Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 7


Agent 3S3: Massacre In The Sun (1966): George Ardisson returns as Walter Ross, Agent 3S3, in a superior sequel to the previous year’s “Agent 3S3: Passport To Hell” (below). Also known as “Hunter From The Unknown,” this movie exists in a few different versions. The one I watched was an uncut print taken from a French TV broadcast – it’s widescreen, no commercials, and no network logo, but the picture is a bit fuzzy and the color is a bit muted. But it’s worlds better than the pan and scanned, sourced-from-an-old-USA TV broadcast that once existed on the trade circuit. Some wonderful person has even included the English dub on this French print, but the uncut scenes are in French only, clearly never dubbed into English. This print runs three minutes shy of two full hours, much longer than the 106 minutes listed on

And it truly feels like an epic; filmed on the Ibiza coast, the film brings to mind the sun-splashed hedonism of the film version of Harold Robbins’s The Adventurers. Ross is sent to the sunny island of San Felipe to find out what happened to missing fellow agent 3S4. He meets a host of colorful, exotic characters, from the boisterous dictator, who keeps a harem of women in his palatial, swanky estate, to a brunette villainess who enjoys punishing men with her bojitsu skills. The harem stuff is what really brings to mind The Adventurers; the camera work from director Sergio Sollima (also returning from the previous film) is wonderful ‘60s exploitation, with countless scantily-clad babes relaxing in various poses of undress in the indoor pool. Speaking of which, this French print has a bit more flesh – nothing outright R-rated, though. 

The movie, in this two-hour version, takes its time, with more character-building than any other Eurospy I’ve seen. (And Ross is shown to be more brutal, even shooting an unarmed guard in the climax, a scene cut from all other versions of the film.) In a way it does lack the bizarre, off-the-wall goofy charm of the average Eurospy movie, yet at the same time “Massacre In The Sun” comes very close to being like the real Bond films. Ardisson in particular makes this possible; the actor, an Italian whose real first name was Giorgio, is one of the very few Eurospy actors who could match the on-screen charisma of Sean Connery. He even sort of looks like him.

Action scenes are the expected low-budget fistfighting, but we get some karate too, and the stick-wielding villainess employs a legion of gorgeous women armed with submachine guns. There’s a long chase and fight scene where Ross is hunted down by some of the soldiers of the effete but sadistic head of island security. Another memorable scene has Ross bedding the brunette villainess by not only quickly taking her bo staff away but also giving her a sound spanking! You can bet this only gets her in the mood. Speaking of which, the villainess and mega-babe blonde heroine Evi Marandi get in a knock-down, drag-out karate fight at the end of the film that bests any other girl-on-girl fight you’ll see in Eurospy. 

“Massacre In The Sun” works on a slow-burn for the duration, with periodic sex and action, as Ross discovers that a rebel faction plots the takeover of San Felipe, with the intent to use a new nerve gas or something on the rest of the world. The finale is great, with Ross and comrades clad in black jumpsuits and infra-red goggles, toting “infra-red Tommy guns” and piloting gliders, launching a nighttime commando raid on the villain’s compound. Sollima does some cool psychedelic-esque stuff here with infra-red shots of men getting gunned down, smoke exploding from their chests as they’re machine-gunned, the action viewed through those infra-red goggles. This entire sequence was so murky as to be unviewable in that old pan and scan print; while still a bit muted in the color department, the finale plays a whole bunch better in this uncut French print – not to mention there are additional action scenes here (you can always tell the uncut parts because the characters will suddenly start speaking in French!).

All told, “Massacre In The Sun” is one of the standout Eurospy movies I’ve seen, so fleshed out and complex that multiple viewings would be rewarding, and it makes one wish there had been a third Agent 3S3 film.

Agent 3S3: Passport To Hell (1965): Italian actor “George Ardisson” debuts in the first of two films as Walter Ross, Agent 3S3 of the CIA. Well-regarded by Eurospy fanatics, “Passport To Hell” keeps things fairly realistic, with a plot similar to “Secret Agent Fireball” (below). It even takes place in the same location (Beirut), but this flick I found a little more enjoyable. Agent 3S3 like Fireball is on the hunt for the daughter of an important man, though in her case Pops was a villainous spy who has set up a SPECTRE-like cabal of former spies; these villains are one of the most interesting features of the film. They’re not aligned with any foreign power and, like a true “shadow government,” are out to use their intelligence contacts for their own ends. Plus one of them sort of looks like Terence McKenna. Their mysterious leader is the father of the above-mentioned girl, and Ross is assigned to ingratiate herself into her life, even “marry her if necessary.” Off he heads to Germany, where composer Pierro Umiliani provides this uber strange (yet super-catchy), Muppets-esque “rock” track when Ross gets in a fight in a bar, the local toughs not appreciating his advances on their “girl” (aka the daughter in question, a somewhat-attractive brunette Euroactress).

Action is mostly fistfights and the expected low budget stuff, but Ross does take out the occasional foe with a silenced pistol. Ardisson is likely one of the top Eurospies, bringing to his role the same sort of natural swagger as Sean Connery – supposedly he was dubbed “the Italian Sean Connery” – and it’s a shame he wasn’t in more of these films. As he tracks down the various spy network members he fends off several attempts on his life, using a few gadgets along the way, like a beacon that’s tracked by a pair of sunglasses. The villains also have a chamber where they can view proceedings on a viewscreen while lights blip in the background, but this is about the furthest the movie gets into sci-fi.

Speaking of the villain spies, one of the leaders turns out to be a sexy Chinese lady, who at one point strips down to black bra and panties, but of course I scanned through it to avoid watching such shocking indecency. She actually lives through the piece – and surprisingly is not a conquest of Ross’s, who only manages to sleep with the daughter – and for that matter neither is the main villain dispatched by our hero. He simply beats him up and that’s that. Lame! Overall this one wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great, and was mostly elevated by Ardisson and the grim vibe – even the picture itself is sort of dark, but that just might be the murky-but-widescreen version I viewed. The movie was followed a year later by “Agent 3S3: Massacre In The Sun” (above), which I not only found much superior, but is also one of my favorite Eurospy movies.

Killers Are Challenged (1966): Richard “the proto-Ben Affleck” Harrison returns as Bart Fleming, Agent 077, in this sort-of sequel to the previous year’s “Secret Agent Fireball” (below – and I’m pretty sure he was “Bob” Fleming in that one). However as usual no effort is made toward continuity, and indeed Fleming just sort of walks into the film with no big buildup or payoff. At any rate this one’s a lot better than the previous movie, with Fleming going up against a bevy of sexy Eurobabes. An old scientist has come up with a new energy source and everyone wants it. Fleming poses as the scientist, who has had facial surgery, and goes to Casablanca, where he’s constantly hounded by a variety of enemy agents, all of whom work for a mysterious female. The focus is at times on comedy, but never to an outrageous extent, and the movie gets a lot of good mileage out of Fleming screwing with the unwitting villains who come after him – he’s much more suave and accomplished in this one, with a Bond-esque mastery of every situation. There’s also a bit more action, with random shootouts and chases.

Gadgets aren’t as prevalent, with low-budget stuff like coat buttons that double as audio bugs. Fleming again doesn’t manage to score, though he doesn’t come off like the horny teen of the previous film. The three main gals are an Asian babe who apparently falls for Fleming (though it’s hastily and vaguely implied at the end that she might be in a lesbian affair with the main villainess); failing in her mission to distract Fleming the Asian gal is at one point stripped to her lingerie, chained, and whipped by one of her fellow henchwomen. The main villainess, whose identity isn’t too surprising, is the same buxom blonde who appeared in that year’s Lightning Bolt as the jumpsuit-clad femme fatale in the villain’s underwater lair. She also appeared, as a different character, in “Secret Agent Fireball.” Here she is much more duplicitous and clearly enjoys harming others. Finally there’s a jawdropping redhead who plays Velka, secretary for a wealthy and aging Texan but who in reality is a double agent who helps Fleming; she’s my favorite of them all, but it looks like the actress didn’t do much else.

Everything goes along swimmingly until the final hour, when a pointless barroom brawl breaks out…and goes on for like 15 minutes. Egregious as you can get. The finale at least wraps things up, and once again hero Fleming (who did not return) doesn’t manage to score until the very last frame of the film – with Velka, the lucky bastard. This one features inventive camera angles and seems downright polished when compared to many other Eurospy entries.

Secret Agent Fireball (1965) Brawny blond American actor Richard Harrison, previously a sword and sandal star, makes his Eurospy debut as Agent 077 Bart (or is it Bob?) Fleming (note the last name, of course!), a character he would reprise in the superior followup, “Killers Are Challenged” (above). Harrison makes for a good pseudo-Bond, however personally I felt the actor looks uncannily like modern-day “superstar” Ben Affleck, which admittedly detracts a bit from one’s enjoyment of Harrison’s films. At any rate Fleming is sent around Europe and Beirut searching for a scientist who has devised some maguffin the Russians also want. Speaking of which, a team of Russians constantly shadow Fleming, the scenes sometimes played for thrills, sometimes played for laughs. Gadgets are plentiful but low budget, like shirt buttons that double as homing devices. There’s also a pipe that fires poison darts. Eurobabes are limited to a fierce-eyed blonde who played the red-jumpsuited ass-kicker in the awesome Lightning Bolt (and who also appeared, as a different but still evil character, in the sequel “Killers Are Challenged”), and the svelte brunette daughter of the missing scientist, who becomes Fleming’s ally.

Action is frequent but limited mostly to fistfights and car chases. In the finale Fleming chases the villains via helicopter, and Harrison is clearly sitting in a grounded ‘copter, merely pretending to fly. Also of humorous note is that Fleming throughout is as horny as a teenager but fails to score – he hits on the scientist’s daughter relentlessly when meeting her on an airplane, and makes aggressive advances on just about every lady he meets. So far as sidekicks go, Fleming partners up with a Beirut native who apparently is a fellow spy and who drives a gadget-filled taxi. The film has an unexpected finale in which the leader of the Russians ends up helping Fleming avert world destruction, with Fleming saying some maudlin stuff about the Cold War hopefully thawing one day. This one’s okay but a little threadbare compared to other Eurospy movies – I much prefer the sequel.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Valley Where Time Stood Still and The Martian El Dorado Of Parker Wintley

The Valley Where Time Stood Still, by Lin Carter
February, 1976  Popular Library
(Original Doubleday hardcover edition, 1974)

Between 1973 and 1984, Lin Carter published a “sequence” of four novels and one short story that was inspired by and dedicated to  Leigh Brackett. Carter, in his afterward to the final book, Down To A Sunless Sea (DAW, 1984), stated that as a teenager he’d been a fan of Brackett’s pulp sci-fi novels, and wanted to pay tribute to her version of “legendary Mars.” Carter’s novels were not published in chronological order (the first to be published, 1973’s The Man Who Loved Mars, actually takes place last chronologically – and was also the only one to be written in first-person), and they did not feature any recurring characters – other than Mars itself, which as in Brackett’s stories is a dying, dessicated world, home to an impossibly ancient race.

