Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Hard Corps #6: An American Nightmare

The Hard Corps #6: An American Nightmare, by Chuck Bainbridge
May, 1988  Jove Books

The sixth Hard Corps is certainly not the work of William Fieldhouse, so judging from Brad Mengel’s research in Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction it must be by British writer Chris Lowder, who is credited as the other author on this 9-volume series. It’s clear Fieldhouse is not behind the wheel for this one, as An American Nightmare is clearly by an author “taking the piss” out of the genre, whereas Fieldhouse’s installments are relatively straight (despite the onslaught of gunfights, sword-choppings, and karate battles).

But first, let’s take a moment to appreciate the cover. Those are our heroes, folks. Those insane-looking guys in grungy fatigues who in their zest to kill are almost hitting each other with their full-auto blasts. Just take a moment to appreciate the looks on their faces. I mean, would you hire these guys?

I’d say the artist isn’t taking the series concept seriously, but then neither is Lowder; this is evident from the get-go, in which the Republican caucus is bombed, immediately after which we meet our heroes, back on their expansive home base, arguing over whether 9mm is superior to .45 caliber. And mind you these are hard-bitten veteran soldiers who have lived and breathed guns and ammo since ‘Nam; I mean you’d think they’d already have thought about this topic, but here they are arguing about it in full-blown exposition.

More evidence of the sort of goofy tone is the villain of the piece: Ennio Coscia, aka Nero, an infamous left-wing terrorist trained by the KGB and the like, but now stark raving mad. Nero plans to wipe out the US political system, and his soldiers in the battle are SDS and Weather Underground and other ‘60s radical terrorist groups. So while Lowder never outright states it, it appears that the majority of Nero’s soldiers must be over-the-hill hippies, given that they started fighting for their various causes in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But at any rate in this volume you have many scenes of the Hard Corps blowing away male and female hippie terrorists; unfortunately Lowder doesn’t go all the way with it and have them screaming stuff like “Power to the people!” while blasting full auto hellfire.

After blowing up the Republican caucus, Nero next takes out hundreds of voters at a Democrat primary. In this manner he hopes to throw chaos and disorder into the American political apparatus. Enter “Saintly,” the Corps’s CIA contact, who choppers onto HC HQ and offers them the job, trying to appeal to their patriotic sense. Lowder has the Hard Corps more distrustful of Saintly and the government, with Corps honcho O’Neal trading acidic banter with the Fed throughout. Speaking of banter, sword-wielding Wentworth and wise-cracking Fanelli go back and forth throughout the novel, exchanging barbs.

Yet the goofier stuff goes unexplored, like the errant mention that Wentworth likes to look presentable when going into battle. This odd quirk is not fully exploited. There is however some subtle humor at play, like how the Hard Corps ride around in a “Volkswagen minibus” when they’re out on this particular mission – more fitting transportation for a group of hippies than a pack of mercenaries. But there’s a definite goofy tone to the finale, which sees the Hard Corps “undercover” at a national convention; they each wear goofy disguises, sort of like the Beastie Boys in the “Sabotage” video: O’Neal sporting a fake moustache and pastic-lensed glasses, Fanelli in a “checkered-cloth cap” with a bunch of political party pins on it.

There’s definitely less of an action onslaught than you’d get in a Fieldhouse story. In fact it takes a while for our boys to see any fighting; after taking the job from Saintly, who hires them for dubious reasons (something about using their underworld contacts to see if any left-wing terrorists are trying to buy bombs or something), they head for Buffalo, New York, where they look into a coke-sniffing arms dealer who might’ve had contact with Nero. Lowder seems to have seen Scarface recently, as the guns dealer comes off like a Tony Montana ripoff, his cocaine-fuled paranoia building and building until the scene escalates into violence.

Even here Wentworth manages to find a sword – another recurring joke, in that the others make fun at his knack for always picking one up somehow – and slice and dice. So this is reminiscent from the Fieldhouse installments and likely was a publisher requirement; no surprise, then, that later in the novel Nero picks up an accomplice, a Japanese commie terrorist, who wouldn’t ya know it likes to carry around a pair of sais. Lowder might as well flash a sign that indicates a sword battle is soon approaching.

The outrageous gore of the Fieldhouse novels is missing, though. Lowder is slightly more reserved in that department (and true to ‘80s men’s adventure, there’s zero in the way of sex, with the few female characters reduced to background left-wing terrorists). The Hard Corps take out a ton of left-wing scum, but there’s not much spark to it – no exploding geysers of cerebro-spinal fluid or whatnot. That being said, he seems to be fond of overdetailing the death throes of his victims, with frequent descriptions of an already-killed terrorist falling or dropping or being riddled with even more bullets. But again this lends the novel a darkly comic tone, which I’m betting is intentional; as mentioned, one gets the definite feeling that Lowder’s tongue is in his cheek.

