Thursday, November 14, 2019

The Cosmozoids

The Cosmozoids, by Robert Tralins
No month stated, 1969  Tower Books
(Original Tower edition 1966)

Now folks this is Grade Z sci-fi; not even Grade B sci-fi. It’s also an “in the tradition of” sort of book, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers being the tradition it’s in. Only done as a schlocky low-grade pulp yarn, the literary equivalent of something William Shatner would’ve starred in back in the ‘70s. Which is not a criticism, just a gauge of what to expect if you decide to read it.

Tralins seems to have published at least a few novels, from sci-fi to the ‘60s spy-fy series The Miss From S.I.S. (of which I only have the first volume, but could never read it because it’s one of those “funny” spy satires of the day, a la The Man From O.R.G.Y.). The Cosmozoids was first published in 1966 by Tower, then republished a few years later with a new cover and under the banner “A Big T Science Fiction,” which, at least for me, elicits the image of a guy in a ten-gallon hat sitting behind a typewriter. 

Seriously though, that “Big T” tag doesn’t lie; The Cosmozoids runs 140-some pages of big print, so it actually comes off more like a novella, or a short story run amok. There isn’t much story here, other than your basic “Astronaut comes home with psychic powers and finds out there’s an evil alien genius plotting to take over the world” scenario. It’s all written in a very humdrum, half-assed manner (there’s actually a part my friends where the evil alien genius argues with the protagonist over “how many hairs are on the human head”), with completely unexpected periodic bursts of body horror.

It’s sometime in the near future (I assume), and our hero is Major Jim Keith, a karate-fightin’ military astronaut who is the first person “to walk in space, enter a spaceship, and return to Earth on it.” This has made him very famous around the globe, just like Major Tom. However he’s returned to Earth with a secret: he can predict the future. Not a full-on Carnac or anything, he just gets random flashes of future events which happen to pan out. As the novel opens he’s on his way to a funny farm in the Maryland countryside, sent there by his commanding officer, Colonel Jim Phelps. Jim, as Tralins refers to him, has brought along his fiance, a cipher named Dottie.

Jim’s ESP is explained posthaste, as he abruptly cancels their plane reservations; when they get to the clinic, Dottie is horrified to discover that the plane they were supposed to be on has crashed. She confronts Jim, who admits he’s a little psychic now; there’s some implausible “science” about space beams or somesuch giving him these powers. However Dr. Burr, who runs this particular clinic, has had success with helping other astronauts, so there’s hope Jim can figure out what his problem is.

But man it’s so clunky. They’re greeted by a mean old lady, who shows them their rooms (there’s zero sex afoot, nor even any exploitation of the female characters, for crying out loud!!), and Dr. Burr is introduced into the narrative with zero fanfare. Which is odd, given that Burr turns out to be the villain of the piece. His procedure is to basically speak to everyone in condescending tones, make eyes at Dottie, and keep Jim nice and drugged up, the drugs courtesy Burr’s nurse, hotstuff blonde Nanette.

Nanette makes for the only other character in the novel, save for a brief appearance by Colonel Phelps; Jim catches sight of his commanding officer sneaking around the clinic one night and watches as he’s attacked by two big guys who emerge from the bushes. Jim helps Phelps kick their asses, then is informed by Phelps that something fishy is going on around here – not, uh, that Burr himself is under suspicion! No, it’s just that those damn Commies might be up to something here, perhaps brainwashing people, so Jim’s to go back into the clinic and see if he spots anything out of the ordinary.

From here it gets even more goofy. Dottie’s suddenly become a drugged-out automaton, and Colonel Phelps makes a surprise return appearance, also clearly under mind control. At this point Dr. Burr reveals himself to Jim as an alien, one who came to Earth a year or so ago via a maser beam the real Dr. Burr was shooting out into space for some research project or something. The alien, who claims to be a “Cosmopath,” says that when Jim “crossed the interstellar dateline of time” during his spacewalk his mind was opened to the cosmic rays, granting him temporary psychic powers – powers which allow Jim to defend himself against Burr’s mental control. He’s also been granted with the ability to speak telepathically with Burr.

Burr’s goal of course is world domination, but the only problem is suckering people into his clinic so he can subdue them and then implant the mind control devices in them. Here ensues the argument over hair, folks, and I kid you not it really happens – one idea that’s discussed is Burr proclaiming he’s cured baldness, so that people from all over the globe will flock to his clinics. However Burr doesn’t know how many hairs are on the average human head, eliciting an argument between him and Jim. Weird, wild stuff, as Johnny Carson would say, or at least as I seem to remember him saying. And that’s two Carson references I’ve made in this review.

Anyway, plunging on, it’s of course up to Jim to stop Burr. Here’s where the unexpected horror element comes in. Burr reveals that he has “Cosmozoids” at his disposal, hulking brutes who come up out of the sewers and whatnot – the very same hulking brutes Jim and Phelps fought early in the book. But there are many of them, and Jim discovers by accident that despite their size and strength they are defenseless against noise, particularly metal banging on metal. And when you make a metallic din, the “husks” of the Cosmozoids will fall to the ground…and “globs of living gelatin” seep out of their noses and mouths and puddle on the floor. These gelatinous masses are the true form of the Cosmozoids, so we get some Blob ripoffage in addition to the Invasion Of The Body Snatchers lifting.

At this point the novel really harkens back to the vibe of ‘50s sci-fi B movie flicks, with Jim using this “secret weapon” against the Cosmozoids. There are many scenes of him banging this or that metallic object and the creatures quivering and quaking and gushing forth with gelatinous masses from their nostrils and mouths. Along the way Jim manages to free nurse Nanette from Burr’s yoke, as well as Phelps and Dottie. Burr’s latest plot is to take over the nearby military base, so there follows a memorable bit where Phelps broadcasts loud clanging noises to the assembled troops to weed out the Cosmozoids who are posing as humans.

Otherwise the big action is when Burr tries to activate the real Burr’s maser, which is in the bowels of the clinic, ultimately blowing the place up. The novel features a super weird ending where people Jim thought were friends turn out to be Cosmozoids in disguise, but it’s all handled so clumsily that it lacks much impact. Which, come to think of it, is why the introduction of the Cosmozoids’s gelatinous nature does have impact – it’s delivered in the same deadpan, meat-and-potatoes vibe as the rest of the novel, despite the grotesque nature of it all.

Tralins did some other books, among them a sci-fi paperback for Pinnacle, Android Armageddon (1974), and I can only wonder if any of them are as campy as The Cosmozoids. And while it’s good camp, I’ve found it’s much more entertaining to watch a campy movie than read a campy book, especially if said movie is being riffed on MST3K (classic MST3K, that is; the reboot on Netflix has replaced riffing with virtue-signaling and annoys more than it entertains).

