Thursday, January 18, 2018

Phoenix Prime


Phoenix Prime, by Ted White
No month stated, 1966  Lancer Books

Ted White was an editor of various science fiction magazines and, in addition to writing many short stories, published several paperbacks. I’m not sure how well they resonated with the readers of the day, as it seems that many of them only received a single printing, Phoenix Prime being one such example. And perhaps the novel itself provides the reason why – it’s a bit ponderous, self-important, and takes forever to tell a story that proves to be underwhelming and familiar.

Humorously, Phoenix Prime starts off being about one thing before taking a sudden plot change and becoming something else – almost a prefigure of the later Richard Blade series, but without the lurid charm. For White, strangely, wants to play it serious throughout, invoking the novel with a gravitas that comes off as more irritating than compelling. This is particularly strange when you consider that Phoenix Prime is about a superhero-type guy who is thrust into a Conan-esque world. One expects lots of comic book-type fun, but instead one gets lots of ponderous page-filling, including lots of walking in the desert.

I’m not sure when the novel is set. It seems to be the mid ‘60s, as there’s no effort to make it sound like the future; people still listen to transistor radios, there’s no mention of space travel, etc – though World War II is referred to as “long ago” and our hero apparently feels the need to explain what it even was to his girlfriend. But then that could just be the pedantic nature of our hero – and the pretentious tone of the novel itself. (Actually of the decade itself! Friggin’ hippies!!)

Our hero is Maximillian Quest(!), a 23 year-old New Yorker who has never applied himself; while intelligent, he dropped out of school and makes his meager living via various menial jobs. But the novel opens with Max waking with newfound, inexplicable powers – levitation, pyrokinesis, etc. He just plumb wakes up with superpowers, folks. His girlfriend Fran walks in on the latest display of superpowers – “the Human Torch and all that,” and freaks out; Max explains to her his new condition in a rambling dialog that displays the ponderous nature of the entire novel:

“It was like double vision, a second sight. I could turn it on and off. I could make it overlap my normal vision, or supplant it. The funny thing was, I discovered that I could function on my new sense equally well. I could look at the whole room that way, ignoring the minute patterns and seeing the larger ones. In a way, it blended right in with normal sight. I mean, have you ever really looked at things? If you stop just glancing over all the familiar objects, and look at the room as though you’d never seen it before, it can be fascinating. You can make out all sorts of relationships, the rhythms of color, the placement of masses and empty areas, the similarities and clashes in the lines of different furniture – this place is a real hodgepodge – and you can see the whole room as a three-dimensional area, an integrated whole.”

Have I mentioned yet that Max drives a taxi?

Seriously though, Phoenix Prime is so of its time you can almost hear The Jefferson Airplane in the background. Normally I like such things – any era is better than this one – but in this case it comes through most strongly in the pretentious vibe. On the other hand, I suspect I would’ve loved this novel had I read it several years ago, when I was into the hippie literature of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. White hits all those bases, from mentions of The Fantastic Four to Alan Watts. But he appears to want to take this sort of psychedelic superhero concept he’s come up with and treat it seriously, instead of the fast-paced pulp actioner the concept demands.

To put it another way, folks: at one point in Phoenix Prime we get a two-page dissertation on “What is love?”

Anyway, just a few hours after getting these powers, Max discovers that he’s being watched, and then tested in increasingly-dangerous (but pretty humorous) ways: first he’s attacked by a squirrel and some pigeons in Central Park, and later some kid turns momentarily nuts and tries to push him into the path of a train. Max dubs his unsees assailant “The Other,” assuming correctly that someone else has the same powers as Max. He gets confirmation of his theory later that day; a conservative-dressed but nondescript man gets in the back of Max’s taxi and tells Max he is to “renounce his gift” or else suffer the consequences. There isn’t just one “Other,” but a few, and they are evil and do not appreciate the fact that Max intends to use his gift for good.

Max tells ‘im to go to hell, the guy disappears, and later Max finds that, of course, Fran has been kidnapped. The Other had given Max an address in Manhattan, for a law office, and there Max finds a party of the jet-setters in full swing. In one of the novel’s few cool sequences, the Other and his comrade summon Max through a mirror, where they wait for him in some sort of pocket reality. Fran is there, unconscious on a couch. They tell Max they’ve sent her soul into another dimension, and he can follow her there to reclaim it. I guess it’s one way to get rid of the competition. Max takes the challenge, and is promptly zapped away, his body left behind here on Earth.

Now here, at page 54, the novel changes entirely. We’ve spent this first quarter expecting a story of superhero Max taking on the supervillain Others, but instead he’s zapped off to a new planet – a planet where he no longer has his superpowers! Folks this was so goddamn dumb I almost tossed the book, but I didn’t want to damage the awesome Frank Frazetta cover. I mean the entire point of the first 50 pages is rendered moot! Why even bother with the belabored intro of giving your protagonist superpowers, when in reality you just want to write a planetary romance about some guy sent nude and confused onto some alien planet?

But anyway here Phoenix Prime prefigures Andrew Offutt’s Ardor On Aros, only this one’s in third-person and it isn’t as snarky or satirical (however Offutt’s book also had a Frazetta cover, so how’s that for unironic irony??). Finding himself in the middle of a seemingly-neverending desert, Max trudges on…and on…and on. The novel is an uphill climb, as it’s nearly 200 pages of dense narrative, with hardly any dialog or white space – it’s practically all telling instead of showing. Even the action scenes are boring, like when Max is attacked by what he dubs “desert pups,” and later on when he takes on some wolves by a pool – a scene Frazetta captures in his masterful cover painting. 

Max picks up one of the wolves and it becomes his sort-of pet; he calls it “old boy” in what few patches of dialog we get in this turgid section of the book. Again befitting the style of the times, Max at one point drinks the “water” from a cactus even the wolf seems to shy from, and of course it sends him on an arbitrary drug trip which entails him carrying on a coversation with mental projections of Fran and his Other enemies. Eventally Max comes to a city, Ishtarn, and there befriends some desert folk; the tribe leader “gives” him 15 year-old girl Bajra, but Max turns down her offer of sex, as she’s too young. He apparently changes his mind later on, as they engage in some off-page screwing – Max consoling himself that the people of this world, despite their actual age, are of hardier, tougher stuff than the humans of his own world.

The Richard Blade parallels get stronger with a bonkers sequence that has Max and his new desert pals attacked by a tribe of gay desert warriors who put women in harems, using them only for procreation, but look to men for their true sexual delights(!). Bajra’s put in a harem, a development she takes almost casually, and Max himself is harrassed by the desert chieftan who “won” him in battle; Max makes short work of him before he can act on it. From a harem girl Max learns that Fran, for whom he’s been searching in vain, was briefly in the harem as well, and was the favorite of Rassandra, ruler of these desert warriors.

But when Max catches up with Fran, he finds that she’s already gone – through a “matter transmitter” that took her to another world! It’s like this from now on in Phoenix Prime, almost like a Looney Tunes cartoon, Max eternally just missing Fran. Anyway he steps through the portal and finds himself in another part of this world, which is called Qanar; this new place is an island kingdom, and the matter transmitter is used by a “sorcerress” who herself is from a different place – actually a different era, as she’s from this world, just not this age. Through her Max learns the transmitter creates a “local anomaly” in the space-time continuum which lets him, at much explanation, retain the use of those superpowers he had back on Earth, but here he draws the power from within himself and thus quickly tires.

Oh, and Fran’s no longer here, either – just missed her! But Max uses the machine to somehow track Fran, and gradually locates her in another place, one called Qar. After a fight with some Robin Hood-esque outlaws, Max frees Fran, who casually informs him, “I’ve been raped a number of times,” as if she were telling him the hour of the day. But hey, at least they’re together again. One problem, though: Max, the dumbass, only now figures out that the Others, back home, have destroyed his body, so he has no body to return to! So they continue with the ‘60s tenor of the novel and merge together into Fran’s body, voyaging back into the dimension of Earth.

Now Max-Fran wreak their vengeance on the two Others…and White, for reasons unknown, keeps the vengeance off-page. He keeps it off-page!! Instead we are informed the two Others have themselves been cast into Qanar. Now, vengeance sated, Max takes his leave of Frank’s body, having become a “phantom;” indeed, the “next step in human evolution.” He don’t need no stinkin’ body, folks. No, he’s gonna venture on into the infinite, to probe and think and whatnot, and he leaves Fran to her own devices – and meanwhile we learn that, during her own time on Qanar, her comatose body here on Earth was repeatedly raped by paying clientelle. She takes this raping just as casually as the raping she endured on Qanar.

White published two more novels that take place on Qanar, The Sorceress Of Qar and Star Wolf!, but I don’t think I’ll seek them out.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Butler #2: Smart Bombs


Butler #2: Smart Bombs, by Philip Kirk
No month stated, 1979  Leisure Books

I was kind of lukewarm on the first volume of Butler, that leftist, late ‘70s take on James Bond courtesy Len Levinson (aka “Philip Kirk”). I enjoyed it, but I felt that the tone was inconsistent, unsure if it wanted to be a straight spy thriller or more of a light comedy. Also, the random left-wing diatribes were a bit jarring. I’m happy to report though that I really enjoyed this second volume, which not only dispenses with the diatribes but also sticks to a consistent tone. Plus it has the memorable characterization and witty dialog we’ve come to expect from Len.