I’d never really thought much of Carter, other than I always remembered his name from the Conan books I read as a kid. But then when I met with Len Levinson last year, my interest in Carter was piqued – Len and Lin were friends from the early ‘60s until Carter’s death in 1988. Len told me some crazy stuff about the guy, who sounded like quite a memorable character – indeed, like a character in one of Len’s novels. Len himself has only read two of Carter’s novels (the first two Thongor installments), but he still thinks fondly of Carter, mostly because of the inspiration he gave Len to get started on his own novels.

Lin Carter was incredibly prolific, and outside of the Conan stuff maybe he’s most remembered for his Callisto series, which was greatly indebted to Edgar Rice Burrough’s John Carter of Mars books. Carter appears to have been a pastiche sort of author, maybe even a fan fiction author; at least he appears to be as such in The Valley Where Time Stood Still, as for the most part he does an effective job of capturing Leigh Brackett’s style. Carter’s pastiching certainly isn’t as evocative or poetic, but it does at time attain the ring of a Brackett original – to wit, “If ever a dead city had ghosts, thought M’Cord, it was Ygnarh dreaming of her lost empire in the golden twilight…” He also tries his hand at various Brackettisms, like “[M’Cord] cudgeled his memory.”

Carter considered these novels to be part of a “sequence” he referred to as The Mysteries of Mars, each of them taking place “about two hundred years” in the future. Chronologically The Valley Where Time Stood Still takes place second, I think, though note that in 1969 Carter published a novella titled The Flame of Iridar that was part of a Belmont Books Double which was also set on Mars, and also dedicated to Brackett (as well as her husband, Edmond Hamilton), but that one took place millions of years in Mars’s past and was more of a fantasy story – indeed, somewhat similar to Brackett’s The Sword Of Rhiannon in setting and fantasy vibe.

This one was the only novel in the sequence to be published in hardcover; Carter dedicates it to Brackett, “because it’s her kind of story.” He doubtless means this both ways – it’s Brackett’s kind of story in that it’s something she herself would probably enjoy reading, but also because Carter has done his best to retain her style and to set his novel on her Mars. Even the names of the various Martian cities are similar – ie Carter’s Tharsis to Brackett’s Valkis. And his Martians have that same vibe of decayed nobility; Carter’s have “coppery-red” skin and yellow eyes, and the men sport “furcaps” which are styled according to their status. The native women are generally topless and wear bells in their hair, just as in Brackett.

One difference is that Carter seems to go for more of a Western vibe than Brackett did. It would be easy to transpose the plot and characters of The Valley Where Time Stood Still from the deserts of Mars to the deserts of the Midwest, with his “lean and ragy” human protagonist M’Cord coming off just like a cowboy hero, even down to the dual “energy guns” he wears on his “lean hips.” (And those energy guns are made by General Electric, folks!) Likewise, Carter’s main Martian progatonist, Thaklar, is basically the Indian of Western yarns, abiding by his own code of nobility.

M’Cord himself is gruff and taciturn; he’s a desert prospector, having spent the past decade scouring the desert wastes of Mars for uranium, which is valueless to the Martians themselves. Instead of a horse he rides a slidar, one of the “ungainly, long-legged scarlet reptiles” which Martians use as “riding beasts.” (As we’ll recall, Brackett’s were described as “lizardlike mounts.”) An interesting detour from Brackett is that the humans of Carter’s books have undergone surgery to survive on Mars without the aid of a “respirator;” thanks to the “Mishubi-Yakamoto treatments” he received years before, M’Cord needs less oxygen. However like other “Earthsiders” on Mars, he wears a “thermalsuit” against the harsh elements.

Our hero comes upon a native stuck beneath a dead slidar. This turns out to be Thaklar, a former prince of the “Dragon Hawk clan.” It takes a long time to eke the info out of the injured warrior, but long story short: Thaklar is the latest in a line of fathers and sons who protect the secret location of Ophar, the so-called Valley of Lost Time, a sort of mythical Eden that also has a Fountain of Youth. The place, known as “The Holy,” is forbidden to Martians, and only Thaklar’s people know where it is. But he recently gave away the secret for a piece of ass: a hot native dancer-babe named Zerild, she of the “shallow pointed breasts” and “long, slim, coltish legs,” with hair like “a banner of black silk.” But the “wicked slut” took the sacred info and ran – without even giving poor old Thaklar that promised piece of ass!

Thaklar only relates his sad tale to M’Cord because the two have become “brothers,” following the ancient Martian tradition of sharing water – this after M’Cord is nearly killed by an attacking “sandcat.” Given that M’Cord himself saved Thaklar’s life, the Martian feels indebted to him, even if he is a “f’yagh,” or “hated one,” as the Martians refer to Earthmen. Thaklar gives water to an unconscious M’Cord, whose leg has been torn open from hip to knee, and this sharing of water is a holy and sacred thing, as water on dessicated Mars is more precious than life.

The two stop off to rest in Ygnarh, an incalculably ancient city that is “the first stop on the road” to Ophar. Thaklar’s own leg has healed, but M’Cord is in a bad way, but luckily here in this deserted “first city” of Mars they find other people – a Martian outlaw with the face of a wolf named Chastar, a “little priestling” named Phuun, and none other than Zerild herself. Chastar, who leads the group, keeps prisoner two Earthlings: a brother and sister from Sweden named Karl and Ingrid Nordgren. Of course, Ingrid is a hotstuff, stacked blonde, but she tries to hide it, and more so serves as an obedient servant to her brother. She helps to heal M’Cord with lots of high-tech equipment.

Thaklar has bargained for their lives with the revelation that he didn’t give Zerild all the details on the path to Ophar, so if the three want to go there – for whatever reason – they’ll need Thaklar’s help. And he demands safe passage for his “brother” M’Cord as well. Thus the group stays in Ygnarh for like…well, for like forever. The novel hits a holding pattern here for what seems to be endless chapters as M’Cord heals (I swear the phrase “His leg healed” appears like every other page, even though we’re informed he’s still healing). Carter strives for Brackett-style word painting as the humans muse over how ancient the city is, the first marble of which was set down while dinosaurs walked on the earth, but it does go on.

It’s a bunch of padding and slows the novel right on down, which is a shame, as prior to this it moves at a snappy pace. Finally though M’Cord has healed, for real this time, though we’re also informed he now has a “game leg” that he’ll forever have to drag along behind him. He can still ride a slidar, so off they head for fabled Ophar. But even here the novel is slow-going at best, Carter constantly stalling all forward momentum wth inordinate padding; repetitive padding, at that. It is clear he is having a hard time of filling up an entire novel – which isn’t even too long, coming in at 222 pages. Carter keeps stalling, ending most chapters on lame “what might happen next?” cliffhangers.

Ophar, when it is finally reached after arduous (and page-filling) journeying, is an Edenic paradise hidden in a valley at the bottom of a massive crater. An artificial crater-floor serves as a mirage to hide the place; Thaklar leads them down the stairs cut into the thousand-foot drop of the crater, and on through the mirage-like portal into Ophar. The cover painting of this Popular Library edition* pretty faithfully captures how Carter describes Ophar, even down to the big-eyed cat – which M’Cord theorizes might be the “mammal-like cat” from which the Martians themselves descended. Strangely, despite trying to invest the tale with “science,” Carter has it that his version of Martians might have a feline heritage…yet they’re still “humans.”

For Ophar is truly the place where time stood still – there are all manner of flora and fauna here that went extinct so long ago that no fossils even remain of them. The biggest surprise is the giant scarlet telepathic reptile that greets them – a kindly Guardian, and just one of several that still live here in the Valley. Even here though Carter shamelessly pads out the pages; it seems like every other page M’Cord pauses to worry over what might happen next. At any rate the Guardian fixes his game leg while he’s asleep; Carter works up a somewhat-lamely delivered reveal that the Valley heals those who have good hearts, but curses those who have come here for evil.

Here also Carter develops an 11th hour love between M’Cord and Ingrid, who it turns out is sometimes whipped by her brother…and might just enjoy it. After a lot of padding and exposition on this or that element of the Valley, the climax goes down quick, with Chastar and Phuun revealing their (incredibly lame) plan to conquer Mars – threaten destruction of the Valley itself! They’re going to bottle up water from the Pool and show it to people around Mars, or something…it’s pretty dumb. Oh, and the Pool gives off “bubbles” which, if they touch you, instantly zap your mind back to childhood and remove all stain from your heart, etc. But too much of it and you permanently regress, as evidenced by the flocks of nude young people running around, most of whom have been here for millennia.

The finale features various bizarre send-offs: one character is turned into a babe by the Pool, another is strangled by a tree that comes to life, like it just walked out of The Lord Of The Rings. Another is cast back into a bestial mode. Dancing “slut” Zerild (who might actually be a virgin – and by the way there’s zero sex in the book) freaks out and decides she loves Thaklar after all, devoting herself to him if he will accept her. And meanwhile Ingrid’s in danger of becoming one of those brainless Valley kids, thanks to an errant bubble, but M’Cord finds her…and conveniently enough she’s forgotten about practically everything except her love for him!

All told, not much really happens in The Valley Where Time Stood Still; as mentioned, it was more like a novella that was padded out to excess. The blood and thunder of vintage Leigh Brackett is nowhere to be found in this novel. The characters are not very interesting; the late reveals and turnarounds are so carelessly delivered as to almost be an insult to the reader. But I did enjoy the vibe of the novel, or at least the opening of it, which implies that The Valley Where Time Stood Still is going to be a lot better than it actually is.

Carter does an okay job of capturing Brackett’s style, though he does have an unfortunate tendency to lecture the reader, breaking the narrative flow. This is usually in regard to background on Mars, and thus isn’t too egregious, but sometimes it can be, with stuff like, “But that is one of the best things about living – one of the most precious gifts ever given to us by Those who shaped our being: We cannot ever know what is to come.” He does stuff like this throughout the novel and it isn’t very “Brackettian” at all; she was much more of a “show rather than tell” kind of author, and would’ve shoehorned such philosophies into action or dialog. But these things mark the difference between a good author and a great one.

