Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient

Lord of Samarcand and Other Adventure Tales of the Old Orient, by Robert E. Howard
April, 2005 Bison Books

As a kid I read the majority of Robert E. Howard's Conan stories, and though I'm no longer into the fantasy genre I've always retained a soft spot for the man's work. I knew REH had dabbled in historical fiction, and after a bit of research I discovered that several such of his stories have conveniently been placed together in this definitive volume, Lord of Samarcand.

This book compiles all of Howard's Oriental Magazine tales and all those which take place in the Crusades-era Middle East (with an occasional foray into the West). Howard obviously had a great interest in this era of history; his research is spot-on, as is the armor and weaponry he provides his characters. The only problem is that Howard was writing for the pulp fiction market, so these stories come off as repetitive and one-note, especially when read one after another.

Each tale features some stoic and deadly knight who defends one or another besieged castle or city against invading Muslims - and the problem is, each stoic and deadly knight is so perfect as to be boring after a while. The cumulative effect is, despite the number of eviscerations, guttings, beheadings, maulings, mutilations, and suppurations, the whole gory diorama eventually glazes over the reader's eye. And of course there isn't even the barest hint of sex.

Here are the stories which stood out for me:

Blades of Black Cathay: Norman Crusader Goddfrey travels far, far east at the behest of his lord, seeking out the mythical kingdom of Prester John. Goddfrey instead ends up in "Black Cathay," right alongside the border of China, where he defends the city against Genghis Khan. Goddfrey of course is the only one who can unite the "lazy" and "cowardly" people of Cathay against Khan (who, by the way, is so impressed that he ends up offering Goddfrey a slice of his kingdom!). Plus, Goddfrey gets the princess of Cathay, a virginal jaw-dropper who of course falls in love with this blood-soaked and battle-lusting heathen from the barbaric north.

Hawks of Outremer: In post-Third Crusades Outremer, a "Norman-Gael" knight named Cormac FitzGeoffery plans vengeance against those who murdered his comrade in arms. Where to start with this one? I love it to death, though likely not for the reasons REH would've desired. Describing Cormac in a letter excerpted in this book's introduction, REH writes: "I've never created a more somber character." Well, "somber" would be one way to describe Cormac. Another way would be "pompous blowhard." For Cormac is a jerk of jerks, slashing through the constraints of his one-dimensional world of print to slap the reader with his tedious self-importance. The story achieves the quality of a Saturday Night Live skit as Cormac buzz-kills conversations with irrelevant boasts like "At twelve I was running wild with shock-head kerns on the naked fens - I wore wolfskins, weighed near fourteen stone, and had killed three men." At another point he delivers the unforgettable line: "Hate and the glutting of vengeance!", which I now use to end phone conversations instead of "Goodbye." In the course of the story Cormac nearly cripples a gatekeeper (who's an old friend, no less!), boasts that "bloodshed follows my trail" while casually displaying the Viking sword which he took from his brother's murderer, kills via lance-turned-javelin an unarmed baron who refuses to fight him, saves a man nearly hanged to death and then proceeds to berate him, murders three (sleeping!) guards, and generally sows dissent wherever he goes, bragging about his courage every step of the way ("I will follow by another route - aye, by a road none but I can ride!"). The whole thing comes off like a Don Quixote-esque parody of the heroic adventure genre, with Cormac a razor-sharp spoof of the de rigueur "grim and gritty" warriors who populate such tales. Only REH was no doubt dead serious about the whole thing. In a way, that makes it even funnier, though Howard does tip his hat by giving Cormac a bit of an ego-bruising comeuppance in the end, when he realizes that his Muslim enemies aren't all cruel savages.

The Blood of Belshazzar: Another Cormac FitzGeoffery story, though not nearly as enjoyable as the previous one. This is more of a sword-and-sorcery plot mixed with a mystery, as Cormac must figure out who murdered the Genghis Khan-like sultan who serves as his current liege. The tale comes off like a prototype of Conan, with talk of demons and ancient gods and a blood-red jewel which demands the blood of innocents to retain its unearthly glow. Cormac here is a shadow of his former self, with hardly any of the pompous blowhardry he displayed so magnificently in "Hawks of Outremer." Probably because he's outdone in the bragging department by Skol Abdhur, the aforementioned Genghis Khan stand-in.

Sowers of the Thunder: This one takes place about fifty years after the previous tale, though Cormac FitzGeoffery gets a mention. Here we follow exiled Norman king Red Cahil as he arrives in besieged Outremer and gets involved in the last gasp of the failing kingdom's defense. The story takes a while to get going - first Cahil meets a loutish Arab who engages him in a drinking bout, then Cahil joins up with an old comrade who talks him into raiding a hidden Muslim treasure cache. REH jumps over this bit, though - we next meet Cahil after his raiding party's been decimated by Huns. Cahil rushes from one besieged Christian fortress to the next, proclaiming the oncoming Hun onslaught, and eventually takes a final stand against them in Acre. This story gets much favorable mention among REH scholars, but it left me a little cold.

