Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Shelkagari, by Harold King
September, 1988 Lynx Books

Here's another forgotten novel I'd never heard of, until I came across it in a used bookstore. A big mass market paperback, nearly 600 pages of tiny print, and it seemed to promise an '80s update on the '30s adventure fiction of Robert E. Howard, Harold Lamb, even H. Rider Haggard. Harold King was also a name unfamiliar to me, though it appears his claim to fame was a slew of thriller and suspense novels.

Shelkagari was an experiment, it seems, King turning out a novel nothing like any of his others, and it was a grand failure. Critics destroyed it, reader reaction was tepid (zero reviews on even to this day), and Lynx Books took an unusual approach for this mass market paperback edition: the first few pages contain industry praise for other King novels, Shelkagari mysteriously going unmentioned.

But here's the thing -- the novel, for the most part, isn't that bad. The first third in particular, which concerns a 1929 trek by three individuals -- a Russian jewel cutter who lived in France before moving to India, a beautiful and red-haired American heiress, and a caustic British soldier -- into the Himalayas. This sequence provided the critics plenty of opportunity to make their own Raiders of the Lost Ark jokes, but King handles the adventure stuff very well.

Yurev is the main protagonist through this section (King, bless him, doesn't POV-hop once), and truth be told it takes a while for the ball to get rolling. First we must learn Yurev's backstory, escaping from the Russian revolution, eventually landing in India, marrying a girl there who later died, with Yurev's son, during a flu outbreak. Yurev's specialty is cutting stones, and when a redheaded beauty named Abby Abbaye (!) offers him the chance to journey with her into Nepal to find the legendary lost diamond of Alexander the Great, Yurev takes it, if only to get away from the misery of living. Along with them is Jack Barbaree, who acts as guide, hiring native coolies and seeing to their provisions and etc.

Shelkagari is the name of Alexander's long-fabled diamond, supposedly the size of a calf's head, one giant uncut stone. (King opens with a prologue from Alexander's point of view, which sets the tone for the psuedo-mystical aspect of the novel.) The journey up into the Himalayas is well handled, with all of the expected dangers, pitfalls, and setbacks. Barbaree is the sturdy Brit bastard expected of such novels, and Yurev and Abby soon find themselves uniting against his acidic barbs. The whole sequence comes off like a '30s travelogue, and when the trio finally come upon the legendary lamastery in which a piece of Shelkagari supposedly rests, it gets like James Hilton's Lost Horizon.

The material in the lamastery is also well done, with legions of monks and their loyal mastiffs which prowl about the temple. Yurev finds out more about the legend of Shelkagari, how someone was here years before, unwittingly stumbling upon the info, even leaving behind unintentional clues on where the jewel might be. But due to Barbaree's treachery the trio must escape from the lamastery, leaving behind a dead high lama and a few priests.

Further Barbaree treachery ensues, and soon Yurev and Abby are alone, trying to wend their way down into the jungle-ish interiors of Nepal. After eluding a pair of tigers, Yurev and Abby "make pleasure" together, culminating a long-simmer romance, despite the fact that they both have been tramping through the wilds for the past several days with no baths or anything.

The only problem with Shelkagari is that it continues on from here. The 1929 sequence lasts nearly 300 pages, and King would have been better served if he'd just have wrapped it up here. Instead he telescopes on through Yurev's life into the 1950s: separated by fate immediately after returning to India in 1929, Yurev and Abby went on to their own respective lives, Yurev eventually owning a diamond mine in Africa.

Still obsessed with finding Shelkagari, Yurev discovers that the man who was in the lamastery years before him was none other than President Herbert Hoover! After a meeting with Hoover's wife -- conducted shortly after Hoover's loss of re-election -- Yurev just sort of waits around for the next few decades to be called back by Mrs. Hoover, so he can look through her accumulated papers to find the notes Hoover took while he was in Nepal.

Now the narrative focuses upon Miller, the son of Abby and Yurev (protagonists in adventure fiction being quite potent, you see). Abby has raised the boy to think his father was another guy who died in WWII; even Yurev doesn't find out until late in the game that Miller is his son. Anyway the Miller section is pretty boring. He too is obsessed with finding Shelkagari, having heard stories of the trip into Nepal from his mother since he was a toddler.

Shot down during the Korean war, Miller spends the next decade or so in a Chinese prison. Here King works more Shelkagari mystery into the proceedings, but really the entire Miller section seems unnecessary. After being freed, Miller soon heads back to Asia where he takes his own journey to the Himalayas, going to the monastery Abby and Yurev visited. (Funnily enough, King skips over the entire trek, which had been presented as so dangerous in the preceeding section.) Miller finds the place empty and upon return to the US goes insane.

But there's a third narrative to come. Jumping ahead a few more decades, King takes us to 1985, where our protagonists are now the grandkids of Yurev and Abby (who are both still alive, and also together, due to Yurev's wife kicking the bucket). And the grandkids too are obsessed with finding Shelkagari! Two of the grandsons unite with a woman who claims to be descended from Jack Barbaree. Amid media interest this trio goes on their own journey into the Himalayas in search of Shelkagari...and damned if they don't find it.

But the issue is, King devotes so much time to the first sequence in 1929 that these later sequences lack the necessary punch. It's Yurev and Abby we want to discover Shelkagari, not their friggin' grandkids. As it is, our now-elderly duo must stand around, waiting to hear if the jewel has been discovered. It also seemed to me that King lost the thread of his generations-spanning tale, with some of the latter portions coming off like wheel-spinning so he could fill up the interim of years before Shelkagari was found in the "present day" of the late 1980s.

Why didn't King just set the entire tale in 1929? Had he done so, I'm certain he would've not only had a tighter, more entertaining novel, but he would've had another commercial success to boot. As it is, Shelkagari the novel is now as lost and forgotten as the diamond itself.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Always, by Trevor Meldal-Johnsen
March, 1979 Avon Books

This obscure paperback original concerns a screenwriter in 1979 Hollywood who falls in love with an actress named Brooke Ashley -- an actress who died in a mysterious fire in 1949. The screenwriter, Gregory Thomas, soon becomes convinced that he is the reincarnation of Brooke Ashley's lover, who died in that fire with her; further, he is convinced that Brooke Ashley is out there somewhere, reincarnated just as he is, and he determines to find her. So in other words it's like a trashy romance novel penned by Shirley MacLaine.

Gregory's fiance Sharon unwittingly gets it all started; she takes Gregory to see a showing of Brooke's final film, which for some unstated reason is playing again in 1979 theaters. Watching Brooke on the big screen, Gregory finds himself crying for some bizarre reason during the maudlin finale. Soon he can't get her out of his head. He feels that he somehow knows Brooke Ashley, despite the fact that previous to seeing the film with Sharon, he was only peripherally aware of the long-dead actress.

He comes up with the idea to do a script loosely based around Brooke's life; at first he thinks maybe he'll imply that she didn't die in a fire, but then he comes up with the reincarnation premise, that she is alive out there somewhere, reborn in new flesh, and her also-dead lover is also reborn and must find her. He pitches the idea to his agent who says it'll go over like gangbusters; the agent, obviously stoned, goes further to say that Gregory should first write the idea down as a novel. This strikes me as strange, as everyone knows that Hollywood agents don't read novels. Already the novel has gone into the realm of fantasy.

Past-life memories gradually come back to Gregory. He tells no one, especially his fiance Sharon, who has become increasingly distanced from him. Sharon is jealous of the decades-dead Brooke Ashley, of the attention Gregory is giving her, and wishes he would just drop his entire script/novel idea. But after researching Brooke's life, Gregory gets deeper into it, even meeting up with one of the actress's friends: a now-old mystic who goes by the handle Madame Olga Nabokov, who acts as the novel's version of Whoopie Goldberg in Ghost.

It gets goofy when Gregory finally remembers his past life -- it comes to him in a sudden rush, all of it. His name was Michael Richardson, and he was a screenwriter then as now; in fact he wrote Brooke's last film. Working with Olga to track down pieces of his past life, Gregory soon collects a ring he once gave Brooke (another goofy moment; when he touches the ring it burns him -- the ring survived the fire which killed Michael Richardson and Brooke Ashley, you see) and even visits his mother. Michael Richardson's mother, that is. It's to Meldal-Johnsen's credit that he doesn't sap up this scene.

A horror element sneaks in as Gregory soon finds himself under psychic attack in his dreams. For some strange reason, Olga proves unhelpful here; you'd figure she'd at least teach the guy some lucid dreaming techniques for self-defense. I mean, even the kids in Nightmare on Elm Street 3 learned how to become "dream warriors." Anyway the threats continue in the real world as well, with Gregory receiving threats in the mail, threats demanding that he "forget" about Brooke Ashley and etc.

