want to read about a bunch of thirty-something navel-gazers moaning about how the ‘60s ended, taking with it all their youthful dreams.

In this regard our protagonist is perfect for the job – he’s a cynical, self-obsessed, entitled asshole…pretty much the same as the protagonist of Glimpses. But whereas Ray of that later novel at least loved rock music and partook of the occasional drug, the hero of this book, Sander “Sandy” Blair, doesn’t even seem to even much like rock ‘n’ roll. And the most he does in the book is drink the occasional beer. We learn that even in the ‘60s he shied from LSD, even though all his college pals were into it. But it’s the rock stuff that most makes you wonder why Sandy is the hero of this particular tale; it’s a couple hundred pages before he even does any serious music-listening.

Back in the late ‘60s into the very early ‘70s, Sandy was a roving reporter for Groundhog magazine, an underground rag not to be confused with Rolling Stone – which in true roman a clef fashion is mentioned once or twice in the novel, so we don’t assume it and The Groundhog are one and the same. But Sandy lost the faith in ’71 and eventually turned his hand to writing novels. Now he’s 37, moderately successful, lives in a New York brownstone, and drives a brand new Mazda RX-7, the capitalistic sellout. But seriously, Sandy will be chastised for this, as will his other freak-flagging pals who have gone straight – the novel wants us to understand it’s a bad thing not to be a dirty hippie. 

The year ’71 is central to the novel because that’s when the ‘60s dream died – September 20th, 1971, to be precise. For that was the day Pat Hobbins, albino lead singer of the mega-popular group The Nazgul, was assassinated while singing on stage at a massive midnight outdoor festival in West Mesa, Arizona. (Curiously, the sniper was never apprehended, but the various reveals of the climax seem to imply who pulled the trigger.) Hobbins was the fourth and final of the big four rockers to die –  Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and then Hobbins; for the Nazgul, we are informed, was the defining rock group of this alternate reality, more important than even the Beatles. This is a bit humorous, given that Martin describes their sound as something like Sir Lord Baltimore mixed with Blue Oyster Cult: hard-driving proto-metal mixed with occult (or at least geeky) lyrics. A group like this would be cult at best in reality.

Sandy’s called up by old Hog boss Jared Patterson, as blatant a Jann Wenner clone as possible, who informs Sandy that infamous Nazgul manager Jamie Lynch has been murdered. Jared wants to do a story on it and figures Sandy would be great for it, despite the fact that he fired Sandy from the mag years before, even though Sandy started the Hog with him in the ‘60s. This is just one of the many, many sources of anger and frustration for Sandy throughout the novel; he is very much an unlikable protagonist. Sandy is drawn to the story, mostly as a way to get out of struggling more on his latest novel, which is overdue; his wife isn’t thrilled with the idea, and we have here another mirror of Glimpses in that Sandy’s shrew of a wife just doesn’t get it, man.

Sandy heads off in his new Mazda, on up to Maine where Lynch was murdered. He discovers this was a ritual sacrifice; the Nazgul was blaring while Lynch’s heart was cut out, his body later wrapped in a Nazgul poster. Sandy works with a local cop who occasionally feeds him info, but this subplot sort of fizzles out. Instead the narrative here becomes more focused on Sandy hitting the road in his Mazda and reconnecting with all his old college pals, passing judgement on them and bemoaning what has happened to the world. At least he gets laid, hooking up with an old girlfriend in Chicago, and here Martin proves that, while his prose might be similar to Stephen King’s, he’s a lot more sexually explicit than prudish King ever was.

This Big Chill stuff is the most grating element of the novel and would be the first thing I’d cut. But basically Sandy hooks up with an old girlfriend, visits a former freak-flagger who is now a successful advertising executive, and hangs out with another old female pal who now lives on a commune, a lady who rails against the sexism and racism of the western world. (These godamn people would be lost without their “isms.”) This sadly is a motif of the novel, so she isn’t alone in her complaining, but Sandy’s happy to note that, despite the careful emasculation of the commune, the little boys still play cowboys and Indians when their parents aren’t around. Another old friend is now a college professor who complains that the kids of today are too docile and not radical enough; one wonders how proud he would be of Antifa, or those leftist college thugs of today who burn books that run counter to their agenda, completely oblivious of the fact that the Nazis did the very same thing.

