Monday, December 31, 2012

The Enforcer #4: Kill Deadline (Manor Books edition)

The Enforcer #4: Kill Deadline (Manor Books edition)
No month stated, 1979  Manor Books

As I mentioned in my review of Kill Deadline, the 4th volume of the Enforcer series, Manor Books failed to reprint this particular installment when it took over the series in 1975. The original edition of Kill Deadline was published by Lancer Books in 1973, and was the last volume of the series that Lancer released.

When Manor Books began re-releasing the novels in 1975, they issued each of the Lancer originals with new covers (and in the case of Enforcer #1, a new title – “Caribbean Kill”). My guess is it must’ve been an oversight which prevented Kill Deadline from being reprinted with the rest of the Lancer originals. Anyway, Manor finally got around to it in 1979, four years after the others had been reprinted, and six years after the original Lancer Books edition.

But boy did they screw up with this printing. For one, take a look at that title. They have Kill Deadline as “#6” in the series, when in reality it was #4. I assume Manor was trying to fool people into thinking this was a “new” installment…and also, if you count the Lancer originals that Manor reprinted (Enforcer #1Calling Doctor Kill, and Kill City), plus the two "new" Manor originals (Bio Blitz and Steel Trap), then this would actually be the sixth volume, at least in order of publication.

I once read somewhere that this Manor edition of Kill Deadline was supposedly a wholly new book, just with the same title. Sadly, that’s not true. The Manor edition of Kill Deadline is the exact same novel that Lancer Books published in 1973. Even the cover is the same – Manor couldn’t even be bothered to commision a new cover for it, as they had for the others.

Again looking at the cover, you’ll notice something is missing – namely, a byline for series author Andrew Sugar. Manor only put Sugar’s name on the spine, and even here they goofed: see if you can spot what’s wrong in the picture below:

My favorite thing about this Manor edition though is the back cover. Clearly written as an overview of the Enforcer series but written by someone who’d obviously never read a single volume of it, this back cover synopsis makes the series sound like some sort of pulp-horror hybrid:

The blurb on the first page is also enjoyable, offering more vague (and misleading) hyperbole instead of the customary excerpt from the novel itself:

This Manor edition of Kill Deadline is easily the rarest volume of the entire Enforcer series. It took me a long time to find a reasonably-priced copy; what few copies are out there generally start at around a whopping $50 or more. But I had to find a copy…mostly because I really hoped this was some heretofore-“lost” installment of the series, but also because I’m just such a geek about The Enforcer. It’s like my Star Wars, I guess.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Once Is Not Enough

Once Is Not Enough, by Jacqueline Susann
July, 1974  Bantam Books

I’ve referenced her here and there in my reviews, but this is the first actual Jacqueline Susann novel I’ve read. This was also her last published work, the hardcover coming out two years before her death from cancer in 1975. Along with Harold Robbins, Susann ruled the world of mainstream fiction in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and like Robbins she’s been mostly forgotten in the past years – though unlike Robbins her novels have recently been reprinted by a major publisher.

Writing wise I’d say Susann is a slightly “better” author, but she lacks the outrageous firepower of Robbins. But you do get a bit more characterization, and her characters don’t just come off like walking stereotypes. Also she is very much in the soap opera/category romance arena; parts of this book were like a novelized episode of As The World Turns, endlessly detailing the love lives of bland but photogenic protagonists. There are long stretches of Once Is Not Enough that are pretty boring, without even a bizarre-and-unexpected sex scene (as in Robbins) to liven things up.

This is mostly due to the main protagonist, who herself appears to have walked out of a category romance. January Wayne is our hero, and despite being in her early 20s right at the height of the free love era, she has all of the morals and mindsets of a 1950s housewife. This isn’t all her fault, though; coddled by her father Mike, a famous and successful Hollywood producer, January grows up with significant Daddy Issues in that she is so in love with her dad that no other man will ever be able to win her heart.

But this is only one of her issues. Susann opens the novel with a harrowing scene in which January, just turned 18, goes to Italy to spend time with her father, who is shooting on location. Jealous of the Sophia Loren-type actress who is hanging on her father (January’s mother committed suicide years before, jealous herself over her husband’s frequent affairs), January grudgingly goes on a date with an Italian gigolo. When the guy tries to sleep with January but discovers with shock that she’s still a virgin, he races her home on his motorcycle and crashes, and January is seriously injured.

This part is shocking enough, but also serves to draw you in enough that you care about January throughout the book, something that can rarely be said about Robbins’s protagonists. At any rate, she spends a handful of years in some exclusive rehab center in Switzerland, effectively cut off from the rest of the world. While she’s away the ‘60s become the ‘70s and the world changes in numerous ways, though January doesn’t know this. When she can finally walk again and leaves the clinic, she finds the world vastly different than the one she new.

Meanwhile her father has fallen on rough times and has married uber-wealthy Dee, so now he’s a kept man. He’s done all of this so as to save up a nest egg so January can have a nice life – turns out Mike’s luck ran dry right after January’s accident, and after diminishing returns on his next films he found himself without any more jobs in Hollywood so has had to take desperate measures to continue living the lifestyle he’s grown accustomed to.

January wants to make her own way in the world, and gets a job at an up and coming magazine which is run by an old school friend named Lisa, the only character in the book who brings to mind the antics of Valley of the Dolls. Foul-mouthed, opinionated, and sexually carefree, Linda is everything January isn’t, and Susann continuously hammers us with the differences between the two, Linda’s modern woman values (or lack thereof) up against January’s old-fashioned prudishness.

Really though the novel plays out like a soap opera, and January is very much in the vein of a romance comic book heroine. Everything shocks her, she just wants to find true love, and she’s completely in love with daddy. This is the other theme Susann plays up in the book, the true love story being between January and her father, but like the characters this theme comes and goes; Susann often introduces concepts or characters and then drops them for a few hundred pages.

For example, there’s Karla, a Greta Garbo analogue who is a retired and reclusive screen idol; David, Dee’s cousin and January’s ostensible paramour (he takes her virginity one disastrous night but they decide to only be friends) carries on a secret affair with her, but we learn later that Karla is having an affair with Dee, too. But Karla, given so much focus in early chapters (complete with an unecessary and incidental sequence covering her pre-stardom life in Europe during WWII, a sequence which features a wholly-exploitative scene in which a bunch of nuns get raped), just disappears for like a few hundred pages, suddenly reintroduced toward the end as if she’d never left.

January sort of muddles around while life goes on around her, doing her romance heroine schtick and searching for true love. This eventually occurs in the person of Tom Holt, a famous and rugged author who is Hemingway in all but name. But more importantly he’s actually a few years older than January’s dad Mike, so now she has the perfect daddy replacement.

This storyline takes up most of the novel, with January falling in love with Tom and following him to LA and getting sex tips from Linda. It was all very much like a romance novel, and I kept wondering where the Jacqueline Susann I’d read about had gone; where was the lurid stuff, the crazy stuff? Other than January’s addiction to “vitamin shots” (which turn out to be laced with meth), there isn’t even any of the campish charm of Valley of the Dolls.

But in the last hundred pages things change in a major way. After a plane crash takes out some major characters (and I wonder how that plane crash sequence went down with vacation-bound readers of the novel??), Susann apparently regains her sordid powers and launches into overdrive. Coming very quickly here, we have rampant drug use, a ritual orgy, more rampant drug use, and a full-on psychedelic ending which features UFOs!

The ritual orgy is lots of lurid fun, with January attending a hippie party, getting blitzed on LSD-spiked punch, and having sex with some random dude while she and he are hoisted up in the arms of the other hippies, with chanting and clapping going on all about them. I should mention that this random guy is only the third man January has ever had sex with, the other two being David (a one-time only deal), and Tom Holt (who, in pure let’s-skewer-Hemingway’s-rep fashion, lives his roughneck, boozer lifestyle in order to overcome the fact that he has the equipment of a prepubescent boy). The climax of this sequence is the highlight, with January orgasming, screaming “I love you, Mike!”, and then passing out. I can bet you Susann was chortling to herself as she wrote it.

But the UFO stuff is even better. Still frazzled on drugs, January goes to the beach and sees one in the night sky. Through the final hundred pages of the novel Susann works in this theme where January keeps seeing a blue-eyed man in her dreams, a man who bears a vague resemblance to her father. But this ghost proves dangerous, at one point a dazed January almost falling out of her skyline apartment to be with him. And now he appears to her on the beach, beckoning her into the waves…

The finale of the novel sticks with you, and leaves you unsettled. Susann masterfully writes it so that January’s fate is up to you – did she die of drowning, or did she get spirited away to some other world? Interesting to note that Susann’s original ending for the novel was completely different; the Mike-looking figure turned out to be an alien, who took January away with him into space, where the novel turned into a star-spanning love story! And it wasn't just some dream sequence or drug trip; according to the biography Lovely Me, Susann wrote fifty pages of this, most of it taken from her then-unpublished novel Yargo, which was written in the early 1950s but went unpublished until after Susann's death. Indeed, many fans believe that Yargo can be read as the sequel to Once Is Not Enough.

