Monday, July 30, 2012

An Intervew With Joseph Rosenberger

First off, a big thanks to James Reasoner and Mike Madonna -- when I read a while back that the Spring 1981 issue of the obscure mystery magazine Skullduggery featured an actual interview with the elusive Joseph Rosenberger, I mentioned it to Mike Madonna in our email correspondence. I had a hard time finding a copy of the issue in question, and told Mike that, given that James Reasoner had a story published in the issue, James might happen to still have his copy.

Mike asked James, who not only had the issue but also scanned the Rosenberger interview and sent it to Mike, who then sent it to me. After talking with both of them I'm going to take the liberty to put the interview here on the blog.

I've retyped it, as the interview appears in the magazine as a blurry Xerox-esque burst of typescript. And no, it does not feature a photo of Rosenberger! Be forewarned though that this isn't the most indepth interview you'll ever read, barely coming in at two pages. But it's something, at least, and as far as I know this is the only Rosenberger interview out there.

The interview is titled Sherlock Tomes, and it's conducted by Carl Shaner. So, here it is, copyright the Spring 1981 issue of Skullduggery:

Back in 1969, a fledgling publisher, Pinnacle Books, brought out War Against the Mafia, by an unknown author named Don Pendleton. It was packaged as Book #1 in the Executioner series and, although series characters were not new to the paperback field, The Executioner was different. So different, sales soared and, as they soured, Pinnacle and others launched literally scores of imitators. Over ten years later, most of the new breed of men's action series have died off. Not so Joseph Rosenberger's Death Merchant. Richard Camellion, the master of death, deception, and disguise, who works secretly for the CIA, has starred in over forty books, with no end in sight. He is a heard-headed pragmatist, and so is his creator, Joseph Rosenberger, as the following Skullduggery interview demonstrates.

Shaner: First of all, tell us about yourself.

Rosenberger: I'll be 56 in May. I began writing at about age 17. To date, I've sold more than 2,000 articles and short stories and, roughly, maybe 300 paperbacks under my own and a variety of names: Rosenfeld, Lee Chang, Harry Adames [sp], etc. Maybe 50 or 60 were non-fiction -- ghost jobs, mostly on Psi/paranormal. For almost seven years I roamed the world as a photo-journalist and finally settled down about 20 years ago as a one-location writer. To me, writing is a business.

Shaner: The Death Merchant is apparently designed to appeal to a different audience than The Executioner or The Destroyer, as Camellion is neither a crusader nor a superman. How much of this was your idea?

Rosenberger: The Death Merchant was entirely my own creation. The editors at Pinnacle didn't have a thing to do with it.

Shaner: Do your editors provide you with much direction?

Rosenberger: None. The editors do not provide any ideas. There is only one rule: Camellion takes on only the incredible tasks, missions that, if not successful, would result in loss of freedom in the Western world.

Shaner: The first novel, The Death Merchant, was a "war against the Mafia" story, and the impossible missions vein did not begin until later. Was this a natural development?

Rosenberger: That was the plan all along.

Shaner: Camellion claims to dislike the "Death Merchant" title. How do you feel about it?

Rosenberger: So-so, but I'm not crazy about "Death Merchant."

Shaner: Does Camellion have any real-life or literary inspirations?

Rosenberger: None.

Shaner: After ten years and over forty books, do you still enjoy writing the character?

Rosenberger: I enjoy the money.

Shaner: Have you ever used ghost writers on the series?

Rosenberger: No. I never will. I don't think any writer can take over another writer's series and do a good job, with the exception of the "comic" Nick Carter novels.

Shaner: What are your favorite Death Merchant books?

Rosenberger: I don't have any favorites. I try to make each book as good as possible, and feel, after the book is finished, that it was the "best." It's the mind-set by which I operate.

Shaner: Do you have any favorites among your other books?

Rosenberger: None. It's all commercial writing. Paperbacks, as a rule, are nothing but pulps in a different form.

Shaner: How do you rate other series characters?

Rosenberger: Some are good; others stink, in that the writers don't do their homework.

Shaner: How do you approach writing a typical Death Merchant novel?

Rosenberger: I sleep on it for months in advance, letting the "Overmind" work out the details. From an outline as I actually begin to write. Plenty of research.

Shaner: What other series books have you written?

Rosenberger: The first Kung Fu fiction series in print (Manor Books) -- until Manor tried to screw me. Result: a lawsuit that I won. I now own the series, even though Kung Fu is as dead as yesterday's cigarette. Titles: Year of the Tiger by Lee Chang, etc. There were four or five books altogether; then when I told Manor where it could go, Manor got another writer to do the series. The series fell apart after, I think, two books.

I also evolved The Murder Master for Manor -- three books. I told Manor this series would not work -- a black dude hopping in bed with chicks, secret Fed, all that kind of nonsense.

I have done one Nick Carter book, Thunderstrike In Syria -- only one, because the advances are low, because I don't have the time, and, mainly, because there isn't a byline.

Shaner: Who reads your books, do you know?

Rosenberger: All kinds of people, judging from letters, from priests to prostitutes, from scientists to truck drivers. People read fiction to relax and, on a subconscious level, to work out their own anxieties, but mostly to relax and enjoy the book.

Shaner: Finally, with the Death Merchant entering its second decade, where do you see Richard Camellion and Joseph Rosenberger going from here?

Rosenberger: Rosenberger? Who knows? I can always sell series. I've turned down five this year. Camellion will live as long as the books at Pinnacle show a profit. The bottom line in publishing is money.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Hitman #1: Who Killed You, Cindy Castle?

Hitman #1: Who Killed You, Cindy Castle?, by Kirby Carr
No month stated, 1974 Canyon Books

This was the start of an obscure 7-volume series* by Kirby Carr, who was actually noted young adult/etc author Kin Platt. Published by Canyon Books (before moving over to Major Books after Canyon's demise), the Hitman series (only this first volume has a "the" in the series title) clumsily melds the men's adventure genre with masked crimefighter pulp and hardboiled prose, all with a sort of parodic/tongue-in-cheek vibe. Be warned, though: some of the books in this series go for insane prices, and I'm not sure if it's because they're so rare or if it's because they were by Platt, who appears to be quite popular, although I've never read any of his other books.

