Thursday, March 3, 2016

Stark #5: Rainbow Colored Shroud (aka The Revenger #5)

Stark #5: Rainbow Colored Shroud, by Joseph Hedges
May, 1975  Pyramid Books
(Original UK publication 1974)

John Stark, the Revenger (not to be confused with the other Revenger), continues his European war against “the company” in this fifth volume that’s as tediously overwritten as the third one was. Terry “Joseph Hedges” Harknett again undermines his own writing skills with blocks and blocks and blocks of overdescription that stops all forward momentum and turns Rainbow Colored Shroud into a turgid trawl of a read.

Harknett does inject a lot of continuity into the series, with this fifth book presumably opening up after the events of the fourth one, which I don’t have. (And again the occasional asterisk will refer us back to a previous volume, but again the series is referred to in these notes under its original title, The Revenger, which must’ve confused readers in the US!) Stark apparently wreaked havoc in Germany in that book, and now he’s heading up into Denmark to kill more company scum. The very first pages give us a reminder of how John Stark is a complete asshole and not at all heroic.

Stark’s hired a father and son team to pilot a boat up into Denmark, and coming in on a night landing during a heavy thunderstorm, Stark realizes at the last moment that the company is awaiting him on the beach. Stark jumps off the boat right before the goons open fire – and lets the son take the bullets that were intended for him. Then Stark hides in the water and silently pulls himself to safety while the father, an old man, is tortured by the company thugs who are seeking Stark. Stark finally pulls out his Luger, which is his customary gun this volume, and you think he’s about to do something heroic. Instead he shoots the old man in the head and runs away!

So safe to say, Harknett does not see Stark as a hero, and it’s a stretch to even consider the guy an antihero. But I found as I read this book that I actually want a hero in these men’s adventure novels; even Philip Magellan and Johnny Rock, despite being psychopaths, occasionally do something to engender reader empathy or sympathy. Not so John Stark, who cares for no one but himself and is actually more danger to those who help him than the company itself. Once again, if you are a character in this series and your name isn’t “John Stark,” you’re going to be killed in some horrific fashion.

But this opening left a bad taste in my mouth, which is never a good sign when the damn book’s 188 pages of incredibly small and dense print. Stark’s ass-holery is only just a small part of the problem. Not only could’ve a lot of these Imitation Executioner authors learned something from Don Pendleton in making their protagonists heroic (or at the very least likable), but many of them could’ve learned a helluva lot from the master on how to friggin’ write these kinds of books. I mean, just check out a section from this opening “action scene,” as Stark attempts to evade the company thugs waiting for him on the beach:

One of the riflemen sent a burst of shots across the beach and Stark speeded his progress. Perhaps spurred by fear, perhaps by a reasonable decision that the explosion of noise provided good cover. Shouts, in the tone of contrition and derision, ended the brief silence after the barrage. He didn’t step on to the steeply pitched roof of the barn when he reached the gutter. Instead, his probing foot tested the strength of a beam running along the rear wall on a level with the ledge of a hatchway into the barn’s hayloft. The beam was solid and he edged out along it. It protruded a lip of less than twenty centimetres from the wall and Stark had to keep his body pressed tight against the shiplap timber to stop from pitching backwards to the ground four metres below.

At one time the hatch had been shuttered by two swing doors, but one had long since been wrenched or had rotted off its hinges. There was ample space to crawl through the opening and stretch out full length across planks which smelled of decomposed hay and bird droppings. He froze into stillness, holding his breath and pumping sweat as he heard movement below him. He pin-pointed the position of two enforcers as he used the unaviodable idleness to accustom his eyes to the deeper degree of darkness within the barn.

Even the so-called “action” just drags on and on:

The recoil of the Luger jolted against his palm as he shot the man who had not yet fired at him. The bullet hit the side of the man’s head and burrowed through flesh on a downwards trajectory, passing across the mouth to burst out at the cheek and then find a new mark in the shoulder. The lightning supplied its follow-up of thunder, swallowing the sound of the Luger. The enforcer had flung himself backwards, fearful of being hit by the bullet blazing through the other man. Blood from the punctured cheek splashed into his eyes and the thunder masked his scream of revulsion. The Luger cracked a second time and the bullet rifled into his throat. The impact flung him harder against the door, then he bounced away and slumped across the forward curled body of the first man to die. They twitched through their death throes together. The thunder rolled away into the far distance and there was just the beating of the rain and howling of the wind against and around the crumbling walls. It covered the regular dripping of blood from torn flesh to floorboard carpet.