Monday, November 11, 2019

Cybernarc #5: Shark Bait

Cybernarc #5: Shark Bait, by Robert Cain
December, 1992  Harper Books

The penultimate volume of Cybernarc seems to pick up on the final scene of the previous volume – namely, Rod the titular Cybernarc watching as his human partner Chris Drake and his girlfriend Heather McDaniels have sex on the beach (literally, not the alcoholic beverage) – but later it appears that this is something Drake and Heather do fairly often. And apparently Rod must watch them from afar pretty often.

But of course I might be wrong and this does indeed pick up after the previous book; to tell the truth William H. Keith (aka “Robert Cain”) leaves it a bit vague. We learn that Drake and Heather are now an open item and have been for a few weeks, but the previous mission in Sicily is sometimes referred to as being fairly recent. It doesn’t matter, though. Keith still focuses on the same theme that’s grounded the entire series: Rod’s internal debate whether he’s human or not. Luckily though Keith doesn’t beat us over the head with this concept as Simon Hawke does in the somewhat-similar Steele (which I really need to get back to).

As we’ll recall, Rod used the PARET system to learn Drake’s battle skills and reflexes in the first volume, with the unintended side effect that he also picked up Drake’s grief and fury over the murder of his wife and teenaged daughter. Throughout Shark Bait Rod still grapples with this; he’s a robot, no emotions programmed into him, but he feels things akin to what he understands are human emotions. Keith thankfully steps away from the path he was seeming to build a few volumes ago, that Rod was developing rebellious tendencies toward Drake, Heather, and the other RAMROD scientists and technicians who serve as his family. This time the focus is solely on whether Rod’s feelings are “real.”

But Keith doesn’t beat us over the head with this, either. Like the previous volume, the majority of Shark Bait is given over to a single action sequence that just keeps going…and going…and going. It seems that Keith himself was struggling at this point, with the series itself. While the first and second volumes were fun, action-filled yarns with comedic banter straight out of the summer blockbusters of the era, starting with the the third volume a more sluggish vibe has descended upon Cybernarc. Inventive situations and wry dialog (particularly around Rod’s inability to grasp certain things) have given way to major action scenes that seem to exist mostly so as to fill pages. Another thing becoming more prevalent is the military fiction vibe, which I’ve argued before is completely different from the men’s adventure vibe.

We get straight into the action. Rod and Drake are sent over to Turkey to wipe out a heroin smuggler. An interesting note about Shark Bait is that Rod is the central protagonist throughout, particularly in the action scenes. For the most part Drake is relegated to the sidelines, seeking cover while Rod blitzes the enemy. This opening action scene is our first indication of this. Rod, in Combat Mode, first pilots in an Apache helicopter (flying being a new skill he’s been granted) and then runs roughshod over the smuggler’s base. Keith as ever displays an action movie-esque penchant for sending off villains in novel ways; here Rod hurls a pipe through the heroin smuggler before he can make good his escape.

Meanwhile the Mexican cartels have banded together to take down Cybernarc; in the intro we’ve already seen some creeps watching Drake and Heather from afar while they frolick in the sand and snapping photos of them – you almost think these two should start charging people to watch their beach escapades. Led by one of the Salazars, ie the cartel Drake and Rod dealt with in the first volume, they plan to kidnap Heather and use her as bait – presumably the “shark bait” of the title. We get a few sequences from Heather’s point of view as she’s abducted and then brutalized by her captors, lending the novel the tone of the average installment of MIA Hunter. Salazar keeps his men from raping Heather, though the threat constantly looms over her due to one of the thugs in particular. In time Salazar realizes he should put Heather’s mind to use, having her reprogram Rod to fight for the cartels.

This is something Rod himself deduces, whereas Drake and RAMROD honcho Weston figure the cartels just want to destroy Rod. Weston doesn’t go the expected “we can’t do anything to help Heather” route, instead coming up with a plan – Drake and Rod, in Civilian Mod, fly in to Salazar’s compound in Northern Mexico, “delivering” Rod’s Combat Mod. Rod pretends to just be a pilot, able to fool the bad guys into thinking he’s a normal human. Keith as ever excels in displaying the otherworldliness of Rod, capable of transferring his consciousness among a variety of interlinked bodies and devices.

Here we begin the massive battle sequence that will comrpise much of the novel’s runtime. The novel thing this time is that Rod’s in Civilian Mod throughout, still stronger than a human but not nearly as unstoppable as he’d be in Combat Mod. As mentioned Rod is the star here and for the most of the battle Drake’s on the sidelines, either hiding or sneaking around the compound and coming upon a huge stash of heroin. Their weapons memorably stored in the torso of the Combat Mod, the two take on an entire army, and Keith this time keeps bringing up Rod’s battery power and how the fight is wearing it down, particularly when he takes on a couple tanks and armored jeeps.

Another thing that’s gradually disappeared from the series is the gore factor; Rod wipes out a ton of cartel soldiers but it’s rendered in an almost PG-13 tone. Also the battle goes on way too long, with lots of chapters ending on cliffhangers as Rod sees a tank coming for him or whatever; the fight goes well past its expiration date, and it seems clear that Keith is filling pages. And meanwhile Heather isn’t even here, having been taken away by Salazar and fellow cartel sleazebag Contrera to another cartel stronghold, a few hundred miles away. Speaking of which Keith has a grating tendency to only use the metric system.

This takes us into the next and last major setpiece; Drake and Rod race against time to cut off Salazar and Contrera before they can get to their destination, where they’ll be informed Cybernarc has run roughshod and destroyed everyone at the previous location. In other words Heather will for sure be killed, as they’ve already threatened her death if Drake and Rod go against their orders. Here Rod’s depleting battery is really rammed home, as he’s down to around twenty percent and, still in Civilian Mod (because it would take too long to transfer him to Combat Mod), about to engage another army in battle.

This is handled via another long action scene, wth Rod piloting an Apache and taking out hordes of cartel soldiers. We get more interesting stuff with a return of the Spider remotes, so memorably introduced last volume; Drake fires them into the fortress stronghold and, when he’s able to, Rod transfers his consciousness to each of them to see which has come upon Heather’s hiding place. And while Heather spends the majority of the novel in captivity, Keith does give her a nice bit of revenge on her captors. After this the novel climaxes again on an action movie vibe with our heroes chasing down a runaway plane, one of the villains getting chopped into burger by propeller blades.

