Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Narc #2: Death Of A Courier

Narc #2: Death Of A Courier, by Robert Hawkes
September, 1974 Signet Books

John "Narc" Bolt returns with a new publisher and a new cover artist in a second volume that's even better than the first. With a plot taken straight out of a grindhouse film, Death Of A Courier is just as grim, violent, and nihilistic as its predecessor, with the occasional dash of sentimentality. It's even got a bit of sex amid the violence, and the scene depicted on the cover (sort of) occurs in the novel.

"Robert Hawkes" is really Marc Olden, and again Olden provides a plot that's positively byzantine when compared to the average men's adventure novel. His novels come off more like ensemble pieces than the typical protagonist-driven fare of the genre; here John Bolt, despite being the lead character, is just another of the pieces Olden moves about the board. In all of the Olden novels I've read there are always several characters in play, each with their own goals and drives. This makes for a richer reading experience than most men's adventure novels, particularly given that Olden is also a much better author than the genre norm. Taut prose, lean narrative, good dialog. I especially like the bits of dark humor he adds; each scene with Bolt usually ends with our hero delivering a smart-ass line.

Paris Whitman, Bolt's former partner at D-3 (the fictional "Department of Dangerous Drugs") has gone insane after suffering a major beating at the hands of some redneck cops; Paris was working undercover when he got hauled in, and was beaten by the rednecks for nothing more than being black. Paris survives, but his mind does not; he blames his co-agents for not coming to "save" him. Now Paris works for the mob as a top killer, going under the name "The Apache." He has sworn to kill 7 D-3 narcotics agents and so assembles a team of fellow narc-haters. For money they work for the mafia, killing drug couriers. The majority of the couriers on the east coast now work for the Cubans, in particular Vincent DeTorres; Paris has been hired by mafioso Don Rummo, who wants to bring drug-running back to the Family. Rummo's plan is to murder all of DeTorres's couriers so that the suppliers lose faith in the man and begin to use couriers backed by Rummo himself.

John Bolt is caught up in all of this. D-3 discovers that couriers are being killed and, after a shootout in Central Park while riding a horse, Bolt nails one of Paris's teammates, who reveals that "the Apache" is behind it all. Paris has become a bogey-man at D-3; every agent is aware of his vow to kill narcs, and Bolt knows he himself is at the top of the list. Bolt was once Paris's partner and best friend, and so in Paris's warped mind it's Bolt who is most to blame. After a few more shootouts, Bolt goes undercover into DeTorres's mostly Cuban gang, working with new second-in-command Ortega.

The plot seems simple, but again, Olden fluffs it up with the various plots and counter-plots amid the huge cast of characters. Whereas the average men's adventure writer would've played up the whole Bolt/Paris confrontation, getting in lots of treacle about how they used to be best friends and etc, Olden instead focuses more on Bolt being concerned more about a new shipment of "brown sugar" coming into NYC, supposedly the strongest-cut heroin ever to be imported to the States. But to be sure, the Bolt/Paris dynamic is spun out through the narrative, and Olden certainly delivers on it in the effective finale.

There are many great setpieces throughout: the above-mentioned Central Park battle, as well as an endless battle sequence on a snow-bound airport runway which occurs halfway through the novel. Olden even gets in some sordid shenanigans, mandatory for the '70s men's adventure novel, where three hookers visit Bolt and he realizes they have been sent over to distract him so that hired killers can swoop in while he's otherwise occupied. Bolt takes advantage of the situation by having the girls strip down before using them as part of his escape plan. And Bolt gets a little action of his own, hooking up with a gorgeous redheaded stewardess who worked as a courier for DeTorres's gang.

I also enjoy how Olden peppers the narrative with little details on how the drug world operates. A potential drug dealer in 1974 could've come away from Death Of A Courier with several pointers on how to detect narcs, how to set traps for them, and how to increase his profits. You can tell that Olden had done his research. This lends the Narc series more realism than most other men's adventure novels.

All told, this is one of my favorite series, and I look forward to reading the rest of them.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Descent From Xanadu

Descent From Xanadu, by Harold Robbins
January, 1985 Pocket Books

Now this is more like it! After The Adventurers, I figured reading another Harold Robbins novel would be an uphill battle. But I really enjoyed Descent From Xanadu. The standard opinion is that Robbins got worse as he got older. Descent From Xanadu was first published in 1984, nearly twenty years after The Adventurers, and the narrative, dialog, plotting, and characterization are all better. Standard opinon also has it that Robbins hired ghostwriters in this latter period of his career, but that too doesn't seem true here -- we're not talking a Proustian improvement in writing, after all. This is still Harold Robbins, with all of the clunkiness and bizarre stuff one would expect. I just enjoyed it a lot more. (And I've learned that it's recently been established that Robbins's novels were not ghostwritten until 1995's The Raiders, which was ghostwritten by his last wife, Jann.)

Descent From Xanadu spans the years 1976 to 1984. Judd Crane is our hero, the "richest man in the world," appropriately handsome, in his early 40s and intent upon achieving immortality. Why Judd is so consumed with this goal is never satisfactorily explained, but again, this is a Harold Robbins novel. The sole owner of Crane Industries and its vast assortment of share companies, Judd circles the globe in a custom-fitted jumbo jet which is described as "a home on wings." In true '70s fashion Judd is a coke fiend; he snorts some coke every few pages, usually from specially-designed "poppers" which blast pure cocaine (made from Judd's own chemical labs, natch) straight into the brain. Failing that, there's always Fast Eddie (this novel's version of Fat Cat), Judd's jive-talking assistant who always carries with him a coke-filled vial and miniature spoon. Another of Fast Eddie's specialities is making "Atlanta Cherry Coca-Cola" with cocaine stirred in it. Cocaine is everywhere in Descent From Xanadu; I lost track of how many times someone would ask: "Want a toot?"

