Wednesday, April 10, 2024

No Sympathy For The Devil


No Sympathy For The Devil, by Frederick Snow
April, 1982  Fawcett Gold Medal

I’ve managed to discover yet another obscure rock novel, one so obscure that there wasn’t even a scan of the cover online, so I had to take one with my phone. And also there’s no info out there about Frederick Snow; apparently this is his only book, and No Sympathy For The Devil is copyright under his name, but it could be a pseudonym; whoever it is, the writing is very clunky throughout, much clunkier than anything I’ve ever read from Fawcett, which in my mind was a slightly more upscale imprint. 

On the positive side, I can say without question that No Sympathy For The Devil is by far the raunchiest rock novel I’ve yet had the pleasure to read. Even more raunchy than Mick Farren’s The Tale Of Willy’s Rats; almost every other page features characters having sex, thinking about sex, or talking about sex. The image very much conveyed is that the rock world is comprised of fragile, juvenile egos that are driven by insatiable impulses, constantly snorting coke, smoking dope, or having depraved sex. This of course is a huge mark in the book’s favor. 

On the negative side, No Sympathy For The Devil is poorly written, with the aforementioned clunky prose, expository dialog, and often awkward sentence construction. Frederick Snow also POV-hops like a champ, meaning we’ll start a paragraph in the perspective of one character but finish the same paragraph in the perspective of another character. That sort of thing really grinds my gears. Also the plot is goofy – a suspense subplot is grafted onto the trashy template of the story, perhaps catering to the demands of publisher Fawcett, which of course was known for its suspense and crime fiction.

Another problem is the year of publication…I mean 1982 doesn’t scream “rock” to me. Fortunately Snow makes no mention of punk or new wave or synthesizers or whatnot, though “disco” is mentioned in passing a few times, mostly as in “disco clubs” up-and-coming singers got their starts in. Another interesting note is that the rockers for the most part presented here are all women…this however is so Snow can feature each of them in kinky, drug-fueled sexcapades. Hell, the women in this novel are so horny that at one point a 46 year-old housewife is abducted by thugs – while she’s masturbating in the shower – and one of the kidnappers is a lesbian who immeditely goes down on her when they pull her out of the shower; an orgy ensues. 

The most interesting thing about No Sympathy For The Devil is how it’s so much like something Belmont Tower or Leisure Books might have published the decade before. I’m not exaggerating. It has the same coarse narrative style as, say, The Savage Women, and the same focus on sadism as pretty much any of those BT or Leisure paperbacks – even the same big print. In fact there was something familiar about the writing style, and belatedly I wondered if it might have been written by J.C. Conaway, as there is a touch of his style to the prose – and also I can find no info on a writer named “Frederick Snow.” (Not to mention that I also suspect Conaway wrote The Savage Women.) The glitzy Hollywood trappings are another Conaway hallmark…and really the “glitz” stuff takes precedence over the “rock” stuff, as like Angel Dust this is another “rock novel” where the occupation of the main characters could be changed, from rockers to, say, movie stars, and the plot wouldn’t change. 

The chief rocker in the novel is Jennifer Carron, now “at the top of the rock and roll ladder” but at one point a no-name who sang in those aformentioned disco clubs and whatnot. Curiously Snow does not tell us what Jennifer Carron looks like; he has a tendency to not much describe his characters at all. He also doesn’t much describe the sex scenes, shockingly enough; while No Sympathy For The Devil is certainly raunchy and adult in nature, the actual sex either happens off-page or is only minimally described. What I mean to say is, the novel never truly descends (or should it be “ascends?”) to hardcore. 

And I’ve gone this far without acknowledging that the title, of course, is a nod to one of the greatest songs in history: “Sympathy For The Devil” by The Rolling Stones. At first I thought No Sympathy For The Devil took place in its own reality, with a made-up cast of rock stars and whatnot, but as it develops it is indeed a roman a clef, with occasional mentions of the Stones or The Beatles. We’re told though that the most famous rock group in the novel is “The Cinco’s,” five British guys who are “mentioned historically in the same breath as the Beatles, the Stones, or Elvis.” 

And yes, friends, it’s “The Cinco’s,” with the apostrophe before the “s,” as if “The Cinco” owns something. Remember when I mentioned the clunky writing? 

But as it turns out, The Cinco’s are a minimal presence anyway. It’s the women who stay at the forefront in the novel…which honestly could be yet another clue that Frederick Snow was really J.C. Conaway, given his preference for female protagonists. Jennifer Carron is sort of the main character, or should that be main antagonist, though surprisingly she fades into a supporting role, after a memorable opening which features her snorting coke and having sex in the studio. But there’s also a Tina Turner-esque singer named Darlene Silk, who has a rivlary with Jennifer, and the plot concerns their battle for which will receive this year’s “Entertainer of the Year” Grammy. 

And this is yet another “rock novel” where the author never tells us what the music sounds like, nor really much describes it – we have the opening bit where Jennifer Carron belts out what we’re told is a surefire hit in the studio, but describing the song itself is outside the author’s ability. Later in the book both Jennifer and Darlene will each sing a song at the Grammys, but again we aren’t told how it sounds – and friends that is it, so far as the “rock stuff” goes. As I said, Jennifer and Darlene could be changed into movie star divas, fighting for an Oscar instead of a Grammy, and the novel would be the same. 

Because, as it develops, the “thriller” stuff, such as it is, takes precedence. In the opening chapter we are told how, two years ago, a sleazy individual named Rudy Cannon was fired from IEM Records, where he served as VP of Sales – he was outed by hotsthot producer Greg Welles, who claimed that Cannon was selling pirated copies of the Cinco’s latest album, which had been withdrawn due to the Cinco’s being unhappy with the mix. IEM Chairman of the Board Townsend Parker, urged on by Welles, had no choice but to fire Cannon, who vowed revenge. 

Then the plot itself begins, two years later, and we see Greg Welles in the studio with Jennifer Carron, and this is the most “rock stuff” part of the novel, with studio musicians playing and Jennifer singing what will surely become a huge hit, then doing coke and screwing Greg while the engineers listen in the control booth. But after this No Sympathy For The Devil changes course and the focus of the plot concerns Ashley Burdnoy, attractive 46 year-old wife of John Burdnoy, a CPA who runs the agency that counts ballots for the Grammys. Burdnoy is a non-celebrity who, each year, enjoys a few seconds of celebrity as the guy who brings out the letter containing the winner of the “Entertainer of the Year” on live TV during the awards. 

Readers soon learn that Rudy Cannon’s revenge scheme concerns the Burdnoys: now running his own label, Good Vibrations (which started off due to a wealthy funder whose identity is left a mystery until novel’s end), Cannon seeks to steal artists from IEM, particularly ones who have worked with his archenemy Greg Welles. Jennifer Carron would be the big score, and Rudy has promised her a plush contract – as well as guaranteeing she will become Entertainer of the Year if she moves to his label. Jennifer is all for it, whatever Rudy must do to guarantee it – and his plan is to abduct Ashley Burdnoy and use her as collateral to force John Burdnoy to change the name written on the winning card to “Jennifer Carron.” 

A lot of the narrative is focused on the kidnapping, drugging, and raping of Ashely Burdnoy, who as mentioned is abducted while pleasuring herself, so of course Snow skirts the line with the subtext that Ashley, a bored housewife with no children and who keeps fit on the tennis courts, begins to enjoy it. Her kidnappers are a motley group: a radical lesbian named Ronni, a junkie slut named Eva, and a burly biker-type named Denny. Each of them will have their way with Ashley in the short course of the novel, including even a sequence where she’s forced to have sex with Denny on videotape as yet more collateral – Rudy Cannon’s safeguard to prevent John Burdnoy from going to the cops after all this is over. The kidnappers also have fun drugging Ashley up, most notably a part where they dose her with LSD and then Eva goes down on her, leading Ashley to experience the biggest orgasm of her life. 

So as you can see, No Sympathy For The Devil is pretty depraved. The issue is, it’s really more of a kidnapping/extortion novel than it is a rock novel. The “rock world” trappings are for the most part lost as the narrative becomes more concerned with Greg Welles trying to help John Burdnoy find his abducted wife. But this too is goofy, because multiple times through the novel they could just go to the police, but this is never addressed. But the idea is that Burdnoy assumes the mystery man who has kidnapped his wife – and who keeps calling Burdnoy with orders to declare Jennifer Carron the winner that night at the Grammys – must be Greg Welles, who of course happens to be Jennifer Carrons’ producer. 

As for Welles, he’s kind of a cipher and not much brought to life, despite being the hero of the piece. I did appreciate how the author recreated the casual infidelities of the rock world: as mentioned the novel opens with Welles and Jennifer having casual sex in the studio, even though both of them have respective others: Jennifer’s a sleazebag who serves as her manager and who is also part of the kidnapping plot (which Jennifer is aware of), and Welles’ a hotstuff movie actress named Frederica. The grimy vibe extends to all of this, with every character talking about sex or wondering when they’ll have sex again – even the Cinco’s show up at Welles’ place, having brought along a young girl they discovered in England who literally orgasms at the sound of the lead singer’s voice, entailing a bit where everyone sits around and watches her climax on the floor, complete with details on how wet her panties are getting! 