I find it hard to believe that this alternate version of Once Is Not Enough has never been published. I’d love to read it. As vapid as she can be, as lovestruck or spineless as she comes across, you actually get to like January, even to feel sorry for her. As such, you wish she’d been given a happier end. (For Susann’s part, when asked in interviews about January’s fate, Susann claimed it was her interpretation that January died. What a bummer!) But then, the ending Susann delivers does affect you more than anything else in the novel, so it’s a fair compromise.

As for her prose, Susann certainly likes her ellipses and hyphens. I’m not exaggerating when I say this book reads like a 1970s romance comic, like My Love or something; the characters all speak in that same sort of breathless and melodramatic style. Susann’s narrative style reminds me more of Burt Hirschfeld than Robbins, and having read one of her novels I can now see where Hirschfeld got a lot of schtick. (I still prefer Hirschfeld, though.)

Anyway, an enjoyable novel for the most part, but a bit too long for its own good (this Bantam edition is over 500 pages, with tiny print). One of these days I’ll definitely read Yargo, if only to see if it provides “the rest of the story.”

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Destroyer #10: Terror Squad

The Destroyer #10: Terror Squad, by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy
June, 1973  Pinnacle Books

I haven’t read a Destroyer novel since I was a kid, back when the now-forgotten film version came out in 1985. I know I had the novelization of the film, which I read, but I also had a few of the then-current volumes in the series, but I don’t remember which ones. At any rate, I know they weren’t my cup of tea, given that I was more into Phoenix Force and The Executioner at the time; I wanted to read about terrorists getting blasted to bits, not a warped spoof featuring a disinterested protagonist and his soap opera-addicted mentor.

But the other week I lucked into about twenty volumes of the series, ranging from this tenth volume on through to #73, which should give me a good indication of the series’s evolution over the years. What’s most staggering is the Destroyer series is still around; though it hasn’t been published since 2008, series co-creator Warren Murphy is still out there and supposedly trying to find the series a new home. It also appears that he’s made the majority of the installments available as eBooks.

Terror Squad though comes early in the series run, back when it was published by Pinnacle and series creators Murphy and Sapir were still writing the books together. By this point they’ve figured out the series vibe, which is a mix of satire, spoof, and action. My feeling though is that the comedy outweighs the action here; in fact the very few action scenes are barely described, and there’s little tension or suspense because the heroes are presented as such invincible fighters.

Remo Williams is the titular “Destroyer,” a former New Jersey cop whose death was faked so he could be reborn as the sole enforcer for CURE, a super-secret US agency which is overseen by Dr. Harold Smith. Remo’s mentor is Chiun, without question the highlight of this series, a wizened and world-weary Korean martial arts guru; the master of Sinanju, which apparently is the ultimate form of martial arts, though only known to a handful. By this tenth volume, Chiun feels that he has so properly trained his pupil that Remo is nearly “perfect,” and is grooming him to become the eventual master of Sinanju.

The novel is more comedy than action, which makes the brutality somewhat unexpected, lending Terror Squad an uncertain tone. The threat this time is an international army of terrorists which has abruptly sprouted up, hijaking planes and murdering people around the world. The novel opens with one cell hijacking a plane, during which they repeatedly rape a woman and then murder her baby.

After this horrific scene the novel settles down into extended bouts of banter between Remo and Chiun as they go off on a low-key search for the terrorists. Strangely, the terrorists in the opening scene are never mentioned again, so there’s no retribution. Instead Remo and Chiun head over to a college campus in New York from which this new terrorist army either trained or gathered new members.

In a coed-frequented bar Remo encounters Joan Hacker, a pretty blond who turns out to not only be filled with revolutionary fervor but also knows members of this terrorist army. This plot turns out to bear the brunt of the narrative; rather than traipsing around the world, taking on this international terrorist army, Remo instead hangs out here in New York, following Joan Hacker around and taking out the few assassins she sends after him.

Because, coincidentally enough, Joan also just happens to be working with the number one man behind the terrorist army, an “Oriental” whom the authors keep a mystery until the surprise reveal at the end. Following the man’s advice, Joan gets specific assassins to try to kill Remo – an old man, a thin man, etc – all as part of the mystery villain’s attempt to send Chiun a message.

The action scenes are brief and sparsely described. In fact they’re over in a few sentences, and usually relayed from the point of view of Remo’s victims; we’ll read that Remo rips off a guy’s fingers or something. Don’t expect much “true” action stuff, save for the finale, where Remo engages in a martial arts battle with the mystery man. (Spoiler warning: It’s Nuihc, Chiun’s nephew, who apparently has fought with Remo and Chiun in a previous installment, and who considers himself the true master of Sinanju.)

But really, the entire novel plays out on a humdrum level…Remo following Joan (after sleeping with her, of course, though don’t expect much from the sex scenes either), hastily dispatching the latest assassin (one of whom is an elderly German who once was an SS sadist), and then going back to his hotel to trade banter with Chiun.

Readers of this series know that it’s the banter that’s the true star, though. Remo and Chiun have a great rapport, with Chiun’s acidic whit fairly dripping off the page, and Remo’s lame attempts at comebacks always drawing a laugh. Without question the two leads of the Destroyer are more memorable and entertaining than the average men’s adventure protagonist, but at the same time the series is separate from the genre in that it operates on an entirely different vibe.

Also worth mentioning is that our heroes are friggin’ vicious. Remo doesn’t just kill his opponents, he pulls them apart. One brutal scene has Remo board a plane that’s been hijacked, and after questioning the terrorists he hurls each of them off of the plane! Also there is a nasty undertone in that anyone who finds out about CURE must end up dead. It gets to be that you feel sorry for the villains, in particular Joan Hacker, whom the authors portray as a good-natured fool who has gone astray.

Anyway, I wasn’t blown away by Terror Squad, but I enjoyed it enough that I’m happy I have several more volumes of the series to read.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Logan's Run

Logan's Run, by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson
May, 1976  Bantam Books
(Original publication 1967)

I really enjoy the 1976 film Logan’s Run: the kitsch, the camp value, the retro sci-fi style and design. I’ve even got it on Blu Ray. Mostly though I love how it plays up on the psychedelic fallout of the 1960s, with sequences of hallucinogenic excess – Logan and his friends getting high on some sort of red smoke in Logan’s ultra mod pad, or Logan and Jessica 6 fighting their way through the delirium of the psychedelicizing love mists during their escape from the City.

So imagine my surprise to find none of that stuff in the source novel. This is one of the few cases where I can say the film version is better than the novel -- much better. (Another instance would be 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Published in 1967, Logan’s Run is straight-up pulp sci-fi, 150 pages of clunky narrative and paper-thin characters. It bears little relation to the film other than the theme, but even that is slightly different.

Anyone who has seen the film knows the story: in this ultra-mod 23rd Century, there’s an enforced life cutoff when you reach 30 years of age. As goofy as that concept is, the source novel is even goofier; here the life sentence ends at a mere 21. Obviously then the novel is a wild extrapolation of the Youth Movement of the 1960s, taken to insane and illogical extremes, but still…it’s very hard to imagine a world being run by those under 21. The film was at least slightly more believable in this regard.

We meet Logan as he’s a ripe old 21, soon to experience his LastDay, after which he must voluntarily submit himself to Sleep, ie death. But that’s it, here. None of the Carousel stuff from the film, where LastDay supplicants would put on white costumes with weird hockey masks and walk around, hoping to be zapped and reincarnated (or whatever the hell was going on in that scene). The book does have the famous crystal flower implanted in the hands of each character’s hands, and when they go black the person is ready to die. If they don’t voluntarily go to Sleep, then Logan, a Sandman, is called in to waste them.

Our hero is a bit more troubled in the novel. As you’ll recall in the film version he has a few years added to his life by the City computer, as a ruse to go undercover among the radicals; again, nothing like this is in the novel. Instead, Logan begins to fear his imminent mortality, so he is intrigued by the mention of “Sanctuary” on the lips of a Runner who is killed by gang members before Logan can get to him.

The dead Runner had a twin sister, Jessica 6, and Logan attempts to track her down. This entails a bit of action within the City, which turns out to be Los Angeles, though it is not the self-contained world as seen in the film. The novel operates on a much larger scale, with Logan shuttling around the entire country; the City of the novel is not closed off from the rest of the world like in the movie, and there’s no mention of the world beyond being a nuclear wasteland.

