Monday, January 20, 2020

The Groovy Genius

The Groovy Genius, by Jack Siegel
April, 1971  Pyramid Books

With a back cover slugline that proclaims, “Can a boy who loves Mom, Dad, baseball and the girl next door make the scene with a balling chick and freaked-out acid heads?,” The Groovy Genius was basically begging for me to read it. I mean that slugline’s right up there with the “freaking hippies into acid-rock scenes” promised on the back cover of Cindy On Fire. And, coincidentally, the novel was published by Pyramid, which was also the home of Burt Hirschfeld’s “Hugh Barron” pseudonym. Given this I was under the impression “Jack Siegel” was also a pseudonym, however checking the Catalog Of Copyright entries, I see this book – as well as a few others – is copyright Siegel, so I assume this was the author’s real name. Otherwise I don’t know anything about him.

But early into The Groovy Genius I was about to hypothesize that “Jack Siegel” was a pseudonym of Don DeLillo, as in many ways the book reminded me of DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star: it’s all about a teen genius from New York, one who is obsessed with baseball, and thus I got a bit of a second-hand DeLillo vibe from it. There are also mathematical formulas throughout the novel, the kid’s method of breaking everything down to an equation, which added to the vibe. Indeed, this and the baseball stuff is so prevalent through the first half of the 156-page novel that I often found myself checking the back cover to ensure I was reading the right book. I mean there were no “balling chicks” or “freaked-out acid heads” anywhere in sight. But finally they appeared in the narrative, so my perserverence paid off.

Anyway, the novel concerns Noah Giganti, a 14 year-old genius who lives in the Bedford neighborhood of Brooklyn. Anyone looking for early ‘70s New York period details will be unsatisfied with The Groovy Genius, as other than the occasional topical detail Siegel mostly sticks to his characters and their words. Noah has recently won the National Science Contest, beating thousands of other kids for the honor. His father (referred to as “Giganti” in the narrative) and his mother (who barely has any dialog) are simple folk, the dad a “civil servant” who goes around the city fixing broken pipes. They have no idea how their son became a genius but they of course are immensely proud of him, and Siegel does a great job of capturing a strong family bond. I also really appreciated the caring father figure, which is something you don’t seem to see too much of in today’s entertainment…almost as if, I don’t know, masculine role models were being filtered out. I guess this is just how it was before the sexual revolution!

When we meet Noah he’s soon to turn 15 and is already getting offers from various colleges to enroll, and a VP from the “IMB” corporation comes calling, basically telling Noah he can write his own ticket. But Noah has no desire to go to college or work in some office: he wants to be a pro baseball player. So after a fairly long sequence where we see Noah being interviewed on TV about winning the contest, we have another where he tries out for a baseball team. And doesn’t make it, despite his “power hitting,” per his best bud Rocco. There’s also lots of stuff about Rocco, a tough neighborhood kid whose cousins ridicule him for hanging out with an egghead like Noah. There’s also stuff about Dolores, a hotstuff gal in Noah’s class whom Noah fantasizes about, as she’s supposedly the school tramp (Rocco claiming to have been one of her many bedmates), and also there’s Clementine, the literal girl next door who openly tells Noah she loves him. In fact all this stuff keeps going and, while it’s good so far as inner-city melodrama goes, it’s just not the book I thought I was about to read – the book promised by the cover slugline and back cover copy.

Then out out of nowhere there’s this emotional sequence where Noah’s dad goes over all the offers Noah’s gotten from colleges and companies, and tries to tell the obstinate kid that maybe playing baseball might not pan out. But Noah is determined to play ball. This leads to their first-ever argument, where Noah’s dad says he “doesn’t deserve” a kid who is so smart and that he’s a gift from God and thus he’ll do whatever he can to protect him and ensure he takes the right path in life. When Noah says he’d consider being an astronaut after his baseball career’s over, his dad is totally against it – “No! No kid of mine’s gonna float around the world way up there in the sky. The chances are too big, you could be a loser there and I don’t wanna lose you to something like that, something I can’s see where I can’t help you.” I realized as I read this part that, after forty-some years of reading, this was the first time I’d ever found myself identifying with the words of a father in a novel. The entire speech resonated with me. But don’t get me wrong, I was still impatiently waiting for the hippie chicks and the LSD-fueled orgies.

And luckily after this we finally get to them – after this brief argument with his dad, Noah announces he’s going downtown. He’s realized that for him to be on the same “worldly” stature as Rocco he’ll need to go down to the city on his own. His dad and mom are against it but Noah goes anyway. Again, different eras here…can’t see too many parents letting their 14 year-old kid go to downtown New York all by their lonesome. At least, parents who give a shit, and Noah’s parent’s certainly do. But off Noah goes, catching the sub to the Village, where he spots some hippie-types on the train and a pretty blonde girl. Eventually he wanders to a park…where he’s almost mugged by those same hippie-types. An interesting thing about Noah is, while he’s smart, he’s still a tough city kid, and he fights off the would-be muggers.

Here he also runs into the pretty blonde who was on the train with him. We don’t get too much exploitation of her physical charms – Noah’s thoughts and impressions are seemingly relayed by a much more mature character than his age would imply – but we at least learn she’s pretty and she’s built. She’s clearly one of those hippie types, though, and wants to treat Noah to a cup of coffee after this ordeal. Eventualy they wind up in a place she helps run with some other guy, and she’s drinking wine with Noah. She says her name is Abby, she’s from California, and she’s an 18 year-old college dropout. We get some character-developing dialog here and Abby’s character does sparkle; Siegel doesn’t go all the way with the hippie tropes but she’s definitely on that wavelength, going on about finding herself and communes and all that stuff which would sound dated in just a few years.

She apparently gives Noah something, because when she takes him back to her little house in the Village he promptly passes out on her bed. She’s brought Noah here because she wants him to see her “raft,” aka her bed, so dubbed because she “takes trips on it.” Presumably this is Noah’s first trip but neither he nor Siegel make much of it; Noah just wakes up, having dreamed of Abby, and finds that it’s the following day. At four in the afternoon. Clearly his folks will be panicked, but Abby instead talks Noah into hanging out with her. Also she reveals she knows who he is, having seem him on TV. She wants to recruit Noah into a “controlled experiment” in which a group of people will go on a “trip” to see if they can understand one another. Noah, despite his brilliance, doesn’t know what kind of trip Abby means.

Meanwhile he feels the obligation to at least let his parents know he’s still alive, so he calls a newspaper and leaves them a formula. He knows that if his parents see it, they’ll be assured he’s still alive. However this leads to a nigh-surreal subplot in which Noah is believed to be kidnapped; periodically over the next day, as he stays with Abby, he’ll see newspaper headlines or hear radio reports about “the possibly kidnapped National Science Contest winner.” This stuff is so overdone, with even crowds of New Yorkers standing around and talking about the situation, that inititally I feared the whole Village sequence was just a dream. But it’s not, and Noah really loses some “good and caring son” points by letting his parents (and the news) theorize that he’s been abducted and can only communicate with them via impossible-to-decipher formulae.

Abby’s trip of course has to do with acid; the session will be overseen by Wiseman, a brawny black guy who talks “like no other black Noah had ever met,” which is to say like a professor. Which apparently he was – there’s a lot of hippie-era navel-gazing here, so far as Wiseman’s quest to find his identity. A couple others come over and Abby hands out the sugar cubes, and the ensuing psychedelic sequence is short but vividly rendered, enough to presume that Siegel might’ve tried a trip himself. Otherwise the (too brief) acid trip is mostly rendered through banal poetry (most of it courtesy Noah, unfortunately) and navel-gazing dialog. I did find the following exchange, spoken by an older novelist who takes part in the group trip, particularly interesting from the vantage point of our modern era:

“We also need a kind of ethic radar to guide us through the fog of our history. So that we can return to course. That’s why my book is a blue comedy, in which the minority-minority…” 

“Two minorities make a majority,” Wiseman said and turned to Noah. “Right?” 

“Right,” the writer said. “So the hero takes a trip from the absurdity but in the end he must return to his own stagione and face up to life.” The writer belched out an exclamation point. “But who wants to be a hero in a non-heroic age. That’s like being a heterosexual in a queer society.”

Humorously the cops show up – we’re later to understand it’s because they’re looking for Noah, who presumably was spotted with Abby – and Noah and Wiseman take off. Here the psychedelic stuff is replaced with lots of talk from Wiseman about wanting to be a “black star” in the white man’s world, to which Noah responds, “But a black star couldn’t be seen.” The two go through various adventures in this mini-episode which seems to come from another book but which apparently exists so as to convey Noah’s right of passage into adulthood, or at least how he attains a mature understanding.