So yeah, all this depraved stuff is great, but the book is constantly undone by the comically-inept lack of payoff. Like for example, the opening sex between Jennifer and Welles. It’s Jennifer Carron who initiates it, fondling her producer in the studio and asking if he wants to “fuck” after offering him some coke. Later on we realize this is a casual thing between them, but Jennifer seems to secretly be in love with Greg Welles, and that he spurns her is one of the reasons she’s looking to jump ship from the label. But this is never paid off. Even worse is the case of Eva, the junkie who still likes men but for the most part is in a relationship with full-fledged lesbian Ronni. Well folks, we get the WTF? revelation midway through the book that Eva was once married to Greg Welles, and this is never really brought up again, other than another random WTF? tidbit that Welles’s chaffeur/bodyguard Tonto (a white guy with a very un-PC nickname) has “had a crush on Eva since college.” This info is just randomly introduced and then not dwelt on again…indeed, Eva seems to disappear from the text at novel’s end, leaving the reader to wonder what her fate is. 

But really the book is more focused on the various degredations of Ashley Burdnoy, who is captured while fondling herself in the shower and will spend the rest of the novel – which occurs over a few hours – either nude or in a bathrobe that’s constantly coming open so her adbuctors can fondle her nether regions. Meanwhile Greg Welles, working with Darlene Silk’s people, tries to figure out who abducted Burdnoy’s wife. Here’s where it gets hard to believe, with Tonto and another dude ultimately heading for the place where Ashley’s being held, one of them even toting a Magnum revolver – again, it would be just as simple for them to have gone to the cops, given that they’ve not only figured out where Ashley is being held but also who is behind the kidnapping plot. 

Instead the climax plays out at the Grammys, with lots of “tension” as Welles and Burdnoy wait desperately for word that Ashley is safe, the notification upon which Burdnoy will change the cards again so that Jennifer Carron does not win. This entire part is goofy – and here’s where I really started to suspect J.C. Conaway was the author – because there’s a bit where guest presenters The Cinco’s do a dumb comedy routine while presenting the Entertainer of the Year award, complete with them playing “peekaboo” with the audience from behind the award stage curtains, and it’s all very Conaway-esque. 

That Leisure Books vibe also extends to Ashley’s rescue: just as she was abducted while pleasuring herself, so too is she rescued while being forced into lesbian sex with Ronni. I mean this lady is really taken over the coals throughout the book. But there is a nice payoff with Ashley getting hold of that Magnum and blasting out vengeance – complete with the nonchalant reveal, at the end of the book, that she’s blown off the friggin’ head of one of her captors. 

Humorously, Frederick Snow just flat-out ends the book at the Grammys, complete with Ashley showing up still in nothing but that damn bathrobe – not that anyone seems to notice. It’s kind of hilarious in how poorly constructed the novel is at times, but also a refreshing reminder of the days when publishers didn’t have “focus groups” to judge the quality of a book before publication. But while it’s kind of a cold finish, it does at least resolve the kidnapping and revenge scheme storylines, as well as the outing of Rudy Cannon’s secret funder – which, honestly, is kind of easy to figure out, given that there are only a handful of characters in the novel. 

Overall No Sympathy For The Devil is certainly trashy and depraved, and in that regard serves up everything I could want from a rock novel. And at 224 pages of big ol’ print, it is a pretty quick read. Yet at the same time, the rock stuff in it is so minimal that it’s mostly just window dressing…in actuality the novel is more of a kidnapping yarn with a lot of sleaze and sadism, and I’d really love to know if “Frederick Snow” was J.C. Conaway or some other Belmont Tower/Leisure Books veteran.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

The Gravy Train Hit


The Gravy Train Hit, by Curtis Stevens
November, 1974  Dell Books

Nominated for an Edgar Award in 1975, The Gravy Train Hit clearly seems to be “inspired” by John Godey’s The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (which is even referenced on the cover); author “Curtis Stevens” is in reality the writing combo of Richard Curtis and Paul Stevens. The book is copyright them and the first page informs us of the pseudonym; I haven’t bothered to research them much but I believe Richard Curtis was an agent and/or an editor. 

I got this book several years ago during one of my frequent ‘70s crime kicks, and of course was drawn to it because it’s a paperback original. Plus it takes place in ‘70s pulp-crime sweet spot New York. Similar to another Edgar nominee of the day, Death Of An Informer, this one features a black protagonist; indeed, The Gravy Train Hit almost comes off like the novelization of a Blaxploitation movie that never was. But man the first twenty or so pages are a bumpy read for sure, and for a while there I thought maybe this was part of that unofficial Dell “sleazy paperbacks” line of the day, a la Making U-Hoo and Black Magic

Because, it surprised me to discover, The Gravy Train Hit is a comedy, a goofy one at that, with humor that won’t resonate much today…the Prologue being a case in point, which takes place in 1881 and features a bumbling black guy who comes across a train wreck and is mistakenly identified as “the first n-word train robber” (and no, they don’t write “n-word”), and eventually he is hanged for it…and it’s all played as comedy, complete with painful “former slave diction” for this guy, like “heah” instead of “here” and the like. 

Then the book proper begins and we are introduced to our hero, 24 year-old Cleron Jonas in early ‘70s New York, descendant of the protagonist in the Prologue (and sharing the same name), whose “large ears jut out of his closely barbered kinky hair.” So I wondered if we were in for an entire book of this stuff…my concerns compounded when Cleron was revealed to be a bumblng fool, taking a hot dog with him on his first day at the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s new central office and inadvertently jamming the hot dog into a computer key slot during training. Otherwise it was cool to read about computers and their “Twenty First Century sounds” here in a 1974 novel; Cleron, having worked for the MTA for four years and knowing every inch of the New York subway system, is one of the chosen few to oversee the computer that monitors the rail system. 

Fortunately the comedy becomes slightly less goofy in nature as the book progresses, and for the most part the humor comes through the actions of the characters. And luckily Cleron Jonas will prove to be less a bumbling fool than he is a good-natured guy who harbors a lifelong dream of becoming a master criminal. Inspired by his ancestor, Cleron daydreams about being Wild West outlaw “Black Cleron,” and we have a couple fantasies featuring this character before Cleron realizes he has the makings of a real-world, first-class crime act right in front of him: robbing the “gravy train,” ie the armored train that collects all of the subway system’s receipts for the day. 

That said, when the sexual material transpires, it’s just as explicitly-rendered as in those aforementioned sleaze paperbacks Dell published at the time. All of which is to say, The Gravy Train Hit is more comparable to, say, Sexual Strike Force than it is to a crime thriller. The cover photo of a revolver could just as easily have been replaced by a scantily-clad female model, same as those other Dell paperbacks, to the point that I wondered if The Gravy Train Hit was in fact written as part of this line. The fact that it’s a comedy, with zero in the way of violence, further lends credence to the theory that it was never intended as a “serious” crime novel…which is how Dell packaged it. 

And hell it must’ve worked, otherwise the book wouldn’t have been nominated for an Edgar. But it’s curious that it was, as really The Gravy Train Hit is kind of stupid, let down by its goofy tone. Basically, young Cleron Jonas, an up-and-coming MTA computer worker who has never lived up to his full potential, strikes upon the idea of robbing the titular gravy train, while trying to also swindle the Jewish Mafia, the Black Mafia, and the regular old Mafia, each of which is trying to horn in on the caper. Plus he falls in love with a “light-skinned” black babe named Verna who engages in frequent explicit sex with him. 

It’s through Verna that Cleron comes up with the idea to rob the gravy train; there’s a nice “meet cute” between the two when Cleron, on his first day as an MTA bigwig, is riding the subway in full uniform, and a sexy young chick named Verna asks him for directions. Since he’s been ordered to ride the rails all day, as an “owner” of the system now, Cleron gets the idea that he can just keep riding with Verna, working up the nerve to ask her out. The way this plays out is a caper in itself, and nicely handled. Also Verna is an interesting character: as the weeks progress and she and Cleron become a steady item, she is the one who keeps trying to initiate sex with Cleron. But Cleron refuses, wanting to “become a man” first (by pulling a big robbery), and then “taking” her. And when the naughty stuff finally does happen, boy does it leave no juicy stone unturned, again reminding the veteran sleaze-hound of material in those other Dell paperbacks – super hardcore stuff. 

As for the caper itself, as mentioned it plays off on a comedic angle. Not even a “light” comedic angle; it’s straight-up slapstick, as Cleron goes from one racial stereotype to another as he first tries to get the Mafia in on the heist and then, having been turned down by the Italians, goes to the Jewish Mafia. Which also says no. Meanwhile Cleron’s older brother, a thug in the Black Mafia, starts to suspect Cleron is up to something (there’s no love lost between the two), and soon enough all three of these organizations come back to Cleron and basically insist they take part in the heist. 

How the caper goes down is kind of fun and no doubt why The Gravy Train Hit was nominated for the Edgar. But those expecting a gritty ‘70s crime thriller will be let down; again, the cover photo is very misleading. Instead Cleron orchestrates the entire thing from the computer terminal at the MTA office, speaking to the various thugs via the radio system; he cleverly works them against each other in what is the highlight of the book. This takes up the final quarter of the slim novel – the book’s only 157 pages – and the authors keep the narrative moving, with a calm and cool Cleron giving directions to the increasingly-panicked crooks who carry out his scheme…in ways they don’t comprehend. 