Our hero is Mike Ross, a veteran of both Korea and 'Nam, who apparently is a lawyer by day. At night he becomes "Hitman," putting on a "black nylon commando suit" and a "cowl with slitted eyes" (not the hockey mask shown on that awesome grindhouse-esque cover painting). Carr generally refers to Ross as "Hitman" in the narrative while he's in costume, as if he has become a different character. He drives around the streets of LA in his "warwagon," a customized van, dishing out double-fisted death with a Mauser and a MAB PA-15 pistol. Ross just loves killing; this isn't inferred but outright stated in the narrative. This is why he went back for more in 'Nam, so crazy about killing the enemy that even his superior officers got worried. Now he wages a one-man war against the mob and crooks and basically anyone else who pisses him off. Did I mention he's also a ninja?

Like Batman -- and again like the '30s pulps that are part of the inspiration for this series -- Hitman is notorious in the underworld, and also looked upon with a sort of awe by the cops. What's really strange though is that everyone seems to know that Hitman is Mike Ross! Carr apparently can't figure this part out; we're told that Ross lives in a sprawling house high in the hills outside of LA, a veritable fortress that's not only hard to reach but only known to just a few. Yet the cops are on a first-name basis with Ross, knowing without question he's Hitman; in one intended comedic bit, a goon actually calls the cops to set up Hitman, and the cops are like, "Oh, that's Mike Ross." Obviously Carr is trying to spoof the whole "secret identity" nature of superheroes, but it just doesn't work because it comes off as too goofy.

Adding to the unsure tone is the horror element. Hitman's latest case involves a slew of blood-drained bodies, and after some research (ie, killing hoodlums) he starts to suspect vampires are at play. Really though there's a lot going on in Who Killed You, Cindy Castle? (each volume features a memorable title), so much so that the center never holds. In addition to the main case -- Hitman's search for Cindy Castle, whose roommate reported Cindy missing shortly before the roommate herself became a blood-drained corpse -- there's also a small army of mobsters with their own personal vendetta against Hitman, plus a transcendental meditation place filled with gorgeous gals, one of whom is a raven-haired beauty who keeps running into Ross while she's naked and high. (Yes, sex ensues.)

Ross is deadly and kills his enemies with no compunction, but Carr mostly plays up the laughs. I'm not saying the novel is a comedy, but there's a definite goofy tone to it, mostly thanks to the scenes from the perspectives of the gangsters. As expected they're all for the most part idiots, particularly Herbie, a hapless gunman Ross chooses to spare (after wasting the rest of Herbie's gang, boss included). There's a lot of stuff from Herbie's perspective, and Carr fills up the 190 pages of big print with lots of white space and dialog. The book is a very quick read. More comedy ensues via the character of Ross's "Oriental" martial arts teacher, a wizened and ancient dude whom Ross brought back with him from 'Nam and who runs a dojo in LA; in between bouts of non-PC pidgin English he beats the shit out of a few mobsters on his own.

Carr doesn't play up the graphic quotient, though Ross kills many people, shooting them or blowing them up or even slicing them with shurikens and other ninja weaponry. The sex scenes are a bit more graphic, and this has to be the only novel I know of that ends with the hero having sex with a gorgeous villainess and strangling her to death while he's having sex with her. Ah, the lurid joys of '70s pulp. Actually there is a nice lurid quotient at work throughout, but nothing as sleazy as the cover would imply (though strangely enough everything shown on the cover actually happens in the novel).

But again it's the minimal plot and lack of cohesion that brings the novel down. Ross basically drives around and bumps off the mobsters who are coming for him, while trying to figure out who's stealing blood from various LA clinics. This leads him to the appropriately-named yacht Dracula Doll, where Carr delivers another good action scene. The finale is the highlight, with Ross captured and chained in a dungeon, where the "high priestess" of a cult has her way with him. There's also the mother of the priestess, who claims to be a few hundred years old.

While it's all fun, it just lacks a certain something, as if Carr wasn't sure of his footing. Glancing through future volumes I see that things get a bit more sordid and graphic in time -- I opened up the sixth novel, Don't Bet On Living, Alice, right on a scene in which a hooker was pleasuring what I presume was the villain of the tale, all rendered in a super-sleazy extreme. Like the sort of stuff Manor Books would've published. (Given that this sixth volume was published by Major Books and not Canyon, maybe the publisher changeup resulted in a tone-change for the series; I'll have to wait and see.)

*Many sources state that the Kirby Carr novel The Impossible Spy, published by Major Books in 1975, is the eighth and final volume of the Hitman series. Having bought this book I can state that it is actually a standalone novel, unrelated to the series, about a Uri Geller-type psychic. This means then that the seventh volume, You're Hired, You're Dead, was actually the final installment of the Hitman.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Penetrator #15: The Quebec Connection

The Penetrator #15: The Quebec Connection, by Lionel Derrick
July, 1976 Pinnacle Books

This volume of the Penetrator finds our hero Mark Hardin going all over the place, from Quebec to France, seeing a lot of action along the way. Author Mark Roberts appears to combine a few separate plotlines here, with The Quebec Connection starting off like just another tale of Hardin's tracking down and killing the members of a terrorist group, but then ends like something out of TNT, with Hardin fighting a trio of dwarves atop the Eiffel Tower. Even Hardin himself in this volumes wonders "what the hell he'd gotten himself into."

A group of hippie terrorists dubbed the 23 May Liberation Front is bombing places both in their homebase of Quebec and in the States; the novel opens with a pretty female member of the group planting a bomb in a Buffalo, New York bank. In addition to this the group is dealing a drug called Ziff, no relation to Artie Ziff, which appears to have the same effects as Ecstasy, just a decade or so before that drug existed. Only Ziff has a bizarre side effect which Hardin doesn't learn about until later.

As usual Hardin's method of research is pretty basic: he beats people around. In one out-of-left-field sequence, probably there just to boost the action quotient which is a bit lacking in the first quarter of the novel, Hardin poses as a priest and is jumped by a gang of street toughs, whom he kills after a protracted and brutal fight. Eventually he makes his way to Quebec (one of my favorite places in the world is Montreal, by the way), where he has tracked the movers and shakers in the 23 May Liberation Front.

Here the action picks up, with Hardin "penetrating" terrorist bases, killing guards and planting bombs. The hippie terrorists prove little threat, and indeed Roberts must've realized he already had Hardin kill a bunch of hippies back in #9: Dodge City Bombers, so he opens up the plot. While Hardin's tracking the French-Canadian terrorists, a separate group is tracking him: a Chinese villain who suffered fallout from Hardin's crime-busting way back in #3: Capitol Hell is finally getting around to his revenge, and so has sent out various teams of Chinese killers to waste Hardin.