After saying bye to Wiseman Noah heads back to Abby’s and discovers that the cops have left – she says they couldn’t find any evidence. This taken care of, the two finally get down to the dirty business of screwing. Interestingly, the fact that Noah’s losing his virginity is not mentioned, but surely Abby knows – she seems to know everything in that annoying hippie way. Siegel doesn’t fade to black and does a good job of conveying the happenings via prose that’s borderline explicit while also being conveyed from the naiive point of view of a teenager:

He took his hand away and rolled over looking for entry. She maneuvered him in and he felt the soft, gliding tightness until the walls of her thing reached the base of his and he could go no farther. Then he retreated, advanced and retreated, all his concentration on the very edge of his body. Her eyes were closed, her mouth partly open. He moved up and own as he had rehearsed in his own mind a thousand times and Abby moved in counter rhythm, whas was different from how he had heard it.

As if that weren’t enough we get another explicit sequence on the next page, this one complete with oral ministrations from Abby. The “balling chick,” baby! But when Abby asks Noah to leave the city with her and go start a commune somewhere, Noah gently kills the idea. Definite prescience here from Noah (not to mention Siegel); Abby insists she’s “not crazy” for believing in communes – and that “most of the country” will be a commune in the future(!) – but Noah knows better. It’s all just LSD-borne cloud talk. They say their goodbyes, and Noah returns home to find a block party waiting for him, his parents knowing he’d be arriving thanks to another formula he sent the papers. The finale is even emotional with Noah’s dad openly crying that his son is home and safe. But Noah’s sudden maturity is a bit hard to buy, particularly his abrupt decision to give up on the baseball and astronaut ideas. Here the novel comes to a close, Siegel providing a handy key to understanding the forumlae he’s sprinkled through the text.

 All told The Groovy Genius isn’t bad, it’s just missing something and seems somewhat unfinished. Given the vocabulary, the mathematical symbols, and the character depth, I wonder if Siegel was shooting for the hardcover market, as the novel is very much in-line with a lot of the “hippie lit” that was being churned out by hardcover publishers at the time. Yet at the same time the book just doesn’t offer much: it’s about a 14 year-old genius who wants to play baseball, goes to Greenwich Village, takes acid with a couple people, and gets laid. I mean that’s the plot; there just isn’t much “there” there. And yet it’s also missing the trashy elan one would suspect (nay, demand) of an LSD-sexploitation paperback. Regardless, this was the sole printing of the book, thus I conclude it either didn’t resonate with readers of the day or it just had poor distribution and no one was aware of it.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Time Of Ghosts (Raven #2)

A Time Of Ghosts, by Richard Kirk
May, 1987  Ace Book
(Original UK edition 1978)

The Raven saga continues with a second volume that seems to be set shortly after the first; Raven and her guru warlock (plus occasional bedmate) Spellbinder are still in the same region in which the previous volume concluded, however now Raven is training some new character named Silver on how to be a warrior in the army Raven’s apparently decided to form. Oh and meanwhile the novel has opened with that same future prologue with some unnamed old guy traveling around a desolate world and telling tales of long ago – tales about Raven. Last time I opined this guy was Spellbinder but I could be wrong.

Anyway in the narrative itself – the prologue and epilogue are the only parts set in this post-disaster future – Raven’s taken on a Conan-type barbarian from the north named Silver, who when we meet him is being trained by the ghost of Argor, the warrior who trained Raven herself a year ago. It’s not really Argor’s ghost, though, but just his spirit or somesuch, magically teleported here by Spellbinder as Argor doesn’t want to venture out of his city. Silver has long black hair and a Conan build, with the novel addition that he’s a mutant who can turn his body into silver, hence his name. Backstory has it that he scaled some magical tower in his homeland, the result of which gave him this supernatural ability. We’ll roll with it.

Now you might think a barbarian warrior with mutant powers is cool enough to warrant his own series, but “Richard Kirk” (aka British authors Richard Holdstock and Angus Wells) doesn’t have much time for Silver: more focus is placed upon two other new characters who become part of Raven’s growing army. Like some primordial Spartacus Raven’s intent is to free slaves, train the notable ones as warriors, and use them as her personal army of chaos. Or something. I’ll admit it’s been a while since I read the first volume, so it’s possible I’ve forgotten some of the finer details of the saga. At any rate Raven and Silver crush a slave caravan, hacking and slashing the slavers, and two of the freed slaves get Raven’s interest: one’s a hotstuff brunette, also from the northern tribal lands, named Karmana, the other’s a tall and lanky guy with pale, haunting eyes named Moonshadow.

Of the two, Karmana is the one to gain the most spotlight, at least initially. Karmana is a proud warrior woman who was captured and enslaved, but worse yet was raped – the memory of wich haunts her. I have to say, speaking from the perspective of our #metoo world, the subject of rape is treated rather delicately here, at least so far as ‘70s fantasy goes (the series didn’t make it to America until about a decade after its British publication…things just moved more slowly then, folks). Whereas other series of the day like Gor had tons of rape-fantasy throughout (I should admit I’ve never actually read a Gor novel), the female characters in Raven struggle with how to cope with the fact that they’ve been raped. Of course, this being a fantasy adventure series and all – plus the women in question being kick-ass warrior babes – the coping method involves gutting, emasculating, and just in general killing their rapists.

All three of these things Raven did to her own rapist, Karl ir Donwayne, at the conclusion of the first volume; thus imagine Raven’s shock when she learns that the man who raped Karmana was…Karl ir Donwayne. Now, my immediate reaction was that maybe Donwayne did this particular raping you know, before he was emasculated and gutted by Raven, but Raven’s immediate reaction is that Donwayne is still alive. This just proves once again that the “Swordmistress of Chaos” knows more than I do, because Raven turns out to be correct, at least sort of – at length she decides to consult one of the apparently-many oracles of her world to find out what the hell is going on. Eventually she and Karmana set off for the Sons of Ulthann, a remote area which is the remnants of a once-great civilization.

There’s a fair bit of world-building here, more than last time, with lots of stuff about the new lands Raven visits, their history, and their people. After many pages have elapsed Raven and Karmana hook up with Moonshadow, who upon being freed by Raven has set off on his own quest – one which coincidentally also involves speaking to the oracle of Ulthann. With his long hair, slim build – so unlike any warrior Raven has ever met – and moon eyes, Moonshadow brings to mind David Carradine, and given the ’78 publication date it’s possible our authors were inspired by Kung Fu. Whereas Silver and his mutant abilities sounds ripe for the exploiting, the authors set their sights on Moonshadow, and he too has a story that could warrant its own series: he appears to be from some other world and is on a lifelong hunt for a force of evil known as the Crugoan. His power is also fueled by the moon: when it’s full he is at the height of his strength, but when it fades away in the sky his energy ebbs to almost nothing and his skin becomes transluscent.

Eventually the trio wind up in the courtroom of Karagan, high prince of Ulthann (the authors still have the unfortunate tendency of giving their characters similar names, I mean “Karagan” and “Karmana” in the same book)…and eventually Raven winds up in the bed of Karagan. Surprisingly, this being Raven’s first bed action in the novel (and we’re almost halfway through), the scene isn’t overly explicit (“When he entered her” and the like). Even more surprisingly, when Karmana shows up and pushes Raven aside for her time with the hunky high prince, the authors not only skip the opportunity to depict a friendly three-way but also leave the ensuing boinkery off-page.

Raven talks to the ghostly voice of the oracle, which tells her that Donwayne is sort of alive, his spirit or somesuch saved by that dastardly necromancer Belthis after the gory denoument of the previous volume. Sadly friends this means that A Time Of Ghosts is a retread of the first volume, given that the two main villains of that one return for this one…even though one of them was soundly killed by Raven in the previous book. The oracle opines where Donwayne might be, and of course this becomes Raven’s new destination; conveniently it’s pretty much where Spellbinder wants her to be, given the main plot thread of the novel – that Gondar Lifebane, the viking ruffian of the previous book, has abducted the fair Kyra, co-ruler of the empire of Altan (and yet another of Raven’s bedmates in the previous volume…as was Gondar himself).

