Monday, February 29, 2016

The New Stewardesses #1


The New Stewardesses #1, by Judi Lynn
No month stated, 1974  Award Books

I’d never heard of this obscure stewardess cash-in series from the ‘70s  until Curt Purcell reviewed it a few years ago. I picked up the first two volumes at the time, and consider myself very lucky to have recently come upon the uber-rare third volume, The Diary – and for a nice price, too, thanks be to the gods of trash. But if this first volume’s any indication, The New Stewardesses isn’t really much to get excited over.

Clearly designed to capitalize on the success of Coffee, Tea, Or Me (something which is even acknowledged in the book itself), The New Stewardesses treads a clumsy line between a regular sort of novel and the pseudo-factual style of many of those “tell-all” kind of books. Only the author, whoever he or she is, seems unable to tell a sensible tale, constantly backpedaling and stalling. In fact, the majority of the novel is told in summary, which gets to be quite annoying after awhile.

Telling the story of six recent graduates of World Wide Airlines’s stewardess school, the novel is more soap opera than sleaze, randomly hopscotching from point A to point Z in the hectic romantic lives of its six titular characters. Author Judy Lynn doesn’t do much to differentiate her heroines, which makes the back cover copy a godsend. For we must rely on it while reading the book to know who the hell is who:

CAROLE: An old-fashioned girl torn between a man who wants love and marriage and the rich, young playboy only out for kicks. 

SANDY: She discovered a different kind of love in stewardess school, with a beautiful classmate who offered much more than “coffe, tea or milk.” 

CYNTHIA: She could write her own Masters and Johnson report. One of her sexual adventures was at 10,000 feet – and then there were the really way-out things she did. 

JENNIFER: Behind her angel’s face lurked a ruthless drive to succeed. If getting ahead meant sleeping around, it was worth it. 

IRIS: An incurable romantic, always falling for the wrong man at the wrong time – a natural for the bed of every scheming guy. 

LAURA: The all-American girl who was very sure she’d found that special man – but could her transcontinental love affair survive?

Usurprisingly, most of that is hyperbole that isn’t really reflected in the narrative. Despite having an opening line of “Cynthia was nude,” The New Stewardesses is more along the lines of a potted history about young single women in the early ‘70s with very little sleaze or porn. There isn’t even as much “stewardess stuff” as you might expect, with more focus on the romantically-harried backstories of the six interchangeable protagonists. There’s also a lot of expository stuff about flying and stewardessing shoehorned into the narrative, but not much in the way of a central plot.

Lynn’s writing doesn’t vary from chapter to chapter. We’ll start off with a sentence or two about Plot A, which concerns World Wide Airlines Flight 632 from New York to London, upon which all six characters are stewardessing, and then she will jump back to some random event in the lives of one of her characters. Some of this material will be about the stewardess school they attended in Dallas or, more commonly, will be incidental, random moments in their love lives. And though there is at least one sex scene in every chapter, as mentioned the novel is not very explicit. In each case Lynn is more about the preamble and setup than the actual deed-doing. Here’s a good example:

Robert cupped Cynthia’s breasts in his strong, large hands. He kissed each breast and his tongue pressed against her nipples. He traced his fingers lightly around her nipples. Cynthia ran her long fingernails along his chest then back and down his sides. She leaned down and searched his mouth with her tongue as he pressed against and into her.

That’s about all you’ll get throughout, after which Lynn will write something like, “They made love passionately through the night,” or somesuch. Also from the above you can get an idea of the simplistic, “See Spot Run” type of narrative style Lynn employs. There is on the whole a simplistic feel to the entire book, as if it were written for brain-addled, glue-sniffing children. More damningly though, the book is mostly relayed more through telling rather than showing. In this way it’s reminiscent of later trashy misfires like Taboo and Belladonna.

To continue pissing on the book, I also have to gripe about the fact that very little in it is described. Lynn rarely if ever brings the groovy era to life; description is so minimal as to be threadbare. We’re initially told what each of the six women look like, but it’s mostly reduced to hair color, after which it’s up to us to remember who is who. Locations and settings are seldom described, which again lends the novel almost a child’s book tone. How things look, feel, taste, smell – Lynn is either uninterested or incapable of telling us. The narrative style is as bland as the heroines.

As mentioned the characters have their own varied backgrounds which become confusing; perhaps the central one is that Jennifer, a beautiful redhead, was once in a serious relationship with a World Wide Airlines first officer named Rick, but she broke it off when she discovered he’d briefly been married and even had a daughter, all of which he’d kept from Jennifer. But now as a last-second stew onboard Flight 632 Jennifer is nonplussed to discover that, you guesed it, Rick is acting as first officer on the plane – and meanwhile she’s purposefully been avoiding all of his flights.

But nothing whatsoever is done with this plot, as 632 doesn’t even arrive in London until the last page, and the novel ends on a sort of cliffhanger; the series is clearly envisioned to be sequential, and again comes off like a soap opera in novel form. Instead, more focus is placed on random events in the pasts of these women – like cute little Sandy’s lesbian fling with fellow student Barbara in stewardess school, which Sandy is now ashamed of and wants to forget. But it’s hard to get a grasp of any of this stuff, because each chapter is like a blur of “this happened, and then this happened, but before that this happened, and later on that happened,” until you finally just wish Flanders was dead. 

There are only brief flashes amid the chaff. We learn in one of the hopscotching subplots that a dude attempted his own stew cash-in book, to be titled “Stewardesses I’ve Flown,” all about the many stews he’d slept with, but even this is sort of lost in the mire. It would be one thing if Plot A, the flight to London, were given more focus, but about the most that happens is one guy spazzes out and says he wants to go back to New York and first officer Rick comes out and punches him in the face! Flights in the flashbacks seem more dramatic, like one where a stew sees a streaker, and another where a dude tries to hijack the plane to Cuba, only for ol’ Rick, again serving on this flight, to come out and get him soused on free booze.

The New Stewardesses ends just as 632 lands in London, and the various girls are eager to see the city, though we are told via foreshadowing that some of them might not be too happy with what happens here. Lynn desperately dangles a carrot of how exciting and interesting future volumes of the series will be, practically begging us to keep reading. As mentioned I actually have the second one, so here’s hoping it shucks the backstory-flashback nonsense and gets on to some genuine mid-‘70s stewsploitation.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Montego


Montego, by Robert Dupont
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

A couple years ago when I was doing some fruitless research on The Marksman and The Sharpshooter, I came across a Catalog Of Copyright Entries from 1975 that listed this book as the pseudonymous work of Russell Smith. I got the book and forgot about it, figuring from the cover it was just a lame slavesploitation deal, only to be reminded of it in Lynn Munroe’s recent Peter McCurtin checklist.

As Lynn notes, Montego is actually more of a Man From U.N.C.L.E. sort of deal, but more goofy and zany. (Actually that would sum up many episodes from the show’s third season.) Russell Smith as ever is on his own wavelength, writing like no one else I can think of, though a vague comparison might be Dean Ballenger mixed with Joseph Rosenberger. But Smith is his own thing, and it’s a weird thing, and it’s typical of his work that you can read up to page 100 and still not know what exactly the book’s about or where exactly it’s going. 

Anyway Montego tells the lurid tale of a “smuggler” named Charles Grimes who is in fact a slave trader. Running a small operation that employs contract sort of employees around the globe, Grimes specializes in abducting runaways, the poor, the wayward, or the lost, and selling them to various persons or organizations. Grimes lives in total secrecy with only two people at his constant side: Jakowleff, formerly of the French Foreign Legion and now Grimes’s bodyguard, and Ming-lan, Grimes’s sexy Chinese mistress, who usually traipses around Grimes’s quarters in St. Thomas in the nude due to the heat.

On Grimes’s trail are the operatives of SMEET, a top-secret spy organization (we’re never informed what the acroynm stands for) that focuses on international slavery. Working this assignment is martial arts wizard Wangti, an obese fifty-year-old who is described so much like Sammo Hung that you can’t help but picture him; an American named G. Bayer who himself is a “trifle overweight,” and who “causes more headaches than aspirin can cure;” and finally a junior SMEET agent named Ching-sha, aka Melody, an “attractive Oriental girl.”

So as you can see, Smith has this weird “triplets” theme working here, with sexy Chinese gals repeated on both teams. And there’s more replication, with Ming-lan and Jakowleff having an affair behind Grimes’s back and Melody and Bayer falling in love while keeping their romance a secret from Wangti. Why exactly Smith has even come up with this theme is a mystery, as he doesn’t do much with it, and indeed it serves for a lot of reader confusion. As ever Smith jumps scenes and perspectives usually without giving the reader any white space, so there are parts where we’re reading about the SMEET gang and then suddenly it jumps over to Grimes’s gang, and you’re confused.

Wangti is in charge of the SMEET team and they’ve come onto Grimes’s tail due to a 707 cargo plane that’s gone missing. Turns out it held a few hundred Chinese corpses, men Grimes kidnapped and attempted to sell, but who were all killed by an accidental overdose. Now it’s chalked up as a loss, though Grimes when we meet him is attempting to collect at least some sort of payment, chopping off the thumbs of each corpse as proof that he held up his end of the bargain! But Melody, in the SMEET offices in Paris, has gotten wind of the plot, and now she, Bayer, and Wangti head to the Caribbean to track down various leads.

From here it’s a slow-moving exercise in info-dumping about slave trade operations, banal dialog between the SMEET team or the Grimes team, or brief “action” scenes that are as clunky as those Smith wrote in his Marksman books. Only, none of these characters have the memorable charm of Magellan, let alone the memorable sadism. Wangti is a kung-fu badass but is more content to bully Melody for not being aware at all times. (That said, he does rip a dude’s nose off.) And Bayer really doesn’t make much of an impression, though he does use the same gun Smith gave his version of Magellan, a Browning 9mm Parabellum. Oh yeah, and Wangti is given to wearing false moustaches. 