Indeed, we briefly learn that this world of the novel was created by Youth Movement riots, which blew up in 2000, resulting in a mass youth overtaking of the world, with the guru leader of the movement choosing to end his own life at 21, and his acolytes following suit. The unstated idea being that, since old people created the mess that was the 20th century, then an old-free world would be a much more pleasant place.

The psychedelic haze of the film is still here, if a bit subdued; within the first few pages Logan has visited a “hallucimill” where he ingests a favored LSD concoction, before stopping by a glasshouse orgy den where he has sex with some random female amid flashing hallucinogic lights. But this stuff is brief, and not played out as it is in the film. (And the sex scenes, by the way, are barely there; a quick mention of some girl and the authors fade to black.)

The authors also have a bit of trouble determining Logan’s motivations. He at first becomes interested in Sanctuary because his own LastDay is fast approaching, but later he mentions that his goal is to find the place and destroy it, so he can go to Sleep in a blaze of glory. Whatever the reason, the novel follows the same angle as the film, here, with Logan following a batch of clues to find the mysterious location that is Sanctuary.

It’s after Logan escapes the City, with Jessica in tow, that the book really veers off into its own thing. For one, Jessica and Logan don’t meet until immediately before they escape; the producers wisely built up their relationship in the film. But as mentioned the novel operates on a broader global sweep, and soon enough Logan and Jessica are taking Mazecars to various destinations, from an abandoned factory beneath the sea to a spot in the midwest upon which stands a colossal statue of an American Indian warrior.

The narrative portion here seems excised from the material that came before. Logan’s quest is lost for a bit and it becomes a sequence of unrelated action scenes, Logan and Jess showing up at some abandoned spot, meeting the locals, and getting into a battle. And sadly these action scenes are pretty dumb, not to mention goofy, particularly one where they meet a teenage gang that could’ve come straight out of Doomsday Warrior, their 16 year-old Attila the Hun giving Logan a trio of gorgeous women in exchange for a night with Jessica. (Humorously enough, while Logan partakes of the favor, Jessica keeps the gang leader at bay.)

Along the way Logan and Jessica are followed by Francis, Logan’s former Sandman colleague. Jessica and Logan meanwhile develop the expected feelings for one another, but the authors don’t have anything happen between them, despite their vows of love for each other late in the game. The romance element is just as harried and dashed off as the action.

In the ruins of Washington, DC Logan meets Ballard, legendary leader of the Runners, an actual “old” man at 42. But unlike in the film he’s not some wizened sage, and instead tries to kill Logan, just for being a Sandman. Another escape, more unrelated action stuff, and Logan and Jessica end up in the Florida Keys, where they discover that “Sanctuary” is a space station orbiting around Mars, and Francis is really Ballard (who poses in various Cities to monitor potential Sanctuary candidates), and Logan and Jessica hop on board the rocket and it takes off. The end.

So then, none of the payoff stuff from the film is here – no triumphant return to the City, no confrontation with the diseased computer which runs the place. Like I wrote above, the film is just so much better thought out and entertaining, and publisher Bantam doesn’t help out the authors by inserting 16 pages of photos from the film in glorious color into the book; one can’t help but compare these shots – which detail incidents that don’t even occur in the novel – to the book itself, and find the book lacking.

William Nolan penned the sequel by himself: Logan’s World, which not-so-coincidentally was published in 1976, the year the film came out. He followed this up with Logan’s Search in 1980. During a trip to a local used bookstore the other day I picked up all three novels for a pittance; I’ve read that Logan’s World in particular is in a men's adventure novel vein, so I’m looking forward to it.

If you'd like to see a similar concept given much better treatment, be sure to check out Peter Breggin's After The Good War.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Enforcer #6: Steel Trap

The Enforcer #6: Steel Trap, by Andrew Sugar
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

It’s not numbered, but this was the sixth volume of the Enforcer series, taking place a few months after the preceding volume, Bio Blitz. Ironically enough, just as Bio Blitz harkened back in some ways to Enforcer #1, Steel Trap harkens back to #2: Calling Doctor Kill. It follows the same template, with our cloned hero Alex Jason once again venturing into a high-security location, pretending to be someone he’s not. And like that second volume, Steel Trap starts off strong but gets lost toward the end, delivering an anticlimatic finale that seems dashed off.

Overall the novel is much better than Calling Doctor Kill, though, and Andrew Sugar’s writing is up to its usual level. I still say this guy was one of the unsung masters of the men’s adventure genre, and one of these days I intend to re-read the Enforcer series in full – I like it that much. Also, after the stagebound affairs of the middle books in the series, Sugar has better figured out how to meld action scenes with introspection-heavy sequences; it’s not up to par with Bio Blitz, but Steel Trap does offer some nice and violent set pieces amid the philosophizing and ruminating.

As seen in the previous volume, Lochner, Jason’s arch rival and nemesis of the John Anryn Institute, has been killed (by Jason’s “fat” boss, Flack, no less). You’d think Sugar would open it up and introduce some other villain, but no; Jason and his fellows are still dealing with the remnants of Lochner’s syndicate. It seems that many of them are unaware that Lochner’s dead, and so the Institute is keeping it a secret so as to lure some of the syndicate bosses out into the open.

One of them turns out to be a guy named Spevic, who was in an experimental prison in California, a place nicknamed San Angie. Spevic was tossed out of a top floor before he could deliver evidence on who among Lochner’s successors was next in line to run the syndicate. He’s contacted the Institute and, in exchange for a healthy clone body, the now-paralyzed Spevic will tell “Big John” (as the Institute is called) everything he knows.

This develops into the first of a few gory action scenes, this volume being the most violent I believe since Enforcer #1. Jason and a few redshirt clones sit in a van and wait to ambush Spevic’s police caravan as he’s driven through the desert, on his way to a hospital – Flack’s nephew Hamilton, a fellow Institute employee who works as the doctor in San Angie, is on board and the key to Jason's plan. But Jason and his crew are themselves ambushed, by a helicopter filled with mercenaries bearing M-16s. (Sugar never really explains who these guys are, or who sent them.) But here we have heads exploding and Jason blowing off arms and legs with his handy laser pistol.

When Spevic ends up a casualty of the ambush, Jason goes back to square one. Back at the Institute HQ in New York, he continues to brainstorm with Flack, Hamilton, and Institute head scientest Rosegold – that is, when he isn’t having a drink or a smoke or sex with his girlfriend Samantha. Sam as you’ll recall was introduced in the previous volume, and again she doesn’t bring much to the tale, quickly shunted off to New Mexico for some project for Rosegold.

Sam though is similar to Brunnie, Jason’s girlfriend from way back in the first volume – like Brunnie, Sam is a clone, and also a decade or so older than Jason himself, even though they both live in eternally-young clone bodies. Steel Trap in fact opens with a good scene between these two, with Sam taking Jason to “Club Nostalgia,” a 1940s-themed bar which brings back memories for Sam; after which they go park in Jason’s car for some 1950s-style backseat shenanigans. (Sugar also sets a precedent for the number of times an author can mention a female character’s breasts; he nearly runs out of adjectives describing Sam’s, which apparently must be friggin’ stupendous on her current body.)

Sugar plays up a new development here, one that I assume would have had repercussions in ensuing volumes; Flack keeps hassling Jason that he’s an “executive,” not an enforcer, and that Jason should not be going out on anymore field assignments. (I guess Flack doesn’t realize the series is entitled The Enforcer.) Apparently this was something Flack specified back when he offered Jason his new lease on life in the first volume, but I missed it, or have forgotten about it. But anyway, Flack keeps bullying Jason that Jason needs to find other enforcers to go out on the field and handle action items, such as this new plan of Jason’s to send an enforcer into San Angie to root out the Lochner-successor Spevic claimed was there with his dying breath.

Jason has to prove himself the only clone fit for the job, passing an ESP test devised by Rosegold. This placates Flack, but the threat is left that Jason will have to come up with reasons to be an enforcer in future volumes. Sam too is suffering the same problem, and she and Jason make a pact to help each other out, as Sam herself is an action junkie and doesn’t want to be desk-bound. Whether Sugar intended to follow this through in future volumes is a mystery, as sadly Steel Trap was the final installment of the series.

Given a muscle-bound new body which is almost identical to a prisoner who is about to be transferred to San Angie, Jason studies the convict he is supposed to be impersonating and dreams up another scenario to sneak into the prison. This turns out to be almost identical to the previous job; once again Jason and some redshirt enforcers hide out in the desert and ambush a police caravan! This time there’s no helicopter ambush, and Jason is able to switch out the man he’s impersonating.

