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.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Men Who Die Twice (Mind Brothers #3)


Men Who Die Twice, by Peter Heath
No month stated, 1968  Lancer Books

Okay, consider me officially confused. Supposedly the third and final volume of The Mind Brothers, Men Who Die Twice instead comes off like a standalone spy thriller, one that’s only connected to the previous two books in that it features the same protagonist, Jason Starr. Otherwise it’s as if Peter Heath (aka Peter Heath Fine, who actually died in 1995 and not 1975, as mistakenly reported in my review of the first volume) has distanced himself from the series concept.

As we’ll recall, the first volume was mostly sci-fi, about Jason Starr dying in ‘Nam and being reborn via his “mind brother” identical twin Adam Cyber, who came from 50,000 years in the future to see what the world was once like (and to also help fight the Commies, let’s not forget!). Then the second volume sort of jettisoned all that; Jason Starr was more of a regular ‘60s spy type, complete with all kinds of fancy gadgets and gear, and Cyber was relegated to supporting status, off-page for the majority of the narrative. The “Mind Brothers” concept was barely even discussed. A new character, teenager Mark Brown, was introduced – but in the climax of the book, we learned that Mark had been sent into the future by that volume’s villains, and also that Cyber had been sent to the Earth’s core “five minutes ago.” And the book ended on this dual cliffhanger.

Given this, the reader of the third volume would understandably want to know what happens next. Well folks, you can forget the hell about all that. All of it!! There is zero, zilch, nada pickup from the previous volume, or even the first volume. Neither Adam Cyber nor Mark Brown appear, and they aren’t even mentioned. The phrase “Mind Brothers” appears nowhere in the text. Again, the only tie-in to those earlier books is the appearance of Jason Starr, who here appears to be retconned into a “self-employed mathemetician,” one who has lots of Intelligence-world background.

So what the hell?? My assumption is Heath turned in the first book and got the request to turn it into a series, which he fumblingly did with the second volume. But maybe he had a hard time of it, or lost his interest. All the sci-fi wankery of the previous two books is gone in this one – honestly, it’s just your typical ‘60s spy-pulp, and not a particularly good one at that. It’s beyond frustrating for the reader of those first two novels, though. I guess we’re to assume Adam Cyber really did die in the climax of the previous book (an off-page death at that?). So much for his much-ballyhooed voyage across the millennia to come help Jason Starr.

Anyway when Men Who Die Twice opens, Jason is in a stopover in London, on his way to a vacation in Greece(!?). He’s stopped by a phone call in which some dude named Harry Brentwood pleads with Jason to come see him at some hospital. This guy somehow knows Jason and claims it’s a life or death sort of thing, etc, but when Jason gets to the place, they claim there’s no Harry Brentwood there. Plus there’s a stooge who throws Jason out on his ass. The whole place seems mysterious, and Jason tries to figure out the puzzle.

Meanwhile Heath hopscotches all over the place with random incidents and events. For example there’s a doctor named Derby in an underground research lab somewhere in the Midwest, a place where hallucinogenics and germs are being studied for warfare; Derby contaminates the area, massacring everyone, before he escapes – and we get an overlong sequence in which the military wonders if they need to nuke the area to prevent outspread of the contamination. There’s also a nuclear sub commanded by a dude who reports to Derby – who in reality turns out to be a former Nazi spy named Rudi Vreelander.

Jason, still in London, meets pretty young Moira, who claims to be Harry Brentwood’s fiance. At great length we’ll learn that Harry was a scientist at this very same underground lab we just saw – an eerie subplot has it that the scientists, upon their eventual release to the world, have their minds swapped, so that they have no memories of their research beneath the ground. Jason goes around London and over to Scotland in his research, getting in the occasional action scene, and also at one point briefly captured by a bumbling pair of CIA agents, one of whom Jason knows from his (apparent) past life with the agency.

Our hero does get to use at least one gadget this time around; captured again, midway through, Jason’s on a private plane, when he pushes his way free and jumps right out into the night sky. Turns out he’s wearing an experimental “balloon” on his back and thus makes his leisurely descent to the ground. But otherwise Jason is in pure investigative mode this time around, with none of the action-pulp of the previous two books. The majority of the novel is given over to one-off characters; even the President features in an endless subplot in which he wonders if his military commanders are trying to pressure him into what could be an unjust war against Russia – the USSR being set up by Vreelander, who hopes to spark WWIII.