Speaking of Magellan, the first half of Montego takes place in the Caribbean isle of St. Thomas, which Magellan visited in the Smith-penned Marksman installments #3: Kill Them All and #5: Headhunter. Grimes has one of his bases here, and uses the locals to get wind of the three “FBI agents” who have come here snooping around. Grimes and Wangti become aware of various people tailing them, which leads to brief action scenes, such as when Bayer corners one tail as he’s boarding a plane and beats him senseless with the silenced barrel of his gun.

Another callback to Magellan is the SMEET team’s penchant for capturing people, tying them up, stripping them, and then drugging them. This is done to Ming-lan and two of Grimes’s American agents. Most focus is placed on the torture of Ming-lan, whom Melody finds snooping in her hotel room. Subjecting the nude girl to “itching powder,” Melody quickly reduces her to misery. Placing it first on her bare feet and then on her “almost hairless crotch,” Melody watches happily as Ming-lan suffers. (“The fire inside her vagina was unbearable!”) Unlike the Marksman books, though, our heroes are more merciful, though Bayer does murder the two American agents off-page and leaves their corpses sitting in the hotel bathroom, a la Magellan.

But Montego really tries the reader’s patience. The entire novel is basically comprised of the three SMEET members going around St. Thomas while the Grimes team watches them, with long exposition between each team recapping who they have seen and wondering who they are – the SMEET team wondering if “the Spanish-looking man” they’ve seen in a club might be connected with the 707 disappearance, and meanwhile Grimes’s team wondering if the “two men and the oriental girl” might be FBI agents or something. I mean it goes on and on! And what makes it all the more frustrating is there’s only like ten characters in the entire novel!

As for the sleaze quotient, it’s not as prevalent as you might expect. In fact there isn’t a sex scene in the entire novel. Smith focuses more of his sleaze on oddball, out-of-nowhere scenes, like when a sexy native gal does an erotic dance for Grimes. Smith goes into graphic detail as the girl pleasures herself while dancing. As mentioned, Melody and Grimes fall in love and have sex for the first time in St. Thomas, but Smith cuts to the scene after the deed has been done, with a blisfful Melody going on and on about Bayer’s “beautiful cock” and how she can’t believe they waited so long. But otherwise Montego steers clear of any straight-up porn stuff, such as what Smith was writing at the time for Midwood Books and others.

Smith can’t even give us a finale that takes place on the titular Montego, a sparse no-man’s-land island near St. Thomas which Grimes owns. The SMEET gang is all set to go there, thanks to Ming-lan spilling the beans after her itching torture…but then an FBI team closes in on them. The “climax” my friends is Wangti explaining their mission to the FBI agents…and then turning the case over to them!! Even Bayer is like, “You mean we aren’t even going to go on the raid with them?” And Wangti is like “Nope!” I couldn’t believe it as I read it, my friends. After hundreds of pages of stalling, Smith clearly hit his word count and said to hell with it.

At the very least he does have Grimes captured, courtesy Ming-lan; the very last page has Wangti heading out to his car, only to find a bound Grimes and Jakowleff sitting in it, apparently captured and delivered by Ming-lan, who also sits in the car and tells Wangti she is a “present” for him, or something. Wangti grunts and gets in another car and drives off – the end! Whether Montego was intended as the start of a series is unknown, but it’s so middling and pathetic that you can only be glad it wasn’t. I feel as if parts of my soul have been chipped away from the reading of this book. 

Smith’s writing is as indecipherable as ever. I used to think his bizarre style in the Marksman books was due to lazy editing from series edior Peter McCurtin, but Montego is just as screwed-up in the narrative department, despite having a different publisher. Just check out some of these humdingers:

Considering the immensity of Grimes’ criminal enterprises and contrasting it with the few individuals governing and administering; and keeping in mind the staggering profits earned, its continuously functioning successfully was a bitter pill for the agents of SMEET to admit even existed much less swallow… -- pg. 48

She was referring to the man who had rushed up to the Chinese Ming-lan in the Castle lobby and Bayer’s noting the similarity between him and the man he shot on the road. -- pg. 176

Had Wangti been wearing a hat it would have blown off when he next listened to an eager Talus beeping out a latitudinal/longitudinal perimeter fix on a powerful transmitter he had accidentally made signal contact with only an hour before Wangti’s “SMEET” signal from the airport tower shot into his earphones back in Montmarte. -- pg. 206

I know that Smith and many of these guys were just contract writers, looking to make a buck, with little emotional investment in their work. And I’m fine with that. But still, I like to think there’s at least some creative impetus in their novels, some perhaps even subconscious yearning for self-expression. And yet I can find nothing to justify this in Montego. The novel is listless, bland, and merely just exists. Why Smith even wrote it will be a mystery, and I’m certain he didn’t rake in the cash from it (Manor supposedly was notorious for not paying its authors).

Ultimately, if the author so clearly doesn’t give a damn, then how can the reader be expected to? Despite too-brief flashes of Smith’s patented bizarre charm, Montego is otherwise a nonentity, and I’d say it has fittingly been consigned to obscurity.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Butcher #2: Come Watch Him Die


The Butcher #2: Come Watch Him Die, by Stuart Jason
March, 1971  Pinnacle Books

Despite featuring a plot that’s almost a direct lift of the first volume, this second installment of The Butcher is a ton of lurid fun, and my favorite volume yet. Author James “Stuart Jason” Dockery is clearly having a blast writing his darkly comic take on men’s adventure fiction, with his stoic, “granite faced” hero taking on legions of deformed Syndicate freaks in his quest to uncover a convoluted plot that threatens America.

Sticking to the formula he originated with Kill Quick Or Die, Dockery has “Butcher” Bucher immediately gunning down a pair of depraved Syndicate gunmen who have come to collect the bounty on his head. The only change here is that these freaks have been put on Bucher’s trail by Bucher himself. White Hat, Bucher’s ultra-secret spy organization, has gotten wind of a Syndicate-backed plot to replace US senators and politicians with exact duplicates; the plot was only uncovered because the wife of one such senator realized she was sleeping with a duplicate, given that the man in her bed, despite looking and acting just like her husband, was not circumcized. 

Through the usual convolutions it’s come down that various Syndicate freaks from Bucher’s past are somehow involved with this plot. Thus to get to them Bucher has put himself out as bait; the inevitable “gunfight” goes down in a grungy bar, where Bucher as ever easily kills both gunmen with his super-fast draw technique. Dockery gives us the first taste of his patented dark, surreal humor here, with Bucher taunting the two thugs with either signing statements that they’ve committed gruesome murders or signing their cadavers over to science. Per series mandate one of the gunmen shits his pants before the bullets fly.

This one doesn’t have the other formula mainstay of the damsel in distress, but there is a lovely lady on the premises: a brunette bombshell named Gloria Dawn who has the unfortunate fate of being a hooker who can’t orgasm. Due to various “subconscious inhibitions,” per her psychiatrist, Gloria can’t climax, though she’s tried and tried…until she gets one look at Bucher! Indeed she orgasms when our hero blows away the goons…and soon becomes obsessed with finding him and taking him to bed.

Sprung from jail thanks to that other series mainstay – the politician called in by White Hat to get the charges against Bucher dropped – the Butcher heads to New Orleans, where he gets info from an albino dwarf named Pearly Q, an old associate of Bucher’s, and surprisingly enough one he actually likes. First though Bucher has to handle another formula mandate – he has to beat some musclebound oaf to burger. This is The Bull Bassoon, a river rat ruffian who works as Pearly’s bodyguard. In an unexpected moment Bucher feels sorry for the dude after he’s pulverized him, and treats him like best buds!

Bucher has some unexpected depth in Come Watch Him Die. He’s still a stone cold badass, practically God with a gun, but later on he even feels bad for poor ol’ Gloria Dawn when she tracks Bucher down to the New Orleans airport, relays her miserable story, and pleads with him to fuck her. But Bucher is as ever all business; from Pearly he’s found out that the latest professional assassin the Syndicate has hired to kill him, a woman, makes her hits with a lipstick tube that hides a spike. This she jams into a man’s spine. Now Bucher is on the lookout, even more than normal, and can’t be bothered with Gloria’s pleas.

From Pearly Bucher has also learned that an ex-Nazi named Klaus von Rimer might have something to do with the duplicate plot; Klaus once worked for the Syndicate under a different name and as well-paid for his photographic memory. But he disappeared five years ago, and Pearly says that an old biochemist in Holland named Zandvoort might provide a lead on where he is. So off Bucher goes to the Netherlands, where kindly old Zandvoort relays his sad story of being forced to work at the Dachau camp. But when Bucher mentions Rimmer’s name, the old man goes into a dead faint. 

Thanks to Zandvoort’s busty blonde daughter Erika, Bucher learns all there is to know about Rimmer. The dude was born in 1930 to Himmler’s “retarded sister” and was regaled by Hitler as a super-child, given his photographic memory. But when the Nazi docs noted that the young boy was sexually excited by snakes, they shunted him off into the background, eventually sending him to Dachau when he was a young boy to study biochemistry with Zandvoort. Erika meanwhile is getting a case of the burnin’ yearnin’s for Bucher, and vice versa, despite himself – though when they’re about to do it, he breaks it off, suspecting even she might be the mysterious Syndicate hitwoman. 

After lots of laughter at this, Erika succeeds in bedding Bucher, but it’s a straight-to-black sort of thing, same as in the third volume, with zilch in the way of sleazy detail. Dockery’s reticence to get down and dirty with the sexual shenanigans is plumb confusing, particularly given how outrageously lurid he is with the various Syndicate stooges, most of whom are pedophile rapist-murderers with graphically-rendered backstories. But then, Dockery seems unable to even write the word “fuck,” as later Bucher says the word to Gloria Dawn, who has chased him all the way to Holland in hopes for sex, and Dockery must use the most allusive language to tell us what Bucher has said to her.