It’s a few months after The Hydra Conspiracy, and when we meet up with him again, Butler (age 32, and as ever no first name given) is on a submarine in the Baltic sea, about to extract a Soviet defector. The defector claims to have the plans to a new bomb-guidance disruption system the Russians have developed, something that could upset the global power balance. Butler’s agency the Bancroft Insititute is dedicated to ensuring the world balance stays intact; whereas the regular spy hero would want to get the plans for the betterment of his or her country, Butler’s task is to get the plans so the Bancroft Institute can release them to all countries, so everyone has this new technology and one country won’t have superiority over the others.

Butler is undaunted by the physical demands ahead, as he bench presses 260 lbs (his “pectoral muscles nearly as big as pineapples”) and he “jog[s] like everybody else these days.” While he’s suited up for any potential trouble, as always relying on his .45 automatic, Butler doesn’t get in any scrapes. However his target, Dr. Kahlovka, is not on the beach. Instead, a pretty young Russian woman who claims to be his daughter, Natalia, is there. A stacked blonde, Natalia claims that her dad was captured by the KGB, but she escaped. With reservations, Butler takes her back to the sub – and here Len engages in a little of the in-jokery we saw back in the first volume, which featured a character named “Levinson.” This time we’re informed a crew member on the sub is named “Lt. Jordan,” which no doubt is a reference to Len’s pseudonym Leonard Jordan.

While Butler doesn’t trust Natalia, even when she passes the “infallible” lie-detector of the Bancroft Institute, he doesn’t waste much time getting into her pants – and she’s eager to comply after a strip search Butler gives her, in one of the book’s funniest sequences. The back copy of the book is headlined “SEXPIONAGE,” and Len does his best throughout to live up to it. Posthaste Butler and Natalia are getting it on in explicit fashion, though as ever couched in those somewhat-goofy terms and phrases Len used in the first volume, ie: “[Natalia] rubbed her little garden against his stiffening phallus.”

Butler gets a lot of action in this one; after dropping off Natalia at the local Bancroft office in Sweden, he gets it on with a pair of French babes, though Len leaves this one off-page. Back at the Sweden office, Butler is informed by the never-seen CEO of Bancroft, Sheffield, that this whole smart bomb technology, which scrambles the lasers that guide missiles, needs to be taken from the Russians, as soon as possible, and disseminated to other countries. So Butler’s going to have to go into Moscow (that is, if he doesn’t mind – Bancroft is a pretty easygoing spy institute). He doesn’t speak Russian, and he’s never been there, but he’s the most experienced field operative in Bancroft. Sheffield informs him that young Natalia will be going along with him.

This concerns Butler as it is becoming more apparent that Natalia, barely into her 20s, is falling in love with Butler. This doesn’t prevent him from engaging her in more XXX-rated shenanigans. After some training in Russian, Butler, disguised as a deaf mute peasant, ventures with Natalia into “the tractless space that was Russia.” In Moscow they meet their contact, an undercover Bancroft member who works in the munitions factory. Her name is Sonia and of course she’s a stacked beauty, but she is, much to Butler’s dismay, a lesbian. Even more alarming surprises ensue, when it turns out Natalia is in fact a KGB spy, and has led Butler and Sonia into a trap.

The goofy tone of the series is displayed as Butler endures the most easygoing interrogation you’ll ever read in a spy novel; mostly he just keeps bragging “I made you come” to Natalia, now revealed as a total KGB goon, one who keeps insisting to her comrade that Butler did not make her come, and that in fact she hated his every touch. Thanks to a laser pen that could’ve come out of one of the Roger Moore Bond movies, Butler is able to free himself and Sonia, though again the whole thing is so goofy…Natalia and her comrade don’t even take the pen from Butler when they catch him, and they naively fall for his request that he use his own pen to sign the confession letter they have prepared for him. Len does prove though that he’ll kill off characters without warning – I expected there would be more to come from Natalia, but that’s all she wrote for the character (so to speak). 

There’s a lot of funny stuff between Butler and Sonia, with Butler constantly hassling her for sex – even begging her at one point to close her eyes and think Butler’s probing fingers belong to a sexy actress! And mind you all this occurs while they’re running and hiding from the KGB. Butler has made a bet with Sonia that, if he gets them to safety, she’ll have to have sex with him, but curiously Len drops this subplot, even though Butler succeeds in getting them both – plus a Soviet bigwig and his mistress – into the US embassy. (A hilarious scene which has the bigwig debating on the embassy steps if he should emigrate to the US, and when he does so, bounding up the stairs and calling down to his former comrades: “I’m going to Disneyland!”)

Butler heads back to DC, Sonia now gone from the book – Butler later on mutters to himself how you can never trust women, using Sonia’s lack of screwing him, even though she’d said she would, as evidence. Instead we get walk-ons from various returning characters, among them FJ Shankham, Butler’s former boss at the CIA, still as duplicitous as ever – Butler catches him out on the balcony of his hotel room one night, recording Butler while he’s having sex with his ex-wife. This is Brenda Day, a promiscuous jet-setter now married to some government VIP. Butler runs into her at a restaurant and talks his way into her pants, as well, in another XXX sequence.

The smart bomb stuff isn’t done yet, though; Butler still needs to destroy the technology. The gizmos are built in Syria, and Bancroft sets Butler up with Farouk Moussa, a former professor turned Bancroft agent, and the sexy Wilma B. Willoughby, returning from the previous volume. And speaking of which, I just re-read my review of The Hydra Conspiracy, and in it I failed to clarify something; Wilma provided Butler’s entrance into Bancroft by staging her own murder. I forgot to clarify that Wilma wasn’t actually dead in my review of the first book. But she and Butler have a fiery relationship, mostly because Wilma refused to have sex with him; with reservations Butler agrees to have her on the mission into Syria.

Wilma is “a cute little bitch if ever there was one,” and her spats with Butler are another of the book’s highlights; a weary Farouk immediately figures out there’s something beneath the surface between these two and recommends they just screw and get it over with. There’s an interesting bit here where Len has Butler, Wilma, and Farouk – ie the Westerners – strap plastic explosives on their persons and sneak into Syrian – ie Muslim – territory. Almost a bizarro-world parallel of the current day. Some things are sadly the same, though; the trio slip through war-torn Beirut, Len documenting the hellish surroundings, with corpses of men, women, and children everywhere.

Humorously, Len sets up the mission into the Syrian munitions plant, with Butler and comrades in black and ready to take on the Russians there – meanwhile Wilma has honey-trapped a scientist that works in the place, so they can get the blueprints of the place via a Bancroft truth serum. But when they get inside the factory, they encounter no resistance and in fact find a team of Israeli commandos already on the scene, taking their own photos of the smart bomb tech plans. Rather, Len goes a different direction for the novel’s climax – that long-delayed Butler-Wilma banging.

“Hate me in the morning, but love me tonight. That’s my motto,” Butler tells an initially-skittish Wilma, in what is the novel’s most memorable and quotable line of dialog. Wilma you see wants to bang Butler as well, but resists due to his priggishness; he successfully gets her to slip into bed with him here in this slummy Syrian hotel, as they’ve checked in as a married couple (Wilma can speak the lingo here, while Butler can’t), and the security guards are known to randomly check rooms to ensure guests are really who they claim to be. But as Wilma suspects, Butler’s ulterior motive is to get Wilma in bed and have his way with her.

Folks, the ensuing boff runs for 11 pages, and is possibly the most explicit sex scene I’ve yet read in Len’s oeveure, complete with thorough descriptions of Butler getting Wilma worked up to the boiling point and screwing her silly – after which Wilma immediately starts the proceedings anew. The two go at it all night, but next day Wilma, while being debriefed in Bancroft’s Syrian office, requests that she never again be put on an assignment with Butler. She refuses to look at him and storms off, leaving both Butler and the reader confused – this after Wilma has sworn to Butler, during that night of nonstop sin, that she wants to go stay with him in some remote cabin for a week or two. Methinks Len is working up a long-simmer romance between these two characters, but time will tell.

All of which is to say I really liked Smart Bombs. Len finds the right vibe throughout; while it’s funny, it’s never a goofy satire a la The Destroyer, where nothing is taken seriously. Butler worries about his safety – a bit more so than the typical men’s adventure protagonist, in fact – and the stakes are always life and death. But it’s all delivered with the goofy charm we know and expect from Len, with characters trading quips and philosophical asides while hiding from jackbooted KGB thugs. I liked this one a lot more than its predecessor, and look forward to reading more of Butler.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Venus On The Half-Shell


Venus On The Half-Shell, by Kilgore Trout
February, 1975  Dell Books

I think this is maybe the third time I’ve read Venus On The Half-Shell, which as is now commonly known was really written by Philip Jose Farmer, posing as fictional author Kilgore Trout. The story of this has been told too many times to recount again, but in short in the early ‘70s Farmer found himself empathizing with Vonnegut’s character Kilgore Trout, a “sad sack” writer of science fiction who appeared in a few of Vonnegut’s novels. Farmer requested permission to do a novel as Trout, and after a bit of dithering with Vonnegut, permission was granted.