There’s also a completely arbitrary part where Sandy visits his former best friend, who now lives a virtual prisoner in the mansion of his bestselling novelist of a dad, a Hemingway type who writes, you guessed it, sexist and racist action novels that sell bujillions of copies, much to Sandy’s dismay. This whole part exists so Martin can rail against the previous generation, with Sandy defending his old buddy for his heroism in dodging the draft and not taking the “easy way out” and going to Vietnam. I’m not sure too many vets would agree with Sandy’s sentiments, but if nothing Sandy is a man of his deluded convictions. There’s also a random freak-out part where Sandy walks the streets of Chicago and flashes back to when the cops beat him unmerciful in ’68, when he was here as part of the Democrat convention…this part at least factors into the supernatural element of the novel, eventually.

Mingled in with all this padding we occasionally get a return to the main plot, such as it is; Sandy visits each surviving member of the Nazgul, all of whom have moved on since 1971, the band breaking up when their lead singer’s brains were blown out. First up is the drummer, Gopher John, now remodeled as a slick bar owner, where he gives new rock bands their chance; that is, until a fire breaks out at the place while Gopher’s having dinner with Sandy, and 75 young people die in it. Next up is Maggio, the guitarist (the equal of Hendrix and Clapton, we’re told), now an obese psychopath who lords it over the underlings of his new bar band, bullying and beating his latest jailbait girlfriend. Finally there’s Peter Faxon, the bassist-songwriter, who has a wife and kids now but misses the music biz. There’s a nice part where he takes Sandy up in a hot air baloon over Arizona, Faxon now living not far from West Mesa.

Along the way Sandy gets wind of a mysterious individual named Edan Morse, a supposed rock promoter looking to get the Nazgul back together. Here Sandy sees motive, as with former producer Lynch dead, there’d be no one to get in the way of this reunion. During the interminable “commune” section Sandy finds out that Morse is just one name used by a nigh-mythical ‘60s radical who was behind a lot of bombings, hippie terrorist movements, and the like, but who eventually got into black magic and the like. This of course all ties in with the occult elements of the Nazgul. And all these sequences have their own subplots, making the book even fatter; there’s even the typical rock novel cliché stuff, with a go-nowhere Brian Jones sort of riff, with Faxon being the guy who started the Nazgul and wrote all their songs, but slowly feeling the focus slipping over to Pat Hobbins, much to his dismay.

Things pick up when Morse enters the narrative, mostly due to his henchwoman, an ultra-sexy brunette named Ananda who promptly comes on to Sandy and takes him to bed. Pretty much the ideal ‘60s babe, Ananda’s kept the flame burning despite being in her 30s, plus she’s into occult stuff too. There’s also a monosyllabic henchman named Gort who seems to have walked out of a fantasy novel, which is likely the intention; the novel is filled with Tolkein references, some subtle and some overt. Both serve Edan Morse, an otherwise ordinary-looking dude who occasionally goes into delusional spiels about the supernatural and cuts his palms so that his blood can fuel visions.

At this point the novel is firmly in Stephen King territory, but then the Nazgul do in fact get back together and it abruptly changes tack into “rock novel” territory. For reasons neither Sandy nor Martin himself can explain, Sandy takes up Edan’s offer to be the PR man for the reformed group – even though Morse has taken the ghoulish approach of recreating dead Pat Hobbins in the form of a kid named Larry who looked sort of like Hobbins, but Morse paid to have cosmetic surgery so he’s now an exact duplicate of the murdered Nazgul singer. Only problem is, as Sandy discovers when he watches them practice in Chicago, the kid can’t sing worth a damn, and has none of Hobbins’s pint-sized menace.

We get a fullblown rundown of their first gig, playing to a packed auditorium who have come out to see the finally-reunited Nazgul. While things start off well, soon the audience is downright hostile. They resent the new songs and they mock Larry’s attempts at mimicking Pat Hobbins. It goes on and on, but Martin does a good job of describing the various songs to the point that you’d like to hear them – though again it’s pure “cult band” stuff, again sounding along the lines of Sir Lord Baltimore’s material on Kingdom Come mixed with a little early Blue Oyster Cult. Then Faxon finally relents and the Nazgul do an old number at the end, and it’s as if a completely different band is on the stage – and a different singer. For it very much appears that Pat Hobbins lives again, having taken over poor Larry’s body.