Erika, blissfully content from major whopping orgasms courtesy Bucher, suffers the exact fate you’d expect. While confessing her love to him the next day as they drive back to her house, her face is blown off by a Syndicate drive-by shooting. Dockery goes into full-bore description of the gore, which nevertheless only adds to the dark humor. Meanwhile Bucher’s discovered, thanks to a colleague of Erika’s, that von Rimer is even sicker than he imagined; back in Dachau the sadist studied cannibalism as a means to feed the starving German army, even coming up with recipes for human meat! In addition von Rimer is a necrophiliac. All this is enough to almost make Bucher puke.

From there it’s to Bucher’s old stomping grounds of Chicago (which of course brings to mind Sand), where he hunts down west coast Syndicate boss Luigi Lupini, a man who made millions from the Syndicate thanks to an industrial-sized garbage disposal built overtop a sewer line in his haberdashery. With a flick of a button Luigi turns men into mush which is flushed down into the sewers. As ever Dockery populates his version of the Syndicate with subhuman freaks who have mind-boggling perversions, even the most minor of torpedoes:

Blow-John Dork and Snyder Key; two of Lupini’s best. Blow-John made his hits with a blowtorch when practicable; said he liked to hear the scream because it shushed a funny noise inside his head. Snyder Key preferred a carpenter’s ordinary brace and wood bit to bore angled holes in the helplessly bound mark’s skull, pack the holes with cotton soaked in cigarette lighter fluid and fire up, listening to the hillbilly music of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and masturbating till the mark’s brains boiled and popped his skull. He defended his artistry with stubborn gusto. “Duh – g-g-gettin’ yer r-r-rocks like th-that is better’n So-Sophia Lo-Lo-Loren, he! he!” Snyder had stuttered since early childhood.

As typical the duplicates plot gradually fizzles out – turns out it’s a long con by von Rimer, who is merely swindling the Syndicate into believing he’s duplicating people, whereas he just drugged the senator’s young wife into believing her husband had been circumcized. Dockery puts more focus on the female assassin trailing Bucher. Gloria Dawn has been following “Butchy” around the globe, hoping for sex, with a “svelte beauty” in tow named Sandra Davis. Claiming to be a reporter for a women’s magazine, Sandra is all too eager to profile Bucher for a feature story. A mere call to White Hat and Bucher determines her story is a lie and knows he’s found his would-be assassin.

Making the ladies believe he’s about to engage them in a three-way, Bucher instead gets Gloria pass-out drunk and then ties up Sandra. Turns out she was raped repeatedly as a teenager by her stepfather and stepbrothers (not to mention their German Shepard!), and now she hates men and the thought of them makes her sick. Bucher, playing on this fear, makes her think he’s going to have sex with her – unless she talks. Meanwhile Bucher is disgusted by her and believes he would be physically incapable of screwing a “murderess,” no matter how beautiful. Sandra blabs that von Rimer is in an old monastery in Mexico, where he’s perfecting some drug to wipe out the US.

The finale is especially crazed. Von Rimer is beyond outrageous – a cannibalistic, necrophiliac ex-Nazi with delusions of world conquest who has used chemistry to grow a pair of 60-foot pet anacondas! Meanwhile Bucher finally gives in to Gloria Dawn’s pleas for sex – through the usual convolutions, she’s down here in Mexico too, brought to von Rimer’s converted monastery for no reason at all by Sandra Davis (whom Bucher thought he’d left for White Hat to arrest). As usual Dockery provides zero sexual shenanigans, with the chapter ending immediately as the two are about to hop in bed, and the next chapter opening “exactly four hours later” with a satisfied Gloria passed out on Bucher’s bed.

In the final pages we have Sandra raped in punishment by a pair of drugged von Rimer minions, one of whom strangles her to death – and later von Rimer pulls her corpse behind some crates and rapes it(!). Meanwhile Bucher for once has been caught, naked and unarmed in a cage, about to become food for one of the giant anacondas. But one of the standards of this series is that Bucher is always prepared, so he has a key hidden in his hair and is able to free himself. One of the anacondas has eaten a heifer while Bucher watched in disbelief; who will be surprised when von Rimer gets his just desserts when he races into the snake pen while trying to escape Bucher, forgetting there’s a hungry giant anaconda in there?

A bit overlong, sometimes a bit too close to the line of parody, Come Watch Him Die is nevertheless another fun, blackly humorous installment of The Butcher. It’s as clear as ever that James Dockery does not take his story seriously, and hopes that the reader doesn’t, either, but as mentioned the characters take it all seriously, and therein lies the rub. Otherwise The Butcher would descend into satire along the lines of The Destroyer.

Here’s the last paragraph of the book:

He reached his garments and dressed slowly, a black depression settling heavy over him. After he finished dressing he made his way across the basement and wearily climbed the stairs, the bitter-sour taste of defeat strong as biting gall beneath his tongue.

Next time I’ll jump ahead and check out a later entry in the series, one courtesy author Michael Avallone.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Web Of Spies (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #11)


Web Of Spies, by Nick Carter
January, 1966  Award Books

As far as I’m aware, this was the only volume Manning Lee Stokes wrote of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series to feature Nick Carter’s archenemy Judas. Stokes is usually pretty iffy on villains – many of his novels don’t even feature a central villain – so I was curious to see how he would handle the skull-faced, metal-handed Mr. Judas, the Blofeld to Nick’s Bond for the first ten years of the series.

Web Of Spies is Stokes on a good day; while some of his novels come off as overly padded, hopscotching from one vague plot to another, this one maintains a steady clip throughout, never gets too bogged down, and features Stokes’s crisp prose at its best. One thing though is his bizarre usage of exclamation points throughout the narrative, usually for no reason at all. Like this! Or like this! For no reason at all! Throughout the novel! All this lends the novel a goofy tone, and it appears that Stokes (or perhaps series editor Lyle Kenyon Engel) whittled down these unecessary exclamation points in future volumes.

Nick when we meet him is heading into Tangier, wearing elaborate makeup that makes him look like paunchy old bestselling novelist Kenneth Ludwell Hughes. We learn this guise is beloved of Nick’s boss Hawk, and a real novelist was even hired to ghostwrite “Hughes’s” novel. Now Nick is to pose as the hard-drinking writer as he lounges in Morocco; his real mission is to track down Alicia Todd, an English pharmacist who has invented something Hawk describes as a “paradise pill.” Todd’s invention is the MaGuffin of the plot; we aren’t even told what it is until the final page.

But first Nick wants to get laid, courtesy Gay Lord(!), a hotstuff AXE agent Nick memoraly banged several years ago in Hong Kong. Indeed of the “hundreds” of women Nick has slept with, he ranks Gay as one of the very best. But poor Gay is in trouble, and Nick skirts orders to sneak to her place in Tangier. There he discovers that Gay has been playing both sides. Her mission here is to be a contact for the Spiders, an outfit in Spain that smuggles ex-Nazis into South America. But the Spiders really kill the Nazis, though they let some of them go for the sake of appearances. Gay is suspected of playing both sides, but she tells Nick the full story.

Turns out a new faction of Spiders has taken over; this one lets the Nazis live, and it’s run by some evil man who came out of nowhere. Nick instantly figures the work of Judas. Gay has been issued a death threat by the new Spiders, but swears to Nick she’s been working with the original branch, led by El Lobo, and has been planning to give all of her intel to AXE HQ in DC. Anyway, now it’s time for some lovin’. No sex description at all, even vague metaphor, as Stokes no doubt due to the era delivers an immediate fade to black. He does inject his patented morbidity, with Nick before doing the deed realizing that Gay won’t live through the night! All as unsettling as Nick’s morbid “screwing a corpse” obsession in the later Stokes installment The Red Rays.

The first of a few action scenes has Nick escaping the Spider death squad that has come for Gay; she gets gunned down but Nick escapes. Within a few hours he’s spying on a pair of women as they sunbathe in the nude! One of them’s Alicia Todd, “a thin little sparrow of a woman” who is also a heroin addict and “sexually twisted,” meaning she’s a lesbian. We get more of Stokes’s casual and natural pre-PC thought when Nick checks out the other gal, redheaded bombshell Tasia Loften, whom Nick knows to be a KGB agent sent here to “sway” Alicia Todd – Nick is relieved to learn that Tasia is “a real woman” and only pretending to be a lesbian for her assignment!

We’re now in Costa Brava, in Spain, where the rest of the novel plays out. There’s a well-done sequence where Nick stages a one-man assault on the villa the two ladies stay in, his goal to steal both of them away from the Russian guards. Meanwhile Judas’s Spiders launch an assault at the same time. Here Nick uses Pierre, his poison gas bomb, and successfully talks Tasia Loften into trusting him. Meanwhile a heroin-high Alicia Todd runs obliviously to Judas’s men and thus is captured. Nick pulls a Spider trick and stamps “his personal seal” on the forehead of a corpse as a message to Judas – the seal we’re informed looks identical to the one shown on the upper-left corner of the cover and is hidden in the heel of Nick’s shoe.

Stokes builds a nice will they/won’t they chemistry between Nick and Tasia. We’re informed this lady is super-attractive, super-stacked, super-everything, and she suppresses her growing desire for Nick because she’s afraid she’ll fall in love with him if they have sex. Tasia is a nicely-rendered character, a strong female who isn’t strong in the overly-macho and aggressive “tough chick” clichéd fashion of today. She and Nick soon meet with Judas, who indeed is the man behind the Spiders; they meet at a bullfighting tournament, Judas surrounded by legions of undercover operatives.

Judas changed depending on the author. In Run, Spy, Run he was a skull-faced ghoul with metal hands; in Peking & The Tulip Affair he was flat-out stated to be Martin Bormann and had a “frozen face;” in The Sea Trap he was an “economy-sized gnome” with a “striated face.” In all versions one consistency was that he had metal hands. Here’s how Stokes describes him:

He was not much over five feet tall. Today he wore a beautifully cut gray business suit and a black Homburg. In a cream colored silk tie he wore a single large black pearl stick pin. His little feet twinkled in highly polished handmade shoes. Nick had never seen evil come so neatly packaged!...The skin of Judas’s face was pink, tender, and beardless. Only minute striations showed that it was all scar tissue. False skin, as it were. As false as the lashes and the brows and the dark toupee beneath the Homburg.

