Thursday, September 7, 2017

Richard Blade #6: Monster Of The Maze


Richard Blade #6: Monster Of The Maze, by Jeffrey Lord
December, 1973  Pinnacle Books
(Original publication 1972)

In this very special volume of Richard Blade, our hero ventures to the land of the Happy Little Elves, where he learns the healing power of Love. Just kidding – Blade once again hacks and slashes his way through Dimension X, banging some big-busted babes along the way. Once more Manning Lee Stokes turns in a variation of Voyage To Arcturus (or better yet any Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom pastiche), but this one lacks a bit of the sub-Conanisms of previous installments.

Stokes wrote in total eight volumes of Richard Blade, and while he wrote many more volumes of Nick Carter: Killmaster and The Aquanauts for producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, I get the feeling that this series was Stokes’s favorite. I think he invested himself more in this series, perhaps because it’s so different than any of the others he penned for Engel. Each volume follows the exact same template, yet each volume has this bizarre vibe to it that sets it apart from its predecessors, and certainly from the average “sword and planet” novel.

Despite this interminable preamble, Monster Of The Maze is my least favorite installment yet. Stokes seems to have a hard go of it, this time, and one could hardly blame him; after the nigh-allegorical masterpiece that was the previous volume, Stokes had to do it all over again! Indeed, one can almost respect the guy’s ability to come up with sub-Robert E. Howard worlds again and again. Each book he has to introduce a new world for Blade to encounter, with its own traditions and royalty and etc. (That each world and its setting is basically the same is a little fact we’ll overlook.) But one can’t help but feel that Richard Blade’s growing exhaustion from his trips into Dimension X is a mirror of Stokes’s own exhaustion, and likely the reason why, when this series was picked up by Pinnacle in 1973, he didn’t continue writing it.

Anyway, as usual there’s precious little continnuity here. We are informed Blade has gone to Dimension X six times previously, which would seem to be a mistake, but recall in the last volume he actually travelled to “DX” twice. In the finale of the book we are reminded that Blade usually forgets his experiences in Dimension X upon his return to “Home Dimension,” given that his brain reformats itself to the latest dimension, Blade becoming someone other than the “true” version of himself on HD. When returning to his true state upon his return home, Blade ends up forgetting all the stuff that he underwent in DX, though it’s implied that sometimes he’ll gradually remember. But it’s a good out for Stokes not to have to constantly refer back to previous volumes – with, again, the unfortunate side-effect that a lot of the books come off like retreads.

Despite which, Blade – and thus apparently Stokes himself – is in a damned hurry to get to DX this time. There’s even less HD-stuff than normal, with Blade’s boss J only given a token appearance. Mad scientist Lord Leighton has implanted a crystal in Blade’s brain, one which will enable a sort of communication between Blade and HD when Blade is in his latest dimension; eventually we’ll learn that the crystal is slowly making Blade go insane. This is the latest invention of Lord L, who is under pressure from the new prime minister; if the DX Project doesn’t start generating any money, it will be cancelled. Ostensibly Blade’s purpose is to figure out how to exploit these various dimensions for Britain’s profit, though as we know from the previous five books, he’s failed miserably each time. At any rate this will be Blade’s “last mission” into Dimension X – a ridiculous concept which is of course jettisoned in the last paragraphs of the book.

The crystal has other effects on Blade; a glaring element missing from Monster Of The Maze is the “bluff and brawn” aesthetic which is paramount to the entire series – ie, the macho mystique one finds in all of Stokes’s work, but in particular in the Richard Blade novels. Blade this time around is a bit off his game, “only” scoring with three native babes – and what few sex scenes we get are woefully brief and nothing along the lines of previous encounters. Indeed, Blade finds himself disinterested in sex for long portions of the narrative, wondering what is wrong with him, and even finds himself unable to fully satisfy one of the native babes, no matter how hard he tries. Eventually we’ll learn this isn’t his fault – demonic possession is to blame – but still, it only adds to the picture that this time out we are presented with a Blade something less than before. 

Unfortunately, the same could be said about the novel itself. My least favorite stuff in previous installments has been all the courtly intrigue Blade encounters, each voyage into DX – all the internecine palace stuff with scheming priests plotting to take power from aging rulers. But at least in previous books this stuff didn’t take up so much space. Monster Of The Maze though is basically all palace intrique, and doesn’t get to the good stuff until fairly late in the game. Reading the book I truly got the impression that Stokes had worn himself out with the previous book and thus, in his own way, was just as impotent as his protagonist.