In 1988 Venus On The Half-Shell was reprinted by Bantam Spectra, this time under Farmer’s own name. In an intro he explains that he chose this story as the one to write because it was the only Trout novel (at that time) that wasn’t given a plot synopsis by Vonnegut; in the other novels that referred to Kilgore Trout, the plots of his books were expounded upon at length. Given that the only thing Vonnegut stated about Venus On The Half-Shell was a “racy scene” (Trout’s books and stories being published by sleaze outfits), Farmer felt that he’d be able to flex more creative muscle by writing this one.

In 1973 Farmer published a facetious monograph about Trout, “The Obscure Life And Hard Times Of Kilgore Trout;” it was collected in the anthology The Book Of Philip Jose Farmer (DAW, 1973). Following the manner of Farmer’s pseudo-histories of Tarzan and the like, the piece discusses Trout as if he were a real author with a real body of work to his name. In it Farmer sums up Trout and his work:

Vonnegut calls Trout a science fiction writer, but he was one only in a special sense. He knew little of science and was indifferent to technical details. Vonnegut claims that most science fiction writers lack a knowledge of science. Perhaps this is so, but Vonnegut, who has a knowledge of science, ignores it in his fiction. Like Trout, he deals in time warps, extrasensory perception, space-flight, robots, and extraterrestrials. The truth is that Trout, like Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury and many others, writes parables. These are set in frames which have become called, for no good reason, science fiction. A better generic term would be “future fairy tales.”

[Trout is] miserable, he wrestles with concepts and themes that only a genius could pin to the mat (and very few are geniuses), he feels that he is ignored and despised, he knows that the society in which he is forced to live could be a much better one, and, no matter how gregarious he seems to be, he is a loner, a monad. He may be rich and famous (and some science fiction authors are), but he is essentially that person described in the previous sentence. Millions may admire him, but he knows that the universe is totally unconscious of him and that he is a spark fading out in the blackness of eternity and infinity. But he has an untrammeled imagination, and while his spark is still glowing, he can defeat time and space. His stories are his weapons, and poor as they may be, they are better than none. 

Trout's favorite formula is to describe a hideous society, much like our own, and then, toward the end of the book, outline ways in which the society may be improved.

Farmer faithfully follows this in his own Trout pastiche; however, in the ’88 intro, Farmer states that he didn’t exactly follow the simple, “see Spot run” writing style Vonnegut deployed for his own Trout pastiches. While Farmer’s style in Venus On The Half-Shell is somewhat simple, it doles out a lot of puns and in-jokes, and indeed has a very ‘70s vibe to it. Ironically though, Farmer’s intention is that the book was really published in the ‘60s, but this Dell edition is a revision – to add an extra level to the in-joke irony, the “Obscure Life And Hard Times Of Kilgore Trout” piece ends with the announcement that Venus On The Half-Shell will soon be “republished.”

I love the super-‘70s cover on this original Dell paperback (courtesy “Gadino”), but it is a bit misleading; protagonist Simon Wagstaff, aka “The Space Wanderer” (as Vonnegut solely referred to him in his own Venus On The Half-Shell pastiche), does not go around in star-emblazoned shorts, nor at any point does he wear a fishbowl-esque space helmet. Indeed the novel is so juvenile in regards to the science realm that at no point is Simon stated as wearing any sort of oxygen equipment, despite the fact he spends a few millennia traveling around the cosmos. Simon’s constant clothing is instead: black levis, a baggy gray sweatshirt (with the letters “SW” stitched on it at some point), and imitation leather sandals. He does however wear an eyepatch over his left eye, but the event causing this doesn’t happen until late in the novel. This look was faithfully captured on the ’88 reprint, courtesy cover artist Enric – ie, the guy who did the covers for the 1971 reprints of The Secret Of Sinharat and People Of The Talisman:


Re-reading the book this time, the one thing that most struck me is how similar the style here is to that of Len Levinson. Indeed, if Len had ever written a sci-fi novel, it probably would’ve been like this – not concerned with “science,” but more of a humorous, satirical probe into philosophy – a “parable,” as Farmer himself described Trout’s work in that 1973 monograph. But the question that compels Simon to scour the universe is itself simple: Why are we born only to suffer and die? At least, this is just one of the questions Simon constantly asks – what I mean to say is, this isn’t a deep philosophical work. It’s more about Simon visiting a few planets, encountering the repugnant creatures that live there, and noting their sexual proclivities, sometimes joining them in the shenanigans.

Farmer is likely most remembered for introducing hardcore sex to sci-fi. However it should be noted that there’s no actual sex in Venus On The Half-Shell. There’s a lot of focus on it (we’re always informed of each new alien’s sexual apparati, for example), but no actual sordidness. But I don’t think the sex-focus is Farmer being Farmer; rather, I think it’s Farmer providing an extra layer of in-jokery. For, like a regular Ennis Willie, Trout’s work was solely published by disreputable sleaze purveyors, most of whom changed the original title of Trout’s work to something lurid and put photos of nude women on the covers. The “sex” stuff in Farmer’s Venus On The Half-Shell is likely a reference to this, “Trout” smutting up his book to suit the sleazy whims of his publishers.

The novel opens in the year 3069; our hero Simon Wagstaff is getting busy on the head of the Sphinx in Egypt. The goofy tone of the novel is displayed posthaste as a sudden flooding wipes out civilzation (not to mention Simon’s girlfriend) in the span of a few pages. Simon manages to stay afloat on a plastic mummy display case. Along the way he picks up a pair of what will become constant companions: a dog, which he names Anubis, and an owl, which he names Athena. They are the last survivors of the planet Earth; eventually Simon will learn that the planet was wiped out by the Hoonhoors, an alien race that ventures around the cosmos and “cleans” planets that have become too dirty. At this point the reader of today will see that Venus On The Half-Shell was clearly an inspiration for Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Simon and his companions come upon a spaceship floating on the water. It’s named the Hwang Ho and is of Chinese make. Simon moves into the empty ship and studies Chinese so he can handle the controls. After an encounter with an old space traveler (who has returned to Earth merely to find out who won a particular ballgame in 2457), Simon takes off into space. His goal is to get to “the Truth” behind reality and life. Instead he’s promptly chased by a Hoonhoor ship, and accidentally slips into a black hole, which takes him into another galaxy. The bizarre tenor of the book is further evidenced by the “69x drive” which powers the Hwang Ho’s engines; the 69x drive channels into the fourth dimension and sucks the life out of the stars there. Thus, passengers on ships traveling at 69x speeds hear a constant, terrible screaming – the victim stars wailing in pain.

The first planet up on the menu is Shaltoon, which is populated by humanoid felines. Here Simon’s “atomic-powered electric banjo” playing is a cause for celebration and he is feted by the native critics; a recurring joke throughout the novel is how Simon’s genius was neglected by Earth’s critics, yet more in-jokery via Farmer. But Shaltoon swarms with the “thick, ropy odor of cat-heat,” as the natives are permanently horny. This is because the Shaltoonians store their ancestors inside their cells, and due to a “rotation” each ancestor gets at least one day every hundred or so years to live again in a body. So all they want to do is screw when it’s their turn. All this is explained via lots of setup and exposition and background material.

Venus On The Half-Shell is one of those satires in which the “comedy” is mostly relayed this way – lots and lots of narrative setup, followed by a quick punchline. As if this weren’t enough, Farmer also handles this via novels within the novel itself. In what is intended as another tribute/reference to Vonnegut, Farmer has Simon Wagstaff often thinking of the novels of his favorite writer, Jonathan Swift Somers III, just as Vonnegut’s character Eliot Rosewater often thought of the novels of his favorite writer, Kilgore Trout. So, we have lots of in-depth plot rundowns (too in-depth, one might say) of various Somers novels and stories, from those concerning his intelligent dog protagonist Ralph von Wau Wau (and Farmer by the way published two Wau Wau stories – as by Jonathan Swift Somers III – in 1975 and 1976), to some about his parapalegic space explorer John Clayter. (Author Spider Robinson so liked Ralph von Wau Wau that the dog has appeared in several of his own novels.)

Simon gets his own taste of that “cat-heat;” invited to a personal meeting with Queen Margaret of Shaltoon, Simon enjoys some (off-page) sex with the lady, and more importantly is served an elixer by her that grants immortality. He shares the drink with Anubis and Athena after some mulling over if it’s right to make animals immortal. But he turns down the queen’s offer to rule beside her and heads off again, eventually landing on another planet: Giffard. This one is a bizarre world with “zeppelin” males that fly and “pyramid” females that graze on the grass. After the sexual functions are duly noted, Simon basically starts a revolution here by encouraging the females to demand their partners allow them some flying time.