There are some fun action scenes throughout, from Hardin taking on the first wave of Chinese assassins to another drawn-out sea warfare sequence with Hardin, in a commandeered yacht, launching a surprise attack on the hippie terrorists while they're engaged in a drug drop. After this battle the Feds appear, having been tracking the hippie terrorists themselves, and despite Hardin being a wanted man the Feds propose that he work with them on the case! Joanna Tabler, Hardin's occasional girlfriend, is with them; I'm pretty sure this is the first time she's appeared in a Roberts-penned installment of the series. (In fact, Roberts ends the novel with Hardin realizing that he'll have to break off relations with Joanna!)

After a laughable sequence in which we learn that Hardin has purchased a bullet-proof business suit, he flies to Marseilles, France, where a la The French Connection the Ziff has been imported from. Here those dwarves appear: the side effect of Ziff is that it corrupts the biology of the user so that his or her offspring will be born a dwarf. Masterminded by a trio of sadists who think dwarfism is normal and who hate the "giants," Ziff is created here in France and funnelled out to the 23 May Liberation hippies, who themselves are unaware of its damaging effects.

The Chinese have followed Hardin even here, and there follows a scene in which his bullet-proof suit is put to use, followed by an even better scene where Hardin gets his revenge. Meanwhile he closes in on the Ziff manufacturers, blowing up their plants and killing more terrorists. The finale is by far the best part, with those dwarves -- who, by the way, are dressed like the Three Musketeers at the time -- taking on Hardin atop the Eiffel Tower. (And yes, there's a part where Hardin grabs one of them and hurls the little bastard right off the Tower!)

While it was for the most part entertaining, I just felt that The Quebec Connection went on too long, and despite the abundance of plotlines it just seemed to drag at times. But then, I've found that I much prefer the sadistic, fast-moving installments written by Chet Cunningham.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Mind Masters #3: The Door

The Mind Masters #3: The Door, by John F. Rossmann
November, 1975 Signet Books

I'm still trying to figure out if the good outweighs the bad in the Mind Masters series. While I found the first volume to be a poorly-written bore, the second volume was an awesome blast of Eurocult sleaze. This third volume sadly returns to the sometimes-banal nature of the first volume, but occasionally brings back some of the sleazy nature of Shamballah.

If anything, the life of hero Britt St. Vincent is a hectic one. We learn that The Door takes place a mere week after the events in Shamballah (and Shamballah took place two weeks after Mind Masters #1!), and Britt and his fellow racing team/psychic investigators are already in Salisbury, England. The race takes up a large portion of the narrative this time; rather, I should say the preparation for the race.

I'm by no means a fan of Formula 1/NASCAR/etc, so this stuff really bored me -- and I don't exaggerate when I say that many, many scenes are nothing more than Britt and his team standing around in a garage and picking up screwdrivers (there's probably a Freudian element at play, I'm sure). As usual Rossmann's characters are a gabby bunch, and so again with The Door we have blocks and blocks of "dialog" in which the characters dump information upon one another in the baldest display of exposition I have ever encountered.

Beyond the exposition, Rossmann clumsily juggles too many plots. Is the concern here the psychic emanations from nearby Stonehenge? Or is it the massive power lines which are apparently sending the locals into fits of rage? Or is it Jack the frickin' Ripper, who apparently is alive and well and eating the livers of young women while they're having sex in the darkened moors of Salisbury? Actually The Door is about all of these things. Given that we have here the makings of three fairly interesting plots, you'd figure that the story would move, but The Door instead is the slowest-paced entry in the series yet, much more focused on Britt's conversations with a local professor who has been researching Stonehenge.

The professor has it that Stonehenge was a monument created by "ancient astronauts" (a topic which I hate to my core, mostly because it steals away mankind's gift for innovation and hands it to mythical, nonexistent aliens of the past) who, after their spaceship crashed, built the monument as a sign so the rest of the astronauts, scattered about the world as they bailed out of their crashing ships, could find their fellows and go home. Stonehenge then is "the door," a conduit through which the astronauts could astrally travel back to their home planet.

But even this storyline is a bit messy, because Rossmann (via his speaking conduit the professor) further states that the ancient astronauts were travling in "plasma form," which makes me wonder why they'd need a space ship. No matter, though -- the professor's theory is correct, of course, and there's actually a tunnel beneath the sacrificial stone in Stonehenge that leads to a cosmic pyrmaid...exactly like the one the mummified Nazi used "last week" in Shamballah!

If you are rolling your eyes at all of this, get prepared to roll them some more, because staggeringly enough The Door gets dumber. First though I need to tell you more about Jack the Ripper. Kept alive via the same "cosmic mummification" methods as seen in the previous volume (indeed, Jack just hangs out in the hidden cell beneath Stonehenge), the Ripper comes to every twenty-eight years to kill nubile women and eat their livers.

Britt comes upon these grisly murders shortly after meeting a cute American college student who comes by the garage, asking each of the racing team for their dates of birth. She's a gypsy, living near Stonehenge, and makes her living giving horoscopes; as Britt gives the girl, Kelly, a ride home, she tells him that another gypsy family has arrived on the scene, a mysterious one which sets off Britt's Spidey sense.

Previous novels were marked by some of the most extreme and explicit sex I've yet read in the men's adventure genre, in particular Shamballah, which was for the most part straight-up porn. The Door backtracks on this; you know of course that ladykiller Britt is going to have sex with Kelly, but Rossmann holds back until about seventy pages in. (This must be an unusual turn for Britt, given that in the previous volume -- remember, just "last week" -- he was having sex with his German girlfriend promptly after meeting her...not to mention going to a Black Mass orgy with her immediately afterwards.)

However when Rossmann does write the sex scene we're expecting, it's pretty weird; affected by those mysterious power lines as they sit in Britt's car, Kelly engages in a bit of "auto-erotica" as she screws the gearshift in Britt's car while going down on Britt himself. Personally I'd get the interior of the car cleaned after this, but Britt thinks nothing of it, more confused on why the two of them were so suddenly overcome by passion before passing out. Indeed there's a whole bunch of narratively-convenient passing out in The Door. Britt will often be on the cusp of discovering something, but then will pass out, coming to back in the garage or wherever.

