Thursday, February 2, 2023

Random Record Review: Bloodsong – “Initium Meets Earth AD”


More than likely I will get even more digressive than typical in this post, so I’ll start off with the capper: I’m here reviewing a self-released album, available for free download on Bandcamp, which imagines what the Samhain album Initium might have sounded like if it had been recorded by the Earth AD-era Misfits…and what Earth AD might have sounded like if it had been recorded by Initium-era Samhain. 

So at this point you are already either in or out. If the above paragraph makes sense to you – if you are already familiar with those bands and those albums – then surely you are in. Because once this music’s in your blood you can’t shake it. And you also know that the discographies of those two bands are pathetically small…because of course you only consider the Glenn Danzig era to be The Misfits. Anything without Danzig isn’t the Misfits. And there were only two Samhain LPs, one EP, and one half-finished LP. So then you already know there’s sparse material to listen to from either group, so if you’re like me you’re excited to hear something new in that vein. 

But if you aren’t familiar with any of this…let me try to encapsulate it, and also explain why this concept album, Initium Meets Earth AD, is so goddamn perfect, and one of the best new albums I have heard in years. Seriously just stop reading and go download the album at Bandcamp – available in a variety of formats, but of course FLAC is probably the highest quality – and tell me if Bloodsong (aka someone named “Chris” who also goes by the handle “I, Misanthrope” – and yes the entire thing was done by just one guy!) hasn’t delivered a perfect replication of Earth AD-era Misfits and Initium-era Samhain. 

Okay, here is where the overly-digressive navel-gazing stuff will begin, so feel free to skip ahead thirteen paragraphs(!), to where I will actually share my thoughts on Bloodsong’s Initium Meets Earth AD (which again you should just download and listen to instead of reading the following thirteen paragraphs…) 

I first got into the Misfits in the fall of 1989, when I had just turned 15. I decided I wanted to learn more about heavy metal, given that for years I’d been seeing all the long-haired kids at school wearing Metallica and Megadeth shirts and whatnot. The Metallica “Crash Course In Brain Surgery” shirt, with art by the ubiquitous Pushead, was a particular favorite – I remember seeing that one starting around 1987. I had a friend a few years older than me, a guy named Billy Sampson, and in high school he became my go-to person for music info, given that he had a ton of tapes and records and CDs and was really into the metal scene. He was like the prototypical slacker; he didn’t really apply himself in school and didn’t seem to have any grand aims in life, but I thought he was smart, and he definitely had a great sense of humor. He was tall, always wore a Metallica shirt, and I thought he sort of resembled Bill Murray, but that was probably just me. But anyway I remember telling him one day that I was thinking about getting into heavy metal, and Billy gave me this look and was like, “Are you sure, Joe?” Like I was about to get into witchcraft or something. I persisted, and Billy loaned me a pile of heavy metal tapes and records (no CDs, as I didn’t have a player yet). 

It was all kinds of stuff: Metallica, Anthrax, Ozzy-era Black Sabbath, Megadeth, Grim Reaper, etc. No Slayer – I specifically recall that group was too much for me so I told Billy I didn’t want any of their albums. No doubt the tapes and vinyl Billy loaned me would be valuable today; I recall he even loaned me a Metallica 12” single that had “Creeping Death” on it, which is probably a hot collector item today. Anyway, I played all this shit…and when I reported back to Billy I told him my favorite material on all of it was “Last Caress” and “Green Hell,” a medley of songs on Metallica’s 1987 cover version EP Garage Days Re-Revisted

Billy nodded knowingly and was like, “Oh yeah, those two songs were originally done by The Misfits.” To which I said, “Who?” Then he was like, “Yeah, that’s Glenn Danzig’s old band.” Again: “Who?” Billy didn’t have any Misfits tapes, but he said it was an old punk band that a guy named Glenn Danzig had been in, and those two songs were originally Misfits songs. Little did I know that I was about to embark on a lifetime of Danzig fandom. I went to the local music store, Camelot Music in the Valley View Mall in nearby LaVale, Maryland, and scanned the “M” tape racks. The only Misfits tape they had was Earth AD. I bought it, excited to see “Green Hell” was on the tracklist. I could hear the original version now! 

One thing I couldn’t see was how long the tape was. When I got home and opened it up, I was shocked to see that there was hardly any tape at all in the plastic cassette window. Had I paid full album price for an EP?? Then I put the tape in. What the fuck was this? The goddamn thing sounded like it had been recorded at the bottom of a well in a single take. Songs blurred into each other, you could barely hear the instruments let alone Glenn Danzig’s voice, and the tape was over before I knew it. And I wasn’t even aware at the time that the tape I’d bought, despite how short it was, was actually longer than the original 1983 vinyl release; the cassette release contained three additional songs not on the vinyl: “Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?,” “Die, Die My Darling,” and “We Bite.” But this was pre-internet Fort Ashby, West Virginia, friends – we didn’t know anything about anything back then, especially out there in the sticks. 

Despite how much I regretted my purchase upon first listen, I vowed to “get my money’s worth” and listened to Earth AD again. And again. And again. Pretty soon I was loving the goddamn thing. Everything I complained about in the previous paragraph was now something I loved. You can’t hear Danzig’s voice and have no idea what he’s singing? So what, come up with your own interpretation of the lyrics. The songs are too sloppy and fast? So what, that’s hardcore punk (apparently). I was now a confirmed Misfits fan. Soon enough I got more Misfits tapes: Legacy Of Brutality and Walk Among Us. The latter quickly became my favorite, and I believe it’s universally agreed as the “best” Misfits album, but these things are so subjective…to tell the truth I like the one I’m currently playing the best, whichever it might be. Unfortunately none of the in-print Misfits albums at the time featured “Last Caress;” it wouldn’t be until 1995’s Collection II (more on which anon) that I finally got to hear the original Misfits version. Which of course blew away the Metallica cover. 

To correct myself…I didn’t have the actual Walk Among Us tape. I had a cassette dub of it…given to me by Billy Sampson, of course, who got into the Misfits due to my own enthusiasm for them. (It’s funny the things you remember as you get older…I can recall all of this vividly but I literally can’t remember a single thing my wife just said to me.) Billy bought the Walk Among Us CD and made a tape of it for me, filling up the rest of side 1 and all of side 2 with Metallica’s Master Of Puppets. I still have the tape! In fact I probably played this one most of all. At the time I was living with my dad, and he and I have never had much in common: he literally grew up on a farm and he’s into hunting and fishing and all that stuff that doesn’t interest me. But I lived with him when I was getting into the Misfits, and sometimes he’d get me to go along with him when he’d drive around in the woods at night in his Ford Bronco, chasing after deer with a spotlight. (People do this sort of thing in places like Fort Ashby, WV.) So of course I’d bring along my Walk Among Us tape and play it. My dad, who listens to country music if he listens to anything at all, would eventually start singing along to these songs about devil’s whorehouses and Vampira and eating brains for breakfast, brains for brunch. 

Because that is the key ingredient that made the Misfits so special: Glenn Danzig. The guy was/is a natural songwriter, with a gift for hooks that just get under your skin and stay there permanently. You could even slow down some of those super-fast hardcore Earth AD songs and give them big production and you’d have bona fide pop hits. And particularly in the Misfits era Danzig turned out lyrics – that is, when you could understand them – that stick with you forever. “Ripped up like shredded wheat,” “The maggots in the eye of love won’t copulate,” “When I sin, I sin real good,” and on and on. And hell, half the time you probably didn’t even have the lyrics correct; for years I thought Danzig was singing “The jaded eyes of peaches” in the song “Where Eagles Dare,” only for the often-wrong internet to one day inform me he was supposedly singing “With jaded eyes and features.” I like my version better; it’s almost William Burroughs-esque. For that matter, the above-mentioned “The maggots in the eye of love,” from “Some Kinda Hate,” might actually be “The maggots in the iron lung.” 

The cool thing was that I didn’t know anything about the Misfits, other than that Glenn Danzig, who now fronted his own titular band, had been the singer and wrote all the songs. Those tapes, at least the ones on Danzig’s own Plan 9 label, didn’t tell you anything – you just got the cover and the cassette itself; the cover was just one-sided, with the cover art on one side and the other side blank. If you wanted to know about the band or the song lyrics or anything else, you were shit out of luck. In a way though this just added to the mystique of the band. It wasn’t until 1995, when I discovered the Misfits Central site and became active on its forum, that I actually learned the history of the Misfits, and who was in the band besides Danzig. At the time fans who’d seen the group perform before its 1983 split were there on the Misfits Central forum, telling stories, and also former members like Bobby Steele and Jerry Only would share comments. Of course, I’d never heard of either of them, even though I’d played Misfits music for the past few years – having also heard the self-titled 1988 compilation, now referred to as Collection I, by then. I’d also gotten into Danzig’s titular band over the past few years, with 1994’s 4p being my favorite. 