The crystal in his brain causes even more problems – when Blade arrives in this latest dimension, he’s got the body of a baby, with the brain (and head size) of a grown man. I was afraid it would be like this for the duration, but Blade’s only a baby from pages 23 to 47; he finds himself in the royal harem, and crying out he’s able to attract one of the women to him. She’s a beautiful brunette named Valli who is drawn to the baby because her own was killed before she could have it – it’s illegal for harem women to become pregnant, and child-killing runs rife in the kingdom of Zir, with mentions throughout of this or that child murdered for some reason or other. This means that, after Slaves Of The Crime Master, this is the second book I’ve read recently with stuff about babies getting killed, and good grief it has to stop now!

Valli ends up hiding Blade and feeding him from her breast, with Blade suckling and hiding from her that he can both speak and talk like a grown man; otherwise, he is a horrific sight, a baby with an oversized head. He knows somehow that it’s a computer snafu that has caused this, and via that telepathic link provided by the crystal he’s able to convince Lord L to hold off on returning him to his full-grown size for one month. Unsurprisingly, there is a prophecy in Zir that a mysterious child will be born to the aging Izmir, and the child will become his heir and ruler – Blade snatches upon this prophecy, having Valli sneak him into the Izmir’s chamber one night.

The old man turns out to be less the stupefied believer than Blade suspected, but goes along with Blade anyway – he’s impressed the “child” can speak like an adult and do all sorts of things. A month later and Blade is accepted in Zir as the Izmir’s son and heir, and he’s back to his “brawny” normal size, complete with the usual wild beard that the cover artist always refuses to illustrate. Curiously, he has no interest in the harem the Izmir has given him – and when Valli comes to him, it takes Blade a while to realize he lusts for her, despite her being his temporary “mother.” After all, “Had he not from the first, even with his infantile penis, wanted the girl?”

Valli has helped Blade because she wants a baby to keep – who will be surprised, then, when she reveals to Blade that she wants his baby? Blade knocking up native gals seems to be another recurring theme of the series, by the way, and he quickly complies with Valli’s request, though bear in mind the scene isn’t as graphic as previous books. It does however contain the unforgetable line from Valli: “You spewed a fountain into me and of it will come a child.” We never do find out if Valli gets knocked up, as she disappears from the narrative soon after, with Blade occasionally telling his underlings to ensure she’s okay and whatnot; in other words, there’s none of the “Blade’s woman gets wasted” stuff as in previous books. Valli just disappears. Before she goes, though, we do get a bit of that casual Blade/Stokes misogyny that makes this series so special: “[Blade] wished that Valli were brainier, cooler, more like a man than a woman.”

The Izmir has locked horns with Casta, skullfaced ruler of the black-garbed religious order of Zir. Blade’s vassal, Captain Ogier, urges Blade to kill off the priests, even though they outnumber the army by thousands, but Casta ensnares Blade’s cooperation – Casta casually reveals a “useless rock” he has gotten from the Hitts, the warlike nation that is in constant combat with Zir. It is the largest diamond Blade has ever seen. Casta claims that there are mountains of such things in Hitt – somehow he has divined that Blade would be interested in this. And he is correct, for here Blade finally sees a means to get some money back to England; Stokes toys out this “teleportation test” scenario, with Lord L occasionally “radioing” Blade via that damn crystal in his brain that they’re working on teleportation Home Dimension, so keep looking for those diamonds.

Oh, and Blade must also marry Princess Hirga, the series-mandatory evil-but-gorgeous babe. Even here Stokes does little to exploit the gal, as he did in previous books. Hirga is the woman Blade’s unable to satisfy. Hell, she even checks out his equipment on their first boff and sort of sneers – a big jolt for Blade, given his bigger-than-average uh, girth. This bit is annoying because Blade soon begins to suspect Hirga’s screwing someone else, though he can never find anyone in her chamber, and also each time he finds a small sort of incense holder and there’s this weird smell…all Blade has to do is ask Ogier or something, but he never does. As mentioned, eventually it will be revealed that this is sorcery, though Blade doesn’t learn it until the final quarter.

