Thursday, July 7, 2011

Phoenix #1: Dark Messiah

Phoenix #1: Dark Messiah, by David Alexander
No month stated, 1987 Leisure Books

Here's another of those action novels I bought as a kid but never read. Actually, I did try to read it, but as I recall I found it boring at the time, and only made it through the first few chapters. That I found this book "boring" now makes me laugh, as Dark Messiah is the most ultra-violent, graphic, lurid, nutzoid novel I've ever read. Yes, it's even more extreme than any of the previous novels I've reviewed on this blog. I loved it and place it in the highest echelon of men's adventure trash. It goes over the top in many and spectacular ways, over and over again.

This was the start of a five-volume series, and it's funny that the cover presents the book as just another action novel, when in reality this is the kind of book your parents would ban you from reading if they knew what lurked inside. You name it, it happens in Dark Messiah. It's like David Alexander made a checklist of what was hot in the current action-novel marketplace, and ensured to include all of it in his novel. Gun-porn? Graphic violence? Purple-prose sex? Horrific acts of mutant rape and defilement? It's all here, and it's all taken to the 10th degree. (And speaking of that cover, don't you love how the artist so blatantly based the character on Bruce Willis -- only with blond hair?)

Picking up in 1989, a fated year if there ever was one in the world of Post-Nuke Pulps, Dark Messiah introduces our protagonist, the impressively-named Magnus Trench (!), a former 'Nam special forces type who now lives a plushy corporate-executive life. Back in the 'Nam Trench was nicknamed Phung Hoang by a native, who remarked over Trench's similarity to that mythical resurrecting bird. Camping in Golden Gate national park, Trench survives the thermonuclear blast which levels nearby San Francisco. He emerges from the destruction as the veritable "Phoenix" he was once nicknamed.

The war this time out was actually started by Luther Enoch, the "Dark Messiah" of the title: a world-famous Christian preacher who believes mankind is soiled and must be destroyed so that it can start over. Enoch as you can see is incredibly twisted, and indeed it is only his people who must take over this newborn world. Somehow he's managed to employ a vast army of mercenaries, all of them outfitted in survival gear and living in underground facilities to survive the blast.

Enoch's even managed to ensnare the acting President -- the novel opens with the actual President getting killed by Muslim fanatics, in another of Enoch's ploys -- and thus launches nuclear war on the USSR. The Russians retaliate, detroying vast stretches of the US, but the reality of it is, the Commies for once aren't the villains of this particular Post-Nuke Pulp. True, they launched the thermonuclear attack, but they did so only after they themselves were attacked by the US -- and again, all of it was the maneuverings of Luther Enoch.

But all this is just the framework for Alexander to enthrall us with countless over-the-top action scenes. SanFran is now a Road Warrior-esque ruin, with leather-clad gangs holding sway over the battered populace. I should mention that Dark Messiah runs at a breathless pace; within a few pages of the initial nuclear blasts we already have roving gangs, pitched urban warfare, and even "Contams," ie mutated creatures who were once human but now only live to rape and kill (or vice versa). The Russians you see also launched biochemical warfare with their nukes, thus explaining the instant mutants.

This accelerated pace is a bit funny at times; Trench has a wife and a prepubescent son back in New York City, and after the nuke blast is rabid to somehow cross the country and find out if they're still alive. But then the next page he's hunkering down with an ATF agent he just met and re-learning how to use various firearms! If anything is missing from Dark Messiah, it would be characterization, but then, how much characterization was in the average '80s action movie? Alexander's priority here is to thrill, and boy does he succeed.

After several pitched battles, Trench eventually learns the score: Luther Enoch and his army of mercenaries have caused this vast destruction. Trench declares himself the Phoenix reborn and vows to destroy them. After saving a pretty blue-eyed Asian girl named September Song -- a 15-year-old prostitue, no less -- from the clutches of a gang of street punks named the Pagans, Trench meets up with the Genesis conclave in SanFran. This is a batch of still-human survivors who are working to preserve the memories of the human race and are retrofitting various trucks and cars into a rolling armada, so they can escape to a patch of the US they've heard was unaffacted by the nuclear blasts. Again, all of this is happening like two weeks out from the nuclear war.

There follows many protracted scenes of gun battles, kung-fu fights, scenes of Trench and September Song getting friendly in graphic depiction, Luther Enoch acting crazy from his below-ground fortress (in West Virginia!), and various twisted bits including PCP-riddled Contams who only want to rape and kill.

What's funny is that every few pages Trench will sermonize to himself over the barbarity of mankind, how this nuclear war was a long time coming, given man's inhummanity to man, and etc. He even finds time to blame heavy metal as more evidence of mankind's self-destructive impulses. And then, just a handful of pages after each of these mini-sermons, we'll be treated to incredibly detailed and graphic depictions of Trench blasting off the faces of various gang members or mercenaries.