*Every time I looked at that funky cover painting on this Popular Library edition, I kept thinking of Shea and Wilson’s almighty Illuminatus! trilogy – in particular, the similarly-funky cover paintings of the original Dell Books editions. I puzzled over the signature on this The Valley Where Time Stood Still painting, researched online, and at length discovered that it is indeed by the same dude: Carlos Ochagavia! Though he just went as “Carlos Victor” for the three Illuminatus! covers.

As mentioned above, The Valley Where Time Stood Still chronologically takes place second in the sequence. In 1976 Carter published a short story in the DAW Science Fiction Reader which would take the first chronological spot. It is titled “The Martian El Dorado of Parker Wintley.” Here’s the cover of the anthology, which is dated July, 1976:

The story takes place in “’67,” which I wager means 2167; in the afterward to Down To A Sunless Sea, Carter states that the Mysteries Of Mars sequence takes place about 200 years in the future. Or as Carter puts it in this story, “This was rugged, Colonialist Mars of the frontier,” further referencing the global revolution which apparently serves as the climax of The Man Who Loved Mars. But anyone hoping for a Brackett-esque short story about “legendary Mars” will be disappointed. Rather, Lin Carter apparently wants to do a comedy…one written in an annoyingly omniscient tone at that. 

Our “hero” is Parker Wintley, a self-involved lothario who has come to Mars after running into some female troubles on Earth. His plan is to get rich quick, capitalizing on the diamond rush currently dominating the red planet; while hard to find, diamonds are not much valued by the natives. Parker’s figured he can find some in the south regions of the planet, whereas everyone else is up north. He uses his charm to score a free “sand crawler” from the pretty lady who runs the rental place, and sets off on his trip.

But the majority of the 10-page tale is given over to “comedy” about the inordinate customs and rituals of the Martians, who we are informed perfected their culture millennia ago, so that there is no new art or entertainment or etc. So instead they enjoy talking floridly and endlessly beating around the bush. To this end Parker, when he meets a tribe of “yellow-faced natives in their loose brown robes,” spends five days haggling with them, most of it composed of days-long words of welcome from the Martians. Luckily, none of this crap is in The Valley Where Time Stood Still, and one hopes it only exists in this short story – the Martians seen in that novel, and hopefully the other three, aren’t so bound by ridiculous formality.

Worse yet, the story winds up to a lame comedy climax; after all this haggling, Parker makes off with what he believes are cannisters of diamonds. But then his sand crawler breaks down and only then does he look inside – the Martians have given him water, thanks to a mistake on Parker’s part in the Martian words he used. He referred to a “precious thing” he wanted in exchange for the salt he was bartering with the Martians – salt being incredibly rare and desirable here – and to the Martians there is nothing more precious than water.

But the water keeps Parker alive for the long walk back to civilization, and the story ends with him figuring he’ll go shack up with the pretty sand crawler rental babe. And that’s it for the story, which I guess can be considered part of the Mysteries of Mars sequence due to the reference to The Man Who Loved Mars. Otherwise I’d say this one could be skipped; it doesn’t even have a Brackett vibe, as the novels do.

FYI, only one post next week, on account of the holidays; it will be on Wednesday. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Last Ranger #5: The War Weapons

The Last Ranger #5: The War Weapons, by Craig Sargent
October, 1987  Popular Library

The fifth volume of The Last Ranger is basically part two of the previous volume; it opens immediately after the apocalyptic events of The Rabid Brigadier, with Martin “The Last Ranger” Stone determined to stop insane General Patton III before Patton can carry out his threat of nuking Colorado – just so he can kill Stone. 

But to tell the truth, I wasn’t really crazy about the previous book, and General Patton’s a bit too cliched a villain for my tastes, so I found myself enjoying The War Weapons the least of all the Last Ranger novels yet. Mostly because this one follows the “Stone joins the military” premise of the previous book, with Stone this time commanding a squad of raw recruits on the mad dash to find Patton’s nuclear silo. And it’s pretty clear that Jan “Craig Sargent” Stacy was having a hard time filling up a whole book this time, as to tell the truth not much happens; much of the narrative is Stone sitting in a tank, trying to navigate it through post-nuke Colorado.

This was the last volume of the series I bought when it was fresh on the bookstore shelves; in fact a memory I’ve carried around for 30 years now is the day I happened to go into my local WaldenBooks store, where I bought all my new men’s adventure paperbacks, and there was a kid my age (13 or so) standing there. I didn’t know him; he said he was from a few towns over or somesuch, and rarely came to this mall. We got in a conversation about The Last Ranger, and it was the only time I’d ever talked to someone else about the genre I loved so much. We were geeking out about the series, and in particular I recall how we both were laughing excitedly about the part in The Madman’s Mansion where Stone threw the depraved dwarf Poet out of a window – we both hoped the damn freak was dead for real. 

Then the part I always remember is we were wondering when “the new one” might be coming out…and the kid happened to look down at the shelf and was he like, “Look – the new one is out!” And lo and behold there was The Last Ranger #5: The War Weapons sitting on the shelf. But only one copy was left! The kid excitedly grabbed it up, and then, in a display of kindness that still makes me tear up despite the grizzled bastard life has made of me, the kid handed me the book, saying he’d find his own copy at the mall that was closer to where he lived. So of course I bought it; I wonder whatever happened to that kid, but I do recall that from then on when I went to that store I always wondered if I’d run into him again, though I never did.

But anyway this was, fittingly, the last one I ever bought, and reading it again all these years later I experinced occasional bouts of déjà vu, so I defintely read it back then. (Unsurprisingly, the parts I remembered were the ones with gory violence and hardcore sex!) I guess though this was around the time my interest in the men’s adventure genre was beginning to wane. Or maybe I just didn’t like it as much as the previous four volumes back then, either. About the most positive thing I can say about this one is that it really does read like the second half of The Rabid Brigadier, but then pretty much every volume has picked up directly after the one before; it’s mentioned in the text of this one that Martin Stone’s only been roaming around post-nuke America for a month.

As we’ll recall, in the last book Stone joined General Patton’s New American Army, quickly ascended through the ranks until Patton looked upon him as his future replacement, and then abruptly realized that Patton was really a sadist, one who was looking to destroy America and rebuild it in his own image. Stone managed to destroy, at much page count, Patton’s nuclear warhead, only to find out on the last page that Patton actually had more nukes at his disposal. So The War Weapons opens with Stone standing in the ashes of the nuclear silo, fighting off a few surviving NAA troops. As ever Stacy delights in the gore, indluging in a dark comedy vibe that at times reaching David Alexander heights: “The slug tore into the sniper’s head and whipped his brain tissue into instant mouse, servable at all the best parties.”

Stone stumbles across the group of men he went through basic training with, in the previous volume. Humorously, Stacy can’t seem to figure out how many of them there are, though gradually he settles on ten. But only a few of them are named; the two most memorable are the similarly-named Bo and Bull. The former is the one person Stone feels he can trust in the group, the latter is the one he trusts the least – Bull, a big sonofabitch, tangled with Stone in the previous book, and got his ass kicked by the Last Ranger. Stone is able to talk the guys out of killing him as a “traitor” and quickly convinces them of Patton’s insanity, and that he must be stopped before he sets off one of his nukes.

Here The War Weapons settles in for the long haul; the squad appropriates a trio of Bradley III tanks, taking them from a group of bikers in another gory battle. But the book almost assumes the vibe of the C.A.D.S. series, with too much time-wasting and technical detail as Stone quickly trains the men on various aspects of the tanks, and then they set off across the blasted ruins of Colorado, encountering various setbacks, usually ones of nature. Flashing back to his work on the early volumes of Doomsday Warrior, Stacy even has the group encounter freak nuke-spawn weather, with the tanks at one point buried under several feet of sand. Again evidencing the gooy nature of the series, Stone’s loyal pitbull Excaliber digs them out.

Around here is a part that had me on that déjà vu trip; Stone leaves his men for a bit and secretly heads back to the Bunker his father built here in the mountains of Colorado, where Stone spent the past five years of his life before leaving it in the first volume. For some reason I always recall these Bunker scenes; it must’ve resonated with me as a kid that Stone had a “safe space” (in the lame modern parlance) in the post-nuke world. That Stone has never considered finding himself a woman (not to mention his ever-missing sister April, who hasn’t been seen since the third volume) and just living safely and easily in the idllyic home, leaving the blasted US to its fate, is reason I guess why he’s “the Last Ranger” (a title, by the way, which is actually used to describe Stone in this one).

But for once there’s trouble in this little paradise; just as Stone’s tacked up the “painting of Michelangelo’s Creation” which Patton gave him in the previous book (despite the fact that the Creation is a ceiling fresco and not a painting), Stone’s attacked by a group of assassins who have secretly followed him here. NAA soldiers who claim to Stone before killing him that there’s a traitor in his group, one who dropped them a dime that Stone had just left camp. Stone manages to take out two and Excaliber kills the other two in another action scene that’s even heavier on the gore. We also get another glimpse at that proto-internet Stone’s dad created; Stone accesses it to learn what nuke silos are in the area. Here we also learn that Stone was a big fan of Aquaman as a kid, having named his pet hamster after the hero – Stone’s dad having made the hamster’s name the password to access this info.

The saddest thing about all the egregious tank stuff is that it’s ultimately pointless. Stone leads his mini-convoy to Patton’s silo, only to learn it’s a trap. Several more Bradleys come out and surround them, and Stone learns which of his men is Patton’s insider (it’s neither Bull nor Bo). There follows a bit of sadism as Stone is beaten to a veritable pulp, with one of his eyes swelling to baseball size. An ironic bit here has Stone uttering this badass (but frowned-up today) line to his tormentors: “I’ve had old women with AIDS hit at me harder than that.” Ironic because Stacy himself died of AIDS in 1989. One wonders what was going on in his mind when he wrote the line – was it just a fluke of irony or was there more it? (And I haven’t even mentioned how the song “It’s Raining Men” is referenced in the book!)