More research and remembrance and Gregory discovers who the culprit is: Brooke Ashley's mother. What's creepy though is she too died in the fire that killed Michael and Brooke. So either Brooke's mom lives on in the astral realm or she too has been reincarnated, and has continued hating Michael Richardson for taking away her daughter, no matter what skin he's now wearing. These scenes, while at first grating, soon add a layer of tension and suspense to Always, as Gregory finds himself in several life-or-death situations. Hell, even his cat gets killed. However the horror element plays out in an unintentionally-hilarious scene as Gregory accidentally runs over his enemy.

Many sequences of the novel are given over to long chunks of Michael's life with Brooke, how he met her, their dates, how they promised to be together in this world and the next, no matter what happened. Meldal-Johnsen tries to make this a soul-match sort of love, but sadly I found Gregory's relationships with Sharon and Jenny (a bimbo young actress Gregory hooks up with during a spat with Sharon) more believable. Also, Meldal-Johnsen really missed the potential for some true drama. Gregory isn't even married; imagine how much more impact this novel would have had if Gregory was married with kids. Given that, would he still try to find the reincarnation of his past-life lover?

Thankfully, Always isn't all love-written-in-the-stars romantic glurge. As was the style of the time, Meldal-Johnsen finds opportunity to trash it up with some graphic sex scenes every once in a while. My favorite such moment is when Jenny, the aforementioned bimbo actress, takes hold of Gregory's "distended penis worshipfully," says to it "Oh, lovely, gorgeous thing," pops a few ice cubes in her mouth, and then sets to work. And mind you, this is only their first date! Now that's a woman you reincarnate for.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Penetrator #11: Terror In Taos

The Penetrator #11: Terror In Taos, by Lionel Derrick
October, 1975 Pinnacle Books

Finally the Penetrator series gets back on track with the best volume in a long time. Mark Roberts in my estimation had been slacking off a bit in his last few contributions to the adventures of Mark "Penetrator" Hardin, but this time out he comes back with a renewed vigor, delivering a breezy, action-filled tale filled with the violence and in-jokery one has come to expect from this author.

With a nod to Wounded Knee and the American Indian rights movements of the early '70s, Terror In Taos concerns a militant uprising of American Indians in Taos; they've taken over the city in their demands for equality while meanwhile the mafia is murdering their holy men and stealing their priceless jewelry. Hardin, who we are reminded every volume is half-Cheyenne, infiltrates the police barrier and gets involved with the militants, proclaiming himself as one of them. Here Roberts serves up some in-jokes, as Hardin "proves" he is a member of the tribe by reading passages from Sapir and Murphy's The Destroyer series in the Cheyenne language.

Hardin finds an old comrade among the militants: Gil Otero, who went through Intelligence training with Hardin years before. Hardin tells Gil that he is in fact the infamous Penetrator -- which is never a smart thing for a men's adventure protagonist to do, because the reader knows well what will eventually happen to the person he has just told. (It's sort of like when Charles Bronson tells a lady he loves her in the Death Wish films -- expect a funeral soon.)

The mafia thugs make for an enjoyable cast. There's Snuffer Weiss, a little fellow given to Yiddish outbursts, Il Lupare, a hulking brute who learned English from sleazy paperbacks, and most importantly Rammer Norton, a thug whose name has been mentioned throughout the series. Norton was the guy who inadvertently sent Hardin on the path to becoming the Penetrator; a decade ago Norton was the bastard who set Hardin up for a tumble, ending a promising football career. As soon as Hardin discovers that Norton is behind the shaman-killing, jewel-stealing activities in Taos, he is even more determined to see the mission through to its bloody end.

Roberts provides a lot of nice setpieces. There's an actual New Agey mystical trip (which was the style of the time) as Hardin drops peyote with his Cheyenne "brothers." This otherwise-unrelated scene is well done, with Hardin preparing to go through the mystical rites of becoming a full-on "son" of the head shaman, but Roberts drops this storyline. Even better is Hardin's infiltration into a mob-ruled medieval castle in the middle of the desert, built there a century before by an oil tycoon (shades of TNT #6: Ritual Of Blood).

There's even a bit of "sweat mag" stuff when Gil's fiance, a Cheyenne beauty, is captured by the mobsters and taken to a secret dungeon within that castle, where she's stripped down and put on a torture rack. Here a group of "turkey doctors" (Roberts borrowing a phrase coined by Don Pendleton) prepare to make mutilated "Indian turkey" out of the girl, before Hardin of course shows up with his combat shotgun.

All told, this is just an enjoyable, well-rendered installment. Hardin is back to his likeable self, even indulging in his previously-abandoned penchant for disguise. This is another goofy but fun scene where Hardin dresses up like an old Indian so he can berate some government reps who have come to Taos to speak with the militants; one of the reps happens to be the head agent in charge of tracking down Hardin himself.

The novel ends with some unintentional humor as Hardin, flying away from Taos in his personal plane after another successful mission, already begins to plan his next mission! It's a nice way I guess to remind readers that the series will continue with more and more adventures, but it has the unfortunate effect of making Hardin appear like some vengeance-programmed android.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Shadow Play

Shadow Play, by Marvin Werlin
March, 1977 Pocket Books

This is the first Gothic I've ever read, though it's a late-era model for sure; it's my understanding the genre had died out by the mid-'70s. But regardless a Gothic is mostly what Shadow Play is; we have a willfull female narrator, an Old Dark House filled with degenerates, and even a dashing young man to save our distressed damsel. The draw for me though is the book's focus on classic film; the villain of the tale, Max Deveraux, is a wealthy film fanatic who has created his own Xanadu, where he likes to enact scenes from various '30s and '40s movies, often with bloody results.

Christine Glenville is our heroine, a film scholar who is trying to escape a messy past in San Francisco. Christine's boyfriend is a suddenly-hot director who knows of a millionaire film-fan who often funds movies. The man, Deveraux, is looking for an assistant to come out to his rolling mansion in Mendocino, and once he learns of Christine's knowledge of classic film, he offers her the position.

The mansion is massive, an exact replica of Manderley in Rebecca. In fact each room is modeled exactly after one classic film or another, all at incredible expense. (The veranda is even a replica of the one in Death Takes A Holiday; quite a feat, as anyone who has seen that '34 film would know.) And the place has been staffed with a cast of eccentrics: Deveraux's wife, who both looks and acts like Marlene Dietrich, a gaunt chaffeur who comes off like Boris Karloff in The Old Dark House, even a mentally-unstable English beauty who claims to be Deveraux's niece. And there's Deveraux himself, given to grandiose speeches about the superiority of golden age film while strolling about his acre-spanning domain.

Christine has a hard time absorbing it all. There seems to be a weird vibe to the place and lots of coy looks between Deveraux and his wife, and also the chaffeur, Corrin, seems pretty bitter about something. Adding to Christine's uncertainty about all this is the arrival of Toby, a dashing young drifter who in a bizarre scene is beaten up by a drunken older man and left for dead in the middle of the road, where Christine and Corrin later find him. (Toby's scenes incidentally are written in third-person, as are other bits in the novel, which leads to a bit of a jar as we're in Christine's first-person narration, then after a short-space drop we're suddenly in the third-person POV of another character.)

The novel takes its good old time getting to the lurid stuff, which in fact isn't even all that lurid. Deveraux enjoys recreating scenes from classic films on a stage for the benefit of his servants; the films of Josef von Sternberg are a particular favorite, with Deveraux's wife of course taking the Dietrich role. But the plays take on the air of Grand Guignol as graphic violence is added to the scenes, material that never would have gotten past censors in the '30s.

Gradually Christine discovers that she had a predecessor here, one who went missing. Of course the reader is well ahead of her and knows the truth long before Christine does: the former assistant was killed as a result of Deveraux's mad scene-playing, everyone in the mansion is friggin' nuts, and Christine and Toby need to get the hell out of there but quick.

There's a bit of sex and violence here and there but it's all skimmed over. The addition of sex -- even though only alluded to -- already places the novel outside of the Gothic, at least so far as Dean Koontz defined the genre in his Writing Popular Fiction. In fact all I know about Gothics is what I read about them in Koontz's how-to book.

I wish the classic film stuff was a bit more prevalent, but Shadow Play does at least show how the movies of the past can so affect one that it can lead them to acts of madness. As a funny sidenote, Deveraux reveals his plan at one point to one day write a book about the impact of film on culture -- Geoffrey O'Brien actually did this, with his ludicrously pretentious 1993 offering The Phantom Empire.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Smuggler #2: Fools of the Trade

The Smuggler #2: Fools of the Trade, by Paul Petersen
September, 1974 Pocket Books

I've meant to continue reading this series for a long time now, but I've kept putting it off because it's so bad. And while this second installment is a bit better, it's still pretty stupid and ineptly written. By far this is one of the worst men's adventure series I've yet to review on this blog, down there with Tracker. And that's saying something!

Our hero is Eric Saveman, the Smuggler himself. Last time out we saw how he went from being a dope smugger to a globe-trotting spy. This volume changes things a bit in that Saveman has become basically a male version of The Baroness -- just like her, Saveman is a master of everything ever known to or created by man, and is perfect in every single way. He always comes out on top, not just when having sex, and just as in the superior Baroness series, there's tons of explicit sex scenes here, a lot more for sure than the previous installment, which as I recall was rather tepid in the sex and violence department.