Judd's gone to Bulgaria to meet with Dr. Zabiski, an elderly lady who is the foremost authority on life-extension research. Zabiski agrees to work with Judd, and sends her associate Sofia with him to begin all of the groundwork. And of course Sofia is herself gorgeous, a Bulgarian girl who carries on a secret affair with a high-ranking KGB officer. The KGB you see wants to get inside Crane Industries, and so Sofia is ordered to monitor him; all this happens without Zabiski's knowledge. It's not long after taking off in Judd's 747 and outfitted in a swank jumpsuit before Sofia's snorting some coke and having sex with Judd; as expected in a Robbins novel, Sofia is sex-crazed. Indeed she informs Judd: "Sexual excitement brings me quickly to multiorgasmic responses." I've lost track of how many girls have told me that.

What's great about Descent From Xanadu is how much Robbins stuffed into its 408 pages. This is surely the pulpiest he ever got, with KGB agents, pitched gun battles, bald exposition about life-extension research, a duplicitous Chinese businessman given to grandiose speeches about the future of crime, former Nazi scientists, a nefarious "Maharishi," New Age claptrap straight out of Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger books, a midnight raid on a compound via hang gliders, an "atomic city" built on a remote island and another hidden away in a dormant volcano. There's even an appearance by a bed-ridden Howard Hughes! And of course, lots of sex, most of it bizarre.

As Judd's "treatments" continue he becomes more remote. I never got a grip on what exactly these treatments entailed but it really didn't matter, as Robbins spent more time on the priapistic side effects Judd suffered. In Robbins, everything comes down to the groin, no matter the topic. The trouble again is that we never really get to see what makes Judd tick. He wants to live forever, that's that. After awhile I realized this is just Robbins's shtick. Like the heroes of Greek myth, Robbins's protagonists are not introspective; they live in the Eternal Now and we can only understand them from their actions alone.

But when the narrative stops at 1980 and then picks up in 1984, Judd is even more distant from us. He's become a sort of mystic, sitting in a Lotus position through the night and astrally voyaging into the furthest reaches of inner space. At night he sleeps with two women beside him, to "balance his ying and yang." Weekly he has new women shipped in, sleeping with one a night, but never orgasming. This too is explained in cryptic New Age-isms, and we must infer that Judd has gotten this way due to the treatments he has undergone, which are making him something other than human.

Sofia too suffers as a character, coming off as a lying turncoat. But this is mandatory in Robbins, where the majority of the female characters are destroyers-of-men. The problem is, Sofia is supposed to be in love with Judd. There are many sequences where she will reunite with Judd and swear to him everything's fine, and then Judd will discover that the KGB or the CIA are hunting for her, as she has stolen some important documents or whatnot. There are also her ties with the KGB, which makes Judd suspect Sofia up to the very end. She comes off quite poorly, snorting coke every other page and basically lying to everyone.

I can't go any further without mentioning all of the sex. There's a lot of weird and hilarious stuff going down in Descent From Xanadu. For one, the way the men talk to the women...they say stuff to them that would get a guy slapped in the real world, but the ladies here love it. And it isn't just the things they say. In a bizarre flashback Judd admits to his stepmother that he has always found her attractive and used to masturbate, thinking about her; Judd then drops his trousers and does the deed right before her (flattered) eyes, having her clean him up afterwards! And then there's an even stranger scene where Nicolai, Sofia's KGB lover, is reunited with Sofia after a few years apart; he confronts her as she's in the tub, pours champagne on his "erect phallus," and delivers the unforgetable line: "You loved champagne and you loved my prick. Let's see if you remember. Now drink both of them!"

Yes, this is quite an entertaining novel. It's a lot more streamlined that The Adventurers and more exciting to boot. As the novel races for its conclusion in Judd's own "hidden atomic city" Xanadu, we get more last-second revelations and gun fights, all of it culminating in Judd learning some important life lessons so Robbins can deliver one of his trademark (and effective) sentimental endings.

Highly recommended for anyone who has yet to delve into the lurid world of Harold Robbins.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Night Games

Night Games, by Charles Rigdon
1969, Award Books

Thanks to my man Martin Boucher for telling me about this novel. Charles Rigdon is a forgotten master of the trash fiction genre, and this, his first novel, is a forgotten peek into the decay of the jet-set. The cover proclaims this as "an adult novel," which makes one expect the typical Award sleaze, but Night Games isn't graphic at all. Sure, there's a lot of bizarre sexual stuff afoot, but it isn't very explicit. In fact it's more of a "literary" novel.

It's a slim novel, too, coming in at 156 pages. But given the tiny print it's more likely around 200 or so pages. At any rate Charles Rigdon packs in a lot of story, with a strong cast of characters. Dana Tower is our hero, former "screen goddess" now gone to the bottle, still gorgeous but on a self-propelled spiral to hell. Married and divorced many times over, she's fabulously wealthy but dead inside -- the same old story. We meet Dana as she comes out of another of her alcohol-induced stupors, having slept with yet another man in a series of forgotten one-night stands. (Dana later states that she "stopped counting after a hundred.")