Shadow of the Vulture: A change of scenery: Vienna in the 1500s as it is besieged by Suleiman the Magnificent. This story is notable because it (sort of) introduces Red Sonja. However REH depicts her differently than she's now known. For one, Howard's name for her is Sonya, not Sonja. And rather than a barely-clad babe who fights alongside Conan in the Hyborian Age, Howard's Red Sonya is a gun-toting warrior from 16th Century Poland. She has the same red hair and the same fiery temper, but otherwise she's nothing like we now think of the Red Sonja character, who was really more of a creation of Marvel Comics writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith. Gottfried Von Kalmbach is the actual star of the piece; in a letter reproduced in the introduction, REH enthuses about how "different' Kalmbach is from his previous characters -- a loutish drunk who's more interested in lazing about than in fighting. Yet Kalmbach turns out to be exactly like all other REH characters: a tough-as-nails stoic who is feared by his enemies, respected by his comrades, and lusted after by women. Howard's description had me hoping for a Tyrone Slothrop-esque character plunged into a grim Howardian world, but alas it didn't happen.

The problem with the stories in this collection is the same as that of all REH's other heroic fiction: the characters are too perfect. I realize this is a requisite of the genre, but it becomes deadening after back-to-back stories. REH could've ascended out of pulp fiction purgatory if he'd only applied a little self or genre-parody, but these tales are all told with a dead-eyed calm. My discovery is that REH is best taken in small doses; maybe read one of these a week or so, maybe even once a month (to fully achieve the "pulp" feel). And it's important to note than Howard's Conan tales are better-known for a reason; they are all stronger than those in this collection, and despite Conan's similar perfection, he at least had a black humor which made him somewhat human.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Late Great Creature

The Late Great Creature, by Brock Brower
No month stated, 1971 Popular Library

Every few years I get on a classic horror movie kick; last time I was on one I discovered and picked up this obscure novel, but never got around to reading it. Published right as the horror boom of the '70s was taking off, The Late Great Creature is all about the fictional Simon Moro, legendary '30s and '40s horror actor who is making his comeback in 1968.

Moro is an amalgam of Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Sr. I've read that Brower did a lengthy Esquire piece on Lorre in the early '60s, interviewing the man before his death; word is The Late Great Creature approaches the "true" life story of Peter Lorre from a novelistic perspective. For one, Moro has built up a "thing" in his movies for killing little girls, and first came to fame in his native Germany for a film where he played a murderer of them -- for Lorre in the real world this was M. For Moro in the world of fiction it was a film titled Zeppelin.

But where Lorre was able to get the occasional "normal" role in mainstream movies (ie Casablanca), Moro was stuck in the slums of horror. This is where the Chaney comparisons set in, as Moro really gets off on scaring people. He's a weird, freakish, sadistic little man who can contort his body into unnatural positions, can use his feet in place of his hands just like Chaney in The Unknown, and enjoys playing macabre pranks on victims. He looks to his comeback film The Raven -- ostensibly starring a foppish Vincent Price analogue -- as a chance to jolt the supposedly-"jaded" sensibilities of '60s America.

The best parts of the novel are the unfortunately-sparse references back to Moro's '30s and '40s heyday. His most notorious film is the 1937 Ghoulgantua, directed by Todd Browning (!), in which Moro played a sort of Frankenstein mixed with Nosferatu. A film long supressed but now available uncut, the movie is so shocking as to shake up a "hip" '60s audience. My only issue with this is no Hollywood studio in the real world of 1937 would've produced a film like Ghoulgantua. Joseph Breen and his Nazis in the Hays Office would've killed it before it got past the script stage. Even better is mention of Moro's schlocky Moth Man film, in which he played the title character and was killed by "a sort of Spider Lady (Fay Wray)." How sad it is we live in a world in which there's no film where Fay Wray played a Spider Lady.

It's also sad that these fictional digs into Hollywood's Golden Age are so few in The Late Great Creature. Instead, the majority of the novel is given over to tiresome battles of wits between Moro and Warner Williams, an Esquire writer who unfortunately is our main narrator -- not to mention an analogue of Brock Brower himself (note the alliteration). In fact I'm certain this novel would've been a lot better if it had just taken place squarely in the '30s and '40s -- better yet, Brower could've appropriated an "oral biography" approach just like James Robert Baker did in his superior Boy Wonder.

For the main problem with The Late Great Creature is the writing. It is wholly a part of its age, Literature with a capital "L." So much so in fact that it veers right into Pretension, capital "P." This is a novel that goes on and on about incidental shit -- for example, early on we are "treated" to an endless bit where Williams visits a quack psychologist who once knew Moro, and we see him pull his "schtick" on a pair of patients in front of a crowd -- but yet when it comes to the important plot developments, Brower gets vague.