Interesting to note that Stokes must not’ve been aware that Judas had metal hands; throughout the novel he keeps mentioning that Judas “washes” his hands, “some Freudian thing,” as if he were attempting to wash off the blood on them. Stokes’s version of Judas has a rictus-style mouth, always smiling due to surgery, and he continously drools from its corners, fastiduously cleaning himself with a napkin. But Stokes’s Judas is more of a generic spy villain-type, more into crafty cunning and guile, with none of the ghoulish appeal of the version in Run Spy Run or The Sea Trap. Stokes saves the ghoulishness for Skull, Judas’s towering “zombie” of a henchman:

The man was wearing a shabby blue suit which was too small for him. His wrists and ankles protruded grotesquely. He was hatless and his great arching skull was shaven to the bone. The small eyes, like lead berries, were too close to a splayed nose. The mouth was large and loose and wet. When the man spoke Nick saw that his canines were malformed, thrusting from the gums at an angle like fangs.

Skull truly is a zombie; Judas later reveals to Tasia that he found the man in a morgue in Poland, dead of a heart attack. Judas came up with this pacemaker gizmo through which he controls Skull. Aiming it at the man like “a TV gun” (apparently the early name for a remote control – and isn’t “TV gun” a much cooler name for it? “Honey, hand me the TV gun!!”), Judas can either push a red button, which stops Skull’s heart, or a black one, which starts it. If Judas presses the black button several times, Skull is granted super-strength – but that’s super sexual strength, and he goes on a rape spree! This is quite unfortunate for any females in his wake, as Judas is enormously well-hung, indeed even of “equine proportions.”

Tasia as mentioned is a well-rendered character and she sets Nick up, desperate to get Alicia Todd back. Otherwise Tasia will be killed by the KGB for failing her mission. Nick’s sent to prison thanks to heroin Tasia planted on him – plus the englassed spider the cops found in his pocket (this being the carrying card of all Spider members). Nick is saved via blind luck; a contingent of El Lobo’s Spiders, led by the man’s sexy teenaged granddaughter Carmena, busts Nick out of jail and takes him to the old man. Now Nick, with El Lobo’s Spiders, launches an assault on Judas’s fortified monastery in the mountains near the French border.

Stokes gives the place a very Bond villain-esque vibe: the monastery is guarded by machine guns on rooftops and an electrified fence. Even better is the drained moat which surrounds the place, upon which roam wild bulls – bulls with razor-tipped horns! Yes, it’s all almost just like Dr. Evil’s “sharks with lasers,” only it’s a few decades earlier and it’s played on the level. Unfortunately Stokes doesn’t go full-out with the finale; I was hoping to see Nick, who as the others is outfitted in black as well as facepaint, gun down several of Judas’s men in an extended setpiece, but instead he is promptly captured by Judas – that is, after Nick has saved Tasia from a rapacious Skull (Tasia herself already a captive of Judas at this point).

The finale instead plays on more of a personal level, as while out in the courtyard the two Spiders fight each other, as well as Russian paratroopers called in by Tasia, Nick meanwhile engages Skull in combat while Judas and Tasia watch – and Nick is easily beaten. The climax sees Nick and Tasia trapped in an ancient coffin, escaping in the now-flooded moat, and Nick going at Judas with a stake, which is a fine payoff courtesy Stokes, given how Nick has constantly thought of Skull as a “Frankenstein” with fangs.

As expected Judas escapes, though per series mandation it’s implied he has been killed (El Lobo guns down the car Judas escapes in and it blows up in the distance), and Nick escapes with Tasia. In the final pages Stokes finally pays off on the will they/won’t they Nick-Tasia relationship, with a few pages on their “preemptory lovemaking,” with a nude Tasia rolling over Nick and etc. But turns out he’s just getting her all worked up; when she’s ready for him, Nick instead extracts a capsule the lady has hidden in a certain part of her anatomy – another of Stokes’s favored gimmicks (see also John Eagle Expeditor #5, for example).

In the end, Nick and Tasia never do end up getting busy; Nick instead tells her to get dressed and heads home with the appropriated capsule, which contains notes Tasia jotted down from the dying Alicia Todd (she’s dead, by the way!). The “paradise pill” didn’t exist as such, all of it in Alicia’s head, and “two weeks later” Nick meets with Hawk, who informs Nick that the pill was basically like cocaine – it would keep a man awake for two weeks at a stretch and also induced a euphoric state. Oh and Tasia Loften decided not to defect and returned to Russia and is probably dead now. The end! 

Anyway, I really did enjoy Web Of Spies, and it was my favorite Stokes entry in this series yet. His writing is as superb as ever, doling out big words with aplomb and imbuing the proceedings with an almost literary vibe. One of my favorite discoveries since I started this blog is the work of Manning Lee Stokes, and Web Of Spies is a great indication of the man’s pulp-writing skills.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Penetrator #26: Mexican Brown


The Penetrator #26: Mexican Brown, by Lionel Derrick
June, 1978  Pinnacle Books

In this installment of The Penetrator, Mark Hardin heads south of the border to kill more Mexicans, which seems to be one of his hobbies, given how many times he’s done it before. Seriously though, Mexican Brown is a mostly good volume, Chet Cunningham continuing to show the renewed investment he displayed in his last installment .

“Mexican Brown,” briefly mentioned at the close of the previous volume, is a virulent strand of heroin that is manufactured in Mexico and brought into the US by mules posing as “wetbacks” (the term used here as frequently as it was in #21: The Supergun Mission). But this strand kills its victims, snapping off the brain functions and resulting in a painful death. Mark Hardin when we meet him is busy posing as a “wetback” himself, watching the other Mexican runaways on the San Diego border.

Meanwhile Cunningham inserts another, more interesting subplot in Mexican Brown. A pretty but somewhat-haggard and somewhat-flabby woman named Gina, who lives in an opulent beach house in Malibu, has put out a contract on the Penetrator. Cunningham keeps her identity a secret, but she has a score to settle with him, even though she doesn’t know what he looks like or any other pertinent details.

In a mirror of the same scenario series co-writer Mark Roberts came up with in #23: Divine Death, Gina feeds a bunch of data to a computer, hoping to get an extrapolation of who the Penetrator might be and where he’ll strike next. Too bad Gina isn’t aware of Frederico Calucci, the Mafia don who tried the same thing in that Roberts installment; he could’ve saved her a lot of time and effort. (And speaking of which, where the hell is that ninja Calucci hired to take out the Penetrator??)

Gina employs a contract hitman called The Maestro, who wears large sunglasses, leather gloves, and carries a rifle of his own design which can be assembled into various configurations. (George Wilson provides a perfect depiction of the Maestro on the bottom center of his awesome cover painting – and this is one of my favorite Penetrator covers yet; I guess the blonde is supposed to be Gina, but she sure isn’t described as being so sexy.) We meet The Maestro early on as he carries out a hit for Gina, blowing away a Mafia lawyer while the man swims naked in a pool.

Cunningham (perhaps) injects more continuity into the series with the appearance of Captain Kelly Patterson of the San Diego police department; formerly he was a cop in Los Angeles and “five years ago” he helped Mark bust a heroin ring there. I’m not sure if this is a reference to #2: Blood On The Strip, which featured a sequence in California (and I’m too lazy to dig out my copy and check), or if it’s just a newly-invented background courtesy Cunningham. At any rate Kelly is privy to the fact that Mark is the Penetrator, and it’s a recurring joke between the two that he’s about to turn him over to his fellow officers.

With its overbearing anti-drugs messaging, Mexican Brown comes off like a prefigure of Cunningham’s later Avenger series. We get lots of rhetoric about the evils of drugs, either through expository dialog or straight-up narrative ranting. But remember, this is a kindler, gentler Penetrator, as compared to the rough-hewn hero of the earliest volumes, so we also get a bit of social commentary as Mark at one point goes undercover as a heroin addict and meets a group of haggard and diseased street-dwellers, all of whom have been destroyed by heroin, and Mark reflects sadly on their plight.

Almost halfway in Cunningham returns to the arbitrary doldrums of #22: High Disaster, devoting several endless pages to Shorty Rodriguez and his sexy daughter Francisca. The two live on a fishing boat, and Shorty is the man who is cooking up the infamous Mexican Brown; Francisca is part of the business, usually driving out armed with a pistol to collect payment. And yet Cunningham spends more time on pedantic details about their fishing activities and the meals they cook. It’s all so mind-numbingly boring and could’ve easily been whittled down, if not cut out entirely; what makes this especially strange is that Mexican Brown seems longer than the average Penetrator installment, with smaller print.

There are periodic flashes of action. During an early infiltration into Mexico Mark blows away a few goons and scares one of their henchmen into working for him; through this guy Mark learns that the various gangs in Mexico are importing their heroin from a certain person. Also the deal extends to the US via a sadistic millionaire named Harry Case. Meanwhile Mark runs into Francisca one day and takes her out for coffee. He quickly deduces that there’s more to this “pretty girl” than meets the eye, and soon has confirmation that she’s part of the heroin trafficking. However Cunningham does nothing with the Mark-Francisca dynamic, and she is for the most part a poorly-rendered character, mostly a cipher.

One highlight has Mark, back in California, posing as a Mexican Brown seller; his buyer is Case, who sends a chemist to verify the drug. They ride around in a trailer while the chemist does his work, but it quickly escalates into a brief action scene, where Mark shows flashes of his earlier mercilessness, blowing the chemist away point blank. But Mark Hardin isn’t very bright; after an endless foot chase with Case, who desperately tries to run from a raid on his house, Mark captures the millionaire and presents him to those above-mentioned street dwellers, telling them this is the “sadist” who has raised the price of heroin too high for them, the man who has made them addicts – indeed, the man who has been killing them for fun, thanks to poison in the horse.

