Thursday, May 8, 2014

Death Merchant #30: The Shambhala Strike

Death Merchant #30: The Shambhala Strike, by Joseph Rosenberger
October, 1978  Pinnacle Books

Wrapping up the “ancient aliens” trilogy that began in Hell In Hindu Land and continued in The Pole Star Secret, The Shambhala Strike turns out to be an okay entry in the Death Merchant series, one that takes it straight into the realm of science fiction. Here Joseph Rosenberger manages to combine his interest in mysticism, overly-described exotic locations (and its people’s customs), and endlessly-detailed firefights. Oh, and Camellion teams up with an ancient alien!

Having traveled to Bhutan, thirty miles from the Tibetan border, we meet Richard “Death Merchant” Camellion as he is once again leading a party of CIA agents and army commandos. Heading up “Operation Arrowhead,” in which the CIA has decided to look into the mystery of Agharta, the so-called underworld empire of myth, Camellion commands a group of redshirts, among them Vallie West, a Schwarzenegger-sized CIA commando who apparently has fought beside Camellion before. Believe it or not, there’s even a girl in the group, certainly a rarity for Rosenberger: Helena Banya, a gorgeous blonde Russian “sex-spy” who has recently defected to the West.

As usual Rosenberger shoehorns all kinds of exposition into the proceedings, but when it comes to detailing the “sexpionage” efforts of the USSR, who can complain? As Camellion broods over Helena, who of course he doesn’t trust, he thinks to himself for pages and pages how these Russian sex-spies are taught to use their bodies in various ways. Helena’s story has it that when she defected, she brought along a folder of classified Russian intel so as to prove her honesty; among the paperwork was material on how the Russians recently tried to find Shambhala, supposedly the gate to Agharta.

Since the Soviets are trying to find the place, then America wants in on it too, thus Camellion has been hired to venture into the treacherous Himalayas. He leads a party into the mountains, and once again Rosenberger serves up too many characters who run together, from an anthropologist turned CIA contractor named Paul Gemz to a handful of Bhutanese soldiers who do nothing but quake in superstitious fear throughout the novel. There are also a handful of Black Berets, humorously enough led by a dude named “Red,” which isn’t confusing at all.

Making an appearance here is the rampant footnoting the series was at times known for; The Shambhala Strike is stuffed to the gills with paragraphs of footnotes, most of them absurdly unnecessary. Rosenberger takes a page from John Rossmann, with characters discussing semantics in outright exposition, with Rosenberger often backing up their claims with footnotes. But it’s all so stupid and shoehorned in. For example, at one point while setting up their perimeter defenses in the mountains, Camellion says they’ll at least be as safe as the average homeowner, and in a footnote Rosenberger actually gives statistics on how many housebreaks there are per year in the US!

Much worse though is the exposition. As in Hell In Hindu Land, the characters here will discuss metaphysics at the most preposterous of times, like right after firefights or even when meeting alien beings(!). You’ll have these army commandoes discussing esoteric lore in the baldest of exposition, with footnotes backing up everything they say. And like every other Rosenberger novel, The Shambhala Strike is too damn long, coming in at 208 pages of small type. If Pinnacle had just gutted the expository stuff and removed the footnotes, they would’ve been left with a leaner novel that would’ve been more in keeping with their other action paperbacks.

The first half of the book is pretty trying, very much in the adventure fiction mold, as Camellion and team trek across the Himalayas and Rosenberger footnotes all kinds of uninteresting shit. In fact, the reader isn’t even prepared for the fact that The Shambhala Strike is tied in to those earlier two novels, as Camellion isn’t even here looking for any aliens. He just wants to get to the bottom of the Shambhala mystery, and more importantly wants to get there before the Chinese do. Cue lots of tension as the small party knows they are being followed by Chinese soldiers, just waiting for the hammer to drop.

The action scenes here, for the most part, aren’t written in the same wearying style typical of Rosenberger. They’re more like something out of a war novel, with Camellion laying explosives and blowing up his pursuers, rather than endlessly-detailed gunfights. Once the “riceballs” are out of the way, Camellion makes it into Shambhala, which turns out to be a massive city beneath the earth, the group traversing down miles of tunnels to the place. Here the novel becomes full-on sci-fi, with ancient beings known as “Goros” speaking to Camellion et al telepathically, welcoming them into their underworld kingdom, complete with its “sun” of artificial light, which is just like the one Camellion saw in Thuleandia.

The Goros are humans, but ones who are 18,000 years old. They claim to have been residents of China, before even the Chinese lived there, and they were recruited by the Inelqu, the alien “grays” Camellion refers to as “Sandorians.” We get a long backstory here, complete with egregious exposition and footnotes, in which the Goros relate that millennia ago the Inelqu came to Earth from their planet in the Pleiades galaxy, turned the apes into humans, and eventually got into a holocaustal war with another race of aliens, these ones called the Flimmms, who came from an alternate reality!