I was a senior in college at this time and the Misfits Central site was a huge help because it made me aware of stuff that was about to come out; due to legal wranglings there had been no new Misfits releases since Collection I, but I read that Collection II was about to be released. So I pre-ordered it, the first thing I ever pre-ordered online. Fortunately, I decided on the clear vinyl pressing. I’d recently gotten into vinyl, so I thought this particular pressing sounded cool, given that supposedly there would only be a limited run. I believe it cost me fifteen dollars. According to Discogs.com, this clear vinyl pressing of Collection II currently goes for $700. I’m glad I kept my copy! But then, I also still have my original cassette of Earth AD, which according to Discogs now goes for over $30. I mean $30 for a cassette tape? More evidence the world has gone nuts. But I still have mine, even though I haven’t played it since the ‘90s; I mean you never get rid of your first Misfits album… (I also l pre-ordered the Misfits Box Set after reading about it on Misfits Central, in the fancy coffin box, and I still have that, too.) 

At this time I also got other Misfits vinyl: the 1988 repress of Walk Among Us and the second pressing on Danzig’s Plan 9 of Legacy Of Brutality, and it was decades until I realized this thing was on transluscent black vinyl. I just thought it was a regular piece of vinyl, but if you hold it up to light you can see through it. My first pressing copy of Collection I is the same. These records cost me a whopping ten dollars each in 1995! Actually I bought Collection I fairly recently, in late 2016, and it only cost me twenty bucks, in mint condition. One of the things I regret is I didn’t buy more Misfits records at the time…and that I didn’t buy any Samhain vinyl, ever. The prices of these records, particularly the Samhain releases, have gone through the stratosphere in recent years. 

Which finally brings me to Samhain. Somehow in the pre-internet late ‘80s I learned that Danzig was briefly in a group called Samhain before he started the Danzig band…but for reasons of pure wimpiness I never got any of the Samhain releases. I vividly recall seeing the Samhain tapes and CDs at Camelot Music…I even recall when the post-dissolution final album Final Descent was released in 1990. For some reason I was very put off by this section of Danzig’s musical career and never even considered looking into it, and I want to say it was the cover of the first album, 1984’s Initium, that put me off: Danzig and his fellow bandmates staring at the camera and covered in blood. For some reason I guess this was too much for me? I honestly can’t recall. Maybe I assumed it was “satanic thrash metal” a la Slayer, or maybe my metal guru Billy Sampson implied as much about the group and I just never looked into them. 

This of course was my mistake, as Initium is very much in the vein of a genuine Misfits album, perhaps even more so than Earth AD was. It wasn’t until 2000 that I finally heard it, when Danzig re-released all the Samhain material on CD (which themselves are now out of print and very pricey…it seems that virtually anything Danzig releases, in any format, eventually becomes quite valuable). I got all three of the re-released Samhain CDs and played them and realized Initium was the missing transitional link between the Misfits and the later Samhain material. Previous to this my only exposure to Samhain was their 1986 album November Coming Fire, which a classmate in college loaned me in 1995 – he had the tape and let me have it for a bit and I was blown away by the sound of this album…this quirky punk-metal that had almost a Stooges vibe at times and clearly laid the groundwork for Danzig’s later material in his titular band. It certainly didn’t sound like the Misfits, but that’s not a knock; it had its own special sound. Also this guy was the only person I’ve ever met who preferred Samhain to the Misfits; when I asked him why he shrugged and said, “I just think they were a better group.” 

As it turns out, the Misfits albums were my gateway drug into heavy metal. Soon after getting those Earth AD and Legacy Of Brutality tapes I was listening to Metallica, Overkill, Celtic Frost, Manowar, Anthrax, and I remember really being into a thrash metal band called Nuclear Assault. (Still no Slayer, though!) Iron Maiden was also a favorite. But there was nothing like the Misfits, which was frustrating. I’d look into other punk or hardcore bands…but none of them “scratched that itch,” as I, Misanthrope of Bloodsong says in the video I’ll hopefully get around to discussing soon. Again it comes down to that key ingredient of Danzig; none of the other punk or hardcore groups were turning out such hooks and melodies. The hardcore groups in particular were just blurs of noise – even when the Misfits went hardcore, in Earth AD, Danzig managed to make the tracks melodic, or at least hook-laden. And speaking of Danzig, when I was getting into Misfits and metal in early 1990 his titular group had so far only released their first, self-titled album…someone (not Billy) loaned me the tape, and I liked it, particularly “Mother” and “Twist Of Cain” (the latter probably being my favorite Danzig song of all now), but it just didn’t have that Misfits vibe and it wasn’t the thrash metal I wanted at the time. Today, of course, I’d rather listen to Danzig or any of the ensuing Danzig albums than thrash metal; by going for a timeless “heavy rock” style with a bit of bluesy groove, Danzig was able to transcend the era and deliver albums (at least the first four albums) that now sound timeless, as if they could’ve been recorded at any time in the past fifty years. I mean Danzig II – Lucifuge sounds like it could’ve been recorded in 1975 or its actual release date of 1990. 

Okay so now all that’s finally out of the way, and hopefully all of you have skipped ahead and ignored my banal reminiscing. I’m going to finally write about Bloodsong! I just discovered Initium Meets Earth AD a few days ago, but I have played it obsessively since…and as you can see, it has inspired me to write this endless screed. So creator I, Misanthrope (apparently someone named Chris) has struck a chord with me for sure. One night I was on Youtube after a long day; I must’ve been playing a Danzig video or something the last time I was on there, as recently I’ve gotten into his music again (I’ve discovered his post-2010 material is some of his best stuff ever – 2015’s Skeletons in particular is awesome and at times does indeed have a Misfits vibe), because Youtube was recommending I watch some video by a guy called Frumess which was about Initium meets Earth AD. Now, no disrespect to Frumess, but this isn’t the sort of thing I would generally watch…one of those vlogs, or video blogs, or whatever people are into today, with a guy talking into the camera for a few hours and people commenting in the sidebar. But it appears Frumess’ show centers on the Misifts, hence the Youtube recommendation, and in this particular video he was talking to a guy who had created an album that imagined if Initium sounded like Earth AD, and vice versa. 

This is honestly a great idea, as anyone who is into the Misfits or Samhain will immediately realize. I won’t go into the Misfits history here, as I’ve gone on long enough, but the entire story is recounted at Misfits Central. (And also for a great overview on Danzig’s entire musical legacy, I’d highly recommend the informative Danzig posts at The Nostalgia Spot.) But long story short, in 1983 the Misfits had gone in a hardcore direction – super-fast and short songs, with an aggro almost-metal vibe – and released what would be their final album, Earth AD. Per contemporary interviews, Danzig himself hated Earth AD and considered it “the worst Misfits album.” Apparently he didn’t like the too-fast songs and also he definitely did not like the shitty sub-production. As a minor aside, there never will be a “remastered” edition of this album…I read somewhere that Danzig stored the Earth AD master tapes in the basement of his parents’s home in Lodi, New Jersey, and the tapes were destroyed in a flood. The “alternate” mixes/versions of the Earth AD tracks on Collection I and Collection II are the same as the album versions, just with boosted EQ levels. 

Due to Danzig’s displeasure with how the album turned out, not to mention internal frustrations, the Misfits soon broke up. Danzig had already been considering a side project with local musicians Eerie Von (who was the official Misfits photographer – and a few years ago released a book about it) and Steve Zing (who was in the local group Mourning Noise…and their self-titled compilation, comprised of a 1982 single and an unreleased 1984 album, has recently been released on Cleopatra Records…and sounds at times like a lost Misfits album). This group, Samhain, now became the band for Danzig, not just a side project. He’d already used some “intended for Samhain” tracks to fill out Earth AD: “Bloodfeast” and “Death Comes Ripping.” With Initium Danzig intentionally scaled back on the hardcore aggression of Earth AD, going for more of an experimental punk-metal vibe – very thunderous, tribal drums throughout the album, and lots of reverb. There was also a weird sonic tapestry of “monster noises” running beneath most of the tracks. Danzig also dropped the comic-booky tone of the average Misfits song and went for more of a “real evil” approach in the lyrics instead of a “B-movie evil” approach, which may be one of the reasons Samhain never achieved the pop cultural fame that the Misfits later did. 