As for those mysterious power lines, apparently they have been built by a corporation with government ties -- Rossmann (and his characters) are very concerned about psychic enslavement, and Britt's company the Mero Group is dedicated to preventing the governments of the world from taking over the minds of the people. Personally I find this naive; if we were to fear psychic enslavement from anyone it would be business corporations or advertisers. But the government is the bad guy in this series -- any government -- and I can respect that.

Anyway, Britt sort of wants to find out what's going on with those power lines that are driving the locals insane -- at one point he's even attacked by a friend of Kelly's and knocks the guy out, making him puke(!) -- but there's also this deal with the Ripper, and anyway Britt would rather go back and gab with the professor about ancient aliens or articles in Life magazine.

The Ripper stuff gets even goofier; attacked by the undead ghoul, Britt chases after him, firing "psychic blasts" from his eyeballs. The Ripper runs off for Stonehenge and Britt gives chase. Here he discovers the cell beneath the monument as well as the pyramid within. And there he finds the mummified Ripper, lying on the pyramid platform, as if asleep. What does Britt do? He basically just shrugs and then leaves!!

Read that again and let it sink in. This is yet more indication that Rossmann has a hard time working out drama or action. He comes up with interesting concepts but tosses them around, not tying anything together until narratively convenient. Britt doesn't destroy the Ripper here, of course, because Rossmann wants to save that for the finale. It doesn't matter, though, because the "power lines" plot sort of takes precedence at this point; Britt discovers that the other group of gypsies is really a ComBlock-trained team of psychic researchers. After another fight Britt is captured, as is Kelly.

As in the previous books, this develops into a James Bond-esque scenario where the villain unloads his beliefs and opinions on Britt for pages and pages. The lead villain is a Vietnamese politician who tries to get Britt to join his side while showing off his toys. Here the lurid vibe of Shamballah returns. This group has kidnapped pretty young local women so they can be sold as sex-slaves. First though the women must be trained. Britt watches on -- aroused, I must add -- as he is shown these bound and nude women as they are screwed by mechanical dildos!

But wait, there's more. The villain encourages Britt to take one of the girls for a test drive. So, while he and Britt lay near one another, screwing the bound and gagged women beneath them, the villain proceeds to talk for pages and pages about his plans for world conquest. The whole scene is staggering in a way. Oh, and I forgot to mention the psychic friggin' computer, which can read Britt's mind and so will know instantly if he's planning to escape; if Britt thinks any such thoughts, the computer will alert the villains, who will kill Kelly -- who, by the way, Britt is apparently starting to love, gearshift-screwing and all.

Britt of course manages escape, killing several of the villains and freeing some of the women, but there's still more of them out there. (Oh, and the Ripper, can't forget about him.) Here Britt becomes a full-on psychedelic superman; the scientist on his team has created pills which boost Britt's psychic powers so that he'll be able to unleash his eyebolts at whim. Britt heads back out into Stonehenge and psychically blows away more of the henchmen, blasting off arms and legs and even causing some of them to explode.

After which we come to the coolest scene in the novel -- as well as the dumbest. The Ripper attacks again, just happening along while Britt's otherwise busy with the ComBlock villains, and Britt goes after him. Chasing him back to the Stonehenge pyramid, Britt himself hops on the platform and voyages astrally into space! Without question the most psychedelic sequence I've read in an action series novel, this whole chapter is well-written and interesting. But then it gets dumb. Then it gets dumb in a big way.

A black hole sucks up the Ripper's astral body and Britt's in danger as well -- he's in a sort of plasma form, just like those damn ancient aliens, so he's susceptible to such things. Britt, about to die, calls out to God for help. And God helps him!! I was reminded of that scene in Blood Bath where Johnny Rock prayed to the Lord to give him the courage to continue feeding mobsters to his rats. (Okay, that never happened.)

Seriously though, it gets even dumber. Upon returning to his earthy form there in the Stonehenge pyramid, Britt proceeds to tell Kelly all about how great God is and how "He" has been unjustly ignored by the snobbish atheists who rule the modern world of science. He goes on like this for the whole chapter! I mean, it's all just...I don't even know what it is. I've never read Christian fiction, but I'd bet that even those authors would never pull such a narrative cop-out.

Anyway, I'm finally wrapping this up. Again Rossmann displays his uncertainty with dramatic structure; after doing away with the Ripper and the other villains, Britt just sort of sits around for the final quarter of the novel. Indeed most of it appears to be set-up for the next installmet, which sounds like it will be a return to the lurid bliss of Shamballah: Britt ventures to Brazil, where he will take on a tribe of psychic-powered Amazon beauties! Still, though, the denoument of The Door is just as lackluster as the first half, with lots of talking and thinking.

So like I wrote above, I'm not sure if the good outweighs the bad with this series. Some of the concepts are interesting, some are aggravating. The characters are lifeless and dull, able to spout out reams of info, no matter how obscure. (The only writer I know of who outdoes Rossmann in the bald exposition department would be Mark Ellis, writing as James Axler in the turgid Outlanders series, where bland, unlikable characters info-dump upon one another in a fashion that would sicken even the protagonists of CSI.) The lurid quotient has been somewhat diminished, replaced by a tepid sort of plodding tone, not to mention an unexpected and unwarranted venture into Christian fiction. In fact, despite the three separate plot lines, not much really happens in The Door, and it comes off as a nonentity in the series.

But for all that, The Mind Masters is still pretty entertaining in its own twisted way -- I mean, William Burroughs was even a fan!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Richard Blade #1: The Bronze Axe

Richard Blade #1: The Bronze Axe, by Jeffrey Lord
June, 1973  Pinnacle Books
(Original publication 1969)

I’ve read about the Richard Blade series for a while, but never bothered looking into it. It’s pretty goofy, a long-running melding of the men's adventure genre with heroic fantasy, all about a James Bond-type who, each volume, is sent via a high-tech computer into Dimension X, where he tests himself in some quasi-Medieval, fantastical world, scoring with tons of scantily-clad babes along the way.

In other words, it’s full-on wish-fulfillment, about a modern dude flung into the primordial chaos of some Frank Frazetta-inspired paradise where good and evil are clearly delineated. And for all of that, it’s not that bad, most likely because this volume (as well as the next seven) were written by Manning Lee Stokes, whose contributions to the John Eagle Expeditor series I’ve greatly enjoyed.