The problem with Cleron directing affairs remotely is that there’s no impact to the finale of The Gravy Train Hit. For that matter, the “hit” of the gravy train itself happens off-page, with Cleron merely instructing one group of thugs to go in and tie up the gravy train guards, simple as that. Instead, it’s still on the comedy angle with the increasing bewilderment and panic of the various thugs Cleron orders around down in the subway system, moving them like pawns. But then Cleron does prove to be rather brutal, nonchalantly sending some of them to their doom – though he specifies it’s only those who “deserve it” who will get hurt. 

Overall The Gravy Train Hit is a quick read, sometimes funny but for the most part kind of annoying. That is, if judged as a crime novel. If judged along the likes of, say, Black Magic or Michelle, My Belle, then it’s certainly a success, as unlike those novels there’s more to the story than just goofy shenanigans and bursts of sleaze. I also enjoyed the feel for mid-‘70s New York; in particular the reader gets a good appreciation of the byzantine byways and mainlines of the MTA.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well


Frogs At the Bottom Of The Well, by Ken Edgar
No month stated, 1976  Playboy Books

I recently discovered this obscure paperback original, and it pretty much offered all I could want in vintage pulp fiction: a hotstuff female cop goes undercover with a group of “man-hating women” who plan to carry out a terror attack on New York City. The stepback cover – complete with ‘70s-obligatory female pubic hair on the interior art (below) – only sealed the deal. 

But before even reading the book I encountered a bit of a mystery. For one, there’s hardly any info at all about Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well online, other than two terse Goodreads reviews. (The title, by the way, is taken from a Chinese proverb: that “frogs at the bottom of the well only see a part of the sky.”) But looking up the book I saw that there was also an edition published by Hamyln Books in England in 1975 – a year before this Playboy Books edition. (Cover for this one also below.) This of course was cause for concern – was Ken Edgar a British author, meaning that the novel would have that sterile, “I don’t want to get my hands dirty” vibe typical of British pulp? 

Well for one, I can happily report that Ken Edgar was indeed an American author; the Playboy edition also has an “About the author” section at the end, kind of unusual for a PBO. But what’s strange is, no mention is made anywhere that Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well was previously published in the UK. Indeed the copyright page makes it clear that this is the “First Edition,” and it’s copyright 1976 under the name Ken Edgar. So who knows. In one of those flukes I think I got a signed copy, at that – mine is signed “For my friend Gary – Ken.” 

It was interesting knowing who Edgar was as I read the book. Get this: he was the professor of psychology at Indiania University of Pennsylvania, and here in this novel he clearly identifies “radical leftists,” particularly “socialists,” as terrorists who must be wiped out. Imagine that today! Good grief, we live in an era where college professors get cancelled for not openly endorsing Hamas terrorism. Edgar’s age isn’t given in the brief bio, but searching online I found that he was 52 when this Playboy edition was published (he died in 1991), which also brought another interesting layer to the book – it features solely young characters, but there is a wisened vibe to the narrative. One imagines Professor Edgar became concerned with the young “radicals” at his college, and how they were polluting young minds…one wonders, then, if Edgar suspected that these young radicals would grow up and instill that very same radicalism as college administrators and professors themselves. 

Edgar only published a few novels, this one of the last ones. He was also mostly a “hardcover author,” and that is how Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well is written: more literature than pulp. I mean, to a certain extent. This is still a novel about a lesbian hippie terror cell complete with a super-hot redheaded cop going undercover and having hot lesbian sex with the cell’s leader – that is, when she isn’t lusting after the mysterious FBI agent who put her on the case, or having hot straight sex with the male hippie terrorist who created an A-bomb that will be used to blow up…the World Trade Center. 

That’s right: the plot of the novel ultimately concerns the planned terrorist destruction of Building One of the WTC. Ken Edgar died ten years before that event became a reality, but despite which his terrorists are a pale reflection of the real thing – these ones intend to blow up the World Trade Center on a weekend, to minimize innocent casualties. For these are your typical hippie terrorists, up against “The Man” and “The System;” and one must gun down a police officer in cold blood to be initiated into FUN (aka “For an Ultimate New Society,” which techinically is “FAUNS,” which also would’ve worked given that these are all girls!). 

Into this world is thrust Molly Reagan, a 29 year-old policewoman in Indianapolis who, when we meet her, is pulling off that total ‘70s pulp-crime role: serving as sexy bait for a killer-rapist who targets women. With Molly’s breasts already mentioned in the second paragraph (indeed, “Her breasts were unusually perfect for a girl so tall and slender”), I knew I was in for just the type of read I was seeking. We are to understand without question that Molly Reagan is smokin’ hot, with a body to match. But she isn’t just all beauty, as Edgar gives her a lot of depth; in particular, she has a gifty for witty repartee. In fact, a lot of Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well is given over to bantering dialog, to the extent that, ultimately, forward momentum is lost. 

While the novel never really descends into trash, the opening indicates the possibilities that it could: Molly is introduced to us as she waltzes through a park in hardly anything, being called “Slut!” by the angry old men sitting around on park benches. It also indicates that Molly will not be the kick-ass female cop demanded in today’s entertainment: when spotted by the slasher Molly is scared and runs – though she does bash him in the face a few times. She’s saved by her partner, a treetrunk named Roy who is a ‘Nam vet and who harbors a secret love for Molly, despite being married; Ken Edgar will dwell much on Molly’s worry that Roy might ruin things by saying he loves her or whatever, but Roy is presented as such a good-natured doofus that the entire subplot is moot. 

But then, the narrative baggage accumulates, making Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well seem a lot longer than its 234 pages would imply. This is mostly through much introspection on Molly’s part; we do get very much into her thoughts at times, and there is a lot of waxing and waning on various things – but I guess that’s to be expected when the author’s a professor of psychology. But Molly is really the idealized woman, with looks to spare, intelligence, and a quick wit. But we know she’s missing something, and she wonders if it’s her fate to never be married, still single and living with her mother at 29. Right on cue mysterious – and of course handsome – FBI Inspector Kittaning shows up: Molly’s name was picked by the “computer” as the only policewoman in the country who might be able to help with a case that threatens the nation. 

Of course, this satisfies the need Molly has been searching for, so she takes the job – with Roy going along as her backup – which requires her to move to New York City and pose as a Indianapolis transplant who is engaged to be married to a high school phys ed teacher (Roy), but who has latent lesbian proclivities…all so as to serve, once again, as bait. But this time for a woman: May-One, lesbian leader of New York’s FUN cell, a 26 year-old slim brunette who has a preference for redheads, particularly ones with lots of intelligence and a quick wit. The goal is for Molly to play the long game: become May-One’s girlfriend, and ultimately get inducted into FUN, so she can stop the threat the FBI suspects: that FUN is teaming up with an all-male radical leftist cell and together plan to blow up the WTC with a “suitcase atom bomb.” 

Only when she and Roy arrive in New York will Molly understand all that is required of her: Kittaning has not been very forthcoming (like for example how previous agents assigned to this job have never returned), but that will turn out to be typical of the mysterious FBI veteran, who doesn’t even tell Molly his first name or his age. We know he’s single, at least (and it will develop that he is single due to the murderous actions of FUN), which of course will cue the eventual sparks between the two. Not that Kittaning is in the book much; this is very much Molly Reagan’s show, and Edgar keeps the narrative focus on her throughout. It must be said though that Molly doesn’t seem too shocked that Kittaning intends for her to enter into a sexual relationship with another woman. But brace yourself: all the sex will be off-page, for the most part, with only a few sleazy moments here and there. 

Rather, characterization is more Edgar’s concern, and he really does bring Molly to life, as he does May-One, a self-involved and egotistical girl with a penchant for drugs, casual lesbian sex, and quoting Nietszche. It was interesting to once again be reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same. We’re informed that radical socialism only draws two types: intellgent people and “misfits.” And the most radical are made up of narcissitic children of wealth who didn’t get enough love from their daddys as children, hence they lash out at society, looking to fill an emotional void with revolutionary invective. They cannot create and can only destroy. Kittaning is very concerned about these malcontents, and here in this 1976 novel the FBI is determined to wipe out the socialist threat…we don’t even need to wonder how the FBI is aligned today

The events occur over the span of some months, and things become more real between Molly and May-One, who by the way takes the bait almost humorously fast. In fact on her first night in New York Molly meets May-One, taken to one of the girl’s favorite bars to play her role of sexy bait, but the relationship develops over time. Despite the bushy interior art, there really isn’t much vis-à-vis lesbian exploitation, other that is a part where May-One strips down and has Molly give her a bath. But Edgar keeps all the juicy details to the reader’s imagination; curiously, even how Molly feels about the sex itself is left unspoken, which is strange given the focus otherwise on Molly’s mental musings. The closest we get on this is a bit later on where Molly has a quickie with the leader of male terrorist cell, thinking to herself “a man, at last.” But even here the focus is more on emotions and reactions, not lurid descriptions. 