But Patton can’t just kill Stone. After having him beaten unmerciful (to quote Sol Rosenberg), Patton condemns Stone to “the death of ten million bites.” Stone, stripped and covered in syrup, is tied to an X-shaped cross and planted on a Colorado plateu, to become ant bait. He’s saved by the appearance of a gorgeous Indian babe, just as the ants are really tearing into him. This is Merya, “dauther of Fighting Bear, of the Cheyene,” a “full-breasted” American Indian beauty who goes around in a slim leather deerskin vest and not much else. She takes Stone back to her teepee and goes about healing him in the old way – ie spreading some sort of gunk on his beaten flesh and having the expected hardcore sex with him.

Once again Stacy devotes an entire chapter (16, for those taking notes) to sex – for some reason, yet another part that had me experiencing déjà vu, as I guess this part too resonated with 13 year-old me(!). And with insane lines like, “Slowly the spear of turgid flesh slid deeper and deeper into the recesses of [Merya’s] body,” how could it not? What’s most humorous here is that Stone appears to forget that this exact same thing happened to him back in the first volume – there too he was beaten near to death, only to be brought back to life thanks to the exuberant banging skills of an Indian babe. Stacy does kind of play on this, though; after a whopping orgasm or three, Merya declares Stone “a yanna, a giver a love,” which Stone muses to himself is the opposite of the “bringer of death” he was declared to be by the Ute Indians in volume #1.

Stone, despite having a few broken fingers and toes and a still-swollen eye, vows to lead the ten Indian men of Merya’s tribe on a raid upon Patton’s compound. Luckily they have a bunch of three-wheelers with autopistols jury-rigged to the handles. Merya of course goes along. But even here it’s all buildup for naught; promptly upon sneaking into Patton’s compound, Stone finds his troops lined up in a firing line. Again evidencing the goofy tone of the series, friggin’ pitbull Excaliber stands in the firing line with them. Stone of course saves the group, leading into a chaotic climactic battle which has three-wheelers and tanks going at it.

But as if again displaying the fatalist vibe of the series, Patton escapes again – and this time launches a nuke, right at Stone! Our hero just manages to high-tail it twenty miles from the compound, and, in perhaps another shout-out to Doomsday Warrior, finds shelter in a tunnel that’s built beneath a highway, which of course brings to mind the origins of that earlier series’s Century City. It’s all a bit hard to swallow as Stone, Merya, Excaliber, and a few others survive a friggin’ nuclear blast only miles away. But in the aftermath Merya assumes that Patton too is dead, having fired the warhead from another silo not far away. Stone figures she’s right, but he’s uncertain – personally I won’t figure the guy is dead until we see his bullet-ridden corpse, but I hope the series moves on to a more-interesting villain in the next installment.

And here we leave Martin Stone, wondering how much radiation he’s absorbed in this blast, yet another megababe of an Indian beauty at his side, loyal Excaliber at his heels, and his sister April still missing. But whereas this is where I left the series all those years ago, this time I’ll continue on with it – but here’s hoping it gets back to the insane, lurid vibe of The Madman’s Mansion and moves away from this New American Army stuff.

Have I mentioned yet that the covers for this series are courtesy men’s adventure magazine legend Norm Eastman?

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Leigh Brackett Review Round-Up, Part 1

It appears I just can’t get enough of the sci-fi fantasy of Leigh Brackett; luckily, one thing our pathetic modern era provides is easy access to old pulp, so even though I don’t have any of the various anthologies that collects the below stories, I was able to find them on the Internet Archive for free download (most of them, anyway). As always, I’ll link to the archive so you can download each issue yourself; I couldn’t give the work of Leigh Brackett a higher recommendation than say you should just skip my reviews and read the stories. She’s become possibly my favorite writer ever.

The Summer, 1946 issue of Planet Stories features “Lorelei Of The Red Mist,” which was Brackett’s sole collaboration with a young writer named Ray Bradbury, who apparently looked up to Brackett in those days as a sort of mentor. In 1974 Brackett edited the Ballantine Books anthology The Best Of Planet Stories #1, and included “Lorelei of the Red Mist” in it. In the Introduction she states that she got her Hollywood gig while she was writing this story, and basically just dropped it so she could go write screenplays for Howard Hawks. She turned what she’d written over to Bradbury.

While “Lorelei of the Red Mist” is fantastic, I can only imagine how much better it would’ve been had Brackett completed it herself. In many ways it’s similar to the later “Enchantress Of Venus,” in that it too takes place on Venus, in the psychedelic Red Sea. The novella also has similarities to “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs,” in that the protagonist has his mind put into another body, the same thing that happened to Eric John Stark in the climax of that later story. In fact, the name of this story’s protagonist is even similar: Hugh Starke, who happens to be a criminal, one who just heisted a payroll-bearing spaceship.

Starke is chased over the unknown, almost impassable frontiers of Venus, which in Brackett’s solar system is mostly an uncharted no man’s land. He crashes into the jungle and when he wakes up knows he is dying, his body crushed. But there’s this mega-babe with white skin (ie true white, not caucasian) and “aquamarine” hair, lips and eyes (not to mention green nipples – as ever, Brackett’s babes are topless, my friends), and she tells Starke she’s going to save him.

The evil beauty’s name is Rann, it turns out, and she magically transplants Starke’s mind into a muscle-bound body that once belonged to a barbarian named Conan(!). (In the above-mentioned Introduction Brackett states this name might have been a mistake in hindsight, but in 1946 Robert E. Howard’s work was known to a small few.) Starke’s now in a besieged castle on the Red Sea, chained to the floor, a welded collar around his neck. A blind barbarian named Faolan and a small bard named Romma watch him. This is Crom Dhu, which is under attack by Rann’s forces and soon to be defeated. Gradually Starke will realize Rann has sent him here as an assassin.

Conan it develops was a co-leader of this group, in love with Faolan’s sister Beaudag. But then Rann caught Conan, had lots of sex with him, and turned him to her side. Conan then set up his former people, even blinding Faolan in the battle. But he was caught, tortured by Faolan and the others, until his mind broke, leaving an empty but brawny shell. Enter the mind of Hugh Starke, who now must prove to these people he is not really Conan but an Earthman who doesn’t even know the first thing about Venus. Then he gets a gander at Conan’s old flame, Beaudag. 

She’s a red-haired, sword-carrying beauty, who per Brackett tradition wears nothing but a leather kilt, showing off her spectacular nude bust – and I’ve noticed, because I tend to notice these sorts of things, that Venusian women must be bustier than their Martian counterparts. While Brackett consistently describes her Martian women as “small-breasted,” indeed almost “childlike” in their build, she states that both the Venusian women in this story are busty; Rann is even described as “insolently curved.” Speaking of which, “Lorelei of the Red Mist” is a bit more risque than the other Bracketts I’ve read; we’re often reminded how curvy and lusty these two topless women are. Usually Brackett just mentions such things once, then moves on, but this time there’s a bit more focus on the topic – and it’s only in Brackett’s portion of the novella, not Bradbury’s.

In fact it’s intimated that Starke and Beaudag get busy – she kisses him as a test, claiming afterwards it is indeed not Conan. Then she comes to him again that night, while he’s still chained to the floor, and Brackett ends the sequence with an ellipsis, which is ‘40s pulp magazine speak for “they have lots of sex.” But Rann can control Starke, using him as a “catspaw,” and turns him into her remote-control killing device despite his powers of self control. Eventually the action moves to Falga, Rann’s territory; Starke and a captive Beaudag are transported across the Red Sea, which is just as psychedelic here as in “Enchantress of Venus,” Brackett’s descriptive powers as ever concise but poetic.

Starke ends up swimming in the Red Sea, having escaped a group of Rann’s men who try to kill him, and he’s chased by these strange-sounding “hounds.” In the Best of Planet Stories Introduction, Brackett states that the switchover to Bradbury occurred here, with the sentence, “He saw the flock, herded by more of the golden hounds.” Strangely though, it appears that the switch occurs earlier, as prior to this sentence there’s already a different vibe to the narrative. Granted, this part is filtered through Starke’s thoughts, and he speaks in a different, more hardboiled style than Brackett’s typical protagonists. So maybe she did write this stuff, too – maybe this is when she got the call, and her mind was on Hollywood, hence the sudden hardboiled, more casual vibe to the narrative.

At any rate, Bradbury takes over and you can tell he strives to retain Brackett’s atmospheric style, and for the most part succeeds. But he moves away from the evocative nature of a true Brackett yarn and turns in this weird horror-action hybrid; Starke comes upon a city built by a “titan” beneath the Red Sea, and discovers there all the animated corpses of men killed in the recent Falga-Crom Dhu battle(!). Controlled by the sea-living “shepherds” who’d been chasing him with their “hounds,” these corpses are going to be sent to the surface to wipe out both kingdoms. But, using his mental contact with Rann as leverage, Starke saves Crom Dhu.

Bradbury is a bit more into the action scenes than Brackett herself; whereas such scenes are usually quick but effective in a sole Brackett joint, Bradbury gets into the blood and thunder of it with several scenes of Starke, in that hulking Conan body, braining dudes left and right with a chain and hacking and slashing with a sword. The horror stuff continues with those zombie warriors getting further hacked up but still advancing on the enemy, etc. But unfortunately it’s all on the action angle for the finale, lacking the more introspective or thoughtful climax Brackett might’ve given us (she claims in the Intro to that anthology she had no idea where the story was going when she turned it over to Bradbury). To the unfortunate point that Rann herself is almost perfunctorily dealt with.

But overall “Lorelei of the Red Mist” is very good – and by the way, there’s no “Lorelei” at all in the story! It has a great vibe and the Red Sea stuff is very cool, plus in this one we see all the strange life that lives in it. It also features two great female characters in Rann and Beaudag, though it must be mentioned the latter basically disappears in Bradbury’s section, spending the majority of the narrative bound to the masthead of Rann’s ship.

The February, 1950 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories features “Dancing Girl of Ganymede,” which takes place on the titular moon of Jupiter; this is the first Brackett story I’ve read to be set in this quadrant of the solar system – the “Outer Worlds,” as they are referred to in Brackett’s work. Ganymede is a fetid jungle of a moon, filled with small “aboriginal” creatures that are like little Missing Link-type things. The protagonist, Tony Harrah, even has one as a loyal pet, named Tok. Harrah when we meet him is making his way through the steaming streets of Komar, Ganymede’s main city (I think), and sees the titular dancing girl performing on the streets for money. She has blonde hair, an incredible bod, and black eyes – with a look of total hatred in them when she looks at Harrah, who is instantly smitten with her.