Fools of the Trade (oh, what a title) though goes to the opposite extreme. Pages of graphically-depicted sex give way to moments of outrageous sadism. Truly depraved and twisted stuff which really makes the boring parts (of which there are a bunch) seem all the more boring. I mean, we have in this novel not only hot n' heavy moments where Saveman gets busy with a gorgeous lady scientist, but also bizarre stuff like where a hulking Haitian sadist whips people to death, complete with emasculating the men in the literal sense -- not to mention when he devises death-via-impalement for female prisoners...whose corpses he later takes back to his place for a bit of necrophilia.

And yet despite all of this, Fools of the Trade still sucks!! We meet up with Saveman as he's finishing his ultra-secret spy training; Saveman is somehow allowed to take part even though he isn't an official government agent and instead works as a freelance. (It should go without mentioning that he is of course that top student in his class and has beaten all past records, etc etc.) Meanwhile there's a subplot which at first seems important but instead spirals into oblivion: the government tracks its spies via a device implanted within their bodies; the technology behind this is compromised and the fear is that enemy hands will get hold of it and set off the "self destruct" mechanism which is apparently installed in all US government agents.

However the true plot concerns a handful of executives from the Canadian Spice Company (?) who are using a revolt-torn island in the Caribbean to mask their coffer-pilfering schemes (?). It's strange as hell, as the reader sets out prepared for one story but gets another, and the first story is the better one. Anyway Saveman eventually ends up on the island, Inagua, which is run by a useless local police force; the head of security is M'Bhutto, the aforementioned sadist who has brutally tortured, killed (and in some cases then had necrophiliac sex with) a few previous US agents.

Saveman is flown in by a female agent pilot who of course takes the opportunity to have sex with our boy while in flight. The average guy would be a bit exhausted after this, but Saveman's able to parachute out in the middle of the night and infiltrate Iguana. And hell, he's been here before, because he's totally perfect you see -- turns out he smuggled dope from the island back in his smuggler days. (Speaking of which, drugs are conspicuously absent this time out.)

M'Bhutto has another freelance agent imprisoned, Saveman gets caught but of course is able to free both himself and his fellow agent, all culminates in a lurid moment straight out of Blood Bath as M'Bhutto finds himself wearing a mask which has been outfitted with a wire cage compartment full of rats! And they chew their way through the wire and into his face and on through to the other side while M'Bhutto screams and screams, and the book still sucks!

Hard to believe, but five more volumes were to follow. Even harder to believe, I've got them and will eventually force myself to read them.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


Flicker, by Theodore Roszak
April, 1993 Bantam Books

This hefty book was first published in hardcover in 1991, then brought out in an "expanded" trade paperback edition in 2006, featuring a new appendix and fragments of material cut from the original version. But regardless this original print (shown here in its mass market paperback incarnation) is long enough, and will already be a mostly-trying read for the average reader, even if like me you're fascinated by Hollywood's golden era of the 1930s and '40s.

Film critic Jonathan Gates narrates the tale, which spans the late 1950s through the late 1970s. Gates is the foremost authority on once-forgotten filmmaker Max Castle, who left his native Germany in the age of the silents to make films in Hollywood. After a notorious, overbudgeted flop, Castle was from thence on relegated to quickies or horror films, in particular churning out stuff for Universal. He progressed through the talkie era on through the '30s, finding opportunity to instill his own art into the schlock he was forced to film. Finally in the pre-WWII years he was announced dead, his ship destroyed while he was on a European voyage to acquire funds to produce a film of his own.

Gates relates for us how he came to discover Castle's work, and this provides the meat of the tale. A college student in late '50s California, Gates begins going to The Classic, a dank little theater run by Clare Swan (ie Pauline Kael), an opinionated critic who provides copious notes for each film shown on the Classic's small screen. Here Gates encounters the nascent French film movement, all the cinema verite so popular at the time. By chance Clare gets hold of a beaten old vampire flick, an old Universal film none of them can place. This turns out to be one of Castle's many forgotten films, and is Gates's introduction to the man and his story. Clare reacts negatively and leaves all of the Castle research to Gates, who she nevertheless continues to tutor in her own private little way.

Clare has taken a shine to Gates and has made her his latest consort/pupil. After instilling her harsh opinions on practically every film ever made, Clare takes Gates to the next level and continues to teach him while they're having sex. Seriously, she will blab on and on about Sergei Eisenstein or whoever while they're making the beast with two backs. I would say this is the very definition of a bore, but regardless Gates (and therefore Roszak, his creator) wants us to believe this is a wonderful way to soak up all sorts of esoteric film lore. (But then if film classes were actually taught this way, I probably would've gone to UCLA.)

The reader must be prepared to wade through thick paragraphs of in-depth film chatter, as Gates meets one industry person after another. I have never had any love for the cinema verite of the '50s and '60s, so this stuff was hard going for me, as Gates will indulge in endless chatter with students and whatnot. Finally though he gets to the more interesting material of Castle; the best parts of the novel are when Gates details many of Castle's classic horror pictures, all of which sound pretty great. (One of them, Zombie Doctor, sounds supiciously like the real movie Island of Lost Souls -- out now on Blu Ray, by the way.)

In some ways these early parts of Flicker are fascinating because they show how simpler life is for the classic film fan, these days. Gates and his friends must search high and low for prints of the films they want to see, usually coming up with nothing but beaten 16mm chain prints that are barely watchable. Meanwhile today one can find pretty much anything on DVD -- and if it hasn't been officially released, there's always the gray market of DVDRs.

Gates finds that he and other viewers often react with horror to otherwise-innocuous scenes in Castle's work. For example Clare, who shows a particular revulsion, though she can never understand why. Gates discovers why with the appearance of the awesomely-named Zip Lipsky, a midget curmudgeon who worked as cameraman on most of Castle's films. Lipsky has managed to hang onto "uncut prints" of all of Castle's released films; Gates begins visiting the man regularly to watch them. During these showings Lipsky relates the story of Castle, how he had so much struggle in Hollywood and how he always inserted another level into his films. Producing a "Sallyrand," a "stripper" Castle named after the actual stripper Sally Rand, Lipsky shows Gates how if you look through the viewer you can see another film buried within the shadows of the main film. Gates sees grisly imagery of decaying flesh and even pornographic moments which never would've gotten past a censor, then or now.

The Sallyrand allows a viewer to plainly see this hidden footage, but to the naked eye it's invisible. However the viewer still unconsciously sees it, and this explains the feelings of revulsion and etc which set in upon viewers of Castle's work. Subconsciously they are seeing a spectrum of revulsion, only they don't realize so on the conscious level. The question remains, of course: why the hell was Castle going to such trouble?

Gates is determined to find out. After Lipsky's passing (which is unfortunate, as he's the only memorable character in the novel), Gates determines to meet up with others who worked with Castle. This leads him eventually to Orson Welles himself -- Gates learns that Welles, when he came to Hollywood with a full ticket in '39, personally sought out Castle, as he was such an admirer. The two men devised the idea to film Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (something Welles himself did in reality), and Castle and Lipsky filmed a lot of jungle footage before the project was dropped. Welles, regaling Gates and the reader for pages and pages in Clare's NYC apartment (she's since gotten famous as a newspaper film critic), goes further to mention that Castle also provided a bit of assistance on Citizen Kane, and that he even worked with John Ford on The Maltese Falcon.

On Gates goes, searching for the truth behind Castle's esoteric work. He goes to Holland, where he meets the still-ravishing Olga Tell, Castle's girlfriend in the '30s; it was her nude form cavorting in the "hidden layer" of many of Castle's films. Roszak continues the "teaching via sex" bit as Olga, despite her vast age difference with Gates, teaches him a bit of New Agery she learned from Castle while they engage in bouts of sexual congress. Here the novel begins its gradual freefall, as Gates eventually learns that Castle's religion, which he hid in his films but still promoted subconsciously, was that of the Cathars.

Early editions of Flicker compared the novel to The Name of the Rose; no surprise that the newer edition compares it to The Da Vinci Code. For that's exactly what it resembles, only of course it's a hell of a lot more literary. As the novel winds into its third half it becomes more focused on esoteric religions and less on film, which isn't a bad thing; it's just that it sways off into fantasy, as Gates finds himself a target of a shadowy religious sect which runs a global chain of orphanages. He visits one of them -- Castle, you see, was raised in such an orphanage -- to find that the children are being taught how to edit film. The entire aim of the orphanages is to teach children how to work in film and thereby promote their cause.

Castle disappears from the novel for large sections as Gates becomes fascinated with a teenaged albino who makes grindhouse gore films on dime budgets; the kid also was raised in one of these orphanages and is himself an admirer of Castle. Finally all of it spirals out of control as Gates discovers he is in more trouble than he could've imagined, eventually finding himself a prisoner on an island off Malta; a fully-staffed island, as it were, with Gates treated like a guest. It's all just, I don't know, goofy. And you'll never guess who Gates's fellow prisoner is on this island. (Actually, you will guess; you'll see it coming miles away.)