This extends to how the narrative plays out as well. Despite the cool cover on the Hamlyn edition, the FUN girls at no point tote subguns and go blasting. More of the book concerns Molly hanging out in their safehouse in New York and trying to prove herself to May-One’s distrusting comrades, a distrust that goes away once Molly has proved herself in FUN’s initiation: gunning down a cop. This part is carried out like an episode of Mission: Impossible, and Edgar brings a great deal of suspense to it. But otherwise the girls of FUN spend more time fighting with each other, with lots of trouble in particular caused by drugged-out “misfit” Halsey…who by the way initially is used by May-One to keep Roy away from Molly. But again Edgar doesn’t dwell on any of this stuff, like how married man Roy feels about having so much adulterous sex with a female radical (I’m sure it must have been terrible!). But then this is I guess another indication of a time long gone, as Molly and Roy have the unspoken understanding that they must sacrifice themselves for this job. 

It's more on the suspense tip with lots of emotional and psychological asides, and as mentioned the characterization is strong – Ken Edgar, despite the pulpy setup, is intent on making the novel realistic. In some ways Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well is like the “serious” version of contemporary paperback The Savage Women, which also featured a cell of “man-hating women” in New York. But Edgar’s novel is more of a psychological suspense yarn, whereas The Savage Women trades on coarse vulgarity and exploitation (yes, I intend to read it again someday!). Even the few “action scenes” here are built up around character development, like when Halsey goes nuts. 

As professor of psychology Ken Edgar really plumbs the thoughts of his characters and what makes them tick. He is good however at not being too obtuse. From her first briefing by Kittaning, Molly is aware that the female radicals of FUN all had absent fathers as children…as did Molly, whose own father was a career Army man, always off fighting some war, and finally losing his life in Vietnam. That Molly has the same psychological background of the FUN girls is what, obviously, the FBI computer picked up on, but Edgar leaves this as a subtext…an emotional subtext, in how Molly will see May-One and the others as “just girls,” before reminding herself how they’re all cold-blooded murders. 

The finale also goes for the psychological edge; Molly struggles to retain her undercover status through the book, at one point going so deep that Kittaning and Roy essentially disappear from the narrative. Even when Molly finally gets confirmation that the FBI was correct, that FUN plans to bomb the World Trade Center, it goes for more of a suspense-thriller vibe, with the terrorists painstakingly digging a tunnel beneath Building One. I did appreciate how they didn’t “want too many innocent workers to get hurt” in the blast, a far cry from the real-life terrorists of 2001. I did enjoy Molly’s final confrontation with May-One, Edgar well paying off the long-boil tension that Molly will be outed as a cop. 

Overall Frogs At The Bottom Of The Well was entertaining, with the caveat that at times it seemed to drag; it should have been a lot more fun to read than it turned out to be. The characters were all pretty well-rounded, and Edgar also did a good job of making the FUN girls more than just caricatures. I just felt that he got a little too inside the heads of his characters, so that forward momentum was often nill; and also the witty banter, while humorous at first, quickly got to be grating. 

Here is the two-page interior art, credited to Chuck Hammerick: 



And finally here is the cover of the Hamyln paperback from the UK, which makes the book seem more pulpy than it truly is:

Thursday, March 21, 2024

Vice Row


Vice Row, by Fletcher Bennett
April, 1963  Playtime Books

My friends, there are covers and then there are covers, and this obscure early ‘60s “adult” novel has a cover. It fills my head with so many thoughts, all of them depraved. In fact the cover art is so good I’m sure it will be censored by the prudish AI bots that now patrol Blogger. As is typical the art is uncredited, but I’m sure someone out there might have an idea who it’s by. Also, it doesn’t really illustrate a scene in the actual novel, but it certainly captures the vibe of the book – which, as one might expect, really isn’t even very “adult” at all in today’s world. I mean the book would be considered PG-13 at best today…either an indication of how things were just too conservative and sutffy back in the early ‘60s, or an indication of how morally bankrupt we have become in our modern era. (Prudish AI bots notwithstanding.) 

I picked this one up several years ago and I’m not sure why I took so long to read it. What I was not prepared for was how good of a book Vice Row turned out to be. Actually the cover, despite being so great, is detrimental to the actual quality of the novel itself, but I’m sure that’s typical for a lot of the so-called “sleaze” paperbacks of the era. For example The Devil’s Lash, another “racy” paperback that had quality writing throughout, or even the work of Ennis Willie; with the caveat that Fletcher Bennett is more risque here than either of those examples, though even Bennett’s actual sex scenes are either vaguely described or fade to black. No idea who Bennett was, but a few paperbacks were published under his name by Playtime Books; also no idea if it was the same author for all of them or if “Fletcher Bennett” was a house name. 

Whoever Bennett was, he proves himself quite familiar with the mindsets of whores – or “girls,” as one of them requests she be called in Vice Row. I like to imagine that Bennett just carried out a lot of field research. Seriously though, he brings more to the story than the sleaze one might reasonably expect; the “girls” here are all fairly three-dimensional (so to speak!), and Bennett invests the tale with a sentimental touch that never descends into maudlin sappiness. Even the finale, in which the killer’s identity is exposed, packs an unexpected emotional punch. 

I love the coarse cover copy, which calls out that “the new girl becomes the most popular whore on vice row.” This would be Laurie, a ravishing auburn-haired young woman fresh on Vice Row who is so gobsmacking beautiful that most people can’t believe she even is a whore. We get our first indication that Vice Row is slightly more risque than other “adult” novels of the era when Bennett describes Laurie’s ample charms: 

Her face was smooth and sweet as that of a schoolgirl. Her mouth was soft, her nose was narrow and upturned, her cheeks were rosy as spring flowers. Only her eyes betrayed the knowing mind hiding behind that innocent face. Beneath the long black sweep of her lashes, the dark pools of her gaze flashed a signal as old as time, and it was a signal the regulars of the Row knew very well indeed. 

The eyes of passersby didn’t linger on her face, however. There were far more interesting things to look at. 

Such as her breasts. 

They were as round and sweetly-shaped as autumn apples, and rode proudly on her torso with a firmness that did not need the enhancement of a bra. A moment’s close study told the simple truth – the girl wasn’t wearing a bra. At the tips of her round breasts, the tiny protrusions of her nipples made buttons in the material of her dress. The girl’s breasts belonged to her entirely, and they were obviously a pair to be conjured with. 

Among other things. 

The girl’s bottom was just as beautifully-fleshed as her bust. As she walked, twin tense cheeks worked in a rhythmic flexing against the seat of her dress. The curves were smooth and taut, of a size and shape to fit the curl of a man’s fingers neatly. 

Her legs were long. The roundness of her thighs could be glimpsed in the way the cloth of her skirt clung to their contours, and her shapely calves shifted with subtle muscle as she walked. She wore simple sandals on her feet; her ankles were finely-boned, her toes were slender and straight, the toenails were painted red. 

Now that my friends is how you exploit a female character! 

I forgot to mention, but “Vice Row” is really named Water Street, an area well-known for prostitution in some never-stated city. Bennett keeps the entire 224-page novel focused on this area, and populates it with a small but memorable cast. Surprisingly, “new whore” Laurie will not turn out to be one of the main characters; rather, she is a source of much discussion among the Vice Row regulars, and Laurie herself only appears in a handful of scenes – none of them, I should specify, being a sex scene! Rather, the majority of the heavy sexual lifting will be carried out by a blonde pro named Bunny, one who – we are copiously informed – has big boobs and a big butt and, unlike most pros, really enjoys having sex. 

The novel features a memorable intro of Laurie arriving on Vice Row, looking like some goddess among the riff-raff; she’s carrying luggage with her, which everyone finds hard to understand – surely she isn’t a new girl on the Row? Immediately she is accosted by a youth who drums up the courage to ask Laurie for her going rate, but Laurie shuts him down cold, even threatening to slam him in the jewels with her suitcase. Surprisingly, this affronted youth will become one of the novel’s many characters, simmering with rage that Laurie spurned him and trying to find her so he can get revenge – while taking out his anger on other hapless hookers. 

Another main character is soon introduced: Pop, elderly proprietor of the Double Eagle, a bar on Vice Row that is frequented by the girls, though Pop himself has no involvement in the business. This greatly puzzles sleazy Sergeant Polowski, a corrupt cop who allows Vice Row to operate because he’s paid off by Pop and the brothel owners and whatnot. However the main madam on the Row is Nell, a heavyset lady who “offices” out of a diner – which she owns, as well as the building it’s in. Bennett shows some foresight here with Nell being a successful businesswoman, owning quite a chunk of Vice Row and keeping her affairs in order. 

But then, throughout Vice Row Fletcher Bennett shows an understanding of character well beyond what one might expect of a vintage sleaze paperback. Pop in particular is prone to philosophical ruminations, and there’s a nice running theme about his “dream” to one day retire from Vice Row and live on a farm out in the country. There’s also a nicely-developed rapport between new girl Laurie and Pop, who immediately takes a paternal interest in her, sensing that there is something special about this girl – however, I was a little surprised that Laurie soon after essentially faded into the narrative woodwork, only appearing in passing. 

Much more focus is placed on Bunny, Bennett again expanding on his theme with the sentimental storyline of a prostitute falling in love with her john – a story Bennett handles so successfully that it’s actually a moving storyline. This would be Louie, an unhappily-married dude who, when we meet him, has just engaged Bunny for an hour’s work. This is how the two meet, and also where we get an indication of the type of sex scene Bennett will write in Vice Row

She rubbed against his belly, positioned herself, then thrust her body upward in an expert lunge. 

Their flesh blended. 