The action eventually climaxes aboard that nuclear sub, which has gone rogue under the command of Vreelander’s henchman. It’s off the coast of Sardinia – where Vreelander himself has been anticlimactically dispensed with – and about to fire off a salvo of nukes. Jason alone storms the ship and tries to stop its insane commander, but here the novel does veer into sci-fi: DC gets nuked! Vreelander’s dude manages to fire off one rocket, and Heath ends the tale with DC a radioactive ruins. Jason, finally setting off for Greece, hopes that mankind “learns something” from the catastrophic event, but figures it won’t.

And that’s it – for the book and the series. Really, this novel was so unconnected to the previous two that you might as well just figure this “Jason Starr” is not the same guy who appeared in those other books. Sort of like how Daniel Craig isn’t playing James Bond, but another character of the same name. I enjoyed the first two books to some extent, but Men Who Die Twice left me cold – and confused.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Guns Of Terra 10


The Guns Of Terra 10, by Don Pendleton
No month stated, 1970  Pinnacle Books

Just when he was getting started on The ExecutionerDon Pendleton turned in this standalone sci-fi paperback that attains to be more than its action-centric cover painting might imply. While it does indeed have uniformed men and women taking on robots and battling on ships in outer space, The Guns Of Terra 10 is actually more concerned with what it means to be a human in a homogenized future era.

Actually – make that what it takes to be a man. In what would no doubt be mocked and derided in the “advanced” modern era, Pendleton’s characters in this unstanted far future still talk about concepts of manliness; the women are still in subordinate roles, very seldom taking part in any decision-making. In a way it’s odd that Pendleton failed to see this encroaching equality of the sexes; his future world has been “homogenized” via genetic programming so that humans are now “homans,” ie “homogenized humans,” the various ethnicities wiped out so that all people are of equal skin color (a tan sort of brown), height (around 4 feet), and weight (about 90 pounds). This has been done so there can be true equality. Also, women’s busts have been so drastically reduced that “only the faintest swelling just behind the nipples [marks] the vestigial female breast.”

This is the future of The Guns Of Terra 10, in which the Solan Corporation rules the solar system and Earth has been abandoned, save for a few humans; it is now solely used for mass production of food for the star-flung peoples of Solan. Peace reigns, and “taking human life is a high crime.” Homans have been so roboticized that speech is now “image based” rather than “language based,” meaning that everyone speaks in this annoying, rushed style, ie “Right, is like same.” Also, proving that he’s read Stranger In A Strange Land, Pendleton gives us the irritatingly-overused word “Skronk,” which basically means the same thing as “Grok.”

Not all humans are homogenized; in particular our protagonist, Zach Whaleman, is a hulking, redheaded 25 year-old who is much brawnier than his fellows. This is because Zach too has been genetically programmed, born and bred specifically to man the guns on Terra 10, a “deepspace super-dreadnaught” developed for the possible invasion of an alien fleet – not that any aliens have ever been encountered, but still. There are also the Reevers, aka “reverts;” those freaks who have either never been genetically programmed or who rejected their “GPC” programming and so grew larger than the homan average, got bigger boobs, etc.

It’s all a bit overwhelming at first, what with all the acronyms and stilted speech, and Pendleton does a good job of showing instead of telling. Yet at the same time it’s not very compelling, at least not to me – it’s hard to care about any of the characters in this bland future. And Whaleman is a bit too naïve to root for, though of course that’s not his fault. The crux of the story is his awakening to his humanity – actually to the fact that he’s a man.

Terra 10 has just been completed and when we meet him Whaleman’s firing its AGRAD (“anti-gravity diffusioner”) guns and whatnot in trial combat; he’s on Board Island, somewhere on Earth, his first time here since he was a child. In this future, children only spend a couple years with their parents before being sent off to be indoctrinated into whatever field it is that’s been chosen for them. There is no free will and each person is literally created to fill a function. It is all frighteningly progressive – all races gone, all people literally the same, all imaginative thought curtailed, all independence eradicated. Everyone the same, serving the same goal.