Blade sure seems to be on this particular mission a long time – he takes a month to grow to adult size, and after that there are long portions of him ingraining himself into Zir society and plotting his war against the Hitts after the Izmir dies. Speaking of which, the eventual battle scene takes up way too much of the text; pages 97-117 are comprised of this endless battle between Blade’s soldiers and the Viking-like Hitts. But Blade himself is mostly relegated to general status, ordering his soldiers about; this volume very much misses the “hack and slash” vibe one might expect from a sub-Conan yarn, and it lacks for it. To make the book seem even more clumsy, Stokes abruptly jumps ahead (yet another month has passed), casually informing us that Blade is now a prisoner of the Hitts, even though we just saw him defeat them in the previous chapter.

The stuff in the Hitt capital is just as slow-going as the stuff in Zir; once again Blade is given a royal babe to bang: Lisma, gorgeous daughter of Hitt ruler Loth Bloodax(!). Yep, folks, her name’s really “Lisma Bloodax.” Stokes even informs us this, as if he wants us to laugh along with him. “Put your man weapon in me and have done with it,” she informs Blade; she has been commanded by her father to get knocked up by this “god” from Zir. As I say, this is a recurring element in the series, though in this sequence’s end Lisma is so angered with Blade that she vows to kill any baby she might have by him – again with the baby-killing, dammit!

Blade sews a big balloon for himself(!), given that he’s imprisoned in a house on top of a cliff or something, and makes his escape shortly after he’s gotten to see where the Hitts keep a cavern of lifesized diamond statues of ancient rulers. One of them is of Janina, first queen of the Hitts, who ruled a thousand years ago; Blade is in love with her, and vows to screw her. Only now does he begin to suspect he’s going insane. He escapes via the big balloon, somehow making it across the sea that separates Zir and Hitt. Now the book is taking on the nigh-allegorical tones of the previous book. Back in Zir, Blade finds that Casta’s “crows” are slowly taking over the kingdom.

Now, too late in the game, we get to the good shit. Hirga reveals to Blade that Casta, who lives in the twisting mazes beneath the Izmir’s pyramidal tomb, creates monsters through magic; one of them, called Urder, is “half dragon, half serpent.” Hirga meanwhile has been screwing a massively-endowed demon, one summoned by Casta’s magic; Blade witnesses her doing the beast when he makes his climactic assault on Casta’s lair. And by the way, for this assault Blade is naked save for a helmet, armed with a sword and dagger. He watches as the creature stuff its massive “phallus” into the screaming girl. When the thing disappears, Hirga reveals that she is addicted to the monster, and begs Blade to kill her – not only that, but to chop her head off and take it with him, as it might prove some use to him!!

We’re getting into some heavy mythology-type shit now, folks, and if only the entire novel had been like this. Blade, naked, covered in blood, carrying a sword in one hand and a severed head in the other, can only bring to mind Perseus. But even here Stokes proves unable to keep it up; one hopes for a sequence of Blade venturing deeper into the tunnels and hacking up a slew of creatures, but instead the only one he encounters is Urder, who is of course the titular monster of the maze – and Urder appears and is dispensed with in less than two pages. (Blade distracts it with Hirga’s head.) This is unsatisfying to say the least. So too is Blade’s final confrontation with Casta, which comes off just as perfunctory.

Rather, Stokes saves his ammo in the climax for Blade’s near-psychedelic screwing of Janina, millennia-dead Hitt queen and current life-sized diamond statue. Stokes writes the sequence masterfully, with it never being clear if Blade has slipped through the time-space continnuum for this boffing of the ages, or if he’s just plain nuts and imagining it all. It proceeds to get more hallucinatory and dreamlike as they fall off the crevice upon which all the diamond statues are perched, passing by corpses and skeletons of other Hittians who attempted to jump the chasm and failed (long story) – and, right on cue, Blade is zapped back to Home Dimension.

Three weeks later, Blade’s let out of the nursing home – another recurring element is that he’s nearly destroyed each trip into DX – and he can’t recall anything, not even his consuming love for Janina. Meanwhile, he’s somehow managed to bring that statue of her back into Home Dimension – and it’s valued “millions of pounds.” Lord L keeps it in a closet in his private chamber (he, J, and Blade all live beneath the Tower of London, by the way!) and claims that sometimes he feels that the statue is actually alive, and calling to him. Not that this much perturbs Blade – he figures it’s just a statue, and further figures he’ll either remember this latest trip to Dimension X or he won’t. Meanwhile, he’s gonna go bang some broads. The end!

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