Dana's "friends" are just as screwed up. Foremost there's Kelley, depraved scion of a wealthy clan who runs endless parties in his secluded mansion in the countryside beyond New York City. Kelley is a true perverter of the innocent and keeps a circle of attractive young men with him at all times; once Kelley is finished with one he spurns him and finds an instant replacement. This is a cause of tension between Dana and Kelley as one of the circle is Barry, Dana's former fiance -- Kelley stole the man away from Dana before they could get married. In exchange for their favors Kelley gives the men money and promises to include them in his will (which he's constantly changing).

There's an entire decadent world within Kelley's mansion; Dana goes there for her fortieth birthday party and this section is the novel's most entertaining. We meet a few of Kelley's circle, one of them a Steve Reeves type, a bodybuilder known for "playing Greek gods" in trashy Italian movies. There's also Crystal, officially Kelley's "fiance" but instead a bimbo who keeps him happy with a revolving circle of men. As the party's in progress more decadence is afoot with a pair of twin youths, male and female, who try to rape a young Marine they've abducted. It all culminates with Dana trying to talk sense into Barry, getting stone drunk yet again, and then awaking from her stupor late at night to find an s&m orgy going on in one of the mansion's many rooms.

After all of this decadence the novel takes on more of a soap opera nature. Dana runs into the man she slept with just before the novel began; seeing him, she remembers him instantly. This is Sky, the doorman at Dana's posh apartment building. Sky has developed feelings for Dana and is certain she plans to kill herself. He's right. Spying on her from the street, Sky races up the twenty floors just in time to stop Dana from jumping to her death. Sky tries to save Dana, even though we know it's hopeless. They move to California, staying in one of Dana's many houses. But the domesticity is ruined as Dana continues to plunge back to her true nature, escaping from Sky's controlling behavior.

A disastrous trip to Mexico ends with Dana leaving Sky and visiting a friend in the French Riviera. Here we have some prime late '60s jet-set stuff as Dana becomes "acquainted" with a studly European guy named Boron who drives around the Riviera in his brand new Alfa-Romeo. Meanwhile Rigdon develops gripping subplots, in particular the revenge Barry and Crystal try to enact upon their corruptor Kelley.

But the reader will know from page one that Night Games is not bound for a happy ending. As Dana comes further to realize the waste she has made of her life, the lives of those around her also spiral out of control. It's as if Rigdon is telling us that the glamor of the jet-set life is a lie, that it leads to nothing but ruin and the jet-setters themselves are nothing but soul-sucking vampires.

This is not a fun novel, but it is an enjoyable one, especially given that Rigdon's prose is both economical and vibrant. I'm floored when a writer is able to bring to life an entire world and its people in so few pages. Rigdon definitely has a way with word painting, and I look forward to reading more of his work.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Adventurers

The Adventurers, by Harold Robbins
1966, Pocket Books

I keep mentioning Harold Robbins in my trash fiction reviews, so I thought it was time I actually focused on one of his novels. It's hard to imagine now, but at one time Robbins was a true bestselling heavyweight, famous around the world. Today he is forgotten. Robbins was at the height of his fame in the '60s and '70s, but by the '80s his star had begun to wane; I read a lot even as a kid in the mid-to-late '80s, and I'm not sure if I'd ever even heard of the guy back then. If I did, I probably assumed he wrote James Michener-type novels or other "boring" stuff. If only I'd known...

The Adventurers is considered one of Robbins's "best" novels and also his last "good" one. Critics were never kind to the man and it's easy to see why -- simply put, this is some of the worst writing I've ever come across. The narrative is clunky and overstuffed, the characters are one-dimensional, the dialog is bad, and there's no rhyme or reason to anything. POV-hopping, something I hate as much as the Nazis, is all over the place, and not just between paragraphs; there are a few places where we go into a paragraph in one character's point of view and come out of it in another's. The events in the novel occur over a span of decades but there's no grand design; characters pop in and out of the narrative with little explanation or care. And the strangest thing is the lack of scene-setting or topical detail; our jet-setting characters roam about the world to all of the international hot spots, but Robbins never bothers to elaborate on the scenery or make us readers feel as if we are there with the characters. So there goes the escapism one would expect.

But I couldn't stop reading it!! Even though there are looong stretches of boring, endless business discussions and meetings, static scenes in which nothing much happens -- despite this I would continue to read on as if hypnotized. Also, every several pages Robbins has a sex scene, or some "dirty" language, and in these sections it's as if he wakes up and writes. Especially with the vulgarity, where he shows some true originality with vernacular. It's like a 13 year-old boy who has just learned to curse. The standard opinion is that after The Adventurers Robbins's novels became mostly just porn, sloppily churned-out porn at that. But since I think the "dirty" stuff is the only material he writes well in The Adventurers, I have a feeling I will enjoy his later novels more.

A few months ago I spent an absurdly small amount of money on a box filled with 19 Robbins mass market paperbacks, each of them appropriately damaged and worn from heavy reading. I chose to start with The Adventurers as last year I became acquainted with the 1969 movie version (aka the greatest movie ever!!). The tagline for the film was "Nothing has been left out of The Adventurers," but that's a total lie: the movie is nothing like the novel. And not just because the film was set in the 1960s, whereas the novel takes place decades earlier. No, so much was altered that pretty much only the names of the characters was retained; most everything else was drastically changed. So, fellow fans of the unintentionally campy film will be in for a jolt if they ever attempt to read the source material.