But Whaleman is abducted by Tom Cole, a towering giant with “spaceblack hair;” the “King of the Reevers,” Cole lords over a small commune here on Earth that is composed of reverts. Forbidden to travel in space, the Reevers are segregated here on Mother Earth; there are around 80 of them, but only a few pop up in the narrative: in addition to Cole, there’s big blond Hedge; a little Homan named Blue, and most importantly (so far as Whaleman will be concerned), a stacked blonde named Stel, who goes around in a “black crotchguard” and nothing else, showing off her “exquisitely formed mammalia.” These reverts are, of course, what humans once were, and they seem positively bizarre to Whaleman. (Humorously, whoever wrote the back cover copy of the book got pretty much all of this wrong.)

The Reever commune is straight-up Haus-Rucker Co.; people sit around on “plastic bubblechairs,” live in plastic domes, and wear “transparent vests” and those ever-present “black crotchguards.” Cole and the others try to get through to Whaleman that he’s a man like them, that he needs to break free of those Solan Corp controls. The Reevers want the Terra 10, we’ll learn, as a bartering tool – they’ll take it, with Whaleman’s help, and only return it if they are granted certain freedoms. Whaleman’s mind is mostly blown by Stel’s big boobs, though. He just can’t stop gandering at them, and Pendleton serves up a few riotous descriptions of those glorious orbs for the reader’s enjoyment. 

Interesting to note, The Guns Of Terra 10 is copyright Bee-Line Books, Inc, with the specification that “Pinnacle Books are published by Bee-Line Books, Inc.” As sleaze readers know, Bee-Line was a smut peddler, eventually supplanted by Pinnacle (which per Pendleton was specifically created for the Executioner series), however be aware that there is zero sleaze, sex, or general tomfoolishness in The Guns Of Terra 10. Just a couple descriptions of Stel’s boobs, which Whaleman usually appreciates from “an engineer’s point of view,” don’t ya know. Long story short, he’s never seen such big ones, and his interest is piqued. Even Whaleman’s subordinate on Terra 10, a raven-haired beauty with the typical small Homan bust, can’t stop staring at Stel’s rack.

Even in a sci-fi setting Pendleton is still Pendleton; there are copious scenes of characters talking and arguing and punching each other when they want to press a particular point. Speechifying runs rampant. We’ll have a few action scenes, and then chapters in which other characters stand around and recap the stuff we just read. This is just Pendleton’s style, and it must be said that, despite being an inordinate 180+ pages, the novel moves at a snappy pace. The action though lacks the gunplay of The Executioner; mostly it involves the Reevers running afoul of “the Boob,” a massive insectoid robot that fires ultrasonic beams which scramble Reever brains. Whaleman can’t believe the unjustness of this, and it is one of the things that makes him rally for the Reever cause.

Eventually Whaleman is discovered by a passing government patrol, and when he pleas for the Reevers, his words falling on the deaf ears of the Solan Corp Chairman – who is never seen and speaks through an “automat” – Whaleman is sent to a Lunar rehab joint where he’s to have a bunch of rest and sex and whatnot. But another thing Pendleton fails to foresee is the 24/7, Big Brother surveillance of the actual future; security is laughably lax in this fictional future, with Whaleman almost casually escaping his Lunar pen and able to get around on Earth without much fuss. He finds that the government has attacked the Reever commune, but meanwhile Cole, Stel, and the others have made their way to Board Island, hoping to commandeer the Terra 10.

But a “Solan Emergency” changes everything; as deus ex machina as can be, an alien invasion fleet just happens to enter our star quadrant at this very moment. And only the Terra 10 can stop it. So there ensues this chaotic part where Whaleman and the Reevers separately converge on the space-dreadnaught, which has gone into a glitch “runaway mode” and headed for Venus – only Whaleman, who was literally bred for such things, can successfully stop the ship. He then quickly instructs the Reevers on how to man the various guns – even finding the time to explain warp drive to them(!) – and together they stave off this alien invasion.