So that’s the history. Apparently what this guy Frumess discussed in one of his earlier Youtube videos was the similarity between Earth AD and Initium; I would imagine that one of the main draws here is that, as mentioned, two of the Earth AD songs were intended for Initium, so it would be interesting to imagine what they might’ve sounded like had they actually been on that album instead of Earth AD. There was also Glenn Danzig’s repeated statements in contemporary interviews of his dissatisfaction with Earth AD. So Chris, aka I, Misanthrope, watched this Frumess video and decided to do his own recreation: Initium done Earth AD style and Earth AD done Initium style. 

To say he nailed it would be an understatement. From the first moment of Initium Meets Earth AD you realize what a labor of love this is. Now in the Frumess video with the interview, ie this video, the only part I’ve watched is the actual interview with Chris aka I, Misanthrope. He talks about the “critical listening” he employed to recreate the production of the albums, using modern software to break up the vocals and instruments of the original Misfits and Samhain tracks into separate channels so he could study them individually. He also talks about the difference in the recording styles – the reverb-free Earth AD and the reverb-heavy Initium. I mean it’s clear as hell that this guy gets it, and not just that but he’s able to do the music himself, which is incredible. I mean I wish I had a gift for music, it’s the one thing I’ve always wished for. But I’m happy to just listen. Especially to something as fun as this. 

And man I had a smile on my face the whole way through this album on my first listen. I still smile when I play it, even though I’ve played it about twenty times now in the past few days; there’s always something new I’m noticing. Running to 47 minutes and 11 seconds, Initium Meets Earth AD features 22 tracks and is essentially two albums in one: tracks 1 to 10 are Initium songs done in the aggro hardcore style of Earth AD, and tracks 11 to 22 are Earth AD songs done in the experimental-tribal-punk style of Initium. And happily Bloodsong (ie I, Misanthrope, ie Chris) has done the “extended” version of Earth AD, which is to say the same release I had on cassette as a teen, with the extra three songs not on the original vinyl release. This is especially fortunate, as his version of “We Bite” is one of the highlights of the album – a much-too-fast track on Earth AD that is finally given room to breathe in this Initium treatment, revealing the melody only briefly glimpsed in the original version. 

While doing Earth AD in the style of Initium would’ve made sense to me, prior to discovering this album, I have to admit I never would’ve thought about doing it the other way around. And to be honest when I first played this Bloodsong album it was the second half, ie the Earth AD tracks slowed down and given the goth-punk vibe of Initium, that I thought was the best. But now that I’ve played the album so many times I love the first ten tracks just as much. Bloodsong has flat-out nailed the sound of the genuine Earth AD release, from the production to the way the songs themselves are performed. Distorted guitars complete with occasional squeals, the crazy drum fills, the “recorded in the bottom of a well” sub-production. No Misfits-inspired band I am aware of, from Japan’s Balzac to the aforementioned group Mourning Noise, have come so close to replicating the sound of the Misfits. It’s almost uncanny. 

Now one thing to point out is that the vocals don’t always sound exactly like Glenn Danzig…but then that would be asking for a bit much, wouldn’t it? Danzig has one of the most distinctive baritones in rock music. All things considered, Mr. I, Misanthrope actually does an admirable job of mimicking Danzig, particularly in the Initium tracks that are given the Earth AD treatment; Danzig’s vocals were barely audible in the actual Earth AD release, anyway, given the shitty, sub-par production, and Bloodsong perfectly replicates that here. He also nails Danzig’s intonation; the way he screams “Now is the pain!” on opening spoken-word track “Initium,” you could almost think it was Danzig himself. In particular I love the random unhinged screams of “Go!” in the backing vocals of the Earth AD-style Initium tracks – identical to the way they’d pop up so frequently on the genuine Earth AD album. Actually the intonation and vocal delivery are spot-on for the Initium tracks – “My mirrors are black” being another great example, on the Earth AD-style “Horror Biz,” ie the song that inspired the name of everyone’s favorite horror novel blog (or maybe it was the Misfits original that inspired Mr. Will Errickson). The more I play Initium Meets Earth AD the more I realize how perfectly the style of the actual Earth AD was recreated by Bloodsong: “The Shift” in particular is a masterpiece, so perfectly transformed that it comes off like a bona fide Earth AD track. I also appreciate how some of the Bloodsong recreations nod to other Misfits songs: the Earth AD-style “The Howl” starts off a little similarly to “All Hell Breaks Loose,” from Walk Among Us…a double nod, at that, given that Samhain did its own version of this song, retitled “All Hell,” on the 1985 Unholy Passion EP. “The Howl” is another masterpiece; you could fool someone into thinking it’s a legitimate Earth AD song. 

But as mentioned it was the second half of the album, the Earth AD songs done Initium style, that initially threw me for a loop. Good grief this stuff’s even more uncanny in how perfectly it’s done. I mean Initium sounds like the work of a songwriter who had advanced in his craft and had to start a new group to get the sound he wanted, but honestly – and per Danzig himself in contemporary interviews – Samhain could have been the Misfits. And if so, maybe this is what they might’ve sounded like. Those hardcore thrash Earth AD numbers are slowed down, played less sloppily and given a heavy reverb and tom-tom treatment, somehow becoming heavier and more menacing in the process (the latter likely due to the “monster noise sound tapestry” Bloodsong has faithfully reproduced in the background of most tracks). “Earth AD,” “Queen Wasp,” “Death Comes Ripping,” and “Hellhound” are reborn as riff-heavy punk-metal monsters…and hell, if you poked me with sharp punji sticks I might even say some of Bloodsong’s interpretations are better than the original versions (“Devilock” and “Wolf’s Blood” being two such examples). Another thing that brought a big smile to my face was that Bloodsong also brought in the synthesized chimes of Initium, which to tell the truth have always sounded to me like the “gong” noise they always play at the end of Taco Bell commercials. These chimes frequently punctuate the songs, totally mimicking the genuine Initium release…and making me think of Taco Bell. 

Another track to call out is “Bloodfeast,” which as mentioned was originally intended for Samhain, anyway. But even though Danzig did the song with the Misfits it still sort of sounds out of place on Earth AD, lacking the aggro hardcore vibe and coming off more like…well, like a cut from Initium. What Bloodsong does here is given an indication of what the song might’ve sounded like if it really had been on Initium, adding those chimes and monster noises to wonderful effect. In the Frumess video linked above, Chris of Bloodsong/I, Misanthrope only appears for a few minutes, telling how he recorded the album. After this Frumess plays the album with his reactions. I haven’t watched all this – again, not a fan of those “reaction” videos people seem to love these days – but I was happy to see that Frumess was appropriately enthusiastic about the material, telling Chris what a great job he had done. I do disagree with Frumess that “Mommy, Can I Go Out And Kill Tonight?” doesn’t work; maybe the first time I played the album I would’ve agreed, but after several more listens I think Bloodsong’s recreation works just fine. The entire album works damn fine, and I love the little touches…the extended snarling that caps off some tracks being another thing that brought a big smile to my face, as it’s just so Misfits/Samhain-style Danzig. 

So again, one last time, here is the Bandcamp link where you can download Bloodsong’s Initium Meets Earth AD for free. If you’ve managed to make it through this neverending post without doing so…well I mean, why the hell haven’t you? Seriously the only thing we need is for this album to be pressed on vinyl…colored vinyl of course, in pure “Plan 9 Records” style. The question is whether the entire thing should be put on one LP, with the Initium tracks on one side and the Earth AD tracks on the other, or if it should be split up into separate releases. But this is just cloud talk; by making the album free – Bloodsong even specifcally asks that you not pay for the download – the messy issue of royalties and whatnot doesn’t come up. Which of course brings me to Glenn Danzig himself. You have to wonder what he’d think of Initium Meets Earth AD. If I know anything about Danzig, he probably wouldn’t give a shit. But then, maybe he might. You’d have to think that somehow somewhere the guy would at least be a little moved that his music can inspire people in such a way. And besides, Danzig recently did his own fan letter to an artist who has inspired him: the 2020 release Danzig Sings Elvis (which I got on “pink haze” vinyl). 

Bloodsong also has an original track on Bandcamp, “I Want Your Blood,” from 2018. It’s very much in the Samhain/Misfits mold and also highly recommended. I’d say we need more original material from Bloodsong, and soon! And release it on colored vinyl!! 