His mouth continued to kiss her breast as she began the tingling rhythm, moving her hips in time with the ticking of timeless mechanisms. Instinctively, he took up her beat, measuring his own plunge downward so that it corresponded with her lunge updward, slapping bellies with her, then pulling apart so that their deep sweet connection was almost lost. 

Almost, but not quite. 

Bunny felt the thrill coiling inside her. This, she decided, was going to be a real man. This one was going to be a blast. 

“The ticking of timeless mechanisms” – almost sounds like the title of a Pink Floyd song. So as you can see, the topical details are mostly relegated to the bodies of the women, but the actual “dirty stuff” is more intimated, or happens off-page. The above is actually the most explicit sex scene in the novel. So I guess even sleaze books could only go so far in the early ‘60s. I find this stuff so interesting; ten years later Harold Robbins would have best-sellers that featured not only super-explicit sex but even had characters pissing on each other

I also found it interesting how the meanings of words have changed over the decades. For example, that “hunk” was once used to describe an attractive woman! “You’re some hunk of woman,” etc. But then “hunk” is also used to describe a good-looking man in the book, so I guess once upon a time “hunk” was a unisex description. Even stranger is that the same, apparently, could be said about the phrase “well hung!” Judging from Vice Row, “hung” was once also used to describe a woman’s ample charms – “The way you’re hung” and etc, referring to a lady. And no it’s not a transvestite being discussed! 

There’s also a thriller element at play with the gradual reveal that a killer’s on the Row, one who specifically targets hookers. Bennett periodically cuts over to the perspective of the killer, never divulging his identity; we only know he wears a “disguise” when in public and also that he uses a straight razor – and has killed 30-some hookers in his career, slashing their throats and then mutilating them. Bennett well handles the mystery of the killer’s identity, but I must confess it soon became apparent who the killer really was; the revelation is another indication of how things have changed since 1963. What might have been shocking then is “I figured that out a hundred pages ago” today. But I won’t divulge it here so as not to spoil the surprise for those who decide to read Vice Row

That said, Bennett really handles the story with skill, jumping often from character to character to keep the story moving. Even Sgt. Polowski comes off as a realized character, and not the cliched corrupt cop one might expect. Though he does prove himself an unlikable character, taking “payment” from hookers at his whim, leading to a bit where slim pro Fay must keep her gorge down while taking care of the “thoroughly unpleasant” Polowski. Fay is mistreated throughout the narrative, and again not to go into spoilers but Fletcher Bennett sufficiently develops his prostitute characters so that it resonates with the reader when some of them are killed – and one becomes especially concerned that others in particular might also be killed. 

There’s almost a vibe of Herbert Kastle in the murder sequences; not in the style of the prose but in how the killer realizes he can basically get away with anything, given that he’s killing off the scum of society. And Bennett again shows the plight of these hookers when one of them is murdered, and we’re told that “by the end of the week” most people on Vice Row can’t even recall what she looked like. But as mentioned the reader does care for them, especially Bunny, who as it develops is essentially the main female character in the novel; Bennett skillfully dovetails her growing love with Louie alongside the imminent threat that the killer will slash Bunny’s throat. Speaking of which Bennett doesn’t much dwell on the gore, though we’re told the bodies are so disfigured that characters puke when they see them – most notably Polowski, who discovers the first corpse. 

But there’s also quite a bit of genuine humor in Vice Row. To be sure, there’s nothing satirical nor spoofy about the book – everything is on the level. But some of the character interactions are humorous, especially a conversation between Bunny and a hooker named Jan, who suspects every other hooker of being a “dyke.” But when Bunny questions Jan on why she suspects this – namely how those “dykes” will refer to other girls’s bodies so adoringly – Bunny exposes how Jan talks the very same way about the other girls. Hence, one might reasonably suspect that Jan herself is a “dyke.” There’s also some darker comedy – and another indication of changing sentiments – when Louie decides between Bunny and his cold fish of a wife. Louie’s wife refuses to have sex with him, so an angered Louie goes home, “belts” his wife a few times to snap her out of it, then forces her to go down on him – and when he realizes she’s just faking her excitement, he tells her “Goodbye, bitch!” and heads back to Bunny! 

There really isn’t much wasted space in the book, and Bennett really keeps the story moving. He also successfully weaves together the connecting dynamics of the various characters, from Bunny and Louie to the punk kid who likes to beat up Vice Row hookers. Also the unmasking of the killer is very well handled, and despite being a bit harried – one gets the impression Bennett was quickly approaching his contracted word count and thus wrapped it up – it still packs an emotional wallop. What could have been a bonkers, sleazy reveal is instead cast in a more somber glow, given that it’s elderly Pop who ruminates on it all – in fact I got the impression Fletcher Bennett himself might have been older, as there’s more of an introspective and reflective vibe to things than the primal rush one would expect from a younger, hornier author.  Then again, I did find it curious that the majority of the sex scenes were relayed through the perspective of Bunny, which almost led me to suspect that “Fletcher Bennett” might have been the pseudonym of a female author.

Overall I very much enjoyed Vice Row, and it’s inspired me to read some more of those vintage “adult” crime paperbacks I picked up several years ago.

Monday, March 18, 2024

The Last Ranger #9: The Damned Disciples


The Last Ranger #9: The Damned Disciples, by Craig Sargent
October, 1988  Popular Library

Here’s a funny little “Glorious Trash behind the scenes” story: the reason it’s taken me so long to get back to The Last Ranger was that I couldn’t remember where I put my copy of this ninth volume! I have so many books in so many boxes that I put together a spreadsheet years ago to keep track of where everything is; geeky but necessary when you have thousands of books. I try to keep all volumes of a series together in the same box, but due to the nature of collecting that sometimes doesn’t happen – as apparently was the case with The Last Ranger. The only problem was, I failed to note which box The Damned Disciples was in, so for the past few years I’ve been sporadically searching for it. 

Anyway, that’s the slightly-interesting backstory. More importantly, this is the next-to-last volume of The Last Ranger, and one suspects Jan “Craig Sargent” Stacy knew it was, as the first page notes that the tenth volume, to be titled Is This The End?, is forthcoming. While it doesn’t state it will be the last volume, the title certainly indicates it will be. Also I’m happy to report that Stacy shows a renewed interest in the series this time, after the dud of the previous volume, perhaps because he did know the series was wrapping up. The Damned Disciples opens shortly after the previous volume, with Martin Stone still suffering from the bad leg wound he received “two weeks ago,” in the course of that book’s events, and trying to make his way back to his nuclear bunker in the Colorado mountains. 

As mentioned in my review of the first volume, when I read the first few volumes of The Last Ranger as a kid in the ‘80s, it was the scenes that took place here in this bunker that most resonated with me – something about the safe, high-tech paradise hidden in a post-nuke wasteland. But reading the series again, I see that Stacy doesn’t even spend much time in the place; even this time, after enduring the usual aggressive climate and mutated wildlife expected of the series, when Stone finally does make it to his hideaway safehouse, he only stays there for a few pages. Strange, especially given that it’s got all the comforts of home, and then some; you’d think the guy might at least take a few weeks off and enjoy a beer or two. The hidden subtext is that Stone is freaked by the “ghosts” who inhabit the place, ie his mother and father. Speaking of which, Stone still doesn’t seem to harbor much regret that it was he who caused his mother’s death in the first place – his bullish insistence to leave the bunker in the first volume causing his mother to be raped and killed and his sister to be abducted. 

It's due to Stone’s sister, the perennially-abducted April, that Stone leaves the bunker this time – in a bizarre subplot never broached again in the narrative, Stone receives a fax that “we” have your sister. But a fax machine is just one of the countless amenities here in this high-tech safehaven; Stone even has access to robotic gloves which he uses to operate on himself, while watching it all on a handy TV screen! To make it even crazier, Stone’s learned how to do the operation thanks to that data-dump his father left for him in the computer banks; a sort of self-contained internet that serves up info at the punch of a button. Stone’s wound has become infected, so he has to operate on himself with these “experimental” robotic hands that were designed for handling radioactive material or somesuch; tongue firmly in cheek, Stacy informs us that “it was a simple matter” for Stone’s father to get himself a pair of these robotic hands for his high-tech nuclear bunker. 

As if that weren’t enough, after fixing his own leg Stone then builds himself a new motorcycle, using yet more equipment he has stashed around the place, plus parts from different bikes and vehicles. Stacy doesn’t give a good idea of what the resulting motorcycle looks like, but we’re to understand it’s a Frankenstein sort of contraption that looks bizarre – but is even faster and more powerful than Stone’s previous bike, which was destroyed in the previous volume. Oh and I forgot – Stacy further explains it away with the offhand comment that Stone was the “top mechanic” at a bodyshop when he was younger, thus he’s capable of building a bike on his own. But with this one he also straps a .50-caliber gun to the handlebars, and stashes other weapons about the thing; we do indeed get to see these weapons put to use in the course of the novel, which I’m sure would have pleased Anton Chekhov if he’d ever read this novel. 

We know from the first pages that a blonde-haired young woman has been adbucted by a group calling themselves The Disciples of the Perfect Aura; only later will we realize that this is April Stone, and the Disciples have brainwashed her into their cult, which operates around the La Junta area of what was once California. In another of those synchronicities that would have Jung scratching his goattee, we learn that the leader of this cult, Guru Yasgur, idolized none other than Charles Manson as a child – I chuckled over this, given how I’ve been on such a Manson Family kick of late. Shockingly though, Jan Stacy will ultimately do very little with the Manson setup, with Guru Yasgur barely appearing in the novel. 