The novel freefalls in the last third, in which Brower drops Williams as his main narrator -- the novel so far, by the way, has been the unedited notes Williams has kept on his Esquire piece -- and hopscotches between a PR man, Williams, the Vincent Price analogue, and even Moro himself. The only problem is, all these characters sound the same, which results in reader confusion. The novel culminates in Moro's last stab at decency and morals -- previously we've seen him "shock" the cast of The Raven by sneaking a skeleton into his screen coffin and mimicking sex with it -- but again the scene is neutered by the "Literary" approach and diffused by the hopscotching between narrators.

So, not the most enjoyable novel I've read, horror or otherwise. I think the idea presented is interesting enough, and I'm certain it would've benefitted from a different approach. It would appear the reading public at large agreed, as the novel, while regaled by critics, didn't make much of a dent in the public conscious, and Brower himself didn't publish another one until 2005. Also, I've just learned that Overlook Press will be reprinting The Late Great Creature in September 2011.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Phoenix #5: Whirlwind

Phoenix #5: Whirlwind, by David Alexander
No month stated, 1988 Leisure Books

Here endeth the grisly, gruesome, gore-tatstic Phoenix saga, the OTT chronicle of Magnus "Phoenix" Trench's quest across the nuked US. The previous three novels progressively derailed from the overriding plot as established in the first volume, Dark Messiah -- namely, that Trench was rabid to get from San Francisco to New York City to determine if his wife and son survived the nuclear holocaust -- but happily this final volume gets things back on track.

And just as happily, David Alexander is back to form in this final outing. Whirlwind is nearly as violent and demented as its predecessors; not all the way up there with the first installment and Ground Zero, but close. But on the positive side this volume features more of a focus on the major plot: after being absent for too long, Trench's archnemeses John Tallon and Luther "Dark Messiah" Enoch finally return to the fray.

Whirlwind opens with another of those crazed Alexander action scenes; Trench and his companions from the previous novel, Raven and DeLaCour, arrive in NYC and must brave a guantlet of heavy weaponry and government soldiers to get into the city. Raven and DeLaCour by the way are pale reflections of their previous selves. Raven's ballyhooed psychic skills go unmentioned -- as indeed does her ESP link with Trench, as established in the final pages of Metalstorm -- and there's no indication that she and Trench were once involved. I think she has maybe five lines in this entire novel. DeLaCour isn't much better. The hulking, steel-plated character comes off more like Trench's familiar, there to save the guy and battle alongside him. Hell, even the wolf Blue from the previous novel is gone and doesn't get mentioned.

Trench is caught, and Tallon shows him that his wife and son are held prisoner, hooked to life-support machinery, inside the Statue of Liberty. This scene, so long built up in the series, is glossed over in a paragraph. The intimation is both Trench's wife and son suffer from the Plague that has affected the rest of the country, product of the biochemicals in the Soviet nukes that hit the US; the Plague Trench himself is immune to. But Alexander leaves this vague. Tallon informs Trench that a mutant has been born in NYC that can heal the Plague. Trench must find it and bring it back, and in exchange he and his family can go free.

So like a regular Snake Plissken Trench crosses alone into the no-man's land of Manhattan. Here follows another great setpiece which comes off like a more gory variation on the famous scene from Stephen King's The Stand, where Trench puts on night-vision goggles and ventures through an abandoned subway station. Alexander certainly has a gift for dark humor; after building up Trench's shock that no "Contam" mutants have yet attacked him -- Trench realizing of course that the mutants dwell underground, just like the C.H.U.D.s -- about a million of them come out of nowhwere and attack him.

The action scenes are as expected OTT and like super-violent cartoons. Leather-clad gangs rule Manhattan -- every city Trench has visited has been run by a leather-clad biker gang -- and Alexander really comes to life when Trench blows them away:

The burst caught Badass One high on the chest, stitching a diagonal line of ragged punctures from his left shoulder to lower jawline that changed him from vicious prick to Moby Dick as he spurted a dozen whale spouts of blood.

As death reflexes made the muscles twitch and jerk, the crude dude went into a terminal breakdance that ended when his legs kicked out from under him and he slid down the side of the mountainous pile of wreckage on his face, splattering his pard with intestinal guacamole.

Again Alexander takes a cue from the ancient world: Trench is captured by Abraxas, ruler of NYC and basically a clone of Lord Humongous from The Road Warrior. Abraxas has set up the Clone, a death-trap constructed in "Blastroland" from an old Ferris Wheel and roller coaster. Trench is strapped in and must survive all manner of booby traps, pursuing killers, and guys with flamethrowers. And if he lives, Abraxas will take him to "The Child," ie the mutant with the Plague-stopping powers.