Well, how do you think that goes? Despite Mark’s insistence that Case not be harmed, the street-dwellers still manage to rupture his balls with a brutal kick to the crotch(!) and then tear him up. It’s all almost exactly like the climax of #14: Mankill Sport, so you’d think our hero would’ve learned. Instead he hands Case over to Kelly, and after the briefest and most anticlimactic of shootouts with Francisca and Shorty (Mark shoots Francisca “through the wrist,” by the way), that’s that; the father and daughter surrender and the whole Mexican Brown situation is almost hastily cleared up.

In the final thirty pages, Plot B takes precedence. Gina has figured out where the Penetrator apparently lives, and has sent a private investigator out into the desert wasteland overtop his hidden Stronghold. Coincidence be damned, Professor Haskins and David Red Eagle have just installed a fancy new early warning system, which allows them to track anyone who comes near this desolate area. When a “rock hound” just happens to show up and “passes out” from the heat, the trio watch on monitors and assume it might be a decoy, but Mark eventually goes out and wakes the guy, who appears to be normal.

The final pages of Mexican Brown play out in a Most Dangerous Game scenario, with Mark, out in the desert and unarmed, being shot at by a hidden sniper who misses him due to sheer luck. It is of course the Maestro, and the Penetrator puts his Indian-trained survival instincts to work, flushing the older hit man out of his hiding place and finishing him off. But now Mark and colleagues are concerned: who hired the hit man? Mark dumps the corpse by the road…and waits for the man to be identifyed on the news!

The climax is really bizarre and clumsy. A Mercedes pulls up in front of the hidden garage entrance of the Stronghold the next day, a somewhat pretty lady of around thirty and “at least twenty pounds overweight” driving it. Well, Mark just goes on up to talk to her! It’s Gina, of course, who attempts the lamest murder ever, just casually pulling a gun on Mark, who knocks it away…and then asks her to come inside and watch the Packers game with him! Professor Haskins even shows up with some cold drinks!!

But Gina is “contrite” and gets back in her car, refusing to budge. After going back into the Stronghold and letting her sit there for an hour(!), Mark goes back out and Gina asks him for directions on how to get back into town – and asks Mark if he’ll ride with her(!!). So Mark gets in his pickup truck and the lady attempts to run him over, which ends in her flying off a ravine and dying as her car crashes and explodes. From her purse, which flew out the window, Mark sees that she is Gina Scarelli, and conveniently enough has kept a detailed diary of her five-year scheme to find and kill the Penetrator(!!!).

Gina, who accused Mark of killing her father and many of her friends, turns out to be the daughter of Don Pietro Scarelli, who we are informed was the Mafia kingpin who ordered Mark’s death before the events of the first volume, and who also murdered Mark’s fiance, Donna. So that takes care of that. Now Mark wants to head back into the Stronghold and watch a three month-old Packers game on his Betamax! And then he’s going to see about his girlfriend Joanna Tabler, who claims that three of her cats have been adbucted in the past few weeks, thus leading us to the next volume, which will have the Penetrator going up against…petnappers!

And I just noticed that, starting with the previous volume, The Butcher is no longer mentioned on the cover, along with The Executioner and The Destroyer. Probably because The Butcher was on hiatus from October 1977, when James Dockery published his last volume, to December 1979, when Michael Avallone took over.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Balzan Of The Cat People #1: The Blood Stones


Balzan Of The Cat People #1: The Blood Stones, by Wallace Moore
May, 1975  Pyramid Books

Yet another series produced by book packager Lyle Kenyon Engel, Balzan Of The Cat People is along the same lines of an earlier Engel production, Richard Blade. But whereas that series took inspiration from the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard, Balzan takes its inspiration from Edgar Rice Burroughs, particularly John Carter of Mars and Tarzan (who is even referenced on the cover). 

Another difference is that Richard Blade lasted a whole lot longer; Balzan only amounted to three volumes, and whether that was due to the series being a bomb with readers or the fact that Pyramid Books folded in 1976 is unknown. I’m betting it was a combination of the two, because The Blood Stones, the first novel in the series, really doesn’t have much to recommend it. It’s fair for what it is, just an average piece of mid-‘70s sci-fantasy, but it’s nothing remarkable.

According to the internet, “Wallace Moore” was really comics writer Gerry Conway. It was interesting knowing this, as Conway’s tale would be perfectly at home in a Marvel comic of the time. The story is heavily plotted with a lot of melodrama and action but zero sex. Conway wrote mainstream comics and he brings that same sensibility to The Blood Stones, as the novel has none of the softcore nature of the Richard Blade novels. And yet Conway’s writing, due to that too-heavy plotting, is in a way similar to that of Manning Lee Stokes.

Balzan is around 22 years old and is the lone human on an alien planet; in capably-dispensed backstory, we learn he had a Superman-esque origin story. His parents, Doctors Weldon and Katherine Rice, grew frustrated with the short attention spans of the American people of the year 2500; we’re informed this short attention problem began in the 1970s, but by the 26th Century nothing lasts, all is ephemeral, everything is just a flash in the pan. It’s interesting that Conway the optimist gave us a few centuries; rather, a mere 40 years after Balzan was published and we already live in a Twitter/Facebook world of impermanence.

But as their spacecraft neared Mars the couple ran into a black hole or something, zipping through space to a weird new galaxy. The couple died immediately, but their baby, Paul Brian Rice, was still alive in stasis. The ship crashed and the baby was discovered by biped cat people who lived on this part of the strange new world; the cat people were called Endorians, and one of them, Lomar, raised the baby as his own child, naming him Balzan. Lomar raised Balzan alongside his other child, a girl named Kitta; Lomar’s wife died while giving birth to her.

A big failing with The Blood Stones is we don’t really get to understand how Balzan works in this world, which is populated by biped cat people, biped lizard people, and another group of people who apparently are a combination of the two. There’s also mention of winged people, unseen this volume. But Balzan is the only human and his knowledge of earth comes from “The Teacher,” ie the computer in his crashed spacecraft, which has told Balzan all about history and who he is and whatnot. That Balzan, raised on an alien planet, is able to understand the computer’s English is a mystery we shouldn’t try to solve.

What is puzzling though is the question of who Balzan identifies with. He’s been raised by the Endorians but he doesn’t have their subservient nature. He thinks of Lomar as his father and Kitta as his sister, but I ask in all seriousness, has Balzan ever gotten laid? And if so, by what?? This doesn’t really matter in Conway’s PG world; Balzan for what it’s worth is, in the end, exactly like any other generic hero of a sci-fi fantasy, a studly monstrosity of manly muscle, described exactly as he is depicted on the cover painting, with the headband and everything.

At any rate, Balzan is so generic that you have a hard time identifying with him. It makes it worse then that the novel opens with the Endorian community he’s grown up in being destroyed by lizard-like bipeds called Albs; thus, there’s no part where we see how Balzan interracts with his “people.”   Anyway, Balzan’s out hunting with his therb (a whip with a poison barb that causes death in seconds) and comes back in time to find his home destroyed, Lomar dying, and Kitta and several other Endorians captured, taken away by the Albs. Lomar buys the farm and Balzan swears vengeance.

Balzan does what any other revenge-seeker would do: he tracks the captured Endorians to the sprawling city of Kharn, where he first hooks up with a group of thieves and then becomes a gladiator in the Kharnite arena! Seriously, Conway is very similar to Manning Lee Stokes in how he seems to be writing one book before veering course midway through and writing another. (He’s also like Stokes in his blocks and blocks of description; the book runs 190 pages of super-small and dense print.) But what starts out one way gradually turns into another tale entirely.

Armed with his therb and a Kharnite “neutron sword,”Balzan wastes a bunch of Albs on his way to the city of Kharn. While there’s no sex, Conway doesn’t shy from the gore, though again there’s nothing in the book that would’ve been unpublishable in the ‘30s. Balzan eviscerates and decapitates slews of the lizard men, the green gore gushing. He finds himself though overwhelmed by Kharn itself, which is a sprawling kingdom of wretched poverty living beneath untold wealth. He soon meets a young Kharnite (apparently lizard-like people, but not full on lizard men, or something) named Lio.

The middle half of the novel is where all the heavy plotting comes in. We’ve got Balzan trying to push Lio and the theives into full-blown rebellion, we’ve got the plotting and counterplotting of Kharnite notables. Among the latter is the master of the gladiator games, who lusts for wealth; then there’s Lord Sha, who has placed Kitta in his own personal harem (though he doesn’t have sex with her, nor any of the other female creatures in his harem); and finally there are King Dragus and Queen Myrane, rulers of Kharn and the reason for which Balzan’s people have been enslaved – the royal couple put on monthly arena games, and the rabble want to see fresh blood spilled.

Myrane seems to have stepped out of a Richard Blade novel; she’s a raven-haired beauty with an insatiable drive for sex and bloodshed, usually at the same time. She’s also an immortal beauty, ageless, which is another hallmark of that earlier (and superior) series. But when Balzan, captured at this point and training to become a yarrotite (ie gladiator), is taken as expected into the ravenous queen’s presence, he does something Richard Blade would never do: he spurns her advances. (Indeed the closest we get to adult stuff in the novel is a fade-to-black sex scene between Lord Sha and Myrane.)

Through the dense plotting and scene-setting Conway does deliver several fights, usually featuring Balzan taking down hordes of opponents, including one memorable scene where he fights a three-headed creature called a huulat. He’s busting his ass to save Kitta, and unfortunately, when we finally meet the girl, we wonder why the dude even bothers. Kitta as presented is such a cipher, so clueless and, well, stupid, that you have a hard time understanding why Balzan puts himself through the wringer for her. At first I wondered if Conway was developing a romance between the “brother and sister,” but nope – as mentioned, Balzan is as generic as can be. He’s saving Kitta because she must be saved, and that’s that.