More importantly so far as the novel goes, here Simon also meets what will become his other constant companion, though to tell the truth on this reading I discovered she’s less narratively important than I remembered her being: Chworktap, a blonde beauty with a “nice figure” that Simon first glimpses coming nude out of the water – just like the famous Titian painting of the title, though without, “Trout” notes, the clam shell or angels or whatnot. However, the clouds look similar to the painting(!). More time passes as Chworktap moves into the Hwang Ho with Simon and they learn how to speak each other’s language.

Only after they have the expected sex – which again occurs off-page – does Simon learn that Chworktap is…an android! She leaves with Simon when he must escape Gifford, when Simon pisses off the natives with his suggestion on how they manage the male-female discord he caused – a suggestion which ends up with Simon being labelled “Simon the Sodomite” by the angry natives. Next up is the planet Lalorlong, which curiously Chworktap suggests, as the natives there might have the answers Simon seeks, as they have nothing to do but ponder. I say “curiously” because all this is overlooked once they get there and the Lalorlongs turn out to be sentient tires that think of nothing but endlessly circling around the planet. This sequence is middling and plays more on a bunch of “tire” jokes, but caps off with more mulling as Simon puts an injured native out of his misery and wonders later if he should have done so.

Next up is the planet Dokal, which takes up a good portion of the text. Also here Chworktap drops out of the book for a long period, not even going onto the planet with Simon; they have a brief fight, after which Chworktap wants to study the computer that runs the Hwang Ho, as she’s certain it is capable of free thought. However Trout/Farmer completely drops this subplot, never revealing if the ship does or not; either it’s a pure miss on Farmer’s part, or more likely it’s yet another in-joke – playing up Trout’s notoriously sloppy/bad writing.

Dokal is populated by humans with tails, and Simon has a tail attached to his body via surgery, urged to do so by the natives. He goofs off here for a while, once again scoring some off-page sex, and eventually heads off into a no man’s land which is home to the planet’s wisest native. After weeks of hiking Simon finds a castle in which he’s ordered by the gross, obese “wise man” to fatten up – the ultimate intention, of course, to eat Simon. This part sees the only action scene in the novel, as Simon manages to defend himself, but loses his left eye in the process. However this is almost an afterthought and there’s no real pain for Simon; the loss of the eye is more of a minor setback. The novel suffers because Simon and the other characters never ascend beyond cipher status.

The planet Goolgeas is the next stop, and this one takes up nearly as much text as Dokal did. It is however the most irritating section of the novel, as the planet is a satire of litigation run rampant. First Simon gets drunk a lot, as all the human-like natives do is drink all the time, and he lets his pets drink too. But then he’s arrested for letting animals get drunk – Chworktap is arrested as well, after beating up a few cops in an escape attempt. They’re all thrown in prison for trial…and wait decades until it’s their turn, due to how swamped the courts are. Eventually everyone on the planet is in prison for some technicality, and our heroes are finally let go because so much time has passed that a “normal lifespan” has been reached. All told, they spend 130 years in prison.

By this point Chworktap and Simon’s love has run its course, having spent a century living in cramped quarters together. Simon drops her off back at her home planet, and this is a scene I always remember because “Trout” makes it clear that “eternal love” is impossible because people will eventually get sick of each other. We’re close to the end, so “Trout” skips over three thousand years; Simon is now a legend in the cosmos, the “Space Wanderer,” who still seeks the answer to his question. The reader feels a bit cheated, as it turns out the entire book is really just the opening quarter (or less) of Simon Wagstaff’s story.

And once again he’s in prison, arrested on the planet Shonk for covering his genitals but not his face, contrary to native custom. Five years later Simon’s sprung by a Hoonhoor ship; the occupants apologize for their ancestors having destroyed Earth, and to make up for it they send Simon off to the planet of the Clerun-Gowph. A recurring subplot in the book is Simon’s search for these elusive, impossibly ancient beings; in most planets in the galaxies, one will find a massive “candy heart-shaped” structure, planted there billions of years ago by the Clerun-Gowph. Simon’s certain if they are that ancient then they will know all there is to know about life.

The year is now 8,120,006,000 AC (“After Creation”), and the Clerun-Gowphs are massive cockroaches. Their leader is named Bingo and he was one of the first to plant those structures; he actually worked with the Supreme Being, whom he refers to as “It.” Those expecting a probing answer to Simon’s burning question have come to the wrong book; after much goofy back and forth, Bingo’s response to why “It” created life, despite all the suffering that would ensue, is a mere “Why not?”

And here the book ends, Simon trapped forever on this world of cockroaches, as the 69x drives have sucked the life out of the last 4th dimension stars. An unusual thing about Venus On The Half-Shell is that it’s kind of irritating as you read it…you start to want more from the characterization and a little less of the goofy vibe…and yet when you’re finished the book, you sort of miss it! At least that was my experience. I mean it’s not a great book by any means, but there is something indefinable about it that’s enjoyable. Maybe it’s that shaggy ‘70s vibe.

Farmer planned to do more novels as Trout, but this was scrapped by Vonnegut himself, who to tell the truth sounds like a bit of an ass. (Anyone read about how he snubbed MST3K’s Kevin “Tom Servo” Murphy?) It appears that Vonnegut misunderstood a comment some sci-fi scholar stated on a PBS program, about how Farmer was going to write his Kilgore Trout novel whether Vonnegut gave permission or not (which wasn’t the case), and he got ticked off. He was also supposedly angered by all the fan mail he got asking if he’d written the book – some claiming it was his best book ever. Further, Vonnegut prevented a planned animated film of Venus On The Half-Shell which would’ve had music by the Grateful Dead.

But by 1988 it appears Vonnegut had forgotten all about the book; in the Bantam Spectra reprint, Farmer gets a little dig in on Vonnegut, stating that, by the late ‘80s, college-age science fiction fans didn’t even know who Vonnegut was anymore, let alone Kilgore Trout. As mentioned Farmer wrote two stories about smart canine Ralph von Wau Wau, as “Johnathan Swift Somers III;” these were collected in the 2006 Subterreanean Press anthology Pearls From Peoria. I intend to read them someday, mostly because they would thus be a sort of continuation of Venus On The Half-Shell, at least so far as the fictional characters within the book itself go.

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Penetrator #31: Oklahoma Firefight


The Penetrator #31: Oklahoma Firefight, by Lionel Derrick
May, 1979  Pinnacle Books

Mark Roberts turns in another installment of The Penetrator, proving again that he’s mostly using the series now as a platform to project his beliefs. Along the way Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin wastes a friggin’ ton of Muslim terrorists who have somehow slipped into the US, posing as employees of a new oil company, gunning them down in action scenes that are almost surreal.

Otherwise The Penetrator continues its downward trend, with a titular hero now such an emasculated, pale reflection of his former self that he doesn’t even get to score with this volume’s babe – though there’s a lot of hand-holding and staring into each other’s eyes. The casual sadism of the earliest volumes is also pretty much gone, as is the brutal charm of the series itself. So I guess you could say the blandness that overtook the ‘70s had overtaken The Penetrator as well.

But it is pretty surreal – there’s this new Arabic oil conglomerate, Al Jihad(!), taking over all the US oil companies. Their goal is to ensure oil interests are only in Arabic, ie Muslim, hands. To this end they want to keep American companies from oil-prospecting even within America itself. So of course they kidnap the daughter of one American holdout, Phelps Lucky Seven, to ensure the complicity of its tough-guy CEO, “Hot Hole” Harry Gorse(!), former oil “wildcatter” turned company executive. As the action opens, the Muslim fiends have sexy young Sheila Gorse in their custody, threatening her bodily harm if Harry doesn’t sign Phelps over to Al Jihad.

Enter Mark Hardin, already on the scene. Posing throughout as “Hulie Crowkiller,” claiming to be a representative of the possibly-mythical “Council of the Good Red Road,” Mark presents himself to fellow “full-blooded Indian” Harry Gorse. Mark lies that “the Council” is interested in this oil business because many of the American oil fields are on Indian land, or somesuch. At any rate this leads to the first of several action scenes, as Mark blasts away a bunch of Jihadists and frees Sheila – who of course instantly falls head over heels for “Hulie,” even though nothing comes of it.

Roberts never wrote for Gold Eagle Books, but it’s interesting that Oklahoma Firefight prefigures the template used by most of that imprint’s series novels. To wit, we have scenes with Mark waging war, and just as many scenes from the point of view of the villains – Arabic terrorists, just as in so many of those Gold Eagle books, who squabble among themselves and worry over what to do about the Penetrator. In this case the main Al Jihadi goon is Ali Hassan, who again is a sad reminder of the oldschool Muslim terrorist, most of whom looked almost like Mister Rogers when compared to the modern Muslim terrorist. Ali you see not only fears death, but is open to negotiation and wants to cement Al Jihadi’s oil rule in as above-the-board means as necessary.