Our nominal hero is Dax Xenos, born into the revolutionary strife of fictional South American country Corteguay in the early 20th Century. The novel is split into a handful of "books," with the first and last written in Dax's own narrative; these two sections are the best in the novel, as Robbins is unable to POV-hop when caught in the stranglehold of a first-person narrative. Dax, still a child, witnesses the slaughter of his mother and sisters in yet another of the endless skirmishes which has ravaged Corteguay. Dax's father is a respected lawyer trying to broker peace, which gradually comes with the inaugaration of "el Presidente," former revolutionary and now president of Corteguay. Through this sequence we have many thrilling moments, as a young Dax learns how to survive in the jungle. Here he also meets two characters who will become important throughout his life: Amparo, a blonde-haired Corteguayan girl his age who is the dauther of el Presidente, and Fat Cat, a heavyset revolutionary who moves as silent as a ninja and who becomes Dax's bodyguard/best friend/father figure for life.

In fact, this opening section is taut and harrowing and at times even emotional, such that you wonder why Robbins had a bad rep with the critics. But then the second "book" jumps over to Paris, where Dax and his father and Fat Cat have been transplanted, so Dax's father can act as the new Corteguayan ambassador. Here Robbins employs a third-person narrative and it's as if the care and thought he put into the previous section has been jettisoned. The reader is confronted with an army of characters, which would be little problem if the author had bothered to give them personalities or at least plan out their various trajectories through the narrative. Instead we are confronted with around 500 pages of random characters appearing and disappearing while planning various business deals or talking about sex.

Besides Dax there's the DeCoyn clan, a wealthy Parisian banking family with a stern patriarch and a son named Robert, who is Dax's age, as well as a precocious sister. There's the Hadley family (removed from the film), aka The Kennedys -- an American family with a strong-willed father and his many sons, each of whom he plans to get into politics. There's Sue Ann, one of Dax's many wives and "the richest girl in the world," completely different than the version presented in the film (there she was a virginal waif, here she's a foul-mouthed whore). There's Marcel, a Frenchman who initially serves as an aid at the Corteguayan embassay in Paris but eventually goes about the world in various business pursuits. There's Sergei, son of former Russian royalty, who after acting as gigolo to rich older women becomes a world-famous fashion designer. And there are various movie actresses, politicians, and etc.

Again, it's not the size of the cast that's the problem. It's just that this entire sequence is such a damned mess. I actually came to respect the film version all the more, as the producers were able to fashion something from the chaotic sprawl Robbins has given us. Worst of all is that the Dax we met in the opening sequence is lost to us; he becomes just as blank as the other characters, an automaton walking about the various big events of the early 20th century. One thing the novel does moreso than the film is live up to its title -- the filmmakers wisely stuck to Dax's story in the movie, making one wonder why it was titled The Adventurers, plural. The novel focuses on all of the various individuals in Dax's life, so that at least makes more sense. It's just too messy and lacks any direction.

But to repeat...I couldn't stop reading, regardless of the boring meetings, the bland dialog, the setups which had no payoffs. Finally the last half arrives and for the final book Robbins goes back to a first-person narrative for Dax. The novel is once again good. Dax returns to Corteguay and becomes involved in the sordid world of el Presidente and his heroin-addicted daughter Amparo. Robbins, known for his "filthy" stuff, saves all of it for this last book. To be sure, there are many sex scenes throughout, but Robbins usually "fades to black" when they occur; The Adventurers isn't very graphic at all. Save for one scene, at the very end, so bizarre as to be hilarious -- Dax stumbles in upon el Presidente "punishing" his own daughter with a strap-on dildo. "You're just in time to help!" el Presidente happily tells our hero.

The finale plays out much like the film, with yet another civil war ravaging Corteguay. And the ending too is the same, but I won't spoil it for those who haven't seen the movie or read the novel. It came to me that you could just read the first and last books of The Adventurers and be done with it, skipping the majority of this 800+ page doorstop of a novel. I mean, I read the whole thing, but I can barely remember any of it other than the opening and closing books. It's all like a drunken blur.

Since finishing The Adventurers I've started in on Robbins's 1984 novel Descent From Xanadu, and it's a thousand times better. I'll report back on it once I'm finished, but for now my advice, at least for this Harold Robbins novel, is to stick with the movie. It's a camp-lover's dream.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Tilt! (aka The Corruptor)

Tilt!, by Hugh Barron
October, 1967 Pyramid Books
(Published in the UK as The Corruptor, 1969)

This was the second novel Burt Hirschfeld published under his Hugh Barron psuedonym, and though the Pyramid cover references Jacqueline Susann's Valley of the Dolls and Harold Robbins's The Adventurers, Tilt! is its own thing, unlike either of those two novels. It's about a sleazy PR guy named Deke Dixon who is certain his latest find, a huckster named "Preacher" Pope (really) is guaranteed to become the next governor of California. Tilt! exploits the then-current psychedelic scene, but gradually becomes mired in unrelated subplots and endless rhetoric courtesy Preacher Pope and the other politicians he and Deke become associated with, which gradually makes reading the novel a bit of a slog.

It starts off pretty good, though: thanks to Deke's manuevering Preacher has become a regular fixture at a psychedelic-themed strip club on Hollywood's Sunset Strip, where he preaches love and sex to the Day Glo-painted masses. Orgies generally follow his preachings, and business is good. Yet Deke wants more. He figures Preacher's "free love" preaching will so overcome the youth population that Preacher could easily become the governor of California.