The nihilism of previous volumes is brought to the fore here. As in the past Trench muses to himself about man's inhummanity and etc. But also it's been clear from the get-go that there could be no happy end to the Phoenix saga. How could there be, given the nonstop gore and carnage? But what's most unfortunate is we realize in the last pages that, though this was the last published volume of the series, it sure isn't the end. For nothing is resolved. Trench's wife and son are still the prisoners of Luther Enoch and John Tallon, both of whom escape, once again leaving Trench a lone man consumed with vengeance.

So yes, the series ends on a cliffhanger, with Trench standing in the head of the Statue of Liberty and looking out at the ruins of NYC, knowing that he will pursue Enoch and Tallon to the ends of the earth. I have many questions about this -- either Alexander chose to end the series on a vague note, or Leisure Books just cancelled it due to low sales and Alexander never had a chance to compose a proper finale.

As mentioned in my review of Dark Messiah, Alexander recently e-published all five volumes of the series as a single e-book, Phoenix Rising, but unfortunately he didn't take the opportunity to write a new and closing volume for the series. Who knows, though; maybe if enough fans pester him he just might write one.

Even though this is the end of the Phoenix reviews, I'm not yet done with Alexander -- the guy wrote several other men's adventure series under his own name and psuedonyms, and I will be getting to them soon.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Executioner #1: War Against the Mafia

The Executioner #1: War Against the Mafia, by Don Pendleton
March, 1969 Pinnacle Books

This read has been a long time coming. Back in the '80s when I discovered the Executioner series, I somehow learned in that pre-internet world that Don Pendleton had created the series but had stopped writing it when it went over to Gold Eagle Books. Back then the first 38 volumes of the original Pinnacle run were pretty easy to come by; the series was still popular, the men's adventure market was thriving, and copies of Pendleton's original Executioner books in particular were ubiquitous in my local used bookstore. But damn the times have changed; recently I had a hell of a time tracking down the complete Pendleton run for a reasonable price, particularly this first volume. Even though War Against the Mafia went through at least 18 printings, vulture sellers online jack the price up to sickening levels.

Anyway. According to Michael Newton in his 1989 book How to Write Action-Adventure Fiction, this first installment of the series wasn't even intended as such. Pendleton wrote it as a standalone novel entitled The Duty Killer and sold the manuscript to Bee Line Books. The publisher immediately saw the potential for a series in Pendleton's story of a mob-wasting 'Nam vet, and the title for the novel was changed to War Against the Mafia, the series title changed to The Executioner. (Which is how hero Mack Bolan refers to himself in the novel, but early on he also refers to himself as a "duty killer.") Bee Line believed so strongly in the novel that they started a whole new publishing line specifically for it: Pinnacle Books. This is something Pendleton himself remarked on in later years, particularly when he had to take Pinnacle to court in the mid-'70s: the imprint had actually been created for his character.

But as a stupid kid in the '80s I didn't know any of this. I did know that Pendleton had written a slew of "old" Executioner novels where Bolan does nothing but fight mobsters. I was able to pick up a bunch of them but just didn't like them at all. I found them boring and slow-paced; I was more into the terrorist-killing storylines of the then-current Gold Eagle Executioner novels. I mean, who wanted to read about the mafia?

Flashforward these decades later and I'm on the other side of the fence: you'd have to pay me to read some of those '80s Mack Bolan novels with their terrorist-of-the-month plots. The original Pendleton run, however, seems fresh and vibrant, not only because Pendleton created the series, but also because it's so rigidly locked in its era. The series is so "seventies" as to be instantly cool, with a Pal Mall-smoking Mack Bolan who's all sorts of alpha male.

All of the trademarks we now associate with Mack Bolan are absent in this initial installment. There's no Automag, no Baretta, no "blacksuit." There isn't even a War Wagon! Bolan is presented as a 30 year-old sniper who has become legendary in 'Nam for his deadly skill. After learning of the death of his family back in Massachusetts -- a grisly scene in which his father, driven nuts by the mob, blows away everyone and then himself -- Bolan returns to find that the real battle is on the homefront. The mob has taken over the idyllic little town in which he grew up, and Bolan determines to become a one-man squad of bloody retribution.

What's funny is that all the treacle is gutted from the novel. In this day and age, the maudlin stuff would be played to the hilt; the lone survivor of Bolan Senior's rampage is young Johnny, Bolan's 14 year-old kid brother. Other than one brief scene where the kid tells Bolan what happened, Johnny is never again seen in the book. I couldn't believe it! What a breath of fresh air. In today's world of melodrama, this would've become the entire novel, cutsey little emotional moments of Mack and Johnny sitting arond in the park and batting away the tears while they talked about mom and pop. (Seriously -- watch any show that's currently on network TV. Be it a cop drama, an action show, whatever. The protagonists are always batting away the tears in super-maudlin extreme closeup while the music swells. It's the world we live in, people.)

Bolan follows the leads and finds that his dad got in over his head with a local mob-owned loanshark. He also discovers that his sister started turning tricks in order to help their father pay back the loan. Bolan then does what any other badass 'Nam sniper would do: he buys a Weatherby rifle and blows the heads off a few mobsters who work for the loanshark.