But man is all this so arbitrary. Pendleton doles out the alien stuff almost in passing; we’re informed at the last moment that this invasion fleet, which is “two full flotillas,” is “fully automated,” meaning there isn’t a single alien onboard – much to Stel’s relief, as she frets that the aliens on the opposing ships “might have wives at home worrying about them.” This is her sole contribution to the climactic battle scene. To tell the truth, though, it was a nice change of pace from the commonplace gender-bending of the action epics of today, where kick-ass women call all the shots. 

The climactic battle lacks much spark because most of it is relayed via jargon-filled dialog, ie “It won’t take Scale Max!” At any rate Whaleman successfully commands his Reever troops and the Terra 10 wipes out the entire alien fleet; after which Whaleman is seen as a hero. He uses this status to argue his case at a tribunal in which the Solan Corp Chairperson once again appears via automat; the Chairman turns dictator, demanding that the Reevers be destroyed and Whaleman jailed. Then it’s discovered that the Chairperson is now “99% machine,” and has been for perhaps centuries; the Solan board of directors decide at that moment to change their ways, and the Reevers are brought back into the fold – for, as Whaleman declares, “Reevers are highest expression of human spirit.”

And that’s that – as for the aliens, Pendleton briefly explains that the invasion was an accident(!?) and no more flotillas are forthcoming. Meanwhile the human race will get around to finding what it has lost – and Whaleman can get back to oggling those “impressive mammalia” on Stel, whom he plans to marry (another forgotten custom, and one that immediately appeals to Whaleman).

Overall I enjoyed The Guns Of Terra 10, which is just one of a few sci-fi paperbacks Pendleton wrote at this time, but to tell the truth I enjoyed The Godmakers a lot more.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Don't Bet On Living, Alice! (Hitman #6)


Don’t Bet On Living, Alice!, by Kirby Carr
No month stated, 1975  Major Books

The penultimate volume of Hitman* sees the sleaze quotient continuing to ramp up; there’s no full-bore hardcore material as in say The Illusionist, but boy is it filled with some grimy smut, Kin “Kirby Carr” Platt mostly relaying the sleaze via dialog or digressive background material. To the extent that Mike “Hitman” Ross is almost lost in the shuffle – but then, the dude is such a friggin’ superman that he barely registers on the reader’s conscious anyway. And yet for all that I appreciate this series because it clearly strives to be a Spider for the ‘70s, even operating on that same sort of pseudo-reality as Norvell Page’s earlier pulp work.

To wit, Ross is called onto his latest case by none other than Lt. Martin of the LAPD, who wants Ross to look into something concerning a judge named Gavin. But when Ross gets to Gavin’s house, he finds the judge’s throat slit. Then Ross is shot at by a passing car, guns it down with his trusty Mauser and P-38, and calls up Martin to tell him what’s gone down. It’s like that throughout Don’t Bet On Living, Alice!, with Ross existing in this alternate reality in which his guise as “Hitman” is an open secret with the cops, who look over the carnage he constantly leaves in his wake.

The case with dead Judge Gavin and the would-be hitpeople, one of whom turns out to be the busty secretary of a record industry bigwig, soon puts Ross on the trail of the mysterious “Mom” who is behind it all. There have been a rash of mysterious deaths and suicidides, all of which turn out to be Mom affairs – like for example when Alice Cooper-esque transvestite rock singer Mabel Babble has an “acid freakout” and jumps out of “her” car on the LA Express, being run over and killed. Ross reads about this stuff in the paper and suspects something’s up, and this deal with Judge Gavin having his throat slit seems to be connected.

Mom turns out to be a lady named Mabel Oretha Mack – ie “M.O.M.” – a “svelte” 40-year-old blonde with “no tits to speak of.” Given the lack of attention men gave her, due to her boyish build, Mabel grew to hate all men. She began plotting against men in general, and put her plan in action several years ago; working as a secretary in various fields, she gathered enough dirt on various high-level men to bring them down via blackmail. She even built up a network of spies, all of them women – other secretaries, hookers, etc. Now she has endless reams of data on various infidelities carried out by men, to such an extent that she can get her blackmail victims to do her bidding, no matter how criminous the action she demands of them might be.