So finally, thanks to Frumess for doing a video on this and bringing it to peoples’s attention – and thanks to the nameless Youtube Bot that put the video up as a suggestion for me! The biggest thanks of course goes to Bloodsong; I would’ve “lost my shit” (as the kids say today) if I’d heard this in 1990. With this album Bloodsong makes me feel like I’m a long-haired 15 year-old punk again…quite an accomplishment when you’re a 48 year-old father who only wishes you could still grow long hair. I could just imagine jamming out to this on my Sony Walkman and excitedly talking about it to Billy Sampson the next day in Phys Ed; the two of us opted out of “actual sports stuff” in gym class and instead would walk in endless circles around the basketball court as part of the ”physical fitness” regimen we were required to take as high school students. Of course, we spent the entire time talking about heavy metal. And somehow I’ve gone this long without mentioning the “band” we started together, which was just Billy on his out of tune electric guitar and me shouting Celtic Frost-style vocals into a boombox; random noisefests, not “songs” per se, that we’d give titles like “Tears For The Decayed King.” We called ourselves “Subjugator,” and in true heavy metal fashion we also had a skull-faced mascot, cleverly named “The Subjugator,” who totally wasn’t a ripoff of Iron Maiden’s Eddie. 

Billy was three years older than me, but he graduated two years before me, in 1990 (the reason he was only two grades ahead of me was because my mom – who was the teacher – put me in kindergarten when I was only 4, so I was always the youngest kid in my class). I think the last time I saw Billy was probably the summer of 1991 or so. He’d had a kid with the girl he was dating and so he was busy with life, and also around this time I was losing the long-haired heavy metal-listener look and going for more of a clean-cut image (because I’d discovered this was how you actually got girls to like you, at least in Fort Ashby in 1991). So in the typical fickleness of a teenager I was likely trying to distance myself from Billy. But then again he wasn’t even in school anymore, so it’s not like I could still hang out with him in Phys Ed. Probably the last time I heard from Billy was a letter I received from him out of the blue in 1993, when I was in college. This was a particularly memorable letter because Billy actually put a photo of his face on the envelope. I hung onto this letter for years, because in all my life no one had ever sent me a letter with a picture of their face on the envelope, but apparently I lost the letter at some point in the dim past; I just searched for it, to put it up on the post, but couldn’t find it. I did find Billy’s 1990 senior class photo, though: 



Note the “stay subjugated” on the back! Unfortunately I have no recollection of Billy’s other “band,” the so-called “Plastic Jesus.” A few months ago I made one of my rare forays onto Facebook and checked out the “Growing Up In Fort Ashby” page…and happened to see the note that William “Billy” Sampson, Jr had passed away, at only 50 years old, this past July. There was a picture of him there, the same Billy I knew back in high school, just a bit older; apparently he had still been living in Fort Ashby even after all these years. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in thirty years, but knowing he was no longer around really upset me, and again took me back to my high school metal days. Now that I think of it, this is no doubt the reason why I’ve suddenly gotten into Danzig’s music again…but then I go into mini-obsessions with Danzig every few years, so that’s nothing new. I guess this time it just has more emotional background to it. I’ve mentioned Billy a lot in this review, because he was the key to all of this; if Billy had not loaned me his heavy metal tapes in the Fall of 1989, I might never have discovered the Misfits. Not to sound too cliched, but I will always be grateful to him for that. 

As a final note, here’s a photo of the 15-year-old yours truly in early 1990, right at the height of my Misfits/Metal faze – it has to have been around that time, given that this was when I sported my lamentable long hair. I’m even wearing a camo shirt, for cryin’ out loud…you can’t get more “Fort Ashby, West Virginia” than that: 


The beer was my dad’s; he had a ton of it in the fridge and it was years old because my dad has never been much of a drinker. I stacked it on the kitchen table for this stupid photo. A photo that was taken by…you guessed it: Billy Sampson.

Monday, January 30, 2023

Thirst


Thirst, by Pyotyr Kurtinski
August, 1995  Leisure Books

Apparently twenty years passed before anyone noticed the name Pyotyr Kurtinski was Peter McCurtin gone Slavic. -- Lynn Munroe 

“I can see you have a great big hard-on. I don’t mind being fucked by a vampire. Lord knows I’ve been fucked by everyone but the Birdman of Alcatraz. Just don’t get too rough.” -- From the book 

If it were not for Lynn Munroe I wonder if anyone would have ever known that Thirst was the last published novel of Peter McCurtin, who died in January 1997 at the age of 68. McCurtin was very prolific, but if I’m not mistaken Thirst was his only horror novel…but then, I wonder if it could accurately be described as such. If I didn’t know any better I’d say this novel was intended as a spoof of horror novels; it makes the similarly-goofy The Vampire Tapes seem like a piece of serious horror literature. Of course the other possibility is that McCurtin was just totally out of his area in horror and turned in what he thought was a genuine horror novel. 

The reviews for this novel on Goodreads are almost comical in how savage they are. McCurtin – though of course the reviewers have no idea it is McCurtin, and assume “Kurtinski” is a real author – is raked over the coals, particularly for his frequent mistake of stating that a bat has a beak. This fallacy is repeated throughout the novel. But then, the novel is about a vampire who can turn himself into a giant bat, so it’s not like realism is much of a concern. Seriously though, things needed to be grounded in reality for the supernatural stuff to have any impact, so little details like “bats don’t have beaks” should have been a concern for McCurtin…which makes me suspect the book is a spoof. 

More evidence comes in how neurotic our 200+ year-old protagonist, William Van Diemen, turns out to be. The guy is like the Woody Allen of vampires, though we’re informed he’s a good-looking Dutch dude who is permanently 23 because that’s when he became a vampire. One would have to wonder how such a goof could have survived – and thrived – for over two centuries. In Thirst he’s constantly second-guessing himself, mulling over really stupid stuff, making frequent mistakes, and he even falls in love. What I found most interesting about this neurotic nature is that Len Levinson told me that, when he was writing his Sharpshooter novels in the ‘70s, Peter McCurtin himself (who was editor of the series) said that Len’s version of “Sharpshooter” Johnny Rock was “too neurotic,” and wouldn’t last long in his mob-busting war if he was constantly second-guessing himself. Len reigned this in and delivered a neurosis-free Rock in Headcrusher

So McCurtin failed to heed his own advice in this 1995 novel. And that’s another thing. If I’d started reading Thirst without knowing anything about it…I’d probably fire off an email to Len to ask him if he’d written it! Now I’m not saying Len Levinson would think bats have beaks, but Thirst is so “Len Levinson-esque” that I wonder if McCurtin was influenced by Len. Like a Len Levinson novel, there’s no “plot” per se and the characters all seem to exist outside the novel, often obsessing over things both mundane and spiritual. That said, Len would have written a better novel than Peter McCurtin did. Thirst, while it is Len Levinson-esque in the narrative style, lacks the trademark spark of a genuine Len Levinson novel. 

The most curious thing is how little Thirst is like the other McCurtin novels I’ve read. I guess the closest comparison would be his strange ‘70s attempt at a bestseller beach read-type book, the similiarly-goofy The Pleasure Principle. The difference is Thirst is longer, coming in at 346 pages. But per the Leisure Books norm those pages fly by thanks to some very big print…and also true to Leisure form the novel is riddled with typos. In many ways Thirst is exactly like the stuff McCurtin was writing (and editing) for the publisher back in the ‘70s, not to mention that the “main” plot (per se) features our villainous protagonist Van Diemen operating less like a vampire and more like a ‘90s Johnny Rock, fighting the Mafia…which is another source of ridicule in those Goodreads reviews, given that this vampire does his fighting with guns and grenades! 

So for 346 big-print pages Van Diemen, who has a castle in the Bronx, tries to stop a lawyer who wants to purchase his land, feeds nightly on unsuspecting prey, works on his autobiography, turns a hapless P.I. into a vampire, and also falls in friggin’ love with a jaded photographer who either has a “hard face” or is “attractive” (McCurtin can’t seem to make up his mind). She also has a “hip-flask voice,” one of my favorite random descriptions ever. Oh and there’s also a sort-of Vampira type who shows up in the novel for a handful of pages, but McCurtin does nothing at all with her. Actually, she’s more of a fake vampire than a horror hostess – calling herself “Draculina,” she has her face done up like a “ghoul” and dresses like a hag, but Van Diemen deduces that she has a “nice body” beneath the drab clothes. Van Diemen rapes her, along with another woman earlier in the novel; Van Diemen’s tendency for rape is another source of anger the Goodreads reviews. Yes, Van Diemen rapes (and kills) two women in the course of Thirst, but then again, he also figures that he has killed nearly eighty thousand people in the course of his vampire life – this a quick calculation he does based off his nightly feeds over the course of the past 200+ years. 