Next he pulls one of those moves that only work in action novels: he infiltrates the local mob, presenting himself as a burned-out 'Nam vet who wants to make a living as a gun for hire. Here Bolan meets Leo Turrin, one of the mobsters in charge of the local prostitution racket; Bolan learned from Johnny that "Leo" was a name dropped by their dead sister. Hence Bolan determines to make the man pay. This section of the novel comes off like an exposition on how mobsters run whorehouses; Bolan's taken around by Turrin and shown the fleshly sights.

Here too we get a few actual sex scenes. Pendleton stated in an interview with William Young in the book A Study in Action-Adventure Fiction that Pinnacle requested that sex be added to the book to spice it up. Given that Pendleton had published a few sex books in the '60s under various psuedonyms, this was no problem, and accordingly Bolan has sex with two hookers early in the novel. To be sure, the ladies offer themselves to him, it's not like the guy has to pay for it. Pendleton further stated that he was able to tone down the sex in later installments, as the series sold fine already; he specified this wasn't due to prudishness, but simply because he felt that a man on the run like Bolan wouldn't have time to dally with the ladies. I say that such worries are groundless given the already-fantastical nature of the series.

The mob isn't as dumb as Bolan thinks and soon they figure out who he is. But we have little reason to worry. This is the start of a series still running to this day, after all; Bolan survives. But after the dialog and exposition-heavy first half, the second half is an enjoyable sequence of Bolan just blitzing the shit out of the local mob. It's not overly gory, and he doesn't kill entire armies of men as he would in later books, but it's all very entertaining and effective.

Along the way he also manages to pick up a third lady (Bolan does pretty well for himself with the ladies in this novel, especially given that it's only around 170 pages!). This is a (of course) virginal beauty named Val who also gives herself to Bolan. She's in love with the guy, and Bolan realizes he's in love with her too, but in a quick epilogue -- no doubt written after it was decided the novel would become the start of a series -- Val is written off as Bolan heads to the west coast.

Pendleton can certainly write. There's no POV-hopping here and his dialog is fun at times. My one complaint would be he explains a bit too much. There are too many scenes of characters relaying stuff we've already read, or announcing what they intend to do, before we see them do it. I guess it's the whole "show don't tell" dictum turned on its head, because Pendleton does both throughout the novel. But this isn't much of a complaint as I really enjoyed the book regardless.

And yeah (see, I'm already writing like Pendleton), I've managed to get the entire damn Pendleton run, and I will be soldiering on with it. I look forward to seeing the mythology of the series as it develops.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Women's Battalion

Women's Battalion, by WA Ballinger
May, 1969 Lancer Books
(Original publication October 1967, Lancer Books)

I found this one a few years ago at an estate sale; it cost me about thirty cents. The copy was beaten to hell but it was a solid investment. I've always been interested in pulpy WWII tales, even though I haven't read many of them. Maybe it's due to the various men's adventure magazines that would accumulate in my dad's barbershop when I was a kid; I would always gape at the lurid covers and wanted to read them, but one day my aunt threw them away, saying they'd "rot my brain." The irony is, those tossed magazines would no doubt bring in some serious cash today, as the old "sweat mags" are quite rare and valuable.

I'm unfamiliar with WA Ballinger but I'm certain he's British; his prose has that distinct "English" bent to it, and he's fond of putting a "u" in words where we Americans know they don't belong. His writing is crisp and clinical in a way; Women's Battalion, while occasionaly pulpy and lurid, is more of a "regular" novel, and not the men's adventure/sweat mag-type of exploitation I was hoping for. In fact, it's downright tepid at times, given over to lengthy background details about its large cast of Russian heroines.

And there's a bunch of them. Perhaps the biggest problem with the novel is that Ballinger can't decide who his protagonist is. Is it Major Kroup, the embittered, monstrous woman who forms the "women's battalion" officially as a last-ditch effort to impede the advance of the Nazis onto Russian soil, but really because she wants to kill men? Is it Katrina, the writer who is committed to the ideals of the Soviet Union? Or is it General Budin, a male character, an old battle-hardened sort who spends the entire novel in discussion with one of his assistants, theorizing over military strategy?

Finally Ballinger settles on Vyora, an attractive young member of the battalion who grew up in Germany. This is what gives Women's Battalion such a lopsided structure; after hopscotching with the various characters, Ballinger mentions Vyora casually during a narrative section from Katrina's point of view, and then spends around 100 pages on Vyora's background. But I digress, because Vyora is the most likeable character here -- but what is unfortunate is that we learn, from the first pages, that she and many of the other members of the women's battalion have been killed in a skirmish with the Nazis. The entire novel is a flashback.