In fact, Mark Hardin comes off as worse than the Jihadis; while they plot and maneuver, the most they do in the book is kidnap Sheila and threaten Harry. Mark meanwhile travels around Oklahoma and Texas and just murders them left and right. He even runs into them by accident, in what makes for some of Roberts’s humorously-convenient plotting; while hunting (and we’re informed the Penetrator isn’t much of a hunter…even though he has hunting licenses in just about every state!?), Mark runs into a roving patrol of Al Jihadis, who take him prisoner, wondering what to do with him. I forgot to mention – the Al Jihadis are also leftists, or at least pretend to be, mostly so they can play to the gullibility of Western leftists (my how times have changed, huh? Oh, wait…). So the leader of this batch sympathizes with Mark, being that Mark’s a Cheyenne Indian, and thus has “also” been exploited by the white rulers of America and whatnot.

Not that this stops Mark from butchering these guys, too, freeing himself by a hidden knife, a new tool in his arsenal which is so built up that it’s almost product-placement on the level of Jerry Ahern. Mark’s escape is damn easy, and it helps that all the Al Jihadi terorists are presented as incredibly stupid and inept. Mark soon captures one of them – a young boy he tortures for info in Sheila’s hotel room, and whose fate Roberts forgets to inform us about. Sheila meanwhile has fallen in love with “Hulie,” and Mark chastises himself that his on-again, off-again girlfriend Joanna Tabler (unseen this volume) would never let him hear the end of it.

The novel is pretty repetitive; both Harry and Sheila are abducted twice each. One of the Harry abductions leads to an actual car chase, one that occurs on the campus of Oral Roberts University – and once again Mark easily rescues his comrade, taking out a bunch of inept Al Jihadi goons in the process. This one features an unintentionally-humorous finale where all the hippie college kids start to take photos of the license plate on Mark’s rented car and he takes off before they can.

Speaking of humor, Roberts is back to his old in-jokery, at least; early on a character refers to “that Camellion fellow,” and a guard at Phelps Lucky Seven is chastised for reading “too many adventure novels.” A later action scene prefigures Die Hard, with Mark alone and surrounded in the Al Jihadi corporate headquarters in Houston. This might be the best of many action scenes in the book, with Mark tearing the place up and making an easy escape thanks to a handy fireman suit he’s brought along with him.

In fact the final quarter is comprised of lightning strikes Mark makes on various Jihadi strongholds in Oklahoma and Texas. There’s also a lot of setup to each of these action scenes, with padding about Mark driving around, talking to locals, asking if they’ve seen any strange new Arab companies opening in the vicinty, etc. Meanwhile Sheila Gorse is caught again, and her fate I admit was a bit surprising, almost casually relayed via Roberts. This incident leads Harry Gorse to whip up his own strike force of Cheyenne warriors – and ultimately he too is caught once again.

The novel does build up to a nice climax, with Mark dishing out bloody payback to Ali Hassan and American traitor Arnold Merritt; but since the Penetrator didn’t get laid by Sheila, Roberts delivers this out-of-nowhere 11th hour reveal that Sheila has a sister, even sexier(!), who works as a model in New York. Oklahoma Firefight ends with the Penetrator about to live up to his title with this particular Ms. Gorse – though per series norm he’s already fretting over his next mission.

Overall this one was okay, a passable time-killer, but I’m hoping the series picks up eventually. It’s never a good sign when the parts I most enjoyed were Roberts’s various diatribes – all of which, mind you, were about things that are sadly as prevalent as ever (the leftist bias of the news, the anti-US bias of the United Nations, etc). Unless of course you’re a fan of those things.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Nightmare On Vega 3 (aka Space Probe 6 #2)


Nightmare On Vega 3, by Charles Huntington
No month stated, 1972  Award Books

The Space Probe 6 “series” limps to a close with this second and final volume that appears to have been published at the same time as the first volume. Perhaps Award Books wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. One wonders if producer Lyle Kenyon Engel had more volumes of Space Probe 6 in the pipeline, or if he too realized these two books were probably the worst things he’d ever associated his name with.

Because folks I hate to say it, but Nightmare On Vega 3 is, unbelievably, worse than The Soul Stealers. At least that first volume attempted to be science fiction; once it got out of the sadism and vaguely-described sex, it featured robots and space battles and whatnot. But man, Nightmare On Vega 3 is nothing but sadism and sex (a bit more described, this time), with the sci-fi vibe of the series gone and forgotten.

I’m not sure, but I think this one was written by another author than the first volume. Don’t get me wrong, the style is still clunky and the writing itself is bad, with hardly any description (except, curiously, when it comes to descriptions of the various clubs which are used to beat around our protagonist). If I had to make a guess, given Engel’s writing stable at the time, I’m wondering if Nightare On Vega 3 (and perhaps its predecessor) was written by Arnold Marmor, particularly given the sleaze angle. Marmor wrote a ton of sleaze, and while it wasn’t on display in the one volume of Nick Carter: Killmaster he wrote for Engel (Peking and The Tulip Affair), the same sort of clunky and bad style was on display throughout – in particular when it came to the vagueness of description and the paper-thin characters. 

One thing that makes me suspect this is courtesy a different author is that this one doesn’t seem to know what the hell to do with the series concept; at least The Soul Stealers made clear that Captain Matt Foyt and android Ivan 3-69(M) voyaged around the cosmos aboard Space Probe 6, looking for…something. Actually that part wasn’t made very clear. But at least there was a dymanic between the two, even if they were basically clones of one another (as mentioned, the author proved his lack of imagination with these two not only described as looking similar but also basically acting the same). This author however seems unsure what to do with poor old Ivan, and leaves him off-page for the entire narrative.

Instead, the focus is on getting Matt Foyt onto a planet he dubs “Vega” and having him screw a busty native gal, while at the same time engaging in a plot that is wholly ripped off from The Tenth Victim. One holdover from the previous book is that Matt is not presented as the most capable hero; in the first one he was arrested and spent the majority of the book in jail. In this one he briefly ventures around Vega, a planet he and Ivan come upon after getting sucked into a black hole (man I hate it when that happens); immediately he gets chased by a pterodactyl, falls while running from it – and gets amnesia. Yep folks, he gets amnesia, like right off the bat. (Oh, and he eventually gets put in jail in this one, too!)

As mentioned Ivan is back on the ship, where he stays throughout. Matt’s named this place Vega, and it’s the third planet in this new solar system – methinks, per Engel’s Book Creations Inc. norm, that Engel must’ve come up with the “Vega 3” title and story outline, and the author filled in the blanks. For humorously enough “Vega” turns out in reality to be the planet Alcantarn, thus named by its natives, human-like beings with yellow eyes. So “Vega 3” has nothing to do with anything, as the planet’s referred to as Alcantarn throughout. Matt, after waking up with no memory of Ivan or his still-undescribed Space Probe starship, finds himself in the undescribed city that is apparently the capital of the planet – the author doesn’t really bother with any details.

Rather, “Charles Huntington” wants to get to the sadism, same as last time – as we’ll recall, there were periodic depictions of public torture and extermination in The Soul Stealers, so hell, maybe it’s the same dude writing this crap after all. But Matt discovers these yellow-eyed locals murdering each other in wanton acts of cruelty, and strangely, no one bothers to help the victims. Matt does, though, getting in a couple fights, sticking out like a sore thumb due to his dark hair, eyes, and “blue uniform” (at least this time we learn his uniform is blue). But the action scenes are woefully inept: “The crunch of nose bone and a muffled yell from the fellow was heard, and he fell backwards.” Folks, when writing an action scene, don’t ever use phrases like “was heard.” Or describe your protagonist’s opponent as “the fellow.”

After beating up a few random would-be murderers, Matt next stumbles upon some guy trying to torch a friggin’ school. From the conflagration he saves the pretty, busty teacher – her name is Ryana, she’s a redheaded beauty, and she takes Matt back to her place. She explains that on this planet one can buy a license to do anything; given the levels of corruption, if you can pay the government to do something, no matter how horrific what you want to do is, they’ll let you do it. (Boy, sounds like a certain political party run amok – talk about “pay for play!”) So if you want to torch a friggin’ school building filled with kids, you can do it, as long as you can pay for it. And no one can stop you, unless they have a license to do so. However if you are the “victim” being “hunted,” you do have the legal right to defend yourself. (I wonder if Robert Sheckley was aware he was being ripped of?)

Actually the author isn’t just ripping of The Tenth Victim; he also rips off Logan’s Run, at least briefly. For Alcantarn also has an enforced termination once you reach a certain age, and guess what – Ryana’s mom has hit the age. What’s more, she’s due for extermination in a day or two, so how’s that for convenient plotting. Matt beats up the government thugs who come to collect her, then kills them with his DSA pistol, which as we’ll recall disintigrates people. Meanwhile the government thugs have batons (curiously overdescribed by the author, as are the clubs used in the previous street fights Matt gets in with would-be murderers – let’s’ all say “hmmm”), as well as guns called Tempistols that can freeze or enflame. It’s stupid.