By turns enthralling and boring, Flicker is nevertheless an interesting "other side" of Hollywood history. It is a bit annoying that Max Castle is presented as such an influential film personality (who nonetheless went forgotten), with a hand in pretty much any classic film you could name, which seems to me to take a bit from the actual filmmakers themselves. (I'm sure Ford wouldn't have taken kindly to the novel, let alone Welles.) The Cathar stuff seems a lame and unnecessary draw; easy to say in this post-Da Vinci Code era, but there could've been a more compelling "truth" behind Castle's hidden layers of film than the usual "forbidden religions" angle of Foucault's Pendulum and others.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Penetrator #10: The Hellbomb Flight

The Penetrator #10: The Hellbomb Flight, by Lionel Derrick
August, 1975 Pinnacle Books

Chet Cunningham's back in the saddle as "Lionel Derrick," casting The Penetrator, Mark Hardin, into a goofy and convoluted plot that never quite comes together.

The "villain" this time is Dr. Orlando Fitzmueller, a NASA scientist who is certain the Russians have launched a nuclear missile-firing device into space, under the guise of an innocuous weather sattelite. Fitzmueller realizes that if this weapon got into the wrong hands -- or if the US and USSR engaged in open warfare -- mankind itself would be doomed.

But when his NASA superiors refuse to heed his warnings, Fitzmueller breaks free of them and becomes a regular mad scientist, holed up in a compound in the middle of the desert. With the assistance of a sadistic right-hand man, Fitzmueller commands a group of science-type contractors who don't realize what their boss's main goal is: namely, to commandeer the Russian missile-launcher and use it to blackmail the leaders of the world into destryoing their nuclear arsenals. In other words, to threaten untold destruction in order to attain peace.

Mark Hardin enters the fray when his DC pal Dan Griggs -- who, by the way, is the man tasked by the US government to track down and capture Hardin -- gives him a call and points Hardin in the direciton of Fitzmueller. From there we have the usual method of operation as displayed in previous novels in the series: Hardin arrives on the location, scouts it out, kills a few guys, and somehow finds the time to have sex.

The lady in question this time is Joanna Tabler, Griggs's assistant; we last saw her in the Cunningham-penned Hijacking Manhattan. There Joanna and Hardin appeared to become quite serious, but in true men's adventure fashion she disappeared in the following novels. Regardless the two pick their hot affair right back up. Otherwise Joanna doesn't add much to the storyline, other than a few page-filling scenes where she talks to Griggs on the phone.

Cunningham also finally ties up a plotstrand that's been going on for the past few volumes; Sal Mitzutaki, Hardin's one-time gun supplier who tried to get Hardin killed back in Tokyo Purple, finally gets his comeuppance. This scene has nothing to do with the rest of the book, but again provides Cunningham with the opportunity to show how merciless his version of the Penetrator is.

For once again Mark Hardin is a cold son of a bitch this time out, torturing mobsters and then killing them once he's gotten his information. In one chilling scene he puts an incindiary device in the pants of a mobster -- a mobster Hardin's already been torturing for several pages -- and then runs away just before the bastard blows up. What makes it all the weirder is that the mobster doesn't believe it's really a bomb Hardin has stuck in his waistband, and so continues jabbering on as he meets his doom.

The finale is anticlimatic in that instead of a one-man raid on Fitzmueller's compound, we instead have Hardin chasing around Fitzmueller's henchmen (who have taken control of the operation from Fitzmueller; they want to blackmail the leaders of the world for money, not peace). I say "anticlimatic" because Hardin merely follows after them in a helicopter, with the ensuing air battle quite one-sided.

Cunningham also provides the expected lurid stuff; Fitzmueller has a daughter, and when Hardin tracks her down in order to get some info from her, the girl -- who's gorgeous, of course -- immediately strips down and tries to seduce him. Hardin ignores the offer; strangely, Fitzmueller's daughter then drops from the plot.

So then, it's still rocky going for this series; hard to believe that it continued on for almost another ten years. I'm assuming some good stuff must be coming along, eventually.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Executioner #115: Circle of Steel

The Executioner #115: Circle of Steel, by Dan Schmidt
July, 1988 Gold Eagle Books

This is a crazy, wild Doc Savage sort of yarn that goes non-stop from beginning to end. Anything ever said previously about violence in the Executioner books must be put on hold. Circle of Steel drips with gore, gore with no particular point. Brains splatter, intestines spill out, eyes are shot or gouged out – you name it, it happens in the pages of this story. -- William H. Young, A Study of Action-Adventure Fiction

Yep, that made me want to read the book, too!

And truth be told, Circle of Steel lives up to its gory promise. Not only is this the best Dan Schmidt novel I've read, it's also the best of the Gold Eagle-published Executioner books. True, it's yet another Schmidt tale about a squad of American black ops going rogue and selling weapons to terrorists, even financing them in their terrorist activities, with Mack Bolan again caught in the middle of a convoluted plot filled with way too many characters, but there's a crazed element here that elevates the tale, something that was missing in the other Schmidt novels I've read.

The gruesome madness begins on the opening pages, as a band of scimitar-wielding Islamic terrorists hack and slash a senator and his houseful of guests. This scene is almost a tribute to the gory splendor of GH Frost's Army of Devils. These terrorists are part of a faction known as The Followers of the True Way; they are financed by a mercenary who goes by the impressive title Killer Keller. Keller also controls an army of mercs, whom he considers his real soldiers; he uses the Muslim fighters as "cannon fodder," exactly like the character Crammon did in the much later Schmidt offering Devil's Bargain. (One could easily argue that each Schmidt novel is the same as the one that came before, with only the names of the villains changed.)

Keller's complex scheme is to train these terrorists (on American soil, no less!) to kill a bunch of senators and whatnot, generally sowing chaos, while also selling them arms at inflated prices. He then plans to kill them so as to get back the arms and re-sell them. There's also a scheme involving a group of peacekeepers on a mission to the Middle East which Keller plans to kidnap and sell to the Followers; it was all a bit too convoluted to keep up with, really. More interesting are the arms Keller plans to sell -- the M-40 Maneater, an assault rifle designed by an associate of Keller's which fires regular bullets but is also outfitted with "x-wings" of grenades. Keller has a few crates of these; just one M-40 will turn a soldier into a destructive force.

Bolan comes into it after interrogating a former accomplice of Keller's who wants to come clean. As usual in a Schmidt tale, it's not so simple. The CIA's involved, neither Bolan nor his contact Brognola have heard of the Maneaters, and Bolan is forever one step behind Keller and his men. In a way Schmidt's novels are like action equivalents of film noir, with Bolan the hardboiled hero lost in a murky, convoluted, and dangerous world of cutthroats and killers.

And, just as in film noir, there's a femme fatale -- Ilsa Tausen, a blond German beauty who not only resembles a valkyrie but considers herself one. Ilsa once worked with Keller and was also his lover, but eight years ago Keller left her behind to rot in a South African cell. Ilsa eventually freed herself and is now consumed with vengeance upon Keller; her plan (one of many plans in this novel) is to infiltrate his team and kill him. Ilsa's father was an SS officer and she wishes the Nazis had won the war. She loves to use her body to lure men into their deaths...after having sex with them. She relishes murder and gets off on it, going into combat in a "skin-tight leather combat blacksuit," blowing people away with a smile on her face. Oh, and she also enjoys freebasing cocaine.

Yes my friends, Ilsa Tausen is the greatest character to ever appear in an Executioner novel.

It occured to me as I read it that Circle of Steel isn't only an amped-up variation of film noir, but also of screwball comedy. It operates on the same principles, with our straight-laced hero Bolan caught up in a madcap world of bizarre characters and goofy situations. For example: midway through the book Bolan realizes he's being followed. He springs a trap on the pursuers, who turn out to be a pair of guys in suits and ties. Immediately they tell Bolan they're CIA operatives, trying to capture Keller; further, they're part of a tactical team calling itself Talon. Then they ask Bolan if he'd like to help. All this, mind you, before they even ask Bolan who he is!

More dark comedy ensues as Bolan finds himself working with the Company. Of course they're all rubes and don't heed Bolan's advice and so get wasted in vast numbers during the many ensuing battles with Keller and his men. Bolan eventually goes all the way to Greece in pursuit of Keller; meanwhile Ilsa succeeds in her infiltration and allies herself with the man, plotting his death. But sadly this plot is lost in the shuffle of schemes and counter-schemes, with Schmidt once again sullying his tale with too, too many characters.

As in previous Schmidt books, there's a whole bunch of wheel-spinning here. I lost track of the number of times Bolan would grimly survey events and determine to see the mission through, or when Keller would basically do the same thing. I've realized that one can't fault Schmidt and others for this; one reason Pendleton's original novels are so much more streamlined is because they were simply shorter. In the mid-'80s Gold Eagle boosted the page count of their books, no doubt to make them look like "real novels," but the outcome was that now the authors had to fill more pages. Every Schmidt novel I've read would have benefitted from being shorter.