What’s funny is, Martin proceeds to write the exact same sequence over and over again. Sandy follows the group around the country and we get more rundowns of ensuing shows, all of them following the same path – lousy on the new numbers, the old group and singer reborn on the old numbers. Despite all the repetition the plot develops into a magical realism deal, with the hippies of old being reborn through the power of the Nazgul. True to Edan Morse’s proclamations, the old days are coming back, and it’s becoming more like 1971 than 1983…cool stuff here with the Nazgul being seen as dangerous, and cops blocking off areas from roving reborn hippies and radicals and the like. There is an aura of menace and danger that has been lacking from rock for over a decade, and Sandy’s at the center of it. So it’s funny to think of all this going down in the era of Tears For Fears. 

Also as Morse predicted, the future is becoming the past in that the Nazgul’s tour will culminate in a massive midnight outdoor festival in West Mesa, on the exact anniversary of the disastrous one in ’71. Along the way they’ve become more the Nazgul of old, only doing the old songs now, and Pat Hobbins himself walking the stage, to be replaced by an increasingly confused and scared Larry when they’re offstage. And meanwhile Sandy has lots of sex with Ananda, who proves to be more instrumental to the plot than initially suspected, to the point that the various reveals and turnarounds in the climax aren’t as hard to believe as might be imagined.

But still it’s as if we are reading a completely different novel in the homestretch; indeed, it’s as if we’re reading the novel the opening chapters promised us, before we took that looong detour into The Big Chill territory. It’s all reborn ghosts and Orc-like roadies and the supernatural spirit of evil about to take over the Earth, with a drugged and betrayed Sandy set up as a modern-day Lee Harvey Oswald or somesuch. However the Nazgul’s show sounds fantastic, sort of capping off the prematurely-ended ‘60s, complete with cameos from the ghosts of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison! This entire sequence is very well done, and one suspects if the majority of the previous 300+ pages had been whittled down Martin would’ve had a hit on his hands.

All that being said, the novel kept my attention – save that is for some of the “visit my old pals and complain about today” bullshit. Some of that got tiresome and I’ll admit I skimmed over it. And the stuff with the Nazgul performing was cool, but suffered from too much repetition. I also feel the supernatural element could’ve been more properly explained; Martin tries to keep it all as a mystery, something Sandy can’t quite comprehend, which again makes the reader wonder why Edan Morse puts so much importance on him – one of the biggest fails of the novel is that it’s never satisfactorily stated why Sandy is so important to the various characters. He’s disagreeable at best, plus he’s not even the best representative of his generation: as mentioned the dude was never into drugs and really doesn’t even seem to like rock, let alone live for it, like the dude in Glimpses did. 

But still, I have read The Armageddon Rag twice now, which must at least be an indication of its quality. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a fairly good rock novel, but it’s certainly no Death Rock or even Passing Through The Flame.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Vigilante 21st Century

Vigilante 21st Century, by Robert Moore Williams
No month stated, 1967  Lancer Books

With a plotline that sounds like a ‘60s prefigure of NYPD 2025, Vigilante 21st Century is ultimately more of a probing into the unknown metaphysical force that is called “good,” and how it can perform miracles and whatnot in the battle against “evil.” Robert Moore Williams wrote for the pulps and the book reads like it; the dialog is stilted, the description is sparse, and despite being set in 2012 it comes off like a futuristic 1940s.

We’re only given a vague understanding of this future society; the planet has become riddled with crime (and also has a globalist government…hmmm…) and the police are constantly outmatched by the “super-gangs,” given that the criminals have all the latest and greatest in weaponry. So various factions of private citizens have banded together into vigilante groups, sort of self-deputized people who have some sort of authority and work with the cops. The novel takes place in Los Angeles and concerns this vigilante group, led by a complete cipher named George Bright. He’s barely described – but then none of the characters are really described – and we’re told that there’s nothing particularly remarkable about him.