Unsurprisingly, the duo find this is easier said than done. After being turned down by one heavyweight in the political field, they become involved with a far-right nutjob who too sees the potential in Preacher. In true pulp fashion this guy lives in a sort of Medieval castle in the middle of the woods, where he controls an army and plots the conservative Republican takeover of California...and from there, the entire country!

This section of the novel is so prescient as to be both hilarious and sad. The far-right nutjob, Hiram Woodward, runs the Breed's Hill Congress, which caters to the fears and prejudices of the average conservative Christian Republican. It's as if the novel suddenly takes place in 2005 (or any other year during the Dubya Bush reign) and not 1967. Preacher is refashioned into a champion of Old Virtues and Morality, demagoguing his way through the conservative trenches of California, speaking to the fear and paranoia of the "true American." This entails way too many political/religious speeches on Preacher's part, but again, it's funny in that it provides further proof how little things change.

But then, as if realizing he doesn't have enough story to fill an entire novel, Hirschfeld flashes back for a long section which details how Deke became involved with Preacher. We see Deke's conman beginnings in New York City, how due to an affair with his boss's wife he had to leave the city and decided upon LA as his new base of operations. Next comes an endless and bizarre sequence, unrelated to the rest of the novel, in which Deke attempts to make a busty young dancer into a superstar. He arranges one crackpot scheme after another, each of them failures: the strangest is when he hires two bikers to "pretend" to rape the girl, so she can stagger to the nearest news outlet and relay her story. Meanwhile the bikers rape her for real and, instead of even telling the story, the poor girl calls Deke and goes home to recuperate. There's another goofy sequence where she parachutes, wearing nothing but a bikini, into the pool of a famous producer's house while a party of Hollywood notables is in progress.

After all of this Deke finally meets Preacher, and we get little understanding why he so latches onto the guy as a surefire means to success. Preacher's just a hollow-eyed huckster, a man who truly believes in Christianity and yet enjoys sleeping with young girls, the younger the better. Deke, through one of his crackpot schemes with the wanna-be starlet, has inadvertently started a sensation at the local college. There, influenced by Deke's style, two guys have started a sex club. They invite Deke to the next orgy and, after one poor new girl is "initiated" via rape, they all head out to the beach, where Preacher appears like some prophet. Deke watches him work, somehow making the kids listen to his fire and brimstone spiel, and the big idea hits him.

The novel gets even stranger. Deke's big idea is to have Preacher headline at a strip club where, as nude girls gyrate about him, he exhorts the club-goers on the justness of free love and casual sex. And people line up around the block to pay to hear him! This of course generates a bit of publicity, which makes it all the more unbelieveable that Preacher can later be remodeled as a proclaimer of morality and purity. Any muckracking reporter could easily dig up the guy's sordid past, but Deke and new boss Hiram Woodward overcome this by having Preacher get Deke's ex-wife, a failed actress and all-around-drunk named Margot.

I guess my issue with Tilt! is that it's just all so hard to buy. The psychedelic club stuff is pretty good, with lots of go-go dancers and flashing lights, but it doesn't gel with the old traditions rhetoric Preacher must later spout. Also, Preacher himself doesn't even want to become the next governor of California, so again Deke's single-minded determination rings hollow. And there's too much going on, none of it satisfactorily tied together, including the subplot of Deke trying to woo a major superstar named Margot Sain -- the suspense is ruined because a third of the way through the novel we see, via a long flashback, Deke's vain attempts to win the girl over; meanwhile, we already know from the first half of the novel that the two are a couple.

Normally I enjoy Hirschfeld's writing but I found parts of Tilt! a bit wearying. His style here is more affected than usual, and I'm certain this is due to his trying to fill a page quota. This too would explain all of the random and unrelated backstory for Deke. Also the page-long diatribes of Preacher and the other conservative politicians. But despite it all I still enjoy the guy's writing. It's a toss-up; I love the Hugh Barron novels because they're so pulpy and exploitative, but the novels Hirschfeld published under his own name are just better written.

NEL published Tilt! under the better title The Corruptor in 1969. Here's the cover:

And here's the cover for the rarely-seen Dell reprint from 1985:

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Ladies Of The Valley (aka Dirty Movies)

Ladies of the Valley, by Herbert Kastle
May, 1980 Dell Books
(Published in the UK as Dirty Movies, 1979)

This is one of the best novels I've ever read. Today Herbert Kastle is mostly remembered for his mid-'60s sci-fi novel The Reassembled Man, a book which sported a Frank Frazetta cover. But like many other genre authors in the later 1960s, Kastle jumped over to mainstream fiction in the wake of Harold Robbins's vast success. And Kastle succeeded; his 1969 novel The Moviemaker was a bestseller. From then on, Kastle never looked back, releasing a steady stream of mainstream novels up to his death in 1987. As usual with this shitty modern world, Kastle's material is largely forgotten, which is a dire shame. It boggles my mind that something as truly great as Ladies of the Valley could be so forgotten.