At over 200 pages, Shark Bait moves a bit sluggishly, mostly because the characterization and fun dialog of previous books have been replaced by endless action scenes. Also the military fiction vibe is strong, with lots of acronyms and “realistic” data on such and such weapons. Hopefully the final volume of Cybernarc restores the series to what it was.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Stardroppers

The Stardroppers, by John Brunner 
September, 1972   DAW Books

This is the first John Brunner novel I’ve read, though I’m familiar with him and have several of his books. One of those wildly prolific British sci-fi authors, Brunner first wrote this as a short story in the early ‘60s and then fleshed it out in novel form in the ‘70s, updating the story to tap into the psychedelic era. Kelly Freas’s cool and subtly exploitative cover art (love the strategic placement of that transistor radio!) aptly sums up the theme of the novel – teens (and adults) are tuning in and dropping out thanks to mysterious space signals they’re picking up on special radio-esque gadgets called “Stardroppers.”

Brunner doesn’t really tell us when the novel takes place, but it would appear to be the ‘80s or thereabouts. The “LSD era” is referred to as years ago, and also we’re informed that Britain decided to “drop out of the arms race” a decade ago and thus has become a sort of hotbed of intrigue and spies. So in other words similar to the US of NYPD 2025. And also our hero, an agent named Dan Cross, is an American who works for “The Agency,” which isn’t the CIA – we’re told that this organization was only formed several years ago. And also that its interests are global; there is a bit of an elitist and condescending tone (redundant description, I know) to the novel, with Cross (and thus Brunner) often putting down populism and having his secret agent protagonist proclaim that he’s “A human being first and an American second. The way it should be!” Cross literally sneers at anyone who doesn’t belive in globalism. Unfortunately he’s a bit of a prick and doesn’t engender much reader empathy.

Well, we learn that Stardropping started fairly recently but has broken out in a major way. It’s not just limited to hippie types but people from all walks of life. India and England are the two main hubs of ‘dropping, and the Brits are going for it because it’s a way to tune out of all the tensions their country has gotten into. Cross has been tasked with researching the phenomenon as America is a bit behind on the fad, and there are rumors that something sinister is afoot, mainly that some Stardroppers have flat-out vanished while tuning in to the cosmos. We meet Cross as he’s just arrived in London, posing as a tourist and toting an expensive custom-made Stardropper he picked up from a Californian specialist.

But what exactly is Stardropping? Honestly folks the slim book is pretty much devoted to that entire question. You won’t find much in the way of action or intrigue here – and you definitely won’t find any lurid elements. Other than a random utterance of “fuck” the book is basically G rated. Anyway back to Stardropping. It was discovered a few years before by a British scientist named Rainshaw. Apparently this device he invented picks up signals from space, and just as with a normal radio there’s a spectrum of “stations” to chose from, with listeners becoming devoted to one or the other. Eventually the proposition was put forth that these signals are actually messages from alien beings. 

Brunner clearly has patterned this new world after the LSD era; “Dropped any good stars lately?” apparently being a common question among enthusiasts. But the novel lacks the psychedelic spark I wanted, which is curious given the publication date. In fact the Stardropper enthusiasts are clean and tidy, complete opposite of grungy hippies. There also isn’t as identifiable a culture, but then the novel’s perhaps too slim for it. The Stardroppers our hero meets are for the most part typical British people who have a tendency to gather together and listen to bizarre bleeps and bloops from space, but otherwise there’s nothing remarkable about them. Save that is for one or two basket cases who have been mentally unhinged by Stardropping; Cross meets one of these immediately upon arrival in London, but it’s the only one we get to see in the novel – and later we find out that there was more to this particular character than suspected.

Cross’s main contact is a Scotland Yard cop named Redvers, who in brief backstory was a young cop when the “LSD problem” was at its height. Now he’s middle aged, cynical, and bitter. There’s a bit of America-bashing when he claims it’s “about time” the Agency started looking into Stardropping, given that America has so far left the topic unexplored. This was a bit hard to buy, but I figured it was Brunner’s attempt at featuring a character who was just as clueless about the situation as the reader. Speaking of which Brunner does a fair job of capturing American speech for Cross – in other words he doesn’t sound just like the British characters in the novel.

Curiously, for a book with a secret agent and a device that might impact the world, The Stardroppers is pretty flat and slow-going. There’s no point where Cross does any “secret agent stuff,” and he operates more like a reporter. He just goes around, pretends to be a Stardropper enthusiast, and picks up what info he can. The only character who really sparks is Lillith, a sixteen year-old runaway whose mother destroyed her Stardropper; she enters the text when she attempts to steal Cross’s Stardropper. After a chase he gets it back, feels sorry for her, and lets her try it out. She also provides an in for another group of Stardroppers, ones who live together in a sort of commune (only it’s clean, of course), and Brunner takes this opportunity to fill up lots of pages with expositional dialog about what the Stardroppers might actually be tapping into.

More dialog comes courtesy the studious group of Stardroppers who meet at Cosmica, a store that sells Stardroppers. The sequence where Cross tours Cosmica is pretty cool, and was presented almost like an audiophile visiting a well-stocked record store. A guy named Watson runs the place, and there’s also an attractive young woman named Angel whose rationality about Stardropping appeals to Cross. Brunner doesn’t go the expected “romantic subplot” route but instead introduces more suspense here, as Angel was engaged to Robin Rainshaw, young Stardropper afficionado – and son of Dr. Rainshaw, Stardropper discover – who happens to be one of those who vanished.

We get to see two characters vanish while Stardropping, but the scenes are too goofy to have any impact. People sit there with their headphone – and Freas’s cover illustration is accurate because Brunner specifies that only one headphone is used with Stardroppers – listening to the cosmos (alternately described as white noise, surf, or even animalistic screams), and then suddenly zap away into thin air. It seems that they’ve become so attuned to a particular station that it beams them right into the great yonder; Robin Rainshaw was the first of these to vanish, and Cross’s assignment is to ensure something nefarious isn’t zapping these people away.

The climax solves the mystery, but in a way that detracts a bit from the suspense that’s gone before. Cross for once uses some secret agent skills and sneaks into Watson’s home. There he bumps into none other than Robin Rainshaw, who is wearing a space suit and seems to have just appeared. Long story short – and spoiler warning for the rest of the paragraph – the Stardroppers who have vanished are beaming out into space, and all of them are working with Watson on a secret project. The ones who zap and don’t come back “weren’t good enough,” per Watson. It gets a little goofy here when Cross himself beams momentarily into space, displaying a skill he of course didn’t know he had, and by novel’s end it’s implied he’ll be part of Watson’s venture, which happens to be the removal of weapons of mass destruction from the various military bases of Earth and depositing them in space. 