Even more stupid, but hilariously so, is that Ryana’s friggin’ mom stumbles out of her room just in time to get blasted by a freeze ray, turns into a statue of ice, topples over, and her head smashes off!! Well, so much for Ryana’s mom. Matt “cleans up” Ryana’s apartment so no one will know there’s been a fight here, Ryana mourns her mom for a hot second – “It was her time to die soon anyway,” being her outlook on the sad situation – and then Matt and Ryana get down to the serious business of screwing:

Matt moved onto the girl decisively and thrust his manhood into her; he thrust it hard and deep, and a second gasp escaped her lips, this one more audible. 

“Ohhh!” she moaned. 

Matt thrust deeply and stayed there. And then it began happening. Her interior muscles began moving rhythmically all along him. The motion increased in intensity, and then something else deep inside her was caressing the most extreme part of him. In moments she was driving him crazy with the internal manipulation and caresses. 

She saw his face. “Now,” she gasped. “Now ravage me!”

Well, now! It goes on for a bit, and the two get along so famously that, I kid you not, practically every scene ends with them rushing back to Ryana’s place for another somewhat-explicit sexual excursion. But that isn’t even the funniest part – Matt gets his memory back thanks to Ryana’s incredible skills in the sack! So now Matt remembers he’s on some still unspecified mission and even has a spaceship nearby, complete with an obedient android best bud who is no doubt waiting frantically (or at least as frantically as an android can wait) for word from Matt.

So what does Matt do? He dials up Ivan on his handy belt communicator and tells the android to hang on for a bit. Why? So “Charles Huntington” can get back to more sin and sadism. Ryana’s got a brother who was banned from society for goofy reasons, and she wants to visit him with his fellow outcasts in the cemetery they’re hiding in. Matt goes along, and on the way out of the place they’re nearly caught by a trio of hunters who go after outcasts for sport. Ryana’s nearly raped, the author going full-bore with this particular grimy angle.

This is just the start of Ryana’s problems: first her mom buys it in spectacular fashion, then she’s almost raped, and now an old flame named Megnus shows up – and displays the license he’s just purchased which grants him the right to murder her! This sadly proves to be the plot of the remainder of the book; Megnus, a wealthy sadist, makes periodic attempts on Ryana’s life, Matt saving her each time. Our dumbass hero tries again and again to plead for Ryana’s life, trying to talk “sense” into Megnus before finally realizing he will need to kill him. Matt even visits the local government offices to try to get the whole thing called off. He proves himself a complete buffoon.

Not that this stops Matt and Ryana from screwin’ as often as possible. Each time we get reminders of those “internal manipulation” skills of Ryana’s; Matt thinks to himself that there can be no better lay in the entire galaxy! So you’d think he’d be a bit more determined to protect the poor girl from harm. But Matt is a buffoon, remember, and after dinner one night Ryana is abducted by some men Megnus has hired – and when Matt finally tracks her down to the abandoned warehouse where she’s been taken, he finds that Ryana’s already dead, her head crushed by Megnus.

I actually found this upsetting, which is more than can be said for Matt himself, who after a second of remorse finally gets hold of Megnus and puts him to death in one of Megnus’s own torture devices. I forgot to mention, but part of the uncountable annoyances in Nightmare On Vega 3 is that Megnus constantly escapes Matt in all the prior action scenes; he’ll make an attempted hit on Ryana’s life, Matt will stop it, Matt will then pursue Megnus, but Matt will lose him in some contrived fashion. This happens many, many times. So you’d think the author would let us relish Megnus’s long-demanded comeuppance a bit more. But nope – don’t forget, this author sucks, and he is incapable of delivering on any expectations. Except of course the expectation that his work will suck. He doesn’t disappoint on that one.

But since the book isn’t dumb enough yet, Matt’s arrested due to his various infringements upon the law, and he’s thrown into prison. There is no reflection on his part that he spent the previous book in prison. He’s to be exterminated publically as an example, and the natives gather in an excited throng. Here comes Ivan to the rescue, finally showing up in the text, skimming over the crowd in a flyer and dousing them with poisonous gas. Matt manages to escape, tells Ivan thanks, and doesn’t regret murdering all these bloodthirsty Alcantarns. Now the two of them head on back to Space Probe 6 to get back to that game of chess they were playing before the black hole interrupted them(!).

And that’s it for Nightmare On Vega 3, which truly was a nightmare, but I have to admit there was a clunky charm to it. I mean any book where an old lady’s frozen head shatters can’t be all bad. And the frequent Matt-Ryana bangings also had their own sleazy charm. But otherwise this was a bad book, and Space Probe 6 was a bad series. There is one mystery, though – namely, the cover art clearly seems to have been intended for the first volume, which did feature scenes of Matt Foyt blowing the heads off androids. No such scenes occur in Nightmare On Vega 3, so who knows what happened, there.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Sharpshooter #13: Savage Slaughter


The Sharpshooter #13: Savage Slaughter, by Bruno Rossi
February, 1975  Leisure Books

Very grim stuff and not the light reading I expected but surprisingly well written and exceptionally powerful. Definitely the best of the series. -- Rayo Casablanca, the Sick Hipster blog 

I’ve been looking forward to this volume of The Sharpshooter since reading Rayo’s comments on it years ago; I should’ve just jumped straight ahead to it, but instead I’ve been reading the series in order. Not that there’s much “order” to the Sharpshooter. And, as Lynn Munroe suspects, it would appear that Savage Slaughter started life as a Marksman novel, anyway – while the copy editing is much better than previous such books, there are still a handful of slips where “Rock” is referred to as “Magellan.”

However, Savage Slaughter might answer a question I’ve long held – namely, who the hell wrote the almighty Bronson: Blind Rage. Because I’m 90% sure the same author wrote Savage Slaughter, and if Lynn’s speculations are correct, then it was George Harmon Smith, a prolific writer editor Peter McCurtin apparently used as his “fixit” author. While Smith never listed “Bruno Rossi” as one of his many pseudonyms, Lynn suspects that Smith might not’ve been aware that his Marksman novel, as “Frank Scarpetta” (a pseudonym Smith did list), was transformed into a Sharpshooter.

As we’ll recall, Blind Rage was a friggin’ masterpiece of sadism, with a deranged “hero” who, in the course of the narrative, wrought his vengeance in the most brutal of ways, from torching the pubic hair of a random floozie to emasculating some guy with a shard of glass. Or how about the part where he caged some guy and let loose a bunch of rats on him? “Johnny Rock” goes to even more insane lengths in this book, and to me it’s clear indication of that same author’s fevered imagination. To wit: 

Early in the book Rock interrogates a drug pusher. When the guy won’t talk, Rock pulls down the guy’s pants, breaks open a bullet cartridge, and pours gun powder on his crotch, threatening to light it up. “This is going to be the come of the century.” The pusher gives Rock the info – and then Rock says “Bye, bye, motherfucker,” and sets his crotch on fire, anyway. He then delivers the coup de grace: a bullet to the face.

Not long after this, Rock is baited by a honey trap – turns out the girl works for someone else, someone who wants to hire Rock. When she comes back to his apartment to drop off the keys to a car they've gotten him, Rock knocks her out, throws her on his bed, strips her – and, well, you can figure out the rest. At least the author doesn’t go full-bore with it and leaves the scene vague. However the girl’s unconscious throughout, and later on Rock thinks briefly about it – but doesn't regret it.

At one point Rock wants to weed out a heroin pipeline, and in order to do so he sets himself up as a pusher. He doses a stash with cyanide, killing off a slew of users with “hot shots,” chalking up their deaths as collateral damage. He pulls such stunts throughout the book, like when he hits a mob-run massage parlor and “dance palace,” figuring the (otherwise innocent) patrons there should’ve known better, anyway – and killing just as many of them as the mobsters he’s there for.

A grueling sequence has Rock interrogating another guy, this one a Vietnamese dude who turns out to be a soldier from North Vietnam who is part of a heroin-importing business. (A subplot which curiously goes nowhere.) This part will raise the hackles of the most bloodthirsty reader, as Rock busts out a pair of pliers and sets about breaking the dude’s toes one by one, at some points having to stomp on the pliers because the joints are too strong! Then he sets the dude’s foot on fire, then he jabs a penknife in the dude’s eye! And only then does the tough bastard finally talk! Guess how the scene ends? (If you said “point-blank bullet to the face,” you win a no-prize…)

And then my friends comes the piece de resistance; toward the final third of the novel, Rock gets hold of a Mafia gunner who was part of a crew that killed someone close to our crazed hero. Rock strips the guy down, ties him up here in the desert in which the sequence occurs, and tracks down a diamondback snake. After interrogating this latest victim, Rock…actually, read for yourself:

The snake’s deadly head darted forward again, striking twice, and Rock could see flecks of blood on the man’s dangling genitals as he pulled the snake back again…He walked back over and sat down near the man, watching him writhe in agony and listening to his moans and screams, his begging pleas for help. It took about an hour. The man’s testicles and penis swelled and turned a dark splotchy black, then he began to have trouble breathing. He went into spasms a few minutes later and lost control over his bowels, and a foul stench came from him as his body jerked and heaved, mashing and spreading the thick, heavy feces which came from him. His body began undulating in strong convulsions as his face became mottled, and the wire cut into his wrists and ankles. Presently he went into deep shock, his breathing stopped, and he died.