In the Dell paperback edition shown here, the book is spun as a typical sexy Hollywood novel, but there's a lot more afoot. There is none of the glitz and glamor of a "typical" Hollywood novel. In fact, one could argue that Ladies of the Valley is more along the lines of Nathanael West's Day of the Locust. For this is a novel that plumbs the sordid depths of Hollywood -- every character is sick or perverted or depraved, some awful events transpire, the filmmaking business is revealed to be a soul-killing den of corruption, and pretty much everyone suffers in some horrible fashion. And this is a novel that pulls no punches. It's as graphic can be in the many, many sex and violence scenes, and since some twisted stuff occurs (rendered all the more shocking as its relayed in such casual fashion), the average reader might not have the stomach for it.

The core of the novel is about the making of the first major-budgeted, major studio-released XXX film, but rather than dealing much with the film itself the narrative is more focused on the sleazy doings of the various parties involved, as well as the "jinx" which soon casts a pall over the production. Don Baylis is at the center of it all, though he wishes otherwise: Baylis, in his fifties and recovering from a recent heart attack, is the author of the novel (Galt's Island) upon which this film will be based. It's not hard to see Baylis as Kastle's stand-in. Baylis is the author of several mainstream novels which have sold reasonably well but most of which are now out of print; he has come to Hollywood like many other authors to make true on the many offers of film deals for his various books. The latest deal, for Galt's Island, appears to be the most real; a trio of producers offer him significant money and percentage points for a film they are certain will reap mountains of profit, as they have decided to actually show the hardcore sex scenes which take place in the novel, a Hollywood first.

Baylis though isn't sure he wants his name associated with this, but the promise of at least a million dollars sways him. He has other problems besides; his heart is in bad shape, and he's not sure how long he can survive. Plus he has problems romantic; over the years he has evolved a relationship with the stunning actress Cecily Warren, a brunette bombshell who too loves Don (despite sleeping around in exchange for cash with a few men), and who, most problematically, is up for the leading female role in Galt's Island -- a role which will entail her having onscreen and very real sex with the leading man.

Cecily has gotten this leading role from Fred Gower, one of the three producers. (She's slept with him to get it, of course...all of the actresses prostitute themselves throughout the novel.) Gower is a true slimebag; he routinely calls over actresses to his Beverley Hills mansion and, using "magic" (his phrase for doping them with Qualudes), has sex with them in a special room in which he can secretly film the events. These films are shot by Bub, Fred's black "houseboy" and only true friend; together the two men smoke dope and get drunk and together share Fred's various conquests; Fred has a taste for young boys, too, and is always on the lookout for fresh meat. (I told you there were some slimeballs in this novel!)

As for Cecily, she does love Don, but her heart is set on becoming a famous actress and she's already 31, so she feels time is running out. Plus she has a 12 year-old son, Johnny, who is as troubled as the other characters here. Johnny is the result of Cecily's half-assed single-parenting, a kid raised on TV reruns who can barely read and who obsesses over sex. He also has strange feelings for his mother, feelings of confusion -- understandable really because Cecily is described by one character as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Linda Lovelace, and pretty much every guy she meets falls hard for her.

There are other characters...a screenwriter who happens to be a serial killer and who targets Cecily as a future kill; the leading man, a Charlton Heston-type famous in the '50s for his Biblical pictures but now so desperate for a return to glory that he will have sex on camera; Cecily's sanitarium-imprisoned sister Teresa who wants to escape to punish her sister for "stealing" her chance at fame; a former Mafia don who uses his women to satisfy his old gangster friends and sends them to cathouses when he's through with them; a nubile actress up for the other hardcore part in Galt's Island who also likes Don Baylis and so attempts to blackmail Cecily so as to get her out of the picture.

You see, pretty much every character here is despicable in some fashion. But the magic Kastle works with them is such that you like every single one of them, no matter what horrifying thing they do. I've read tons of books which supposedly got to the core of characterization, that were praised for creating three-dimensional fictional beings, but not a one of them has matched Ladies of the Valley.

In the midst of the sleaze and sin, Kastle drops some genuinely emotional moments. There's a lot of heartbreak here, and I'm a man with a heart of stone. Cecily and her son Johnny's relationship is one such moment, the true love they have for one another, and Cecily's knowledge that she's doing the boy wrong with her bad parenting. Or the love affair between Don and Cecily, which goes through the wringer (in ways too many and too insane to mention). But most touching is the subplot in which Bub, Fred Gower's houseboy, finds salvation in a wayward child whom Bub has inadvertently caused to be fatherless; the scenes with Bub and this kid, Jason, are some of the most moving I've read. "Sentimentalism" is one of the hidden strengths of trash fiction, and when used correctly it can be quite effective, as here.

But the sensational, exploitative stuff reigns supreme. I can't tell you how many times I laughed aloud during Ladies of the Valley, as already-insane scenes would just get more and more insane. It's like Kastle wanted to see if he could keep topping himself, and in each case he succeeded. The way he brings together various characters and subplots is masterful and a true joy to experience. Yet despite the over-the-top element everything is grounded in cold reality. And though this is a novel of twisted people doing cruel things, there is a golden light on the horizon; like a true Old Testament scribe, Kastle punishes the evil and rewards the just.

When I first discovered Ladies of the Valley, I was struck by its similarity to another trash fiction classic, James Robert Baker's 1988 magnum opus Boy Wonder. And, having now actually read the novel, I can say that these two books go hand-in-hand. I'm certain Baker was familiar with Kastle's novel. There are just too many similarities: cursed films, serial killers involved with the productions, a twisted desire to keep going further and further over the top. Cecily even nicknames her son Johnny "Boy Wonder!" Also, both authors are pros at tying together various plot strands. It's a toss-up which book is better. Both novels are parodies of Hollywood novels, but Boy Wonder is an intentional, obvious parody -- you can see Baker winking at you throughout. Kastle however maintains a dead-eye glare. And so, even though his novel doesn't reach the ludicrous heights of Baker's, it's actually more affecting.