This June, 1973 Pinnacle edition touts itself as a first printing, but the book is copyright 1969. After some research I discovered that MacFadden books published the series from 1969 on through to 1972, when the publisher collapsed. Pinnacle then brought back the series in 1973, reprinting the six MacFadden originals as well as two more, both of them written by Stokes. With the ninth volume on until the series finale, 30-some volumes later, Roland Green served as "Jeffrey Lord. The series itself though is yet another creation of paperback-producing genius Lyle Kenyon Engel, who also gave us such series as Nick Carter: KillmasterJohn Eagle Expeditor, The Baroness, and even Attar the Merman, among others.

All of Engel’s creations were prescient in that he capitalized on what was currently hot in the paperback fiction market, but the concept behind Richard Blade is almost sublime: What if we combined James Bond with Conan? For this is precisely the gist of Richard Blade. Our hero is a studly British secret agent, and with each installment he casts aside the trappings of modern civilization and goes about half-nude in a Robert E. Howard-esque world, cleaving skulls and spilling guts. Blade though is a complete cipher, at least in this initial volume; he has none of the memorable spark or quirks of Bond himself, and indeed Stokes works a subtle element into the narrative that Blade in fact somewhat forgets his earthly existence while in Dimension X. (Dimension X by the way appears to be an entire universe of Earth-like planets, most of them of the quasi-Medieval caliber, but others apparently more futuristic).

But then, Stokes’s gambit this first volume is to get right into it, leaving many questions unanswered (and for the most part unasked). Seriously, we meet Blade like four pages before he's hooked into a computer and sent into the world of Alb, where he instantly meets the Princess Taleen, who gives him a sword and demands his assistance. One could almost suspect the entire novel is nothing but the delusions of Richard Blade, still strapped into a computer back in London. The computer, we briefly learn, is a contraption of Lord Leighton, a scientific genius who has retained the services of Blade through Blade's superior, J. Leighton's intentions behind hooking Blade up into his weird computer are unexplained, Blade just going along with it with his eyes closed and thinking of England, I guess. 

Again though, the process behind getting Blade onto Alb is skirted over so Stokes can take us immediately into his Conan pastiche of nubile wenches, roving bandits, cannibal priestesses, evil queens, and epic battles. One difference between The Bronze Axe and Howard's Conan stories is the amount of sex. Howard was writing in the puritan 1930s, Stokes in the decadent late 60s/early 70s, and so was free to play up on the lurid quotient expected of 70s series fiction. Blade gets involved in a bunch of sexual shenanigans in this first volume, though Stokes does tend to be overly-literary, even in the dirty parts. (I can think of no other novel where I have encountered the word fellatrix.)

This first novel gets a bit bland as it goes on. It actually opens well, thrusting Blade into a weird world where he witnesses a gaggle of witches kill a bound captive girl, then eat her. After this bizarre, unsettling opening, The Bronze Axe becomes a bit boring and padded. The novel comes in at 218 pages of tiny print, and I’ve found this is common of the books produced by Lyle Kenyon Engel; all of them are too long for their own good, and so suffer from inordinate padding. This first Richard Blade installment is no different, with many repetitive scenes of Blade going from one captor to the next, proving himself in mortal combat and then turning the tables on his oppressors. 

The main plot has to do with the girl Blade rescues upon his entrance into this dimension; the sulky Princess Taleen, daughter of King Voth. Taleen was kidnapped by the minions of evil Queen Beatta, and so Blade protects her, escorting her to a local town, which is eventually overrun by Beatta’s men. Then Beatta’s place is overrun by the raiders of the pirate king Redbeard. It’s just all kind of endless and lacks any cohesion. Blade proves himself by fighting all sorts of challengers, from bears to viking-style sea raiders.

What’s odd is that Blade’s earthly life is eclipsed so that The Bronze Axe comes off as just another fantasy novel. Pretty soon Blade himself is cursing in the names of the various gods of this land (By Thunor! and the like), and Stokes intimates that he has completely forgotten being a British secret agent. But this past life forgetfullness convenietly comes and goes; two pages after forgetting who he once was, Blade will suddenly remember that he was a member of the Medieval Club back in London and so has hours of practice handling maces and broadswords and the like (now that's really convenient!).

The novel has more of the feeling of a picaresque, with Blade going from kingdom to kingdom in his quest to reunite Taleen with her father. But this plot is just goofy because you keep wondering why the hell Blade is even in this dimension and what he’s supposed to do here. But then, the only reason is the one stated: he is supposed to reunite Taleen with her father. That’s it! I can only hope that future volumes better handle the switchover from Blade’s modern life in London to his trips into Dimension X, but I’m not holding my breath. I have a feeling each of them will follow basically this same pattern; another thing I’ve learned from Engel productions is that all of them are basically repeats of one another.

Stokes writes with his usual literate hand, dropping ten-dollar words by the dozen. Characters in his novels usually come off as rather stentorian, and writing in a quasi-Medieval world gives Stokes ample opportunity to have his characters bluster endlessly in awkward diction. Think you not so? And so forth. I think Stokes must've also gotten a kick out of how many times he could use the word gainsay. In fact the writing style is close to Robert E. Howard’s original, only a bit more fussy and without the spark. Or as wonderfully weird. Unlike a Howard original, the weird stuff in The Bronze Axe is minimal, all things considered, with the only highlight being when Blade is the hypnotized captive of the gorgeous queen of those cannibalistic witches. Her method of hypnotizing is pretty unique; long story short, she is the fellatrix mentioned above.

There’s also a puzzling (but funny) homoerotic tenor at play; several times, when challenging brigands who are raping and pillaging various peasant girls, Blade will promise the brigands that they won't find Blade himself so easy to rape. Even stranger is a scene where Blade drops his trousers and has his squire apply lotion to his saddle-chaffed ass. The squire, massaging Blade’s ass, takes the opportunity to compare his own rear to Blade’s...!

It’s hard to believe the series lasted for so long. I was a bit burned out by the end of just this first volume. But I’ve already bitten the bullet and picked up the first several volumes of the series, so at the very least I’ll be able to see if each book is basically just the same thing, or if Stokes (and eventually Roland Green) gradually opens things up a bit.