I’ve yet to read C.L. Moore but I’m familiar with her first, and most famous, story, “Shambleau,” and it would appear Brackett was, too. In that story a rugged spaceman runs into a beauty on the streets who has like the entire town after her blood. This happens here, but on a lower-key note: after an attack by rabid dogs, which go wild for some unknown reason, Harrah saves the dancing girl (who for her part is slashing at the dogs with her own knife), throws her over his shoulder, and runs off with her. Then three dudes come after her – a Martian, an Earthman, and a Venusian. They want to kill her, for reasons they won’t divulge, and knock out Harrah.

When he comes to he’s confronted by the men who were with the dancing girl – black-eyed “gypsies” like her, with the same hard look. The leader is named Kehlin. The captured dancing girl is named Marith. They use Tok – who fears Kehlin and his comrades – to track Marith, to an abandoned warehouse where she’s surrounded by those three bounty hunters. Kehlin wades in and kills them all. Harrah is properly confused by it all; only until Kehlin employs telepathy to give Harrah a glimpse inside his mind does Harrah learn what’s going on.

Spolier alert – Kehlin, Marith, and the others are androids. And boy does it come on like Blade Runner here, even more so than Dick’s source novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Kehlin even gives a speech about how he has seen more in his 75 years than most humans could ever dream of – a speech eerily reminiscent of the one Rutger Hauer gives in that film (which I read somewhere Hauer supposedly came up with on his own…could he have been a Brackett fan??). But the androids, who are “more than human,” have gone rogue, thirsting for their freedom, and are being hunted down by the assembled governments of the “Inner Worlds.”

Kehlin also wants to kill Harrah, but Marith intercedes; our hero has melted her frosty exterior. No human has ever been in love with her before, and Harrah certainly is, despite the fact she isn’t human – and “human” in Brackett refers to Martians, Venusians, Mercurians, Terrans, and etc; all those descended from a “common human stock,” as helpfully explained in The Secret Of Sinharat. The climax occurs deep in the jungles of Ganymede, where the android survivors are planning to build an army or somesuch; Harrah, seeing the horror of it all, calls out to Tok to assemble the aborigines and burn everything down, fire being one of the few things that can destroy the androids. The finale seems to imply that Harrah and Marith do not escape the conflagration. Bummer!

Overall “Dancing Girl of Ganymede” is fast-moving and written with the usual Brackett panache. Man she excels at describing these exotic alien planets; even though it has nothing to do with the actual Ganymede, the moon of this story has a life of its own. Harrah is the usual cipher of a protagonist, with hardly any background about him at all, but you can still root for him, even if his sudden love for Marith is hard to buy – I mean, if it was lust, sure. Also the bond with Tok isn’t as exploited as I would’ve expected, but Brackett still makes it effective enough, with Tok so loyal to his master that he follows him into the jungle, despite his animal fear of the androids – the very thing, of course, which caused that dog attack early in the story.

“The Moon That Vanished” is one of the best Brackett stories I’ve read, on par with “Enchantress Of Venus.” It first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories October, 1948; unfortunately, it’s not available on the usually-reliable Internet Archive, which is a damn shame, as this is my favorite story here. It was collected in the 1964 Ace Books paperback Swordsmen In The Sky, edited by Donald Wollheim; I read it there. This one takes us back to Venus, and to tell the truth I’m preferring the stories set here to Brackett’s more-popular Martian tales. I find Brackett’s Venus more evocative than her Mars, which is really saying something.

I’d venture further to say that “The Moon That Vanished” is one of my favorite Brackett stories yet; it doesn’t have the action nature of her Eric John Stark stories, but it has a similar adventure sort of vibe. However the hero, David Heath, is an emaciated, drug-addled wreck, thanks to having ventured into the forbidden “Moonfire” three years before. Now he’s given free room and board – plus free drugs! – per the ancient Venusian custom granted to any who have returned from the fringes of the Moonfire. No one has ever returned from the heart of it, though. There is even a religious order that worships the Moonfire: The Children of the Moon.

Brackett parcels out the story of the Moonfire throughout the novella, but it goes like this: legend has it that there was once a moon of Venus, and upon it lived a god with a shining body that was more powerful than the other gods. But they ganged up on him and destroyed him and his moon; his shining corpse fell to this forbidden area of Venus (Brackett’s Venus is mostly an uncharted wildlands, with the sun never visible due to the constant cloud cover). A golden mist covers this mass of land, supposedly the god’s breath, and the glowing center of it is his shining corpse. Whoever ventures into the shining center becomes a god, per Venusian legend. Being a non-superstitious Earthman, Heath figures the Moonfire is really radiation – which, in Brackett’s world, has almost Stan Lee properties. A dose of it and you get superpowers.

To wit, Heath is able to form a “shadow” of his dead beloved Ethne from the mist in the humid Venusian air; Ethne appears to have died on the quest to the Moonfire three years ago, and Heath, a sailor, has named his ship in her honor. But even though he’s been “touched by the gods,” at least on a minor level, Heath due to his heartbreak is such a shell of his former self that when we meet him he’s hanging out at “Kalruna’s dingy Palace of all Possible Delights,” basically a Venusian opium den, and inhaling a mysterious “warm golden vapor” through a leather mask. He has a little dragon perched on his shoulder, one of Venus’s many exotic animals, but surprisingly Brackett doesn’t do much with this creature.

Heath is accosted by a hulking Venusian barbarian who accuses him of lying about seeing the Moonfire; to prove himself, Heath forms the shadow of Ethne. The barbarian is named Brocca, and he wants Heath to take him to the forbidden land of the Moonfire – Brocca, and a “temple wench” named Alor whom Brocca insists is his lover. Alor is the usual Brackett beauty, with the white skin of a Venusian and hair that is “bright, true silver with little peacock glints of color in it.” As if that weren’t enough, “her body was everthing a woman’s body ought to be.” We are informed of her nice curves and whatnot – again with the busty Venusian babes in Brackett’s solar system.

We don’t learn much of Alor’s previous life with the Children of the Moon, only that she bears a tattoo of the order between her breasts – this she naturally shows to Heath to prove Brocca’s story that they are both runaways from the temple. And she really does have to take off her top to do so, as Alor is one of the few Brackett heroines who isn’t topless all the time. Brocca apparently was a Guardian of the Moon, ie the band of warriors that protect the order…he wants to take Alor to the Moonfire so she can bathe in its heart and become a goddess, and he a god. Heath says what the hell and offers to take them there on his ship. Soon he learns they are being chased by Vakor, leader of the Children of the Moon; they follow behind the Ethne on their own ship, all of them big Venusian dudes in “black link mail” with silver moons blazing on their chests.

Heath navigates them through the dangerous sea lanes of Venus, at one point even encountering a massive sea monster. But the tension is mostly via the growing attraction between Alor and him; Brocca resents how Alor is always talking to Heath, asking him about the ship and whatnot. And Heath is noticing more and more how pretty Alor is, bringing him out of his heartbroken shell. As usual, it is all capably delivered by Brackett, with none of the maudlin sap you might expect. Then Alor kisses Heath one night and tells him she doesn’t love Brocca, who meanwhile has descended into a temporary fever and tries to strangle Heath one day. Alor knocks Brocca out, and Heath is angry “that he should have needed a woman’s help to save his life.”

Vakor and his crew pursue our heroes but will go no further once they finally enter the passageway into the Moonfire. Here the trio bathe in the “lovely hellish light” of the radiation – and Heath realizes why no one who has ventured to the heart of it has ever returned. In an interesting foreshadow of the later film Inception, the Moonfire allows a person to create entire worlds with the golden mist that spreads over the area. Heath, separated from the others, tries twice to create Ethne, but each time it is a shadow of Alor that comes to him. Another effective, understated moment – Heath realizes that he has recovered from his broken heart and not even realized it. He is no longer in love with Ethne but with Alor.

So he creates Alor, and a world for the two of them, and the power of creation is so overwhelming and addictive that Heath understands why no one would leave. But the power of his will is such that he knows it is all a lie and this shadow Alor is not the real Alor; thus, he overcomes the addiction and destroys everything. Again, just like Christopher Nolan’s film, but whereas this took up the final quarter of the movie, Brackett handles it in a few masterful paragraphs. Meanwhile the real Alor is prisoner in Brocca’s giant castle fashioned from red crystal, populated with countless loyal servants. Another great moment – when Alor sees Heath, she asks, “Are you really David or only the shadow of my mind?” The same question Heath had asked of the shadow Alor when it first appeared.

But Heath refuses to use the power of creation to fight Brocca, aware of its addictive nature – instead, he uses the power of destruction. It’s a cool, apocalyptic finale, but one without any of the blood and thunder of the Eric John Stark stories. Heath proves he is stronger than Brocca because he “threw away” the godhead offered by the Moonfire. Together he and Alor – herself more powerful than Brocca, for she too rejects the dreamworld of the Moonfire – leave Brocca to his imaginary kingdom. Even Vakor, back in the real world, realizes the new couple is outside the realm of his jurisdiction; they are the first people to ever return from the heart of the Moonfire, and they have done so due to their love for one another.

Brackett as ever brings her characters and exotic world fully to life. There is a wonderful part where Heath navigates his ship through the Sea of Morning Opals as dawn breaks, with dazzling lights upon the ocean and flocks of little dragons taking to the sky, and the word painting is beyond skillfull. In the afterward to his 1984 paperback Down To A Sunless Sea, which was part of a “sequence” of unrelated novels inspired by and dedicated to Brackett (reviews forthcoming), Lin Carter aptly described her style as “lean, sinewy prose.” This style is in full effect throughout “The Moon That Vanished,” and it’s as addictive as the Moonfire itself – to the point that I’ve already started in on more of Brackett’s work.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Meet Nookie (Nookie #1)

Meet Nookie, by Ross Webb
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

“Ross Webb” is none other than J.C. Conaway, who here serves up the first of what will be two volumes in the Nookie series, which is basically a prefigure of Conaway’s later Jana Blake series. Prefigure? Actually it’s the same exact thing, with only minor changes. 

Conaway has already proven himself to be a master recycler, as seen with Deadlier Than The Male, which was a straight-up rewrite of his earlier Lady From L.U.S.T. contribution. By the same token, it would appear that Jana Blake was just the Nookie series, moved from Manor to Belmont-Tower, with the heroine changed from a brunette to a blonde. Otherwise the two series are identical and are both low-thrills, high-sleaze.

