Thursday, October 19, 2017

Swordsmistress Of Chaos (Raven #1)


Swordsmistress Of Chaos, by Richard Kirk
February, 1987  Ace Books
(Original UK edition 1978)

First published in the UK in 1978, Raven ultimately ran for five volumes; “Richard Kirk” was in reality two British writers: Robert Holdstock and Angus Wells. In 1987 the series was brought over to these shores, with awesome covers by Royo (and faithful to titular character Raven’s armor, believe it or not!); the original UK covers had been by Chris Achilleos, and I don’t like them as much, though the cover to this first volume clearly inspired British pop singer Kate Bush.

Raven, the heroine of this fantasy saga, is basically Red Sonja without that pesky “no sex” clause. She is in many ways a Hyborian-age Baroness; not only is she as deadly as hell, but she will screw whatever man (or woman!) she wants. And I’m happy to report these British authors aren’t shy about the juicy details – we’re not talking Baroness-level smut, but the sex in Swordsmistress Of Chaos (incidentally, it’s just “Swordmistress” in the novel itself; ie only one “s”) isn’t just fade to black sort of stuff, either. I’m also happy to report these guys consistently use “around” instead of the British-preferred “round” (ie “She wore a belt around her waist,” etc). However, the lazy bastards at Ace didn’t bother to double up the quotation marks, so we get the British-style single quotes, and Ace also didn’t bother to change the British spellings for the American market (ie the letter “u” shows up in words where it shouldn’t – these colors don’t run, baby!).

Speaking of Red Sonja, the Raven books practically take place in Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria. (Technically Red Sonja was a creation of comics writer Roy Thomas, adapting a medieval-era character of REH’s named “Red Sonya,” whose story appears in the Howard collection Lord Of Samarcand, but you get my drift…) The names of the countries are changed, but this is pretty much the same world that the Howard tales occurred in, a sort of quasi-primeval fantasy world with medieval-era armor. There are no dragons (at least not in this one), but there are various monsters and creatures, not to mention dangerous wizards and the like. A prologue and epilogue hint that Raven’s world, same as Hyboria, is a prehistorical version of our world, one that occurred before the Ice Age.

Raven when we meet her is an 18 year-old runaway from “the slavepens” of Lyand, having been abducted into slavery with her mother and father from their home country of Ishkar. Her parents were killed, and Raven was raped by the cruel Karl ir Donwayne, to whom Raven is to be given as a sex slave. Raven – who is not known as such yet – has escaped this existence, and now the slavehounds are chasing her. She’s captured by another guy and put into yet another slave chain – this one too destined for sexual slavery. A message in a dream tells her she is destined for greatness, not to mention freedom, and a raven seems to have become attached to her.

Raven is freed by the appearance of armored men, one of them a slim but muscled guy in all-black armor with a silver helmet. His name is Spellbinder, and it is he who dubs our heroine “Raven,” given the magical raven that has “chosen” her. Raven, Spellbinder says, is to become the harbinger of chaos that will disrupt this world, chaos being part of the natural scheme of things. So this is sort of like a fantasy take on Aleister Crowley's Horus, maybe? Spellbinder, who has put a spell on Raven without her realizing it, leaves her in the care of warlord Argor, who teaches her all the means of fighting and warfare. The spell makes Raven not question this treatment – not to even wonder why she has been receiving such training, nor even wonder why she was so accepting of Spellbinder just up and leaving her – for a full year.

Cover artist Royo clearly read the book, as he faithfully illustrates the armor Raven has been given – the authors describe it exactly as it appears on the cover painting, even down to the “Ishkarian sleeve-shield” on Raven’s left arm and the studded, thigh-high boots. The “slip” she wears beneath the armor is also suitably revealing, again per the cover – and her sword has that giant emerald or whatever it is on the pommel. Raven learns swordfighting, handfighting, the works, even how to use “Xandrone throwing stars,” with which she becomes quite efficient. That’s right, folks, our blonde mega-babe swordmistress also uses throwing stars.

Raven is consumed with vengeance, wanting to kill her rapist, Karl ir Donwayne, whom she learns has become a sort of general for the country of Lyand. When Spellbinder returns, finding Raven an accomplished warrior (we are informed she has fought and killed in the frequent outlaw activities of Argor’s band of fighters), the reader expects that these two will be heading out to handle the sating of said vengeance. Instead, Swordsmistress Of Chaos becomes more of a quest, taking an unexpected (and narrative-consuming) detour before finally getting back to the revenge angle…in the final pages.

But before even the questing, Raven and Spellbinder take care of another little matter – namely, the looks of burnin’ yearnin’ they’ve been throwing each other. The authors don’t get too explicit in the sex scene, along the lines of stuff like, “[Raven] cried out as he entered her,” but at least it’s there. But Spellbinder makes it clear: Raven is not “his” woman; she is free to choose (and take) any man (or woman!) she pleases. Next Raven gets to prove herself in another manner: a trial by fire. Argor and his men raid an Ishkarian merchant ship, and here we see Raven in action, hacking and slashing with her sword, dagger, and throwing stars, even using the bladed edge of her sleeve-shield. The violence isn’t too gory, but it is fairly bloody – again, these two particular British pulp authors aren’t as shy about the juicy details as some others I’ve read.

One thing these authors have in common with their pulp British kin is a tendency to word paint, sometimes to excessive lengths; the novel is rife with locales and settings which the author strive to bring to life, over the course of dense descriptive paragraphs. This unfortunately serves to work as a headwind against the initial rush of the narrative. Raven’s trained and ready for warfare within a few chapters and we’re ready for some awesome fantasy stuff, but instead we hopscotch around this fantasy world with Spellbinder. First up is a trip to a cryptic temple in which a sort of meteor is worshipped; here another disembodied voice tells Raven she has been chosen for greatness. Also here we see flashforwards of what her world will someday become, with more intimations that this is in fact our world, eons ago.

The “Stone” tells Raven that if she is to get vengeance on Karl ir Donwayne, she will first need to make an impression on the Altan of Lyand, as Karl is favored by the Altan and won’t be an easy target. To gain the Altan’s favor, the Stone recommends Raven deliver the mytic Skull of Quez, which turns out to be a magical artefact: the skull of an ages-ago Lyand ruler who ventured to the mysterious Ghostly Isles of Kharwhan (from whence Spellbinder might hail, though he isn’t telling) and died, his skull saved, imbued with magical powers. Its current whereabouts are unknown. Spellbinder grabs a boat and off the two head for Kharwhan, only for the sea to wage “war” upon them as they reach the Ghostly Isles; they are shipwrecked, and are saved by Viking-like raiders who were drawn by the raven that follows Spellbinder and our heroine.

Led by the awesomely-named Gondar Lifebane, these Vikings hail from Kragg. Gondar is a big blond bastard, and Raven thinks he’s one of the best-looking dudes she’s ever met. He wants some hot sex with her asap, claiming her as his “battle right,” having found her – he and his men were waging war on Kharwhan, only to be assailed by that sea-storm, of which Raven and Spellbinder were unwitting casualties. Raven doesn’t give it up so easily, and tells Gondar he’ll have to fight her for the honor…which basically is Red Sonja’s schtick, but so what. Gondar likes her moxie.

The narrative detours from the revenge angle. Instead we head to Kragg, stronghold of Gondar and his vikings, where Spellbinder runs afoul of Gondar’s wizard, Belthis, and where Raven fends off (sort of) Gondar’s demands for sex. They swordfight over it, and though it comes to a draw, Raven decides to do Gondar anyway – more pretty-explicit stuff here, ie “[Gondar’s] manhood filled her, near choking her” as Raven shows off her oral skills for the big lug. Gondar knows that the Skull of Quez is in the jungles of Ishkar, and he and a shipfull of men take Raven and Spellbinder there, having pledged themselves to the quest. This sequence has a Tolkein flavor as the group is attacked by Beastmen, Orc-like creatures descended from various animals. There’s also more gore here in the frequent battles, and it’s all nicely done.