Seriously, enough of this could put you to sleep. And it’s like that on every single page. Every single thing Stark sees, hears, or does is over-described to the nth degree. Pendleton would’ve whittled the above down to a few sentences at the most and kept the action moving. In many ways Stark could be viewed as a primer on how not to write men’s adventure fiction. I haven’t even mentioned yet how pointlessly dour and nihilistic it is. Yet even this shouldn’t be a detriment to it being entertaining; Gannon and Bronson: Blind Rage were both dour and nihilistic, but good lord were they fun to read. Rainbow Colored Shroud almost makes you want to slit your wrists.

What makes it all the more sad is that the novel has a lurid core that could’ve made for a classic, and indeed perhaps there is a classic buried within the overlong text. For Stark in his Scandanavian war becomes involved with the porn business of the company; Denmark and Sweden are where 90% of the world’s porn comes from, we’re told, and Stark’s contact in Copenhagen is a busty beauty named Ingrid who has starred in many of these movies. Stark gets in touch with her via Poul, the son who took Stark’s bullets in the opening pages; Ingrid, a lesbian, is in love with Poul’s sister, Britt, who is also a porn actress but who is missing now. Ingrid fears that Britt fell in bad favor with the company sadists who run the porn biz.

As another example of the tedious overdescription in the book, here’s how Ingrid, the “statuesque Lesbian,” is described in her intro:

She was about twenty-five and at least six feet two inches tall, he guessed. Basically slim, she nonetheless had full, thrusting breasts and flaring hips that were challenging in their sexuality. The tight fit of her clothes revealed that she kept everything in place by her own muscle-power. Her face was long with a lot of sharp angles that could easily have resulted in plainness. But, in fact, the effect was opposite. Her eyes were dark, heavily shadowed with mascara. Her mouth was adorned by just the right colour and amount of lipstick. Her hair was long and golden, worn as Veronica Lake used to wear hers in the wartime mystery movies she made with Alan Ladd. Her hanging earrings were of real gold, as was the brooch above the cone of her right breast. The stones in the rings on the third finger of each hand had the blue sparkle of genuine diamonds.

Honestly, this is a men’s adventure novel; just tell us she’s young and pretty and has nice breasts and call it a day. I mean, is Stark’s vision so good that he can tell in a glance that earrings and brooches are “of real gold?” And for that matter, what the hell kind of a mob-busting vigilante even notices a woman’s brooch??

As in the previous volume, Ingrid’s homosexuality really sets Stark off, and he baits and taunts her throughout. They have an instant hate for each other, but Ingrid needs Stark to find out what happened to Britt. As for Stark, he could care less what happened to Britt and couldn’t care less what might happen to Ingrid – this is not just implied but flatly stated in the novel. Ingrid says Britt got involved in the bondage area of the biz, and we readers know that four women play a central part in this, led by the beautiful and psychotic Sigrid. Company bigwig Rappe, the main villain of the piece, has tasked Ingrid and her three co-dominatrices as “secret weapons” in the war against Stark. 

Unfortunately, this twisted stuff doesn’t factor into the novel until the damage of tedium has been done. Stark and Ingrid head to the posh island resort in which the company shoots its porno movies under the guise of a “health spa;” this sequence also takes place at night and clearly demonstrates Stark’s unheroic nature. While “The Revenger” is stalking the grounds, Ingrid sees that it’s a trap and cars filled with enforcers are on the way. She puts herself at risk by pushing a car down a hill and causing a massive pile-up that kills a dozen or so company flunkies. Later she’s caught…and Stark gives her up for dead and concerns himself with his own escape!

It’s hard to not hate Stark as poor Ingrid, who just saved his life, is strapped to a bed and tortured by Sigrid and her bondage sisters while Rappe and other company freaks happily watch. This is straight-up torture porn, as we learn that Sigrid gets off royally on mutilating other women. Harknett keeps toying with us on what happens to Ingrid, but by novel’s end we’ll learn that the flesh has been razored off of her breasts and ultimately scissors have been jammed into her eyeballs and mouth. But meanwhile Sigrid, posing as a wanna-be defector, has met Stark on the health spa grounds, and eventually succeeds in winning his trust and “escaping” with him. You want more tedious overdescription? Here’s how she’s described:

She was tall and slim with short black hair that hugged her head like a custom-made hat of some thick, silky material. Her face was as lean as the rest of her with clean-cut features and a smooth, tanned skin. Her eyes were china blue and saucer big. Her nose was just a trifle crooked and the imperfection added to her beauty rather than detracted from it. She had a wide, fractionally pouting mouth above a resolute jawline. Her clothes were elegantly casual and incongruously erotic – a polka-dot scarf tied at her throat above the high-necked, long-sleeved sweater, a plaid-patterned skirt with a large safety pin halfway up the split at her right thigh, and knee-length boots of shiny white. Thus, only the flesh at her knees, hands and face was exposed. But there was something, even in the tense fragment of time as Krag and his men piled into cars and sped towards the wood, about the way she wore the clothes and held her body which was sexually stimulating.