We’re getting pretty well into the book now and there haven’t been any major action setpieces for our heroine. This occurs finally; while aboard a ship taking her to the waiting Spellbinder, Raven and Karmana are attacked by the crew, all of whom want a piece of these two hotstuff, busty, scantily-clad babes they’ve taken on as passengers. So the two warrior chicks start hacking and slashing their would-be rapists, with Moonshadow assisting, proving finally he’s the warrior Raven suspected, despite his frail build. This part features the unforgettable moment in which Moonshadow slips on a trail of gore and knocks himself out. It also features the memorable moment of a friggin’ sea monster coming out of the ocean and attacking all and sundry, only to be stopped by a giant bird Raven calls for help.

Now reconnected with Spellbinder, Silver, and a bunch of other characters the two have drafted in the interim – Raven’s “army” now up to a total of 12 warriors – Raven and her comrades scale the cliffs of Lifebane’s island fortress Kragg, Raven surprising the brawny viking while he’s in the bath. However Lifebane swears he has nothing to do with the kidnapping of Kyra, and that it’s all a setup. He gives Raven one of her ships and it’s off to meet the navy of the Altan to tell the crazed ruler that his sister is not on Kragg. The authors realize they’ve been short on action, thus provide a sequence in which Raven fights the Altan’s “Night Warrior,” a swordsmaster who happens to be invisible. Raven uses her wits and the help of Silver’s shining hands to see the unseen foe – Silver’s hands allowing Raven to see the outline of her opponent.

In a cool sequence Spellbinder sees back in time and their ship follows the ship which abduced Kyra, a few days before. They follow after it over a few days to see its destination, the spell exhausting Spellbinder. Eventually they learn the ship has gone far north, to the Ice Lands, but for some reason they don’t head straight there to kick ass and rescue Kyra. Like last time the plot just jumps everywhere; eventually Raven and army head back to the Altan’s home, which they’re surprised to learn has been overtaken by an “army of millions” comprised of various tribes. Raven stages some campaigns which end up freeing the city, after which she and her comrades finally head up north to free Kyra.

Here the novel gets down to what it’s supposed to have been about from the beginning: of course, necromancer Belthis and zombiefied Karl ir Donwayne were the true abductors of Kyra, and when we finally meet up with them the zombie Karl has just finished raping the poor girl yet again. Silver again comes to the rescue, turning his whole body silver and fighting a bunch of warriors made of ice. The climax has Raven again fighting Karl ir Donwayne, even though we already saw her defeat him last time, but the bastard escapes yet again, annoyingly enough. Belthis isn’t as lucky, as it turns out he is the current vassal of the Crugoan entity Moonshadow has been hunting across worlds. But it escapes, too, pulling itself out of Belthis’s body (the corpse of which is unceremoniously kicked off a cliff) and disappearing into the void, Moonshadow following behind. And meanwhile Raven’s army suffers a surprising loss, but curiously not much is made of it.

And with this A Time Of Ghosts finally comes to a close; at 198 pages of small print it was a longer read than I expected. This was mostly due to the slow-moving nature; whereas Swordsmistress Of Chaos was a bit juicer in the sex and gore departments, this one was downright sluggish, and often faded to black when the goings got good. In fact, Raven manages to hook up with Moonshadow as well, but it too happens pretty much off-page. I’m too lazy to research it but I wonder if this wasn’t so much a case of authors co-writing each volume, but taking turns on them. Meaning, a different writer churned out A Time Of Ghosts than the one who wrote Swordsmistress Of Chaos. Not that the writing seems totally different, it’s just the vibe that has changed, and more importantly while I enjoyed the first one I found this second one a chore to read.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Random Record Reviews: Volume 2

More obscure ‘60s/’70s rock LPs: 

After the riproaring success of my first Random Record Review, I thought I’d do another – last year, that is. But at least I’m finally getting around to it. So, with another tip of my nonexistent hat to 00individual (who else thinks he should write a bio – and send me a review copy of his ‘60s counterculture compendium???), here a few more obscure rock LPs I think some of you might like.

1. Jacobs Creek: Jacobs Creek
Columbia, 1969

The group bio on describes Jacobs Creek as “roughly in the realms of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane,” which is pretty accurate, though I'd toss in some late-period Beatles and probably some others I can't think of at the moment. Centered around brothers Derrek and Lon Van Eaton, the group apparently didn't get much notice at the time. I searched my Rolling Stone Cover to Cover CD-Rom and the only mention I found of Jacobs Creek was in the 1972 review of the Van Eatons LP Brother, released on Apple; just a minor mention that previously they'd been in the band Jacobs Creek. The LP seems very long for the era, six tracks per side, and two of them are over 6 minutes long. There's a lot of variety, from psychedelic rock (“Colors”) to Doorsy “theater rock” (“Anonymous Verdict”) to a sitar-banjo hoedown sort of thing (“The Circle”). In fact this variety might've been why the album didn't resonate at the time, as it's hard to pigeonhole the group. But the album is well produced, with a lot of different instruments in the mix.

Top Track: My favorite would have to be the psych rocker “Behind The Door,” which builds to an awesome fuzz bass raveup.

2. Jimmie Haskell: California ‘99
ABC Records, 1971

Haskell was a film composer who here did a “thematic fairytale” of a rock concept LP, set in the far-flung year of 1999. Possibly one of the more elaborate packages of the era, the sleeve folds out (and keeps folding out) into a big wall map of the United States of 1999, complete with a “marijuana insect corridor” in the midwest. The belabored backstory has it that the US has gone bankrupt and renamed itself “California,” with legal dope and etc, and the story concerns a young man who has been tasked by the Big Brother government to find three “lifemates” instead of performing his otherwise-mandatory military service. Groovy orchestral stuff that would sound at home on the Barbarella soundtrack trades off with spoken word passages (complete with cool sonic trickery), random moog freakouts, and the occasional rock song (including an arbitrary cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”). Guest list includes Joe Walsh, who sings and plays guitar on two tracks. 

Top Track: Would have to be one of those Walsh songs, “Jessica Stone,”  a nicely mellow psychedelic rocker with a little sitar in the mix. If only the entire album sounded like this!

3. Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint: Lo And Behold
Sire, 1972

The cumbersomely-named Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint was an offshoot of obscure British group McGuinness Flint, which was sort of the UK equivalent of The Band in that they played country-flavored rock. After two albums the group reformed itself, with lead singer Dennis Coulson now receiving billing in the name of the group and a new bassist with the last name of Dean joining the fray. This was their sole album, released initially in the UK and then the US, where it received a rave review in Rolling Stone. Despite this the album didn’t register and quickly sunk, which is a shame. Of all the records I’ve featured on these two Random Record Reviews, three of them I’d say should have become classics: Wilderness Road’s self-titled debut album, Neil Merryweather’s Space Rangers (both reviewed on the previous list), and this one. Seriously, Lo And Behold encapsulates everything that is great about classic rock, and many of the songs on this unsung album should’ve become FM radio staples. It features the novel conceit of covering Bob Dylan songs that hadn’t been released at the time – but have no fear. This isn’t a “Bob Dylan” sounding record at all.

Whereas the first two McGuinness Flint albums had been mostly country, Lo And Behold features all kinds of styles: the Velvet Underground vibe of the title track, the Stonesy swagger of “Gets Your Rock Off,” even a pitch-perfect recreation of the Byrds sound on “Eternal Circle.” In addition there’s an Indian raga, a gospel-tinged epic, and a jokey circus-sounding song. The four-man band nails each style perfectly, Coulson’s voice defines the classic rock sound, and the record features great production, sounding incredible on vinyl. It’s a mystery why this one slipped through the cracks. After its release Coulson went off to a solo career, releasing a single self-titled album (Elektra, 1973). It also went nowhere (I have it and it’s good, but nowhere as great as this album), after which he seems to have retired from the music biz. As for McGinnis, Dean, and Flint, they continued on without Coulson, but I’ve not heard any of their albums.

Top Track: My favorite song, “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” (the Indian raga tune), isn’t on Youtube for some reason. In fact, hardly any of the album is on Youtube! So I’ll just have to settle for “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,”  which was released as a single – and is one of the tracks that should’ve become a rock radio staple.

4. The Move: Split Ends
United Artists, 1972

If The Move is remembered at all today, it’s for being the group that became Electric Light Orchestra. Started by multi-instrumentalist Roy Wood, the Move released a few LPs that critics loved but didn’t do very well commercially, at least here in the US. Jeff Lynne joined for the heavy progressive rocker Looking On in 1970 (“heavy progressive rock” being different than “prog rock,” at least in my definition –more of a heavy psychedelic rock thing with little of the self-indulgent wankery prog rock would eventually become known for), after which Wood and Lynne came up with the idea for ELO. However they still had to release one more Move LP, and while working on the first ELO LP they released Message From The Country in 1971. Also at this time they released a slew of singles, like “California Man” and “Do Ya,” all of which were great but none of which were actually on the album.