The authors pull some unusual narrative stuff…like when Spellbinder engages the Beastman ruler in magical combat for possession of the Skull, and they render the entire friggin’ sequence off-page. But he gets it, and after bidding goodbye to Gondar and his men our heroes finally go to Lyand, where we get back on-track with the revenge angle that started the book. Spellbinder is imprisoned due to magic courtesy Belthis, the ousted wizard from Kragg; Belthis puts a spell on the Altan (a foppish sort) and the Altana (the Altan’s co-ruling sister, a mega-babe sort) to make them think Spellbinder is evil.

For whatever reason, Belthis leaves Raven alone…and meanwhile Raven can’t help but notice the hot looks the Altan’s sister is throwing her. Her name is Kyra, and she makes her interests known – and Raven decides to take advantage of said interests so as to free Spellbinder, what the hell. The ensuing sex scene is the most explicit of all: “[Raven] lapped with a hunger she had not known she owned at the sweet, thrusting core of Kyra’s being.” The Swordsmistress of Chaos, baby! The two dine at the Y all night long, and into the morning as well, and the fact that Raven’s entire reason for engaging in this sapphic tryst is brushed under the narrative carpet is something we’ll just overlook; for as it is, the Altana doesn’t even do much to help Raven.

Rapist Karl ir Donwayne is finally given his comeuppance, and it’s pretty anticlimactic; Donwayne barely even appears in the novel. Raven guts him and literally emasculates him with her fancy swordfighting and star-throwing skills. The end is pretty damn rushed, in fact; like how we’re informed in passing that Raven screws the guy who guards the gates to the city, so he’ll watch over her horses and armor. Even more oddly, we’re informed that Raven, our heroine, threatens the lives of this guy’s wife and kids if he blabs on her! But this isn’t even the messiest part; when Raven and Spellbinder make their escape, using the powers of the Quez Skull for distraction, the authors already have them in their armor – even though, just a page or so earlier, we’ve been expressly informed that Raven is not wearing armor. So clearly the book suffered from this dual-author writing, as it would appear these guys didn’t check each other’s work.

I wonder if the authors envisaged this as the start of a series; the novel ends with Belthis still at large and the Quez Skull destroyed. Raven’s vengeance has been sated, which leaves the future an open book for her. She and Spellbinder ponder what to do next. Meanwhile, the epilogue takes us back to that post-Ice Age opening, in which the “old cripple,” who appears to be none other than Spellbinder, bemoans again the nightmare which has become of the world, and how the heroes of the past, like Raven, are long gone. Particularly interesting are his comments about the “last armageddic battle,” which he doesn’t believe Raven survived, though he mentions that Gondar did.

Anyway, Swordsmistress Of Chaos detours from where it initially seems to be headed, but like the old saying goes, the journey is more fun than the destination, so I can’t complain. I got the entire series (in the Ace edition) for a pittance and look forward to continuing it.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Death Merchant: An Insider's View

A big thanks to Allan Wood of the World of Joseph Rosenberger blog for transcribing this and emailing it to me, for publication here – this is the Death Merchant writeup by Joseph Rosenberger that ran in the back of some Pinnacle books in the early ‘80s. It was originally written for a free flyer Pinnacle gave out in bookstores in the late ‘70s (hence the “1978” reference toward the end of the piece).

 Anyway, please enjoy this “insider’s view” into the Death Merchant, courtesy the fevered imagination of its (possibly insane) creator!

An insider's view of the Death Merchant— A master of disguise, deception, and destruction . . . and his job is death. 


DEATH MERCHANT 
by Joseph Rosenberger 

One of Pinnacle's best-selling action series is the Death Merchant, which tells the story of an unusual man who is a master of disguise and an expert in exotic and unusual firearms: Richard Camellion. Dedicated to eliminating injustice from the world, whether on a personal, national, or international level, possessed of a coldly logical mind, totally fearless, he has become over the years an unofficial, unrecognized, but absolutely essential arm of the CIA. He takes on the dirty jobs, the impossible missions, the operations that cannot be handled by the legal or extralegal forces of this or other sympathetic countries. He is a man without a face, without a single identifying characteristic. He is known as the master of the three Ds—Death, Destruction, and Disguise. He is, in fact and in theory, the Death Merchant. 

The conception of the "Death Merchant" did not involve any instant parthenogenesis, but a parentage whose partnership is more ancient than recorded history. The father of Richard Camellion was Logic. The mother, Realism. 

Logic involved the realization that people who read fiction want to be entertained and that real-life truth is often stranger and more fantastic than the most imaginative kind of fiction. Realism embraced the truth that any human being, having both emotional and physical weaknesses, is prone to mistakes and can accomplish only so much in any given situation. 

We are born into a world in which we find ourselves surrounded by physical objects. There seems to be still another—a subjective—world within us, capable of receiving and retaining impressions from the outside world. Each one is a world of its own, with a relation to space different from that of the other. Collectively, these impressions and how they are perceived on the individual level make each human being a distinct person, an entity with his own views and opinions, his own likes and dislikes, his own personal strengths and weaknesses.

As applied to the real world, this means that the average human is actually a complex personality, a bundle of traits that very often are in conflict with each other, traits that are both good and bad. In fiction this means that the writer must show his chief character to be "human," i.e., to give the hero a multiplicity of traits, some good, some bad.

At the same time, Logic demands that in action-adventure the hero cannot be a literal superman and achieve the impossible. Our hero cannot jump into a crowd of fifty villains and flatten them with his bare hands—even if he is the best karate expert in the world! Sheer weight of numbers would bring him to his knees.

Accordingly, the marriage between Logic and Realism had to be, out of necessity, a practical union, one that would have to live in two worlds: the world of actuality and the world of fiction. This partnership would have to take the best from these two worlds to conceive a lead character who, while incredible in his deeds, could have a counterpart in the very real world of the living.

Conception was achieved. The Death Merchant was born in February of 1971, in the first book of the series, Death Merchant.

This genesis was not without the elements that would shape the future accomplishments of Richard J. Camellion. Just as a real human being is the product of his gene-ancestry and, to a certain extent, of his environment during his formative years, so the fictional Richard Camellion also has a history, although one will have to read the entire series to glean his background and training.

There are other continuities and constants within the general structure of the series. For example, it might seem that the Death Merchant tackles the absurd and the inconceivable. He doesn't. He succeeds in his missions because of his training and experience, with emphasis on the former—training in the arts and sciences, particularly in the various disciplines that deal not only with the physical violence and self-defense, but with the various tricks of how to stay alive—self-preservation!

There are many other cornerstones that form the foundation of the general story line:

 Richard Camellion abhors boredom, loves danger and adventure, and feels that he may as well derive a good income from these qualities. The fact that he often has to take a human life does not make him brutal and cruel.

 Richard Camellion works for money; he's a modern mercenary. Nevertheless, he is a man with moral convictions and deeply rooted loyalties. He will not take on any job if its success might harm the United States.

 The Death Merchant usually works for the CIA or some other U.S. government agency. The reason is very simple. Richard Camellion handles only the most dangerous projects and/or the biggest threats. In today's world the biggest battles involve the silent but very real war being waged between the various intelligence communities of the world. This war is basically between freedom and tyranny, between Democracy and Communism. 

(The Death Merchant has worked for non-government agencies, but he has seldom worked for individuals because few can pay his opening fee: $100,000. Usually, those individuals who could and would pay his fee, such as members of organized crime, couldn't buy his special talents for ten times that, cash in advance.)

 The Death Merchant is a pragmatic realist. He is not a hypocrite and readily admits that he works mainly for money. In his words, "While money doesn't bring happiness, if you have a lot of the green stuff you can be unhappy in maximum comfort." Yet he has been known to give his entire fee—one hundred grand—to charity!