And of course, the dirt Mom has on her various victims is all sleazy in nature. As mentioned Platt gets pretty scuzzy in this one, with the majority of it relayed via backstory of this or that sexual excursion. This goes from the blowjobs given by that above-referenced secretary (complete with grossout descriptions of “hot loads,” folks) to even more pervy, unsettling areas, like the “child buggery” enjoyed by a dirty cop. But it’s mostly done via dialog; I can’t recall that there’s an actual sex scene in the novel. Even when Mike Ross has sex with Alice Britton, a senator’s wife turned whore due to her gambling addiction, it sort of happens off page.

As for action, there’s actually a bit more than I expected there would be – I didn’t think a plot about a blackmail-scheming woman would serve up too much in the way of gun-blazing action. But Mom has various stooges at her disposal, from victims-turned-assassins to Mafia torpedoes she hires for her personal security. Platt serves up several action scenes, and while they’re all nicely gory – lots of exploding heads and guts – they’re a bit neutered because Ross is so superhuman. Indeed his enemies even think he’s “not human,” which I guess gives the series even more of a Spider vibe. But seriously, the closest Ross comes to harm is when one guy shoots at him and Ross feels the bullet pass over his head(!). Most of the time his opponents don’t even get to shoot at him, Ross is so fast on the draw.

Some action highlights would be when Ross is attacked by hitmen while having sex with Alice – he kills them without any fuss and goes back to Alice: “Now, where were we?” Another bizarrely-underexploited part has Mabel putting together, with much setup, an army squad of rejects, gathered together by a war department dude Mabel has dirt on, and sending them after Ross, to ambush him in the hills outside LA. Instead, Ross finds out about the plot and guns them down while they’re still sitting in their cars, negating the chance for a big firefight that seemed to be promised. It does have a nice capoff, though, where Ross mutters under his breath to Mabel, “Better luck next time, bitch!” 

We also get lots of backstory about various one-off victims of Mabel’s blackmailing, with Alice Britton getting the most space. A senator’s wife, Alice is forced into whoredom when her gambling debts get too unwieldy. We’re given lots of info about how she started to screw various men for her bookie’s benefit – and enjoying it. So again there’s a heaping helping of sleaze throughout Don’t Bet On Living, Alice!, including Alice’s training in whoredom from said bookie. But eventually Mabel gets hold of Alice and siccs her on Ross, though Alice instead blabs to Ross that it’s all a setup and she has no idea who this “Mom” is, etc.

Alice serves to take the narrative into the homestretch, and to give Ross a clear lead on Mabel and where she can be found. They use Alice’s husband, Senator Britton, as bait, Mabel calling him to make him her latest blackmail victim, using of course her knowledge of Alice’s wrongdoings. As a clincher she even plays the senator an audio recording of Alice blowing some guy. But when Ross confronts the senator, pleading with him to make an arrangement for payment dropoff and etc, Alice too comes clean about her dirty extracurricular activities. As if proving the goofy (but gory) vibe of the Hitman series, Senator Britton is totally forgiving of his wife’s adultery – “Just give my cock the same treatment you gave his!” being his only caveat, referring to the lucky blowjob-recipient on that tape Mom played for him.

Ross still wears his Hitman guise: the “black paratrooper suit and slitted mask” that he’s worn throughout the series, as depicted on the cover of the first volume. He carries around an arsenal in his “war wagon,” which is a modified “Chevyvan.” He does his kiling in the finale with an M-16, and Platt delivers copious gun-porn throughout, with technical detail on firing rate and velocity and whatnot. But the finale again sees Ross being a regular superman, gunning down an entire houseful of Mafia torpedoes without so much as breaking a sweat. As for Mabel, she is rendered her comeuppance, but unsatisfyingly not by Ross’s hands – and our hero is all fired up to kill her. In the end, though, there’s “Nothing left to kill but the bottle.” 

Platt delivers pretty much just what you’d want from sleazy ‘70s men’s adventure pulp; the prose is rough but economical, coming to life with the gore and the grime. But there’s something that keeps Hitman from true men’s adventure greatness…not just that Ross is too superheroic, too unfazed and untouchable; there’s just this rushed, messy feeling to the books.

*As mentioned in my review of the first volume, the series was really only seven volumes; The Impossible Spy, a 1975 Major Books paperback credited to Kirby Carr, is sometimes listed as the eigth volume. However the book is really a standalone spy novel, with no connection to Hitman.