Unfortunately we also get many sequences from Kitta’s point of view (Conway is damn excellent in how he never POV-hops…and when he does change perspectives, he actually gives us some white space!), and she does nothing to gain our interest or empathy. She’s eternally confused, frightened, or docile, and the only bright spot comes when she falls into the clutches of two sadistic members of Sha’s harem, each of whom bear her ill will due to jealousy. Kitta’s strapped to a table and tortured, but Conway leaves it all vague; despite which, you still could give a shit about her.

After a fight to the death with yarrotite trainer Kalak, hired by Sha to dispose of Balzan (due to Sha’s jealousy that Queen Myrane has the hots for Balzan), our hero is again summoned to Queen Myrane…and again turns down her sexual advances. (I honestly wanted the book to end with Balzan going back to his crashed spaceship and asking it, “Teacher, am I gay?”) Instead Balzan wants to know about “the blood stones,” which he’s heard vague mention of since this whole business started; they turn out to be ancient stones which, Myrane declares, needs the blood of the pure to keep giving out their power. Through the stones Myrane has gained control of Kharn, as well as another kingdom centuries before.

The finale is appropriately apocalyptic if overlong, with Balzan taking on a hairy demon that lives in the pool of blood in which the blood stones reside and then smashing the stones, which causes the immediate “implosion” of Kharn itself. But despite the chaos and confusion Balzan still finds the time to kill more Kharnite soldiers, another huulat, and even Lord Sha himself. By the time it’s all over you’re ready for a nap. Balzan meanwhile sees Kitta to safety, shakes Lio’s hand, and says “so long;” he’s going on a journey to find out what it means to be a “man.”

Two more volumes were to follow, both apparently also by Conway. I’ve got them both and will read the second one eventually, but long story short, The Blood Stones, while not terrible, is really just standard science-fantasy fare of the era, and the entire thing would’ve been more at home in the pages of Marvel Premiere.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Revenger #3: The Vendetta Contract


The Revenger #3: The Vendetta Contract, by Jon Messmann
August, 1974  Signet Books

The third volume of The Revenger is my favorite yet, Jon Messmann having figured out how to retain the “realistic” nature of his series while still keeping it all fast-moving and exciting. He’s also reigned in his somewhat-pretentious prose, with the soul-plumbing introspection of the previous two volumes whittled down. That’s not to say it’s gone entirely, though, and thus The Revenger still has more in common with a literary sort of novel than say The Executioner.

The events of the previous volume were a “short while ago,” and now hero Ben Martin lives in Morrisville, a small town south of Indianapolis. His business card identifies him as “Ben Bruzzi, Industrial Painting.” Ben has managed to pick up a new flame: a Morrisville native named Bianca Lanza whose lush, full-figured form is often mentioned. The way Messmann describes her, Bianca sounds like a Botticelli painting come to life, all soft, rounded curves. I assumed this was his way of telling us she was a little chunky, but later on another character checks her out while she sunbathes nude and offers the sterling endorsement, “Look at those tits!”

Anyway, Bianca is a waitress at a diner and her involvement with Ben has gotten serious; cue the first of several sex scenes in The Vendetta Contract. Messmann handles these scenes a little differently, this time, as they sort of meld outright explicitness with Burt Hirschfeld-style analogy and metaphor. Actually, Hirschfeld is a good comparison, as again Messmann’s writing here is very similar in style, with that same sort of sentence-concatenation Hirschfeld employs (though not to the sometimes-absurd extent of Hirschfeld).

Bianca knows Ben’s secret, that he is really Ben Martin and that he is the man who busted the Mafia in New York and Chicago. She figured this out due to a few newspapers she found in Ben’s apartment, newspapers detailing the events of the previous two volumes. Bianca instantly deduced that “Ben Bruzzi” was none other than Ben Martin, whose name she has recalled for personal reasons: Bianca’s brother Jimmy has gotten on the bad side of the Indianapolis mob, thus Bianca has always been interested in news items about the Mafia world.

Jimmy, who doesn’t even appear in the book, serves as the impetus to get Ben back into the life of mob-busting. When Bianca is accosted by some Mafia stooges who try to grill her for info on where her brother is, Ben steps in and takes them on. He tosses industrial paint in the eyes of one, bashes the other around, and breaks the arm of the third. Ben prepares himself for the retaliation that will follow. But something strange happens – no more goons come to bother either him or Bianca.

This is because wily old Don Gennosanti, the New York godfather who appeared in the previous two volumes, has been planning a campaign against Ben Martin. Mafia branches around the country are to report back to Gennosanti if they come across anyone who pushes back against them. Thus, when the Indianapolis boys report back that this character in Morrisville beat up a few of them, Gennosanti instantly sees the work of Ben Martin. The next stage of his plan is to hire a hit man. But despite what the cover copy states, Gennosanti is determined to hire a non-Mafia hit man.

Gennosanti offers the job to Corbett, an infamous assassin who has the arrogance of success. He lives in a posh penthouse in Washington, D.C., and accepts Gennosanti’s $350,000 contract on Ben. Corbett is snide and rude, treating Gennosanti with disrespect; he thinks all Mafia types are idiots. But he’s the best at what he does, and he figures taking out Ben Martin will be simple. First though he must handle the little setback of murdering his bimbo girlfriend, who has gotten suspicious of what Corbett really does for a living.

The Vendetta Contract alternates chapters focusing on Ben and Corbett, the former gradually realizing something is up and the latter arrogantly closing in for the kill. Ben knows something’s wrong when the Mafia stooges don’t come back, and he corners one of them, shooting down two of his men in the process. The dude confirms that there have been orders to look out for troublemakers, and Ben immediately deduces that a hit man is likely coming for him. He tells Bianca to sit tight and makes plans to leave Morrisville asap, which I thought was hilarious – wasn’t Ben supposed to protect her?

So begins an elaborate “game of winner-kill-all” as Ben races eastward across the country, Corbett always at his heels. As ever Messmann is at pains to keep it all realistic, meaning that there are no sequences where Ben becomes a one-man army. Once again his kills are carried out by revolvers and hunting rifles he purchases at gun stores; there are no fancy machine guns or “war wagons” as in The Executioner. While this is interesting, and capably handled, I have to admit I more enjoy the pulpier stuff of the other Mafia-busting books of the era.

Through Ohio and on into Pittsburgh Ben goes, always trying and failing to shake his pursuer. And while Corbett knows what Ben looks like and can guess every move he will make, Ben has no idea who is even after him. This adds a nice level of paranoia to the tale, which makes it all the more goofy that, on his first night in Pittsburgh, Ben picks up a hooker! Not that he has sex with her, and indeed Messmann writes a moving scene here, as the gal, Flo, is only a “part-time hustler” and is currently down on her luck. Ben gives her some money and offers her his room for the night, where the two engage in some of Messmann’s patented soap-operatic dialog.

But Flo actually provides Ben with some inspiration, courtesy an off-hand comment she makes; Ben realizes he needs to stop running and to start kicking ass. If the Mafia is chasing him, then he will make the Mafia itself run. Armed with a hunting rifle, he starts in Pittsburgh and continues on through Pennsylvannia, blowing away Mafia stooges from afar. Again, the “action scenes” in this series are mostly relegated to Ben sniping someone from a rooftop or whatnot, and it must be admitted that Messmann generally hurries through these scenes so he can get back to the introspection and brooding.

Corbett though is almost a Terminator, following after Ben and assessing his next moves like some programmed computer. He bides his time in Pittsburgh, picking up a boozing floozy for some easy sex, and takes increasingly-irate calls from Gennosanti, who demands results. But Corbett has figured Ben’s gameplan, knows he’s making his hits based off of research he’s done on the Pennsylvannia-area Mafia, and can even guess where and when he’ll strike next. In fact he’s figured Ben out so much that Corbett even sets up a trap for him that almost gets Ben caught, causing a roadblock outside of Harrisburg.

The final quarter takes place in Philadelphia, which Ben hitches a ride to after losing his car in a late-night chase with Corbett. Meanwhile the assassin is waiting for him, having canvassed all the hotels he figures Ben will consider renting a room in. His paid contacts alert him when Ben checks into one of these hotels, and Corbett sits on a nearby rooftop with his fancy rifle, ready to kill the Revenger. It’s only through luck that our hero learns his life is over if he steps out of the hotel, overhearing a conversation between two hotel employees, one of whom was Corbett’s tip-off.

The only thing Ben knows about Corbett is that he has a weakness for the ladies. During that late-night chase outside of Harrisburg, Ben briefly had access to Corbett’s car while the assassin was out roaming the woods for Ben, and there in the backseat Ben found a few girlie mags. Ben now enacts his desperate plan; he calls Bianca and asks her to fly over to Philadelphia on the earliest available flight. After another somewhat-lyrical/somewhat-explicit sex scene, Ben goes over his plan, which surprisingly enough is the event depicted on the cover.

Bianca goes up on the hotel roof in a skimpy bikini, right in the view of where Ben knows Corbett is lurking on his own rooftop. She begins a slow strip-tease, as if she’s unaware she’s in plain sight of a professional hit man, and lays nude on a beach towel. All of which proves successful in distracting Corbett long enough for Ben to run out of the hotel and not get shot. But Ben, despite having killed several Mafia soldiers by now, finds himself unable to shoot Corbett in the back when he sneaks up on him.

Despite some last-second tension – Ben, the fool, doesn’t even consider the fact that Corbett has his friggin’ gun trained on Bianca, who obliviously lies nude on the rooftop below – the outcome here is expected. And here in the final pages The Vendetta Contract gets better and better. Given the surgical scapel Ben finds in Corbett’s pocket, he realizes that Gennosanti – for Ben has long deduced that the New York don was behind this contract – demanded evidence that Ben Martin was really dead. In other words, he wanted a piece of him.