Since Brunner’s a “real” sci-fi writer and not a pulp sci-fi writer (guess which of the two I prefer), there’s a lot of print devoted to theories of how Stardropping works and how real-time exists with the space-time of the Stardroppers and other stuff I skimmed through because I just didn’t give a damn. I wanted a fun, fast-moving story with pschedelic overtones, and unfortunately that’s not what I got with The Stardroppers. And if that’s what you want, I still highly recommend After The Good War.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Spy At Angkor Wat (Joaquin Hawks #4)

The Spy At Angkor Wat, by Bill S. Ballinger
May, 1966  Signet Books

The fourth instalment of Joaquin Hawks is of a piece with the previous three, more of a study of Southeast Asia in the mid-1960s than an outright secret agent thriller. If you want to know what Cambodia was like before the Vietnam war really got raging, The Spy At Angkor Wat will be right up your alley. However I’ve gotta say I enjoyed this one, mostly because I put myself in the right frame of mind before I read it – I didn’t go in expecting any action or thrills or whatnot, just a slow-going Cold War thriller in the Asia theater.

I’m still having a hard time with Hawks himself, as he’s too much of a cipher for the reader to identify with. I mean don’t get me wrong, all these sub-Bonds of the ‘60s were ciphers, even Nick Carter, but at least they had modicums of personalities. Hawks just doesn’t. On the one hand he’s a swinging ‘60s type whose code name is, preposterously enough, “Swinger,” but on the other he’s a total chameleon who can slip into Southeast Asian countries and go around undetected, posing as a “Cham-Malay.” Plus he can play a mean acoustic guitar. Perhaps if more time were spent on the “swinging ‘60s” aspect of his personality he might be more relatable, but so far Ballinger has denied us this; Hawks’s intros in the Western world are over and done with in mere pages – usually rendered via flashback, as is the case here – and the novels play out entirely in Asia, with Hawks in disguise.

As ever Ballinger opens up on a nice setpiece; Hawks, newly arrived in Phnom Penh, finds his sole contact in Cambodia dead – and recently murdered at that. Hawks starts a fire in the man’s store to camouflage his escape, and later takes out a tail in a tense scene. Here Hawks employs his karate skills, quickly breaking the dude’s neck. Later he takes out another tail, this time killing with a knife. But that’s it so far as the action goes in The Spy At Angkor Wat, with the rest of the novel playing out more on a suspense angle. Until the very end, where Hawks’s belt-gun is once again employed. Wait, there is one arbitrary action scene, early on, but it’s just setup for what comes later: in Phnom Penh Hawks beats up two guys who are chasing a pretty young Chinese woman, but she hops in her car and takes off before he can learn who she is.

But why is Hawks in Cambodia? In the flashback briefing sequence he’s told of young Prince Thom, whose “pro-West” father was recently killed by Commie dissidents. Poor little Thom’s entire family was wiped out, and now the prepubescent prince is hiding somewhere in Cambodia. Hawks’s assignment is to find him and somehow sneak the kid out of Cambodia with absolutely no help from any in-country contacts. Essentially it’s a kidnapping venture, and Hawks is none too enthused about it. So what does he do, folks? He goes over to Phnom Penh, finds his sole contact there already dead…and then buys the restaurant of some expat Frenchman, disguises himself as a “Cham-Malay,” buys a fighting cock and a guitar(!), and begins to bicycle across Cambodia.

I mean friends this is really what Joaquin Hawks does. You have to wonder what the hell secret agent training school he went to. “No, don’t go in with guns blazing – buy a fighting cock and a bicycle and go deep in-country!” It’s all just so absurd, but as ever Ballinger delivers it with a dry, matter-of-fact narrative style so that the reader can only go along for the ride (as slow-going as the ride is). What’s most humorous is that Hawks’s “strategy” relies solely on luck; he comes across the fighting cock apropos of nothing, buys it (with no explanation given the reader why he’d do such a thing), then uses it as an “in” with the various villages he travels to.

Gradually it becomes clear to the reader that Hawks is planning to immerse himself in the country in the hopes that he’ll magically come across the hiding prince. After some interminable journeying deep into Cambodia, occasionally tending to his cock (I mean the fighting bird!!!), Hawks finally arrives in the village which Prince Thom came from and is most likely hiding in. Here he encounters a local who turns out to be a Malay, so Hawks quickly drops his Cham-Malay guise. I don’t even know what the hell a Cham-Malay is; my wife’s actually from Malaysia so maybe she knows. I doubt I’ll ask her, though. Some things are better kept a mystery.

Now posing as a Moro, same as he did last volume, Hawks befriends the dude and proclaims himself as “Yusef.” He plays the guitar for the townspeople, gaining fame, and eventually is admitted into the royal palace to play for the guards. Clearly Hawks is not working on a tight timetable. The next day Hawks is summoned again and told that he is to give a performance for the young prince, who as Hawks suspected is hiding out in his royal chambers. But when Hawks goes there that night he finds an attractive young Chinese woman acting as the little boy’s guardian, and it’s the same Chinese babe Hawks saved back in Phnom Penh. He hopes she doesn’t recognize him. 

Ballinger delivers an effectively-rendered scene in which Hawks is summoned, late that night, to an empty wat, and there the Chinese babe waits by a statue of the Sleeping Buddha. Her name is Shara Da and she knows “Yusef” as the same karate-fighting man who saved her life. First she confirms he’s not a Commie, then she asks for his help – she needs someone strong to help her and Prince Thom escape the palace, as the boy’s life is in danger. Along with his Malay buddy, Hawks initiates the escape that very night, the group of four slipping out into the dense jungle and narrowly avoiding various search parties.

Once they get in the jungle the novel settles back to the customary long-simmer. It takes weeks for them to make it through the dense sprawl; again Hawks’s “strategy” relies on luck. Originally he had no idea how to get Prince Thom out of the country, as they’d be surrounded by enemies or danger – one dangling threat Ballinger unfortunately doesn’t exploit is that if they’d taken the Vietnam route they’d go right through dense Viet Cong territory – but thanks to an off-hand comment from Shara Da, Hawks learns that Prince Thom’s dad had a private plane, stored over near Angkor Wat.

Ballinger doesn’t bring Angkor Wat to life as much as you’d expect he would; the travelers arrive after their long journey, rent rooms in a nearby hotel, and get some rest. And meanwhile Hawks gets lucky with Shara Da; it’s nothing explicit but slightly more risque than previous books. The commandeering of the airplane is where the real climax occurs; the fighting cock serves as a distraction while Hawks gets everyone on board, then his belt-gun is used in a memorable moment. But after this we’re treated to an overlong plane chase, as Hawks must fly them to safety while the enemy closes in. Our hero for once gets hurt, taking a shard of glass from the busted windshield in his leg.