 Richard Camellion did not originate the title "Death Merchant." He hates the title, considering it both silly and incongruous. But he can't deny it. He does deal in death. The nickname came about because of his deadly proficiency with firearms and other devices of the quick-kill. (All men die, and Camellion knows that it is only a question of when. He has never feared death, "Which is maybe one reason why I have lived as long as I have.")

 The weapons and equipment used in the series do exist. (Not only does the author strive for realism and authenticity, but technical advice is constantly being furnished by Lee E. Jurras, the noted ballistician and author.)

Another support of the general plot is that Camellion is a master of disguise and makeup, and a superb actor as well. 

It can be said that Richard Camellion, the Death Merchant, is the heart of the series; but action—fast-paced, violent, often bloody—is the life's blood that keeps the heart pumping. This is not merely a conceptual device of the author; it is based on realistic considerations. The real world is violent. Evil does exist. The world of adventure and of espionage is especially violent. 

The Death Merchant of 1971 is not necessarily the same Death Merchant of 1978. In organizing the series, we did use various concepts in constructing the background and the character of Richard Camellion. 

Have any of these concepts changed? 

The only way to answer the question is to say that while these concepts are still there and have not changed as such, many of them have not matured and are still in the limbo of "adolescence." For example: 

We have not elaborated on several phases of his early background, or given any reasons why Camellion decided to follow a life of danger. He loves danger? An oversimplification. Who first called him the Death Merchant? What kind of training did he have? At times he will murmur, "Dominus Lucis vobiscum." What do the words "The Lord of Life be with you" mean to Camellion? 

All the answers, and more, will be found in future books in the series. 

Camellion's role is obvious. He's the "good guy" fighting on the side of justice. He's a man of action who is very sure of himself in anything he undertakes; a ruthless, cold-blooded cynic who doesn't care if he lives or dies; an expert killing machine whose mind runs in only one groove: getting the job done. One thing is certain: he is not a Knight on a White Horse! He has all the flaws and faults that any human being can have. 

Camellion is a firm believer in law, order, and justice, but he doesn't think twice about bending any law and, if necessary, breaking it. He's an individualist, honest in his beliefs, a nonconformist. 

He also seems to be a health nut. He doesn't smoke, indulges very lightly in alcohol, is forever munching on "natural" snacks (raisins, nuts, etc.), and uses Yoga methods of breathing and exercise. 

Richard Camellion is not the average champion/hero. He never makes a move unless the odds are on his side. He may seem reckless, but he isn't. 

Richard Camellion wouldn't turn down a relationship with a woman, but he doesn't go out of his way to find one. The great love of his life is weapons, particularly his precious Auto Mags. 

As a whole, readers' reactions are very favorable to the series. It is they who keep Richard Camellion alive and healthy. 

The real father and mother of Richard Camellion is Joseph Rosenberger. A professional writer since the age of 21, when he sold an article, he worked at various jobs before turning to fulltime writing in 1961. Rosenberger is the author of almost 2,000 published short stories and articles and 150 books, both fiction and nonfiction, writing in his own name and several pseudonyms. He originated the first kung fu fiction books, under the name of "Lee Chang." Among other things, he has been a circus pitchman, an instructor in "Korean karate," a private detective, and a free-lance journalist. 

Unlike the Death Merchant, the author is not interested in firearms, and does not like to travel. He is the father of a 23-year-old daughter, lives and writes in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, and is currently hard at work on the latest adventure of Richard Camellion, the Death Merchant.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Balzan Of The Cat People #2: The Caves Of Madness


Balzan Of The Cat People #2: The Caves Of Madness, by Wallace Moore
July, 1975  Pyramid Books

The “Tarzan of outer space” returns in the second volume of Balzan, with comics scribe Gerry Conway again serving as “Wallace Moore.” One suspects though that series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel must’ve figured he hired the wrong author for this particular series, as it soon becomes clear that Conway isn’t really into it – and certainly doesn’t like his protagonist. Reading The Caves Of Madness also makes it clear why there was only one more volume in the series.

Picking up some short but unspecified time after the first volume, this installment takes place entirely in the titular caves, with Balzan desperately trying to find a family with either of the two winged races that live here beneath the ground. For here is the big, big problem with Balzan: rather than the Tarzan/Conan-esque badass we might want, a rebel loner blitzing his way through an alien landscape, our hero is more of a needy type, lonely and feeling like an outcast, given that he’s the only human on this planet. Poor Balzan just wants to be loved, folks. While it’s all endearing and precious and etc, it sure as hell isn’t what I want when the cover shows a wildman sporting a knife, with the proclamation “the Tarzan of outer space” emblazoned above him.

So I’m betting Engel wanted one thing and Conway delivered another. He tries to have his cake and eat it, too, for despite being a maudlin, melancholy sad sack, Balzan is also a primo asskicker, so good at fighting and killing that he fears he enjoys it too much. (Despite which the dude is knocked out four times within the first 77 pages.) Indeed, practically the entirety of The Caves Of Madness is given over to various characters shaming Balzan for his brashness, for how prone he is to make violence his first and only recourse. It gets to be tedious after a while, particularly when the novel is much too long…only 150-some pages, but some of the smallest, densest copy you’ll ever see in an old paperback…almost as tiny and dense as the print in that Bantam edition of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Displaying his brashness posthaste, Balzan’s out wandering along the beach one day when he sees a pair of winged humanoid creatures fighting a tentacled blob that’s surfaced. He rushes to the fray, his dagger and therb (ie poisoned whip) at the ready. For his heroism he’s knocked cold, and awakens in the caverns of these distrustful “wingmen” (as Conway constantly refers to them). They have wings, ruddy skin, and hooves, yet otherwise look human enough, I guess. They call themselves the Aeri, and keep Balzan a sort of guest-prisoner, in an alcove high above the rocky ground.

His meals are brought to him by a lovely gal – other than the wings, hooves, and demonic look, that is – named Ryla. Balzan is basically an anthropologist this time around. He – and unfortunately we – learns all about Aeri culture and customs; page-filling at its worst. It’s also goofy as hell. For, just after being with the Aeri for a month, Balzan is able to say things like “protective stasis cube” and the like in their language. This is of course while he’s expositing on his back story, which we already read in the previous book.

Things like this would be easier to digest in the Marvel comics work Conway’s more known for…I could see it all illustrated in Curtis Magazines black and white by John Buscema and Alfredo Alcala (my favorite pairing – though Rudy Nebres was always my favorite artist of all those black & white Marvel mags). But in novel form it comes off as silly and unbelievable. There are even goofy blunders Conway misses; early on, Balzan learns that the term “month” cannot be translated into the Aeri language, as they have no concept of it, given the two moons of the planet or somesuch. Yet several pages later, during a tribal meeting in which the ancient Aeri leader takes questions from his people, one of the women states that she has not yet waited “the thirteen months of mourning” after the death of a loved one. So do the Aeri know what a month is or not?

But the novel really is Balzan the Anthropologist; the dude is just way too interested in the people he meets, so that the violent revenge angle of the previous book is lost. I mean, I liked the first book way better than this one, and the first one was kind of a chore to get through at times. And things that should be exploited are left to the reader’s imagination – like the little tidbit of Balzan finally getting laid. As we’ll recall, he was prudish and standoffish to “hmmmm” levels in the the previous book; this time he can’t get lucky quick enough with Ryla (she of the red skin, wings, and friggin hooves, let’s recall). So is this Balzan’s first time or what? Conway doesn’t say. He also doesn’t get more descriptive than, “This time, when they kissed, they didn’t break apart.” Hot stuff!

There’s a bit of action to liven up the anthropological tedium. Another group of winged peoples attacks the Aeri, and Balzan leaps into the fray with therb and dagger, killing with glee. The Aeri are almost massacred, including women and children, and Balzan fights hard, which makes the following scene so WTF? Balzan mopes and sulks and tells a consoling Ryla to beat it. Why? Because Balzan worries that he “enjoys killing too much.” Uh, didn’t you just kill off a bunch of murderers, Balzan? It’s not like you were out thrill-killing in the caves of madness.