In Germany Vyora was still a Communist, sticking close to a handsome German youth named Rudi who was also a Commie. Together they would poke fun at the rising Hitler movement. But then Rudi is called into service...after being hoodwinked into returning to Russia as part of the Soviet regime, Vyora finds herself the new favorite of the tanklike Major Kroup, who harbors sapphic tendencies. Kroup builds up her female battalion and ushers them into their first strike, where several of them are promptly captured by the invading Waffen SS.

Here the novel appropriates the lurid charm of the old sweat mags; the SS man in charge lines the women up and brings in a hulking brute named Henschke, who on command rapes the highest-ranked captured woman. There's even more sordid stuff afoot as Ballinger intimates that the other women are both repelled and aroused by the action...just waiting for the moment when the Nazis will come after them. But guess what, the SS man in charge is Rudi himself!

Vyora's brought to Rudi in his chambers, where Rudi orders Henschke to rape Vyora. But he can't go through with it and finally reveals to Vyora that he knows who she is and can't go on with the sham. Rudi has of course gone Pure Evil, and to boot has lost his manhood in a shelling; hence he uses Henschke as his surrogate "member." This is an odd scene as Ballinger takes the time to recount the war from the Nazi perspective; Rudi claims that his men are good fighting men and not the "baby killers" of popular myth.

Meanwhile Kroup heads up a rescue party, which leads to another taut scene. This squad is comprised of female convicts, a sort of Commie Gal Dirty Half-Dozen. And the lurid stuff continues as one of the women takes the opportunity to collect a bloody "trophy" from a bound Nazi guard. They also take Henschke prisoner and free the women, who have been used the past weeks in a forced bordello for the Nazis; again, Ballinger intimates that the women enjoyed it. Hmm.

After the women have taken their time torturing Henschke, the book becomes more of a regular sort of war novel, and all the pulpy men's mag sort of stuff is gone. While General Budin sits smoking, discussing strategy, and recapping things we've just read, Kroup organizes a secret raid on the SS. The novel ends with a big battle sequence that, while gory at times, again comes off as rushed.

Even though it's a war novel, the majority of Women's Battalion is instead flashbacks to the lives of the various women and conversations about military strategy. The entire novel is almost a build-up to the massacre of the women, which we know from page one will happen.

So it was good if not great; I'm certain there are more WWII novels out there that are in the sweat mag vein, and I'm determined to find them one of these days.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Phoenix #4: Metalstorm

Phoenix #4: Metalstorm, by David Alexander
No month stated, 1988 Leisure Books

I get the feeling that David Alexander was growing weary of his Phoenix saga; this penultimate volume, while occasionally heavy on the gory and spectacular violence we've come to expect from the series, is a hodge-podge of various plots and ideas. Metalstorm constantly changes direction from beginning to end, so the reader has no idea what's in store -- usually a good thing, but here it's more of a sign that the author is trying to keep himself entertained.

And can you blame him? The first volume alone was already the most OTT blast of carnage-fueled post-nuclear action ever published; how in the hell could David Alexander top it? The answer is he couldn't. Once you've written a few volumes which feature Magnus "Phoenix" Trench blasting away punks in violent and novel ways you obviously have to stretch things to keep it all original, or at least somewhat fresh. So what Alexander has done here is basically just toss in several ideas that have stricken his fancy.

For one, Metalstorm opens with a flashback to Nazi friggin' Germany, strange enough given that the series so far has occurred in the post-nuke USA of 1989. It takes a while, but this prologue eventually pans out. From there it's to our hero Trench, who still hasn't made it to NYC to find out if his wife and son survived the nuclear blast. In fact, Trench has had to go far out of his way, down through Louisana and on through Texas, to get to New York -- the new government's military is blocking his path, and they of course want Trench dead or alive. So Trench is now working his way through the mutant-filled swamps of Louisiana. After a near-death experience Trench hooks up with Raven, a dark-haired beauty with psychic powers, and her pet wolf Blue.

The three head on into Houston, where Raven wants to find a guy named DeLaCour; Raven explains that as part of her CIA-funded psychic "remote viewing" activities she's learned that a gold-carrying ship crashed somewhere in the gulf. She wants to scrounge up the gold and make off to a place undamaged by the nukes. Phoenix agrees to help but he and Raven are separated by a freak sandstorm moments after entering Houston. Alone again, Trench decides to find Raven -- why he doesn't just head on for NYC is glossed over; he has of course slept with Raven a few times and wants to save her if possible.

From here the novel becomes more like the series we have enjoyed, with Trench blowing away various punks in gory fashion. Houston is run by the fabulously-named Runamok, a gangbanger who has installed VCR technology into the heads of his underlings; with the press of a button Runamok can make people follow his commands, go crazy, or even kill themselves. DeLaCour is one of these sufferers -- it turns out DeLaCour is a big guy with metal plates sewn into half his chest and half his face -- and for new sport Runamok has Trench and DeLaCour fight in "Metalstorm," Runamok's variation on the gladiatorial combats of Imperial Rome.