Bonus note: The cover painting comes courtesy of Anthony Tony Destefano -- aka the guy who gave us Mondo!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The GroupSex Scene

The GroupSex Scene, by John F. Trimble, PhD.
October, 1971 Pinnacle Books

My wife and I occasionally go to estate sales, and while she looks at the antiques and etc I look through the vinyl LPs and the books. This being Dallas, the books are usually either Bibles or Christian-themed publications, but sometimes I come across some genuine wheat among the chaff. Late this past May was a prime example; beneath a pile of the usual glurge and Bibles, I discovered a cache of hidden trash gold: pristine paperback copies of Jacqueline Susann's The Love Machine, a trashy beach-read of a novel titled Charades by someone named Victoria Kellrich, The Sensuous Woman by "J" (one I've wanted to check out for a long time), and, most importantly, The GroupSex Scene, by one John F. Trimble, PhD.

Posing as legitimate sex research from a noted psychiatrist, the book is really nothing but trash fiction gussied up with some psuedo-intellectual commentary from the (nonexistant) Dr. Trimble -- who, I discovered after a bit of research, was in reality just the psuedonym of an author named Roger Blake. Under the Trimble psuedonym Blake published a slew of "nonfiction" sex research books, with such unforgettable titles as Cunnilingus and Fellatio, Female Bestiality, and Auto-Erotic Activities. I doubt I'll ever hunt any of these down; it appears that most of the Trimble books go for hefty prices these days, and I was lucky to get my copy of The GroupSex Scene for a whopping fifty cents.

Of course, I could be wrong about this and the material in The GroupSex Scene really is the first-hand accounts of a married couple who get involved with the swinging scene, with Blake a real doctor who covered himself professionally by publishing under a pseudonym. But that would be very hard to believe. This book reads just like fiction, given over to long first-hand accounts from our two protagonists, a couple named Don and Lorraine. They take turns relating the story of how they were swept up into the erotic world of swinging and group sex, with Trimble delivering a "commentary" every few chapters with his thoughts.

One thing about the book is that it fails a bit as far as description goes. I'm not just talking about the sex; characters are rarely described other than incidental details like hair or eye color. Very little attention is paid to locations or settings; I was hoping for a sex-filled trawl into the height of the groovy era, but other than a few sentences here and there, Trimble pays little attention to such things. Instead he focuses on the sexual antics of his two characters, but this too is rendered a bit flat due to the fact that everything is relayed in clinical terms...honestly, I don't think you'll ever see the words "penis" or "vagina" used more frequently in a book.

The book starts off promising, but soon becomes a tiresome trawl of sex scenes, with Don and Lorraine rushing off to meet some new swinging couple, clinically-related sex ensuing. But again, at the start it's not bad -- during vacation Lorraine discovers that Don has cheated on her (quite often) in the past. Instead of filing for divorce, Lorraine starts to think that she should even the score; opportunity presents itself a few nights later while Lorraine is visiting the neighbors, an attractive couple who, it turns out, is into swinging. Don comes home from work to find the group playing strip poker, and pretty soon it's time for some mate-swapping, the whole thing very much like that short-lived CBS series Swingtown from a few years back.

The next-door couple turn out to be gurus of what's being called "GroupSex," which is used throughout the text synonomously with swinging. Though sometimes "Groupsex" is what Don and Lorraine aspire to -- ie good old-fashioned orgies. But anyway after the gateway drug that is their neighbors (who soon conveniently move, allowing Trimble to branch out the narrative with new characters), Don and Lorraine become mad for it. Honestly, they're almost vapid in their static mindset of sex, sex, sex. A third of the way through the tale Lorraine even admits her concern that their "lives were becoming just about sex." But of course she quickly brushes off this concern and tells us all about their next sexual conquest.

As mentioned, the sex scenes are a little boring, mostly because they're so constant. It's funny though that Trimble has Lorraine develop lesbian tendencies, mostly so he can continue to write from a male's perspective while in her scenes. What I'm saying is, in the sexual exploits recounted from Lorraine's point of view, you get little feel of realism, mostly because Trimble's a male author and is more comfortable doling out details from Don's point of view. So then, all he has to do is have Lorraine suddenly find girls attractive, and tada -- soon enough Lorraine too is telling us how fabulous some other woman's breasts are, or how she is in bed.

Over the course of this sexual odyssey we have a redneck couple who like to film sex; a conman who poses as a husband with a sick wife so he can take advantage of the wives of swingers; a Swedish beauty who is more attracted to Lorraine but gives herself half-heartedly to Don; a well-off swinging couple who shock Don and Lorraine by revealing that they are in their late thirites, and thus "old;" and finally a genuine orgy club, "Group X," which scouts out Don and Lorraine via their swinger magazine ads and invites them to join -- that is, after Don and Lorraine have had sex with the committee judges.

Trimble does capture the decadent feel of the sexual revolution, of a time long gone. Everyone smokes, everyone drinks. Kids are just wall decoration, not the center of the world like they are today, and thus they are immaterial to the plot. Don and Lorraine have two kids, a boy and a girl both under ten years old. All told, I think these kids garner maybe four lines of text. Usually they're being "sent off to Grandma's," or "staying with friends." It's pretty funny because Don and Lorraine show absolutely zero interest in their kids, and indeed they come off as deterents on the road toward GroupSex. I found this humorous, especially when viewed from the perspective of the "kids are everything" world we currently live in.

The novel ends with Trimble himself attending an orgy with Don and Lorraine. This sequence is probably the highlight, as Trimble (still clothed) watches on as the various swingers engage in all sorts of shenanigans, Trimble relaying the details with total observational detachment. It's by far the funniest scene in the book, with Trimble putting quotation marks around the various phrases and situations, as if he's some anthropoligist witnessing the mating habits of a bizarre tribe, deep in the jungle.

What I most took away from the book was how vapid the two protagonists were. Don and Lorraine are not memorable at all, and while the swingers they meet are at times fun (or even bizarre), the two serve to put a haze of blandness over the proceedings. You definitely get a glimpse into the swinging world of the early '70s, but it seems to me that Trimble mostly did his "research" by reading actual news publications (most of them quoted) and looking at swinger magazines. But still, the book was certainly worth the fifty cents I paid for it.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Doomsday Warrior #5: America's Last Declaration

Doomsday Warrior #5: America's Last Declaration, by Ryder Stacy
June, 1985 Zebra Books

The Doomsday Warrior series continues to ecschew the episodic nature of other men's adventure series, once again picking up immediately after the events in the previous volume, with hardly any background information provided for those new to the story. Rockson and his pal Archer, as we'll recall, have just flown a commandeered jet all the way from Russia to the Great Lakes region of north America, bailing out as the jet spirals to the ground, out of fuel. America's Last Declaration opens the very next moment, as the duo splash into the icy waters below and immediately must test themselves against the mutated flora and fauna of "the world of 2089 AD" (that recurring phrase back once again).