Krag by the way is the henchman in charge of finding and killing Stark, and Sigrid hides ulterior motives in that she wants Stark’s help to kill the bastard. Krag has a penchant for taking the various company porn actresses and using and abusing them as his mistresses; we see this in effect early on as Krag has his current mistress, an Israeli girl named Yeda, lick butter and jam off his body(!?) before blowing him in fairly graphic detail. One thing that must be said of Harknett is that, unlike many of his British peers, he doesn’t shirk on the explicit material. This is well displayed later in the novel, when, after killing Krag, a super-horny Sigrid succeeds in getting Stark to screw her:

With a sigh, Stark covered her body with his own, inserting himself between her thighs. Her sigh was louder as her arms dropped and her hands delved under his lowering form. The electric touch of her fingers sent delicious sensations to every nerve-ending again. And then she guided him into her and the sucking wetness of her drove him to the edge of ecstasy. As her womb drew at him, she fixed her clawed hands on his shoulders, crushing his chest to her breasts. Her legs rose and she locked her booted feet around him.

“Come on, Mr. Stark, do it to me,” she whispered, forcing his head down so that her wet lips brushed his ear. “Do it to me like you’ve never done it to any woman ever before.”

The strength with which she had sunk the knife blade deep into Krag’s stomach was now brought into use again. But this time to sink a weapon into herself. For pleasure, not pain. Despite Stark’s weight and the powerful thrusts that drove him lustfully into the hirsute centre of the woman, she was still able to arch her back from the bed: pushing towards him with her straining body and pulling him towards her with legs and arms.

Sweat pasted their flesh together and sometimes it tore apart with a moist sound: then became fastened again. But the engulfing grip of wet flesh that trapped the man willingly inside her body never released its grip. It flexed and sucked around his pumping hardness, yearning to hold him forever yet drawing him inexorably towards the spurting finale that would drain him of the essential driving force to maintain the ecstasy.

Ten points for managing to use the word “hirsute.” Mind you, all this occurs shortly after Sigrid has tortured Ingrid to death, unbeknownst to Stark. Plus Sigrid has yet another ulterior motive; Stark killed Sigrid’s boyfriend in the third volume, and now she aims to kill him in revenge; that is, after she’s “flexed” and “sucked” his “pumping hardness” to a “spurting finale.” Immediately after the sex a still-naked Sigrid tries to kill Stark, but he’s taken the clip out of his Luger. She starts clawing at him, and ol’ Stark trips her into a doorframe and slams the door on her, breaking her neck!

We go to Sweden in the homestretch, with Stark now accompanied by Yeda, Krag’s abused mistress. Yeda, who saw everything go down in Krag’s place, tells Stark how sick and evil Sigrid was. You feel bad for Yeda, who is nice and has had a rough time, which of course means Harknett plans to kill her off. And she’s dead in like two pages, her head bashed open and her neck broken as Stark crashes his stolen Datsun into the river while escaping the cops. And meanwhile we learn that Ingrid’s decomposing body was locked in the trunk, apparently planted there on the off chance that Stark would steal the car and get pulled over and thus pegged for her grisly murder…

Harknett piles on more lurid stuff in the finale, in which Rappe and his fellow “pornbrokers” watch Sigrid’s last film, which is an all-out bondage piece in which poor Britt is burned and mutilated on camera (“color by Rainbowcolour,” we’re informed, thus giving us the book’s cryptic title). As the cherry on the top, a happy Rappe even pulls poor Britt out for the others to see, proudly showing off how mutilated and mauled she is! She looks so bad – and Harknett leaves the details vague – that some of the company men even puke their guts out. But Stark, who meanwhile has of course lived through the car wreck, shows up just in time to steal a pair of AK-47s and goes in, guns blasting, mowing down every single one of them. The end!

A dire trawl of a read, Rainbow Colored Shroud leaves an unpleasant taste in the reader’s mouth. And worst of all, it isn’t even very entertaining. The book is too pessimistic and nihilistic and lacks the spark you want from this genre; it’s so dispirited as to be depressing. While Harknett’s a good writer, he honestly needed a better editor to whittle down his material to a more acceptable and fluid length.