Kastle was an American author, but it appears he was more famous in the UK. There Ladies of the Valley was published under the more-appropriate title Dirty Movies, featuring a snazzy wraparound cover:

Friday, March 4, 2011

Writing Popular Fiction

Writing Popular Fiction, by Dean Koontz
1972, Writer's Digest Books

I've never read a Dean Koontz novel, but I'm familiar with his work. I came upon this book by accident: searching the web for more information on my man Burt Hirschfeld. I discovered an article in which Koontz mentioned Fire Island; it turned out that this "article" was an excerpt from Koontz's 1972 book Writing Popular Fiction. The book is of course long out of print and Koontz's fans have driven the prices of used copies into the stratosphere, so I had to get it via InterLibrary Loan like some barefoot peasant.

Koontz advises the nascent writer to get started as a "genre" author, and details six genres to choose from, all of which were popular in 1972: Science Fiction and Fantasy, Suspense, Mysteries, Gothic-Romance, Westerns, and Erotica. It's in this last genre that he discusses Hirschfeld. As a brief sidenote, in 1982 Koontz published another now-expensive book for Writer's Digest, titled Best-Selling Fiction; in that one Koontz basically recanted everything he advised in Writing Popular Fiction, not only because the publishing industry had changed so drastically, but also because some of those "genres" no longer even existed (ie "Gothic-Romance").

Unfortunately the Erotica chapter is the shortest in the book, but Koontz understands the genre. He breaks it up into two halves: Big Sexy Novels and Rough Sexy Novels. The former includes blockbusters in the line of Hirschfeld, but also, most importantly, Harold Robbins and Jacqueline Susann. Big novels about glamorous, powerful people having lots of sex -- but, Koontz warns, the sex in a Big Sexy Novel (aka BigSN) must not be too explicit. However a Rough Sexy Novel (aka RoughSN) can be as explicit as the author desires; RoughSNs in Koontz's mind are all the sleaze paperbacks churned out under various psuedonyms, stuff like Flowers And Flesh.

Koontz is prescient, though, in that he realizes that as time goes on the BigSN will become just as explicit as the RoughSN. He mentions Robbins's just-published The Inheritors, writing that it is "interesting for the strength of its language which is harsher than in most Big Sexy Novels." As most of Harold Robbins's fans will attest, the man's novels only became more and more explicit as the '70s went on, and other trash fiction authors followed his lead.

But the Big Sexy Novel (aka trash fiction) of the late '60s/early '70s usually got a bit more purple than explicit in its sex scenes. Koontz states that "[the Big Sexy Novel] writer often uses the over-written scene to pretend toward 'literary content' or merely to avoid using earthier language that could describe the scene better and more directly."

He then writes the following example, which reads exactly like something one would encounter in one of Burt Hirschfeld's novels, particularly his Hugh Barron material:

As Rita swelled towards her peak, she felt like the sea, the great, all-encompassing sea, the churning of dark waves, so that she was a mindless mass of moving, moving everywhere and all at once. And she cried out, but softer than the sea when it cries against the rocks, more like the soft cry of water on sand, rolling, breaking, foaming, rocking up and down in liquid ecstasy, pulling back to build up and rush in again, exploding...shuddering...

And Koontz gives another priceless example:

It was like a storm for Glenda. He entered her like lightning striking into the dark heart of the sky, and she was filled with a momentary light that faded but, in fading, promised to return in even more brilliant display. And, with that bolt enfolded by her dark night, the rolling clouds came, moving together, parting and then mingling again; and the thunder was their breath as they rolled together, achieving, at last, that greatest flash of lightning and the wet release of storm water.

"If you think these examples are humorous," Koontz writes, "you would do well to read some of the financially and critically accepted Big Sexy Novels to be sobered." And he speaks truth, for the purple prose is part of the charm of those early BigSNs. Koontz seems mostly to have bestseller Henry Sutton in mind (Sutton was a psuedonym of poet David Slavitt, and I hope to review some of his trashy bestsellers here soon), but what he writes is just as true for Hirschfeld and Susann and the others -- though, again, the Big Sexy Novels would become a lot more explicit within just a year or two of Writing Popular Fiction.

Koontz offers five "plots" that the average BigSN might follow: Behind the Scenes in Suburbia, Behind the Scenes of the Jet Set, Behind the Scenes in Hollywood, Behind the Scenes of a Glamorous Profession, and Behind the Scenes in Anytown USA. For each "plot" he offers a few examples -- Hirschfeld's Fire Island for the "Jet Set" and Susann's Valley of the Dolls for "Hollywood." Humorously, Koontz writes that each genre shows "the moral corruption and sexual permissiveness" of that particular world.

"In the Big Sexy Novel," Koontz writes, "the character motivation must be believable; the bedroom action plentiful; the hero and/or heroine sympathetic; the background at least exotic if not colorfully developed; but there need not be a terribly strong plot, in the sense of telling an exciting, tension-filled story." And he further states: "A carefully developed, exciting plot would require too high a ratio of story to sex; every chapter of the BigSN must have at least one sexual encounter, which leaves only a small portion of the book for other purposes."