As William H. Young noted in his study of the series, Circle of Steel is quite gory, spectacularly so. Heads explode like watermelons, intestines sluice out, there's even a full-on gutting courtesy Ilsa. And given the presence of the M-40 Maneaters, there's also room for people blowing up real good -- and yes, Bolan manages to get hold of one of them, of course showing everyone how to properly use them. Schmidt even works some sex into the tale, with Ilsa sleeping with a few men she later kills.

Despite the wheel-spinning, despite the fact that the plot was recycled from previous (and future) Schmidt tales, I really enjoyed Circle of Steel. Ironically this was the last novel Schmidt wrote for Gold Eagle for several years, but at least it was a great way to go out.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Takers

The Takers, by Robert Ackworth
January, 1979 Ballantine Books

They Lived By Movieland's Golden Rule: Do Unto Others...Fast!

Sporting the dumbest cover blurb in history, Robert Ackworth's The Takers seemed to offer everything I'd been searching for in a trashy novel set during Hollywood's Golden Age of the 1930s and '40s. It was a doorstop of a book, coming in at nearly 600 pages of tiny, tiny print, about three movers and shakers at the fictional Regency Pictures studio, with a focus on their lurid sex lives. Ultimately though the novel fell flat due to lack of characterization, lack of plot, and lack of description.

The three protagonists are Howard Stanton, who comes to Hollywood in the final years of the silent era and becomes Regency's top star through the '30s and '40s; Michael Baines, several years younger than Howard, an actor who too follows his dream to Hollywood and becomes a Regency star in the post-WWII era; and finally Tracy Gordon, a brunette sort of Marilyn Monroe who becomes Regency's sex goddess of the '50s. Howard Stanton gets the majority of the novel, with the Tracy Gordon sections taking up the least. At any rate all three of them connect in one way or another, with Michael Baines a huge fan of Howard's (yet still hoping to trump him one day as Regency's top star), and Tracy Gordon falling in love with both of them.

Stanton's tale in the '30s was the highlight for me, due to my interest in that era. He hobknobs with Regency's top star (like Baines later in the book, Stanton hopes to trump the current star when he arrives in Hollywood, and of course succeeds), and also becomes a surrogate son for the acting president of Regency. As his star climbs Stanton becomes friendly with a variety of ladies. I should mention here that Ackworth takes special relish in tossing graphic sex scenes into the novel, which gives it a nicely lurid touch. Sometimes it's laughable because the scenes just come out of nowhere, with no connection to the preceeding or following sections, as if Ackworth went through his manuscript and said, "I'll put a sex scene here....and another here..."

Stanton eventually falls in love with Leni Leibhaber, a sort of anti-Marlene Dietrich in that she's 100% pro-Hitler and spends all of her sequences denouncing the US and saying how great Germany is, thanks to the Nazis. All this of course occurs in the pre-WWII years, and despite her Nazi tendencies Stanton's still in love with her. (Also despite the fact that Leni spends a suspicious amount of time with her female assistant.) So then, we have with Leni Leibhaber a sex-crazed character who happens to be a lesbian Nazi; as I say, The Takers had all the makings of becoming a trash classic.

The problem is, it's all so boringly presented. Ackworth doesn't bother with scene-setting or placing his characters in a colorful world. He barely describes anything, and also given that he also doesn't pay much attention to characterization, it leads to colorless characters in a colorless world. Leni should leap off the page but in Ackworth's hands she's kind of dull, which is insane when you think about it. Not to mention that Ackworth hardly ever describes the films his characters work on, even down to the plots. Given the super-production of studio pictures back then, you'd figure Ackworth would have a field day describing the sets and everything, but he only comes close to this once, when Michael Baines first arrives on the Regency lot and walks through it, looking at the sets. But even here Ackworth is conservative.

Shortly before WWII Leni returns to Germany and refuses to come back to the US, so Stanton has no choice but to divorce her. He then marries another actress whom he's fallen in love with in the meantime; another blank slate of a character, this one named Georgina. By this time Baines is more in the storyline, coming to Regency to start off in bit parts. Unfortunately his storyline is a carbon copy of Stanton's, which we just read a few hundred pages ago. It's pretty much identical, with Baines lusting for stardom, hooking up with random ladies for some explicit sex scenes, and hoping to become top dog at Regency. Only Baines is drafted into WWII, so his storyline gets a bit different when he becomes a soldier on the battlefront; sadly Ackworth's powers of description fail him in these scenes as well.

Tracy Gordon too shares the same storyline, with the only difference that she's a girl, so Ackworth can write her sex scenes from a woman's point of view. She loves Stanton (who is divorced again) but marries Baines; the two men have a long rivalry for her. Eventually Baines and Tracy also divorce, which sets the scene for the 1962 reunion for the trio -- the novel opens in that year, with Regency about to celebrate it's 4oth anniversary, but it's a melancholy, dispirited affair, as the days of the studios are over, besides which all of the bosses and moguls from that time are long gone anyway.

But there's no plot here, no forward momentum. It's sort of like the same story over and over again. Even down to the small details -- Stanton loses his virginity (as mentioned, Ackworth leaves no sex scene unexplored) as a teenager to a whore; a few hundred pages later, Baines loses his virginity to a whore. The scenes are identical. Stanton falls in love with an actress who turns out to be involved, yet he can't get her out of his mind. Baines a few hundred pages later falls in love with an actress who turns out to be married, yet he can't get her out of his mind.

Perhaps this is Ackworth's theme, the banality and repetition of the lives of Hollywood celebrities, but it makes for a dull affair. Even the lesbian Nazi is boring, and that is the most unkindest cut of all.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Last Ball

The Last Ball, by Charles Rigdon
June, 1973 Pocket Books

For some reason this novel (first published in hardcover in 1972 by Trident Press) was promoted as Charles Rigdon's "first," despite the fact that Night Games was published in 1969. But given that sleaze purveyors Award Books were behind that one, I'm guessing Rigdon and his publishers figured "don't ask, don't tell." At any rate The Last Ball is mostly superior to that previous novel; it's a big trashy tale that comes recommended by none other than my man Burt Hirschfeld, who must've been so impressed that he provided both front and back cover blurbs.

The Last Ball is actually very similar to the work of Hirschfeld; Rigdon has the same talent for the long-simmer tale, putting a bunch of rich characters together in glamorous settings. Like some of Hirschfeld's work, it's also a bit too long for its own good, filled with uneccessary scene-setting and padding. Two things set Rigdon's work apart from Hirschfeld, however: first, he tends to be a bit more literary. There's a fair bit of "word painting" in The Last Ball, particularly in the descriptions of the countryside and the weather, some of which is so florid and verbose that it would shame a 19th century travelogue writer. The other difference between Rigdon and Hirschfeld is that Rigdon, when he wants to be, is a whole hell of a lot trashier.

The "last ball" in question is an annual converging of the entitled elite at a charity ball in New York City; traditionally it has been helmed by Jessica Eldridge, daughter of a president and royalty in all but name. Jessica though is quite advanced in years and won't be able to handle events this year. Meanwhile a group of jet-setters squabble amongst one another, anticipating the ball.

The odd man out in the group is John Hartman, "the lion of wall street," a tough-talking bastard who has made his millions but has never been accepted as part of the rich set. He's only married into it; his wife, Leah, is a drunk who enjoys giving herself away to other men while John can only stand by and seethe. Leah's father is one of the richest of the rich, so it only adds to John's frustration that he isn't even accepted as part of the group by his own in-laws. So, John plans his vengeance by determining to become the master of the ball this year; in this way he will be the leader of this elite pack, and get their goat in the biggest possible way.

A lurid cast provides the framework for the story. There's an over-the-hill socialite married to a wealthy but gay member of royalty; a sly coutier who harbors homosexual tendencies of his own; a vicious gossip columnist obviously modeled on Rona Barrett; a political hopeful who must cater to the wealthy to support his platform; The Baron, a sordid and corpulent fellow who serves as a sort of hustler and supplier for the jet set; and finally Crista, a jet-setting playgirl with a lurid past who eventually falls in love with John Hartman.

The novel starts off uber-trashy. We have John and Leah spatting because Leah has just slept with another man; Rigdon provides the incredibly lurid detail of Leah relishing the aftertaste of the man's shall we say "effluvience" as she fights with her husband. After that, we have a bit where our bisexual courtier throws a ribald party in which a mannequin is offered forth as an effigy of the faux-Rona Barrett columnist, and everyone rips it apart in a bacchic frenzy. Then we have an out-of-left-field bit (which is never mentioned again in the novel) where Crista, high and drunk, hops in her sports car, speeds through NYC in the twilight hours, ends up in Central Park, finds a pair of homosexual lovers who are in the midst of getting busy, and thrusts herself into their coupling.