This I found was the only non-goofy stuff in the novel, because McCurtin clearly understands you can’t have a vampire hero. By nature vampires must drink blood to live. But then the seriousness is robbed by Van Diemen’s frequent bitchery over common misconceptions about vampires, not to mention that he also has a VHS library of every vampire movie ever made. There’s an “I can’t believe Peter McCurtin actually wrote this” part where Van Diemen says that he even has Interview With The Vampire on VHS, and the soon-to-be-a-vampire-himself private eye responds that this particular movie hasn’t even come out on VHS yet, so it would be impossible for Van Diemen to have a copy of it on video…and Van Diemen boasts that he has a pirated copy! It’s stuff like this that again makes me suspect Thirst is a spoof. Just too much of the novel is given over to Van Diemen’s obsessive compulsions about various mundane topics…and also, for an immortal vampire, the dude is constantly getting hassled: by the lawyer who wants to buy his land, by his own lawyer who is representing him in the case, by the sad-sack private eye Van Diemen turns into a vampire, and finally by the photographer with the “hip-flask voice.” All of these characters are constantly questioning Van Diemen, or putting him out of sorts, and he’ll go back to his Bronx castle to sulk. 

Those looking for a traditional vampire yarn will be quite diappointed with Thirst. Again, the Goodreads reviews are indication of this. Only in the extended excerpts from Van Diemen’s autobio – written in ugly italics – do we get the traditional stuff, with Van Diemen being turned into a vampire (by some vampire woman who bit him during sex, a recurring theme here) and then going about his “new vampire life” for the next few centuries. As mentioned he has a castle in the Bronx, the construction of which in the 1800s he recounts for us, and now he sticks to himself, only venturing out each night to feed. He turns himself into a giant bat to do this; McCurtin has it that the bat transformation is “an act of faith” and that each night when Van Diemen throws himself off the tower of the castle he could very well plunge to his death if he doesn’t transform. Oh and as a giant bat he can fly “300 miles per hour.” Seriously! Plus we’re informed of the various fallacies on how vampires can be killed, but McCurtin still sticks to the main ones: stakes to the heart and fire. 

Van Diemen’s a loser, though, there’s no other way to put it. So the book opens with him in his library working on his bio, and he treats himself to one glass of vodka, after which he’s drunk. Oh, and he also pops a few Ritalin. He flies out to feed, goes over a zoo…and there’s the “hard faced” female photographer out there taking photos who might really be pretty (again, McCurtin can’t figure this out), but she certainly has a nice body (maybe), but also a rough demeanor from being a famous world-traveling photographer and seeing it all. Van Diemen turns human and approaches her in the dark. Her name’s Maggie Connors, and Van Diemen has heard of her, but this night he goes to feed on her…and she takes his photo, and he stumbles in the flashlight and flies away in escape. Our tough bastard of a vampire, folks! And he goes back to his library to sulk over this, working up a rage to get revenge on this woman. Oh, and he obsesses with worry that she might get the photo printed in the papers…but will people even know who he is? Will anyone believe her story? Etc, etc. 

I mean honestly, the book is a spoof. It has to have been intended as a spoof. Because soon after this, Van Diemen’s getting hassled by his loser lawyer, Bradford Wilcox, who keeps pestering Van Diemen that another lawyer, Landau (who likely represents a mobster), is trying to get Van Diemen’s castle. But now they’re leaning hard on Wilcox himself…with the threat that Wilcox’s mistress, Tracy, is going to come out with photos and a fake claim that Wilcox had her get an abortion…and Van Diemen is winging off to burn down the lawyer’s house and then rape and murder Tracy. Here we get a bit of that old ‘70s-style sleazy sadism: 


Actually the sleaze is goofy, too. The quoted dialog at the top of the review is courtesy Maggie Connors, the photographer who snaps Van Diemen’s photo before he can kill her. He obsesses over her, finally locates her…and when he gets the spring on her (staying in a “special guest house” in the zoo…under heavy guard, even though she hasn’t told anyone she was attacked by a vampire?), she promptly offers herself to him:


Even Live Girls didn’t feature the line “I’m being screwed by a vampire.” Van Diemen, ever second-guessing and doubting himself, wants to bite Maggie’s neck and kill her, but doesn’t…then flies back to his castle and keeps thinking about her! There are even parts where he calls her on the phone to chat! I kid you not, friends! McCurtin tries to go somewhere with this; Van Diemen’s property soon becomes the target of the mob, with guys tossing trash and stuff on the grounds and later assassins sent onto the property, and Van Diemen will kill them off and call Maggie so she’s in such and such a place to take a photo of it. But the plotting is just so random that McCurtin, if he was serious about the whole thing, had no idea what he was doing. 

Like the shady private eye, Victor Mara, who is apparently hired by Landau to get the goods on Van Diemen. For reasons never satisfactorily explained, Van Diemen turns Mara into a vampire, perhaps to use him as his inside agent. But man, this develops into yet another goofy subplot, where Mara keeps trying to convince Van Diemen to let him move into Van Diemen’s castle! I mean complete with Mara, now a vampire, worried about the rent at his place and just persistently nagging Van Diemen about letting him have “just a little corner” of the castle to call his own! And this just keeps going on, perhaps further evidence that Thirst is a parody of serious horror fiction. It’s hard to believe Peter McCurtin could have intended this novel to be on the level. 

More Sharpshooter or Marksman (which McCurtin also edited and wrote for in the ‘70s) similarities are evident in the finale; anyone who has read those books, particularly ones actually written by McCurtin, will know that a favored “climax” featured all the villains conveniently assembling in one place so Rock or Magellan could blow them all to hell at once. Well guess how Thirst climaxes! Van Diemen even handles the job with some un-vampiric dynamite. We even get banal details like the note that he lodges the dynamite sticks on the roof (carrying them up there in his giant bat beak, naturally), so the wind won’t blow them away. I mean folks that is how Thirst climaxes – our vampire protagonist turns into a giant bat and carries dynamite in his “beak” and places it on a roof, ensuring that the friggin’ wind won’t blow the dynamite away. It’s not exactly Bram Stoker, is it? 

Speaking of whom, the last lines of the novel should be the final proof that Peter McCurtin was laughing to himself throughout Thirst; Van Diemen decides that maybe he does love Maggie Connors, and wonders what “Prince Dracul” (aka Dracula) would think! And Maggie wants Van Diemen to take a bubble bath with her...and this will be his first bath since the 18th Century! The end! Oh and another goofy thing, Van Diemen is always coming up with stupid inversions of the usual oaths, ie “by the Antichrist” and “only Satan knows” and other dumbass stuff. 

So all of which is to say, Thirst is a complete and total failure as a horror novel. But as a goofy-toned horror novel parody, it is a roaring success. It’s also fun to see that McCurtin was able to publish a quick and dirty (and sleazy) ‘70s-style novel in the mid-1990s. But still it was a sad way for such a prolific author to go out; as mentioned, this was Peter McCurtin’s final novel.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Endworld #2: Thief River Falls Run


Endworld #2: Thief River Falls Run, by David Robbins
No month stated, 1986  Leisure Books

Man it’s been years since I read the first volume of Endworld – it was before my kid was even born, and he’s halfway through kindergarten already! Well anyway, I have many books in this series, as well as sister volume Blade, so it’s about time I get back to it. The only thing I could remember from my reading of the first volume back in 2016 was that the series seemed like a ripoff of Doomsday Warrior, only for the Young Adult market, and also that I didn’t like it very much. 

And this second volume just confirmed my feelings; Thief River Falls Run comes off like an edited-for-TV version of Doomsday Warrior, lacking the gore and purple-prosed sex of that superior series. Otherwise it has the same setup: one hundred years after a nuclear hell, and a cast of colorfully-named asskickers. But whereas Ted “The Ultimate American” Rockson and his pals act like true men’s adventure heroes, Blade and his fellow “warriors” are like innocent children. Part of the schtick of this series is how Blade and his “family” venture out of their safe space in Minnesota and encounter other people, and they’re just so innocent and unaware of everything. 