Anyway, these other winged people are the Mandagarr, ancient enemies of the Aeri. Conway isn’t much for description, which is humorous given how overwritten the book is, but apparently they look just like the Aeri, only with grayish skin. Balzan is eventually kidnapped by these freaks, and as if in defiance of all reader expectations, Conway writes practically the exact same stuff again – Balzan’s kept a sort of prisoner-guest and taught all about the customs of these winged people, including their language, living among them for a few months.

As if displaying the paucity of imagination rampant throughout the book, not only is Balzan again hooked up with a lovely lady (other that is than the wings, gray skin, and friggin hooves), but this lady, Cho, has a brother who distrusts Balzan – exactly the same setup as in the Aeri section of the novel. The brothers are even named similarly: Hiro and Kimo! This part too drags on, with Balzan first scoring (again nondescriptively) with Cho, who is like the town whore for the month. In what would easily trigger the sensitive types of today, we are informed that every woman in the Mandagarr community serves as a communal whore for a month or so, loving all men equally, so that there are no feelings of possession or love or what have you…and when she gets pregnant, the man responsible (if they know who it be) only helps to take care of the child, he does not act as her husband.

It’s just kinda…stupid. By this time in the previous book, Balzan would’ve fought in a few gladiatorial matches and killed some monsters. Seriously, folks, this time he sits around in these goddamn caves with their glowing fungi and listens to lots of exposition about various customs and beliefs, and then later is chastized by these same freaks for his brashness. The Aeri and Mandagarr sequences are so similar that I was kind of impressed with Conway for ripping himself off in the same book. Anyway, Balzan falls in love with Cho for some reason, and the only thing to differentiate her from Ryla is that she’s more caring or somesuch.

Balzan’s also an idiot. He can’t make up his mind if he wants to stay with the Mandagarr, if he trusts them or not, and occasionally makes breakout attempts, killing guards – something for which he’s never punished, mysteriously enough. He also has periodic run-ins with the ancient man who sits in passages beneath the living area, guarding a massive metal door – behind this is the Sl’yth, an almost mythical monster of unimaginable horror. As if again displaying that paucity of imagination, when Conway gets around to describing the creature, all he tells us is it’s a “slime-encrusted demon.” Again, you can clearly see how this guy made his living writing comics, where the visual stuff was filled in by artists. 

Balzan sulks again when he learns the Mandagarr have been hoping he’d impregnate Cho, as it develops their race is dying – as are the Aeri – and it was hoped Balzan’s seed would start new life. Uh, you all are different species, but what the hell. Cho does get pregnant…and Balzan stays with the Mandagarr…then three months later Cho loses the child. The Tarzan of Outer Space!! Seriously, what the hell kind of book was Conway writing?? But Balzan sulks some more and, after killing Hiro (not to be confused with Kimo) in a long-delayed grudge match, he makes his escape.

We’re in the homestretch now. Balzan returns to the Aeri, where Ryla first welcomes him, then gets pissed when she figures Balzan fell in love with some Mandagarr girl. Balzan sulks some more, and uses this to feed his desire for revenge. He leads a war party on the Mandagarr, unleashing the Sl’yth, which practically destroys everyone. Our hero, who massacres entire peoples. Too late he decides to stop the “slime-encrusted demon,” which, you know, he just released. Somehow along the way he finds time to kill Kimo (not to be confused with Hiro) in a long-delayed grudge match. Then Cho reveals herself to be Balzan’s true love, sacrificing herself in what Conway hopes will be an emotional moment but isn’t, because you could give two shits about any of these lifeless characters. 

The book ends with Balzan finally getting out of those damned caves and back to the surface world of whatever the hell planet he’s on. The entire novel was like a waystation between wherever Balzan was headed after the previous book, which as mentioned was vastly superior, despite also being kind of terrible. One can only hope that the next volume, ie the last one, does something to salvage this series. But boy, you sure can see why Balzan Of The Cat People only lasted three volume while Engel’s similar Richard Blade lasted for 30+ (or a couple hundred more, if you count the French editions). 

Here’s a fun review of The Caves Of Madness at Schlock Value, from whence I lifted the cover scan above.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Kill Squad (aka Kill Squad #1)


Kill Squad, by Mark Cruz
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

I had low expectations for this first volume of Kill Squad; after all, the third volume was pretty tepid. But damn if Dan Streib, posing as “Mark Cruz,” didn’t entertain me with this sleazy action yarn that makes no pretense at reality, coming off like a moronic but fun grindhouse film – one that makes sudden detours into pretty grim stuff.

This one really starts off the series, as the Kill Squad bands together, though Streib never actually refers to them as such. I guess this would be their origin story. Once again white cop Chet Tabor is the main protagonist, a good-looking blond-haired hunk of man with a scar on his face – a scar, we’re often reminded, which the ladies somehow find sexy. We learn this time that Tabor was once a sergeant in the San Diego PD, but got busted down to patrolman status after revenge-killing the criminal who gave him that facial scar. I don’t believe Streib mentions this time that Tabor is also a ‘Nam vet; I’m pretty sure he did in Dead Wrong, though I may be mistakenly thinking of Streib’s similar “killer cop” series Death Squad.

Streib as we’ll recall was the dude who wrote the subpar first two volumes of Chopper Cop, and whom series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel deemed a “not very good” writer. But it seems like Streib found his mojo in the interim between Chopper Cop #2 and this first Kill Squad, and indeed, it’s possible that this book started life as the third Chopper Cop Streib never wrote, as the antagonists this time are bikers – in fact they simply call themselves “The Bikers” throughout. But I’ll tell you this: this story is miles better than either of those Chopper Cop books Streib did, and it even has more bike-riding action than both of them put together!

We see the Bikers in action posthaste, as they run roughshod into quiet La Jolla, CA, bypassing Chet Tabor, who sits in his patrol car. Despite the progressivist weakenings enforced upon his department, Tabor refuses to just think of the bikers as tourists or whatever; his cop instincts tell him they’re trouble, here for no good, and he’ll be damned if he’s going to ignore his instincts, new departmental rules or not. This leads to a goofy bit where Tabor heads off a hundred bikers with nothing more than his Webbley revolver; Tabor is a gun-nut, by the way, with an “arsenal” in his apartment, and basically just picks a new gun to patrol with every day.

A riot threatens, with Tabor firing into the air and some bikers crashing into each other; he’s called for backup, and of course “big black cop” Grant Lincoln shows up. Tabor and Lincoln are already friends, and Streib implies they’ve had a sort of Razoni & Jackson-esque history, Lincoln constantly complaining how Tabor gets him in trouble. Lincoln by the way is considered a “black honkie” by the other black officers on the force, due to how clean-cut he acts! He saves Tabor’s ass, only for the two to get back to precinct HQ, where “stupid chief” Jackson bitches at them for their insubordinance. 

Chief Jackson has a new idea: he’s brought in a chaperone from the LAPD to watch over the pair. This is Sgt. Alvarez – Sgt. Maria Alvarez, the two cops are shocked to discover, with Tabor openly gawking at Maria’s big boobs and nice ass, both of which of course are prominently displayed by her too-tight uniform. There ensues such over-the-top rudeness from Tabor that it all comes off like the stupid sexual harrassment videos you have to watch every year in the corporate world, culminating with Tabor goosing Maria after she’s made Lincoln and him march through the detectives’s room like a pair of recruits.