I’m not a fan of prison fiction, so I wasn’t really thrilled about Steel Trap’s plot. Luckily Sugar doesn't get to the prison stuff until over halfway through the novel, and it only takes up maybe a quarter of the narrative. Only problem is, the book kind of stops dead once Jason is in the prison. As in the middle volumes of the series, the novel becomes a stagebound mystery-thriller with Jason deducing and brainstorming, and forward momentum is lost. Also, once again like in Calling Doctor Kill, there’s lots of incidental subplots that have no bearing on the story and just come off like padding.

Spevic’s dying words were “Big Al,” so Jason ponders this while trying to navigate the brutal world of prison. Not that he has much trouble; by the end of his first day he’s already “the boss of the whites.” Racial disharmony is of course prevalent at San Angie, and Sugar as expected immediately has Jason stirring things up. (Another flashback to Calling Doctor Kill, where Jason again had no problem with baiting a black character.) Meanwhile he will go off to the medical ward, where he has meetings with Hamilton. It was all sort of like a weird prefigure of that show PrisonBreak.

After a lot of red herrings and page-fillers, Jason finally deduces who “Big Al” is in a move that strikes of the utter bullshit we saw back in #4: Kill Deadline. Big Al’s identity is a total cop-out on Sugar’s part; turns out the man himself is a schizophrenic, so that Jason, while using his ESP powers, was unable to pick up Big Al’s thoughts, because the man himself didn’t even know he was Big Al at the time! Like I said, utter bullshit. But still, the way Sugar unveils it, trying to make his goofy plotting seem realistic, is a wonder to behold.

The finale is rushed and anticlimatic, again like the second volume, with Jason deducing Big Al’s identity and fostering a prison riot – one Sugar doesn’t even bother describing. In fact Jason breaks out of San Angie immediately thereafter, thanks to a helicopter of his own, and next thing you know he’s chasing Big Al across the pitch-black desert outside, Jason tracking Big Al via infrared pellets he’s eaten – another Big John invention, but one which will render Jason permanently blind if he sees any bright lights. (True to form for the series, Steel Trap begins at the end, with a blind and gunshot Jason lying in a ditch and wondering if Big Al is about to finish him off, before flashing back to the preceding events.)

It’s interesting to note that the novel is set in 1973, something mentioned both in the narrative and the dialog. My assumption is that Sugar must’ve written these six volumes all in that year, but Bio Blitz and Steel Trap just went unpublished until 1975. In other words, these two were not just “new” installments written for Manor Books. I’m curious though why Sugar did not write new volumes. Maybe by then he’d moved on to the Israeli Commandos series, which was a Manor original…maybe he’d just lost interest in the Enforcer.

So while it isn’t the strongest finale for the series, Steel Trap still has its moments. The gore factor is a little stronger, as mentioned; though there aren’t many action scenes, Sugar really plays up the carnage when they occur. However the “art of being a guy” stuff is toned down, with the rampant smoking and drinking of previous books a bit in the background – well, maybe not the smoking. Jason still smokes like a chimney here. But despite the anticlimatic end and the cop-out reveal of who Big Al is, the book is still enjoyable, even if it does lack the weird flourishes of Enforcer #1 and Bio Blitz.

Well, as another long review will attest, I really love the Enforcer series. It’s one of my very favorites, maybe even my top favorite. I’ll miss it. I like to imagine though that maybe Alex Jason is still out there, hanging out in Big John HQ and smoking and drinking his brandy, philosophizing with Flack and Rosegold and Sam, a-and maybe even new Institute clone members Timothy Leary and Terence McKenna…now that would be a series!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Another End

Another End, by Vincent King
January, 1971  Ballantine Books

Here’s a psychedelic sci-fi novel that had so much potential. Vincent King appears to have taken the final section of Kubrick’s 2001 as inspiration, where a lone astronaut voyages “beyond the infinite.” The first quarter of Another End is very much in the same mold, really far out, really great, before the whole thing collapses into a grating exercize in pretensionsness.

The novel occurs in the far future – like, the really far future. I think more time passes in this novel than any other I’ve read; King will jump entire millennia in the span of a sentence. Our protagonist, Adamson (actually refered to as “the son of Adam” on the back cover), is a “Rider,” an astronaut from far-future Earth who has been chosen to voyage throughout the Milky Way in search of alien life.

Adamson is alone in his ship, the Probe, a sentient craft which is capable of repairing itself and gains its power from the stars. The Probe is actually the most memorable character in the book…sort of a HAL-9000 with a bit more compassion. I failed to get an idea of what the Probe actually looked like, though; King’s descriptions of characters are a bit vague at times. At any rate, the Probe is big enough for Adamson to walk around in, looking out at the cosmos and pondering man’s eternal quest and whatnot.

That is, when Adamson isn’t being dissolved and rebuilt in the Dissolution/Reconstitution chamber. In a process never fully described, Adamson is granted immortality by actually being melted down into some sort of protozoic ooze, before being regenerated into flesh by the Probe. This is done during “boring” portions of the voyage where he’s not needed, or perhaps during times when the Probe must enter into super-high speeds, I guess the inference being that Adamson’s mortal body couldn’t withstand the pressure.

This obviously adds a surreal and bizarre touch to the novel, especially when Adamson will be in his dissolved state for several thousands of years. While he is dissolved, the Probe puts Adamson in a dreaming state, where during one psychedelic sequence – which completely foreshadows Inception -- Adamson comes to consciousness within his dream and discovers he is in limbo, his sole companion a woman he names Laura. Together they build entire cities, until Adamson realizes it is all a dream and he must kill himself within it to get back to reality. (Exactly like in Inception!)

All of this – an entire novel’s worth of plot – is over and done with in the first twenty pages or so. Adamson, having voyaged with the Probe for a million or so years, is going insane: they’ve discovered no aliens, and word has not reached him that any other Riders have met any. Boredom and rot have set in upon his mind, and he is stricken with guilt over having killed Laura in his dream world. But when all hope seems lost Adamson and the Probe encounter Protia.

This turns out to be an amorphous (but female) entity from the Andromedan galaxy, a being which communicates telepathically and so, within a few seconds of meeting Adamson and the Probe, has plundered the full depth of human history – indeed, this is why she names herself “Protia” for them, after the mythic shape-shifter Proteus. For Protia too is a shape-shifter, and assumes a host of guises throughout.

This first meeting of man and alien is ruined when Portia realizes that all those “entertainments” she picked up via radio waves in space, beaming her films of WWII and Vietnam and etc, were actually real events in which people died. Realizing humankind is violent and savage, Portia refuses to speak to Adamson, and hovers in a corner of the Probe (her ship is crashed). Meanwhile Adamson goes back to his Dissolution chamber…and several thousand more years pass.

When “the Call” comes for all Probes to return to Earth, the Probe turns back…the mission has obviously failed. Again, we’re not even halfway through yet. Instead of continuing with his (more compelling) tale of millennia-spanning interstellar travel, King now turns his hand to satire and spoof, and the book drops dead.

Stopping off at an Earth-like planet (we learn that humans have colonized many planets in the Milky Way), Adamson is in the midst of an orgy with the female-only inhabitants when Thead appears. Thead turns out to have been a fellow Rider, only now he has gone insane and lords it over these women, who turn out to be robots. He wants to kill Adamson, but when he discovers Portia he wants her instead, to return to Earth with her in victory.

From here on the novel becomes more surreal and wacky, only in a bad way. When Thead confronts Adamson, for example, he throws jam at him…you know, jelly. And since he’s in the midst of an orgy Adamson gets up to fight him, but doesn’t have on any pants, but then figures who needs pants when you’re going to fight someone…! The novel proceeds with this sort of funny-but-not-funny vibe throughout, and I have to tell you, it really grated my nerves.

Thead chases after our heroes throughout the galaxy, and it gets to be repetitive. Other than a memorable scene where Portia investigates a massive ship which holds several deactivated Probes – their Riders having killed themselves to escape immortality – the novel takes on more of a satirical, goofy touch, and the millennia-spanning, psychedelic touch of the opening quarter is lost.

King was a British author, and writes like it…Another End has that same clinical feel to it, with characters talking at one another instead of to one another. I know he achieved a cult sort of fame in the UK with Candy Man and the bonkers-sounding Time Snake And Super Clown (which I don’t believe was published in the US), but I think for me this will be the first and last of his books I’ll read.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Death Merchant #20: Hell In Hindu Land

Death Merchant #20: Hell In Hindu Land, by Joseph Rosenberger
January, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Like I've said before, Joseph Rosenberger had some good days, and he had some bad days. Hell In Hindu Land must’ve been written during one of those bad days; it has more in common with Rosenberger’s execrable Mace series than it does with genuinely-good Rosenberger books like The Cosmic Reality Kill. Like those Mace books, Hell In Hindu Land is nothing but an endless trawl of fight scenes, on and on and on, to such a point that the interesting (and positively sci-fi) plot is lost.