To wit, Italian-American Indian beauty Nakomis “Nookie” Narducci is a “well-stacked female dick.” She has straight black hair that flows past her shoulders but no other body hair to speak of; her “hairless femininity” will often be mentioned in the copious sex scenes, but none of her male consorts seem much surprised by it, which is strange given that this was written in the shaggy-hairy ‘70s. Just like Jana Blake, Nookie has an office in Greenwich Village, on West 60th and 9th Ave – and just like Jana Blake she’s up on the third floor. Whereas there’s a gay-frequented gym on the second floor of Jana’s building, Nookie’s has a gay-frequented “beauty school” on the second floor. And while Jana’s best friend is a pudgy gay interior designer named Charlie, Nookie’s best friend is a pudgy gay window decorator named Sydney who steals clothing for her.

More paralells: Jana Blake has a sort-of boyfriend named Gianni, an Italian hunk who runs a fruit stand; Nookie has a sort-of boyfriend named Pompie, an Italian hunk who runs a bar. As with Jana and Gianni, Nookie’s night with Pompie serves up the first of several XXX scenes in the novel. And just as Jana has a doting aunt – her only living relative – who often comes into the city to bring Jana presents and take her out to expensive dinners, so too does Nookie. Jana and Nookie even both end up boffing the police lieutenants who handle their first cases; for just as Deadlier Than The Male depicted Jana Blake’s first-ever case, so too does Meet Nookie depict Nookie’s.

Speaking of which, the brunette on the cover of Deadlier Than The Male is a better representation of Nookie than it is of blonde Jana Blake, so there might be something there: I’ve never seen confirmation that Manor was owned by Belmont Tower (though Len Levinson has speculated to me that it was, perhaps as some sort of tax-evasion deal), but it could be that the cover art for Deadlier Than The Male was commissioned for a never-published third volume of Manor’s Nookie series. More evidence: the brunette on the cover of Deadlier Than The Male is wearing a raincoat, and while Jana Blake is never stated as wearing one, we are reminded throughout Meet Nookie that Nookie wears one. That is, when she’s wearing anything at all.

The only difference between Nookie and Jana Blake, other than hair color and heritage, is that Nookie doesn’t have the sexism of Jana; as we’ll recall, Jana Blake only takes jobs for women and deals with “women’s issues.” Also, Nookie doesn’t sleep in her office like Jana does; Nookie’s apartment is on 56th street. And the only real difference between the series themselves is that, at least judging from this first volume, Nookie is much more focused on the sleaze, with several hardcore sex scenes throughout. Otherwise the two series are the same in that they are more along the lines of slow-moving mysteries than action yarns (like Jana, Nookie doesn’t even own a gun). Not to mention the interesting fact that each series only lasted two volumes, so the idea wasn’t exactly a hit despite the publisher.

As with Jana’s first case, Nookie’s has her looking into what appears to be a serial killer, one operating in the downbeaten Chesterfield Hotel on West 58th Street, within walking distance of Nookie’s apartment. Nookie is hired by former silent film star Violet Valady, who lives in her twilight years in the Chesterfield with her sister, who gets murdered in the first pages of the book. Violet complains that the cops aren’t moving on the case and so hires Nookie; our heroine’s first client, given that Nookie is usually discarded by potential clients when they discover that “Nakomis Narducci” is really a woman. Why Nookie even wants to be a private eye is something Conaway never reveals.

Nookie goes out with “unattractive homosexual” GBF Sidney Pomeroy and ends up going back to her apartment with Pompie, thus leading us into our first taste of sleaze. Here we learn that “Nookie’s body had an unusual feature…it was completely hairless.” Nookie will have sex the very next day, as part of her “interview” for the job of “chambermaid” at the Chesterfield. Her plan is to get this job to scout out the big hotel and find the killer. Having no qualms with screwing someone to get something, Nookie eagerly bangs Ray Lawrence, studly manager (and secret owner) of the Chesterfield. But Nookie’s just getting started, as that very night she’ll be double-teamed by a pair of medical interns.

As is typical with Conaway, Meet Nookie is more of an ensemble affiar, with Nookie competing with a variety of characters for narrative spotlight. On her first day on the job she meets all the many characters who live in the Chesterfield, each of whom could be the murderer. There’s Mavis, the foul-mouthed, heavyset black lady who also works as a chambermaid (Conaway serves up a string of gross-out jokes concerning Mavis’s attempts at “self pleasure” throughout the novel); Lottie Hess, the butch former roller derby champion who now serves as staff manager; and Jablonski –Smythe, the simpering gay front desk clerk. There’s also a bunch of residents, from a shut-in married couple to a Greek father and son who sell diamonds but who might really be into something more nefarious.

As mentioned Nookie gets familiar with two such residents on her first night: Monty and Hans, who insist on taking Nookie out to Chinatown, where they first hang out in the restaurant of Ming Toy, a “Chinese-Jewish lesbian” with a mouth nearly as foul as Mavis’s. She also declares she’s an old rival of Lottie Hess in a subplot Conaway doesn’t do anything with. But Conaway does again indulge in his interest in the underground world of homosexual bars and clubs – and such material has repeated in enough of Conaway’s books for me to go, “hmmmm.” This time Ming Toy takes Nookie and the two studs to a gay club built in an old church; there Nookie gets smashed, goes back to Monty and Hans’s room, smokes dope, and has sex with them – the third such hardcore scene in the novel – this time even swinging out of their window on draperies, Tarzan style, with Monty’s “cock inside her.” 

Meanwhile the killer scores again, this time an old drunk of a lady who lives on a floor that Nookie doesn’t tend to. In another narrative miss, none of the murders occur on the floors Nookie is assigned, meaning Nookie is never the first person to discover any of the corpses. But it should be clear by now that Conaway isn’t interested in (or perhaps capable of) a standard mystery thriller with the standard developments. This second kill brings in Lt. Terry Ferguson, a handsome cop who learns Nookie is a private eye, but doesn’t instantly spurn her. Instead, he eagerly requests her help – and of course has sex with her that very night, though this sequence is bizarrely vague and almost included in hindsight.

Conaway tries, but there is no tension in the novel, even with a murderer operating in the hotel. There’s never a point where you fear for Nookie. This is likely because Conaway is so focused on other stuff, like the upcoming rodeo convention Ray Lawrence has booked in the Chesterfield, featuring famous rodeo star Pokey Barnes. This whole sequence, complete with the Chesterfield made up in Western décor, exists solely so Conaway can deliver a scene where Pokey gives Nookie a ride through Central Park on his horse – and screws her while they’re both sitting in the saddle.

When Violet Valady herself is killed, Nookie becomes even more determined to find the killer…this despite the fact that, you know, her source for payment has just been killed off. This doesn’t prevent her from more fantastic sex. While snooping in the apartment shared by the Allottas, Nookie is discovered by the father, who promptly begins feeling her up and screws her. Meanwhile Nookie’s discovered an unusual substance in the closet; we’re later informed it’s cocaine, and the father-son team have used their diamond business as a cover. Plus, Lottie Hess is arrested off-page for being their accomplice! This part is bizarrely underplayed, particularly given Lottie’s narrative importance prior to this. But she’s abruptly gone, and no longer a suspect so far as the murders go.

Conaway usually references old movies, in particular musicals and whatnot (“hmmmm” again), and Meet Nookie climaxes with a big “Hooray For Hollywood” costume party at the Chesterfield. With Sidney’s help, Nookie dresses up like silent film star Theda Bara in Cleopatra, practically revealing all in a scanty costume. But this is another narrative miss on Conaway’s part. Why not have her dress up like one of the characters played by silent film star Violet Valady, as a tribute to the dead lady who hired her? Not that much is done with the costume party; we’re only informed what a few of the characters are wearing, anyway, though Conaway does get more comedy mileage out of simpering gay Jablonski-Smythe, who shows up in drag.

The “mystery” is abruptly wrapped up in the last few pages. Skip this paragraph and the next if you don’t want to know. But when Nookie sees Jablonski-Smythe in drag, she instantly knows he’s the killer. Nookie makes the sudden deduction that J-S’s costuming ability allowed him to disguise himself as his victims; a vague subplot has it that some of the victims were seen after the M.E. had ruled they were dead, which of course puzzles the cops. The novel’s sole action scene occurs when Nookie knocks out Jablonski-Smythe with a karate chop, but then Nookie herself is almost strangled – by Ray Lawrence, who turns out to have been behind the entire scheme as part of a plot to sell the hotel for a big price.

Our author is so unconcerned with tension and payoff that he has Nookie unconscious while all the heavy lifting goes down. She wakes up, having been saved by Lt. Ferguson from Lawrence’s strangling hands; the lieutenant, who has been disguised in costume at the ball all along, followed after Nookie and got to her just in time. He casually reveals Ray Lawrence’s plot and has him and Jablonski-Smythe arrested. Meanwhile Nookie wants to go home and screw – and that’s it, folks. 

Messily plotted, with paper-thin characters that don’t go much beyond caricatures, Meet Nookie is more of a sleaze yarn, with a lame “murder mystery” plot forced on it. I can’t say I hated it, though. Conaway has an easy style and his material is so goofy you can’t help but keep reading. There’s some weird-o stuff throughout, like the bizarre off-hand revelation that Ray Lawrence’s ex-wife moved to some small town and started hitting on random guys in sleazy bars, taking them home and calling them “Ray.” Conaway also makes humorous attempts at investing a “literary” vibe to his prose, such as, “[Nookie’s voice] reminded him of burning leaves in a forest painted by autumn.” Mull on that one.

Nookie returned for one more adventure in that same year’s Get Nookie, which I’ll get to eventually.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Conan Of Cimmeria (Conan #2)

Conan Of Cimmeria, by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter
December, 1985  Ace Books
(Original Lancer Books edition, 1969)

Everyone’s favorite barbarian returns in this second anthology, which once again sports an awesome Frank Frazetta cover. This Conan book in particular I recall reading as a kid, thirty-some years ago, however re-reading it again now I was surprised to discover that I didn’t remember the majority of the tales. But overall I enjoyed this one more than Conan #1.

“The Curse of the Monolith” (de Camp and Carter) – This one’s basically Conan versus The Blob. De Camp and Carter again kick off the proceedings with another of their pastiches, which ostensibly exist to “fill in the gaps” in Conan’s life, but really just come off like pointless, supernatural-tinged adventures. Conan when we meet back up with him is in a country called Kusan, leading a party of Turanian warriors; the events of last volume’s “The City of Skulls” are given as six months ago.