Well, some executive at UA got this great idea: “Since Message From The Country didn’t do so well here in America, why don’t we cut out all the filler tracks and replace ‘em with those awesome singles, and release it as a pseudo-album sort of thing?” This they did, the resulting “album” being titled Split Ends for the American market. This one actually garnered a review in Rolling Stone (the Cover To Cover CD-ROM again coming to the rescue), by no less than Lester Bangs, who regaled “Do Ya” as the hit it should’ve been. Well, eventually it was – when Lynne re-recorded it with ELO a few years later.

As it is, Split Ends plays like a great album, and I certainly like it better than the cello-heavy first Electric Light Orchestra album, because this one rocks, and is basically the definition of early ‘70s heavy prog. Also worth noting: Split Ends has more copy than any LP I’ve seen, ever: four columns of small print on the back cover, and dense copy on both slides of the inner sleeve, all explaining the reasoning behind this compilation’s release and also providing a history of the band.

Top Track: Well, “Do Ya” of course is the hit single that never was, but I’ve always liked the proggy epic “The Words Of Aaron.”  Ironically, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the first ELO album.

5. Rabbit: Dark Saloon
Island, 1974

John “Rabbit” Bundrick was an American keyboard player who went over to England in the early ‘70s and joined the group Free, appearing on their final two albums. After this he ventured into a solo career, this being the second of two albums he released. Whereas the first album is more of a rough, almost demo-like sort of thing, Dark Saloon is gloriously overblown coked-out ‘70s studio rock, covering the gamut from heavy rock to reggae(!). The sound textures are phenomenal; Rabbit plays a host of keyboards and synthesizers, employing a variety of sound effects to all the instruments. Super cool stuff, and very ‘70s (but I repeat myself). Once again we have a scenario where Rolling Stone gave a good review, but the record didn’t resonate. In fact I could barely find anything about Dark Saloon online, and I only discovered it after some random browsing on But man is it a great album…I’ve played my copy many, many times, and it’s a shame more people aren’t aware of it.

Top track: That reggae number is actually pretty cool (“43 Revolution”), sounding like something that might’ve been on John Lennon’s Walls And Bridges, but my favorite track is the funky, psych-tinged “Dig It Johnny Walker.”

6. Neil Merryweather: Kryptonite
Mercury, 1975

A year after Space Rangers (reviewed on the previous list) came out, Neil Merryweather got his Space Rangers band back together, only with a new guitarist this time – due to behind the scenes nonsense, the main guitarist on Space Rangers, Timo Laine, went uncredited on that album. By the time the LP released, Laine was gone and new guitarist Michael “Jeep” Willis had taken his place, and he received credit on Space Rangers, even though he only provided a few licks to some tracks. Thus there is a different vibe to Kryptonite, and not just so far as the guitar goes; whereas Space Rangers had a sprawling, heavy progressive vibe, with long tracks merging into one another, Kryptonite sticks to shorter, more focused songs. But it’s still heavy, and Willis’s guitar work is just as good. However I’d be lying if I said I preferred Kryptonite to the previous album. I’m listing it here because it is still a great record, just not as great as its predecessor – and I was very fortunate to acquire a still-sealed copy. (I ripped that sucker open without a moment’s hesitation!)

Top Track: Closing songs “You Know Where I’d Rather Be” and “Let Us Be The Dawn” are great because they sound like something off Space Rangers, but I think “Star Rider”  best represents this album, and possibly Merryweather’s entire Space Rangers output (this sadly being the last of the albums he put out with the group, which disbanded). It also encapsulates the cosmic vibe of ‘70s Marvel Comics, and juding from the cover art, courtesy Captain America artist Don Rico, I’m assuming Merryweather himself was a Marvel reader. Plus it features one of the greatest opening lines in sci-fi space rock: “Been saling the spaceways it seems like forever/I can’t count the miles, my mind is blown.” You could see countless long-haired ‘70s teens firing up their bongs to those words…too bad no one bought the damn record!

7. The Pretty Things: Real Pretty
Rare Earth, 1976

The Pretty Things were like the UK equivalent of Spirt: a trendsetting group that should’ve been huge, but the stars just never aligned for them. Thus, like Spirit, the Pretty Things are unknown to the average music fan, but beloved by hardcore rock fanatics. In 1967 they holed up in Abbey Road studios and spent apparently the whole year recording what is now considered one of the greatest psychedelic rock albums of all time: S.F. Sorrow. But upon its release in 1968, the other trendsetting acts (ie the Stones, the Beatles, etc) were moving into more of a “organic” direction, or at least in a mostly non-psych direction, so the album sounded outdated. Also it seems that the LP was given a muddled release, and ultimately went nowhere. The Pretty Things reshuffled their lineup a bit and, undeterred by the failure of S.F. Sorrow, they again holed up in Abbey Road in 1969, again working with producer Norman Smith (Pink Floyd, etc), and in 1970 turned out an album that I think is even better: Parachute. This album basically picks up where Abbey Road left off (side 1 is a long suite in the manner of side 2 of the Beatles record), and I think it had an even greater right for instant Rock Legend status. But it too failed upon release, picking up its reputation along with S.F. Sorrow over the decades.

There’s an internet rumor that Parachute was ranked “Album Of The Year” by Rolling Stone in 1970, but I’ve searched my Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM, which has every page of every issue from the first one up through 2007, and the Pretty Things aren’t even mentioned until the release of Silk Torpedo, in 1974. I do know there was a British version of Rolling Stone in the early ‘70s, so maybe that’s where Parachute was listed as Album of the Year. No one really seems to know.

Anyway, both S.F. Sorrow and Parachute are now considered classics, and original pressings go for high dollars. Even modern pressings are overpriced. But then there’s this budget-priced two-fer, released for the American market in 1976, which no one seems to know about. Because folks it features S.F. Sorrow on the first disc and Parachute on the second! It’s a great pressing, too, not to mention all analog, unlike the sourced-from-digital stuff that’s passed off as records today. I got my copy for five dollars, friends. Five dollars! In near mint condition to boot! Plus you get a nice writeup about the Pretty Things and their history.

Top Track: For S.F. Sorrow I’d have to go with the Black Sabbath-sounding “Old Man Going.” For Parachute, the “Good Mr. Square/She Was Tall, She Was High” medley from the first side’s suite is my favorite. The bass on this sounds huge on vinyl!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Springblade #3: Stiletto

Springblade #3: Stiletto, by Greg Walker
April, 1990  Charter Books

The “new breed of commando” series Springblade continues with another installment that comes off a little more like military fiction than men’s adventure pulp. Nothing in Stiletto matches the outrageous elements of the previous volume, and indeed for the most part it’s a long-simmer suspense yarn that saves its fireworks for the final quarter. However when those fireworks occur Greg Walker once again delivers some glorious gore, with noses bitten off, privates ripped asunder, and even anal impalements via pliers – so far as I know the latter being a first for the genre.

There’s no pickup from the previous book, and in fact much is made this time around about how main protagonist Bo Thornton is a “civilian” and no longer a military man. Meanwhile he’s already undertaken two covert military operations in the previous books. But then, Walker seems to have run out of steam, so far as his trio of protagonists goes, with the titular Springblade commando team playing second fiddle to a bunch of one-off Nicaraguan soldiers and terrorists. Bo himself doesn’t even appear until around thirty pages in, with the opening quarter devoted to a character named Angel Barahone, a Nicaraguan native who grew up in the US and currently serves in the Special Forces alongside series regular David Lee – the only member of the Springblade commando group who is still active in the military.

Angel, despite taking part in missions that wipe out the Sandanistan rebels, is actually a Commie at heart, and turns out to be a traitor in uniform; after an opening sequence in which he and David Lee take out some Sandanistas, Angel goes AWOL and delivers himself to the front door of a Sandanistan office in Managua, where he claims to be a believer in the cause. More importantly, he has intel which the Sandanistas can use to crush the Contras and the Americans. Later we’ll learn that Angel was not only trained by Bo Thornton, but is also “like a son” to him, not that Walker does much to exploit this relationship. Indeed, when Bo finds out Angel’s a traitor he has a few moments of disbelief, then basically vows to kill him.