This obviously sets reader expectation very high for a lurid extravaganza. Sadly though the novel gradually becomes solely focused on John Hartman's bid to become the chairman of the ball, as well as his burgeoning romance with Crista. Eventually the novel is merely an overblown romance, with all of the lurid stuff forgotten, as John and Crista fall in love and etc, etc. The other characters disappear for the majority of the novel as John and Crista go to Jamaica (an unecessary scene which nevertheless has a nice Hirschfeld-esque moment where the couple swim with a pair of dolphins), then return to NYC where they shack up in Crista's secluded lovenest. This section goes into the yawn-stratosphere with endless descriptions of the verdant countryside outside her window and etc.

It's only in the latter third that the lurid stuff returns, but it's merely a pale reflection of what came before. The Baron tries to take ownership of the ball from John, spreading malicious gossip about John's "untoward interest" in one of the boys there. (Another saccharine sequence, where John and his bombshell of a secretary take one of the orphans on weekly trips to the beach.) The vengeful courtier steals Crista away from John via a ruse with disastrous results, setting the scene for a maudlin and melancholy finale which the reader could see coming a few hundred pages earlier.

So it's overblown and tepid at times, but the lurid stuff saves it a bit. However it is a bit frustrating that the ball itself is given short shrift; after all the build-up in the novel, Rigdon sort of rushes through it in the end. Despite all of which I still enjoyed his writing; like Hirschfeld he has a way of getting you inside the hearts and minds of his characters, so that you feel enveloped in the tale. I just wish Rigdon had kept up with the trashy pace of the opening section. If he had, The Last Ball would be a trash fiction classic.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Taboo, by Elizabeth Gage
December, 1993 Pocket Books

Once again I must give credit to trash guru Martin Boucher for bringing an author to my attention. Elizabeth Gage is the author in question; she rose to a brief fame in the late '80s and early '90s before disappearing from the scene. According to the bio on the back of this book, "Gage" was a psuedonym, and as you can see in the link to Martin's site above, there are rumors that a few different authors might have been behind the name.

At any rate, of the various Gage novels Taboo was the one that struck my fancy, as it takes place in the "golden age" of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood. This is a big tale (560 pages in this mass market paperback edition) about a trio of people in Tinseltown: Kate Hamilton, a pretty young thing who escapes a miserable background to become Hollywood's darling; Joseph Knight, a handsome entrepreneur who moves into the movie business with the aim of taking it over; and finally Eve Sinclair, a child star of the early '30s who, as Taboo opens, is on the verge of turning 18, and is looking to shall we say expand her horizons.

Unfortunately it takes nearly 200 pages to get to the Hollywood stuff; before that we must endure Kate Hamilton's woeful adolescent years, in which she is abused by her stepfather, gets thrown out by her mother, and ends up marrying a crook. All of it seems taken right out of an early '30s melodrama, one of the "women's pictures" that were so popular at the time. And indeed that may be Gage's intent. But regardless it's boring.

Also we have lots of material with Joseph Knight, how he uses his looks and his charm to build up his fortunes, running afoul of gangsters and causing beautiful women to fall into suicidal love with him. The only bearable character in this endless trawl is Eve Sinclair, the villain of the piece; a true scheming hellcat, she outs her secretly-gay costar (Eve's mid-30s popularity is due to a series of movies akin to the ones Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney made together), endures the sexual advances of a mogul, and upon turning 18 has her meddling mother forever cast out of her life.

Finally we get to the Hollywood section, where in an unintentionally hilarious sequence Joseph Knight pitches a lame movie idea to the production manager of Continental Studios (basically MGM). The guy loves the idea, which is about the Russian revolution (Gage seems unaware that several such movies were made in Hollywood in the early '30s), but sees in Knight the makings of a powerful enemy, and so has his lawyer concoct a scheme whereby they can steal his idea but not give him credit. However this was Knight's plan all along; meanwhile he goes to a smaller studio and pitches a more realistic idea, this one about the struggles people endured during the Depression (all of this occurs around 1940). This producer too loves the idea, and rushes the film into production.

As expected, Knight's small film trumps the big budget Russian revolution flick. Now he is a man on the go in Hollywood, producing and directing films. Eve Sinclair, her star ebbing, latches onto him and gets the lead in his next film. But given that she becomes infatuated with him (every single woman who even looks at Knight in this damn book falls in love with him), Eve throws tantrums and acts it up on the set, trying to draw attention to herself. Instead Knight fires her, and hires in her place Kate Hamilton, who up to now has been relegated to extra parts.

This of course invokes Eve's wrath. She plots her revenge, but meanwhile in a completely unrelated sequence Knight serves as a combat pilot in WWII. Honestly I had no idea why this section was even in the novel. Nothing comes to a head until, in 1946, Knight and Kate are about to make another picture together; finally Eve sows her vengeance.

According to that author bio, Gage "is the psuedonym of one of storytelling's brightest stars." This is hard to buy, as her storytelling skills are horrendous. I do not exaggerate when I say that 98% of this novel is written in summary. It's all "He had said," or "She had done," or "And so it had come to pass." Just on and on and on. It renders the novel a limpid bloat of a thing, with no forward momentum. Even when Joseph Knight finally arrives in Hollywood and makes his film, even that is written in summary, Gage telescoping the events of the next several months in huge blocks of paragraphs. There's hardly any action at all. Even of the sexual variety; these scenes too, which one might expect to be lurid or at the very least trashy, are overwritten to the point of banality.

As I read this novel I couldn't help but think that there was a better tale within. Eve Sinclair is the true star here: she's callous and manipulative and fun to read about. Unfortunately she disappears for long sections, and we must endure the boring lives of Kate Hamilton and Joseph Knight. These two are taken from the realm of Romance fiction; as mentioned, Joseph Knight is so perfect as to be laughable. There are innumerable scenes where women -- who have only gotten a glimpse of him -- will find themselves dreaming of him, fantasizing about him. And Kate Hamilton is super boring, incapable of endearing herself to the reader. Had Gage reversed this, made Eve the star of the show and Knight and Hamilton the supporting players (and if she hadn't written the entire thing in summary), she might've had one heck of a novel.

Gage's first novel (and biggest success) was A Glimpse of Stocking, a doorstop of a book which again dealt with Hollywood, only in the modern day. I've got that book too, and thumbing through it, it appears that it doesn't suffer from the summary syndrome as much as Taboo. I'll get to it one of these days.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Boy Wonder

Boy Wonder, by James Robert Baker
January, 1990 Signet Books
(Original hardcover edition, 1988)

I had such a great time re-reading James Robert Baker's unsung masterpiece Boy Wonder. I loved it the first time I read it, but this time I really got caught up in the entire world Baker has here created, an OTT world of the movies and America. Baker's sense of humor and attention to detail are so mind-blowingly spot-on that the nearly-600 pages of this frantic tome speed by like a bullet train. In fact I was depressed when it was over, as both the novel and the characters had become a part of my life. I was sorry to see them go.

Told in the format of an "oral history," Boy Wonder is comprised of dialog from around 20 or so characters ("those who loved and loathed him the most"), detailing the crazed life of Hollywood producer Shark Trager. Born in 1950 in a drive-in theater, Shark grows up in a hardscrabble, white trash world to become a warped Hollywood genius, producer of artistic films and commercial blockbusters in the '70s before his crash and burnout in the '80s. We learn from page 1 that Shark has suffered a "sudden spectacular death" in 1988; the novel appropriates the format of Citizen Kane, with each character giving us their own impressions of Shark and their adventures with him. Baker is such a gifted writer that the characters soon appear real; I almost wanted to check for more information on their work.

"Boy Wonder" was the nickname of Irving Thalberg, production manager at MGM through the '30s; Thalberg put his own stamp on his films and passed away before he was 40, victim of a weak heart. Though he isn't mentioned much in the novel, Thalberg is an obvious inspiration for Shark; so too is David O. Selznick, an independent producer who had his hand in King Kong, Gone with the Wind, and dozens of others. (Baker even has Shark reading Memo From David O. Selznick, though unfortunately he has him reading the book a few years before it was published.)

Like these men, Shark puts his own stamp on the films he produces. The novel takes us through them all, from the uninentional camp classic he directs in the late '60s in college (which nevertheless is heralded as a new Citizen Kane), to a sleazy tale about a hippie cult of killers which prefigures the Manson murders, to lowbrow comedy hits in the '70s; a decade which culminates in a mega-budget, ultra-gory bloodfest about a childhood friend of Shark's who became a serial killer. This scene alone takes in all the excess of late '70s Hollywood, with Shark and his comrades coke-snorting sociopaths who make Apocalypse Now-era Francis Ford Coppolla look like Frank Capra.

Early on the reader sees that Shark's films and his life are a mirror of whatever was going on in America at the time. And just as the drug-fueled '70s reached burnout in the early '80s, so too does Shark suffer a horrible crash and burn, ending up as a literal beach bum. But in true heroic fashion he builds himself back up, his comeback film a saccharin blast of psuedo-religious bunk that would probably embarras Steven Spielberg; of course it's a hit. But Shark's obessions soon return until his final blowout at the 1988 Oscars ceremony -- another stellar sequence from Baker. And if more Oscar ceremonies were like this one, people would actually watch them.