Streib doesn’t waste any time on long-simmer attraction; despite her clear dislike of Tabor, Maria is also clearly just as attracted to him. Even after he calls her a “bitch” and storms off to his apartment, telling her he’s had enough of her shit for one day. She chases after him, snarling, and attacks him in his apartment, hissing and scratching at him, until Tabor bends her over his knee for a good spanking(!). This of course leads into some hot (off-page) sex. That out of the way, Tabor sneaks out on a sleeping Maria that night, having gotten a lead on one of those bikers – he lost his Webbley revolver in the riot, and knows they’re going to pull something with it.

He calls Lincoln and demands “the big black cop” get out of bed with his latest playmate. (“Finish her,” he orders Lincoln. “Climax her, pal.”) We get a cool, Cobra-esque part where the two engage in a shootout with a male-female pair of bikers who have knocked over a convenience store, the female taking a small boy hostage. Here Streib indulges in his recurring penchant of having a female character getting her eyeballs blown out – I swear this has happened in every Streib book I’ve read. But Tabor shoots the biker-chick right in the face, Streib gleefully documenting her exploding eyeball. This will actually happen again – two more times, to two different female characters – before the novel is over.

This scene features a bonkers finale in which Lincoln again saves Tabor’s ass, after which Tabor berates him, “Damn you, n – !” Streib leaves no racist or sexist stone unturned in this book, which is proof that, for once at least, the dude knew exactly the market he was writing for and just what sort of outrageous stuff was expected of him. Adding to this is how Maria comes off as so na├»ve and, well, stupid, despite being proclaimed as a medal-winning cop from Los Angeles. Not that Streib really does much to tell us how exactly she earned those commendations, or what exactly Jackson’s intent was to have her brought in as chaperone for Tabor and Lincoln.

But Maria is muleheaded that Tabor and Lincoln started this whole shootout, and also that Biker leader Paul Kane is really a nice guy and has no intentions, despite Tabor’s hunches, of starting any trouble in San Diego. To the point that she even goes with Kane to a nudist beach. This whole part is beyond silly, but again superb so far as exploitative material goes. Tabor and Lincoln secretly follow her, spying from afar as Kane’s biker minions and their sexy babes bare all and frolic on the beach. 

But when the sun goes down the sadism level goes up, with biker guys chasing biker girls around, tying them up, threatening to barbecue them, etc. Tabor and Lincoln are waylaid by a pair of biker chicks who try to have sex with them, but when Tabor sees one of the bikers going too far he rushes to the fray. He escapes yet another stomping thanks to sexy rich babe Jessica, the girl Tabor himself just saved from the sadistic bikers, a hotstuff blonde who clearly doesn’t belong with these biker scum but hangs out with them regardless – turns out she’s Kane’s woman, and is with him because he supplies her with heroin.

Tabor ends up having more off-page sex, this time with Jessica, who “thanks” him for saving her by taking a shower in front of him and inviting him in with her. This is all in her posh penthouse. She informs Tabor that Kane is planning a heist of a hundred banks tomorrow, to be carried out by his biker army – the exact plot, by the way, of The Blood Circus. So again,you can see how this novel is more “Chopper Cop” than either of the two books Streib actually wrote for that series. Jessica wants immunity in exchange for the info. 

Then Kane comes in, Maria in tow, his biker minions with him. Here the book takes that detour into grimness. Tabor goes for a gun, knowing he’s screwed, but stupid Maria stops him, still insisting Paul Kane is “a good man.” Then the bikers beat the shit out of Tabor and gang rape Maria. Tabor passes out during it, only to wake the next day, praying that Grant Lincoln will come save him (again!). This of course happens, leading to a reality-be-damned finale in which the three cops stop off at Tabor’s apartment and raid his arsenal.

Maria, in a daze after the rape and filled with vengeance, has deduced that Jessica hoodwinked Tabor – while the bikers are going to rob banks, Kane’s real goal is likely a heist of the massive Novak Bank downtown, owned by Jessica’s father, J. Robert Novak. (Hmmm…could Streib have been the “Robert Novak” who wrote the first two volumes of Belmont Tower’s Super Cop Joe Blaze series?) Armed with pistols, carbines, and on motorcycles of their own, the trio haul ass for the Novak bank, stopping the heist in progress. There ensues a bloody firefight in which more bikers (and biker-chicks) get their eyeballs blown out – and in which Maria gets her revenge on Paul Kane. And Streib delivers another recurring element, with his hero blowing away a woman he thought he was beginning to love, as for example in the finale of Death Squad #1.

Here the novel ends, with Maria’s raping being kept from Chief Jackson. It’s left up in the air if the three are even going to become a team, so maybe Streib wrote this not knowing if he’d write more volumes. There were four more volumes to follow, though; as mentioned, I didn’t enjoy the third one that much, but here’s hoping the other three are more along the grindhouse lines of this first one.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Stark And The Star Kings And Other Stories


Stark And The Star Kings And Other Stories, by Leigh Brackett
February, 2008  Baen eBooks

I rarely read eBooks, but I had to get this one, as currently it’s the only sensibly-priced location in which you can read the never-published Eric John Stark novella “Stark And The Star Kings.” Otherwise you have to plunk down a couple hundred bucks for the ridiculously-overpriced hardcover of the same title which Hafner Press published several years ago.

This eBook features that title novella, as well as “Enchantress Of Venus,” the other Stark novella Leigh Brackett published back in the ’49-’51 period in which she was focused on the character. While it was never expanded into novel-length like “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs” and  “Black Amazon Of Mars” were, “Enchantress Of Venus” was included in several Brackett anthologies, like The Best Of Leigh Brackett (1977) and The Halfling And Other Stories (1973), as well as omnibus anthologies like The Space Opera Renaissance (2006). One can see why it has appeared in so many collections, as the story is damn good – without question my favorite Stark novella. In fact I’m glad Brackett didn’t expand it in ’64, like she did the other two; I think those two expansions came out inferior to their original versions, and I would’ve hated to see this wonderful story suffer the same fate.

Even though “Enchantress Of Venus” is the second story collected in this eBook, I read it first, given that it takes place before “Stark And The Star Kings.” Originally appearing in the Fall 1949 issue of Planet Stories, which you can download a free scan of at The Internet Archive, “Enchantress Of Venus” takes place after “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs,” the events of which are briefly mentioned. Thus it also takes place after “Black Amazon Of Mars.” It opens with Eric John Stark on Venus, which in Brackett’s solar system is a fetid hothouse with some incredible psychedelic touches.   

Stark has come to Venus to find Helvi, a barbarian comrade who went to the Venusian city Shunruun to find his missing brother, and who himself disappeared. The novella – which is more absorbing than most actual novels – opens with one of those patented Brackett scenes so heavy on atmosphere. Stark’s on a ship on the Venusian Red Sea, which is made up of crimson gas – not water. (The Red Sea earlier appeared in Brackett’s 1946 novella Lorelei Of The Red Mist, which she co-wrote with Ray Bradbury…a story that also features a barbarian named Conan!) Malthor, captain of the ship, keeps pimping his place as a great spot for Stark to spend the night in Shunruun. When Stark makes his “no” final, Malthor attacks him, and we see Stark’s Tarzan-esque qualities posthaste, as he bites Malthor, jumps off the ship, and “swims” in the psychedelic expanse of the Red Sea. You can breathe down here, yet still float on the red mist…the visuals throughout the story are great.

Shunrun isn’t the most welcoming of places; there is talk of the Lhari, who rule the city, and the Lost Ones, who are their slaves, and whose wailing voices carry over the Red Sea. Stark encounters a fellow Earthman who runs a tavern, who has heard of Stark, and tells him to leave. Stark then runs into a waiflike (and topless) teen named Zareth, who is Malthor’s daughter; she tells Stark Malthor is hunting for him. Stark storms the gates of the Lhari, the Cloud-Folk who have come down to the surface to rule…albino-like beings with silver hair. Only a few are left, a squabbling family. One of them is the titular enchantress: Varra, a regal beauty who carries a terran bird of prey which she siccs on would-be suitor (and cousin) Egin. Stark kisses Varra, which enrages Egin, who shoots Stark with a stubby weapon that paralyzes him.