Instead, the brunt of The Damned Disciples is focused on the degradation of Martin Stone. For some inexplicable reason it’s as if Jan Stacy just wants to take his anger out on his protagonist, thus much of the book is focused on the breaking and brainwashing of Stone. After coming across some cripples who have been branded “Rejects” by the cult – helping them to regain some of their dignity and teaching them to defend themselves – Stone heads into La Junta…and is promptly captured. The city is comprised of smiling, overly-happy cultists and the black-robed rulers who report directly to Guru Yasgur and The Transformer, the sadist who is behind the brainwashing and torture – and who turns out to be the true villain of the piece, at least insofar as the amount of narrative Stacy devotes to him. 

Hell, even April is lost in the shuffle; the entire reason behind Stone’s presence here, April only appears for a few pages…but then, that’s typical of the series, too. It’s not like she’s ever been a major character. One wonders why Stone even cares anymore. But the poor guy sure does go through hell for her; the Transformer vows to break Stone, and the reader must infer that it was the Transformer who sent the fax in the first place, given an errant comment later on that Stone is strong and that is why the cult wanted him. But man, once again The Last Ranger descends into splatter fiction territory – like when Stone, who struggles against the drugs used to brainwash him, is given a “Death Lover,” which is literally a female corpse in a casket, and Stone is thrown in the casket with it, complete with gross-out details of worms coming out of the corpse-bride’s mouth to “kiss” Stone, and he’s locked in there all night to, uh, consecrate this ghoulish marriage. 

It's all pretty extreme, only made more so with the knowledge that Jan Stacy himself would soon die of AIDS – which as ever gives the ghoulish splatter elements of The Last Ranger an extra edge. But man, with dialog like “You must learn to dance with the monkey of death, with the gorilla of termination,” you just know that the guy isn’t taking it too seriously. Plus Stone has some funny smart-ass comments throughout; like when he gets out of the coffin with “the Death Lover” the morning after, his first line is, “I sure hope she don’t have nothing.” Regardless, he’s still brainwashed, thanks to “the Golden Elixir,” a sweet-tasting concoction made up of heroin, cocaine, LSD, and etc – and, further rendering the entire setup of the novel moot, the brainwashed Stone is tasked with stirring the “hot dry vat” in which the Golden Elixir is made! I mean, was this why the Transformer (or whoever?) sent the fax to the bunker? Because they needed a new guy to stir the vat and it just had to be Martin Stone? It’s just very clear that Stacy is winging his way through the narrative. 

Stacy does at least retain his focus on who Stone is, and what makes him special – namely, that he is a “bringer of death,” as his American Indian friends once proclaimed him. His strength is such that even a mind-blasting daily drug regimen can’t keep down his willpower. That said, the cult-killing retribution isn’t as satisfying as one might expect, with some of the villains disposed of almost perfunctorily. What’s more important is the surprise return appearance at novel’s end of a series villain previously thought dead – SPOILER ALERT: none other than “the Dwarf,” the deformed (plus armless and legless) villain last seen in the third volume, when Stone threw him out of a window. (We learn here that the Dwarf landed in a pool – and he tells Stone that he should have looked out the window to see where the Dwarf landed!) 

Hey and guess what? April is abducted yet again, a recurring joke in The Last Ranger if ever there was one, and by the end of The Damned Disciples Stone and his ever-faithful pitbull Excaliber are off in pursuit. And speaking of which, Stacy’s still capable of doling out scenes with unexpected emotional depth, like when Excaliber himself is dosed with the drugs and set off against Stone…but refuses to attack his beloved master. 

In one of those reading flukes, it turns out that I’m at the same point in both The Last Ranger and it’s sort-of sister series Doomsday Warrior (which Jan Stacy co-wrote the first four volumes of): I’m now at the final volume of each series. So what I think I’ll do is read them both soon, just to gauge how these two authors handled their respective series finales. Like they said in those ’80s NBC promos: “Be there!”

Thursday, March 7, 2024

Mindf#ckers


Mindfuckers, Edited by David Felton
No month stated, 1972  Straight Arrow Books

Yes, friends, the title of the book is really “Mindfuckers.” I just changed it in the post title given the overly-sensitive AI that now polices Blogger. Which is fitting, because this book is essentially about thought control. Subtitled “A Source Book on the Rise of Acid Fascism in America” and comrpised of three very, very long articles that originally ran in Rolling Stone, Mindfuckers was published by the Rolling Stone imprint Straight Arrow, and likely it had a low print run, given how scarce the book is now. Luckily someone uploaded it to the Internet Archive

The book has been on my radar for quite some time, but I only now decided to read it because I’ve been on one of my infrequent Rolling Stone journalism kicks, and also because I’ve been on a Manson Family kick. Mindfuckers opens with the Manson piece, titled “Year Of The Fork, Night Of The Hunter,” credited to David Felton and David Dalton. Per Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers, Felton and Dalton argued over who should be the main writer for this piece, until editor Jann Wenner intervened and gave it to Felton – something Dalton was very upset over. Personally I find it confusing that the two authors have such similar names. 

Originally appearing in the June 25th, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone, “Year Of The Fork” took up the majority of the publication; I consulted my Rolling Stone: Cover To Cover CD-Rom and scanned through it to compare to this reprint in Mindfuckers. It appears the only thing missing is the photography that graced the original version, but for what it’s worth the copyright page of Mindfuckers states that “Portions of this book, in slightly different form, originally appeared in Rolling Stone.” I didn’t do a thorough A/B review, but I didn’t see any glaring changes, so the edits must have been very slight indeed. 

Running to a hundred pages, “Year Of The Fork, Night Of The Hunter” is certainly comprehensive, and as expected paints a very good picture of the era’s counterculture. In this regard it’s even more of a success than Ed Sanders’s contemporary The Family. But unlike Sanders, in which the author’s hatred for Manson and his “vampires” was palpable, Felton and Dalton convey an almost sympathetic tone. Indeed, again per Sticky Fingers Wenner’s original goal was to publish a story titled “Charles Manson Is Innocent,” but upon Felton and Dalton’s investigation that goal was scrapped. Likely Dalton had a lot to do with this, as per Hagan’s book he was living on Spahn Ranch when the story was written, and had first heard of Manson through Beach Boy Dennis Wilson (with whom Dalton also lived at one time, again per Hagan). 

Published before the trial began, the story caused enough waves that, per prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi in Helter Skelter, it caused trouble for both the defense and the prosecution. Bugliosi also notes that the “copycat” scenario had its origin in this story; Felton and Dalton float the idea that the Tate-LaBianca murders were perpetrated so as to get Family member Bobby Beausoleil out of jail. But as Bugliosi notes, this half-assed defense wasn’t even brought up until after Manson and his three killers (Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten) were found guilty. (Charles “Tex” Watson, who carried out the brunt of the killing those nights, hadn’t gone to trial yet.) Bugliosi presents the inside scoop on how this article caused waves, noting in Helter Skelter that even the judge on the case was aware of it. 

Writing-wise, the Rolling Stone style, only a few years old in 1970, is already apparent. Predating the gonzo journalism of Hunter Thompson, Felton and Dalton don’t insert themselves as protagonists into the narrative, and for the most part the writing is on the level. It’s only in the counterculture vibe that the piece seems different than something published elsewhere – and this was one of Felton’s first assignments, coming in from the Los Angeles Times, where he’d won a Pulitzer. Perhaps the biggest coup of Felton and Dalton was an interview with Manson himself, which appears midway through the piece. 

The story encompasses most every aspect of the Manson story, starting off with a memorable open in which the authors take us on a virtual tour of Los Angeles, focusing on the areas of Manson’s impact as if we were hitting each one on a leisurely day’s drive. Then the authors meet with an anonymous attorney on the defense side who shows them gory photos of the murders and exposits on the particulars of the case – certainly stuff that would’ve construed a leak and could have gotten the entire trial thrown out as a mistrial. From there the story appropriates the vibe of one of those vintage Rolling Stone interviews in that the interview dialog goes on and on (and on)…with the caveat that it isn’t John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix or whoever doing the endless talking, but Charles Manson and his “super acid rap,” looking like a “cajun Christ” in his prison garb as Felton and Dalton interview him. 

This internminable interview once again outs Manson as a bullshit artist supreme. Like I wrote in my Helter Skelter review, it’s a wonder anyone took this guy seriously – certainly today no one would, given his constant self-comparisons to Christ, comparisons which would fall on deaf ears in this (mostly) post-Christian era. But Manson very much sees himself as a ‘60s Christ, about to be crucified (one almost gets the impression he regretted never going to the death chamber – then his martyrdom might have been ensured). In fact his attempts at being compared to Christ are ridiculous throughout his endless spiel, which is only occasionally broken up by befuddled responses from our two reporters. Charles Manson’s delight to finally be in the spotlight – to finally matter – is evident throughout this interminable sequence. 