And whereas Doomsday Warrior had its cake and ate it, too, with Rockson and friends talking about 20th Century trivia (thanks to that “library” of videos and books in Century City, of course), Blade and his friends are confused about such mundane things as a car horn. Yes, friends, there is actually a part in Thief River Falls Run where Blade accidentally leans on the horn of their post-nuke all-terain vehicle, the SEAL, and they all wonder what that strange loud noise they just heard was. Did the vehicle make the noise?? So there is none of the winking-to-the-reader nutjob stuff like in Doomsday Warrior, and that even includes the sex material…Blade and his fellow warriors, you see, only get busy when they are married! WTF!! The whole damn thing is like a post-nuke Little House On The Prairie

This series is also starting to remind me of another Leisure post-nuke pulp series: Roadblaster. Not that it’s that bad, it’s just that, as with Roadblaster, our heroes takeforever to get anywhere. Last volume they wanted to go to Twin Cities, apparently the post-nuke Minneapolis. They didn’t make it. This volume they try to go to Twin Cities again. They don’t make it! Compare to Rockson and team, who would go to space and back in a single volume. 

Another annoyance is that we can’t just have a team of post-nuke shit-kickers. Instead, Robbins gussies up the plot with the unwanted presence of Joshua, a long-haired pacifist who is so na├»ve he seems to have walked out of a book written by Ned Flanders. And Plato, the leader of “Home,” insists that Joshua go with Blade and the Warriors on the Twin Cities run! You almost wonder if the guy’s an inside agent, setting Blade and the others up. 

Speaking of inside agents, David Robbins sets up several dangling subplots for future volumes. There is the threat of enemy agents within Home who plot to wrest control from Plato, and also the development that Blade’s father, the former leader of Home, was murdered years ago as part of a plot. Blade stumbles upon this info during events in Thief River Falls, mostly due to the presence of mutant “Brutes.” He learns via happenstance that Brutes, which are kept on leashes by Watchers, might have been used to kill his father. 

As for Blade, he’s still sick from infection as this one opens; it’s some unspecified time later. Robbins spends the initial pages introducing two new characters who will presumably factor into later novels: a young woman named Rainbow (who is comatose the entire time) and her precocious, twelve year-old daughter Star. They have escaped from somewhere, “hunters” after them, and Blade’s colleagues Hickock and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi save them. After this nothing more is said about the two, but the way they are introduced, Star asking tons of questions about Home, might indicate they will have bigger roles in future. This part furthers the Doomsday Warrior vibe, with the Warriors fighting a giant mutant spider. 

So anyway, once Blade is better old Plato tells him to try to get to Twin Cities again – but this time he’s taking along Joshua. Robbins uses this as a way to fill up the book’s unwieldy 256 pages: Joshua spends pages and pages defending his pacifism to Hickock. Now it would be one thing if Joshua were constantly being pressured by the Warriors, but instead it's Joshua who is constantly judging them and their “violent” ways. And folks it’s just no fun reading a post-nuke action thriller with a main character who keeps judging everyone for being “too violent.” 

There’s also a bit of a Guardians vibe with our heroes driving around in their customized vehicle. There’s only periodic action, like when a biker takes a shot at them and Hickock blows him away – cue more bitching from Joshua. Fortunately, Joshua goes through some character growth in Thief River Falls Run; a subplot concerns him being forced to kill to save his comrades, and Robbins seems to use Joshua as a stand-in for those who complain about the use of excessive force…you know, like brain-addled puppet politicians who wonder why cops can’t shoot violent perps in the shoulder or something. When it’s kill or be killed, you kill, and this is the lesson Joshua learns. 

And sadly this subplot turns out to be the “meat” of Thief River Falls Run. Because action-wise, again we aren’t talking Doomsday Warrior. The vibe’s actually more like a Western, with Blade et al coming across a saloon in the titular town and engaging with some redneck gunslingers. There is a lot of promise for Twin Cities here; we learn the place is overrun by rats and roving crime gangs. This info is courtesy Big Bertha, a pretty young black woman Blade and team rescue from the gunslingers; they were keeping her as a sex slave. 

One thing we learn is that there are no black people in Home; Blade muses that there was “one black family,” but they died long ago. Hence Big Bertha is the first black girl any of them have seen, and Bertha herself takes a shine to Hickock, whom she calls “White Meat.” As for “Big Bertha,” she informs us she got this name on account of her “boobs.” She also calls Hickock “honky,” and Robbins clearly wants us to understand that these two will become an item…which works out for Hickock, as his chosen mate was killed last volume. Which I admit I’d entirely forgotten about, but Robbins frequently reminds us. 

I also forget the gore quotient of The Fox Run, but it’s only minimal in Thief Falls Run. The Warriors shoot several people, but the violence is mostly PG-13 at best. There’s also a lot of hand-to-hand fighting, with Blade taking on a male-female pair of Brutes. We’ve been told in these first two volumes that “only animals” were mutated by the nukes, with the insistence that there are no human mutants, but the Brutes seem to disprove this. Joshua and Bertha take on one in the climax, and there’s also a cool part where an injured Blade is separated from his friends as hunters, Watchers, and a revenge-minded Brute come after him. 

But humorously it’s back to square one at the end of the novel; Blade decides to call off the “Twin Cities run” yet again, and the team gets in the SEAL and heads back for Home. Maybe next volume they’ll actually get there!

Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Aquanauts #10: Operation Sea Monster


The Aquanauts #10: Operation Sea Monster, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1974

The penultimate volume of The Aquanauts finds Manning Lee Stokes taking the series into more of an undersea adventure sort of realm, dropping the lurid crime vibe of the previous volumes. Believe it or not, there’s no sick sexual sadism in this one! Indeed, there isn’t any kinky stuff at all, a far cry from the sleaze of the previous volume. More importantly, the title of this one is not misleading: hero Tiger Shark does go up against a literal sea monster. 

But man…it’s like only now, ten volumes in, Manning Lee Stokes has finally realized he’s writing a series titled “The Aquanauts.” The previous books have mostly been crime novels, only occasionally spruced up with some undersea frogman action. With Operation Sea Monster Stokes goes full-bore with the nautical angle, with all kinds of detail on Navy subs and sealabs and looking at charts and etc. To the point, honestly, that I actually missed the sick sexual sadism of the previous books. The sad truth is that Operation Sea Monster is kind of boring – and the previous ten books haven’t exactly been rip-roaring thrill rides. (Except for the seventh volume, though, certainly the highlight of the series…though admitedly I haven’t read the last volume yet!) 

While the title isn’t misdirection, the actual sea monster – a gargantuan beast which is apparently the result of a giant sea snake mating with a giant octopus – only appears sporadically. The vast majority of Operation Sea Monster is focused on the attempt to find an experimental sea lab and save its inhabitants. And, following the template of the previous books, Stokes does find the opportunity to have Tiger Shark get in combat with a few Soviet frogmen. And as with the previous books this sequence is the highlight of the book. Manning Lee Stokes has a specialty for putting his protagonists through the wringer, and he does so to Tiger Shark in this sequence, adrift in the sea with dwindling tanks and an unknown number of enemy frogmen coming for him. 

There’s a strange change, though; Tiger Shark’s real name is Bill Martin, one of the more unimaginative action-hero names (down there with, uh, Ben Martin), and this time Stokes suddenly insists on referring to him as “Bill” when he’s not on assignment. Only when he is activated for Secret Underwater Service duty does he become “Tiger Shark.” To the point that even Tiger’s boss, Tom Greene, has to remind himself that it’s “Bill Martin” when Tiger isn’t on duty. It just seems rather strange after nine previous volumes where it was “Tiger” all the time, on a mission or not. It’s just another indication of how Stokes has suddenly decided to focus on the red tape of Navy administration and whatnot; much of Operation Sea Monster is concerned with Navy protocol and the like, to the point that the book’s a bit of a slog. 

Another problem is that Tiger Shark’s seldom in the novel. This too isn’t unprecedented; previous volumes, like for example #5: Stalkers Of The Sea, put the focus more on Greene, and also Admiral Coffin, crusty boss of SUS, has featured in his share of the narrative. But as I’ve theorized before, Stokes must have seen this is as “team” series, meaning the “Aquanauts” were really Coffin, Greene, and Tiger Shark, with the latter being the one who featured in the action stuff. This time though, it isn’t even Greene or Coffin who take the brunt of the narrative; it’s a few one-off characters who are trapped on the lost sea lab. Stokes spends much of the novel detailing their plight, to the extent that you feel you’re reading a standalone novel. It seemed clear to me that Stokes was perhaps getting burned out with writing the series and just did something completely different this time. 