Conan is slightly more refined, this time; rather than the loincloth-sandal ensemble of the previous book, he now wears a coat of mail and a spired Turanian helmet. But these very things get him in trouble in this story. The purpose of this trip to Kusan is to foster an accord between Turan and Kusan, but treachery is afoot, courtesy the wiley Duke Feng, a Kusanian who is part of a group that doesn’t want peace with Turan. He fools Conan one night, telling him of riches in a nearby area, riches that he needs the help of a strong man to acquire.

Our hero doesn’t come off too bright in this story, so it’s really not the best introduction for him. But he heads on off with Feng and soon enough is ensnared by the titular monolith, which is a giant magnet – something no one in this Hyborian Age is familiar with. Worse yet, a massive blob (referred to as a “jellylike mass”) lurks on the top of the monolith, and its touch melts flesh; the place is littered with the corpses of its victims. But Conan is able to move himself around to a broken weapon, saw off the leather thongs that bind his jacket of mail, and free himself in time to deliver a fitting revenge to Feng. He then apparently burns up the blob. All told, a short and trifling story.

“The Bloodstained God” (Howard and de Camp) – Howard wrote this one in 1935 as a contemporary Middle Eastern adventure starring recurring character Kirby O’Donnell, titled “The Curse of the Crimson God,” but it was rejected everywhere. De Camp discovered it in the ‘50s among Howard’s papers and went about revising it, changing O’Donnell to Conan and adding a supernatural element to the story. I had a hard time connecting with this one. It seems very messy; Conan’s in Middle Eastern-esque Arenjun and comes upon some dude being tortured, but after hacking and slashing the tormentors, Conan’s knocked out. He wakes up and finds some other dude watching over him: Sassan, an “Iranistani,” who is an enemy of those tormentors.

Sassan is after some priceless valuables that are protected by a god or something, and Conan in a typical “why not?” moment decides to tag along. But Sassan is dead in like a few more pages and Conan is working with his enemies as they’re besieged by yet another enemy. Long story short, it ends with Conan alone in a castle of stone that houses the titular god, which is a statue that comes to life, per the de Camp norm. Guess who wins? Honestly the story was rushed, boring, and came off like the typical de Camp padding – he could’ve at least set up the next story, in which Conan is suddenly out of the Middle East and back up in the northern countries.

“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” (Howard) – The first pure Howard yarn in the book is an immediate standout, not to mention the inspiration for Frank Frazetta’s incredible cover painting. Famously rejected by Weird Tales when it was written sometime in the early ‘30s, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” was turned into an adventure starring some other one-off Howard creation, before surfacing again in the ‘50s when de Camp discovered it among Howard’s papers. He supposedly rewrote it extensively, and it’s that version that appears here in Conan Of Cimmeria, but I read the undiluted Howard original in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian (Del Rey, 2003).

This is one of the stories I still remembered all these years after first reading this book; it’s a dreamlike tale, very mythic, and wonderfully told. Humrously though – at least when taken into context of this “carefully constructed” timeline de Camp and Carter have created for the series – Conan is suddenly back in the northern climes, whereas just in the previous yarn he was down in the Middle East. You’d think the two pastiche authors could’ve come up with an interim story of how Conan got from there to here, but who cares, because this is a Howard original and he wasn’t bound to any constricting continuity. At any rate Conan is way up in the frozen wastes of Nordheim, not too far from his homeland of Cimmeria.

It’s not a long story, but it definitely makes an impression; Conan is part of a war-party from Aesir, battling against the Vanir. Howard constantly refers to the ice-covered mail of the warriors and it’s some effective word-painting. Conan’s the last survivor, and as he stumbles in a battle-spawned daze he hears a woman’s laughter. It’s a flame-haired beauty who wears nothing but a wisp of gossamer. She offers herself to Conan, who madly chases after her. But she’s leading him into a trap, hoping for her “brothers” to kill him so they can serve up his heart to their father: Ymir, the Frost-Giant, a god worshiped in this land.

Conan makes pretty short work of the frost giants, truth be told – though Frazetta certainly brings the moment to life on the cover. So too did young Barry Smith (before he was “Windsor”), in the early days of the Conan The Barbarian Marvel comic. Speaking of which, blacklight poster company Third Eye featured Smith’s “Frost-Giant’s Daughter” splash page in the lineup of Marvel Comic blacklight posters they produced in 1971. Several years ago I acquired this poster…only to find out I’d actually gotten a bootleg of it. Who knew they bootleged blacklight posters?? Anyway, it’s still sitting on the floor of my study room, framed and waiting to be put up on the wall, but here’s a quick photo I took of it, both in regular light and under a blacklight:

When Conan gets the better of the two giants and continues chasing after the half-nude girl, growing more and more insane with lust, the frost-giant’s daughter calls to her father, and Conan’s knocked out. When he comes to his Aesir comrades have found him, and it appears that it was all a dream – except for the fact that Conan’s still clutching the wisp of gossamer the girl was wearing. It’s a cool story and also inspired my man John Milius, who featured a tribute to the story in the first draft of his ill-fated Conan: Crown Of Iron script in 2001. This would have been the long-awaited sequel to his Conan The Barbarian, but got scrapped when Arnold became governor. My understanding is Milius removed the “Frost-Giant’s Daughter” bit in his second draft.

Actually, just to continue with this thread for a moment, because you don’t read about it much online, but Conan: Crown Of Iron just isn’t very good, and in a way I’m glad it was never made. It has really nothing at all in common with Milius’s masterful ’82 movie. Indeed, it comes off more like a movie about ancient Rome – no surprise, then, that a few years after this script was canned, Milius created the HBO series Rome. And as for the “Frost-Giant’s Daughter” sequence, it has none of the weirdness of Howard’s story, and the Daughter herself isn’t as cruel – rather, in the script she offers Conan a son if he gives her a kingdom. This is just the first of many such WTF? moments in Milius’s script, as we are to understand that the stoic, laconic hero of Conan The Barbarian suddenly wants not only a son but a kingdom. And mind you, this sequence was actually the best part of what was really a lackluster and, dare I say it, boring script.

“Lair Of The Ice Worm” (de Camp and Carter) – Okay, now our favorite pastiche authors decide to do a little continuity-patching; we’re informed that it’s shortly after the previous story, and also Conan’s getting sick of being up here in the frozen north and misses the hotspots down south. So he’s making his gradual way back down there. Who knows why he even went back up north in the first place; maybe he realized he’d left the oven on. Otherwise this one is another de C and C misfire: lots of buildup to another lame supernatural threat. Every one of them so far has either featured the undead, statues coming to life, or giant monsters.

Well folks, Conan runs across some apelike creatures that are attacking a lone woman. Why apelike creatures are even up in the snowbound Aesir region is anyone’s guess, but Conan hacks ‘em up and saves the babe. Her name is Ilga and she appears to be afraid of something, but regardless camps out with Conan in a cave that night. Well, Conan knows one sure cure for nervousness – “a bout of hot love.” Yes, friends, it’s the first sex scene yet in the Conan saga, but of course it happens off-page. Conan bangs the lass into a restful slumber…but she wakes up, these weird glaring eyes hypnotizing her and calling her away.

Conan wakes – and finds Ilga’s corpse lying in the cave, her head smashed to a pulp. Most of her flesh has been sucked off, and what’s left of her is covered in ice. So long, Ilga! First it was ape things, now it’s a giant friggin’ worm here in the icy wastes – as Conan, sporting a random access memory type of a brain, suddenly recalls legends of a “vampiric worm” that operates in the vicinity. Conan heats up an axe, hurls it into the monstrosity’s gaping maw, and high-tails it out of there as both the giant worm and the glacier itself explode, as if a friggin’ heated axe is the Hyborian equivalent of C4. But one most admit it’s an appropriately-moronic end to a moronic tale.

“Queen of the Black Coast” (Howard) – Justly regaled, this story is considered one of Howard’s pinnacle Conan yarns. Yet I always seem to remember it being longer than it actually is; upon this third (or fourth?) reading, it again seemed to me that “Queen of the Black Coast” was heading for its conclusion just as it was getting started. My assumption is the richness of Howard’s prose, which is in exceptional form throughout, makes the story seem longer. My only problem with it is the chapter that abruptly detours into a too-long history of the batlike creatures that show up toward the end; otherwise “Queen of the Black Coast” is great, and definitely my favorite tale yet.

Once again I read the Howard original, as collected in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian. Conan’s back down south, in Argos – well, “back down south” if you’re following the de Camp chronology. But obviously there’s no link with the previous tale because it didn’t exist for Howard. So anyway when we meet Conan he’s running from the Argos authorities for a crime he eventually exposits upon – once again, the exposition in Howard can get to be a little annoying. Also worth noting is that Conan’s in full armor, with a horned helmet, black hauberk, and silver chain mail covering his arms and legs. But then Conan usually sports armor in the Howard originals, at some points wearing full-on plate armor; it always annoyed me that Marvel Comics never depicted this, and about the most armor you would ever see Conan wearing was a mail vest. 

Conan forces his way onto a merchant vessel about to leave the Argos port; the captain is one of those “silver lining” types and instead of seeing Conan as a stowaway, figures he could provide some much-needed security for the ship! They’re headed down into Kush (aka Africa, I believe), which is the notorious stomping grounds of pirate queen Belit, a white beauty of Semite (ie Jewish, I believe) stock who commands a ship of “blacks” that look upon her as a goddess. And soon enough the ship is attacked by these very same reavers, hacked down to a man by Belit’s warriors – all save Conan, who fights heroically and impresses Belit.

So there’s only one thing for Belit to do – perform her “mating dance” and have sex with Conan right there on the deck of her ship with all her black warriors watching the hijinks. Of course, Howard doesn’t get too explicit, but I guess it’s spicy enough. And Belit herself is firmly in the spicy mold, wearing nothing but a “broad silken girdle.” Which I would imagine to mean that good ol’ Belit goes around topless and bottomless. No wonder Conan decides to become her mate!

But it’s here that the story suddenly heads into the climax, just as it’s getting started. We’re informed that Conan and Belit’s reavers become a fearsome force, and Conan and Belit a hot item, but the focus of the story instead becomes Belit’s obsession with the fabled riches of an ancient ruin near the poisonous waters of the river Zarkheba. Immediately upon discovering the haunted ruins, Conan sees some weird stuff, in particular these batlike ape-things. But Belit finds the riches she’s been seeking and seems unconcerned that the creatures might be sabotaging her ship.