Now the Inelqu slumber, having fought their war with the Flimmms to a draw. The Goros, who are cloned into new bodies every few hundred years, are tasked with watching over them. They’ve drawn Camellion and team into Shambhala because the Goros know that the Chinese are on the way, and Shambhala must be kept secret. Since the Goros are forbidden to harm anyone, they ask Camellion if he will fight off the Chinese, of which there are a mere 460!! Camellion, as blasé as ever, makes use of the Goros’s “flying doors,” ie high-tech flying contraptions created thousands and thousands of years before by the Inelqu.

One of the more perfunctory action scenes ensues as Camellion and Vallie West fly overtop the Chinese, who have gotten into the caves which lead to Shambhala, and just throw explosives down at them. But still there are a hundred or so Chinese soldiers eft, and they have tanks – however conveniently enough, all mechanical and electronic gear is negated by the energy field which pulses around Shambhala’s massive dome. Camellion’s team is forced to retreat back into the underworld, where the Death Merchant insists that they wake one of the aliens, something the Goros have said they can only do in “emergencies.”

Here follows a scene that you’d never expect in the world of men’s adventure, as the Goros wake up one of the little aliens, who engages in several pages of expository dialog with Camellion and crew! The alien goes into further detail on the story the Goros told, blithely informing the humans that they were created by the Inelqu. Comically enough, Rosenberger has Camellion and the others seeing all kinds of religious allusions in what the alien says, like when it mentions that the Flimmm’s massive spaceship crashed to Earth, Camellion quotes a line from the Bible about Lucifer’s falling star. In other words, the catastrophic war between the Inelqu and the Flimmm gave us humans all of our myths, and Camellion further informs us that the Inelqu are the Nephilim of the Old Testament.

So, one thing you can’t say about The Shambhala Strike is that it short-shrifts on the “ancient aliens” angle, like The Pole Star Secret did. But then, given the endless exposition and stupid questions and “insights” from Camellion et al, you kind of wish Rosenberger had kept a little mystery to it. But after lots of talk, the alien (one of a hundred sleeping in Shambhala, but woken by the Goros because it was the one in control of the weapons) hands over a few laserguns, stating that it cannot take life and thus Camellion and team must do so.

The novel’s climatic action scene is more typical of Rosenberger’s work, with lots of excessive description and POV-hopping and redshirts getting killed as Rosenberger documents their name and where they’re from and other extranneous details. The laserguns decimate everything in their path, but still it comes down to regular gunplay, with Camellion wielding dual autoloading .44s. By battle’s end only he and a few of his party survive, among them Vallie West and Helena Banya, who you won’t be surprised to know just disappears in the second half of the novel and has no relevance to the plot. In fact you wonder why Rosenberger even created her in the first place. Oh, that’s right – to fill pages.

Now, you’d think an alien being just awoken from an 18,000-year slumber, who told you that his people created your ancestors, would perhaps rattle your worldview a little. But not the Death Merchant, who basically just says, “Well, that’s that,” and leads his surviving party out of Shambhala, which closes off forever behind them. And hell, Camellion’s already thinking about his next mission, which might take place in…North Korea!!! Obviously, such a mission would appear mundane to the average person, after he or she had just met an alien and seen a fantastical underworld kingdom, but not blank-slate Camellion.

While many installments broached sci-fi topics, I think this is the most out-there the Death Merchant series ever got. It’s basically an overly-long trawl in “ancient alien” theory, with lots of egregious detail about this and that tossed in for good measure. In other words, it’s about what you’d expect from Rosenberger, who is the only writer who could have his hero meet ancient aliens and not bat an eye. There is a cool unexplained bit, though, where the Goros telepathically tell Camellion they know he serves “the Lord of Light” and is protected by him.

As I read The Shambhala Strike I kept wishing that Rosenberger was still around; maybe we’d see him as one of the talking heads on History Channel’s super-stoopid Ancient Aliens show.


Marty McKee said...

Holy crap, this sounds amazing. I was so angry after the copping out in THE POLE STAR SECRET that I had to give the Death Merchant a rest. It's good to know this book pays off and is as crazy as ever.

Zwolf said...

Wow, that sounds crazy, even for Joey R. It's probably a good thing Rosenberger didn't have L. Ron Hubbard's cynical ambitions, or we might have another Scientology on our hands. It sounds like the same kind of mystical-alien horseshit, and Rosenberger's almost as poor a writer as Hubbard was. I'd say we dodged a bullet! And that's not easy to do when you're dealing with The Death Merchant, where the trajectory of every bullet fired is endlessly analyzed and cataloged...

Really, it wouldn't have surprised me much if Rosenberger had become a Scientologist, if they'd been more active when he was around. It sounds like the kind of thing he'd've totally bought into.

I really have to be in a tolerant mood to read a Death Merchant novel... I'm much better off reading your reviews of 'em. :) Keep up the great work!

Marty McKee said...

Reading Joe's take on Death Merchant novels is usually more rewarding than reading them yourself. I have at least a couple of dozen, but I burned out on them early and now read maybe one every coupla years.