But all is not perfect in this sadistic paradise, for the sad truth is Savage Slaughter is so drawn out as to be a wearying read; it comes in at a whopping 218 pages, which is much, much too long for a Sharpshooter or Marksman novel – and that’s 218 pages of small, dense print. This particular “Bruno Rossi,” if indeed George Harmon Smith he be, is truly a gifted writer, capable of doling out some compelling prose and characters, but the sad fact is he doesn’t know when to say when. There’s a ton of stuff that could’ve been cut from the book to make for a more streamlined read, and there’s a lot of repetition throughout.

Every single thing Johnny Rock does is explained to the utmost degree; if the dude smokes a cigarette we’ll read as he rips open the pack, takes one out, lights the match, inhales, etc. If he crosses a street we’ll read about every step of the way. The author can write but doesn’t seem to understand that this particular genre demands brevity. Even the action scenes, while gory, suffer from the same thing – blocks and blocks of description with little emotional content. For this reason I can’t agree with Rayo, that this is the best book of the series; indeed, there were parts where I wished Savage Slaughter would just end already. But meanwhile the author was too busy with arbitrary plot detours, like a random diatribe about racial tensions in San Francisco to an overlong part where Rock lives in a shack in the desert and has to fix all the old, broken equipment in it.

It's been a few years since I read Blind Rage, so I can’t recall if it too suffered from this overwriting. But given the levels of sadism on display – coupled with the almost blasé attitude of the protagonist – makes me suspect it’s the same author: George Harmon Smith. However one thing to note is that, despite the violence and gore, Savage Slaughter is curiously conservative with the sex scenes, all of which occur off-page. I don’t remember this being the case with Blind Rage. I also seem to recall the author of that book using words that don’t appear in this one, like “focussed” instead of “focused,” and “pellets” instead of “bullets,” so despite all my above musings I could be dead wrong, and it’s a different author here.

But anyway, Savage Slaughter appears to have started life as a Marksman novel, though we don’t get to our first “Magellan” gaffe until page 154, after which there are only a few more such slips. But the cagey reader knows something is up from the first pages; while the novel opens with Rock waking from a dream and thinking about how his mom and dad were killed by the Mafia, which is of course the incident which set Johnny Rock on his mob-busting career, later on in the book Rock announces himself thusly: “I’m Rock, the guy whose wife and kid were wasted by the Mafia.” That of course is the incident which set Philip Magellan on his mob-busting career. (Actually, it was Robert Briganti, but it’s the same character, right?)

This particular author is pretty familiar with the workings of the underworld, especially when it pertains to the grimy world of heroin-pushing. In fact Rock at times seems more focused on stopping drugs than wasting mobsters. To this end Rock is hired by the CIA early on; they want to use him to close in on mob boss Sully Gianelli and his brother. (The criminal brothers is another parallel with Blind Rage.) The author also understands that the CIA has no jurisdiction within the US, something he often has his CIA agent reminding Rock. But the Agency will provide Rock with weapons, cars, and whatever else he needs in his war of attrition on the Mafia.

Rock tails the Gianellis all the way from New York to San Francisco, the author already displaying his overwriting – it goes on and on, complete with stops in roadside diners. And in SanFran we get that above-mentioned detour into the racial tensions of the city, and that goes on for pages and pages. Things liven up with that grueling torture sequence, of Rock maiming the Viet drug pusher, but afterwards it gets bizarre – Rock runs into young Shirley and her dad and, apropos of nothing, decides to become their guardian, even subtly implying that he’ll marry Shirley!

But folks, I hate to burst any bubbles with this spoiler, but Shirley’s friggin’ dead like a handful of pages after she’s introduced, gang-raped and beaten to death offpage – and Rock comes back just in time for her to die in his arms. (You’d think Rock would learn here not to get involved with anyone – or at least not to leave anyone he loves alone for long, but nope…he doesn’t learn.) But the whole part is so arbitrary as to be hilarious, and another indication of material that could’ve been cut. At least it has a nice payoff, with Rock phoning his local CIA contact and getting some heavy gear; he launches a revenge blitz on a mob whorehouse, doling out plentiful gory deaths with a Thompson submachine gun, shotgun, and grenades.

Heading into New Mexico until the heat dies down, Rock, despite his protestations, ends up giving a sexy young hitchhiker a lift. This is Barbara, who relays her sad sack story to Rock from page 128 to 141(!). This is a miniature story in itself, as egregious as can be, made all the worse by the fact that Rock eagerly listens to the whole thing, even asking questions here and there. The Sharpshooter cares, folks! But seriously Barbara’s story is like the turbulent ‘60s in microcosm, taking in her college days in hippie-terrorist groups to her meeting with a ‘Nam vet who changed her entire perspective with a simple question: The hippies might be against the Vietnam war, but have you ever asked if the Vietnamese people are against it? While interesting, and very much like the Hippie Lit I used to enjoy so much, it goes on and on and friggin’ on.

Barbara is the one who pleads with Rock to get that cabin in the desert; there ensues more padding with the couple having a veritable happy life over the next few weeks, complete with inordinate scenes of an old prospector coming over to visit and bringing gifts and etc. This could be another Blind Rage parallel, as just as that author got you to care about Bronson’s main squeeze before killing her off, so too does this author strive for the same thing – only Barbara’s kind of annoying, and to tell the truth the impact is dilluted by the galacial pace of the novel. But once again Rock goes off on some random quest, pushing down his suspicion that something might be amiss – like for example that helicopter that recently passed over their cabin.

This time when Rock suffers his latest heartbreak, which lasts for like a hot second or two, the reader is prepared to laugh – I mean seriously, the author pulls the same thing twice in the same book! In a way I admire his moxie. While this setback doesn’t elicit another revenge-hit, it does lead to the bit with the diamondhead. And later Rock tracks down the mobster who ordered the kill and takes him out – but here too is another detour from Blind Rage, where we got to witness our insane hero exacting his bloody vengeance. In Savage Slaughter, Rock generally shoots up the place and we read that random dudes go down in bloody sprays of gore, but rarely do we read about the main target getting his just deserts. In a way this robs the novel of its dramatic thrust.

Rock spends a long time hiding in this one, too; first it’s for a few weeks in the desert shack, then it’s in a CIA safehouse. They even provide him with some female company – which of course turns out to be the very same woman Rock raped, early in the book. And after a brief scuffle, in which she tries to claw out his eyes catfight style, the girl gives in to Rock’s charms! Her name is Betty, and she’s a kick-ass field agent herself; she is the only character in the novel to openly state how friggin’ nuts Rock is, telling him he’s “fucked up and rotted away inside.” But still and all, she lives with him in the safehouse for a whopping five weeks, during which Rock grows a moustache to disguise his features.

Another thing that kills dramatic impact in Savage Slaughter is that there is a lot of telling before showing. As is the case here, where Rock’s CIA handler Halton shows up again and they go on and on and on about this hit Rock could make on a mob wedding – I’m talking every inconsequential detail worked out. And to make it worse, we see it all go down just as planned! At any rate Rock disguises himself as a delivery man, bringing flowers to the event, but instead drops off some explosives that wipe everyone out – innocents and all (including a male wedding planner presented as so mincingly gay that he’s sure to trigger the sensitive readers of today).

There’s no pickup from previous books, no setup for ensuing ones. Overall the novel really does have the feel of a true Sharpshooter, with only a few indications of its original Marksman nature slipping through the cracks. In addition to the handful of “Magellan” slips, we also are reminded sometimes of Rock’s “wife and kid” who were killed, which is incorrect, and also we’re told that he misses his Uzi – a favored Magellan weapon, as is the Beretta Rock uses throughout. But other than that, this one feels like a Johnny Rock novel; it’s mean and sadistic as hell, and written much better than the series average – it’s just so bloated and padded it loses much of its impact.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 7

Eurospy:

Agent 3S3: Massacre In The Sun (1966): George Ardisson returns as Walter Ross, Agent 3S3, in a superior sequel to the previous year’s “Agent 3S3: Passport To Hell” (below). Also known as “Hunter From The Unknown,” this movie exists in a few different versions. The one I watched was an uncut print taken from a French TV broadcast – it’s widescreen, no commercials, and no network logo, but the picture is a bit fuzzy and the color is a bit muted. But it’s worlds better than the pan and scanned, sourced-from-an-old-USA TV broadcast that once existed on the trade circuit. Some wonderful person has even included the English dub on this French print, but the uncut scenes are in French only, clearly never dubbed into English. This print runs three minutes shy of two full hours, much longer than the 106 minutes listed on imdb.com.

And it truly feels like an epic; filmed on the Ibiza coast, the film brings to mind the sun-splashed hedonism of the film version of Harold Robbins’s The Adventurers. Ross is sent to the sunny island of San Felipe to find out what happened to missing fellow agent 3S4. He meets a host of colorful, exotic characters, from the boisterous dictator, who keeps a harem of women in his palatial, swanky estate, to a brunette villainess who enjoys punishing men with her bojitsu skills. The harem stuff is what really brings to mind The Adventurers; the camera work from director Sergio Sollima (also returning from the previous film) is wonderful ‘60s exploitation, with countless scantily-clad babes relaxing in various poses of undress in the indoor pool. Speaking of which, this French print has a bit more flesh – nothing outright R-rated, though. 