I did appreciate the continuity, though; we pick up some indeterminate time after the previous volume, but we are informed that Admiral Coffin, who suffered a heart attack last time, has just returned as head of SUS. Last time much was made of Greene’s shaky assumption of control in the old man’s absence, but Stokes doesn’t spend too much time with Greene in Operation Sea Monster. There’s an interesting-in-hindsight part where Coffin speculates that if he doesn’t take it easy at work he won’t “be around in 1978,” and as it turned out this was true for Stokes himself; he died in 1976. You can almost wonder if Coffin’s various asides on his age and the strain he puts on himself is Stokes musing on himself and his own prolific writing pace. 

One thing Stokes has whittled down on in the past few volumes is Tiger Shark getting lucky while on a mission. Instead, we meet up with him as he’s on leave in the English countryside, getting busy with a thirty year-old hotstuff reporter named Susan: “Thrusting deeper into the deep red channel that you could never chart absolutely.” Here we also get to see Tiger the pickup artist, as he orchestrates a fender-bender to get the beautiful woman’s attention. This will be it for Tiger’s extracurricular fun; he spends the rest of the text either in his submersible KRAB or on a Navy destroyer as it searches for the lost sea lab. 

The titular sea monster, described as “whale big…blobby and diffuse,” appears in the extended opening sequence, attacking the sea lab and its adjoining submarine near the Mariana Trench, which we are informed is the deepest stretch of ocean in the world. It rips the sub apart with its massive tentacles (which have glowing eyes on them) and sends the sea lab off into the depths of the sea; the Navy receives one message from the lost crew: “It’s following us.” Also, a frogman is torn to pieces by the creature, and we're told that part of the monster’s flesh was discovered on his knife, so a lot of the story has to do with Coffin and the Navy admin trying to determine whether there really is a sea monster or if the crew has gone nuts from oxygen contamination. 

Actually, it isn’t just the sea lab much of the narrative is concerned with; Tiger spends almost just as much time trying to locate the torn-apart submarine that was attending the lab. It’s in this section that the fight with the Russians occurs; a Soviet sub has converged on the area where the downed US sub might be, and it’s clear the Russians will pretend to “help” the stricken ship as a ruse to get in there and take photos or whatever. When Tiger Shark is inspecting the wreck he is ambushed by a frogman, and in a later underwater sequence he is ambushed yet again by two more frogmen from the same Soviet sub. Stokes really excels at fierce combat scenes and here we have Tiger blowing apart one guy’s head with his Sea Pistol and knifing the other. 

That’s really it for the action in Operation Sea Monster. The climax does have Tiger up against the titular monster, though. It’s only for a few pages, but we have Tiger chasing after the fleeing behemoth in KRAB and hammering it with torpedos. But yes, Tiger Shark does witness the monster, so he is a believer by the end of the book; the speculation is the beast lives six+ miles down and only comes up every few “generations.” It looks like Stokes continues with the sci-fi element for the series, as the next (and final) volume of The Aquanauts apparently concerns a mermaid.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Fuel-Injected Dreams


Fuel-Injected Dreams, by James Robert Baker
April, 1986  Plume Books

I still rank Boy Wonder as my favorite novel ever, so it’s a “wonder” it’s taken me so long to read this, James Robert Baker’s first novel. I think I put it off because I was under the impression Fuel-Injected Dreams was focused on early ‘60s rock, an era which only occasionally interests me. But in one of those rare instances, I recently became interested in this era of music, so I decided it was finally time to read Fuel-Injected Dreams. Yes, it’s another great novel, if flawed. But no, it’s no Boy Wonder. But then how could it be? 

While Boy Wonder was James Robert Baker’s take on the Hollywood novel, this was his rock novel. Sort of. Fuel-Injected Dreams is not a rock novel about a musician or group going through all the usual tropes of the rock story, like say for example The Rose (which actually gets a mention in Fuel-Injected Dreams). It’s not even about “the rock life,” like for example Triple Platinum. As it turns out, the “rock” conceit is just a framework Baker uses to set up a noir story that comes off like a combo of Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity, mixed with a roman a clef about Phil Spector. That’s the setup, at least. But just as in Boy Wonder the plot often takes unexpected turns. It’s also a darker novel than Boy Wonder, with a subplot concerning a missing girl – a girl presumably gang-raped and killed in the early ‘60s – as well as another subplot in which the Spector analog keeps his wife literally under lock and key. 

At 323 pages, Fuel-Injected Dreams is also shorter than Boy Wonder, but it has that same manic drive. And often it is just as darkly hilarious. Some of the dialog here is incredible. Baker’s brief bio notes that was a Hollywood screenwriter when this was published, something I was not aware of – I’ve honestly never looked much into the guy’s life – which would doubtless be why his dialog is so good. But there’s often too much of a good thing in Fuel-Injected Dreams. In an email to me some years ago, John Nail noted that Fuel-Injected Dreams was “a wild ride well worth taking,” if “a little overwritten in spots,” and within the first twenty pages of the book I knew exactly what he meant. There are a few instances in which the narrative just sort of stops while Baker’s characters toss one-liners and sarcastic rejoinders at one another. Don’t get me wrong, the dialog is great, it’s just that it distracts from the mounting suspense Baker has created via those increasingly-manic plot twists. 

Another similarity to Boy Wonder is the lunatic protagonist. Actually, it’s a bit different in Fuel-Injected Dreams. Here the Shark Trager nutjob of Boy Wonder is split in two: there’s Scott Cochran, the self-obsessed lunatic who narrates the novel and appears to be Baker’s attempt at a hero, and there’s Dennis Contrelle, the self-obsessed lunatic who produced a string of hits in the early 1960s and serves as the novel’s villain. But unlike Shark Trager these two men are alive and present throughout the novel, and we aren’t just reading other characters’ thoughts on them. Dennis Contrelle, the Phil Spector analog, is as mentioned the villain, but Baker provides enough evidence that Contrelle and Cochran are just two sides of the same coin; in one of the many “ponder this!” unsolved mysteries in the novel, at one point Scott Cochran comes upon a room that is a replica of the one Dennis Contrelle grew up in, and Scott cannot get over how much it looks like his own boyhood room. 

Scott is our narrator, and like I say he is Baker’s attempt at the hero of the piece, but as usual James Robert Baker has a lot going on beneath the surface. One quibble I have is that Scott is a radio deejay, but Baker doesn’t do much with it. We only see Scott on the air once, at the very beginning of the novel, where he gives off a rapid-fire patter that seems the sort of thing Mark Leyner would’ve doled out in My Cousin, My Gastrointerologist. It’s very surreal, stream-of-conscious stuff, and Scott has a very progressive freeform show in which he can play whatever he wants. The explanation for this is that he is on around 4AM, thus he’s also free to talk about stuff daytime deejays can’t. The opening might be hard-going for some, what with its italicized print and random digressions, but I found it pretty damn funny – especially the part where Scott fantasizes that he got a “thank-you” card from one of the Manson girls in prison, requesting “anything except something from the White Album.” 

But otherwise Scott’s job as radio DJ has no bearing on the plot. Indeed, the big subplot of Fuel-Injected Dreams concerns a girl Scott was in love with twenty years before, in 1963, and all this is relayed to us as a fantasy movie in Scott’s mind. Complete with “reels” for the major events. This cinema framework is at odds with Scott’s radio personality job, and would seem more at home in Boy Wonder. Also, we never get much of an idea that Scott likes rock and roll, but at least unlike the guy in The Armageddon Rag he actually listens to it for fun, and has a prized collection of rare 7” singles. Actually I take that back. I think it’s more that rock is part of Scott’s genetic fabric, just a part of him, and he lives the rock lifestyle; in his mid 30s but still living in a hotel in Los Angeles and disregarding most societal norms. While the plot hinges on early ‘60s rock, Baker does reference a lot of stuff from the ‘70s and ‘80s, with even obscure punk group The Angry Samoans getting referenced. And Pat Boone is the butt of jokes throughout the novel. So it isn’t just that Scott likes rock – it’s part of who he is. 

That said, it’s a helluva long time until we get to much “rock novel” stuff. Very late in the novel we have a rundown of the discography of Dennis Contrelle’s most famous group, and here Baker shows that he can actually describe the (fictional) music, unlike so many other rock novelists who tell us nothing. It’s a cool fantasy discography – again, similar to Boy Wonder, with its fictional Shark Trager filmography – and I wish there was more like it in Fuel-Injected Dreams. But instead the majority of the plot hinges on the mind-fuckery of Dennis Contrelle, his prisoner-slash-wife Cheryl, and Scott’s confusion over what happened to his one-time beloved, Sharlene, back in 1963. 