The relationship between Hawks and Prince Thom is one of the highlights of the book. Ballinger, true to his era, doesn’t treat it with the maudlin gravitas you’d find in today’s dreck. I mean keep in mind, little Thom’s lost his entire family and is now all alone, and clearly this stranger “Yusef” is becoming a father figure for him, giving him lessons on bravery, temperance, and survival. So too is Shara Da falling in love with Hawks, but while Ballinger doesn’t go out of his way to bang us over the head with it, we do see at novel’s end how worn and lonely Hawks is at the completion of this particular assignment. Having gotten Thom and Shara Da out of danger and into friendly hands, he knows he’ll never see them again.

But then as I was griping before, it’s like we’ve never even got to meet Joaquin Hawks. The brief intros in California aren’t enough, with him trading glib dialog with his CIA boss. His in-country escapades have him practicing role camouflage to the extent that even the briefest flashes of “the true Hawks” come off like revelations. There is only one more volume to go, so my suspicion is readers of the day weren’t latching onto the series because they felt the same – your hero needs to have at least something memorable about him.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Balzan Of The Cat People #3: The Lights Of Zetar

Balzan Of The Cat People #3: The Lights Of Zetar, by Wallace Moore
September, 1975  Pyramid Books

Well friends I hate to break it to you, but this was the last volume of Balzan Of The Cat People. Somehow the “Tarzan of Outer Space” was unable to garner a sufficient readership…no doubt because the previous two exploits were dull, overwritten yawnfests in which Balzan came off like a bufoonish lout prone to random acts of anthropology, and practically everyone he met shamed him for being a violent jerk.

It’s some time after the previous volume, which even Conway must’ve hated because he doesn’t even refer to it this time. In fact, The Lights Of Zetar is more a sequel to the first volume than The Caves Of Madness was, seemingly picking up on the events of that first installment. (And yes it stole its title from an episode of Star Trek!) Balzan often thinks of the Kharnites, the villains of The Blood Stones, pondering how the villains of this volume are “exactly like them.” This actually comes off more like Conway ripping himself off due to his own boredom with the series. But at least Balzan isn’t shamed as much this time around…and, uh, doesn’t knock up a demon-winged chick who lives underground, either. 

We meet Balzan as he’s battling a monster. Balzan fights a lot of monsters this time around, usually using his poison-tipped whip (ie his “therb”) or the Kharnite sword he appropriated in the first volume. The Lights Of Zetar has a slightly more pronounced “sci-fantasy” vibe than previous books, with more flying craft and whatnot, but Balzan has yet to get his hands on a raygun or anything. Most of his killing is done by blade, as is his offing of this particular monster which has abruptly attacked Balzan as he was casually walking along and minding his own business. 

Unfortunately the beast is owned by the Krells, a despotic race of humans who look just like Balzan save for their jutting foreheads. These are the guys Balzan keeps comparing to the similarly-despotic Karnites in The Blood Stones. (And I will just assume that Marvel Comics writer Conway conflated the names of Marvel alien races the Krees and the Skrulls for “Krells.”)  One of the many goofy things about this series is that the (unnamed?) planet on which it takes place is so massive that entire empires can exist without ever hearing of one another. Thus while the Krells proclaim themselves as the mightiest race on the planet, their name known far and wide, Balzan shrugs and says he’s never heard of them.

He gets in a quick fight, killing off the Krell war party in bloodless prose. Balzan soon finds himself among another race, the Orathians, who also look just like him but with normal foreheads. They are completely subjugated by the Krells, to the extent that the metal staffs the Krells wield don’t even have any power behind them; the Oranthians shrink at the sight of them, believing the staffs are capable of dispensing incredible pain. Balzan saves a group of Oranthians from these Krells, and thus is greeted like a hero when he enters their camp. Here he meets the lovely Tarlene, and “Balzan the Anthropologist” briefly returns as he ponders over the girl’s total mental domination by the Krells. 

Meanwhile the two shack up; Conway seems to have understood by now that Balzan’s supposed to get busy with some busty native gals each volume, which I’m sure was a stipulation from book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel. But there’s zero in the way of salacious details. Honestly the series is almost G rated, and the vintage planetary romances it was inspired by were even more risque. Also here Balzan meets Taya, the Chronicler of the Oranthians; he’s old and wizened and a revolutionary at heart, plotting an underground resistance against the Krells.

Conway has this strange tendency early in the book of setting up characters, making them seem important, and then promptly killing them off. This first happens with a much-ballyhooed Krell commander who vows to get this new “Oranthian” (aka Balzan) who’s causing so much trouble; our hero kills this guy so casually that I had to re-read the paragraph to confirm he was dead. The same holds true for the Krell ruler of the Oranthians, who is here due to being married to Lenor, daughter of Amdroth, the king of the Krells. This Oranthian outpost is his “gift” for being married to the princess, and while this initially promises some sort of royal subplot about the Krells, this guy too is perfunctorily killed by Balzan, who decides to just press his advantage and marches right into the local Krell fortress, killing the guy where he stands!

Balzan does a lot of killing this time, and luckily there’s none of the violence-shaming of the previous books. Or at least not so much of it. He is though still a complete moron, and just like last time is twice knocked unconscious, at the mercy of his enemies, within the first forty pages. Here it’s Lenor, who offers Balzan a drink mere moments after he’s killed her husband, and Balzan like a fool drinks it…and passes out. Instead of putting a knife in his throat, Lenor tells some underlings to round him up and put him aboard her ship, which she flies to the main Krell fortress to show off her prisoner to her dad. Balzan wakes up just long enough to get knocked out again.

Amdroth, ruler of the Krells, is gifted with precognition thanks to the strange shining lights of Zetar, the god that lives within the mountains above the fortress. The “Feast of Zetar” is coming up and we learn that people are sacrificed to the god every several years. Balzan’s freed by underground resistance Oranthians led by Jem, who happens to be the brother of Tarlene. Soon Balzan’s with the whole group of them, plotting the takedown of Amdroth. Our hero isn’t all just poisoned therbs and Kharnite swords, though – he’s also pretty handy with a computer, as he quickly discovers the “secret weapon” Taya has discovered beneath the Krell capital. It’s one of those Star Trek computers, too, just a massive construct that’s activated by speech. Here Balzan learns that “Zetar” was actually the name of the planet these ancient aliens came from, millennia ago, leaving behind their technology; technology Amdroth now abuses so as to subjugate the Oranthians.

We do get a little of the courtroom intrigue promised in the opening section, but it concerns Amdroth’s top warrior, Emdor, and some other dude whose name I forgot to note vying for dominance. And also Emdor is sleeping with Lenor, but Conway leaves this too off-page. We do get a lot more action, though, which is nice given the plot-heavy boredom of the previous book. The sci-fantasy sweep continues when Balzan uses that ancient computer to fire a plasma cannon sort of thing, blasting apart a Krell war party. Conway even appropriates a Weird Tales vibe when Amdroth, who is also a necromancer, reanimates some dead Krell warriors to fight Balzan, Jem, and Taya. This sub-Conan vibe continues when Balzan challenges Amdroth but is confronted by a host of visions.