Rosenberger wrote for Fate and other fringe science magazines, and he puts his “research” to use here. Richard “Death Merchant” Camellion’s latest mission sees him heading into the depths of India, where he is to locate an ancient Buddhist monastery which supposedly sits overtop a room filled with ultra high-tech devices and dead aliens -- ancient aliens, at that. And Rosenberger doesn’t shirk on his promise…even though it takes 150 pages, we do finally see those aliens, and the plot isn’t just written off with a Scooby-Doo type of a cop-out ending.

But in order to get there, first we must endure Rosenberger’s penchant for overly-detailed fight scenes. It’s frustrating because this is the first Death Merchant novel I’ve read that features endless fight scenes on the level of Mace. Parts of it even read like a Mace novel, with paragraphs and paragraphs of Camellion using obscure kung-fu moves to beat his enemies to death. But I say “frustrating” because the previous Death Merchant novels I’ve read have been more carefully constructed, less reliant on nonstop action and fighting.

Camellion hooks up with a team of Indian nationals in Calcutta, then flies with them out into the wildlands surrounding it. There they will make their way through treacherous country to the Buddhist temple. Camellion’s team is made up of Hindus, and Rosenberger is sure to remind us quite often that Indian Hindus just positively fucking despise Buddhists, and indeed part of Camellion’s team is made up of an Indian strike force which is looking forward to killing the (unarmed) monks so as to test out some new weaponry!

A KGB-backed commando squad is also on their way to the monastery; the reason Camellion’s been tasked with this mission is that both the CIA and the KGB found out about the place at the same time. We get the usual Rosenberger inessential bits from the Russian’s perspective…they know the infamous Death Merchant is with the other team, but like the pig farmer fools they are (in Rosenberger’s mind, at least) they discount Camellion, thinking he’s nothing more than a hunter who’s gone along for the trip!

This early in the series Rosenberger hasn’t worked out the later mainstays. There’s no mention of the Cosmic Lord of Death or auras or much other metaphysical stuff. However, earlier mainstays are gone – Camellion doesn’t put on a costume or impersonate anyone. In fact he spends the whole book in a Stetson hat, even getting pissed off when it’s later damaged in a firefight.

Also, there are no footnotes, which is a shame; instead, Rosenberger clunkily works his background detail into the dialog, so that it comes off as utter exposition. And what’s really bad is that he inserts these expositionary bits with no consideration of the scene at hand…literally, there are scenes where, immediately after a massive and gory shootout, Camellion and one of the Indians will converse about ancient astronomy! I mean, standing right there amid the bloody corpses!

Granted, some of this detail is interesting, and Rosenberger shows his Fate roots. Really though these blasts of exposition bring to mind the somewhat-similar Mind Masters series. And as mentioned the aliens and their technology do come in to play, though it seemingly takes forever to get to them. Hell, even when Camellion and team have finally infiltrated “the Room” beneath the monastery, with its weird and eternal blue light and selection of bizarre, alien machinery, Rosenberger spends more time on yet another action scene, where a traitor in the party attacks Camellion. Mind you, this is after a thirty or forty-page action sequence.

The aliens are dead, or at least in suspended animation, perfectly preserved in clear cases that can’t be opened. They’re the little gray ones of current popular myth, with the big black eyes and etc. Humorously enough, Camellion shows absolutely no interest in them, or amazement at the discovery. Instead he’s more concerned with getting a document out of there which apparently contains the sum knowledge of the aliens – a “book” of alien material which the monks have been working on translating over the past few centuries. Otherwise Camellion is unmoved, as if seeing the corpses of centuries-dead aliens is just par for the course.

Rosenberger unfortunately doesn’t delve into the other stuff supposedly there among the aliens, their high-tech devices which allowed them to manipulate energy and whatnot. But this I’ve found is typical of Rosenberger…lots of potential, little delivery. It blows my mind that the guy would be brave enough to come up with such crazy plots – I mean, imagine Mack Bolan coming across alien corpses – and yet not have the conviction to follow the crazy plots through. If you’ve introduced aliens into your tale, spend more time on them and less on endless action scenes. Action scenes which, per the Rosenberger norm, do little to excite the reader.

Hell In Hindu Land started off a loose trilogy, one which was continued in the next volume: #21: The Pole Star Secret. In this volume the head Buddhist monk informs Camellion that there are two other alien bases on the planet, the other being in the North Pole; Camellion ends the tale already planning a trip there. And I believe the trilogy concluded with #30: Shambhala Strike, though the final volume of the series, #70: The Greenland Mystery, was also about Camellion searching for a crashed UFO.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Xuan And The Girl From The Other Side

Xuan And The Girl From The Other Side, by Paul A. Bergin
No month stated, 1969  Tower Books

Let’s take a moment to appreciate that goofy cover blurb. Goofy as it is, though, it does sum up the porn-meets-science fiction vibe of Xuan And The Girl From The Other Side (hereafter just “Xuan,” for reasons of laziness). The 1969 publication date fooled me into thinking this would be a softcore sort of thing, but no; the novel’s nearly as explicit as the Baroness or Mind Masters books, only here the sex scenes just go on for a few paragraphs instead of a few pages.

Really though, sex is the only selling point here, and it’s as nasty and unerotic as you’d expect from a vintage sleaze novel. Xuan was published by low-end Tower Books, but it has all the earmarks of something they would’ve released through their porn imprint, Midwood. It’s slim, a little over 130 pages, with small print, lots of typos, and it pulses with a general disdain both for the reader and itself.

Taking place sometime in the 21st Century, the novel is set in a United States greatly transformed by the “Continental Wars” that raged a few generations before; we’re told the last one was in 1986, after which the US was split into two warring factions: Omega and Telix. Our heroes are the Omegans, who are sort of like post-hippies in that they’re into peace and love…not that it stops them from killing in cold blood and waging endless warfare against Telix.

We never get much detail on the Telix people, but we’re told their government is cold and cruel and rules its populace with an iron fist. At any rate they’re clearly set up as the villains, and as the book opens the Telix bastards are preparing a massive assault on the Omegan capitol headquarters – which, author Bergin unsubtly lets us know, is actually the White House, even though the current occupants don’t know it by that name, or indeed even know its history.

A guy named Danais is in charge of Telix, but only temporarily; Xuan is the true leader, but he’s left to infiltrate Telix territory in a desperate gambit to get new weaponry from Basil, an Omegan scientist who went over to Telix lands for more research and has gone missing. Danais knows that the Telixans are about to strike, but this doesn’t stop him from more important pursuits – the novel opens with the first of many gratuitous sex scenes as Father, the elderly security chief of the Omegans, brings Danais a young woman named Nadine, who has somehow gotten past Omegan security and wants to join the cause. After a few lines of dialog, Danais and Nadine are screwing right there in the Oval Office.

Meanwhile Xuan’s driving into Telix territory, where he hooks up with his contact. You guessed it, she’s a gorgeous gal whose ready to “give herself” to the cause, if you catch my drift…cue another sex scene, mere pages after the first. But wait, there’s more. After a full night of shagging, the contact, Miki (though Bergin goofs and actually writes “Mike” several times, thereby giving the scene a whole ‘nother interpretation), brings in her teenaged sister, whose never been with a man, and asks Xuan if he’d mind, uh, breaking her in.

Basil turns out to be detached from the war effort, wanting to live in peace. Years ago he was literally emasculated by the Telix bastards, and Xuan uses this fact to reinstill a fighting spirit in the scientist…in the strangest, most insulting way possible: he screws Miki right in front of Basil, and then her sister as well! Basil, who watches it all with mouth gaping and eyes popping, announces that his fighting spirit has in fact been restored, and he goes about creating the ultimate weapon.

This turns out to be a bazooka-like device that emits blasts of sound waves. During his eventual escape from Telix, Xuan has opportunity to try it out a few times, his victims melting beneath the assaults. Xuan by the way is one hardcore bastard, which is strange given that we’re told the people of Omega are peace-loving; during his escape, he flat-out murders an innocent Telix civilian, some dude who has nothing to do with anything, just so he can steal the poor bastard’s car. Even Johnny Rock would’ve just knocked the guy out.

The attack on Omega HQ goes on, not that it stops Danais and Nadine from having impromptu bouts of sex. But the sex isn’t always fun in Xuan; late in the narrative comes a thoroughly disgusting and despicable sequence where Nadine is captured by Telix soldiers and raped over the course of a few detailed pages. And wouldn’t you guess, she eventually begins to enjoy it!

To his credit, though, Bergin follows up this loathsome scene with another which spotlights the novel’s goofy nature, where Nadine is taken to see the leader of Telix, who happens to be a dwarf. Turns out the dwarf is into sick games, and starts acting like a tantrum-throwing child so Nadine will whip him! Nadine takes this deus ex machina opportunity to strangle the life out of him. (Not that this scene salvages anything…there’s another unpleasant rape scene shortly after this one, this time Xuan’s girl getting it, and again it goes on and on in detail, as if placed there so the author and publisher could cover all the sleaze bases.)