The novel changes direction again in an ultraviolent sequence in which Trench and his new comrade first must kill legions of attackers with their bare hands, then employ submachine guns on a second batch who come at them on motorcycles. After setting up Runamok Trench and DeLaCour are able to go free -- Runamok has sold Raven to a Gulf-raiding pirate named Havock. With the wolf Blue in tow, the two men head down to Galveston, where Alexander takes the time to rip-off/pay tribute to the famous scene in The Road Warrior where Mad Max handcuffs a dude to a car that's about to blow and hands him a hacksaw.

Plot #3 features Trench and DeLaCour now posing as new members of Havock's nuclear-sub riding pirate crew. Not once, mind you, has Trench even asked DeLaCour how he knows Raven; Alexander just pushes his pawns along the board and makes them follow his orders without question. At length Trench frees Raven and all three of them, along with the wolf, make their escape.

Now plot #4 comes along: Raven admits she was lying all along. The plane that crashed was actually a Nazi ship (aha! the prolouge!) that was transporting an "Atlantean crystal" of supernatural power. Here the novel takes on the fashionings of a survival tale as, while scuba-diving for the wreckage of the Nazi plane, Trench and Raven are attacked by a giant squid and some sharks. At length they find the crystal, which as Raven explains was created in a time before history, furnished as it is with more power than a nuclear arsenal. We are well beyond the gory post-nuke world of the previous novels by this point.

But the pulp sci-fi continues. Havock gets hold of the crystal and, like some sort of Fu Manchu, harnesses its power and starts firing lightning bolts from his fingers and eyes and whatever. But it's anticlimatic because the battle just sort of fizzles and Trench is caught, taken back onto Havock's sub. Havock decides, apropos of nothing yet revealed in the novel, to nuke a city, any city; he decides upon NYC. Trench then finds himself chained Gravity's Rainbow style to a missile about to be launched. But there's Raven, employing her psychic link with Trench at the last moment...

Yeah, this is one slipshod novel. Even the insane gun-porn and inventive gore of the previous installments is mostly absent; it's there to be sure, but toned down. I get the suspicion that Alexander didn't intend this to be an ongoing series. Perhaps Leisure Books talked him into it, who knows. But at any rate the next novel was the last: Metalstorm ends with Trench finally vowing to get to New York City, where he will find his family and square his accounts with Luther Enoch and his sadistic new government. To say I look forward to this finale would be an understatement.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Executioner #112: Blood of the Lion

The Executioner #112: Blood of the Lion, by Dan Schmidt
April, 1988 Gold Eagle Books

This was one of Dan Schmidt's earlier Executioner novels, published nearly twenty years before his later offering Devil's Bargain. Thankfully Blood of the Lion is a lot better, proving yet again that the shorter these novels, the better. But regardless Schmidt still finds a way to jam too many plots into one book, again neutering an otherwise interesting concept.

Alchupa, a South American drug lord with plans to launch a takeover of Brazil, hires the "top assassins in the world" to kill Mack Bolan. Five dudes who have just walked out of your average '80s Cannon action film: there's the Viper, American, former CIA hitman; a Swede who goes by the name The Headhunter; a Mongol who likes to battle with bow and arrow; an Arab who relishes the idea of gutting his prey with his scimitar; and a Britisher who uses a Weatherby sniper rifle, the same rifle Bolan has been known to use. Strangely, everyone knows who Bolan is; Alchupa even has an entire wall of his place lined with newspaper clippings about the Executioner's exploits.

Alchupa has the assassins draw straws to see who goes first; he's offered a million dollar bounty for whoever kills Bolan but he's uncertain if any of them will succeed. Why he doesn't send them all out at once is glossed over; it's intimated that the five wouldn't get along. The Arab is up first and heads from Brazil up to the midwest, where Bolan has been tracked -- for in his own subplot Bolan has conveniently just learned about Alchupa.

In one of the many subplots here the regular branch of the DEA have been tracking the drug lord, suspecting something big coming up for Alchupa; also there's something about a secret branch in the DEA which is made up of former mercenaries and other of their ilk, rather than "true" DEA agents. Long story short, it all has the taste of a setup, and Bolan eventually learns that there are dirty agents in the DEA who are plotting with Alchupa to overtake Brazil.

The battle between the Arab and Bolan is well done and very much in The Most Dangerous Game mould, as the Arab hunts Bolan through the dark forests. In fact, Schmidt leaves little room to doubt this is his intention; he actually writes: "It was the most dangerous game." It's a good scene and makes one want to read more -- the idea of top assassins coming one after another to collect a bounty on Bolan's head makes for an interesting plot. Only, just as he did in Devil's Bargain, Schmidt blows it. It's as if he doesn't realize he already has a good plot, or perhaps that he gets bored with it. For the entire assassin plot is jettisoned.