Previous volumes of this series have generally started off "normal," with Rockson and his fellow freefighters engaged in some sort of adventure or skirmish against the Reds, before freefalling into a sort of psychedelic vibe in the final half of the novel. America's Last Declaration reverses that. It starts off weird, gets goofy, and then finishes off with an otherwise "normal" action sequence as Rockson must defend Century City against an invading army of Russian-backed Nazis. But then, this is why I put "normal" in quotes...I mean, the Nazis, despite being removed from the original issue by a century-plus, talk and act just like their damned WWII brethren, with jackboots and swastikas and the works.

It takes a while to build up to that action finale, though. First we roam the wilds of the north with Rockson and Archer, who encounter everything from sea monsters to metallic, magnetic balls that seems to be alive. Those who read #3: The Last American will remember that awesomely out-of-left-field sequence where Rockson was briefly captured by the Amazonian tribe of men-haters, who nonetheless wanted to keep Rockson around for a little lovin'. Ryder Stacy must have felt they didn't fully explore the potential of this scenario, as they basically reenact it over the first half of America's Last Declaration; Rockson and Archer are captured by the Kreega, a group of French Canadian Amazons (of course, every single one of them are beautiful) who capture wayward men, use them for their seed, and then kill them when they are no longer potent.

Rockson and Archer are in no hurry to escape. Stacy deliver one of their patented sex scenes between Rockson and the leader of the Kreega, and once she's had her fill she gives Rockson to the rest of the tribe. I forgot to mention that these Amazons are protected by panthers, who are only controlled via psychic means by a pair of Kreega virgins. The whole sequence is like something out of a fantasy novel. Once Rockson's finally gotten sick of serving as a stud, he acts upon his plan of escape -- which of course entails seducing those two virgins, who easily fall into Rockson's manly-man arms.

Believe it or not, the novel only proceeds to get goofier. After escaping the Kreega, Rockson and Archer trek on down into the midwest, where they come upon a bona fide '50s diner, still up and running, complete with a flickering sign and checkered floor and everything. Vintage cars ring the parking lot and a gum-smacking waitress takes their order, serving up burgers and fries and shakes. Throughout this series Ryder Stacy have tread the line between spoof and outright comedy, and here they stomp right over the line -- the joke, in fact, is on anyone who takes all of this seriously.

Using his psychic skills to win big at poker, Rockson takes off in an alcohol-fueled '83 Buick Roadmaster (!), tearing out of town just as the locals start shooting at him. Here Ryder Stacy display their lyric-writing talents, as Rockson flips on a tape and a late '80s rock hit streams from the speakers. (By the way, I checked Graphic Audio's adaptation of America's Last Declaration, curious to hear how they would present this song -- only to find they outright cut the entire segment. So then, now you know: the Graphic Audio productions of Doomsday Warrior are edited.) But even though they've escaped the townfolk, Rockson and Archer are still waylaid by a motorized caravan of cannibals, a full-on Road Warrior-esque battle ensuing.

During this time, Premier Vassily is plotting his vengeance back in Russia, still smarting over the embarrassment he suffered at Rockson's hands in the previous volume. Rather than call in his own troops, Vassily goes to Germany, where the country has once again taken up fascism, endorsed by the Reds. Despite that he fears this "Third Reich" force might eventually turn upon the Reds, Vassily still decides to send them over to the US, using them as stormtroopers to finally root out and destroy both Rockson and his homebase of Century City.

Back in Century City for the first time since the fourth volume, Rockson hooks up with yet another Amazonian -- his redheaded on-again, off-again galpal Rona, who is as ever nuts about Rockson and instantly throws herself at him. Yet another Stacy-patented sex scene ensues, Rockson once again casting aside thoughts of his "true love" Kim, who doesn't make an appearance this time out. But soon enough Century City learns of the invading Nazis, and Rockson, as head of the armed services, must concoct battle plans. The situation is grim, as the Century City freefighters are outnumbered a whopping fifty to one.

Stacy, still building on their epic theme, weave in several plotlines that have gone unmentioned in the past volumes; for one, Lang, the young mutant freefighter who reminds everyone of Rockson, is finally returning to Century City, which he left all the way back in the first volume, scouting out for the diminutive Technicians and their particle beam weaponry. Now Lang is on his way back, all of the Technicians in tow, with tons of particle beam cannons and whatnot. Also, the psychedelic Glowers, who back in the third volume promised to finally help America, are also converging upon Century City in their solar-powered ships.

So, after Rockson and the Century City forces have given their all against the Nazis in a long and well-done battle sequence, using commandeered Red gunships, employing commando tactics and boobytraps, the cavalry arrives in the nick of time, and the Glowers use their omnipotence to basically destroy all of the Nazis. It's a scene almost straight out of Ralph Bakshi's Wizards, as the Glowers invoke their psychic powers and make the Nazis see their worst fears. The bastards end up blasting each other apart, and once they've decimated the majority of the Nazis the Glowers depart, leaving Rockson et al to mop up.

Meanwhile Killov, who has really been AWOL these past volumes, sees the battle in progress from his KGB headquarters (which is like twenty friggin' miles from Century City, despite which Killov's never been able to find the place!), and orders a bombing run. But Stacy weave those threads and the Technicians, with their awesome particle beam weaponry, have arrived on the scene...

So, as expected, this volume is all over the place, but still enjoyable. And again it ends on a cliffhanger, with Rona seriously hurt and Rockson going to her, again employing his psychic skills to put a sort of protective bubble around her as death itself comes for her soul. Rona by the way is a much better character than the bland Kim, whom Rockson loves; we're reminded that he and Rona came to Century City together as teenagers, and have been inseperable since, but despite this -- and despite Rona's dedication to him -- Rockson still considers Kim his "true love."