We meet Bo as he’s practicing his knife-fighting technique with Jason Silver, the third member of Springblade, however this will be it for Silver this time around. The two get in a knockdown, dragout mock knife fight along the beach, complete with them rolling around in the sand and stuff – it isn’t the least homoerotic or anything – and after this Bo gets the call about Angel. This is also the only time series regular Calvin Bailey appears, ie the DEA agent who serves as Springblade’s handler. Bailey calls Bo with the bad news and Bo heads for Honduras, where he’s briefed on the situation by local army boss Major Gaston. Even here Walker manages to work in the series fixation on bladed weaponry, with Gaston showing off a butterfly knife he picked up in ‘Nam.

Gaston and Bo figure that the damaging intel Angel’s taken to the Sandanistas must have to do with the recently-built US base in Choluteca, right on the border of Nicaragua. Angel was part of the team that built this base, thus he would know the best means of destroying it. Here Walker injects a bit of commentary on the situation in Central America; Gaston claims that the situation is shit, with the US-backed Contras suddenly showing their sadistic impulses, butchering people right and left, yet the politicians would still rather back them than the Commie Sandanistas. Bo meanwhile is more pissed over the fact that a Green Beret has turned traitor; he’s never heard of such a thing happening before. 

Bo’s plan is to go in with just one other guy to head off the squad Angel will be leading on his attack. He requests David Lee, mainly for the reason that Lee’s familiar with the area and also has stake in the game, given that he served alongside Angel. Armed with a Stoner machine gun, an M-16, various sidearms, knives, and explosives, the two are dropped into Nicaragua and begin the arduous trek through the jungle. I suspect Walker must’ve been familiar with such operations as he brings a lot of authenticity to the narrative, down to Bo and Lee arguing over which of their prepackaged ready-to-eat meals (aka MREs) are the worst. However there’s still been no action for our main characters thus far, unlike last volume where Walker would toss in random but insane action scenes – most notably when Bo and Bailey were attacked by transvestite bikers with intentions of sodomy. (Now that's the story Jussie Smollett should’ve gone with!!)

In a Manning Lee Stokes yarn, our heroes would bump into some native gals who would serve as their guides and soon get all nice and cozy on the jungle floor with them. But we’re in the ‘90s now, and all that pulp stuff is frowned upon; the focus is on “realism,” so there go the sexy jungle babes with their pidgin English and “full breasts.” In fact the only woman in the novel is Bo’s girlfriend, recurring from previous books; they have an off-page sex scene shorty after Bo’s introduction into the text, after which she disappears from the narrative…with Bo often wondering if he’s in love with the girl. Oh wait there’s also a buxom waitress David Lee hits on before the operation in Nicaragua, but we don’t get any more detail on that.

However as mentioned the feeling of realism is strong and Walker does a great job of putting us in that green hell alongside Bo and Lee. There’s some good foreshadowing – not to mention Walker again working in the grander theme of knives in relation to the series concept – when Bo and Lee are surprised by some helicopters which are circling the area, and in their quick escape Bo manages to lose the trusty combat knife he’s carried since Vietnam. He and Lee get in a long discussion about it, Lee concerned that Angel’s men will find the knife and Angel will realize Bo is here, but Bo disbelieving this will happen. However the veteran reader will know that, given the amount of dialog which has been devoted to the topic, this is indeed what will happen. And it is.

But there’s no big “you were like a son to me!” climax here. Bo and Lee set up traps in the jungle and wipe out several of Angel’s Sandanistas before they can reach the American base, and at one point in the melee Lee is shot, his rucksack abosrbing most of the damage, but losing most of his ammo in the process. This leads to an awesome sequence where Bo and Lee split up, the former to head off Angel’s mortar team before they can hit the base, the latter to act as a one-man army and wipe out the rest of Angel’s squad. The stuff with Lee is the best and the highlight of the novel. He proves his badassery in a grand way, using Bo’s Stoner, various weapons, and even his own teeth as he takes on the attacking squad, biting off one guy’s nose in a brutal brawl.

This is just Walker getting warmed up, though. After this insane fight, Lee briefly passes out – only to wake up as he’s getting pissed on. Turns out there was one more Sandanistan in that party. But while the Nicaraguan is busy shaking himself off, Lee grabs hold of the only weapon in his reach: a pair of pliers. First he rips off some of the dude’s dick, then he flips the pliers around and jams the barbed handles up the guy’s ass! For the coup de grace he blows the guy’s brains out with a Magnum. Given this, Bo’s confronation with Angel is spectacularly anticlimactic; they get in a brutal martial arts fight with Angel ultimately getting the upper hand, training a gun on Bo. However the series title Springblade not only refers to the name of Bo’s commando team but also to the Russian-made springblade knife he carries in combat – a knife he hasn’t used yet this volume. Walker of course saves this for this climactic battle.

Walker at times approaches David Alexander levels; there’s a great bit where Bo’s Stoner is referred to as a “death guitar.” And in addition to the copious gore we’ll occasionaly get combat description like, “Lee blew the point man’s shit away.” But it’s in the gory details that Walker really shines, with Lee at one point cutting a guy in half, from crotch to head, with the Stoner. The knife-fighting stuff isn’t as prevalent as last time, though when it happens it too delivers heaping helpings of bloody violence. There’s also a memorable moment where Bo offers Lee some speed, to give them a boost of energy. 

So in the end, Springblade is kind of an anomaly. It veers a bit too close to “realistic” military fiction for me, but when the shit goes down it happens in a gory manner that’s more akin to what we expect from men’s adventure. At any rate I’m missing the next couple volumes, but will return to the series anon.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Penetrator #36: Deadly Silence

The Penetrator #36: Deadly Silence, by Lionel Derrick
June, 1980  Pinnacle Books

At this point my reviews of The Penetrator could basically be on autopilot: the rot has set in, each volume is a bland repeat of the one that came before, and the brutal vibe of the earliest volumes has been replaced by a generic tone more akin to a TV show of the day. Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin is a pale reflection of what he was, and goes out of his way not to kill anyone.

And once again the villain sucks; Chet Cunningham in particular has been delivering loser antagonists for his past several installments, like the sad sack computer programmer in #30: Computer Kill. In Deadly Silence he gives us two loser villains: one a guy who runs a “communications union” monopoly and another an old general who is being forced into retirement. The folks at Pinnacle only got the memo on the first villain because he’s the only one mentioned on the back cover. Indeed it seems Cunningham himself decided to change course midway through and to present a bigger villian for Mark to face, but sadly the communications union guy is the more memorable of the two, despite being fat and having long blond hair – hardly the villain one expects from this genre.

Cunningham takes his time getting into this one; we open with a sequence of various people in the communications industry running afoul of a shady operation calling itself the National Communications Council of America. One guy blows up some phone lines in New York at NCC’s behest, then another is killed by goons in California for refusing to comply with an FCC request. Gradually we learn that the NCC is run by Victor Jerele, the aforementioned loser villain, who runs the outfit from a palatial estate, his usually-nude mistress Mello Tone by his side. Humorously, Mello completely disappears from the text – as I say, Cunningham seemed to write this one in a hurry, changing his mind wily-nilly as he pounded out his first (and final) draft – despite initially being presented as a main character, Mello is anticlimactically dropped from the text. 

Meanwhile Mark himself is just sort of lazing around the Stronghold…we meet him as he’s going on his daily jog and checking out the “Situation Board” to see what trouble spots have arisen around the country. Humorously, one of the situations Mark has been monitoring is the seeming monopoly of the communications unions…I mean you can see already the series is in trouble at this point. Surely there’s a terrorist to kill somewhere? Instead Mark poses as a cop on the handy police teletype he has in the Stronghold, querying on the FCC – he’s noted this name in two of the stories concerning suspicions communications-world deaths in the US. One of the responses Mark receives is from Goodman, the FBI agent who has been hunting the Penetrator “for over five years” and who has no idea of course he has just sent information to the very man he is hunting. Also I think Cunningham’s math is a bit off here as the series has been running for seven years now, not five.

Mark’s biggest lead comes from a cop in Phoenix, Arizona, pertaining to how one Victor Jerele of FCC briefly ran afoul of the authorities at one point. Posing as a reporter for the National Enquirer(!), Mark snoops around the FCC HQ, even gaining a brief phone interview with Jerele. The first whiff of action finally arrives in a brief “soft probe” Mark carries out on the HQ, using some of the knock-out darts in his Ava pistol to take down a pair of guards, one of them being a dog. But while leaving the site Mark picks up a tail, one of Jerele’s goons on a motorcylce. Here again we get a reminder that this is not the same Mark Hardin of the earliest installments – and surely not the brutal sadist who starred in Cunningham’s early installments. For Mark merely doses the guy with sodium pentathol, grills him for info, and then makes sure he’s nice and comfy until the effects of the drug wear off, after which the guy’s free to go!