In this regard the Nero stuff is prime because he’s batshit crazy. He calls himself “Nero” because he had a vision that he would become a ruler of the world or something, and now instead of any political causes he’s wreaking havoc so as to fulfill his delusional purpose. He’s also the kind of psycho no one would ever work for – when late in the novel he orchestrates a helicopter attack on a Democrat primary, Nero we learn has the ‘copter and its crew blown up after the mission. Like the Zodiac Killer, Nero believes that he owns the souls of all his victims, and they will serve him in the afterlife. Fittingly, his Japanese accomplice shares this belief, which is the only reason the two never try to kill each other(!).

The action mostly revolves around three set pieces: the arms dealer scene, a raid on a theater in which some of Nero’s crew is hiding, and the final battle at the national convention (for which political party Lowder doesn’t inform us). In each it’s clear the Hard Corps vastly outskills their opponents; many parts are basically variations of shooting fish in a barrel. More interesting is the impromptu weaponry of Steve Caine, the bearded night fighter who, we are reminded quite often, lived with the Montagnards after ‘Nam and picked up their guerrilla warfare skills. In the climactic battle he fashions his own “knife on a pole” thing which he uses like a spear.

Overall An American Nightmare is entertaining for what it is – just another generic ‘80s action paperback. There’s nothing particularly memorable about it, other than Nero’s megalomania, and while Lowder is certainly trying to have a little fun with it, the novel still comes off as a little restrained. Oh, and there’s no action scene by the Lincoln Memorial – misleading cover art! Perhaps it’s intended to be metaphorical...

Finally, I think I’m going to take a break next week, so just one post – it’ll be up on Wednesdsay. Merry Christmas!


Drew Salzen said...

Chris Lowder is an interesting fellow, either under his own name or as Jack Adrian. He wrote 2/3rds of the first Deathlands and fleshed out the original series bible before ill health caused Laurence James to be called in, and prior to that he'd been a prolific paperbacker. He began in UK comics, and actualy wrote the first Judge Dredd strip, for the dummy issue, although he had no hand in its creation. He'd worked at Fleetway for about a decade by then, starting as a youth after his first book - a Sexton Blake novel - was published under a different name and supposedly heavily edited, so he only received half the money (he swears not a comma was changed, and given the graft on that last Blake series, I'd beleiev him).

His editorship of many anthologies of lost stories by anyone from Sapper and Dornford Yates to EF Benson and Edgar Wallace has given him a rep as a man with a nose for sniffing out unantholgised stories, and he also editerd Ash Tree's Xmas ghost series for years.

I feel like I know him, even though we've never met, as I wrote a number of Deathlands, and I also belonged to the London Old Boys Book Club (mostly about school stories from the Fleetway/Amalgamated school, and Sexton Blake), although we were members at different times (as was Mike Moorcock at one point). Like Lowder, I was known as 'the hippy one with the hair and the beard from the East End', although male pattern baldness has put paid to that one for me...

Anyway, I think the element of 'piss-taking' may be spot on, as like mr James and myself, Lowder/Adrian seems to lack the necessary earnestness to carry off the full on action novel to many reader's satisfaction, which I think is a fault in all our work to varying degrees. You have to either have no sense of humour, or know to park it at the door, or else the inherent absurdity becomes too much. I feel this way about 1970's metal, which I also love, but which is in many ways very, very silly.

But enough of this. Happy new year to you and yours Joe, and I look forward to the coming year's posts.

Joe Kenney said...

Hey Drew, thanks a lot for the info on Lowder. Sounds like an interesting guy. Justin Marriott once told me that Lowder was fired from the Deathlands series for writing a manuscript which supposedly just featured the main character ranting and raving in a tank or somesuch -- I might not have the details correct but it sounded funny. However I just can't handle the DL series...I tried the first couple volumes and felt like I was reading watered-down Stephen King with a little Gold Eagle-approved gun porn tossed in. I mean they were okay and all, just not my thing. I prefer my post-nuke pulp to be less like "Gunslinger/Dark Tower"-esque western sort of thing and more along the lines of Phoenix/Doomsday Warrior/et al.

Speaking of '70s metal...I'm sure you're familiar with Mick Farren. Ever read "The Tale Of Willy's Rats?" I'm now about halfway through it and loving the hell out of it!

Drew Salzen said...

Ah yes, the infamous first DL mss... I think I told Justin that story... alleegdly the mss handed in had 2/3rds of it taking place as a ranting argument in a tank crossing a desert. I understand CL was not well at the time.

I never saw DL as post-nuke, really - it was the Maginificent Seven with mutants - and that may be the problem for those who liked the full on post-apocalypse stuff.

Mick Farren is someone I've admired for years. Musically suspect though sometimes interesting, I've read some of his sci-fi down the years and enjoyed it. Not read 'Willy's Rats' though. I'd recommend his memoir 'Give The Anarchist A Cigarette' for the low down on the Brit underground. He's not afraid to call himself a twat at times. I was supposed to be at the gig wheere he died onstage, but flu put paid to that, for which I'm rather glad. Probably how the old ham would have loved to go, though...