Stark wakes in a prison beneath the Red Sea; crimson mist is everywhere. Zareth is here, as is Helvi – his brother is dead, as you go insane and then die if too long “underwater.” Malthor is also there, imprisoned by a wrathful Egin because Malthor noted the wounds Egin received from Stark. All the slaves wear collars like in the movie The Running Man; their heads don’t exactly explode if they go too far out of bounds, but they’ll die nonetheless. The slaves toil at the rubble of a destroyed ancient temple on the bottom of the sea floor; the Lhari want a weapon which was buried there millennia ago by the non-humans who once ruled Venus.

Varra visits Stark one day and asks him to kill Egin and some of her other cousins – they want to rule Venus as gods with this ancient tech – and in turn she will free Stark, Helvi, and Zareth. Stark considers, and then is called to an ancient temple by Zareth…she warns him that it is a trap by Malthor. This moment is faithfully (and awesomely) captured by Boris Vallejo in his painting “The Stone Idol,” which he did for the cover of the paperback edition of The Best Of Leigh Brackett (Del Rey, 1978). Vallejo clearly read the story for his painting, as he gets everything right, from the swirling crimson mists of the Red Sea to the “reptillian” statue of an ancient Venusian god. Sure, Zareth comes off as a bit more sexy in the painting than she is in the story, and Stark’s skin isn’t as sun-blackened as it’s supposed to be, but it’s a great painting and a perfect evocation of the vibe Brackett maintains throughout the novella:


The novella proceeds into an action climax, with Stark killing not one but two enemies with his bare hands; one of them he tears to shreds and lets the corpse float off on the crimson mists. He and a Lhari who hates what his family has become mount an assault on the prison, freeing the slaves; Stark here uses one of those paralyzing weapons as well as his own gun, the first time he’s used it in any of the novellas – but no detail on if it’s just a regular gun or a pulp sci-fi type raygun. Next the two set off for the palace of the Lhari, to kill them all. The finale is pretty apocalyptic, with many characters ending up dead. Brackett manages to insert some comedy in the pathos, like when the tavern-owning Earthman half-heartedly rallies the people of Shunruun to Stark’s cause…and then slips out of the way when the fighting begins.

As the inordinate length of this review will attest, I really enjoyed “Enchantress Of Venus.” Like, really enjoyed it, to the point where I was still thinking about it long after I read it. Brackett’s writing is excellent throughout and all the characters have depth to them, not to mention their own story arcs. Stark finally comes off like the badass he’s supposed to be, not backing down from his tormentors and killing them with the ferocity of Conan or Tarzan. Like the other Stark novellas, I’d wager that re-readings of this one would be infinitely rewarding.

“Stark And The Star Kings” is the first novella in the anthology, but I read it after “Enchantress Of Venus.” It runs shorter than the three other Stark novellas, and it’s a collaboration between Brackett and her husband, Edmond Hamilton. An “Author’s Introduction” prefaces the story, in which Brackett and Hamilton state that, “twenty-six-and-a-half years ago, when we were first married, we thought collaborations would be an easy and delightful thing…we tried it. Once.” Brackett states that she was more interested in the opening, with no real concern where the story ultimately went, whereas Hamilton needed a full outline in order to work. But “over the years” each of them changed, so that they attempted collaboration again, to “see what happened, being in general agreement on basic concepts, and utilizing our own favorite characters.”

Baen has the story copyright 1949, which is a mistake. According to Wikipedia, Brackett and Hamilton were married in December 1946. Twenty-six-and-a-half years later would be mid-1973, which is exactly when Harlan Ellison was casting around for his Last Dangerous Visions anthology, which ended up never being published and thus attained mythical proportions. So long story short, “Stark And The Star Kings” was written in 1973, not 1949, and thus was twenty-two years after the last original Stark novella, “Black Amazon Of Mars,” and eight years after the Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman expansions. It also predates the Stark trilogy The Book Of Skaith, the first volume of which was published in 1974. So perhaps this story is what inspired Brackett to return to Stark.

At any rate, “Stark And The Star Kings” is, sadly, a bit underwhelming, and certainly the least of the Stark novellas. It has a pure Brackett opening, though. We meet Stark once again on Mars, where he’s been camping out in the Drylands; he has been telepathically summoned by the mythical Lord of the Third Bend, a reputedly-immortal Martian wizard. There’s no pickup from any earlier stories, though there’s a brief reference to the events of “Queen Of The Martian Catacombs;” as ever, this tale is the only one that’s ever referred to in the other stories. The usual wonderful atmosphere Brackett brought to her earlier Stark tales is in full effect throughout, as Stark meets the Lord of the Third Bend, who appears much younger than his ancient age would imply.

The Lord, who tells Stark to refer to him as Aarl, which was his “man-name once, long ago,” asks for Stark’s help; a black void has been closing into the solar system, threatening all life. Officials have lied to the people that it is a “cosmic dust cloud” that is passing through, but in reality it means the beginning of the end. Aarl reveals that it is in reality a “vampire,” sucking out life through the void of space, and it has its origins two hundred thousand years into the future. Through some means the authors pass over, this ameoba-like thing is passing through the space-time continnuum. Aarl wants to send Stark bodily into the far future, where Stark is to meet up with a Star King named Shor Kan, who is having his own issues with the space-vampire cloud-thing. Aarl has called for Stark, whom he refers to by his “real” name of N’Chaka, because Stark has no loyalties to any particular world, or somesuch.

It’s pretty apparent when Hamilton takes over. Stark is thrust into the future and meets up with various people on the world of Shor Kan, including the man himself, and all the forward momentum is lost. Stark poses as an “Abassador from Sol,” which no one has ever heard of, and manages to gain an audience with Shor Kan. There’s lots of dialog here and for vast portions Stark disappears while the narrative focuses on Shor Kan and the much-less-interesting characters of Hamilton’s Star Kings universe. It just sort of goes on and on, until finally it climaxes with an armada of Star King ships launching an assault on the space-cloud.

Brackett’s hand is apparent here and there, and without question these parts are superior, like a psychedelic mind-trip Stark takes toward the end, venturing into the mind of the cloud, which is a new form of life that has no knowledge of humans nor of the damage it is doing to them. But ultimately the drama of those earlier Stark yarns – all of which, despite the wonderful writing, were really just action-pulps – is lost, as all Stark does is stand on the bridge of Shor Kan’s ship while the Star King vessels blast the shit out of the space-cloud vampire thing, ultimately killing it. And then Stark is zapped back to Mars, where he returns to the Dryland camp.

It’s a harried finale for a story that really has no dramatic thrust. Why Stark was chosen for this particular mission is a bit hard to buy, as is Shor Kan’s trusting of Stark in the far-flung future. For that matter, the entire threat posed by the space-vampire is hard to buy…why exactly is it spanning back two-hundred thousand years to Stark’s time? One wonders why Hamilton didn’t choose another of his many creations who would have better gelled with Stark – like Stuart Merrick, the John Carter-esque hero of Kaldar, planet of the star Antares, who appeared in a trio of novellas Hamilton published in the ‘30s. Or even his Star Wolf character, who appeared in a pair of mid-‘60s paperbacks. Either of these would’ve provided better team-up potentials for Stark.

That’s it for the Stark material in the eBook (as well as these inordinate-length reviews). Up next we have “The Lake Of The Gone Forever,” which appeared in the October 1949 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. This novella has the same planetary romance vibe of the Stark stories, but much less action; it’s more of a long-simmer affair, as spaceman Rand Conway arrives on the planet Iskar, where his now-dead father once came across the titular “Lake of the Gone Forever,” with which he became obsessed – to the point of suicide. Along with Stark is the wealthy funder of the voyage, as well as the man’s lovely daughter, and her fiance, an anthropologist. None of these other characters matter. It’s all Rand Conway, dealing with the distrustful natives: human-like stock who live in icy expanses and who immediately tell the Earthlings to leave. They are a tribal society, their women kept under firm control – indeed, it’s hard not to see paralells to modern-day Islamic cultures (or even ancient Athens, where married women were also kept under lock and key, covered head to toe when they were allowed out in public). Particularly when the Earthling woman travels alone to the city and is stoned by the native women, who resent her for her freedoms.