The back cover copy implies that sexy (but big foreheaded?) Lenor will in some way tempt or sway Balzan, but Conway is unwilling to deliver this scene. Balzan sneaks into the palace, comes upon Lenor, and she offers herself to him. Balzan my friends turns her down, sickened by her evilness. After this Lenor falls to her death in the courtyard below…and Balzan questions his manhood for turning her down, blaming himself for her death! Not that this slows him down much. He’s here to kill Amdroth, so ventures into the caves where the evil ruler gets his power.

The beast on the cover is not a true indication of the guardian of the cave in which Zetar “lives.” In the actual novel it’s a massive spider – and humorously it’s dispatched by Balzan in a few sentences. In fact, the novel seems to end thirty pages early. Balzan takes out the monster, confronts Amdroth, and then discovers that Zetar is, “surprisingly,” a computer. Another that the ancient aliens left behind, but it needs energy or something to run, and Amdroth has been using sacrifices to power it. Along with his own body, as he’s gotten into a symbiotic relationship with the computer, which has granted him eternal youth; in reality Amdroth is incredibly ancient.

But once that’s done it seems the novel should end, but instead it’s about Jem and the Oranthians (sounds like an ‘80s cartoon) battling Emor and his still-loyal Krell warriors. In the climax Balzan gets another reminder of “man’s inhumanity to man” when a victorious Jem proves to be more merciless than even the Krells were. Even Tarlene is transformed from meek to bloodthirsty, sitting beside her brother and calling for Krell blood. This sickens Balzan, who loses all feelings for her (perfect so he could hop in the sack with whatever babe he’d meet in the next volume). After a violent disagreement with Jem, Balzan cuts Jem’s arm off(!) and then goes on his merry way.

And that was it for Balzan Of The Cat People. Even though only 140-some pages, The Lights Of Zetar is ponderously slow-going; not as slow as the previous volumes but close. It would seem clear why the series failed to take hold with readers. It’s too bad Manning Lee Stokes didn’t have a go at the series; his offerings would’ve been padded and ponderous as well, but they’d burn with that weird fire so typical of Stokes’s work, particularly in the eight volumes of Richard Blade he wrote for Engel. One can only imagine what sort of weirdness he could’ve brought to this similar series.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Istanbul (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #10)

Istanbul, by Nick Carter
October, 1965  Award Books

This was only the second volume of Nick Carter: Killmaster by  Manning Lee Stokes, but already we know what we’ll get – an ultra-macho Nick, an overstuffed plot, a good deal of padding, and a helluva lot of random exclamation points. This one’s a bit leaner and meaner than the other Stokes Killmasters I’ve read, and Nick in particular comes off as pretty bad-ass; there’s a part late in the novel where he goes through the wringer, takes a half-second breather, and then goes on the offense.

We’re informed it’s May of 1965, and Nick’s been sent to a D.C. hotel by AXE boss Hawk. Nick is instructed to wear a mask when he enters the darkened hotel room, and there he is briefed by another guy in a mask. This bizarre tidbit is never elaborated on, but the implication is that the masked man is an important politician who wants to keep his identity a secret. There are some parallels to From Russia, With Love in that the masked man references SMERSH, stating that a heroin ring operating out of Istanbul (another seeming From Russia, With Love reference) has its own pseudo-SMERSH execution wing, comprised of four individuals. Nick’s assignment is to go to Turkey, find them, and kill them.

First though, a final boink with Nick’s latest girlfriend, Janet. Nick’s realized the poor girl has fallen in love with him, so we can’t have any of that. Her response to his curt admission that he’s not coming back is excerpt-worthy:

“So that is that,” she said. “And damn you, Nick Carter. But before you leave you’re going to give me something to remember you by! Tonight I want you to do everything to me. Don’t hold off the way you do to keep from hurting me! You do hurt me, you know. I’m too little and you’re too damn big, but tonight forget it. Promise!” 

Folks, if I only had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that

Anyway, Nick heads to Turkey and Stokes does a credible job of bringing the place to life, not hammering us with details. Instead it’s more on the tension and suspense angle, as Nick meets up with the sole AXE contact in Istanbul, a nerdish guy who hero-worships Nick: his name is Mousy Morgan, and he’s clearly coming unglued due to the heavy stuff going on with this heroin ring.

I figured it would be a long haul until we got to any action, similar to previous Stokes installments, but Nick and Mousy are attacked posthaste, as Mousy and a narcotics agent pick up Nick near the Istanbul harbor (where he’s been dropped off by a submarine) and row him to shore. Another boat attacks them, a machine gunner cutting loose. Here Nick employs a new gadget: Tiny Tim, a little metallic ball that’s actually a mini-atom bomb. It’s a bit hard to buy that Nick survives the blast, but what the hell.

From here Nick gets egregious background on the four men he’s to kill: Defarge, Gonzalez, Dr. Six (a former Nazi concentration camp doctor!), and the mysterious Johnny Ruthless, who seems to be more myth than man, but has a penchant for nearly beheading victims with his razor. There’s also Mija, a hotstuff Turkish babe who is a former “hophead” and has gone through the cure and now is helping Mousy take down the ring. There’s yet more seeming Fleming tribute with Mousy’s AXE base being hidden beneath a morgue, with Nick having to pass through a dank hallway with rotten corpses and whatnot – very similar to the underground passage sequence in From Russia, With Love.

There’s the usual random Stokes insanity; for one, to prove that Mija is really a recovering addict and not just a plant, Nick forces the girl to strip, all the way. This while she cries and pleads with him – and mere moments after he’s met her. His objective is to determine that there really are needle marks on her skin, and more importantly no fresh ones. Even crazier is a bit later, when Nick and Mousy go to a club that shows porn flicks, a club frequented by some of the heroin runners, and Mousy dresses up like a woman because only couples can get in. However Stokes doesn’t do much to exploit this, and Nick doesn’t even actually go into the theater – he and Mousy just hang out in the club, on the lookout for their prey.

Stokes got his start writing mystery novels (a la The Lady Lost Her Head), and that’s really the vibe of Istanbul. Nick keeps coming across corpses, ones with their throats slit so savagely that they’ve nearly been decapitated. All clearly the work of Johnny Ruthless, and Nick soon notes the telltale whiff of nail polish remover at the scenes of the grisly murders. Nick still has to figure out the workings of the ring, so he and Mija pretend to be a wealthy vacationing couple, Nick posing as a Southern salesman and Mija as his playmate; another setup that ultimately goes nowhere, save for the expected Nick-Mija coupling – which features more of Stokes’s patented bonkers sleaze:

Nick had forgotten everything in the universe but this red cave into which he must plunge deeper and deeper. He struggled frantically on now in love-hate and tender-hurt with a terrible obsession to cleave and rend and utterly subdue her.