After this we get lots of first-person recountings on Manson from followers new and old, which is how the piece closes; probably the highlight of “Year Of The Fork” is that it captures the Family immediately post-Manson, still living at Spahn Ranch and still eating food taken from garbage cans. We have Gypsy, for example, giving a metaphysical speech no doubt taken from Manson; the authors imply that Gypsy, slightly older than the other Family members, seems to secretly understand that Manson might never be coming back to them. I found this interesting from a modern perspective, as Gypsy (real name Catherine Share) has appeared in a few recent Manson documentaries, having cast off the cult shackles years and years ago. She was featured, for example, in the 2018 Manson: The Lost Tapes documentary on Fox, which featured a memorable moment of the former Gypsy putting on a pair of glasses to watch a recently-discovered film of Manson. Doubly ironic in that it was a visual display of how the Manson family was so long ago – the 70-something Catherine Share watching a film of the 20-something Gypsy – but also ironic given that Manson banned glasses in the Family. Something, by the way, he expounds upon in the interminable intervew in this Rolling Stone story. 

Overall this was certainly an interesting read, notable because it starts off seeming to be pro-Manson, but Felton and Dalton continue to pile up the evidence against him. The Helter Skelter motive isn’t mentioned, but we do get a lot of stuff from Manson and Gypsy on how the Beatles are sending out coded messages – even if The Beatles themselves don’t realize it! But in the capturing of the time and the place “Year Of The Fork, Night Of The Hunter” even bests Ed Sanders’s book. However, it’s no Helter Skelter

Next up we have another 90-page feature: Robin Green’s “The Great Banquet Table Of Life – We Deliver,” which first appeared as “Sgt. Bilko Meets The New Culture: The First Church Of Christ, Realtor,” in the December 9, 1971 Rolling Stone. Per Joe Hagan’s execrable Sticky Fingers, Robin Green was editor Jann Wenner’s “resident assassin,” the person he would send when he wanted a hit piece on someone. This particular story was briefly covered in that biography; Wenner’s mother, a rather self-obessed sort named Mimi, had fallen in with this pseudo-Tim Leary named Victor Baranco, and Jann Wenner was jealous of this (Hagan saddles Wenner with all sorts of hangups in the book, from latent homosexuality to Mommy Issues), so he sent Robin Green off to do a hit piece on Baranco. 

Regardless of the origin, the story really isn’t that compelling, and in fact has the vibe of a Kurt Vonnegut story or something. Well, maybe that’s stretching it…though Green does open the story with a quote from Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. But essentially this one’s about this guy named Baranco who one day realized he was perfect as-is, despite any hangups or issues or whatnot, and so decided to teach others to accept their perfection. Or somesuch. But the gist of this Rolling Stone piece is that he charges his followers exorbitant amounts of money for basic things, and also puts them up in houses that they have to pay rent on and fix up, and etc. Green’s writing is fine and she carries the story along, adding a humorous note with the dimwitted cult members – many of them affluent types whose pockets are easily picked – she interracts with while researching the story. 

Rounding out Mindfuckers is the 178-page opus “The Lyman Family’s Holy Siege Of America,” by David Felton and from the December 23, 1971 and January 6, 1972 issues of Rolling Stone. This story, a book in itself, documents a Manson-esque cult founded by a banjo-playing mystic; a cult that boasts it hasn’t killed anyone…yet. The opening is especially memorable: we’re in Boston, where a cult member is disguised as a security guard in the Lyman Family compound. The “guard” runs away in the dead of night – and Felton reveals that in reality it’s none other than Paul Williams, former Crawdaddy writer, whose Outlaw Blues I reviewed here a few years ago. 

Similar to Felton’s piece on Manson, we then flash back to the origins of this cult, which started in Boston in the early ‘60s with the apperance of a Mel Lyman on college campus, toting a banjo. The drug of choice was Morning Glory seeds, which per recent discovery could be soaked in water and ground up for an LSD-type experience. He was into the folk scene and could play Bach on his banjo and whatnot, and in the style of the time he began accumulating followers. I had a hard time understanding why, though. After 178 pages I still found nothing special nor memorable about Mel Lyman, at least in the way he was presented by David Felton – why so many followers would willingly boast that they “served” him was just a mystery. 

Regardless, Felton serves up this story as if it were a counterculture epic, painstakingly interviewing several of Lyman’s early followers – some of whom refused to have their real names shown in the story. Throughout there is the insinuation of Lyman’s evolving mean temperament, particularly given how his followers were so afraid of him. But boy it does go on, Felton doggedly pursuing leads to figure out the mystery of the “Lyman Family.” And speaking of which, despite getting started earlier, Lyman gradually became inspired by the Manson Family – particularly by the Rolling Stone story Felton himself wrote, which brings a full-circle vibe to the anthology. 

Felton takes us through the earliest days of the family, with lots of material from fellow musician Jim Kweskin, who also became a follower of Lyman – as did Paul Williams. I’m not familiar with Kweskin but I was surprised (and a little disappointed) to hear that Paul “Crawdaddy” Williams, who displayed such an independent strain of thought in the pieces collected in Outlaw Blues, could have fallen in with a cult – particularly one in which he gave up his own individual thought. I guess if nothing else this is a demonstration of the cult of personality, something Lyman apparently shared with Manson – though the drug regimen he put his followers through didn’t hurt matters. 

There’s quite a bit of stuff about some flap at a radio station where Lyman’s music was about to be played, but the levels were wrong, and the family accused the station of intentionally doing this, leading to a scuffle – as I say, Felton quite develops the theme of an undercurrent of violence in the Lyman Family. Also mystery, with the investigation leading Felton to realize that Lyman had at least one secret identity, which he apparently used in a brief capacity as a music director at that radio station. Meanwhile Felton hangs with the cult members at family HQ in Boston, where they eat communal meals and throw people in an isolation room for running afoul of groupthink. You kind of what to go back in time and shake the shit out of these people – I mean it’s the height of the goddamn counterculture era and they’re giving up their most basic rights for a dude who plays the banjo. Oh and on that note – family members are also occasionally denied having sex by Lyman, despite the fact that he himself has plenty of gals for his personal enjoyment. 

Felton does a good job of building the mystery around Mel Lyman, though; the vast majority of the story is just Felton talking to people about Lyman. One of the more interesting parts concerns Mark Frechette, an actor who at the time was momentarily famous for starring in Zabriskie Point, Michelangelo Antonini’s flop counterculture movie of 1970 – which also was spotlighted in Rolling Stone at the time. Many years ago, when Zabriskie Point was almost impossible to find, I went on a hunt for it and then learned about Frechette; all I knew was that he’d been an unknown, discovered on the spot by Antonini and cast as the lead in his picture. And also that he died in prison a few years after the movie was released – having been sent there for robbing a bank. What I didn’t know was that Frechette was involved with the Lyman Family, and Felton spends a bit of time with him here in the story…mostly relating how Frechette kept trying to sway Antonini to the Lyman path. Interesting here that Frechette is presented as someone who will be going on to a Hollywood career, which was not to be. 

When Lyman does appear in the finale, he’s almost humble and soft-spoken, quite anticlimactic after the preceding 170-some pages of buildup. He’s a far cry from Manson, I mean to say; Felton even drops incidental details like how Lyman is missing teeth. He comes off more like an underdog than a cult leader, but then again this might have been his intention – this meeting with Lyman stems from the family’s concern that Felton was going to write a negative story about them. Speaking of which, prior to the Lyman meeting there’s an unintentionally humorous bit where some of Lyman’s thugs confront Felton in his home and make vague threats to him, and Felton finally kicks them out – and they leave! I mean they’re totally in a different league than Manson’s family. 

Anyway, as a document of the era’s “acid gurus,” Mindfuckers is pretty interesting. The writing is good throughout, but the book certainly isn’t worth the exorbitant prices booksellers charge for it; if you’re after the Manson piece, you can also find it in the much-more-affordable paperback anthology The Age Of Paranoia, credited to The Editors of Rolling Stone and published by Pocket Books in 1972.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Doomsday Warrior #18: American Dream Machine


Doomsday Warrior #18: American Dream Machine, by Ryder Stacy
July, 1990  Zebra Books

What can I say about this penultimate volume of Doomsday Warrior? That it’s incredibly stupid? That it’s the worst volume of the series yet? That it’s a sort-of rip off of Total Recall with a little Dune thrown in? That Ryder Syvertsen has clearly stuck a fork in the series and has entirely lost all interest in it? No matter what I say, I won’t be able to properly convey how ultimately terrible American Dream Machine really is. 

Well, one positive thing I can say is that it doesn’t rip off the previous volume, which itself was a ripoff of the volume before that. For this one, Syvertsen goes way back to the tenth volume to rip himself off; for, just as that tenth volume was an “imaginary story” that had no bearing on the overarching storyline, so too is American Dream Machine an “imaginary story” that, for the most part, has nothing whatsoever to do with Doomsday Warrior. This volume also has the first real appearance of Kim Langford in the series since…well, since that imaginary story in #10: American Nightmare, I think, with the additional similarity that the “Kim” who shows up in American Dream Machine is also an imaginary figure, same as she was in that earlier “imaginary story.” 

Turns out I was correct when I guessed that there’d be no pickup from the closing events of the previous volume, which as we’ll recall ended with Rockson and his team still not having reached a neighboring city, where they hoped to gather resources needed to rebuild a ravaged Century City. There was also some stuff about a bunch of new recruits Rockson had to train. Absolutely none of that is even mentioned here. When we meet Rockson, he’s flying a commandeered “Sov” fighter jet, soaring west to meet up with pal Archer, whom Rockson hasn’t seen “in three years.” 