More priceless advice: "A BigSN hero should be a sexual dynamo, thinking about making love when he isn't, a handsome and virile dreamboat. The BigSN heroine should be exceedingly desirable, possessed of a handsome lust of her own -- but she should always be somewhat hesitant at the start of every sex sequence. Even if she has bedded five different men on fifteen different occasions since the start of the book, she must be a bit trembly and unsure with the sixth man on the sixteenth occasion. Once she has decided to participate, however, she must be his equal as a lover, enthusiastic and versatile."

Koontz doesn't much discuss the Rough Sexy Novel. Indeed, he advises the hopeful writer not to pursue the genre, as the pay sucks and the novels are so obscure. I researched Koontz's work after reading this and was shocked to discover how much the man has published, under a variety of psuedonyms; unfortunately however he never gave us a Big Sexy Novel of his own. He did publish a Rough Sexy Novel, it appears, but from what I've read Koontz disowned it due to the publisher rewriting the majority of it.

I say "unfortunately" because Koontz shows that he has a firm grasp on what makes trash fiction work, and he would've delievered a good novel in the genre. He also would've known to give it a good title: "The reader who buys the Big Sexy Novel wants a 'refined' title, something that will not embarrass her when she buys the book, and something which she can unhesitatingly leave out on the coffee table to impress guests or generate conversation."

Koontz states that the Big Sexy Novel genre might eventually lead to "boredom" for authors, as they may soon become "aware that their work is strictly formulized and repetitive." Which does trash fiction a disservice. There are countless books out there which could be designated as "Big Sexy Novels" which are not only filled with originality but also great writing, and aren't in the least churned out by a "bored" author: James Robert Baker's Boy Wonder, Herbert Kastle's Ladies of the Valley, Burt Hirschfeld's work, Gwen Davis's The Pretenders (whom Koontz mentions, saying that in her BigSN novels she has come close to "art"), and on and on.

"Big Sexy Novel" is a good description for what I call trash fiction, but unfortunately Koontz's term never caught on. He barely discusses the genre in the later Best-Selling Fiction, and doesn't even mention Harold Robbins, the undisputed king of the genre -- but then, Robbins's star had already begun to wane by 1982. But in Writing Popular Fiction Koontz gives a great guideline on how one might turn out such a novel. Again, the material is dated -- probably was even dated in 1972 -- but it makes for an entertaining read, especially in that it offers a glimpse of how one author viewed the genre while it was still in fashion.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

War Of The Stars: Star Wars Grindhoused

I was three years old when Star Wars was released in 1977, so seeing it is probably one of my earliest memories. Coincidentally, the first time I saw the movie was in a drive-in theater in Lavale, Marylad. As I recall our speaker wasn't working, and a kindly older couple in the next car gave us theirs.

Like any other kid my age I was obsessed with Star Wars and collected all the toys and anticipated the next two movies with a near-religious awe. But in the years after Return of the Jedi, I lost my interest and moved on to more "adult" stuff. The world of Star Wars no longer held any special appeal to me. Then the damnable "prequels" came out, and any love I once held for the franchise was eradicated, so that I am now one of the few people who will admit: I hate Star Wars.

But I don't hate this! War Of The Stars is a fan project I discovered last year. An entire movement has developed around the Star Wars universe in which devoted fans edit together their own versions of the films. This is the only one I've watched and probably ever will watch. In an opposite approach to George Lucas's misguided efforts in the late '90s, where he "updated" the original trilogy by adding a bunch of bullshit cgi, "The Man in Black" has gone the other way and made the original Star Wars look like some grindhouse film, churned out on pisspoor filmstock.

Using an old 16mm print of Star Wars, The Man in Black recuts the film, jettisoning incidental stuff here and there and inserting behind-the-scenes material and outtakes. Gone too is most of the score we know so well, replaced with a more appropriate grindhouse soundtrack. And another big addition is a healthy amount of gore, digitally added to the battle scenes:

The Man in Black adds more low-budget effects to further camp up the film. For one, Darth Vader's eyes now glow red when he uses the Force:

Another cool edit is the memorable scene where Luke discovers the charred remains of his aunt and uncle. The Man in Black works some magic here, employing Judas Priest of all things on the soundtrack, and adding cool psychedelic effects as Luke sees his departed aunt and uncle in the twin suns of Tatoine:

Another (sometimes) funny addition is the occasional subtitle for R2-D2's chirps:

I think my favorite added bit is a behind-the-scenes moment where Carrie Fisher hands Mark Hammil a beer; The Man In Black inserts this perfectly before the climatic X-Wing attack on the Death Star.

This climatic battle by the way has one of the more inspired moments in this fan edit; Darth Vader controls Luke's mind as he chases behind him in the trenches of the Death Star. In War Of The Stars, it's Luke who blasts apart his old pal Biggs, not Darth Vader -- given special irony here because, of course, The Man In Black includes that deleted footage, earlier in the film, of Biggs and Luke talking back on Tatooine.

We also get more goofy outtake material in the end, complete with Harrison Ford biting on his medal:

This is a fun, new look at an old classic, but one with an inherent problem: Star Wars could never look like a grindhouse film. No matter how much deleted material you insert, how cruddy you make the filmstock appear, you can still tell that this was a major production, one which benefited from a serious budget. But still, making such a production seem low-budget is part of the fun.

You can download War Of The Stars HERE.

And yes, Han fires first in this edit. The way it's supposed to be.