But that's just the film side of Shark's life. This isn't mentioning his Right Wing nutjob of a father, his meek, insane mother who commits suicide on Christmas Day when Shark's still a boy, his succession of stepmothers (one of whom is so racist she's booted from the Nixon campaign administration!), and most importantly, his lifelong obsession with Kathy Petro. Kathy is one of the stars of the novel, a vapid Californian blonde who becomes the "It" girl of the early '70s; she meets Shark when both are teens and Shark is consumed with thoughts of her. And it truly is a sick relationship, with a speed-popping teenaged Shark secretly filming Kathy in all sorts of compromising situations; these films keep coming back to haunt Kathy for the rest of her life.

It's another credit to Baker's mastery that Kathy emerges as a genuine character, smarter than other characters (or even the reader) give her credit for. A subtle note I only caught on this re-reading: Baker speaks as "himself" in the preface, thanking all of the (fictional) people who spoke to him for the book. He closes with a loving appraisal of Kathy, and it becomes clear that he too is smitten with her. This only becomes more of an in-joke when one reads the novel and notes Kathy's predilection for becoming involved with men who turn out to be gay, which Baker himself was (more on that later).

So much happens in this novel that the reviewer doesn't even know where to start. How can I convey the insanity that occurs on practically every page? This is comedy of the most outrageous sort -- there aren't many novels that can cause the reader to laugh out loud, but Boy Wonder pulls off this feat over and over and over again. Humor of every sort, from low-brow scatalogical stuff to more high-browed material; Shark being involved in the movie biz, Baker therefore skewers a host of "Hollywood types," and the greatest thing is that he so nails the high-brow "film critic" types that you can read their dialog as full-on farce and as the sort of self-wankery that movie reviewers are known for. (My favorite being the description of Josef von Sternberg's work as "deadpan narcotic camp;" not only is this a great spoof of something you'd come across in say the ultra-serious work of Andrew Sarris, but it's also a perfect description of Sternberg's films with Marlene Dietrich.)

Baker's comedic skills and his sense of timing are just incredible, particularly the way he will set up and pay off his jokes. One example of many: one of Shark's '70s films is to be a modern take on John Ford's classic The Searchers. Shark reveals to one of the characters the "hidden meanings" of Ford's movie: that John Wayne's character wanted to rape his niece at the end of the film, after rescuing her from the Indians. The look in Wayne's eye as he says "Let's go home;" Shark claims that if you study the Duke's face, you'll see what he really wants to do to the girl. Several pages later, there's a scene where Shark gets in a fistfight with Jack Petro, millionaire president of Petro-Chem and the father of Kathy Petro. As they fight, Kathy's bikini comes undone and her breasts pop out -- her father of course sees this. Through the novel Kathy and her dad have had a bitter relationship; after Shark leaves and Kathy helps her father to his feet, he gives her this look, then utters in a strangled voice: "Let's go home."

A few hundred pages go by after that and these same words are spoken by Hector the Talking Donkey in Shark's blockbuster mid-'70s comedy Looking For Lupe -- Hector saying the words to Lupe herself, a (human) female character whom the script heavily implies he has had "relations" with. (This isn't even mentioning the original plan for that Searchers remake, where instead of American Indians it's inner-city blacks who kidnap the white girl, complete with a scene where the John Wayne character visits a clinic where previous kidnapped white girls are held, their hair corkscrewed, yelling "What you lookin' at, mothuhfuckuh?" And when the producers realize they could lose money by offending blacks, they change the villains to less-revenue-risky lesbians!)

This is just one example of how Baker will play a joke out through the novel, and there are hundreds of such instances. I mean, halfway through the novel you're feeling winded. Just so much has happened you need a breather. But then, "like something out of a gross screwball comedy," a drunk Shark pukes off his hotel balcony in the middle of the night, and moments later a violent pounding comes at his door. It's a livid Carol Van Der Hof, clubfooted heiress, and she's covered in Shark's vomit. (Of course, she talks exactly like Katharine Hepburn circa Bringing Up Baby.) And it just goes on, Carol now a central part of Shark's life after this disgusting "meet cute," the novel barrelling on with no regard for the reader's staminia. It's almost too much of a good thing.

In fact the first time I read the novel I began to get burned out in the third half, when a post-crash Shark starts up an opium-fogged relationship with Maya Dietrichson, a blonde punk singer who bears a striking resemblance to Kathy Petro (one of the running jokes in the novel is that most of the girls Shark becomes involved with resemble Kathy, many of them turning out to have been winners of regional "Kathy Petro lookalike" contests). During that first reading I thought this sequence could've easily been cut from the book, but this time it turned out to be one of my favorite parts. In a way Shark's life here is almost idyllic, living in a furnished room adjacent to the projection booth in a repository theater; here he lounges all day, running the projector, enjoying a perfect view of the classic films playing below him.

Like any true satire, Boy Wonder is both tribute and spoof of trashy fiction. Baker's writing and his attention to detail alone place the novel in the realm of Literature, but at the same time more lurid stuff goes on here than in the most exploitative book you could name. It's all here: drugs (Shark does practically every drug known to man), sex of all persuasions (one of the subtle jokes is how forthcoming these characters are about their sex lives with their "interviewer" Baker), ultra violence (including a self-decapitation via chainsaw), hippie terrorists, a messy encounter between Nancy Reagan and Hector the Donkey in the White House, pitched battles with Yakuza and Muslim terrorists, a castrated serial killer who "masturbates furiously" everytime he glimpses bloodshed, neo-Nazi students who pose as retarded schoolchildren to get into movies at half price, and on and on and on. Again, there's such an overwhelming amount of great, insane stuff that the reviewer doesn't know where to begin.

That isn't to say Boy Wonder is all vicious comedy and no heart. There are some genuine moving moments in here. A ten-year-old Shark opening presents by himself on Christmas morning as the paramedics take away his mother's corpse, the long-simmer love story between Shark and Kathy (which is both twisted and touching at times), even the finale of the novel, which builds to an appropriate moving climax as, despite all the horrible things he has done, you can't help but feel sorry for Shark as he suffers his "sudden and spectacular death." But then Baker again shows the mastery of his vision by undercutting the maudlin sappiness with the very last sentence of the novel. That alone was nearly enough to bring a tear to my eye.

In a perfect world, Boy Wonder would outsell the Bible. But it was only a modest success, scoring middling reviews from the critics (the funniest of them all being the dweeb at the New York Times who claimed the book "just isn't funny," which says more about him than the novel). Reading these contemporary reviews, it appears obvious to me that none of the critics actually read the entire novel; the majority of them only mention the beginning and the end, glossing over the entirety of the book's events. Commercially the novel scored a mass market paperback incarnation, but even it was graced with half-assed endorsements. And from there the novel went into oblivion, only to be resurrected as a cult classic. Admittedly this aspect adds to the novel's charm. Boy Wonder is one of those novels the reader of forgotten fiction can snidely hold forth as a certifiable classic, a great novel that went unnoticed, too smart and too funny for the common masses.

Boy Wonder and Baker's first novel Fuel-Injected Dreams are mainstream fiction, though Baker himself was gay. Six years after Boy Wonder, Baker "came out" with Tim and Pete in 1994, a novel which was taglined by reviewers as "a gay Natural Born Killers." Tim and Pete was savaged by the critics and did untold damage to Baker's career. At least, so the story goes. I've always found something strange about the story. If ever there was a time for a gay novelist to come out, it would have been the early '90s. But the story goes that Baker's coming out as a homosexual proved the undoing of his literary career. He took the final horrible act of killing himself in 1997.

I read a lot, and it's not something that happens to me often, but Boy Wonder is one of the few novels where I wish I could write the author a note, even just to say "Thanks." It has everything I could ever want in a book: great writing, smart comedy, three-dimensional characters, and a perfectly-realized, self-contained world. It's the type of novel that could send a reader right down the rabbit hole of obsession. There should be mini Wikipedias out there solely devoted to the world Baker has created, a self-referencing counter-America of the 1950s through the 1980s, a world of such films as Red Surf, Sex Kill a Go-Go, Method To Her Modness, Blue Light, Stews On Wheels ("They quit smiling the night the Angels ripped off their wings"), and on and on. (Baker not only references real films -- he shows a certain fondness for the work of Josef von Sternberg, whose movies happen to be among my own favorites -- but the breadth of his pop culture knowledge even encompasses chop-sockey Bruceploitation, with the awesomely-titled This Movie No Star BRUCE LEE.)

Well, I've raved enough. I'll surely read Boy Wonder again within a few years, and will probably post yet another review. It's one of the few novels that rewards multiple readings; there were a host of things I caught this time out that escaped me the first time. All that's left for me to say is just stop reading this review (easy for me to say now that I've finally reached the end) and go buy the book. There are a few editions to choose from: the original US hardcover from 1988, the 1990 Signet mass market paperback, and the 1988 UK paperback published by Futura. There's also a later UK printing which features a homoerotic cover, capitalizing on Baker's cult status as a gay author. Unfortunately this gives the wrong impression of the novel. It's misleading, like putting a photo of a guy holding a machine gun on the cover of In Search of Lost Time.