Yes, friends, three years have passed since the previous volume; it’s now “around 2096,” we’re told (Syvertsen has also thrown in the towel on pinning down when exactly the books take place), and boy it turns out a whole bunch of stuff has happened since last time. For one, the US and the USSR has entered a truce, with all occupying Soviet forces having withdrawn from the United States(!), though we’re informed that there are still guerrilla bands of Russian fighters out there who haven’t gotten the message. Chief among them would be Killov, who we are told without question is still alive (though he doesn’t appear this time), and also Zhabnov, onetime ruler of Moscow who hasn’t been seen for several volumes; both men have a mad-on hatred for Rockson and are determined to kill him. 

Not only that, but we’re told that President Langford is now the official, uh, President of the reformed US, but he’s so old and frail he’s in a wheelchair now…and gee, the reader must only assume it’s due to fallout from the brainwashing torture he endured back in #16: American Overthrow, a subplot Syvertsen never did follow up on. Also, we’re told that Kim, Langford’s hotstuff daughter, is in the reformed DC with her dad, where she plans parties and stuff – and Rockson figures he’ll “never see her again.” As for Rockson’s other “true love,” Amazonian redhead Rona, she too is out of the picture, off in some other liberated city. We also get the random note that Detroit, the black member of the Rock Squad, has been assigned by Langford to be the Ambassador to Russia, and given that Premiere Vassily is now so old and incompetent, the USSR is actually being run by his Ethiopian servant, Rahallah (who also doesn’t appear – we’re just told all this stuff). So, Rockson muses as he flies along in his fighter jet, the world is essentially run by two black men: Detroit and Rahallah. 

But man, all this is well established at the point that this story begins…it’s news to us readers, but it’s been Rockson’s world for the past three years. Indeed, things are so slow now that mountain man Archer plain left Century City three years ago, bored with the lack of fighting…and Rockson just heard from him for the first time, having received an urgent fax from Archer that Archer needs help! So there are a lot of problems here already…I mean, Archer has ever and always been an idiot, his bumbling stupidity a constant joke in the series. How the hell did this dude learn how to send a fax? And for that matter, since when did he even know how to write? 

Beyond that, though…I mean Rockson receives this urgent “Help!” message, and just all by himself hops in this “Sov” fighter and heads for Archer’s remote destination. No backup, no “new Rock Team” (we also learn Russian guy Sherasnksy has gone back to Russia…but Chen and McLaughlin are still in Century City, at least), just Rockson going solo for no other reason than plot convenience. And even here we get the series mandatory “man against nature” stuff, with Rockson crash landing in rough terrain and then having to escape a giant mutant spider…just “yawn” type stuff after 18 volumes of it. 

The entire concept of Archer having been gone for three years isn’t much followed up on; Rockson and the big mountain man are soon drinking beer and shooting the shit in the bowling alley Archer now calls home(!). There’s also a new character to the series – the absurdly-named Zydeco Realness, an elfin “Techno-survivor,” ie yet another new mutant race, this one having survived the past century in silos, hence their small nature and weird manner of speaking. Also, Ryder Syvertsen has discovered the word “diss,” which mustv’e come into the parlance around this time (I probably learned the word from the Beastie Boys at the time); Zydeco’s people are obsessed with being “dissed,” and will take affront if they even think they are being dissed. Rockson has never heard the word before, and Syvertsen has it that it’s a word the Tecno-survivors have created themselves. 

The titular “Dream Machine” is a device the Techno-survivors have created for people who are about to die…sort of like that bit in Soylent Green where you could have like a sensory experience on your way through the out door. So off the trio go, riding over 50 miles of rough terrain – but wait, I forgot! Rockson actually gets laid…indeed, quite a bit in this novel. But again demonstrating the marked difference between this and the earliest volumes, all the sex is off-page…well, most of it. The few tidbits we get here and there are so vague as to be laughable when compared to the juicy descriptions found many volumes ago. But Rockson makes his way through a few green-skinned wild women, of the same tribe he last, er, mated with back in…well, I think it was the ones way back in #3: The Last American

It's curious that Syvertsen often refers to earlier volumes in American Dream Machine, more so than in any past installment; we are reminded of how long ago certain events were. But then he goes and makes the rest of the novel completely unrelated from the series itself. Anyway, I realized toward the end of the book that Syvertsen was indulging in this reminiscence because he must have known the end was near, as by the end of the book you know we’re headed for a series resolution. However I’m getting ahead of myself. As mentioned instead of any series continuity, we instead get a bonkers plot that rips off Total Recall to a certain extent…which must’ve been quite a trick given that the movie hadn’t come out yet when Syvertsen was writing his manuscript. Or maybe it was the Total Recall novelization, published in hardcover in 1989, that inspired him. Or maybe it was just a coincidence. Or maybe it was just the original Philip K. Dick story. 

So Rockson gets in the Dream Machine, which looks like a big metal coffin, and sure enough as soon as he’s under none other than Zhabnov and his forces storm in – completely coincidentally! – and they take everyone prisoner. And when Zhabnov discovers Rockson in this machine, he has the Techo-survivors turn the dream into a nightmare. For the next hundred-plus pages we’ll be in this nightmare world, which is where the similarity to previous volume American Nightmare comes in…just as with that one, this one too will be a “nightmare” with no bearing on the main plot of the series, with even Rockson himself a completely different character. 

That’s because he’s now “Niles Rockson,” a wealthy playboy living in a penthouse in NYC in the pre-nuke 1980s, enjoying a romantic time with hotstuff blonde “Kimetta.” None other than the dream version of Kim Langford, with the curious tidbit that, despite having been plain ignored for the past several volumes, Kim is now presented as Rock’s soul mate, the love of his life. Well anyway when the nightmare begins…Kim suddenly becomes a mean-looking tough chick (still hot though, we’re informed – with, uh, big boobs despite her small stature!), and the action has been changed to…Venus

Suddenly Kimetta is angry at Rockson, meaning the dream has changed but Rockson of course is not aware he’s in a dream; reading the novel is a very frustrating experience. And it gets dumber. Some cops come in and haul Rockson off for the crime of being a “playboy!” He’s put on a “prisoner ship” and sent off into space, headed for the artificial planet Esmerelda, which is a prison colony. Yet, despite this being a nightmare, Rockson – in the narrative concocted by the Techno-survivors at the behest of Zhabnov – still gets laid. A lot. Hookers are sent into his room each night, a different one each night, and every time it’s fade to black. One of the gals happens to be from Esmerelda, the planet they’re headed for, and since Rockson’s so good in bed (we’re informed), she treats him to “the Esmereldan position.” Demonstrating how juvenile the tone of Doomsday Warrior has become, Syvertsen actually describes this screwing-in-a-weird-new-position thusly: “It would be difficult to explain.” And that’s all he writes about it. 

We’re in straight-up sci-fi territory as Rockson is taken to this planet Esmerelda…where he learns he’s going to become a gladiator. And at least sticking true to the series template he’ll need to fight a bloodthirsty monster in the arena. It’s all so dumb…and, well, at least it’s dreamlike, with non-sequitur stuff like Kimetta – who now has become the daughter of the prison warden on Esmerelda! – giving Rockson a talisman that will protect him against this monster. It just goes on and on, having nothing to do with Doomsday Warrior, yet not being strong enough to retain the reader’s interest; Syvertsen’s boredeom with it all is very apparent, and this feeling extends to the reader. 

At the very least I was impressed with how Syvertsen just wings it as he goes along…given that all this is a “dream,” he’s able to change the narrative as he sees fit. But gradually Rockson starts to figure something is amiss with this world, and begins to remember “The Doomsday Warrior.” But again it’s very juvenile, with Rockson suddenly certain that if he escapes Esmerelda, he will awaken into his real reality. The finale of the dream sequence features some unexpected emotional depth, when Rockson realizes that his beloved Kimetta is “just a dream, too.” This leads to a sequence where the series gets back to its New Agey roots; The Glowers, those godlike mutants also last seen in the third volume, show up to save Rockson – who is near death from his experience. This kind of goes on for a bit, with the Glowers and Rockson’s pals using a Medicine Wheel to put Rockson’s soul back together with his body. 

Here's where it becomes clear Ryder Syvertsen has the end of the series in mind. Well, first we get more juvenile stuff where the Glowers bring out a massive ship made of ice and snow and upon it floats Rockson and team back to Century City – where the Glowers have called ahead telepathically. Rockson is given a hero’s welcome, and what’s more Rona and Kim are there waiting for him, and we’re told they’ve “settled their jealous differences” about Rockson, and have decided what to do about him – but will tell him more later. The main Glower announces that Killov is alive, and only Rockson can stop him, thus setting the stage for the next (and final) volume. 

But man…here comes the scene we’ve waited so many volumes for: that night there’s a knock at Rockson’s door, and he opens it to find both Kim and Rona there in negligees, and they laugh and push Rockson back on his bed, and the reader is promised the Doomsday Warrior three-way to end all three-ways. But friggin’ Ryder Syvertsen ends the book right there!! (I’m currently working on my own 200-page fan novelization of this sex scene.) 

As mentioned, the next volume is to be the last…but the series has been over for Syvertsen for a long time, now. That said, I might get to the last one sooner rather than later, for American Dream Machine seems to be leading directly to that next novel – meaning, the next one shouldn’t open three years after this one.