But Bright is a “sword” in the hand of “something,” as it’s constantly referred to – ie God. The vigilante groups see themselves as Zen warriors, nothing but tools to be used by the unseen entity “something,” upon which they hang all their hopes and beliefs. In other words they are Jedi and “something” is the Force. But any hopes for some proto-Star Wars light sabering action pulp are quickly dashed. The vigilantes are pretty bland, to tell the truth – just average citizens with no special quirks, other than a seemingly-arbitrary numbering designation that brings to mind The Man From UNCLE.

I say arbitrary because Williams refers to some of them by name, but others just as “Number 5” and such, and the characters do this as well. It’s kind of weird and barely explained, but then Williams doesn’t much go for explaining things. Other that is than the crazy weaponry the criminals use; this stuff is discussed in bald exposition by the vigilantes while the weapons are being used on them. It’s all very laughable, folks, and it’s as “bad pulp” as you can get. “Intelligent gas” (seriously) will be hunting our heroes, who stand around and argue if the gas really is intelligent and if the criminals themselves are immune to it.

That being said, the book has car chases, a couple bloody hand to hand battles, tons of young women exploding, and a gunfight or two. It also sets a precendent for the number of kids killed in a pulp book. A baby is murdered in its crib in the opening pages(!), some other kids are killed later in the book; we’ll even learn a pair of twin toddlers have been killed off-page. This casual infant brutality lends the book an off-putting tone, especially when coupled with the meat-and-potatoes blandness of the writing style. Williams’s passive style also doesn’t help; he’s very fond of phrases like “Horror was in him” and stuff like that – he’s always, always telling instead of showing.

The story concerns Bright and his group going up against sadistic Mrs. Kether, a wealthy super-criminal who retains an “inner-circle” of young women who carry out her murders. Their chief weapon is a new device buried into their forearm and extending to their fingertips; they point at the victim, and the victim goes red and dies. If the women go rogue, or are compromised, Mrs. Kether can shout a command to “scratch” the girl, and a small bomb implanted in the girl’s back will go off. This becomes especially crazed in the finale, in which Mrs. Kether’s “girls” basically go kamikaze, so we have exploding young women all over the place.

Bright is introduced to us just as he’s about to be killed – by the lovely (apparently) young Carole Zenner, one of Mrs. K’s gals. But Bright stops her and gets her back to his headquarters, where Doctor Dee operates on her. At the same time, a group of criminals infiltrate the place, and we have one of the more dispirited “action scenes” ever, as Bright and his loyal sidekick Rebel watch the crooks on a viewscreen and exposit about them. This part does veer into the psychedelic when Rebel is hit by an “R device,” which basically causes an out of body experience.

Carole is saved and ultimately joins the vigilante cause. We only learn barebones stuff about Mrs. Kether, but she apparently hoodwinks young women into joining her, then turns them into brainwashed assassins. A further unexplored detail is that the women have something done to them and can’t have children. Carole undergoes some psychoanalyzing under Bright’s “analogical computer,” which matches music to colors on a domed ceiling, bringing out suppressed memories and fantasies in the subject in the hopes of cathartic healing. There’s a lot of random childhood-flashbackery and the like in Vigilante 21st Century, which again reminds one of the era in which it was published, but this sure as heck isn’t hip sci-fi. The characters refer to each other as “Mr.” and “Ms.” and not even a single breast is mentioned, let alone exploited.

Mrs. Kether herself has an enemy: the General, another of the super-criminals. The plot gradually turns into Bright and his team shadowing Mrs. K, who is trying to kill the General. Before, during, and after this “plot” stuff, Williams indulges in what he really wants the book to be about – the presence of the miraculous. Over and over Bright will brow-beat any who doubt the existence of “something.” Sometimes it’s egregious, like Doctor Dee “curing” the blindness of his redheaded nurse Mikey, whom he loves, and while the Doc says it was just psychosomatic blindness, Bright insists it was the real thing, and Doctor Dee healed her with the power of love.

But then, all this “healing power of something” stuff seems rather strange in a book that features so many innocent kids getting killed. Mrs. K at length sneaks into the General’s fortress of a mansion and kills his little girl (later we’ll learn she also killed his twin toddler sons), and we get vague explanation that she and the General were lovers at one time, and Mrs. K had a kid with him, one who later died (yet another!). The General proves himself more memorable than most of the characters, and features in a crazed scene where he fights several of Mrs. K’s girls to the bloody death. This part in particular features some exploding women, as Mrs. Kether starts activating dead ones as makeshift bombs.