The novel’s highlight occurs when Mark infiltrates Jerele’s estate, this time posing as a mad scientist…a ruse that Cunningham could’ve better exploited. Instead Mark whips out his .45 and gets in a shootout with Jerele’s thugs, but it all turns out to be a setup as Jerele knew Mark would show up eventually. Mark falls for it, returning gunfire and running for a door that suddenly opens in front of him. It turns out to be a cell of sorts, straight out of an old pulp; Mark is trapped and assailed by blinding lights and loud noise, and the walls are slowly closing in. Mark here comes off like a proto-MacGuyver, using various tools hidden in his belt and pockets to free himself, most notably a small strip of C-4 which he uses to blow off the door of the cell.

This leads to another memorable bit, where Mark is temporarily deafened. A recurring series schtick is that Mark gets hurt on the job, and Cunningham does a good job of capturing Mark’s plight as he escapes Jerele’s estate, unable to hear a thing but convincing himself it’s only temporary. Of course he’s ultimately proven correct, Mark’s hearing slowly coming back as he sits in his rental car, but still I wouldn’t advise setting off any C-4 charges just a few inches away from yourself. Mark’s hurt again at novel’s end, knocked unconscious and given a “minor concussion,” so Cunningham really delivers on the “Mark get hurts” template this time, though this latter part seems to exist mostly so Mark can hook up with a hot nurse at the conclusion of the novel.

Jerele seems to be the novel’s main villain, but Cunningham proves otherwise halfway through the novel. Mark’s learned that Jerele plans something big on this coming Sunday, and gradually determines that Jerele is going to black out the entire country’s communications network – but he’s being paid to do this. Mark learns the final details during a desert meeting with Jerele and a few thugs, a meeting that of course turns into a firefight. This section comes off like survivalist fiction, as all the cars are destroyed and Mark and Jerele, the only two survivors, are trapped in the desert. Again Mark Hardin shows himself to be a different guy from the early volumes; he gets the info from Jerele, tells him he’ll never survive in the desert, and hands him a .45 to take care of himself…which Jerele promptly does as Mark walks away.

Once again Mark is near death, stumbling through the desert. Cunningham page-fills – uh, I mean character-builds – with a random flashback to Mark’s ‘Nam days, one of the few times we’ve gotten to read about Mark’s time in the war. This is all due to a hallucination Mark endures due to heat stroke and thirst. He makes it through the desert but collapses, only to be saved by a truck driver – opportunity for Cunningham to dole out some CB and ham radio stuff he didn’t get to use back in #20: The Radiation Hit. After this Mark flies to California and drives to nearby Air Force base Edwards, having learned that a General Hemphill is the guy who paid off Jerele to black out the country on this coming Sunday.

But man it blows. Mark poses as a Justice Department officer and snoops around the base; we meet General Hemphill, that depraved bastard, while he’s playing bingo. While he’s playing bingo!! I mean good grief folks, it’s like when they’d make R-rated movies into TV shows back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, replacing all the “adult” stuff with middle-of-the-road banality. Anyway Hemphill is over the hill and being forced into retirement, so his foolproof plan is to cause a blackout and then, thanks to a lackey aboard Air Force One, redirect the President’s plane so that it has to land at Edwards. This accomplished, the President is directed to a “special area” the base has for VIPs…an area which is in fact built over an old prison. Thus the President has become Hemphill’s unwitting prisoner. And per the cover art by George Bush (not Dubya!!??) we can go ahead and assume the President is Johnny Carson.

The General is pulling a fast one on his base, thus there are no major fireworks of Mark taking on a battalion of rogue soldiers or somesuch. Instead, it all plays out on the maddening tepid vibe the series has now appropriated…Hemphill assumes that Mark is the rep sent from Washington, and proudly shows off his captured President. Mark uses the “wind walker” technique to slip past security and talk to the Prez, explaining the situation, which leads to a Mission: Impossible scenario in which the President poses as a patient on a gurney and duped base paramedics escort him and Mark off the base. After this Mark goes back to the base to boast to Hemphill that he’s freed the President! And here we have another villain doing Mark the favor of offing himself, Hemphill blowing himself up with his own explosions. Lame, folks. Lame!!

As mentioned Mark ends the novel recuperating in the hospital, where he manages to pick up a hot blonde nurse. He also speaks to the President over the phone, however an editing snafu prevents us from knowing what Mark says in response the President’s offer to increase Mark’s Justice Dept pay – the President being under the impression that Mark’s a Justice contractor. No matter. Deadly Silence is just another middling effort in the Penetrator, a sad reminder of how something once so unpredictable and fun has become so tepid and bland.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

The Spider #22: Dragon Lord Of The Underworld

The Spider #22: Dragon Lord Of The Underworld, by Grant Stockbridge
July, 1935  Popular Publications

This volume of The Spider repeats the Yellow Peril vibe of the earlier (and superior) #15: The Red Death Rain; as expected, Richard “The Spider” Wentworth never once reflects on that previous caper, but then the entire series operates on a sort of reset mentality. I mean at one point Wentworth worries over the “teeming millions” who live in New York, but you’d figure after the previous twenty-one volumes of slaughter, massacre, and devastation the population would be down to just a few thousand survivors.

I enjoy the Yellow Peril storylines of vintage pulp, but this one’s a bit unspectacular, at least when compared to The Red Death Rain. Our villain is Ssu His Tze, the self-proclaimed Emperor of Vermin; he resides on a throne and wears a yellow robe and other traditional Chinese garb, lacking the more outrageous refinements of the average Spider foe. His gimmick is he controls the “vermin” of the world – snakes and spiders and such – and he’s come here to put together the underworld of America so that he can control it and use the goons to get the invading Japanese out of China. The novel opens with his plot already in motion; Wentworth, in Spider garb, interrogates a crook and his goons just as they return from a meeting with Tze. The crook is one of the few who turned Tze down, and sure enough a few Chinese hatchetmen show up to take him and his thugs out.

There’s a fair bit of “yellow” being used as an adjective for various Chinese thugs in this one, as well as the old standby “chink,” but I imagine anyone reading a 1935 pulp will be prepared for this and not too much put off by it. And hell for that matter, it’s still not as over the top as the average installment of Mace. Wentworth takes out the hatchetmen, who meanwhile kill off the American thugs they’ve come here for—this part features the memorable moment of a woman’s unconscious form being used as a decoy. Later (once she wakes up, that is) she’ll return to muddle up the plot and constantly try to kill the Spider: her name is Flo Delight, apparently a nightclub singer or somesuch, and she happens to be the woman of the crime boss the hatchetmen just killed, though she mistakenly believes the Spider killed him.

Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page keps the narrative ball rolling in what turns out to be an extended action scene; Wentworth and Ram Singh get in a car chase with an escaping hatcetman, and when Wentworth, now in normal clothing, goes immediately thereafter to Nita van Sloan’s fashionable apartment he finds that he’s been followed. In the ensuing melee Nita’s captured and taken off by car, and as Wentworth fires at her kidnappers Nita’s Great Dane Apollo jumps in the way, gets shot by Wentworth, and falls in the car with Nita! No worries, though; Nita’s later freed – Tze actually pissed off that his subordinates would even abduct her – and as for Apollo, we’re eventually informed Wentworth just hit the dog’s shoulder and he’s doing fine now!

As mentioned Tze regrets Nita’s abduction; this is relayed by the man himself in a nicely-rendered sequence in which Wentworth visits Tze’s underground domain, deep under Chinatown. It’s a veritable dungeon of traps, as Wentworth will discover later in the book, and a blindfolded Wentworth is led through the labyrinth by a woman. Page again skirts the limits of ‘30s pulp by ensuring that we readers know this woman is hot and built without outright saying so, employing phrases like “high breasts” and all that good stuff; we’ll learn her name is San-guh Lian-guh, and she offers herself to Wentworth in another effectively-rendered sequence. Of course, he turns her down due to his steadfast uprightness (one of the many reasons I never would’ve made it as a pulp hero). After this she sort of disappears from the narrative, showing up once or twice to vow that the Spider will die – and of course true to the pulp template her fate is not delivered by Wentworth.