Conan leads a party of warriors into the jungle, to get water, and here we have that extended flashback to the origin of the bat-apes and the other creatures who now live in this haunted place. It’s all very Weird Tales but to tell the truth I’d rather read more about Belit and Conan’s reaving adventures. No wonder Roy Thomas and John Buscema extended the Belit saga into a year’s worth of comics for Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian. Because, for me at least, the story pretty much comes to a dead stop for an entire chapter. When Conan comes to and finds all the warriors slaughtered, he rushes back to the ruins and finds poor Belit hanging from her own ship.

Another moment that made it into the ’82 Conan film, existing also in Oliver Stone’s original 1978 screenplay – which Stone apparently wrote under the influence of heavy drugs, with a pile of Howard books and Conan comics at his side (not a criticism, mind you) – Belit has sworn to Conan that, even if she dies, she will come back to fight by his side. And true to her promise, she does indeed briefly come back to save him, however I feel it was much more effectively handled in the movie (in which it was Valeria who came back, not Belit, of course). It’s almost an afterthought in Howard’s story, but it has the same outcome – Belit saves Conan’s skin at a pivotal moment, then vanishes. 

Otherwise the finale is almost a prefigure to another Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: Predator. For a vengeance-minded Conan gets together his weapons, stakes out a spot on a pyramidal structure in the ruins, and waits for night to fall – and for the bat-things and its subservient creatures to come meet death by his various bladed weapons. It’s a great ending to a pretty great story, and it’s a shame de Camp and Carter were incapable of delivering equally great pastiches. No wonder de Camp later bemoaned that he’d hired Carter instead of Leigh Brackett, when it came to writing these Conan stories…now Leigh Brackett sure as hell could’ve written a Conan yarn at least as good (and likely even better) than “Queen of the Black Coast.”

An Australian outfit did a 7-part, full-cast audio adaptation of “Queen of the Black Coast” a few years back, but were legally restrained from doing anymore such projects; even though the story “Queen of the Black Coast” is now public domain, the character of Conan is not. However, the adaptation is up for free download on the The Internet Archive.  I haven’t been able to get through the whole thing myself; it’s done so over the top that it’s borderline parody. The dude doing Conan’s voice in particular sounds like he’s straining with a serious case of constipation.

Finally, If you’ve ever wondered what it might’ve been like had Frazetta done a painting of this story instead of “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” for the cover of Conan Of Cimmeria, then check this out – a Frazetta-inspired painting of “Queen of the Black Coast” by modern artist Brom:

“The Vale of Lost Women” (Howard) – We get another Howard original straight after, but this one was not printed in Howard’s lifetime, and perhaps was never even submitted for publication. The original can be found in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian, which is where I read it. In many ways this one’s more along the lines of a Tarzan story, and doesn’t much feel like a Conan tale. It also triggers the sensitive types of today with its outrageous racial elements; what few reviews you’ll find of the story all complain about the racism. You won’t find such snowflake bullshit here, folks – for one, I prefer (nay, demand) my pulp to be outrageous, and two, I think there are a helluva lot more things to get upset about than an 80 year-old pulp story that wasn’t even published during the author’s lifetime.

And Conan isn’t even the main character; it’s Livia, a stacked blonde (who spends the final quarter of the tale naked) who has been captured, deep in the jungles of Kush, by a black tribe. Her brother was also captured but was killed earlier that day. When Conan makes an unexpected visit, leading his own tribe of jungle warriors – following the de Camp chronology I guess we’re to assume he gathered them up while he was in the area, after the death of Belit – Livia sees her chance for escape. She gets away long enough to make her plea to Conan. And boy, it’s a helluva plea, insisting that Conan is obligated to help her as a “fellow white.” Humorously, our hero doesn’t seem much interested in helping Livia out, though her promise to screw him silly in repayment does interest him at least a little.

Rather than the race angle, what I personally found unfortunate about “The Vale of Lost Women” is that the climax consists of Conan slaughtering the other tribe – apparently down to every man, woman, and child. This occurs during what is initially a friendship feast between Conan’s tribe and the other, but our “hero” gives the signal and his boys set to a-slaughterin’. Livia flees the melee and ends up in the titular vale, which is supposedly haunted and avoided by the supersitituous natives. This part’s like some weird Japanese horror film as female zombie-spirit things come to life out of the woodwork and creep up on her.

There’s also a bat-creature, which of course brings to mind the similar bat-creatures of the previous story, and sure enough Conan shows up just in time to feed it some steel. Livia, now twice rescued, figures it’s time for that promised screwing, which apparently also implied that she’d marry Conan, or give herself to him, or something, but Conan has deemed that if he were indeed to screw Livia, it would prove him the “barbarian” she thinks him to be. So forget about it; he’ll just get her back to civilization.

Overall I can see why this one was never sold, or perhaps never even submitted, who knows. It just feels more like the average “jungle pulp” story of the day, and little like a Conan story. Given its locale it’s easy to place it here in the chronology, though, and one could further theorize that Conan seems a little off – and a little more savage than normal – due to his heartbreak over Belit’s loss. Otherwise what you basically have here is a too-long story featuring a self-involved blonde babe of a protagonist, with Conan in what’s really just a walk-on role.

“The Castle of Terror” (de Camp and Carter) – Our pals return with another middling tale that’s probably courtesy Lin Carter alone, as it turns out that this story originally featured Carter’s recurring character Thongor of Lemuria before being rewritten as a Conan tale. Same as the previous book’s “The Thing In The Crypt” – and, just like that story, this one also opens with Conan on the run from a pack of animals. In “The Thing In The Crypt” it was wolves, this time it’s lions. Conan, who we learn late in the game has lost the hauberk and mail he wore during his time with Belit, is reduced to his usual low-frills getup, so doesn’t have much to defend or protect himself with.

Perhaps de Camp’s contribution comes with the material that refers back to “The Vale of Lost Women;” we’re informed Conan has run afoul of his old tribe and ended up killing the shaman-type before beating a hasty retreat. He’s still in the jungles of Kush, looking for a way out, but there are these damn lions chasing him now. He comes to a broken-down black castle that seems to have been built off-kilter, leaning upon itself and looking like it’s about to fall apart. A storm is coming so Conan decides to camp out in the abandoned place.

We have a pure Lin Carter part with this random, almost psychedelic sequence where a dreaming Conan’s spirit, or “ka,” exits his body and astrally voyages around the haunted castle! I say “pure Lin Carter” because it’s all exposition and coincidence; somehow Conan’s spirit “just knows” all there is to know about the castle and the vampiric spirits that now inhabit it. They hunger for Conan but are too weak to manifest themselves.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated subplot, a war-party of Stygians (ie Egyptians, I believe) are headed through this area, having been looking for slave material. They decide to camp out in the castle to avoid the storm. So the “climax” is composed of Conan hiding up on a balcony and watching these Stygians down below; they get drunk and pass out and then the dark spirits of the castle pull up old corpses and carcasses and whatnot and form themselves into this grotesque, multi-limbed, mult-headed creature, which begins to rip apart the Stygians in full gore detail.

And Conan’s still up there watching. He finally sneaks out, kills a crazed Stygian who himself tries to escape the castle, and takes the dude’s armor and sword. And then Conan leaves, folks! Nope, he doesn’t fight the gruesome monster, doesn’t even try to! So I guess in that regard at least this tale is a bit different than the repetive de C and C pastiche norm. Bear in mind though that the majority of the tale either features Conan running from something or dreaming.

“The Snout in the Dark” (Howard, de Camp and Carter) – Here we have yet another unfinished “fragment” started by Howard sometime in the ‘30s but never completed; along came de Camp and Carter, decades later, to finish the job. This one’s similar to “The Vale of Lost Women” in that it has a lot of racial stuff and also in that Conan doesn’t appear for the first quarter of the story. We’re now in Meroe, which is like the capital of Kush or something; interestingly, it is run by non-blacks; “brown” is how they are specifically referred to. I believe they’re supposed to be descendants of Stygians or something? At any rate, we are often reminded of the “black dogs” who live outside Meroe and serve all the slave functions.

The title “snout” belongs to a phantasmic creature that sprouts a piglike snout and kills some one-off character in an overlong opening chapter. Turns out this monster is at the behest of a black wizard named Mulu, who himself works for despotic nobleman Tuthmes. The villain is using the creature to kill off various notables and blame the deaths on Queen Tanada, who you won’t be surprised to know is a “brown”-skinned beauty who wears “metal plates” that just barely cover her “full breasts.” Sounds like prime Conan bait, doesn’t it? Our hero makes his eventual appearance when Tanada is almost killed by a Kushite mob, one that has been fooled into thinking she was behind the death of the dude killed in the first chapter.

The crowd attacks Tanada and rips all her clothes off, and Conan rides into the fray and saves the nude babe. This one has a bit of the spicy vibe of “The Vale of Lost Women,” too, as Tananda makes Conan the captain of her guard, but more so uses him as her latest stud. We don’t get any full-on smut, but we are informed that Conan pleases the cruel queen more than any other man ever has, to the point that she herself has become a slave to his, eh, maleness. Unfortunately this stuff is given short narratorial shrift and instead the authors focus on Tuthmes and his latest plot against the queen – sending her a stacked blonde from Nemedia named Diana who will act as his spy, whether she likes it or not.

Conan is again lost in the background, appearing only occasionally; we’re told though that he has successfully put down a riot or two “of the blacks.” (Howard’s original fragment, included in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian, implies that this would have taken greater precedence in the story). We do though get good spicy stuff like Tananda whipping a nude Diana; Conan shows up, tells her to stop, and incurs the queen’s wrath – but she cries because she’s so addicted to that good Cimmerian lovin’ that she won’t do anything about it.

The story – which I actually enjoyed quite a bit because it’s so bonkers – wraps up humorously fast; Conan goes back to his place on a whim, finds the titular demon manifesting there, and fights it, while Diana looks on in horror. The rulers of Meroe are rapidly disposed of in a quick revolution – so long, Tananda – and Conan high-tails it out of there, with a happy Diana riding off with him. Needless to say, she’ll be out of the picture, and not even mentioned, in “Haws Over Shem,” the first story of the next collection, Conan The Freebooter.

And that’s it…I have to say, writing these reviews is a bit exhausting. And also, the series has yet to get very good. The Howard originals are fun, but even they aren’t as good as I remember them…I’m looking forward to re-reading The Hour Of The Dragon eventually. I loved that one when I read it, but I was 18 at the time, so we’ll see. Anyway, on to Conan The Freebooter, which is one I did not have as a kid; it features “A Witch Shall Be Born,” which I’m really looking forward to, as a lot of it was used by Oliver Stone in his Conan script, and thus made it into the Milius film.