But any edition you can find is worth buying. This is not a novel you want to check out from the library. You want to buy it and treasure it. Of all the novels I've read, there are three I would claim as my favorites: Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, The Horrors of Love by Jean Dutuord, and Boy Wonder. Of those three, I'd place this one at the top. I almost want to take to the streets and evangelize for it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

A Study of Action-Adventure Fiction: The Executioner and Mack Bolan

A Study of Action-Adventure Fiction: The Executioner and Mack Bolan, by William H. Young
January, 1996 Edwin Mellen Press

Who would've thought that a scholarly tome was published about the Executioner series?? Well, one was, and it's one hell of a weighty tome, packed with detail and insight. The author, William H. Young, is a literature professor who has taken it upon himself to document the series, and while it's interesting to read one man's thoughts on the novels, the cost of the book is prohibitive. I got it via InterLibrary Loan, and I suggest you do the same.

The majority of the book is Young's summary of every installment in the Executioner series from #1 up to the final volume published in 1991, including the SuperBolans and Stony Mans. (Able Team and Phoenx Force are not covered.) This same information is of course available on, in the reviews section; only there you get the perspectives of several reviewers rather than one man. And given that Young is a professor, you get more of a scholarly view here -- however not as much as I would've liked. Instead Young relays the plot of each volume and comments on the author's skill, how each ghostwriter's version of Bolan differs from Pendleton's (he vastly prefers Pendleton's work to the ghostwriters), and he also takes time to point out troublesome entries in the series (he very much dislikes the work of Dan Schmidt, E. Richard Churchill, and Peter Leslie; there are others he roasts but these are his least favorite).

What's odd is that Young often relents that so many latter entries in the series are "gory," as if he has no idea the genre he is reading. He even comments on the "regrettable violence" of some of Pendleton's originals, and shows much disgust with the scenes with the "turkey doctors." This book, published in 1996, bears all the hallmarks of the then-current Politically Correct scene, with Young apparently wishing for a "kinder, gentler" Executioner, and he also goes on about various "racist" bits he encounters...again not realizing that this exploitative, over-the-top nature is part of the genre's charm.

He ranks Mike Newton as the best of the ghostwriters -- further, he ranks Newton's Prairie Fire as the best Executioner novel ever, even better than Pendleton's originals. I have this volume but haven't yet read it.

Young shows special distate for Chet Cunningham's Baltimore Trackdown, spending two pages going on about that volume's "sadism" and gore. (Of course, immediately after reading this I got myself a copy of Baltimore Trackdown!)

The biggest draw to the book is the behind-the-scenes stuff, which admittedly isn't much. Young wrote this in the pre-Internet world and so didn't have access to as much info as we do now. (Ie, he has no idea who 16th-volume author "Jim Peterson" was, when a simple Google search today will tell you it was William Crawford.) Young instead gains insight from interviews with various authors, conducted by mail, which are published at the end of the book: from 1986 he has interviews with Don Pendleton, Mike Newton, and Chet Cunningham. Of the three, Cunningham proves himself the funniest, sort of poking fun at Pendleton's original books. Then from 1990 Young has another mail-conducted interview, this time with Mel Odom.

It's a bit frustrating in there's no rapport in the interviews; each interviewee was given the same set of questions to answer. We do however get a little information about the troubles Pendleton had with Gold Eagle, including a lawsuit in 1986. In fact twice he almost lost the rights to the series, first with Pinnacle (which resulted in the Jim Peterson-written Sicilian Slaughter, which Pendleton admits here to never having read), then with Gold Eagle, which increasingly distanced itself from Pendleton and his advice on the direction the series should take.

In summary, about 400 pages are given over to Young's rundown/commentary on the entire series up to 1991. Then we have a section on the Pinnacle cover art, where, believe it or not, Young comments on every single cover, explaining what they look like. This is followed by another chapter where he does the same thing for the Gold Eagle books! These two sections will be a trying read for most.

We also have another short section where Young looks at the Executioner's "competitors;" ie other men's adventure series. But this is a woefully short list; he is unaware even of the Sharpshooter series -- however he does list the Marksman series, commenting that it is only for "the very sick." (Honestly, Young comes off like a total wimp in this book.) And again he demonstrates his lack of research; in the entry for the Penetrator , Young states that he only knows that Chet Cunningham was one of the authors for that series, and he has no idea who the other author was. But all a person has to do is open up any odd-numbered entry in the Penetrator series, look at the copyright page, and there find "Special acknowledgement is given to Mark K. Roberts."

Anyway, I wouldn't recommend this one as a purchase; I'd say get it via InterLibrary Loan like I did. However if you do buy it, it might prove valuable in the long run, as something you can often check back to for various (but scant) behind-the-scenes info.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Doomsday Warrior #2: Red America

Doomsday Warrior #2: Red America, by Ryder Stacy
August, 1984 Zebra Books

This time out Ted Rockson, the Doomsday Warrior himself, must once again venture into the post-nuke wasteland of America to destroy a Soviet-operated fortress in which Americans are being brainwashed into Red soldiers. Honestly though, the novel, at least the majority of it, is a retread of Doomsday Warrior #1. It follows the same template as that previous volume, with scheming between KGB nutcase Col. Killov and American Premier Vassily for control of all Soviet forces, while Rockson meanwhile tests himself against the mutated flora and fauna of "the world of 2089 A.D." (I lost track of how many times that phrase was repeated in the novel.)

Pavlov City is the name of the place where sturdy American slaves are deprogrammed by the Soviet mind devices, turning them into hardcore warriors for the Red Army (as it's called throughout the book). As soon as Rockson finds this out (somehow, it's never explained), he takes up his "Liberator rifle" and "shotgun pistol," hops on his trusty hybrid animal, and leaves the relative utopia of Century City -- that is, after some purple-prosed sex with his Amazonian galpal Rhona. Here follows a stretch of survivalist fiction which again seems lifted from the previous book.

Rockson sneaks into Pavlov City but of course is promptly captured; while in prison he finds himself in the cell beside a gorgeous 18 year-old American girl named Kim who reveals that the next morning the Reds will take advantage of her before killing her. Given that she is a virgin, and also that fate has placed her in this cell beside "the Ultimate American," she begs Rockson to take her. And not only is she a blonde, she's a gymnast to boot, maneuvering herself around the cage for Rockson's benefit. Rockson falls instantly in love with the girl. Really, who could blame him?

Finally we have a big battle sequence as Rockson, through blind luck more than skill, breaks free and pulls a Die Hard on the Reds in their very fortress. He frees the Americans, arms them, and engages in a battle with the Russians, who nevertheless manage to trap Rockson and his army on the top floors. Just when it looks like the end, deus ex machina intervenes in the worst way, as Rockson's pals show up in a commandeered helicopter, blasting away Reds with their newfangled particle beam weapon (a gift from the mutated Technicians of volume #1).

After all of this, Red America gets pretty good. Once again it seems obvious that the two authors who comprised "Ryder Stacy" shared the writing duties. One of them focused on the battle sequences and the stuff with Killov, all of which comes off like a more violent version of the '80s Rambo cartoon (remember that??). These sequences suffer from piss-poor writing, with horrendous dialog and unforgiveable POV-jumping (the worst case being one paragraph that starts from Rockson's point of view but ends in Killov's!).

However the other author is very good, and excels in the more far-out stuff. In the previous novel, this author delivered the Technicians material, which was above and beyond the rest of the book. Here he improves on even that, with a crazed sequence involving a group of "Indians" who drive around the desert on choppers, speak in Beatnik slang, and worship a guru called The Ginsberg. All of this is well outside of the men's adventure norm, and all the better for it.

In this section we have meditation trips, more sex between Rockson and Kim (which veers stright out into astral-tinged purple prose), a ribald party in which the beer is spiked with psychedelic mushrooms, and a climax which is lifted from Beowulf (at least that's my take, as it starts with Rockson at the beer-hall, then has him fighting against a powerful creature and its dragon-like familiar). It is by far the best part of the novel, and makes one look forward to continue with the series, just to see how much more out-there this version of "Ryder Stacy" can get.

And again, the series spoofs the genre, with Rockson the "Ultimate American" no more than a monstrous freak who spouts patriotic, anti-Communist invective that Ronald Reagan would've been proud of. But the irony is that Rockson and his pals live in a utopia that is 100% communist, where all the people must serve the cause, sharing allotted duties, living together in complete communion. None of this is stated outright, of course, which only adds to the impression that it's all a subtle in-joke from the authors.

In a way this series kept alive the feel of the men's adventure novels of the '70s, with a self-mocking tone, twisted plots, and a lurid vibe -- there are at least three sex scenes in Red America, and they're all pretty hilarious. I just wonder if our authors can keep it up (so to speak) for another 17 volumes.