One of the last similarities I want to call out between this and Boy Wonder is the subplot in that novel concerning Kathy Pietro, the blonde beauty Shark Trager was obsessed with. Anyone who has read Boy Wonder will recall the string of pseudo-Kathy Pietros Shark finds (or creates) in the course of the novel. That theme, of doubles and lookalikes, has its start here in Fuel-Injected Dreams. For we are informed posthaste that Cheryl Contrelle, ie the beautiful singer with the beehived hairdo who went from a member of Dennis Contrelle’s band to being Dennis Contrelle’s wife, is a dead ringer for Scott’s vanished girlfriend Sharlene. Note even the similar names, Cheryl and Sharlene. And Cheryl Contrelle appeared on the scene shortly after Sharlene went missing. She even wears an ankle bracelet, same as the one Scott gave Sharlene back in 1963 – an ankle bracelet neither he nor Sharlene could unclasp, as Scott accidentally clamped it permanently shut when trying to remove it with his teeth. So is Cheryl really Sharlene? This is just one of the mysteries Baker spins out through the novel. 

So the long and short of it, as relayed by that fantasy “movie” in Scott’s mind, is that Sharlene was a new girl in Scott’s high school, back in ’63, and he was instantly smitten. The other guys joked that she was a notorious whore, but Scott didn’t listen to them. Scott lucked out one day, spotting Sharlene looking for a ride, and soon enough they were back at his home smoking dope and having lots of sex. This turned into true love, though all the guys kept joking with Scott that it was “just sex.” But when Sharlene got pregnant, Scott freaked out – only sixteen, with no way to support a kid – and Sharlene stormed off. The last time Scott saw her she was hanging out with one of those guys who claimed Sharlene was a whore, and it looked like the two were about to become friendly. Scott never saw her again; indeed, no one ever saw Sharlene again, as it seemed she walked off the beach that night and into legend. 

Shortly after that Dennis Contrelle unveiled his new group, fronted by a young woman named Cheryl who not only looked identical to Sharlene but sported the same beehive hairdo. But the group eventually broke up, Cheryl becoming Dennis’s shut-in of a wife, and Dennis Contrelle himself went into seclusion, after the wild recording of his gotterdammerung single “Tidal Wave” (ie “River Deep, Mountain High,” complete with a fictional analog of Tina Turner). Now, twenty years later, Scott happens to play “Angel of the Highway” on his late-night show; a clear reference to “Leader Of The Pack,” this fictional song finds James Robert Baker mixing his early ‘60s schlock, as “Leader of The Pack” was not a Phil Spector production. (Scott’s description of the song leaves no doubt of its real-world inspiration.) After playing the song, none other than reclusive Dennis Contrelle calls into the station, setting off the twisted plot. 

Baker’s dialog throughout this first half of the novel almost brought tears to my eyes. It’s not right that this guy was so gifted…and so neglected. I mean the dialog in the second half of the novel is great, too, but after a while it’s too much of a good thing – again, John Nail’s comment on “overwritten” was very on-point. But I mean take for example Dennis Contrelle’s first words to Scott when Scott answers the phone at the station: “You vomitous fuck.” It just made me laugh out loud. Same goes for a later bit where Dennis Contrelle, ranting in his oceanside mansion, tells Scott that people in Hollywood will cut out your heart and try to serve it to you for lunch. “That’s why I usually brown-bag it,” Scott responds. Almost the entire novel is made up of such flippant, acidic remarks and rejoinders, to the point that Scott Cochran comes off more like an ironic commentary on the novel itself. What I mean to say is, he’s such a self-obsessed sarcastic prick that it’s hard to believe he feels anything at all. Of course people probably say the same thing about me. 

Dennis Contrelle nearly steals the novel; he’s more cruel and deranged than Shark Trager, a onetime boy genius now in his 40s and suffering from unstated mental problems along with a few decades of drug abuse. Baker really brings the character to life, sometimes ranting and raving, other times contrite and eager to please. And in true roman a clef fashion, the real-world Phil Spector is also mentioned…so of course we won’t get the impression that Dennis Contrelle is supposed to be Phil Spector! Contrelle also has a bit of a Brian Wilson vibe (who is also mentioned), but Spector is the clear inspiration, even down to how Contrelle married the lead singer of one of his groups. And now keeps her a veritable shut-in here in his mansion, which he calls Scott to the next day. 

The first half of the novel follows the Sunset Boulevard setup; Scott is pulled into Dennis’s orbit, the whackjob recluse claiming that he’s spent all these years developing a “new kind of music.” But really Scott finds himself going back to Dennis’s mansion for another glimpse of Cheryl, still as beautiful as the day she went out of the public eye – and still sporting the same beehive hairdo. She also still has the same singing voice. But Scott cannot understand why Contrelle is so evil to her, so mocking of her “lost talents,” and Baker delivers a somewhat believable growing bond between Scott and Cheryl, which goes in the expected direction. All this part is masterfully done, complete with Dennis going into periodic drug-fueled fits and the ever-present menace of Dennis’s heavyset black bodyguard (who in another random and unexplored bit we learn was once a “Little Stevie Wonder”-type musician in Dennis’s stable). 

But around the halfway point things get crazy, which is to be expected of the guy who wrote Boy Wonder. Suddenly a main character has been gunned down in cold blood and Scott and Cheryl are on the run in a stolen sportscar. It gets even more manic, complete with Scott shooting an old rival at his high school reunion. The relationship between Scott and Cheryl also becomes fractuous, with the recurring conceit that Cheryl will rush back to Dennis, even though he treats her so horribly – or is Cheryl just doing this to protect Scott? Baker throws the reader into a constant whorl of uncertainty, particularly with the Sharlene-Cheryl mystery. I found myself so caught up in this that I was gutted, as the British say, to find out what really happened that night in 1963 – and Baker rubbed me the wrong way, here, with Scott telling us that he himself has accepted whatever Sharlene’s fate was (I won’t spoil it – but you certainly find out in the novel), given that it all happened twenty years ago. Well it didn’t happen twenty years ago for us readers!! The main problem with Fuel-Injected Dreams is that Scott’s relationship with Sharlene has more emotional foundation than the one with Cheryl. 

Regardless, I was truly caught up in Fuel-Injected Dreams, to the point that I found myself putting off other things to keep reading it. Baker has a gift for maddened narrative and it is in effect throughout the novel, which builds and builds in craziness. The finale is appropriately apocalyptic, taking place at Dennis’s oceanside mansion during a hurricane…apocalyptic, but repetitive, given that we read a similar sequence at Dennis’s mansion in which wildfires were raging out of control. In both sequences Scott must rush in to the fray to rescue Cheryl, and thus the climax comes off like a repeat of a scene we read about a hundred pages before. That said, the big reveal at the end, so far as the Sharlene-Cheryl mystery goes, is pretty gruesome and twisted, more so than anything I can recall in Boy Wonder. As I said, Fuel-Injected Dreams is just overall a darker story. 

This and Boy Wonder were the only two “mainstream” novels James Robert Baker wrote; after which he turned to gay fiction. Honestly, reading this novel I never would’ve guessed that Baker was gay. There was no “secret gay subtext” I could divine, unless you wanted to make an argument around the Dennis Contrelle-Scott Cochran relationship. But this would prove fruitless…and besides, you could probably make up a “hidden gay subtext” for any piece of fiction, so long as you had an agenda to push. There are no gay characters in the novel, other than minor ones who don’t even appear in the actual narrative: Contrelle claims that one of his early groups, a surf-rock combo, was made up of all gay members, and they’d spend their time either surfing or “screwing each other.” He also refers to them as “homos.” So yes, the only gay characters are mocked for being gay. Otherwise, Baker writes about women like…well, like a horny straight author. In his narration Scott is constantly mentioning Cheryl’s breasts, or Sharlene’s breasts, and it all comes off like genuine lust for the female form…basically, what you’d expect from a horny straight male author. Now the sex scenes don’t get very explicit; in most of them Baker often goes off into a poetic tangent, like one particular instance in which Scott sees himself as a miner while copulating with Sharlene, going for “gold dust.” There’s also a big focus on oral sex; the word “muff” wonderfully appears throughout. That’s a word you just don’t see very often. So Baker either had real-world inspiration to draw from (maybe he started off in hetero relationships before realizing he was gay), or he really just nailed the tone (so to speak). 

Another huge thanks to John Nail for casually mentioning in a more recent email that James Robert Baker wrote and directed a VHS movie in 1984. I’d never even heard of it! Titled Blonde Death, it’s available for free viewing at The Internet Archive.