The novel really picks up when Nick and Mija parachute into the no man’s region of Ankara. Mija’s presence is baffling but Stokes explains it away by Nick feeling that the girl won’t be safe if he leaves her alone in Istanbul. There are interesting parallels here to the modern day in that Nick has dropped into Kurd territory, and they are at war with both Syria and Turkey. (I seem to recall someone recently tweeting that this region has been at war for centuries.) And folks the Kurds don’t come off very well at all. In this book they are blood-crazed savages and Nick is very concerned about them, but regardless he disguises himself as one so as to slip into the fold: Gonzalez, the “Basque” uses the Kurds to transfer the poppy seeds, and Nick hopes to disguise himself as one of them for a chance at killing the man.

All this leads to a running sequence in which Nick is quickly caught, strapped to a donkey and sent over a mine field, and somehow manages to free himself, turn the tables on his Kurd captors, and ambush Gonzalez’s caravan. Another Tiny Tim is even employed, Nick once again defying reality by merely burying himself in the desert sand to escape the atomic wrath. But it gets even crazier, because Nick is shot by some Kurd who survives, and Stokes is so caught up in his own escalating pace that he forgets all about this and just has Nick waking up in a hospital along the Bosphorous, a kindly old German doctor at his side, and realizing it’s none other than Dr. Joseph Six. Nick’s in deep shit, because the good doctor is fond of experimenting on subjects.

Stokes would later bring a “Dr. Six” into his John Eagle Expeditor installment Valley Of Vultures (one of my favorites in that series), and there the character was a bit more elaborated. Here Dr. Six is a bit of a buffoon for a Nazi scum villain. He blithely informs Nick that he’s given him an overdose of morphine and Nick’s time is limited. Nick doubts this is true but slowly realizes he really is dying. Here’s where that bad-assery I mentioned comes into play. Dr. Six excuses himself to allow Nick to die alone (his first display of bufoonery) and Nick crawls off the bed, stumbles into the adjacent bathroom, and finds some bath salts in the cabinet. He drinks it, forcing himself to puke – and then drinks his own puke. All to get the morphine out of him.

Then he “accidentally” falls out the window into the Bosphorous below, waking up on the deck of a fisherman’s boat. After the men give him mouth to mouth, Nick jumps back into the water, swims over to Dr. Six’s fortress hospital, and storms the place, looking for revenge. Stokes pulls all this off with aplomb, however it’s a bit goofy that Dr. Six and his colleagues happen to be looking at Nick’s appropriated weapons when the Killmaster sneaks up on them. Even goofier that Nick pretends to be sick and Dr. Six rushes over to help him. But here we get to see gas bomb at Pierre at play, so the climax at least is entertaining.

But it still doesn’t stop. A dazed Nick escapes the hospital, only to almost be run over by a car. True to the genre, a smokin’ hot redhead from America is behind the wheel; she offers to give Nick a ride back to her place. The ensuing sex scene is so rushed over that I had to re-read the part to see that the two actually did have sex. But anyway Stokes is leading us into a surprising, even “shocking” reveal, as the lady has a deadly secret – however not to buzzkill Stokes’s efforts but I’d already seen it coming halfway through the novel.

All told Istanbul moves at a steady clip for Stokes and was probably one of my favorite of his Killmaster yarns. The egregious exclamation points get to be annoying after a while, and per the Stokes norm there’s a bit too much padding and stalling, but overall it’s a fun read, and here for once Nick Carter really lives up to his “Killmaster” title.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Marina Tower

Marina Tower, by Charles Beardsley
No month stated, 1978  Popular Library

You’ve gotta love the front cover of this fat paperback, which compares itself to not one but two Burt Hirschfeld novels – Fire Island and Aspen (which I haven’t read yet). Author Charles Beardsley was almost as prolific as Hirschfeld, but doesn’t seem to have achieved the same success; I believe all his novels were published as paperback originals, and all were churned out between 1960 and 1980 (I think).

This is the first of his novels I’ve read, and I chose this one due to Kurt’s review at The Ringer Files a few years back, which really drew my attention. I’ve collected a lot of Beardsley’s novels, though, and they all seem to follow the True Trash template: beautiful people in a beautiful location experiencing various soap opera-esque activities over a couple hundred long-simmer pages. Everything about Marina Tower screams exploitation, from the bikini-clad gals on the cover (curious though that none of these California babes are blonde!) to various promises of sex and sin on the front and back cover copy.

And yet this is one of those perplexing “dirty” novels in which hardly any dirty stuff happens! Folks this is one of those mysteries I always ponder…how in the world can an author turn out a “trash” novel that’s not even trashy? Rather, the book is a slow-moving soap opera positively overstuffed with flighty mid-‘70s California types, young and old. It is also very heavy on the New Age tip, similar to another novel of the era that also focused on ‘70s California, The Serial, but this one barrels right on past New Age and into the paranormal. You’d never guess it from the cover art but there’s actually a ghost in the novel, one that gradually possess one of the main characters.

While that’s all well and good, it’s not really the book I wanted. I wanted ‘70s sleaze, folks! I wanted post-hippie Southern California types snorting coke and popping amyl nitrates while engaging in “group activities.” Instead it’s all long-simmer, more about the various characters and their various hangups. There’s even a ‘70s-mandatory government conspiracy afoot, one that of course has to do with the environment. Well anyway, it’s fairly well written, if a bit too overstuffed with characters and subplots. Yet Beardsley mostly does a good job of keeping it moving.

The novel takes place over the Fourth of July weekend of the U.S. Bicentennial, ie 1976. I’m pretty sure the Bicentennial is among my earliest memories; I was born in October of 1974, and I seem to recall looking out the living room window of my house as a small, flag-bearing parade went by. Unless I’ve imagined this it would have to be my earliest memory, as I would’ve only been around a year and a half old in July of 1976. Well anyway I digress.

The titular Marina Tower is a deluxe apartment community along the Pacific Ocean, near Los Angeles. There’s the main Tower, with fifty floors, and a North and South community adjacent to the Tower. The novel concerns the Bicentennial activities of a few of the residents, but as mentioned the focus is more so on the paranormal, with a ghostly presence emanating on the actual holiday and witnessed by a few of the residents. As Kurt notes in his review, some of the characters and stories are more interesting than others. Here are a few of them:

Kay Francis – A reclusive, 68 year-old lady who lives in the Tower penthouse with her maid. The mystery of who Kay is dangles for nearly 200 pages before we learn she is a retired madam, and is being kept in Marina Tower by a wealthy man named Gregg Howard. Her parts are overlong and trying for the reader, but they have to do with her sponsor at the Tower being blackmailed by someone. However we do get a humorous but random bit where Kay goes to a bookstore and tries to steal a book.