The movie, in this two-hour version, takes its time, with more character-building than any other Eurospy I’ve seen. (And Ross is shown to be more brutal, even shooting an unarmed guard in the climax, a scene cut from all other versions of the film.) In a way it does lack the bizarre, off-the-wall goofy charm of the average Eurospy movie, yet at the same time “Massacre In The Sun” comes very close to being like the real Bond films. Ardisson in particular makes this possible; the actor, an Italian whose real first name was Giorgio, is one of the very few Eurospy actors who could match the on-screen charisma of Sean Connery. He even sort of looks like him.

Action scenes are the expected low-budget fistfighting, but we get some karate too, and the stick-wielding villainess employs a legion of gorgeous women armed with submachine guns. There’s a long chase and fight scene where Ross is hunted down by some of the soldiers of the effete but sadistic head of island security. Another memorable scene has Ross bedding the brunette villainess by not only quickly taking her bo staff away but also giving her a sound spanking! You can bet this only gets her in the mood. Speaking of which, the villainess and mega-babe blonde heroine Evi Marandi get in a knock-down, drag-out karate fight at the end of the film that bests any other girl-on-girl fight you’ll see in Eurospy. 

“Massacre In The Sun” works on a slow-burn for the duration, with periodic sex and action, as Ross discovers that a rebel faction plots the takeover of San Felipe, with the intent to use a new nerve gas or something on the rest of the world. The finale is great, with Ross and comrades clad in black jumpsuits and infra-red goggles, toting “infra-red Tommy guns” and piloting gliders, launching a nighttime commando raid on the villain’s compound. Sollima does some cool psychedelic-esque stuff here with infra-red shots of men getting gunned down, smoke exploding from their chests as they’re machine-gunned, the action viewed through those infra-red goggles. This entire sequence was so murky as to be unviewable in that old pan and scan print; while still a bit muted in the color department, the finale plays a whole bunch better in this uncut French print – not to mention there are additional action scenes here (you can always tell the uncut parts because the characters will suddenly start speaking in French!).

All told, “Massacre In The Sun” is one of the standout Eurospy movies I’ve seen, so fleshed out and complex that multiple viewings would be rewarding, and it makes one wish there had been a third Agent 3S3 film.

Agent 3S3: Passport To Hell (1965): Italian actor “George Ardisson” debuts in the first of two films as Walter Ross, Agent 3S3 of the CIA. Well-regarded by Eurospy fanatics, “Passport To Hell” keeps things fairly realistic, with a plot similar to “Secret Agent Fireball” (below). It even takes place in the same location (Beirut), but this flick I found a little more enjoyable. Agent 3S3 like Fireball is on the hunt for the daughter of an important man, though in her case Pops was a villainous spy who has set up a SPECTRE-like cabal of former spies; these villains are one of the most interesting features of the film. They’re not aligned with any foreign power and, like a true “shadow government,” are out to use their intelligence contacts for their own ends. Plus one of them sort of looks like Terence McKenna. Their mysterious leader is the father of the above-mentioned girl, and Ross is assigned to ingratiate herself into her life, even “marry her if necessary.” Off he heads to Germany, where composer Pierro Umiliani provides this uber strange (yet super-catchy), Muppets-esque “rock” track when Ross gets in a fight in a bar, the local toughs not appreciating his advances on their “girl” (aka the daughter in question, a somewhat-attractive brunette Euroactress).

Action is mostly fistfights and the expected low budget stuff, but Ross does take out the occasional foe with a silenced pistol. Ardisson is likely one of the top Eurospies, bringing to his role the same sort of natural swagger as Sean Connery – supposedly he was dubbed “the Italian Sean Connery” – and it’s a shame he wasn’t in more of these films. As he tracks down the various spy network members he fends off several attempts on his life, using a few gadgets along the way, like a beacon that’s tracked by a pair of sunglasses. The villains also have a chamber where they can view proceedings on a viewscreen while lights blip in the background, but this is about the furthest the movie gets into sci-fi.

Speaking of the villain spies, one of the leaders turns out to be a sexy Chinese lady, who at one point strips down to black bra and panties, but of course I scanned through it to avoid watching such shocking indecency. She actually lives through the piece – and surprisingly is not a conquest of Ross’s, who only manages to sleep with the daughter – and for that matter neither is the main villain dispatched by our hero. He simply beats him up and that’s that. Lame! Overall this one wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great, and was mostly elevated by Ardisson and the grim vibe – even the picture itself is sort of dark, but that just might be the murky-but-widescreen version I viewed. The movie was followed a year later by “Agent 3S3: Massacre In The Sun” (above), which I not only found much superior, but is also one of my favorite Eurospy movies.

Killers Are Challenged (1966): Richard “the proto-Ben Affleck” Harrison returns as Bart Fleming, Agent 077, in this sort-of sequel to the previous year’s “Secret Agent Fireball” (below – and I’m pretty sure he was “Bob” Fleming in that one). However as usual no effort is made toward continuity, and indeed Fleming just sort of walks into the film with no big buildup or payoff. At any rate this one’s a lot better than the previous movie, with Fleming going up against a bevy of sexy Eurobabes. An old scientist has come up with a new energy source and everyone wants it. Fleming poses as the scientist, who has had facial surgery, and goes to Casablanca, where he’s constantly hounded by a variety of enemy agents, all of whom work for a mysterious female. The focus is at times on comedy, but never to an outrageous extent, and the movie gets a lot of good mileage out of Fleming screwing with the unwitting villains who come after him – he’s much more suave and accomplished in this one, with a Bond-esque mastery of every situation. There’s also a bit more action, with random shootouts and chases.

Gadgets aren’t as prevalent, with low-budget stuff like coat buttons that double as audio bugs. Fleming again doesn’t manage to score, though he doesn’t come off like the horny teen of the previous film. The three main gals are an Asian babe who apparently falls for Fleming (though it’s hastily and vaguely implied at the end that she might be in a lesbian affair with the main villainess); failing in her mission to distract Fleming the Asian gal is at one point stripped to her lingerie, chained, and whipped by one of her fellow henchwomen. The main villainess, whose identity isn’t too surprising, is the same buxom blonde who appeared in that year’s Lightning Bolt as the jumpsuit-clad femme fatale in the villain’s underwater lair. She also appeared, as a different character, in “Secret Agent Fireball.” Here she is much more duplicitous and clearly enjoys harming others. Finally there’s a jawdropping redhead who plays Velka, secretary for a wealthy and aging Texan but who in reality is a double agent who helps Fleming; she’s my favorite of them all, but it looks like the actress didn’t do much else.

Everything goes along swimmingly until the final hour, when a pointless barroom brawl breaks out…and goes on for like 15 minutes. Egregious as you can get. The finale at least wraps things up, and once again hero Fleming (who did not return) doesn’t manage to score until the very last frame of the film – with Velka, the lucky bastard. This one features inventive camera angles and seems downright polished when compared to many other Eurospy entries.

Secret Agent Fireball (1965) Brawny blond American actor Richard Harrison, previously a sword and sandal star, makes his Eurospy debut as Agent 077 Bart (or is it Bob?) Fleming (note the last name, of course!), a character he would reprise in the superior followup, “Killers Are Challenged” (above). Harrison makes for a good pseudo-Bond, however personally I felt the actor looks uncannily like modern-day “superstar” Ben Affleck, which admittedly detracts a bit from one’s enjoyment of Harrison’s films. At any rate Fleming is sent around Europe and Beirut searching for a scientist who has devised some maguffin the Russians also want. Speaking of which, a team of Russians constantly shadow Fleming, the scenes sometimes played for thrills, sometimes played for laughs. Gadgets are plentiful but low budget, like shirt buttons that double as homing devices. There’s also a pipe that fires poison darts. Eurobabes are limited to a fierce-eyed blonde who played the red-jumpsuited ass-kicker in the awesome Lightning Bolt (and who also appeared, as a different but still evil character, in the sequel “Killers Are Challenged”), and the svelte brunette daughter of the missing scientist, who becomes Fleming’s ally.

Action is frequent but limited mostly to fistfights and car chases. In the finale Fleming chases the villains via helicopter, and Harrison is clearly sitting in a grounded ‘copter, merely pretending to fly. Also of humorous note is that Fleming throughout is as horny as a teenager but fails to score – he hits on the scientist’s daughter relentlessly when meeting her on an airplane, and makes aggressive advances on just about every lady he meets. So far as sidekicks go, Fleming partners up with a Beirut native who apparently is a fellow spy and who drives a gadget-filled taxi. The film has an unexpected finale in which the leader of the Russians ends up helping Fleming avert world destruction, with Fleming saying some maudlin stuff about the Cold War hopefully thawing one day. This one’s okay but a little threadbare compared to other Eurospy movies – I much prefer the sequel.