It goes without saying then that it's all very tongue-in-cheek. You can tell Alexander is having a blast as he writes this -- let alone the never-ending batch of military acronyms and fetishistic gun detail, but also the various puns and nicknames he devises for the antagonists and the firearms. He even manages to sneak in a Beatles reference during another ultragore sequence ("yellow matter custard").

I could ramble on as usual, but this is clearly an instance where providing examples will do a much better job.

Gun-porn (masked as dialog, no less):

Rawlings took the MINIMI from Phoenix. "This baby's another story entirely. It's capable of firing seventy rounds a second, takes SS 109 caliber 5.56mm FN ammo. That's NATO standard-issue, state-of-the-art, high tech and full auto. In short, the best."

Graphic violence, as Phoenix blasts apart one of the Pagan streetgang:

The large intestine spilled from the jagged hole in the Pagan's side like a coil of pink sausages in a sauce of blood garnished with skeletal fragments. The heart fell out of the ripped open chest cavity, pumping furiously as it hung from the blood-spurting coronary artery. The gun arm was blown completely off, as arterial tubes dangled from the ragged shoulder stump squirting death seltzer.

And the ultra-violence isn't limited to gunplay; witness the devestation Phoenix renders to another of the unfortunate Pagans, with a single kick:

Phoenix sidestepped the swing as its momentum jerked the Pagan around, and roundhouse kicked into the lower back area on the follow through, shattering the punk's spinal cord and shooting fragments of lumbar vertebrae through his kidneys like small bore bullets. His bladder exploded, spraying his lungs with hot urine. The Pagan vomited up chunks of his stomach and flopped over backward, kicking his legs in the air as he shit his pants and died.

Mutant madness:

The Contam who was on top of her scrambled to his feet and rushed across the narrow pit. He towered over the tiny woman, and with one pawlike hand slammed her against the wall, splitting open her head. Brains and cerebrospinal fluid spurted from the jagged wound.

Tallon excitedly watched as the Contam, his huge erection glistening red with blood, leaped on the woman, entered her, and pounded violently.

Yes, this is certainly brain-rotting stuff. It's trash of the most glorious kind, and I can't wait to continue on with the series. Expect to see more of David Alexander's work reviewed here, including the various action novels he wrote under psuedonyms. For here is a guy who knew how to deliver the lurid goods, and in spades.

Bonus note: All five volumes of the Phoenix series have been released as single e-book, titled Phoenix Rising, for those of you who are into that sort of thing.


Jack Badelaire said...

I literally read the top copy on the cover, then went to Amazon and ordered the paperback. Now I've gotten to the end of the review and saw that there's an e-book. Yeah, that's hitting my account about five seconds after I hit "Post Comment".

You are a god among mere mortals, good sir!

Anonymous said...

I bow down in awe.

Jack Badelaire said...

Read the first dozen chapters last night (they are rather short).

This book is utterly mind-blowing. I cannot think of a more all-round gratuitous novel. It's so sloppy, so over-the-top, so...I have no words.

While reading on the Kindle I started highlighting / clipping really ridiculous passages, but had to stop after a while because I was highlighting something on every other page.

Best twenty bucks I've ever spent on trash fiction.

Zwolf said...

I've had all of these for quite a while (bought 'em all the same day when I found the complete run in a used bookstore) but I haven't read them yet. They're definitely going up to rocket up in my to-be-read list after reading this review! The excerpts are some beautiful trash-prose... I'm just sorry that Charles Bronson is dead and can't make a movie called _Shit Your Pants And Die_. :) And _Death Seltzer_ should be Tarrantino's next project.

What's funny is, when I bought those books the old lady who runs the store told me, "I read those... they're pretty good!" If she read *that* and liked it, my level of respect for her has just increased greatly... and I already liked her to begin with.

Great review, as always! Keep up the good work!

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks all for the comments. Zwolf, the funniest thing about the old lady saying she liked this series is that volume #2 (Ground Zero) features an absolutely SICK final that has nothing at all to do with the rest of the novel. It's as if Alexander tried to top even himself in the gut-churning department.

Jack, you could pretty much highlight this entire novel as quotable trash. I'm happy Alexander has made the series available again as an ebook -- once I'm finished with it I think I might check out his more recent e-book offering "Death Pulse," which sounds to be along the lines of Phoenix.

Marty McKee said...

Any book with the line "he shit his pants and died" deserves to be read.

Martin said...

Been searching the web for these books for the last year, threw all sorts at google with no luck until I stumbled across this Blog. Thank you, will be hitting Amazon and downloading the lot...

I read the 3rd book in my teens but could never find the others in the UK. Have also got the Casca books to read through, should be an interesting year :-)

Pork Chop Sandwich said...

Squirting Death Seltzer is gonna be the name of my next band.