Overall though there’s just, uh, “something” lacking about the book. As mentioned the characters are too bland, their dialog too stilted. This “future” 2012 is horribly underdeveloped; we do learn there’s space travel, and some characters like to drink “Martian teng,” an alien sort of absinthe that causes hallucinations. But it all seems to be something pulled out of a 1940s issue of Amazing Story; I kept expecting to encounter the phrase “Bright adjusted his fedora.” I did find the metaphysical stuff interesting, but in the end I was kind of happy to finish the book.

Monday, December 31, 2018

The Last Ranger #6: The Warlord’s Revenge

The Last Ranger #6: The Warlord’s Revenge, by Craig Sargent
January, 1988  Popular Library

The sixth volume of The Last Ranger is basically splatterpunk horror; instead of a post-nuke action yarn it’s a grim, gory, often-unsettling work by an author who clearly has death on his mind. A sense of foreboding looms over the novel, with hero Martin Stone often considering himself “lucky to still be alive,” yet knowing that death will be coming for him very soon.

Not much is known about Jan Stacy, other than that he died of AIDS in 1989. It’s never a good idea to assume, but in this case I can’t help it – the tone of The Warlord’s Revenge seems to be courtesy a writer who has been given a death sentence. Not to use the word again so soon, but “unsettling” really sums up the vibe of this book. It’s not so much an action story as it is an exegesis on death. After 180+ pages of small pages the cumulative effect is the reader shares the author’s sentiment of despair.

This has been the general vibe of the series, but normally Stacy tempers it with black comedy. This is also somewhat true of The Warlord’s Revenge, but the feeling is lost beneath the overbearing grim tone. Stacy seems to be at pains to gross the reader out from the get-go. The novel opens moments after the previous volume ended; Stone and his claptrap crew of American Indians and rogue soldiers watch as a mushroom cloud expands on the horizon, the crazed General Patton having fired a nuke at them in the previous book’s climax.

Stone and his crew escaped, but the brother of Merya (aka Stone’s latest hot American Indian flame – so far as the subgenre is concerned, the post-nuke US is almost entirely populated by hot American Indian women) was caught in the nuclear flames and melted. The Warlord’s Revenge opens on this very scene, with the group gawking at the gory puddle that was once a brave warrior – a puke-inducing puddle that Stacy goes on to describe for pages and pages, giving us our first indication of just what sort of a nasty book this is going to be. At length Stone must give the thing burial, per Merya’s wishes, and Stacy goes full-bore on the grotesque images, from steaming organs exploding to the rancid smell of the melted goop as Stone shovels it up and tosses it in a makeshift grave. 

Through all this the mushroom cloud continues to expand until it goes into the atmosphere and becomes a broiling black cloud that will follow Martin Stone throughout the the book. Another form of death that chases him relentlessly. In fact the spewing acid rain is a sort of motif Stacy returns to again and again, with the novel even ending on the image. Death is everywhere in The Warlord’s Revenge, as are the ghosts of the past – Stone again and again mulls over the futility of his life, how he is “already dead” but doesn’t know it, how the entire planet is doomed.

It doesn’t help that he’s surrounded by fools. The book starts off one way, and admittedly I’m glad it changes course soon after. But initially it looks like we’re going to get a full book about Stone being saddled with his new responsibility as leader of these Indians and tank-riding soldiers. But eventually he sends them off on their own journey – dispensing anti-rad pills to people in the nuke blast radius – and gets back to being the loner we prefer him to be. It just takes a while to get there. We have to deal for a while with the annoying Leaping Elk, an Indian who resents “white man” Stone and goes out of his way to defy him, even putting his hand on a radiation-burned tank. This results in Leaping Elk’s hand being deformed to grotesque proportions, and Stacy goes for more gross-out stuff as he waves it around in his growing insanity.