America's Last Declaration ends though with a possible questioning of this, as Rockson tells Rona he does love her, so I'm curious if we will see the development of a love triangle or something. But then, given that Rockson has sex with about a hundred women in this novel, it's not like it really matters who is his "true love."

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Smuggler #3: Murder In Blue

The Smuggler #3: Murder In Blue, by Paul Petersen
November, 1974 Pocket Books

The Smuggler series continues to search for a consistent theme and tone as this third volume, as uneventful for the most part as the previous two, starts off like a James Bond-esque bit of international espionage before veering into an inner-city heroin-busting storyline straight out of Narc, before finally wrapping up in an overlong sequence about a Mayan cult, complete with supernatural stuff along the lines of the Mind Masters series.

Murder In Blue is not at all similar to its predecessor, Fools of the Trade. Also, there's some funny stuff going on here. Fools of the Trade featured our hero Eric "The Smuggler" Saveman rescuing a fellow ZED agent from a sadistic freak in the Caribbean. That volume ended with Saveman and the rescued agent, Kane, discussing their next mission, which would involve taking on poachers in Africa.

But here's the thing: Murder In Blue opens with Savemen in Russia, not Africa, smuggling out some intel and taking on the KGB. Once he returns to the US Saveman reflects on his past "three" adventures, Petersen serving up readers new to the series with recaps of what has gone on before -- and Saveman reflects on that poaching operation in Africa, a mission which apparently his father ("Doc" Saveman) also took part in.

On his official website, Paul Petersen states that there were 8 volumes in the Smuggler series. However only 7 were published. It seems obvious then that the original third volume featured Saveman in Africa fighting poachers; the way it is recapped here makes it clear that it was a full novel on its own, and besides, the finale of Fools of the Trade clearly set up the storyline. So what happened? Did Pocket Books just screw up and skip that volume, accidentally publishing Murder In Blue, which was supposed to be the fourth volume, as volume #3 instead?

That's one possibility, but I think there's another -- I think some behind-the-scenes manuevering was going on. Petersen's name is still on the cover, but Murder In Blue does not appear to be written by the same person behind the previous two novels. Fools of the Trade in particular was a clunky horror that traded off between red-herring plots, super-explicit sex, and sadistic torture-porn that was pretty damn shocking. Murder In Blue on the other hand is for the most part deftly handled in the narrative portion, with little of the clunkiness previously seen. Sure, it jumps all over the place story-wise, but still, there's none of the bizarre "touches" of Fools of the Trade (other than a sex scene midway through which, while being pretty explicit, still isn't as "Penthouse Letters" as the stuff in volume #2).

As I've mentioned, the copyright page states that this series was written in collaboration with someone named David Oliphant, and I'd still love to know how the writing duties were shared. Did he and Petersen switch off on volumes? Was Oliphant the "mastermind" behind Fools of the Trade? Or was the originally-planned third volume about hunting poachers in Africa just as bad as Fools of the Trade, and so Pocket Books hired some new ghostwriter in to "save" Saveman with a wholly-new installment?

It really doesn't matter, though, as I'm giving the series more thought than it deserves. While Murder In Blue is, as far as writing goes, better than its predecessors, the series as a whole just ain't up to snuff. Saveman is too perfect and the plots just aren't very gripping. And the plot-hopping mentioned above doesn't help much. The novel cannot make up its mind what it wants to be: the opening portion in Russia is entertaining, and again much slicker and more "mature" than those previous two books, with Saveman escaping the KGB by hiding in the wheel-well of a commercial plane.

But then the Narc-esque portion of the storyline is plodding, with Saveman on "vacation" in LA, where he wants to get to the bottom of a series of cult murders taking place. Mutilated bodies, painted blue and shot full of arrows, are turning up, and soon enough Saveman deduces that a heroin ring is behind it. This sequence is only saved by the presence of Amy Gazer, Saveman's old high school girlfriend, who runs a clinic. A raven-haired and voluptious beauty, Amy is sort of my ideal gal: fully part of the '70s New Age movement, she lives in a rolling estate where she sits lotus-style on a shag carpet and meditates, smokes dope, and consults her occult-themed library.

Saveman -- a smuggler, remember -- actually partakes of drugs this time out, a first for the series. After being shot up by a hallucinogen by escaping members of the cult, Saveman steers his car to Amy's place (she just appears in the narrative without much setup, by the way) and she instantly seduces him, a pretty steamy scene ensuing. Rather than the pages-long stuff in say the Baroness, which eventually bores the reader with its endless barrage of anatomical euphemisms, the scene here actually succeeds in generating a little heat.

After that, though, the storyline just gets boring. The third half of the novel features Saveman, Amy, and a professor deep in the Yucatan, searching for a Mayan temple in which the cult will stage their next big sacrifice. Here Petersen (or whoever wrote this) takes the opportunity to shoehorn in endless detail about Mayan history and customs, courtesy the blathering professor. Seriously, you can skip large portions of the narrative here. It's an obvious page-filling gambit.

Ironically the Mayan stuff is similar to another novel I recently read, John Eagle Expeditor #6: The Glyphs of Gold, which as you'll no doubt expect was much, much better. But here Petersen instills a supernatural element to the series which just doesn't jibe: Amy and the professor are caught, Amy stripped down and drugged, fated to become the cult leader's bride. A lurid scene ensues where, as part of the marriage ceremony, a group of priests masturbate on Amy(!) and then the leader takes her on an altar, his "engorged manhood" (which we are endlessly reminded is fucking huge) so incredible to Amy's drugged eyes that she basically just starts drooling with lust, giving herself completely to the Mayan cause.

Then Saveman shows up -- after the leader's had his way with Amy, by the way -- with an old Mayan priest who magically becomes younger and starts flying around, shooting blue balls of energy at the cult leader! I mean, what the hell's going on?? After which the priest tells Saveman that Amy's "gone," that she's not dead but not living, and must stay with the Maya -- oh, and she's probably pregnant with the cult leader's child. And Saveman basically shrugs and just leaves her there, high-tailing it back home to reunite with his dad and his superiors at ZED, so he can regale them with stories about how weird his "vacation" was.

Seriously, this was some weird stuff...but all of it was relayed in a clinical fashion, the style and narrative a lot more polished and professional than in the previous book. Now that I think of it, the style of Smuggler #1 might have been similar to this, so maybe Petersen and Oliphant just traded off on each volume? Who cares, I guess.