As for our main villain, Wentworth is escorted into his inner sanctum, where Tze sits on a throne, resplendent in his gold robe. Honestly I thought he was a boring Spider villain. He considers himself an emperor and claims to only be here long enough to assemble the underworld to defeat Japan, after which he’ll return to China; he asks Wentworth to help him. And yes, of course Tze knows that Richard Wentworth is the Spider; practically everyone knows this except for the authorities. I mean this dude who just entered the country even knows it. Anyway, Wentworth of course knows Tze is lying and immediately refuses to help him, swearing to take him down. Page nicely plays up the “Oriental respect” motif with Wentworth confident he’ll be able to leave his mortal enemy’s domain without any fear of a threat on his life, and could return here at any time to talk to the man in peace. 

Tze’s attacks follow the outline of previous installments – he hits banks and other business establishments, employing his endless army of hatchetmen, with the novel addition of poisonous spiders and snakes. Given the “vermin” tag I was expecting something more along the lines of rats and stuff, but Page does a fine job capturing a creepy crawly vibe. Sometimes though it’s a bit humorous, like when one of those hatchetmen lets loose some poisonous black widow spiders in Nita’s apartment, and Wentworth jumps up on a chair and starts shooting them one by one with his .45.

Page also gets pretty ghoulish later on, approaching almost a body horror vibe – in the most memorable sequence in the novel, Wentworth tries to escape Tze’s underworld of traps while the cops, oblivious as ever, chase after him. The poor police set off a variety of traps, including these gross-out “acid flakes” which turn out to be weaponized fungus. In an unsettling bit Wentworth watches as one cop suffers from the fungus, bulges eruping all over his body – and with his usual encyclopedic knowledge Wentworth instantly knows what has assailed the cop, and that innumerble “winged fungi” are now harvesting in the man’s body, soon to erupt from it. Pardon me while I barf!

The other Spider novels I’ve read usually feature a late plot detour, in which the action abruptly moves to some other locale or Wentworth is chasing after some other red herring. Early in the novel Page seems to be going in this direction – we learn that Tze caused some havoc in Florida a few weeks back – but suprisingly Wentworth never follows up on this. Instead the big third act moment is one of Wentworth’s inner circle paying the ultimate price for helping the Spider. SPOILER ALERT: It turns out to be kindly old Professor Brownlee, who we’re informed has been in Wentworth’s debt for the past fifteen years, given that Wentworth, in college at the time, helped Brownlee out of a bad situation. Sadly though, Brownlee is gunned down by Tze’s men as he’s talking to Wentworth on the phone. When Wentworth gets to Brownlee’s upstate home, he finds that his old friend has been shot in the back and in the back of the head. In a previous volume Wentworth’s chaffeur Jackson was killed…then miraculously returned to life a few volumes later…but I don’t think Brownlee is accorded the same miracle. I think this was it for him.

A Spider mainstay who doesn’t show up till near the end is Commissioner Kirkpatrick, who in fact is now Governor Kirkpatrick, with some new guy named Patrick Flynn serving as the commissioner. Kirkpatrick’s appearance is memorable: Tze has captured him and hooked him up to an EKG machine; this is interesting for armchair historians as Wentworth knows this is a “cardiograph machine” which has recently been invented by “heart specialists.” But in a sort of prefigure of Speed (only not as annoyingly dumb), the rate of Kirkpatrick’s heartbeat determines whether New Yorkers die or not. Thus he is almost in a zombie state, having had to control his emotions and his heartbeat for a day or so.

The finale plays out on this theme, with Wentworth marshalling his will against the assembled yellow perils of Tze, San-guh, and the other hatchetmen, with Flo Delight among them (she keeps showing up to annoy Wentworth and the reader, stubbornly determined to get revenge on the Spider for something he didn’t even do). Like a ‘30s Jedi Wentworth uses the force of his will to guide Kirkpatrick. But this is another Spider yarn where someone else does Wentworth the favor of killing off all the villains, which kind of annoyed me. But then overall Dragon Lord Of The Underworld was only passable so far as The Spider goes, not rising to the level of previous volumes, and while it wasn’t bad by any means I didn’t enjoy it as much as some others.

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Aquanauts #7: Operation Deep Six

The Aquanauts #7: Operation Deep Six, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1972  Manor Books

Judging from the previous six volumes, I knew what to expect for this seventh installment of The Aquanauts: a lurid crime yarn with some sleaze, some exploitation, and some padding. And that’s pretty much what I got…for the first half, at least. The second half of Operation Deep Six was a taut action thriller with sci-fi overtones, and by far this one was my favorite installment yet. Manning Lee Stokes (aka “Ken Stanton”) was often guitly of turning in overly-padded digressions, but when he was on form he was on form, a la Valley Of Vultures and Liberator Of Jedd, and he was on form for this one.

There’s no pickup from the previous volume (which anyway was set before the fifth volume), and for once we aren’t given the date that all this occurs. Instead we open with Secret Underwater Service honcho Admiral Coffin receiving a typewritten letter warning him that something’s about to happen to experimental submarine J2, and further, that previous experimental sub J1 wasn’t actually lost at sea, last year, but was hijacked. There are enough pertinent details in the letter to convince Coffin that the unknown letter-writer might not just be a crackpot. And by the way we get the usual stuff with Coffin talking the caper over with his equally-old colleague, the head of the Navy, but Stokes much reduces this stuff, this time, and I’m happy to report that he’s finally hit on a template that lives up to the plural of the series name, ie The Aquanauts: Admiral Coffin, Commander Tom Greene, and William “Tiger Shark” Martin. All three get a moment to shine, with none of the non-Tiger Shark sequences coming off as filler, as they often did in the previous six books.

Coffin sends Tiger and Greene to Boatville, North Carolina, the personal fief of reclusive billionaire Harry Janus, who “makes Howard Hughes seem like Tiny Tim.” Janus owns the company that developed the J1 and J2; he swore he had nothing to do with the disappearance of the J1, even though the last received transmission from the sub was that the course was being changed “per orders of J–.” Posing as FBI agents, Tiger and Greene are to see if anything’s up in Boatville, the coastal town in which the final touches are being put on the J2. Also, the anonymous person who sent that warning to Admiral Coffin mailed the letter from Boatville, however Greene thinks the entire thing is a fool’s quest and that the letter was written by a nut.

This first half plays out like a crime yarn, same as the previous six volumes, with zero in the way of “aquanaut” type stuff. Actually, the majority of this part isn’t even crime – it’s the long, long buildup to Tiger having sex with a hotstuff brunette named Millicent “Millie” Carter. He’s introduced to her shortly after arriving in Boatville, informed she’s the town lay, and promptly set up with her. She works PR for Janus Industries, and there follows a nice bit where the assembled Janus employees – the billionaire owns the entire town, and everyone in it works for him – listen as their never-seen leader issues his daily pronouncement from a speaker in the ceiling. Tiger says it reminds him of a séance; he also notices that Janus, Millie, and Janus computer programmer Paul Thomson all have similar-sounding voices, a sort of hoarse quality. Stokes doles out a lot of foreshadowing in this sequence (ie, “When Tiger thought of it later,” and the like), in particular the tidbit that both Thomson and Millie have faint scars on their throats.

Stokes really brings Millie to life – she’s a hardcore drunk and sex maniac and doesn’t care who knows it. She also has the mouth of a truck driver, a humorous reminder of how women were once known for not cursing as much as men. Another interesting tidbit for armchair historians: Millie tells Tiger that some of the people in Boatsville often get together in parking lots and have “trunk parties,” a trend – and phrase – Tiger’s never heard before. Apparently the early term for the modern-day trend known as tailgating. This is relayed to Tiger as Millie, already riproaring drunk, speeds home with Tiger so they can have sex, like within minutes of meeting each other. Stokes again here doles out foreshadowing, particularly that Millie is older than Tiger first suspected. We already know she has the greatest pair of legs he’s ever seen, shown off by a miniskirt – Tiger’s clearly a leg man – but whereas Tiger first thought she was in her thirties, he’s now suspecting she might be in her forties, or maybe older.