Jill Hightower – A pretty young nurse who has recently untapped her psychic talents, thanks to a traumatic event two years ago. A drunk guy at a pool party tried to drown her, and soon thereafter Jill discovered her latent skills with ESP and such. Her main storyline has her channelling a vengeful spirit from the past.

Rayne Bergen – The very same dude who nearly drowned Jill two years ago. He now lives in Marina Tower too, but doesn’t seem to recognize Jill. He’s too busy hanging out by the pool with all the “stews” who flock to him, Marina Tower being a popular residence for stewardesses. He’s a struggling actor who just got a role in a new series – a paranormal TV series, naturally, and thus he soon reaches out to Jill to become his guru on the path to redemption.

Eve Black – A heavyset lesbian real estate mogul who cruises the pool for cuties; among her various egregious subplots is her trying to sell “hexed house” in which a murder took place years before (more paranormal stuff courtesy Beardsley, who clearly had an interest in the subject). She also gets in a random fight in a lesbian bar, and finally the revelation is that she is the one who is blackmailing Kay Francis and Gregg Howard.

Gary Minor – A former porn star with a 10” dick that has a bumblebee tattooed on the head. He’s in hiding from the government on trumped-up federal charges, given that a crusading senator has vowed to take down the star of that scandalous porn flick. He too is being kept at the Tower by someone, but finds out halfway through the novel that he’ll need to vacate the premises – and he doesn’t have any money or anywhere to go.

“Captain” Horatio and wife Tina – An older couple who hit the lottery, bought a yacht, and now tool it around the harbor outside the Tower. Their subplot seems to come from an entirely different novel, given that a trio of punks, hired as temporary crew, plot to hijack the yacht and use it for a cocaine run.

Gloria Deal – A smokin’ hot hooker who lives in the Tower thanks to a rich old guy she sees one night a week (a recurring theme is that many of these characters live here at someone else’s expense). By far the most interesting character in the novel, Gloria cruises the pool and asks “Are you lonely?” as a pickup line for johns (and janes; the lady will swing for whoever pays). She also sells coke and uppers. The narrative always picks up when Gloria is around, and her subplots are the most racy: in addition to cruising for customers, she’s raped by a dude who fools her into thinking he has coke to sell, then finds out the same night her sugar daddy can’t put up her keep any longer (another recurring theme). She and Gary soon realize they are soul mates.

Fumiko Reilly – A Japanese babe who gives shiatsu massages at the Tower; she’s turned on by a new resident, a hunky Iranian dude who turns out to be the new owner of Marina Tower.

Jay Wolfe and Shelly Grau – He’s an exhibitionist looking to do an “immersion couch” act in the bay outside Marina Tower, she’s a black reporter who is falling for her subject. The entire subplot is page-filling boredom, but it too delves into the New Age vibe that permeates the entire book; Jay nearly drowns in the climax and telepathically calls for Shelly…and she hears him.

In addition to this there is the above-mentioned conspiracy; a one-off character discovers that nuclear waste has been dumped into the Pacific near Marina Tower’s harbor, and even a minor underwater incident could knock the cannisters loose and bring the radioactive waste right onto the shore. For his trouble this character is killed by a “random” hit and run driver. And meanwhile an underwater earthquake does indeed knock those cannisters loose, bringing radioactive death to Marina Tower…coinciding with the supernatural vengeance sworn by Mist, the vindictive spirit which has possessed Jill Hightower…

Vindictive spirit? That’s right, folks. After a group meditation session aboard Horatio’s yacht, Caligula, Jill starts hearing a voice in her head, and will sit at her typewriter and begin transcribing the words. For the reader this translates into more egregious material, each bit subtitled “The Island Woman,” as Mist, the ghost, tells her story of suffering and despair. She has vowed revenge on the people who now live in this part of California, but promises Jill she’ll be safe so long as Jill keeps secret the words Mist tells her.

As expected things ramp up the closer we get to the Fourth of July. Horatio and wife are kidnapped by the thugs and taken out to sea; there follows more New Agey stuff in which Jill’s psychic instructor, a lady named Kay, tries to use ESP to figure out where the yacht is, giving the info to the police. Both Gloria and Gary find out they need to leave the Tower, and again Gloria’s storyline is much more interesting – there’s a nice bit where she realizes she’s wasting her life and she’s only in her early 20s. This realization occurs to her as she’s locked inside Eve Black’s bathroom, having barricaded herself from the rampaging, drunken lesbian.

The Gloria-Gary romance is probably the highlight of the novel, if only that it captures the era. Their first boink isn’t overly explicit – again, the novel is perplexingly shy when it comes to the dirty stuff – but it does feature a little amyl nitrate popping. (Kurt quoted this part in the opening of his review, memorably noting how it almost sounds like something out of a horror novel!) I would’ve preferred if there had been more material with these two, or hell maybe if Beardsley had opened up the locale a little more. I mean is there a disco club at Marina Tower? I’m sure there is, but for the most part these characters just sit around in their rooms or by the pool, plumbing the depths of their self-involved problems.

The supernatural stuff takes over in the finale, and initially it seems Beardsley is implying that all this is a mass hallucination borne by the escaping radioactive waste; first Gloria sees a ghost by the pool and runs from it in shock, and later Eve Black, drunk up in her room, has a fatal encounter with the very same vision. But soon we learn that this is in fact the reborn Mist, and by novel’s end – in which a couple characters are promptly (and somewhat shockingly) killed off – we see that it’s indeed a ghost and not just radiation-spawn visions run amok.

I don’t know, friends. Marina Tower isn’t bad, but it’s not what I was expecting. There’s definitely some cool ‘70s touches throughout, like the group meditation stuff and the focus on New Age interests, but too many of the subplots are boring, making the novel an uphill climb at times. I also didn’t dig how the raunch was constantly shackled; I mean Beardsley drops the note early on that Rayne (whose character goes ultimately nowhere) is popular with all the sexy stews who live in the Tower, but instead we get more material on how Rayne isn’t sure if he’s in love with one of them in particular.

So really it’s more of a soap opera potboiler than anything, with nothing really standing out. Neither does Beardsley’s writing; there’s nothing flashy nor memorable about it, but he does an adequate job of capturing the voices of his various characters. He definitely needed to tighten up on the plotting, though; not nearly enough happens in Marina Tower to justify its excessive length, but then I imagine the novel was intended to be picked up by bored housewives on their way to summer vacation. Here’s hoping Beardsley’s other novels have a bit more bite.