Unknown said...

Great review!

I'm currently plowing through THE DEATH MERCHANT series. Can't get enough of this crazy writing!

I've yet to reach this installment, though. However, I'm looking forward to it. I simply can't get enough of Rosenberger's brewing mania!

Slightly OT, but have you read THE DEATH MERCENARY series by Jason Rosencrantz? I've read a few reviews of it, and they mostly say it's a "parody" of THE DEATH MERCHANT. I checked out the first two books and could dig them, but didn't really see a "parody" angle. Maybe I'm missing something? I do know the first borrows from THE EXTERMINATOR, though, and that's not a bad thing. I'd recommend them for a cheap, easy, and quick read via the Kindle.

KR said...

"Rosencrantz" also publishes westerns under the name "Marvin Bronson". The "Bronson" westerns are sort in the vein of the "Edge" series, but the original "Edge" and Death Merchant books have their own special charm and character.

Picadilly Publishing has been republishing the Edge books as e-books, along with a lot of other pulpy western and war titles.

Unknown said...

I hadn't realized they were the same person... huh.

Like the pair of DEATH MERCENARY books, I got a kick out of the titles I read by Marvin W. Bronson. They were decently fast and bloody reads. Right up my alley.

I will admit they're not up to snuff with either EDGE or THE DEATH MERCHANT, though. Those two titles are tough to beat, so...

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

Marty -- this one's a lot better than Hell in Hindu Land and Pole Star Secret. And I'm glad you enjoy my Death Merchant reviews!

Zwolf -- That's a good point...I'd love a quick glimpse of what a JR religion might've been like. But if the contents of that letter of his I posted on here last year are any indication, he had a very low opinion of religions in general, and people who believed in them in particular. That being said, and also given the contents of that letter, I'd assume a Joseph Rosenberger religion would be like a white power inversion of the religion Wallace D. Fard created. Also, I meant to leave a comment on that recent dream post on your blog, but I didn't get a chance to, and now I can't remember what I was going to write!

Trever -- Glad to hear you are currently enjoying Rosenberger's work...let's see how long it lasts! Seriously though, I think a little goes a long way with him, but sometimes he actually delivers something entertaining. Also, I'm not familiar with the Death Mercenary or any of the modern e-books or parodies. As KR so rightly puts it, the originals just have their own special charm and character.

Marty McKee said...

I have never read it, but I own THE CRIME MINISTER. Is that a parody of Camellion?

Mike Madonna said...

This book - along with THE ENIGMA PROJECT - is really the only one in the series that was memorable for me. "Memorable" in the sense that each book pointed out in their own ways how weird Rosenberger got. Most of the other DEATH MERCHANTS were forgettable (for me) about a month after I'd read them.

allan said...

Marty: A 2006 post from the old Postmodern Pulps board has this to say:
"The first one was extremely bizarre; at one point the Crime Minister (a hitman) goes to a gay bar to pick up a guy to use as a patsy corpse after an assassination he's planning. He makes out with the guy before he kills him -- there were a lot of homoerotic themes in these men's books, but this was the most blatant that I saw. The Crime Minister and The Death Merchant surely would have had a fun evening out together, although the Crime Minister was considerably more interested in getting laid. (Loads of heterosexual sex in the books, too.)"

Mark Louis Baumgart said...

I have about twenty or more of these books but have yet to read them. Besides the tiny type, can these books be read in any order? Too bad Pinnacle, and the male action genre, is basically gone now. Everything has to be a frickin' epic now-a-days.--Mark Baumgart

Joe Kenney said...

Mark, thanks for the comment -- I really enjoy your Amazon reviews. Now, as for if these Death Merchant books should be read in order...that's a good question! Usually I like to read these various series in order, but with Death Merchant I just read the ones that catch my interest and don't worry about where they fall in the series. Because from what few I've read, there really isn't much continuity at all -- Camellion goes from one mission to the next. Occasionally he might refer back to a previous mission, or have a brief flashback, but it's over and done with so quick that you don't feel you've missed out on anything if you didn't read that earlier volume. Also, Camellion is such a blank slate that nothing sticks to mentioned in this review, here in Shambhallah Strike he meets an actual ancient alien. I'd be willing to bet that in the next installment he doesn't even bring it up, or even reflect back on it.

tim gueguen said...

It's possible that the Goros in this book are a backhanded reference to the Shaver Mystery, which was popular back in the late '40s and '50s. Given the kind of things he wrote Rosenberger was all but certainly aware of Shaver's stories of dangerous underground mutants called Deros.

Joe Kenney said...

Tim, thanks a lot for the comment -- I think you might be on to something there! You are correct, given his background with Fate Magazine and etc, it certainly sounds like something Rosenberger would've been aware of.

Unknown said...

I collected and read all 71 Death Merchant books as a teen through college (my alma mater is the same as Vallie West's), this was in the 1980's. It was good escapism at the time. I ultimately sold the entire collection to a used bookstore when I moved out of state in the early 1990s.