Disguising his voice, Ben calls Gennosanti, knowing the don’s personal number from the previous volume. The don sets up a meeting with “Corbett” in New York, in the business offices of one of the Mafia’s legal ventures. Messmann delivers an effective and memorable finale which has Gennosanti and two other Mafia dons first realizing the severed hand they’ve been delivered isn’t Martin’s (thanks to Martin’s fingerprint file from when he was in the army), then rushing out of the room when they hear a ticking from the package.

But there Ben stands, like a regular Mack Bolan at last, wielding an M-1 carbine. In the span of a paragraph he wipes out several high-level Mafia targets, Gennosanti among them, thus ending a sublot that’s been building since the first volume. But Ben has decided he will not return to Bianca, who meanwhile has returned to Morrisville on her own, mislead into thinking Ben will follow her. Ben first wants to ensure the Mafia has forgotten about him before he’ll allow himself to become fully involved with her.

Given the cover copy of the next volume, it looks like a new boss soon takes over Gennosanti’s role, and no doubt will in fact continue the war against Ben Martin. I have to say, this volume was so entertaining (and concisely written at a mere 158 pages) that I look forward to reading the next one. But then, Messmann is a very gifted writer, even if I much prefer the style he used in his earlier days on the Killmaster series, in particular the awesomely whacked-out The Sea Trap. Messmann’s writing in The Vendetta Contract is good, too, but less pulpy than those earlier Killmaster novels and too clearly striving to come off like a “real” novel.

And speaking of which, Messmann retains the literary trick of the previous two volumes by slipping in and out of present-tense, but it’s done very arbitarily, and at times unsuccessfully, with the tense sometimes changing in the same sentence. But he achieves perhaps one of the most important tasks of any series writer, one that is unfortunately seldom achieved by many other series writers: he makes you care about his characters.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Roy TV


And now for something completely different…

Back in December of 1996 I was visiting West Virginia, one of the last times I was there, and I had on a local TV station, broadcasting out of Cumberland, Maryland. There was this crazy old guy on there talking about random nonsense and I couldn’t get a tape in the VCR fast enough. Unfortunately I missed the first few minutes, but those eight minutes I did capture for posterity were priceless.

The other month I got a gizmo which magically transforms VHS into MP4. One of the first things I transferred was the tape with that crazy old guy. His name was Roy White and he was apparently a little infamous in the Cumberland area. He put his photo in the paper every day, along with some random nugget of “wisdom.” I used to have an envelope stuffed with these clippings but lost it years and years ago, sadly.

Anyway, please enjoy Roy TV, which according to the label on my tape was broadcast on December 29th, 1996. All these years later these eight minutes still make me laugh…so many things to notice, like how his name is written on the door of his car, or how he constantly derails his own story, or how the camera eventually pans out and you see he’s holding a plastic shopping bag, like the cameraman caught him on the go. And, of course, “holdin’ hands.”

Seriously, it’s like this guy just walked out of a Stephen King novel. Unfortunately his fate was pretty grim: Roy died sometime in 1999, run over by a train. Word had it that it was suicide.

But forget about that and enjoy the homespun insanity!

“Folks, I just went blank.”

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Assignment Tokyo (Mark Hood #4)


Assignment Tokyo, by James Dark
September, 1966  Signet Books

The fourth volume of Mark Hood is, unfortunately, a bit tepid, J.E. “James Dark” McDowell page-filling with abandon in order to meet his word count (and this one appears to be a little longer than previous volumes, which makes the padding all the more obvious). I’d planned to read through the series quickly, but this one, sad to say, was so disappointing that I’ve decided to take a break from it for a while.

It’s six weeks after the previous volume and Mark Hood is back in his home base of Geneva, where he’s itching for some action. Here he trains with his karate sensei, Murimoto, who we learn is not aware that his pupil is a spy; Murimoto in fact wonders why Hood trains so vigorously in the martial arts. He also wishes Hood would compete in the upcoming Meijin Exhibition in Tokyo, as Murimoto feels that Hood is one of the better practioners of karate. 

And who will be surprised when the call finally comes in and Hood’s next mission sends him to...Tokyo? Dark inserts a bit more comedy in the series with this volume, mostly via Hood’s inane banter, particularly when it comes to his partner Tremayne (returning from the previous volume) and Michelle, pretty French secretary of Hood’s Intertrust boss, Fortescue. In Michelle’s first appearance in the series we see that she has long been a recipient of Hood’s shameless advances, though she capably puts him down again and again.

Also as mentioned, Hood and Tremayne here have been refashioned into a buddy-cop duo along the lines of Razoni & Jackson, bickering and bantering from first page to last. This is quite different from their relationship as depicted in the previous book, where they were all business. But here Tremayne makes most of the wise-cracks and Hood acts as the straight man; many of Tremayne’s jokes are at the expense of Hood’s would-be womanizing and whatnot. It’s all entertaining but unfortunately not too funny, at least when compared to the stuff in the Razoni & Jackson books.

Fortescue’s briefing has it that someone has apparently tried to infiltrate the remote Japanese island Oba, which houses the control unit for a US missile satellite weapon called the “MissSat.” Sounding like the ‘80s star wars concept a few decades early, the weapon holds a salvo of atomic warheads which can be fired down at the earth by the press of a button. Oba island is well-defended, including concentric rings of electrofied wiring or something in the ocean around it; locals are clearly warned to stay away. Yet three men in scuba gear just tried to penetrate the defenses, dying in the attempt. Hood and Tremayne are to go to Tokyo to find out why.

Hood attemps more failed womanizing when he promptly begins hitting on pretty Gwen Tremayne, secretary for US ambassador Tomlinson in Tokyo. Hood intends to hold up his cover as a wealthy jetsetter known for hitting and quitting women around the world; here in Tokyo he’s posing as, you guessed it, a last-second contender in the Meijin Exhibition. Be prepared for a ton of expository karate material in Assignment Tokyo, much of it clearly shoehorned in to meet the word count. Parts of the book are almost like a dry treatise on the martial arts.

Much of it comes from Hiroshi Sato, a Japanese man Hood just happens to meet at dinner his first night in Tokyo – coincidental as hell when we learn that Sato will be Hood’s first opponent in the exhibition. Sato is a wise type, very formal and friendly, with good English and a love for the martial history of Japan. Hood likes and trusts him instantly, feeling he’s found a kindred soul; pity then that the back cover copy completely ruins the surprise reveal that Sato is indeed the villain of the piece! 

Also here at dinner Hood meets the busty and beautiful Toi Smith, a half-Japanese, half-American beauty who shows off her incredible bod via revealing clothing. She’s a reporter for Modern Living and hopes to interview Hood; he meanwhile can’t stop staring at her breastesses, much to Gwen Tremayne’s dismay. But Hood has to hurry home and sleep so he can get up super-early and train for his bout with Sato, which is to be held that very afternoon. Tremayne, posing as Hood’s trainer, contributes nothing but more banter given his dearth of karate knowledge.

The Hood-Sato bout is good but again kind of boring as I’ve never felt martial arts fights translate well into print. At any rate Hood gives Sato a great run for his money but ends up being defeated by the Japanese master. Sato, as gracious as ever, offers to send “the top masseuse in Japan” over to Hood’s apartment to repair Hood’s battered body – and surprisingly enough, it turns out to be Toi Smith, again dressed provocatively despite the frosty, disinterested treatment she gives Hood.

And also despite this frosty treatment, Toi herself gets excited at Hood’s own excitement – naked and being massaged, he can’t help but gawk at those awesome boobs of hers and the natural reaction ensues. They end up having sex on the table, the first Hood’s scored since the first volume, but again James Dark provides zilch in the way of details. About the most we get is a little lyrical stuff, but it’s all pretty vague. From here it’s on to a snoozer of a sequence where Hood goes to Sato’s for dinner and we must endure more martial arts talk and also demonstrations from Sato’s “cult” of modern samurai.

Toi is also here, and Hood suspects that she’s secretly Sato’s kept woman; she maintains the frosty nature of before, despite their afternoon banging. Around page 70 Hood finally begins to suspect Sato might be evil. Also at this dinner Toi mentions she’s secretly been lobster diving around Oba; when Hood gets interested, masking his professional interest as concern for her safety, she brushes it all off as a joke. Meanwhile the next morning another dude attempts to infiltrate the island, this time getting all the way onto shore before being gunned down.

Eventually we will learn that Toi really did find a way to get near Oba – plastic cylinders and valves on her scuba gear, which aren’t affected by the underwater elecricity barriers. Also Toi has apparently been taken captive by Sato, who is now fully outed as the villain. His goal is similar to that in the Killmaster novel The Samurai Kill: he seeks to remilitarize Japan and bring back the old samurai spirit. Hood and Tremayne stage a rescue of Toi, but they’re quickly caught by Kosima, the fastest-moving of Sato’s men; all of Sato’s warriors are almost supernaturally skilled in the martial arts. 

After freeing themselves and taking out Kosima, our heroes go after Sato, who has donned plastic fittings on his scuba gear and successfully taken over Oba, even killing off all of the soldiers there with poison gas. Dark finally delivers a bit of action as Hood and Tremayne get on the island, using Toi’s plastic scuba gear, and appropriate a few submachine guns. He isn’t very colorful with the gore, though, but there is a nice part where Hood flat-out murders Sato’s men as they sit enjoying a victorious meal of sashimi. Hood guns them down with a subgun and then later even brings out Sato to happily show him their corpses!

As expected, Assignment Tokyo culminates with a fight to the death between Hood and Sato, the latter defending himself with the stock of an empty carbine while the latter comes at him with a samurai sword. Sato, too superhuman to be defeated, takes off after realizing his cause has been lost – Hood deactivates the MissSat control at the last moment – and commits seppuku by swimming into the underwater defenses beneath Oba island without his plastic scuba gear!