Stokes has a lot of repeating themes in his work and the “old man-eater with the body of a young woman” theme is one of the most prominent, as exemplified by such novels as The Golden Serpent and even an earlier Aquanauts yarn, #3: Seek, Strike, And Destroy. This one promises to be wilder than even those earlier instances, as the subtle hints make it clear that Millie’s a lot older than Tiger thinks. There’s also a strange surgery scar around her throat, a subject which Millie refuses to talk about. Humorously so much of this early sequence is devoted to foreplay; Millie’s either fondling Tiger under the table at a bar, in her car, or giving him a few seconds of oral ministration in the elevator, to the point that Tiger’s about to blow, so to speak. But she keeps stalling on the actual meat of the screwing, as it were, either tucking Tiger back into his pants and going for another drink or wanting to tell him more about the mysterious, reclusive Janus. Tiger even says he thinks they’re never going to get around to the actual deed.

I say “humorously” because when the tomfoolery finally happens, it’s for the most part tame, at least so far as some of Stokes’s other stuff is considered, with minimal description like, “[Tiger] was deep in her and stroking” and whatnot. I only say this is tame mind you because honestly about twenty or more pages are devoted to the foreplay, with plot and character-building dialog worked into it. Another recurring theme in Stokes is the brutal murder of a woman after – or during – sex, usually via strangling or such, and again Stokes doles out enough foreshadowing here that even someone new to this lurid genre will know Millie’s not in for a nice future. I mean she’s going for seconds shortly after the first boff and telling Tiger she loves him; the latter in particular is basically a death certificate in the world of men’s adventure. Only it’s going to happen a little more quickly, this time; Millie gets a phone call that seems to disturb her. She says it was Greene, calling for Tiger, and asking that he come back to their hotel immediately. She gives Tiger the keys to her car and asks him to come back soon.

Only, we readers know Greene hasn’t called Tiger; indeed, he told Admiral Coffin he’d leave Tiger alone until the next day. Thus upon returning to his hotel Tiger learns the truth, and that Millie lied to him for some reason. Tiger suspects foul play, Greene says she probably just wanted to go do some other guy! There’s even a subplot about a drunk security chief who lusts after Millie, who shows up to threaten Tiger – turns out this guy went over to Millie’s place shortly after Tiger left, found the apartment in chaos, and blood everywhere. But it won’t be until the very end of the novel that we learn what happened to Millie. As it is, Tiger wonders about her occasionally, but so far as the “babe quotient” of the novel goes, Millie’s it for Tiger this time around; promptly after this sequence in Boatville we jump ahead a few days and Tiger’s on the second leg of his assigment, in KRAB and shadowing the sub J2 on its first test run.

Just as with the ill-fated J1, the J2 receives abrupt summons to change course. Tiger follows along, into the Yucatan Channel near Honduras. The destination turns out to be an island where no island is supposed to be, according to all the maps; but then, Harry Janus is so wealthy he could pay to keep his private domain off any map. Here the novel appropriates a supercool suspense-thriller vibe and doesn’t let up until the end. Tiger watches as the J2 circles the island, rewarded with a brief glimpse of the reclusive Janus, who reclines kinglike atop a sort of metal strutcture that automatically rises from the ground. The J2 then is ordered to dock outside the island while Greene, the captain, and another officer are invited to dine on the island with Janus.

That night Tiger gets in his scuba gear and slips onto the heavily-patrolled island, armed only with a “killing knife” and a .45. He watches in shock as a group of natives in uniforms converge on the sleeping J2, affix hoses to it, and begin pumping gas into it. Tiger somehow knows it’s poisonous gas and everyone onboard the ship is good as dead. This is a tense scene, effectively rendered by Stokes, with Tiger unable to do anything to prevent the massacre; he wants to kill as many of Janus’s goons as he can, but knows if he does he’ll show his hand and soon be caught or killed. Tiger’s best weapon is the fact that Janus doesn’t know he exists. Stokes also tries to brush off the grander question why Tiger doesn’t immediately call in the Marines; instead there’s the reasoning that he needs to prove something is really afoul before he contacts Coffin.

Meanwhile Greene has dined with Janus, who turns out to be short and fat and surrounded by goons. But Greene’s drugged, and wakes up – par for the norm in the work of Stokes – while puking his guts out. After this he’s escorted by hotstuff native babes in red satin hotshorts and bras to a Turkish style bath…after being shown the murdered corpses of the captain and other officer from the J2. Finally he is presented to Janus, who admits to having killed everyone on the J2, as well as on the J1, and wants Greene to tell him everything he knows – Janus has determined that Greene is more than just a Navy overseer, which was his cover on the J2 run. Janus also claims to be able to grant Greene “quasi-immortality;” Janus says he is over 140 years old and in perfect health.

Stokes does an admirable job of playing this plot out in Tiger’s portion of the narrative; while lurking around the jungle Tiger runs into Paul Thompson, the computer engineer for Janus Inudstries who bears the same strange throat scar that Millie had. Tiger catches Thompson as the older man is walking in the jungle and here Tiger Shark again proves his cold-blooded nature, threatening to drown Thompson if he doesn’t tell all he knows – and then actually drowning him, having to do CPR to bring him back to life. Thompson finally claims to have come here to confront Janus, as he suspects it’s not the real Harry Janus who now runs this island and has stolen the J2.

Thompson also claims to be a hundred years old; he’s a member of the Stonehenge Society (aka a “Stoney,”), a pseudo-Freemason sect comprised of just a few individuals around the globe, each who have been granted a sort of immortality. Millie was also a member, and Thompson suspects the fake Janus is also one. And here’s the secret – old heads on new bodies! This is why both he and Millie (who Thompson claims was 90 years old!) have those strange scars on their throats; their original heads are constantly removed and put on fresh bodies. Thompson doesn’t divulge where the new bodies come from. He also says that Stoneys too can die, as the head-transplant thing can’t continue forever.

All this is beyond crazy and Tiger doesn’t much believe Thompson’s story. So instead he strips the guy nude, ties his hands behind his back, and brings him along as he infiltrates Janus’s heavily-guarded compound. This entire sequence is supercool and if only the rest of the series was up to the level. But then who knows, maybe the next volumes will be. Tiger wipes out several guards with knife and gun, including a few guard dogs, and finds Greene drugged in bed with a couple native floozies. True to the series template, though, Greene hasn’t had sex with them – his undying love for his wife and all – and Tiger finds him half-asleep while the two bimbos start going to town on each other(!). Soon Tiger’s gotten Greene sober again – more of Stokes’s patented weirdness where Tiger makes Greene drink some medicine that’s mixed with Tiger’s urine – and the three pull a ruse to gain audience with Janus.

This part is like an old cliffhanger, as Janus has a trapdoor beneath his desk, and he goes down it as soon as Tiger swoops in for the kill. It leads to an underwater bomb shelter, and eventually Tiger’s in KRAB, trying to get into the place. And folks believe it or not we actually get some “aquanaut” stuff as Tiger scubas around, trying to find the location of the bomb shelter, and is attacked by a couple frogmen. We even get to see the Sea Pistol in use here. But Stokes fails to give us a confrontation with Janus; Tiger plants explosives around the shelter, then has to fire all KRAB’s torpedos to set them off. In the ensuing conflagration he only assumes Janus has been killed, but as it is we never do find out – Coffin later even muses that Janus survived – and folks we never even learn who this fake Janus was. Not that it matters, I guess.

All we learn is that Paul Thompson suspected he was a fake because Millie, who occasionally slept with the real Harry Janus, had nomiated Janus for membership in the Stonehenge Society, but after “Janus” returned from the operation (which was done in Tibet), Millie suspected it was an imposter. (Oh, and as for Millie – Thompson also casually admits to having killed her and chopped up her body that night, after Tiger left; it was he on the phone, telling Millie to get rid of Tiger, and then he went over and murdered her, so as to keep her mouth shut about the Stonehenge Society and whatnot…and yes, meanwhile Thompson himself gives away all their secrets, but what the hell, that’s Stokes for you.) Thompson, who further admits to having written the letter to Admiral Coffin so as to get the SUS involved, has come here to confront Janus and determine if he is indeed a Stoney.

The finale is also sort of a copout; everything builds to a grand climax with Tiger fighting frogmen and desperate to get into KRAB to fire his torpedos, and Greene up on the island fending off Janus’s goons with a rifle…then the final chapter is presented as Greene’s typewritten report, which Admiral Coffin reads a few days later! But at this point I was so swept up with Stokes’s weird sci-fi action hybrid thing that I really didn’t mind at all. I mean I really enjoyed this one, and it was a nice reminder of how Stokes can often hit them out of the park. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: he’s one of my favorites. There’s just something so “off” about his plots and his writing that I can’t help but admire him.

So anyway sure, the first couple Aquanauts yarns were subpar. But Operation Deep Six was a different story. Here’s hoping the remaining volumes are up to this level.