Stacy doesn’t forget the hardcore stuff, though; despite the general air of grimy despair, Stone still finds the time to bang Merya in full-bore graphic splendor. Stacy has always delivered some of the more explicit moments of sleaze in the genre, and he doesn’t disappoint here: “The entire organ entered the beautiful Cheyenne warrior in a second, stunning her with its thickness and length.” After which Stone sends Merya on her, uh, merry way; Stacy himself seems to be bored with the whole “Stone as a leader of men” idea, and the two say their goodbyes, Merya going off with her tribe.

Stone himself is headed for a remote mountaintop retreat in Coloroda his family once used as a vacation spot. Early in the book we get a brief return to Stone’s post-nuke bunker, that paradise-like fortress with running water, electricity, food, and everything else one could possibly want – you still have to wonder why Stone just doesn’t find himself a woman and just stay there permanently, forgetting about the hellish outside world. But Stone finds that April, his perennially-missing or abducted sister, has been here before him, leaving a note behind. The last time we saw April was at the end of #3: The Madman’s Mansion, where she escaped the Dwarf’s depraved mansion with the assistance of snake oil salesman Doc Kennedy.

April informs Stone that the Mafia are after them, in revenge for the events in that previous book; Stone killed a Mafia bigwig named Scalzanni, and now his brother, Joey, has sworn revenge. Joey Scalzanni then is the “warlord” of the title, but he’s not in the book much and doesn’t really make an impression on the reader, other than that he was a butcher pre-WWIII and now uses his skills with hooked blades to fillet his opponents. Now he runs a “shopping mall of crime” in Keenesburg, Colorado, as Stone learns from a dying Doc Kennedy – Stone coming across the man’s stab-riddled body at that mountaintop retreat, left to die in the ever-present acid rain. As expected, the Mafia tracked them down, Scalzanni stabbed Doc a whole bunch, and April’s been friggin’ kidnapped yet again. She is of course being held as bait at Scalzanni’s place.

Stacy’s version of the Mafia is sort of the logical progression of the one in James Dockery’s The Butcher; rather than goons in suits who discuss “whackings” over pasta, Stacy’s are superderformed ghouls, more monsters than men. Scalzanni’s “shopping mall” takes the perversions of the Dwarf’s mansion in the third volume and expands upon them – a customer can buy every weapon possible, but also there’s a section of nude women in chains up for the highest bidder. But this is all kid’s stuff, really. There’s a noxious swamp out back where corpses are tossed – each room with a handy chute for cadaver disposal – and again it’s all very splatterpunk with the copious descriptions of floating eyeballs and guts. Even Stone’s faithful dog Excaliber pukes at the sight(!). There’s also a nightclub where a male and a female corpse have sex for the viewing enjoyment of the audience, controlled by mechanisms inserted inside their decomposing forms.

In addition there’s also a torture wing, in which Stone briefly finds himself – he’s knocked out and captured twice in the book, almost back to back. To make it even more lame, he’s saved both times by an “old whore” named Peaches who now serves as a house hooker at Scalzanni’s; she was one of the hookers Stone freed from the Dwarf’s place at the end of the third volume. Here Stone has the soles of his feet punctured, but lamely Scalzanni has to take off for a deal or something, thus leaving Stone the opportunity to escape. He frees the other victims in the torture chamber, and the sad bunch serves up another example of the morbid “humor” that runs throughout:

Not one of them should have been alive. [Stone] walked over to them, and those that could, stared back at him with barely opened eyes. One guy with his head in a spike-filled mask; one guy with his body in a coffin piercing him from neck to groin; one guy with nails hammered into his head so he looks[sp] like a bloody ice-cream cone with three-penny sprinkles; one guy with all his skinned peeled off so he looked like an overgrown, peeled grape; and one guy with only the top of him left, and all his guts ready to spill out over the floor like a broken garbage bag. Just the kind of crowd Stone loved to hang out with. 

This is just one of the many splatterpunk-esque elements in the novel. There’s also a part straight out of a horror novel where Stone comes across an army of cockroaches on the destroyed highways of Colorado. He also runs into a pack of post-nuke flagellants who whip themselves into gory ribbons in atonement for mankind’s sins. In fact this horror element takes over the novel, to the extent that there isn’t much action per se, at least not when compared to previous books. It’s mostly just Stone ruminating over the futility of this hellish world as he drives across Colorado, encountering one grotesque horror after another.

Even the stuff with Scalzanni isn’t developed as much as it should be, though his send-off is appropriate, taking place by that corpse swamp behind his mall. The finale brings the cover painting (again by Norm Eastman) to life: Stone gets on his Harley and barrels through the mall, firing the machine gun and rocket launcher on his bike. He ends up destroying the whole place, which proves to be kind of dumb, as right afterwards that radioactive cloud that’s been following him the entire novel finally breaks, and as we leave him Stone is scrambling for shelter from the acid rain.

Overall I found The Warlord’s Revenge too grim and dour to be fun; I hate to speculate, but the idea I got from the book is that Stacy knew his own end was near and was sort of working through things in the text. Of course, my interpretation is likely colored by my knowledge of what happened to Stacy, but that’s the impression I got – to the extent that this one sort of creeped me out. Which is recommendation enough to check out the book, I guess. I didn’t read this one when I was a kid – the previous volume was the last one I got – but I’m curious what I would’ve thought of it at the time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The City Outside The World

The City Outside The World, by Lin Carter
October, 1977  Berkley Medallion

Part of the Mysteries Of Mars “sequence” by Lin Carter, The City Outside The World is yet another tribute to the work of Leigh Brackett; such a “tribute” that the astute Brackett reader can easily spot the novellas which Carter has borrowed from. The top three I detected would be “The Last Days Of Shandakor” and Sea-Kings Of Mars, with a couple elements from The Nemesis From Terra thrown in for good measure. There are probably more besides.

As if that weren’t enough, Carter also liberally borrows from his own The Valley Where Time Stood Still, the novel in the sequence that preceded this one. There’s no continuity or recurring characters (other than that the first-published novel, The Man Who Loved Mars, actually occurs last in the sequence), but Carter does alert us of the previous tales via asterisks. Given that these earlier books came out through different publishers could be seen by the less forgiving critic as a testament to the size of Carter’s audience.

A big, big problem with The City Outside The World is that the characters are barely allowed to breathe; there’s hardly any dialog in the book, just blocks and blocks of narrative. And as ever Carter has a tendency to break into impromptu lectures on this or that, usually in describing how things are on his “Old Mars,” ie a Mars with its feline-descended humans who have been around for “billions and billions” of years. Brackett was sure to keep her yarns moving and to let her characters live a little, but Carter is guilty of telling much more than he shows. This makes the book sort of a chore to get through at times.

There’s no connection to The Valley Where Time Stood Still, other than a passing mention of its titular Edenic area. But then the “city” of this book is itself a hidden Eden, so as mentioned there’s some repetition afoot. Our hero this time is the cipher-like Ryker, no other name given, a big brawling bastard exiled to Mars many years ago due to his unpopular political beliefs or somesuch. Mars, we learn, is sort of like a planetary Australia in Carter’s future (which appears to be around 2077 or so); the New World Order/globalist government that rules Earth extradites particularly-troublesome “criminals” to Mars, so as to be done with them.

When we meet him Ryker is in one of those typically-downtrodden ancient Martian villages, watching a super-hot Martian babe dancing topless. Now that’s how you start a sci-fi novel! The woman’s eyes are masked, and Ryker detects something unusual about her, other that is than just the great rack. (Carter’s Martian women appear to be bustier than Brackett’s, for anyone taking notes.) Ryker finds himself following the woman and her two companions – an old man and a young, nude boy (annoyingly, the kid stays nude for the duration of the novel!) – as they wend their way through the mazelike city. When some natives try to attack the trio, marshalled by a bloodthirsty priest, Ryker steps in with his laser pistols and starts frying Martian scumbags.

After this Ryker becomes a companion of the three…not that it’s ever discussed or in fact that any of them say much to each other. Carter appears to have forgotten how to type quotation marks, so that the entire story is told via narration. Ryker goes along with the group, and what little they say to each other is relayed in summary. This leads to the frustrating development that we get no understanding of the three strange Martians, none of whom act like any natives Ryker has ever met. It becomes especially hard to buy the growing love between Ryker and the hot topless masked babe, whose name is Valarda. Valarda’s gold eyes are also very strange, and the reason she goes masked in public; eventually we’ll learn that a now-extinct race of Martians, ones who once ruled the planet, had gold eyes. The old man is Melandron (he ultimately contributes nothing to the text) and the naked boy is Kiki.

The strange group makes its way north…not that it’s every discussed why they’re going this way. One can almost feel the plot just dragging poor Ryker along as he trudges northward with them, now riding the big lizards called slidars which also appeared in the previous book. (And it’s clear the cover artist has seen a recent sci-fi movie; all it needs is a Storm Trooper on its back!) There isn’t much in the way of action, and about the most Ryker and Valarda share is a quick kiss that leaves Ryker flummoxed. However it’s the reader who is flummoxed when a nude form comes to Ryker that night in the pitch dark, and he eagerly accepts it and kisses and fondles it…only to discover it’s the ever-nude Kiki playing a practical joke! Instead of frying more Martian scum Ryker just sort of chuckles it off.

Things sort of pick up when the group latches on to a caravan run by a trader named Houm. Ryker gets a job as a guard, and they move on up north. But it’s a setup and Houm’s in cahoots with wily desert prince Zarouk, who wants Valarda and the other two. Ryker to the rescue again, wielding those dual pistols. They escape again, taking Zarouk as hostage, but that night Valarda ties up Ryker while he’s sleeping and she and the other two abandon him. Once Zarouk’s men catch up, free their prince, and beat up Ryker for a bit, Zarouk offers to take on Ryker; it’s all due to a curious icon he plundered from a Martian tomb years ago, one that’s shaped like the famous “Sphinx of Mars.”

The Pteraton, as it’s known, is a massive black structure much like the Sphinx of Giza, but bigger, and this one looks like an insect. Shrouded in mystery, the Pteraton is in the north of Mars, and now Ryker realizes Valarda et al have been headed for it all along; his earlier clue was the discovery of a faded Pteraton tattoo on Kiki’s chest. Zarouk keeps Ryker alive because Valarda stole the icon from him and it’s believed the icon can open a hidden passageway in the Pteraton. So they put Ryker under hypnosis so he can instruct a craftsman how to remake the icon(!?), after which one would reasonably expect Zarouk would have Ryker killed. But instead he lets him live and further brings him along on the merry journey to the Martian Sphinx.

Ryker is filled with the lust for vengeance, but he feels it slipping away when they (rather easily) discover the secret way into the monstrous Pteraton structure and head down it, down and down…until they come out in like a completely different world. Reminding the reader of the valley from the previous book, this one’s a paradise of lush foliage and unusual creatures and etc, and Ryker soon wishes he had died so that he wouldn’t have brought Zarouk and his warriors into this Eden. Eventually Dr. Eli Herzog, an old Israeli prisoner of Zarouk’s whose function is to serve up exposition, deduces that they’ve gone back in time – like two billion years back in time.

So it’s all like Sea-Kings Of Mars (only without the interesting characters, plot, or good writing) as Ryker finds himself in the far, far past. He doesn’t seem much upset about it, though. Anyway for hazy reasons Valarda, who turns out to be a priestess in this distant age, is now with her people in their castle which is defended by stone giants that are impervious to Zarouk’s weapons. It’s all just goofy and so juvenile; when Ryker’s caught and condemned to death by a regretful Valarda for bringing these people to the past, he sort of brushes off how she abandoned him back there in 2077 and etc.

The finale is one of the more glaring bits of deus ex machina ever, as Kiki unleashes the friggin’ god these people worship, and it’s an omniscient but wrathful entity that basically flies around and destroys all their enemies. One must credit it for taking the unusual approach of employing an army of walking dead. The “climax” rushes by with Ryker just standing on the sidelines; there isn’t even any mention of his getting back to his own era and all that. Instead, he’s happy to stay here and marry Valarda.

Carter’s enthusiasm for his own work is certainly evident, but sadly the enthusiasm doesn’t filter over to the reader. I found the book stilted and wearying, and Carter’s lecturing tone didn’t help matters. Nor did his heavy-handed attempts at conveying “drama” by arbitrary use of italicized single-line paragraphs. His reluctance to allow his characters to interract with one another really robbed the tale of any drama it might’ve had; instead The City Outside The World almost comes off like an outline or a treatment. Here’s hoping the other two novels in the sequence are more enjoyable.