But as mentioned, Assignment Tokyo is just too damn slow-moving to be much fun. Too much of it is mired in inconsequential karate info, and the narrative just plods along. It doesn’t even really pick up until page 110 or so, and as usual we’re talking very small print here. So, long story short, I think I’ll give the Mark Hood series a break for a while; this one kind of wore me out.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Roadblaster #1: Hell Ride


Roadblaster #1: Hell Ride, by Paul Hofrichter
No month stated, 1987  Leisure Books

Graced with a misleading cover that makes it look like some sort of futuristic cowboy-biker sort of deal, Hell Ride, the first volume of the Roadblaster series, is in fact a post-nuke pulp. The series ran for three volumes and had absolutely no relation to the cover painting – the “hero” of the tale, Nick Stack, could more accurately be depicted as a potbellied simp in a wifebeater shirt.

Roadblaster was packaged almost identically to another Leisure Books post-nuke series, the longer-running and infinitely superior Phoenix. Almost the same color scheme/hyperbolic cover copy was used for both, but whereas Phoenix fired on all cylinders, Roadblaster is more of a middling affair, boring and padded, and indeed calls to mind the sort of books Leisure/Belmont Tower was publishing back in the 1970s, with the same sort of endearingly amateurish prose you’d find in say The Marksman or The Sharpshooter

No surprise then that author Paul Hofrichter got his start writing for those very books. I must offer Lynn Munroe a huge debt of gratitude for his recent Peter McCurtin Checklist, where in the Assassin/Marksman/Sharpshooter section he detailed who exactly wrote each volume of those series. Lynn has revealed that it was Paul Hofrichter who wrote the atrocious Sharpshooter #9: Stiletto, one of the worst novels I’ve had the displeasure of reading since I started this blog…a novel in which characters aimlessly drove around and engaged in mundane conversations before hastily-sketched firefights would break out. 

Sadly, over ten years after writing Stiletto Hofrichter still hadn’t much improved. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those internet reviewers who constantly bitches about these genre books being “bad.” In fact the goofier they are the more I love them. But friends, Hell Ride should come with a pack of no-doze. It’s a soul-crusher of a read at times…I mean, nuclear war breaks out but characters just aimlessly drift around the mountains of central California and engange in mundane conversations. And in another callback to Stiletto, one of the main topics of conversation is the inflated price of gasoline.  Perhaps this is something Hofrichter himself obsessed over in the real world.

Anyway, another interesting similarity to Phoenix is how the opening of Hell Ride so closely mirrors Dark Messiah. Just like Magnus Trench, series protagonist Nick Stack is enjoying some hunting in the mountains of California when nuclear war breaks out. And just like Trench, Stack has a wife and kids back home in New York City; Stack’s 36 and owns a “radio dispatch private cab service.” Unlike Magnus Trench, though, Stack doesn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to get back to New York and save his family. Rather, the nukes hit and Stack just sort of takes his good ol’ time getting to his van and leisurely heads on back to civilization.

Driving to the small town of Montieth Stack promptly comes across a teenaged runaway named Rayisa Gilchrist. Apparently recalling to mind his daughter, Stack offers the naïve young girl a lift into town. The two engage in some of the most humdrum, mundane, expository dialog this side of William W. Johnstone. Remember, nuclear war just occurred. More banality ensues as Stack gets in an argument with an old coot who runs a gas station and demands inflated prices. “Not all mountain people are bad,” Rayisa reminds Stack, who agrees. Remember, nuclear war just occurred.

In Montieth Stack and Rayisa hobknob with the locals, and Stack has a few beers…! His family apparently forgotten, he decides to head to the biggest nearby city, Fresno, to assess the damage. Rayisa happens to be from there and tags along to see if her family is dead. They pick up more people – a family who has somehow escaped the mass nuclear destruction – but they find Fresno bombed to rubble. Stack hooks up with an army lieutenant in charge of rescue operations and offers some half-assed help, but mostly just ends up puking his guts out after eating radiation-poisoned seagulls he shoots down with his Savage 99F hunting rifle.

Stack busy puking, the narrative cuts over to a seemingly-arbitrary setpiece which concerns a B-52 bomber making an aborted run on China in retaliation for the nuke strike on America. But engine problems force them to turn back around to their air base, which has been destroyed in the interim. They end up landing in the middle of nowhere…not far from Montieth. In another extended setpiece, we cut over to another new group of characters: the Santa Monica Bloodsuckers, a 50-member biker gang led by Lyle Rokmer, aka San Quentin Sal.

The bikers decide that chaos now reigns and decide to rip some shit up. Here, after so much deadening banality, Hofrichter displays his true gifts: sleazy sadism. Apparently the number one thing to do if you’re a bad guy in the post-nuke world is to force preteen girls to give you blowjobs. This Rokmer and gang proceed to do posthaste – that is, after they’ve stolen gas from the mean old coot Stack ran into. The bikers strap the old man up to his gas tanks and set him on fire; Hofrichter spends four pages on the sequence, dwelling on the terror and mutilation and destruction of the old coot.

This is just the first of Hofrichter’s descents into sadism; the Bloodsuckers (who apparently drive Kawasaki motorcycles, rather than the more-expected Harley choppers) head into the small mountain town of Vista Royale and promptly murder the owner of a grocery store. They then force the teenaged girl who works there to give them each blowjobs, and Hofrichter writes a seven-page sequence for this, providing uber graphic detail. Total XXX porn stuff, folks…and while I enjoy the lurid, OTT aspects of men’s adventure fiction, I do have to say my brain hasn’t been rotted enough yet that I get off on reading about a preteen girl being forced to suck off several guys.

It gets crazier and crazier, too, with the bikers getting pissed with the girl, and when she can’t take anymore and pukes(!) they slap her around and drag her off for more fun later. Meanwhile a few one-off characters, Vista Royale residents, band together to fight off the bikers. It goes on and on, not thrilling in the least, and ends with the expected outcome of the bikers victorious. But what of Stack? Once he’s done puking seagull meat he takes his leave of Fresno, and I kid you not his parting words to his new lieutenant buddy are, “This has been a unique and interesting experience.” That’s how I’d sum up my time in a nuke-ravaged city. 

Stack further displays his half-assery when he gets back to Montieth and the sheriff, who is putting together a group of men to go save nearby Vista Royale, asks Stack if he’d like to join. Stack’s response, my friends, is “No thanks.” This is the only instance I can think of in the entire universe of men’s adventure fiction where the “hero” says “no thanks” to saving a bunch of people. The sheriff’s force is decimated in another overlong/underthrilling sequence, but when a biker scouting party arbitrarily snatches young Rayisa, Stack finally decides to get involved.

The ensuing sequence isn’t too bad, as Stack sneaks silently into darkened Vista Royale, armed with a knife and his hunting rifle, and kills a few bikers. These are Stack’s first kills, and he actually ruminates on them – unexpected soul-plumbing from Hofrichter – because unlike most heroes of this genre Stack isn’t a war vet. He did serve in the National Guard, though, where he took “commando courses.” More inappropriate porn ensues as Stack quickly and easily locates the home in which Rayisa is being held captive; he spies through a window as the nude 14-year-old is first whipped by a leather belt and then forced to give the biker a blowjob. (By the way, forced oral sex is the only sex in the novel.)

Now, does Stack sneak up on the otherwise-distracted biker and slit his throat? No sir. He takes him out in what must be admitted is a “unique and interesting” method of dispatching someone:

Stack watched [Rayisa’s] mouth glide along the swollen shaft of the biker whose pants were now down around his knees. The biker’s head was back and his eyes were shut tight. The goon was in heaven. His hisses filled the air.

Stack grew very cold now. He aimed the rifle at the base of the thick shaft. Then, as Rayisa pulled back, letting the hoodlum out of her mouth, almost to the tip of the cobra-hood head, Stack fired. The sound of the shot reverberated in the hallway as the goon’s shaft disintigrated into strips of bloodied meat and hundreds of flying droplets of blood. Rayisa screamed as she drew back, the stub of his now-destroyed manhood falling from her mouth, while blood jerked from the crotch of the screaming hoodlum, who was quickly going to his knees.

This is clearly not the best way to save a traumatized young girl, and it’s to Hofrichter’s credit that he has Rayisa appropriately dazed for the rest of the novel, even getting doctor treatment once Stack has safely gotten her back to Montieth. But remember, Rayisa, “not all mountain people are bad!” Oh and meanwhile Stack saves someone else – none other than a member of that B-52 crew, who stumbled upon the bikers while looking for help. Now there’s more than just the fate of Vista Royale at stake; if the bikers get to that B-52, which is loaded with primed nukes, there could be even more nuclear misery on the way.

With the assistance of a gang of good bikers who just happen to show up (members of the Harley Davidson Family Club or somesuch), Stack and more Montieth locals get in an extended battle for the B-52. This isn’t a bad sequence, with lots of flying blood and gore and bikers getting run over by cars. Meanwhile, biker leader Lyle Rokmer escapes. From there it’s back to Vista Royale, which Stack et al eventually liberate in another long action setpiece, one in which Stack even blows away a few female bikers (for which he feels the need to lamely explain to his comrades that they were armed).

Hofrichter ends Hell Ride on a cliffhanger: both Rokmer and his second-in-command, Lance Zoyas (aka Samurai Sal), get away, each of them vowing revenge. And meanwhile poor Rayisa lies in a friend’s bed and ruminates over how some dude’s cock was blown out of her mouth while she was blowing him…

Yes, this is a strange, sometimes-unsettling book, my friends. I suspect the title of the novel has more to do with the reading experience itself rather than the actual content. The crazy parts are crazy and the goofy writing is just the icing on the cake (John Tigges is another point of comparison), but overall the mundane parts are just too hard-going. That being said, here are two more reviews of Hell Ride I hope you will enjoy: a typically-great and concise one by Zwolf, and a hilarious one at the awesomely-named Paperback Warrior blog.