Also, this book features one of the funniest goofs I’ve yet encountered – on page 170 Harknett actually writes “me” instead of “him” when referring to Stark, and both the UK and the US editors missed it. (My guess is they both probably fell asleep while reading the book.) Did Harknett identify with Stark that much?

Clearly I’ve been railing on this book, but the fact remains that Harknett has been a successful author for many years, so there are many readers who enjoy his style of writing. Like everything else on the blog, this review is just my opinion. And who knows, maybe after I’ve read a few more of his books I will become a bit more acclimated to Harknett’s info-rich narrative style. But as for right now, I prefer my pulp to be lean and mean and with as little excess fat as possible.


Zwolf said...

I've only read one Stark book (the first one, I think) and it was a chore, too. It's weird, because the same guy wrote the Edge westerns. It's been a while since I read one of those, but I read almost all of 'em back in high school (many of them twice) and I remember those MOVING. They were pretty lean, streamlined books with plenty of badass. But the same guy can't write a modern-set action novel to save his life. I remember the Edge books geting blah toward the last volumes, and Gilman/Harknett got predictable with a few annoying tendencies (I remember damn near EVERY book started having a guy who was so big his gun would look like a toy... which is not really a cool image in a shoot-'em-up), but all were more readable than that Stark novel I suffered through.

Stephen Mertz said...

"Almost makes you want to slit your wrists!"

Somehow I don't think we're going to see that as a cover blurb anytime soon.

AndyDecker said...

Nihilistic and pessimistic, that is Terry Harknett's work in a nutshell. His heroes never achieve a break from their fate. And most of them are assholes. I read most of his novels and are a big fan. Also I read a lot from his mates James, Harvey and Wells, and not one of their western characters of the time was a nice guy. :-) Or did something heroic in a good sense, come to think of it. That was their thing, I guess. Even if James could be much worse in his plots, as far as the darkness is concerned.

But the Stark series is slow, no doubt. And I am not sure if the series works as well as it could. It was too generic. At least a lot of the british original covers are undoubtly the most sleazy action adventure covers ever done. Quite an achievement. :-)

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks a lot for the comments, everyone.

Zwolf, I remember your review of #1...I was going to get that volume myself one point, but decided to just read your review again instead! I didn't feel like enduring another too-long Stark slog. It is puzzling, isn't it...I remember reading one or two Edge books as a kid and really enjoying them. Maybe the editors in the UK put strange demands on Harknett for the Revenger/Stark series, who knows. And when's your next review post coming up??

Stephen, that made me laugh out loud! Maybe they should put that on the cover of one of those "Twilight" books.

Andy, you have a point on those original UK covers for the Revenger. Man those are creepy -- even creepier than the covers on some of the men's detective magazines that were big in the US in the '70s. I'm starting to think I should judge Harknett more from his Westerns. I've only got one more Stark in my collection (volume #6), though I do also have the 12th(and final) volume of the original UK Revenger series, "Angel of Destruction," published in the UK only, and apparently not written by Harknett but by some British author named Angus Wells. He also wrote the 11th volume; I wonder how his work on the series differs from Harknett's.

AndyDecker said...

Wells is different. Much more straightforward. The action is also of the slo-mo, the bone breaks here and there variety, and he liked to be really gory and sleazy, but at least in his westerns and the other genre stuff he did back than there is much less - or none - of the drawn out introspective style which is kind of Harknett's trademark. Wells' later Fantasy work when the british pulp market died reads very different.

I read no.12 a while ago and it was a rather fast read, but the plot is based mostly on not very well done coincidences and the Tokyo setting is disappointingly underused imho. And Stark is here very one-dimensional, and he wasn't a well developed character at the beginning.

Zwolf said...

" And when's your next review post coming up??"

Still working on it. :) I keep stubbornly trying to make it longer, and longer, and longer... like, "What if I can do fifty books?!?" Eventually it'll be massive, however many I get to.

In the meantime I put up a short story I wrote that's along the action-series lines... it's a biker-chick-on-the-rampage revenge story. Bike chases, guns, beatdowns, and dialogue that's about 85% death-threats. :) I tried to make it read like the stuff Easyriders used to publish. Hopefully I got close.

Joe Kenney said...

Zwolf, I think you should just go ahead and post "Part 1," but that's just me. I've been looking forward to another of your review round-ups. And I'll check out your biker short story as well.