Brackett’s writing is evocative as ever, and icy Iskar comes to life, as does the distrustful warrior society that lives there. But the reader knows exactly where it’s headed…there’s a woman who apparently guards the mysterious lake, and Rand’s earliest memories are of his father moaning about the lake and what happened there…and the natives are distrustful of the humans…and also disbelieve Rand when he lies to them that he is not related to Conway, whom the natives call “Conna.” One gradually understands who Rand really is. The lake itself is almost anticlimactically presented in the final pages – composed of a heavy form of uranium, with apparently all the ghosts of Iskarians residing in it or something. Here Rand has his revelation of who he is and what happened to his father here, as well as the lady of the lake. It’s an enjoyable tale, well written as expected, but one can see why it hasn’t been anthologized as much as other Brackett stories.

Next is “Child Of The Sun,” from the Spring 1942 Planet Stories, which you can download a full scan of for free at The Internet Archive. This is early Brackett, and while entertaining, isn’t as polished as the later stories of hers I’ve read. It takes place in a future in which people have been “Hiltonized,” brainwashed into vacant happiness. A “hero” of the rebellion – who comes off more as a sulky defeatist – escapes with a young woman and a new member of the resistance past the inferno of Mercury, being chased by Empire ships, and discovers there a hidden planet. The story comes off like a prefigure of Star Trek, as there they encounter a “sun-child,” being a living shard of the sun, created eons before when the solar system was new. It creates things for its own entertainment, and looks to the three humans as new sport. They try to hoodwink it into creating a new world that will act as a base for their resistance movement.

Another early Brackett follows: “Retreat To The Stars,” from Astonishing Stories November 1941. This one’s the shortest in the collection, and also I found it the most forgettable. It’s similar to the previous story, only this time the traitorous character is the protagonist. It also has to do wih a future in which a despotic government has taken over the solar system, with a small group of resistance fighters opposed to it. Only our “hero” gradually harbors doubt about the oppressive regime he has sworn himself to.

Finally we have “The Jewel Of Bas,” a novella from the Spring 1944 Planet Stories, also available at The Internet Archive, but be aware the copy scanned there has a tear on the first page of this novella, so some of the text is missing. This one takes place outside of Brackett’s usual stomping grounds of our solar system, on a planet that has “fireballs” in the sky. Our protagonists are a pair of thieves who happen to be married: Mouse, a young woman who has the brand of a thief between her eyes, and Ciaran, who likes to play a harp. Brackett would recycle this name in “Black Amazon Of Mars,” but here I realized it’s apparently pronounced “Kiaran,” as Mouse’s pet name for him is “Kiri.” Brackett was supposedly “obsessed” with Celtic stuff, so more than likely it’s a Celtic name, but I’m too lazy and/or disinterested to look it up.

This one is in the Robert E. Howard-esque mold of the Stark yarns, but I found that I didn’t connect with it as much as I did them. The protagonists have a playful banter throughout, but they both lack the memorable qualities of Stark. Also, Brackett hopscotches on her POV character; sometimes it’s Mouse, sometimes it’s Ciaran. The novella has them getting captured by a group of “Kalds,” creatures who serve the evil Bas. The couple are chained with a bunch of slaves, one of which is a hulking Conan-type, but with red hair (and bad body odor, we are often reminded). They’re force-marched to an area in which Bas-created androids oversee the construction of a vast mechanical object. Mouse is put in a trance but Ciaran breaks free, using his wits and his wiles to eventually figure out what is going on. As typical with Brackett, she goes a different route than expected, with Bas not a figure of demonic evil but a mere child who has been caught in a strange dream.

Overall this was a good eBook, even though you can get most of the stories elsewhere; as mentioned, “Enchantress Of Venus” is in several different anthologies. But as far as I know, this is the only place you can get the titular novella – unless you want to shell out lots of cash for that out of print Stark anthology by Hafner. That same publisher does have an upcoming collection in the pipeline, The Book Of Stark, which will contain all of the Stark material, including never-before-published notes Brackett wrote for a planned fourth Stark novel; according to the Hafner website, the book will be $45, but there’s no publication date yet.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Cage #2: The Conspirators


Cage #2: The Conspirators, by Alan Riefe
No month stated, 1975  Popular Library

The “twin supersleuths” return in the second volume of Cage, which again sees Huntington “Hunt” Cage acting as the main protagonist, with his brother Hadley (aka “Lee”) serving a small supporting role. Alan Reife denies us the pulpy fun of the first volume and turns in a second installment that’s more of your typical murder mystery, with a bit of prison fiction tossed in for good measure.

We meet up again with Hunt Cage as he’s in high spirits, having just broken a big case involving the mob. He expects some commendations from Lt. Gamarr of the NYPD, but instead the man’s in a rage – there’s an article about Hunt breaking the case in the morning’s paper, and in the interview Hunt has some bad things to say about the precinct. However this is “fake news,” as Hunt never said any such thing to the reporter. But Gamarr engages Hunt in such a megawatt argument that it ends with Hunt’s P.I. license being suspended.

Some cops come around to take Hunt’s .38 later, which really ratchets up his anger – only to learn that the lieutenant has been killed, the murder weapon a .38, just like Hunt Cage’s. And sure enough, the cops display how Hunt’s gun has recently been fired, even though he swears up and down it’s been over a week since he’s fired it. In other words, someone broke into his apartment, stole his .38, killed Lt. Gamarr, and put the gun back in Hunt’s drawer, all within the past few hours. Hunt even shows the clear signs of a break-in on the windowsill, but the cops will have none of it.

Hunt’s booked and put in prison and stews over how he’s been set up. There’s a lot of dialog throughout as various one-off characters come to meet him. Riefe pulls a nice fast one on us when one of the visitors turns out to be Lee Cage in disguise, and the two brothers swap clothing and disguises when they’re alone. Lee, going above and beyond any sibling responsibilities, will pose as Hunt in prison, so Hunt will be free to exonerate himself – he spent the few hours in which Lt. Gamarr was murdered with a British gal named Jenny, and he’s desperate to find her so she can serve as his witness and clear his name.

Jenny is a singer, an old acquaintance of Hunt’s, and the two spent those hours drinking and singing – there’s no sex in the book, despite Riefe constantly reminding us how “the twin supersleuths” are a pair of ladykillers. But clearly Jenny was threatened and has left town. Hunt chases after her to London, leading into lots of page-filling stuff as he chases various leads; Jenny has gone to ground. Eventually Hunt finds her, hiding out with her fiance. We get more page-filling antics as, after she’s written a letter exonerating Hunt, Jenny sings for the delight of the two men, Riefe doling out the lyrics of her song.

Meanwhile Lee deals with the harsh life of prison, in particular a sado-cop named Mizanski, who delights in torturing prisoners. Indeed Riefe seems to be at pains to have her twin protagonists endure hell this time around. For his part Hunt is bashed in the kidneys and gets his hand stomped on, the fingers empurpling and swelling. But there’s a lot of mundane stuff, like padding sequences of the brothers sitting around and wondering what’s happening to the other. “Padding” in fact is the operative word when it comes to The Conspirators; my guess is Riefe hammered the book out quickly.

The only real bit of action comes late in the game, while Hunt’s in London. He’s jumped by two thugs and ends up killing them both, using the .44 supplied by his brother – as we’ll recall, Lee is Hunt’s arms supplier, despite the fact that Lee is an artist (and this time is working on the cover for an action series novel). Hunt hassles back to New York just in time to find out there was a riot in the prison, all of it happening off-page. First Hunt tracks down the man who actually killed Lt. Gamarr – turns out Hunt’s been right all along, and the entire frame was a plot courtesy the mobsters he brought to justice in a previous case – and then he sneaks back into the prison to switch places with Lee. 