The Viper, you see, is one of those DEA special agents and has his own subplot in the mire of subplots. He takes the weapons of the three other remaining assassins and informs them that they're now working for him; they're still going after Bolan, but not to kill him -- they're going to recruit him and then the four of them will join up with the Viper's DEA special team to launch their own war against Alchupa.

Bolan's captured after a running battle in which an innocent old truck-driver and a good DEA agent are killed. He goes along with the Viper and his men; Bolan is determined to kill Alchupa anyway, so why not? Also he's determined to find out who's behind the DEA corruption and bring them to justice, too. The other assassins, meanwhile, cook up their own plots; some of them still want to kill Bolan, so as to brag in the assassin's world (how exactly they'd spread the word goes unmentioned -- I gather there must be a magazine like Assassin's Weekly or something), whereas the Mongol in true B-movie "wise Oriental" fashion sees the noble character of Bolan and decides to help him.

There follows of course a huge battle scene, with everyone against everyone. Again like Devil's Bargain it all spirals out of control due to Schmidt's character-hopping. He doesn't POV-hop; Schmidt stays locked in the perspective of one character at a time, which is a good thing. It's just that he jumps from character to character to character. Too many cooks in the kitchen. After reading enough of these novels I've come to understand that they work better when they focus on just a few characters; Schmidt instead wants to deliver epics, complete with large casts of characters and various subplots. It just gets to be all too much after a while.

Other than that Schmidt is a good writer, which makes the plot-jumble such a shame. If he'd stuck with the Most Dangerous Game concept I think Blood of the Lion would've been an exceptional installment in the never-ending Executioner series.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Penetrator #9: Dodge City Bombers

The Penetrator #9: Dodge City Bombers, by Lionel Derrick
June, 1975 Pinnacle Books

The Penetrator series continues to wear thin in another fair-to-middling Mark Roberts installment. Last time we got to read about Mark "Penetrator" Hardin wasting cops; this time he wastes a slew of young hippie terrorists who are destroying the crops of America's midwest. It's hard not to see Dodge City Bombers as the vengeance of the older set against the long-haired rabble of the youth movement.

But then, the hippie terrorists presented in the novel are pretty cruel. Apparently they're spread across the US, but Hardin focuses on the cell operating around Kansas. The terrorists are killing animals, crops, and even the farmers who work the land, and Hardin is called onto the scene by a farming acquaintance of Professor Haskins. The novel opens with an interesting scene in which Hardin, deep in trance, relives lost moments from his childhood. Unfortunately this doesn't play out anywhere in the novel; I was starting to hope we'd get a little character development for our protagonist here, but it didn't happen.

Hardin packs up his hardware and ventures into Dodge City, where posthaste he's wasting punks left and right. Once again his opponents prove little match for the Penetrator. The series is becoming quite one-sided at this point, with Hardin more of a superhuman than the damaged being we met in the first volume. And again coincedence reigns supreme, as Hardin discovers his enemy immediately upon arrival in Dodge City -- indeed, right as the punk bastards are in the process of killing an innocent real estate agent!

A sadistic tone arises halfway through Dodge City Bombers: during one of their farm-raids the terrorists murder a young farmer. Hardin becomes familiar with the widow and kids, vowing to gain vengeance for the murdered man. But meanwhile the terrorists are following him, and once he's left they go in and torture the kids! There follows an uncomfortable scene in which one of the boys gets a finger cut off. What makes it all the more uncomfortable is that Hardin shows up a bit later and takes the children to a safehouse -- all while he and the widow laugh and flirt with one another, as if the lady's child hasn't just been tortured!

The same uneven tone runs through the entire novel. As expected a romance develops between Hardin and the lady...the lady whose husband hasn't been dead a week yet. The only thing that really salvages the novel is a goofy subplot in which Hardin discovers that the local FBI are after him; there's a funny bit where Hardin, in disguise, attends a meeting in which they give a rundown of "the Penetrator's" appearance (which isn't correct) and warn everyone how dangerous he is -- in a plot that doesn't pan out, the FBI is accusing Hardin himself of the crop-destruction.

There are many spectacular scenes of violence and destruction, which is another plus. Roberts makes the terrorists despicable, even the female of the bunch, a lady who gets off on torture and death. There's also a bit more of a focus on gore this time out, with lots of detail on wounds and grisly deaths. Hardin again gets hurt somewhat badly, which is a consistent happening in these novels. However it only serves to increase his bloody wrath.

Another consistent with Roberts's novels is the in-jokery; in Dodge City Bombers the name of the terrorist leader is Mack Colan. A more obscure in-joke occurs early on, when Hardin is researching the crop-destruction issue with Professor Haskins and David Red Eagle; Haskins mentions that he's gotten information from "a guy named Crawford down in Texas." I'm betting this is a sly reference to William Crawford, a Pinnacle house writer who lived in Texas; Crawford wrote the Stryker series and was also the infamous "Jim Peterson" who wrote the 16th volume of the Executioner series, Sicilian Slaughter.