It’s funny that the titular “Girl from the Other Side,” who according to the back cover blurb is the one who changes Xuan’s mind about things, doesn’t even appear until the final quarter, and offers nothing to the story. In fact I can’t even remember her name. Anyway she’s another Telix rebel who has sex with Xuan immediately after meeting him, then escapes with him to Omega HQ with the sound weapon…where as mentioned above she eventually gets raped. Bergin then wraps up the novel in a page or two, Xuan blowing the invading Telixans away with his sound cannon. The end.

Yeah, the book sucked.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Penetrator #16: Deepsea Shootout

The Penetrator #16: Deepsea Shootout, by Lionel Derrick
September, 1976  Pinnacle Books

Man, what a misfire of a Penetrator novel. Easily the worst volume yet of the series, Deepsea Shootout comes off like a lazy first draft from Chet Cunningham, who usually delivers the more unhinged installments. This time it’s the narrative itself that’s unhinged, never certain what its plot is, hopscotching all over the place in a desperate attempt to fill pages. Most unforgiveably, it’s boring, something which can’t be said about Cunningham’s previous sadistic offerings.

Even the back cover can’t figure out what the storyline is – the blurb has you thinking Mark “Penetrator” Hardin is heading to the Caribbean to save Dr. Jamison Hutch, an archeologist who’s gone missing. Instead we open with Hardin posing as a reporter as he just sort of hangs around on the young archeologist’s boat; Hutch is down here searching for a sunken Spanish galleon from the 17th century, and has brought along his attractive colleague Beth Anne, who spends the narrative sunning in her bikini and checking out Hardin.

A group of pirates are working the area, nailing tourist boats outside the harbors of the Bahamas. This is the real reason Hardin has come here. In a brief prologue we meet the pirates: made up of radicalized natives, they’re lead by a beautiful black lady who happens to be a voodoo priestess; later in the book Hardin runs into her as she’s leading her people in a ceremony. Really though this character and her priestesshood and the entire bit is woefully underdeveloped; Cunningham introduces her and her pirates as the villains, then forgets about them, then introduces some unrelated guy as another villain, and then quickly disposes of the pirates.

I suspect Cunningham must’ve taken a well-deserved vacation to the Bahamas before penning this, as the majority of Deepsea Shootout comes off like a Caribbean travelogue. Also many pages are just recaps of sunken galleon ships which were discovered in past years, Dr. Hutch going on and on in bland exposition which again just appears like a gambit to fill pages. And no surprise, this stuff has no bearing on the story – hell, when we meet him, Hutch is going on and on about the Concepcion, the ship he’s certain is here in this area, but later in the novel he’s just like, “Oh, I was wrong – it’s not here,” and the entire subplot is dropped.

There’s absolutely no action for about 70 pages or so, a Penetrator first. That would be fine if the story was gripping, but it’s not. It’s repetitive and boring, padded to the extreme. In fact it comes off like some low-budget early-‘70s TV show, Hardin recast as Mannix or something, just hobknobbing around and doing a half-assed job picking up clues.

Even those weird plot elements of previous Cunningham installments is gone, with little of the sadism we’ve previously seen. Save, that is, for a bit at the end where Hardin blasts someone with white phosphorous, and the guy pleads with Hardin to allow him to kill himself, jumping into a shark pool! This scene is strange because Cunningham writes it that even Hardin feels sorry for the dude, when meanwhile he’s the one who doused him with WP in the first place.

I’m reading my way through this series, but I have to say Deepsea Shootout isn’t a necessary read. It’s just tepid and underwhelming, and actually doesn’t even seem to be a part of the normal Penetrator universe, more like a Travis McGee rip-off sort of thing. The highlights are few: the voodoo ceremony bit, which does flash a bit of the old Cunningham quirks when Kama, the pirate leader and priestess, offers herself to Hardin (it’s an obvious set-up, though), and the climax, where Hardin infiltrates an underwater lair straight out of a James Bond movie, one complete with that aforementioned shark pool.

Oh, and for once Hardin gets hurt badly, shot in his calf in the climatic battle, the bullet smashing the bone. This leaves him incapacitated for a bit, but in the final pages he’s already planning a detour to Miami, setting us up for the next installment. Here’s hoping it’s better than this dud.

Monday, November 26, 2012


Mythmaster, by Leo P. Kelley
June, 1973  Dell Books

I love pulp sci-fi paperback originals, preferably ones from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and especially those that tap into the then-current psychedelic scene, casting their cosmic futures in a hallucenogenic glow. Usually it’s just the covers, but sometimes the novels themselves live up to this lysergic promise, and Mythmaster is a case in point. And just as surprisingly, the awesome Robert Foster cover (sort of) illustrates an actual scene in the novel!

Leo P. Kelley, who passed away in 2002, churned out a variety of genre novels, particularly Westerns; Mike Madonna informs me that he also created the Cimarron series. Starting in the mid-1960s Kelley published a handful of sci-fi novels, and if Mythmaster is any indication, they all might be worth checking out sometime. This is a slim book, a little over 200 pages, but engrossing in its storytelling and psychedelicized future setting. The novel is more of a character study than a space opera or adventure story, but the incidental details Kelley sprinkles throughout the narrative are fascinating.

Our hero is John Shannon, the titular “Mythmaster.” The way he got this title is pretty unusual to say the least. He clusterbombs populaces with pellets containing a hallucinogenic of his own manufacture; the hallucinogen drives everyone who breathes it "Mythmad" -- a euphoric, delusional state, one where they are incapable of controlling themselves. Then Shannon and his team of fellow pirates float down to the planet on their little ships and zap the fertilized eggs from the bodies of recently-impregnated women!!

Obviously Shannon is an anti-hero, and in fact the thrust of the novel is his eventual rediscovery of his own humanity. The novel plays out on a smallscale, personal level, even though it has intergalactic trips and action scenes. Shannon, an orphan who was raised by a robotic “mother surrogate,” once was a captain in the Space Patrol with a promising career, one he ruined in an attempt to save the lives of prisoners who were in an orbiting prison that was in the path of his ship.

Drummed out of the Patrol, Shannon eventually became a self-centered pirate with a variety of money-making schemes. This egg-stealing gambit is only the latest, if also the most disgusting; Shannon steals the eggs and delivers them without a care to their fate. In one case we learn that the buyers intend to eat the eventual humans that will grow from the eggs. (These buyers, the Epicureanites, are another of Kelley’s interesting creations which are only hinted at in the novel – obese lechers who live only to satiate themselves.)

One thing Shannon does get excited about is his infrequent visits to Seventh Heaven, a space station cathouse. Each level features a different erotic delight, and Shannon rewards his all-male crew with visits to the place after successful jobs. On this latest visit Shannon discovers the Star Wars-esque named Reba Charlo, a courtesan who has the entirety of the seventh level to herself, such is her fame and beauty. Reba instantly sets off Shannon’s alarms, as she knows who he is, despite the cover name he’s given (which is “Ackerman,” surely an in-joke reference to Forrest Ackerman?).

Reba knows that Shannon is really the Mythmaker; she knows this through Starson, Shannon’s “astronavigator,” a good-looking dude who happens to be gay, and who also happens to be in love with Shannon. This sets up the strange love triangle which brews through the tale: Shannon tries to subdue the feelings he has for Reba, who once was married to Starson, who himself keeps trying to get Shannon to fall in love with him! Weird scenes inside the goldmine.

Then there’s Oxon Kaedler (another great name!), a fellow space pirate who has been declared dead by the Space Patrol but who really survived; rumor is he is coming after Shannon to cut in on his profits. Kaedler is another of those great little touches of the bizarre that Kelley sprinkles through the book; his body burned beyond repair, Kaedler floats, nude and surrounded by a blue haze, overtop a hovering life-support device, and since his voice is destroyed he communicates through a lizard-like alien with telepathic powers. All of it seems like something that could’ve come out of David Lynch’s wonderfully weird Dune.

To me the novel’s greatest strength is the incidental detail Kelley puts in here and there, showing the alien influences upon this future. There’s Andromedan curtains that play “polyphonic” music when brushed open, and even a device of Reba’s that actually let’s people “taste the colors.” Also on the psychedelic tip is a later scene where Reba covers her naked body with alien “fireworms” which sparkle about her, obscuring her nudity in kaleidoscopic colors.

Kelley follows his love triangle storyline all the way through; during a brief return visit to Earth, Shannon visits Denver with Starson and Reba. The city has been split into UpperDenver and UnderDenver, the former a closed off haven for the rich, the latter a criminal metropolis. The wealthy can buy tickets which allow them to slum with the transients in UnderDenver, and this is where the trio go, checking out the nightlife, the weird wonders on display.

But over dinner Starson spikes Shannon with those Mythmadness pellets – everyone is susceptible to them, unless they have antitode pills – and then he takes the drugged and hallucinating Shannon to a seedy hotel and has his way with him. Surprisingly enough, Shannon comes to the next day without any anger; turns out he’s bisexual (!), and indeed is more upset that Starson thought he could make Shannon fall in love with him through the fog of Mythmadness.

The Shannon-Reba love story however bears the brunt of the narrative, and Kelley provides plenty of sex scenes. But for a novel focused on hallucinogenic drugs and interstellar whorehouses, Mythmaster isn’t very graphic or explict. The sex scenes are more along the lines of “he lost himself within her” and such, and other than a late utterance of “fuck,” the book is devoid even of cursing. However Kelley makes up for it with a general feeling of decadence. For example, the bizarre scene where Shannon, awaiting his appointment with Reba in Seventh Heaven, swims in a pool filled with alien fish – alien fish which like to congregate around particular areas of human bodies, with erotic effects – and ends up “dallying” with them!

Kelley builds up the rivalry with Kaedler in the climax, with Shannon and his crew in a desperate space battle with Kaedler’s superior ship. The last portion of the book sees Shannon, Reba, Starson, and a few crew members stranded on a barren, swamp-like planet, one filled with a strange alien life. Here Kelley delivers another psychedelic scene, when Kaedler drops Mythmadness pellets on Shannon and his crew, who then stumble about in a chemical fog. (This is the scene Robert Foster apparently illustrated for his cover – that is, if his cover was actually based on the novel in the first place.) All of this leads into an unusual ending in which Shannon and Reba are cast as a sort of new Adam and Eve.

Writing wise, Kelley plays it straight, usually just giving the necessary details and moving on. But as stated, it’s those details that I found so fascinating. He also attempts to get lyrical and literary at spots, with his characters prone to delivering soul-plumbing confessions or pronouncements. I don’t think Mythmaster will be to everyone’s liking, but something about it struck a chord with me – the focus on character, the psychedelic vibe, and the incidental and bizarre details.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Godmakers

The Godmakers, by Don Pendleton
February, 1974  Pinnacle Books
(Original publication November, 1970)

Don Pendleton published innumerable books before he found fame and fortune with the Executioner. The Godmakers was one of those early books, published right around the time that Miami Massacre came out. The first edition of the novel carried the “Dan Britain” by-line, a psuedonym Pendleton apparently saved for his sci-fi output. The edition shown here is the 1974 reprint, published under Pendleton’s own name and capitalizing on the mid-‘70s success of the Executioner series, which is name-dropped on the cover…right above the wangless naked dude as he floats through a sort of blacklight-esque dreamspace.

It’s interesting to note that the original 1970 edition of The Godmakers took place in the near future year of 1975…a time when things were slightly different, like “steamer” cars on the interstates and a different sort of structure to the US itself. What’s odd though is this 1974 reprint retains that “near future” 1975 setting. Couldn’t some junior editor have at least gone into the manuscript and changed each instance of “1975” to say “1980” or something?

I’m not sure about the original edition, but the back cover of this reprint does a poor job summing up the novel, making it sound more like a “political intrique meets ESP” sort of thing. In reality, The Godmakers is more of an assault on conservative morality, fundamentalist religion, and the modern world. Indeed it’s almost gnostic in its disavowal of Christianity, even equating the god of the Christians with the devil. And it’s positively Carpocratian in its mindset that sex, sex, and nothing but sex is the only means to salvation. Not at all what you’d expect from the creator of Mack Bolan!

But man, if only the novel lived up to its gnostic promise. It seems to me that Pendleton tried to mirror (or at least was inspired by) Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange Land, with his know-it-all protagonist who blithely goes about laying waste to all the sentiments modern man holds dear. And while The Godmakers starts off strong, veering into psychedelic realms, it soon becomes an overbearing exercise in semantics, given over to pages and pages of explanatory dialog, our hero Patrick Honor info-dumping on anyone and everyone. And though there is sex (indeed, the action scenes are sex scenes), it’s all metaphysical, with prose more ornate than purple.

Anyway, Patrick Honor is a federal agent who works for a CIA-type agency, his office right beside the White House. His boss is a guy named Clinton, which proves ironic in the later scenes with the President; every time Pendleton would mention Clinton, I would think he was the President. The novel opens with Clinton giving Honor his newest task; to look into the sudden insanity of Wenssler, a scientist who is helming a government-funded research of PPS (psychic power sources).

The Godmakers bridles with a pre-PC mindset; when Honor meets Wenssler’s gorgeous female assistant, Barbara Thompson, he’s instantly checking out her “female form” and hitting on her. We learn that Wenssler has voyaged to such inner reaches that he’s lost his mind. Now all he can do is scream about “the Nines.” Barbara also has a list of dates and names, transcribed from Wenssler’s rants; these dates prove to be recent dates on which various important people have died. Many of the dates are in the future. The President’s name is on the list, with a date coming up in a month or so. Honor’s name is also on the list.

You’re prepared for a conspiracy-laden excursion into politcal intrigue, but Pendleton switches gears fast. Over breakfast Barbara starts hitting back on Honor – apparently Wenssler in one of his moments of lucidity claimed Honor might be “the one,” and Barbara has detected traces of PPS in Honor. Barbara herself has her own PPS powers and, as she telekinetically unbuttons Honor’s shirt, she informs him that sex combined with PPS might be the only way to voyage into the astral realm in which Wenssler’s mind is imprisoned.

The two rush upstairs to screw. Seriously! Pendleton relays the ensuing scene in dialog (Lots of “Ooooh! Patrick!” and whatnot), but it’s over soon, veering into the psychedelic as Honor suddenly finds himself in some sort of dreamscape. This will be repeated throughout the novel; anytime people have sex, they’re intsantly sent into this astral realm. Honor catches glimpses of Hadrin and Octavia, sort of personifications of the Ideal Man and Ideal Woman, I guess the original images that Plato spoke of.

Honor emerges with PPS superpowers. The session with Barbara obviously was the spur that he’d needed, but it comes off as so rushed, especially given that Honor spends the rest of the novel going around and explaining things to people, a sudden know-it-all, whereas in the opening pages he was cynical and didn’t even believe in PPS. What makes it worse is that the forward action of the narrative is also halted, and the entire book comes off as a descent into semantics, numerology, metaphysics, and Jungian philosophy.

Now, I’m interested in all of those things, but it’s just that the way Pendleton carries it off leaves you a bit dissatisfied. Everything is relayed via expository dialog, and Patrick Honor suddenly becomes a total bore. I do find it interesting that Pendleton makes the villain of the tale the god of the Christians. Honor elaborates (at great length, and several times) that our concept of god is actually “The Rogue,” man’s accumulated misconceptions and prejudices about god given amorphous form, so that it is now an actual entity, and worse yet one that has gained self-awareness and plans to take over our world.

The Rogue, as Honor makes clear, is really just the Collective Unconscious that Jung wrote about. What I find so strange about this is that Pendleton turns the typical assumption on its head and makes the Collective Unconscious evil! It’s often proposed that Jung was only re-discovering the god of the Gnostics, the “god of Plato” and etc – ie, the “True God” who has nothing to do with the Demiurge, aka the Judeo-Christian god. Anyway, here the Jungian god is evil, and Pendleton implies quite often that man himself is the true god.

Which brings me to the title: “Godmaker” is a term Hadrin gives Honor during one of their astral-realm chats. Hadrin explains that each human being has the potential to become a god, and Honor spends the rest of the novel tyring to teach that lesson to his colleagues. Soon he has Clinton and Clinton’s wife involved, and together they with Honor and Barbara are having orgies…all to combat the Rogue, of course! But again Pendleton skips over the naughty bits and instead has ‘em all getting ready to go at it, then after a few breathless exchanges of dialog they’re all in the astral realm.

Things get super goofy when the friggin President gets involved, “initiated” into the astral realm of PPS-assisted sex by Clinton’s wife and Barbara! (Goofier yet, Honor later informs us that Abraham Lincoln is still out there in the astral realm, a fellow Godmaker fighting the Rogue!) Anyway the President is very interested in PPS research, and there follows many scenes where he just sits around and listens to Honor tell him how much evil the Rogue threatens. Pretty soon he’s even calling fellow world leaders and warning them!

It’s all just hard to believe. Also problematic is the nature of the Rogue’s threats, and the way Pendleton delivers his metaphysical action scenes. Simply put, you have no idea what the hell is happening. Our heroes will disrobe, engage in group sex, instantly be transported into the astral realm, and then they’ll be yelling incomprehensible things to one another, like “Follow me into the root square!” or “Slice through the plane and into the geometer!”

I find it interesting though that Honor, even after “ascending” to his Godmaker status, still shows flashes of that pre-PC mindset, always referring to Barbara and Clinton’s wife as “the girls” and giving them the simple tasks. Or the sexual ones…there are many other goofy scenes where the ladies go about telepathically feeling out the sexual impulses of others and goosing them into public displays of sex…all to fight the Rogue, of course.
Also interesting is that Pendleton never once mentions homosexual sex…not that I look for such things, but it just seemed an obvious question given his position that one must have sex to fight the evil god we humans have created. Yet Pendleton never mentions what the gays are supposed to do – he makes it clear that heterosexual sex is the only way to combat the evil Rogue, that men and women are of different genders so that they can combine and achieve Godmaker status through sexual union.

Maybe the fact that the novel even caused me to think about such things is a sign of its success, that Pendleton was at least getting me to think about and question his sentiments. (The novel also promotes a healthy "question everything" attitude.) However I still feel a much better story lurked within Pendleton’s concept. Less semantics, less exposition, and a bit more understandable action would’ve made a big difference. As it is, though, I appreciated The Godmakers for its ideas and its psychedelic, sex-as-sacrament mindset.

Here’s the original edition, which sported a cool Frank Frazetta cover:

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Ninja

The Ninja, by Eric Van Lustbader
No month stated, 1980  Fawcett Crest Books

This read has been decades in the making. I bought The Ninja fresh off the racks in the mid-‘80s, desperate like other kids my age for anything about ninjas. Even the cover of the mass market paperback seemed to suggest Sho Kosugi, who came to brief fame via Cannon’s Enter the Ninja -- which, I seem to recall reading, was rushed into production to jump onto the ninja bandwagon which was kicked off by the runaway success of this very novel.

But here’s the thing…as shoddy, goofy, and bad as Enter the Ninja sometimes is, it’s still a hell of a lot better than this novel. Comically overwritten, The Ninja is one of the more pretentious reads I’ve ever had the displeasure of enduring, as if Dow Mossman, after penning his similarly-overwritten Stones of Summer, had decided to take a stab at writing “something Oriental.” You’d think I was joking if I told you that a novel about a ninja was boring, but there it is – I tell you the truth. The book should come with a pack of No-Doze.

What makes it so funny is the story is quite simple; it’s just been overblown to staggering extremes. Our hero is Nicholas Linnear, improbably-named modern day ninja of caucasian and Japanese descent. Nicholas (and no, it’s never just “Nick”) is one of the more stoic/boring/unmemorable protagonists you’ll ever encounter, lacking much spark. Raised in Japan, Nicholas eventually came to the US (after becoming a ninja, though Lustbader keeps it a “mystery” for several hundred pages), where he apparently got a job at an ad agency (just like Darrin on Bewitched!). Not that it matters, for as it opens Nicholas has resigned his post after a breakdown...or something.

Anyway, it’s all just a convenient setup so that, when we meet him, Nicholas Linnear is a broken man, despite only being in his 30s, sort of living like a bum along the beach outside of New York City. Meanwhile, people around him are being murdered. Nicholas pays no heed, until he meets dropdead gorgeous Justine, who just happens to run into Nicholas on the beach…and several pages later they’re having sex in incredibly overwrought prose. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to get hot beneath the collar or consult a thesaurus.

Gradually (and I do mean “gradually”), Nicholas learns that Justine’s father is mega-wealthy, mega-infamous bad guy Raphael Tomkin. Nicholas gets dragged into Tomkin’s story when it develops that someone, apparently a ninja, is trying to kill him…and Nicholas incorrectly assumes that the mysterious muders going on around his beachhouse are due to the simple fact that Justine lives nearby – the murders are signs from the ninja that even Tomkin’s family is in danger.

The reader, of course, realizes that these signs are for Nicholas; in the occasional scenes from the evil ninja’s perspective, we learn that this guy has it in for Nicholas and is using this Tomkin job as a convenient way to kill the proverbial two birds. So he goes along murdering people Nicholas knows, most of them fellow Japanese who have moved over to the US, many of them martial arts instructors and etc.

Sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it, but the narrative style is so torpid as to rob the story of all tension. Seriously, everything is drawn out here, put through the metaphor/analogy wringer, until it all comes off like the literary equivalent of an unintentionally campy film. Even if a character merely looks out of a window, Lustbader will go on for a full paragraph or so, comparing this to that and that to this. Pretty soon the entire story collapses beneath the onslaught of fluffy prose.

But wait, it gets worse. Not content to wheel-spin in the “present” (apparently, 1979), Lustbader will often jump back to the late 1940s and early '60s, so we can witness Nicholas’s youth. But this portion too is unintentionally hilarious, because Lustbader only tries to come up with more “mystery” to keep us reading, but it’s all just so uninvolving. I assume Lustbader is trying to set up storylines for future volumes, as he leaves all sorts of things vague…for one, Nicholas’s mother appears to have several skeletons in her closet, not to mention her “sister,” who is married to an evil bastard who turns out to be a ninja.

Then there’s Yukio, a Japanese girl of Nicholas’s age, a nympho with the mouth of a truckdriver; incapable of loving or showing any emotion, she exists only to screw, therefore giving Lustbader opportunity to write a bunch of unsexily-rendered sex scenes. Speaking of which, there’s a whopper of one a quarter of the way through the book, where Gelda, Justine’s hooker sister (and a lesbian to boot) has sex with a female client…a jawdropper of a scene involving a bathtub and a revolver. Truly, even Harold Robbins would have been impressed.

But even these flashes of perversion are lost in the deluge of pretension. Dialog also suffers, with characters, no matter how minor, given to grandiose, poetic speeches about life, love, or what have you. I mean, it would be fine if one or two characters spoke this way, but every single character speaks exactly the same. Even Croaker, a tough New York City cop who works with Nicholas in the novel, is given to prosaic utterances that seemingly have no end. And don’t even get me started on the “wizened Asian types” who proliferate through the narrative; the older they are, the bigger their bluster.

As overwrought as the dialog is, the characters themselves are just as bad. Early scenes featuring Justine are probably the worst; the victim of several unhappy romances, Justine now distrusts most people and is reluctant to get involved with Nicholas. So ensues soap opera-etic drama between the two, culminating in an uninentionally hilarious scene (one of many, really) where Nicholas, breaking the news to a heartbroken Justine that he’s going to work for her father, falls to his knees and begins to weep…! All he needed to add was a little teeth-gnashing.

Another priceless sequence is when Nicholas and Justine later reunite, in an honest-to-God disco… a scene that contains Lustbader's overwritten-but-nonsensical prose in spades. Such as:

Somewhere was the bar, obscured behind a forest of raised arms, swirling hair, shiny mindlessly concentrating faces. Dance dance dance: the imperitave was clear, treading an atavistic path, the primitive’s tribal revivals, an ecstatic communal orgy, trivialized to the point where all possible consequence was nullified.

Seriously, what does that even mean? This entire scene is hilarious, given the lengths Lustbader goes in describing the “modern hell” that is the disco…and the lyrics he writes for the blaring music is just the icing on the cake.

This is one of those novels where you start to root for the villain, if only because he does you the favor of killing off all of the annoying protagonists. So then, evil ninja Saito was a godsend for me, popping up from the shadows every once in a while to do in some colleague of Nicholas’s. Unfortunately Saito himself is lost in the turgid shuffle, to such a point that even a late scene, in which we see his own perversions (namely, taking a heroin-LSD combo and sodomizing young boys), loses its impact due to the torpor which has overtaken us.

But wait, you ask, isn’t this a novel about ninjas? Well…sort of. In actual fact, the ninja stuff takes up around 10% of the narrative. The rest is given over to elaborate backstories, elaborate philosophizing, and elaborate prose. Nicholas gets in a few quick scuffles here and there, but actual ninja warfare stuff doesn’t occur until the end, when Nicholas and Saito have their expected confrontation. But it too is anticlimatic, over in just a few pages, and lacks any novelty save for a part where Saito uses a handy corpse he keeps nearby to fool everyone into thinking he’s been killed.

And yet, The Ninja was a big seller, and indeed spawned a series of five more novels, each of them doing well. But then who am I to judge, given that the bestsellers of today are things like the Harry Potter or Twilight books; at least back then adults were reading novels for adults.

Summing up, while the storyline in no way justified the overblown prose and dialog, I still found some enjoyment in The Ninja; namely, the same sort of sick enjoyment I get when I watch overblown turkeys like Valley of the Dolls…bad films that were treated by their creators with such gravitas that you can’t help but laugh. The Ninja is just like that, and it’s a shame a similarly-overblown film was never made from it. It would've been an instant camp classic.