There’s no big action finale; the spine is labelled “Mystery,” which really is all the Cage series is, despite being packaged like a men’s adventure series. Rather, Hunt uses Jenny’s letter and the confession of a sort of mob broker to both clear his name and to bring the plotting mobster to justice, but all of that happens off page. Riefe spends more time showing how there’s no hard feelings between Hunt and the cop who arrested him in his apartment.

Not overly exciting, and with zero exploitative content, The Conspirators is a passable time-killer, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as the previous volume.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Beyond The Black Enigma (Commander Craig #1)


Beyond The Black Enigma, by Bart Somers
August, 1965  Paperback Library

Clearly intended to be James Bond in space, Beyond The Black Enigma was the first of two novels to feature Commander John Craig; Bart Somers was prolific sci-fi author Gardner Fox. The story could easily have appeared a few decades earlier in one of the pulps Fox once wrote for; even the date in which the story occurs, the friggin’ 75th Century(!), gives it the feel of a vintage pulp.

And of course, despite taking place so far into the future, the world Fox gives us feels like the 1960s (or actually the 1940s); it is humorously quaint, with people still smoking cigarettes, writing on paper, even having “writing desks.” Square-jawed men stand around in offices smoking and drinking and discussing “girls.” The “science” throughout is preposterous and the characters have all the depth of Captain Future. None of this really could be seen as a criticism – I mean the only sci-fi I’ll read these days is pulp sci-fi – but the main issue is that Beyond The Black Enigma just isn’t very good. One suspects this is because Fox perhaps retconned some other manuscript into this James Bond-esque template; for in truth, he takes his gadget-wielding, superspy hero, sends him to a boring planet…and has him spelunking through ancient crypts and deciphering the “truth” in various stories from mythology.

Craig is a big blond-haired brawler who works as an agent for Alert Command, part of “the elite Investigation Corps, United Worlds Space Fleets.” He’s just got back from nearly a year of jungle warfare on some planet, and just wants to spend time with Elva Marlowe, his hoststuff main babe who makes her living as a fashion designer around the cosmos (despite which, and despite it being the 75th friggin’ century, Paris and New York are still the fashion meccas of the universe; as I say, this future is very quaint). But he’s summoned by his boss, Commander Ingalls, for a new mission – one that will have Craig fighting a menace “five light years away.”

As you’ll note, both Craig and Ingalls are commanders. This is because Craig apparently received a promotion sometime between the manuscript and publication stages. Craig is sometimes referred to as “the major” throughout, which implies that’s how he started before the publisher (perhaps) decided he should be “Commander Craig.” But for that matter, the novel is rife with typos and grammatical errors; “slowly turning slowly,” and “Craig felt his heart swell in his rib case,” and etc. Indeed, the novel is profoundly stupid, and these typos are really just the icing on the cake.

Craig’s assignment is to take his new ship, made of “densatron” metal and with “nucleatronic engines,” on a five light-year journey to confront the mysterious “black enigma” which has been known about for a thousand years but is only just now being seen as a threat(!). Two splace fleets have been lost in the massive black blob which eclipses an entire solar system, so far away; it’s like the Bermuda Triangle of outer space. For this impossible mission, Edmunds, “chief of Ordinance,” has whipped up a trio of gadgets for Craig.

First there’s the Imp, a metal rod that shoots a ray that causes people to implode. Next there’s a black box that “warps time,” so that if someone fires at Craig and he activates the box in time, it will shoot out a ray that will capture the bullet or ray or whatever’s been fired at him – and thrust it a hundred years into the future (or past; Edmunds isn’t really certain). In keeping with the moronic vibe of the novel, Edmunds fires at Craig point-blank, the shot captured in the box’s rays and thrust into the future, and Ingalls chuckles that someone standing there a century from now might catch a bullet in the face! But it gets dumber: Edmunds next produces “the halo,” a crown-like gizmo that unlocks the full potential of the brain. Slip it on your head and concentrate and you can make something from nothing; Edmunds jokes that the “boys in the lab” have been using it to make eggs, which pop right out of the thin air…tasteless, but edible.

These three items Craig tosses in a “sack” (it’s the 75th friggin’ century, folks, and all the guy has is a damn sack), hops in his ship, and heads on for his encounter with the black enigma. Already we realize the problem, here – our James Bond-esque hero is up against an enigma. Not a SPECTRE-like force or an enemy agent or something tangible that he can handle in his ruggedly virile two-fisted way. Nope, it’s a cloudy mass of nothingness that no one knows anthing about. And talk about underkill…Craig gets there, has a moment of foreboding, and then flies into it…and then takes a nap!!

I don’t know the first thing about Gardner Fox, but I’ve gotta hope that Beyond The Black Enigma isn’t a typical example of the dude’s work, cause this book sucks in a major way. Craig takes his little nap and then gets around to exploring the solar system which has been swallowed by the enigma…he finally settles on the third planet from the sun, figuring it will have life. From here the novel becomes a tiresome, repetitive trawl. Long story short, a vaguely-described alien race called the Toparrs have taken over this planet, Rhythane, enslaving the native folk.

That time-warp stuff isn’t limited to Craig’s box. The Toparrs wear belts which can take them past, present, and future. Craig is shocked when he lands and his ship promptly disappears; it’s because it’s been sent to the future, which is where it develops the two missing spacefleets are. Meanwhile he hooks up with a native gal, named Fiona, a “little pagan” with “faintly slanted eyes.” She’s one of the few native survivors of the Toparrs, and of course falls quick for the rugged Earthman, though it takes a while for Fox to get to the expected sex scene – and even then it’s relegated to nothing more than, “In the quiet night, [Fiona’s] sigh was loud.” Whether that’s a sigh of satisfaction or frustration is something Fox doesn’t elaborate on.

As mentioned, after imploding a few Toparrs with the Imp, which is still in that damn “sack,” Craig spends most of his time studying the mythology of the native peoples, as well as exploring the crypts beneath their fallen and deserted old city. It’s preposterous in how stupid it is…here our hero is, “five light years away,” ostensibly to stop a “black enigma” from swallowing the known universe but also to find out what happened to the missing space fleets sent to research the place, and all he does is basically rob a few graves and then sit around and listen to myths, trying to discern the “truth” in them.

Eventually he’ll get hold of a Toparr belt and send himself (and Fiona) to the future, where he finds the missing few thousand spacemen. They’re being used as slaves by the Toparrs, who worship a computer-god that looks like a “surrealist mobile.” Gradually Craig will learn that the enigma was created by this computer eons ago, and somehow it took on its own life, swallowing planets, even causing the Toparrs to leave their ancestral homeland to come to this one. Craig, armed with a sword he finds when the Toparr computer-god sends him into a sort of promised paradise to sway him over to its side, ends up smashing all the controls and destroying the enigma.

Fox has finally hit his word count; Craig, who had been falling in love with Fiona, basically shrugs her off in the final sentences, figuring his fling with her was just one of those things(!) and that she’ll eventually marry some member of her tribe and have lots of kids…indeed, it’s a “good thing” that Fiona likely thinks Craig is dead(!). Fox doesn’t even give us a reunion between Craig and Elva Marlowe; Craig just plops on his ass and begins waiting for the Alert Command ships which will no doubt soon be on their way, given that their monitors will have detected that the enigma no longer exists.

This book was really a wearying read, so dispirited and juvenile that it became a chore to get through. A cursory glance through the second (and final) installment, Abdandon Galaxy!, would indicate that it’s a more entertaining bit of pulp sci-fi. Surprisingly though, Beyond The Black Enigma actually received a second printing, in 1968. Here’s the cover: