Monday, January 13, 2014
The Hard Corps #1
The Hard Corps #1, by Chuck Bainbridge
December, 1986 Jove Books
I was only marginally aware of the 8-volume Hard Corps series; I knew it was your typical team-oriented ‘80s men’s adventure series about a group of former ‘Nam soldiers who moved on into mercenary work. But then I read Zwolf’s great review of this first volume on The Mighty Blowhole (where he also kindly provided a scan of the unintentionally-funny inner cover) and knew I’d have to track the books down.
And just like Zwolf, I couldn’t believe how much I actually enjoyed The Hard Corps #1. Also like him I had zero expectations for the book, figuring it was going to be a Gold Eagle-styled troll of gun-porn and endless action scenes with cardboard characters. And while that’s somewhat true at times, the overall impact is pretty great – I mean, the book is pulpier and just plain more fun than those dour damn Gold Eagle novels. Also, it’s cartoonishly violent, with the gore level of say David Alexander or GH Frost, and that’s always a good thing!
As Zwolf noted, the series is pretty much identical to Phoenix Force; we’ve got five hardened warriors with various specialities and enough quirkiness to make them slightly more than cardboard cutouts. I’m guessing Jove Books must’ve seen how well Gold Eagle was doing with Phoenix Force and figured they should jump on the bandwagon. And if that’s true, they made a very wise decision by hiring William Fieldhouse to serve as their author, ie Gar Wilson himself.
“Chuck Bainbridge” was the house name for The Hard Corps, but it looks like Fieldhouse wrote the majority of the novels, with a British author named Chris Lowder coming in for the final few installments. This concerns me, as according to Justin Marriott Chris Lowder was the “Jack Adrian” who wrote the first half of Deathlands #1 before Laurence James came onboard as “James Axler” to finish it (and continue on with the series), and Deathlands #1 was so bad that I never even bothered writing a review of it. (But then, I think the Deathlands series in general sucks, each volume coming off like a lame ripoff of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger with an added layer of Gold Eagle-mandated gun-porn.)
Anyway, the Hard Corps is made up of five dudes who are basically psychotics; I mean, we’re informed that they loved warfare so much that after ‘Nam they basically suffered withdrawal symptoms and thus decided to go it as mercenaries. Now, several years after officially forming in 1975, they charge one million dollars per job and live on a sprawling complex deep in the forests of Washington state, where they are both self-sustaining and also have a massive arsenal with a few helicopters.
The Hard Corps is comprised of:
William O’Neal – Leader of the group, a Green Beret captain who climbed the ladder in ‘Nam due to battlefield commissions until he was in charge of the special forces unit called “the Hard Corps.” He joined the army despite the left-leaning beliefs of his parents and never looked back.
Joe Fanelli – A demolitions whiz from Chicago who constantly bucks against authority. Thrown in the brig and kicked out of the army multiple times, he eventually found his way into O’Neal’s outfit and proved himself as a courageous warrior.
James Wentworth – The second in command, a balding scion of several generations of military bigshots. Wentworth has Fieldhouse’s stamp all over him, as he’s enamored of Japanese culture and enjoys going into combat armed with a samurai sword.
Steve Caine – Basically, the Rambo of the group; that is, David Morrell’s original interpretation of the character, as seen in First Blood. Caine even has the “unkempt beard” Morrell’s Rambo sported in First Blood, and like Rambo he sort of “went over” during ‘Nam and lived with the Katu montagnard tribe, learning their jungle warfare tactics and how to kill silently and etc. In short, Caine is the most interesting character of the group, basically a ninja type who moves like a shadow and prefers bladed weaponry, despite being the best marksman on the team. Like Rambo he goes for a wicked survival knife, which he uses to cut up people real good. He gets the best scenes in the novel, in particular a bit where he sets up a plethora of fatal traps.
John McShayne – In his 50s and thus a few decades older than the rest of the team, McShayne is a veteran of Korea and serves as “mother hen” for the Corps, taking care of the base, munitions, supplies, and etc while the team is off on missions. A funny recurring joke has it that McShayne keeps all of the storage sheds locked due to his fear of bears getting into them.
This first volume basically plays out like Invasion U.S.A. meets your average ‘80s ‘Nam movie. Reversing the customary story of American soldiers in Vietnam, Fieldhouse turns it around and has Vietnamese soldiers invading the US! They’ve snuck over the US/Mexico border to kill Trang Nih, a well-known Vietnamese refugee who goes about the free world as a crusader against Communism. In charge of this Vietnamese strike force is the KGB-trained Captain Vinh, an infamous assassin known for his warfare skills. Trang Nih has come to the Hard Corps for help, and just as he arrives in their secluded forest compound Vinh’s men attack.
The Hard Corps #1 is basically comprised of the ensuing battle between Vinh’s endless supply of Vietnamese soldiers and the members of the Hard Corps. Yet the book, the reader will notice, is 325 fat pages – of very small print! No doubt due to the editor or publisher’s request, the novel is rendered as an epic, when it would be much better served at under 200 pages. Instead Fieldhouse delivers long backstories for each member of the Hard Corps…even for Vinh and some of his underlings! It’s this stuff in particular that comes off like Vietnam fiction, given that so much of it is set during the war. And speaking of which, the ‘Nam sections with the Corps almost comes off like an installment of the Black Eagles – another Fieldhouse series, by the way.
But other than these elaborate (and usually arbitrary) flashbacks the novel sticks to its only plot: the Hard Corps versus Captain Vinh. The unit comes off like Phoenix Force meets Able Team, with the multi-skills of the former and the goofy chatter of the latter. One difference though is a lingering military protocol, with the lesser-ranked members of the Corps referring to O’Neal and Wentworth as “sir.” But at no point does the novel come off like military fiction, even though characters not once but twice poke fun at Rambo and the fantasy aspect of action cinema. Yet for all that the novel’s about as “realistic” as a Cannon film of the ‘80s…I mean, it’s all about an army of Vietnamese commandos launching an assault on a compound deep in the Washington forests!
And the gore level is through the roof – every time someone’s shot we read about their “steaming organs” blowing out or their brains wetly slapping against the nearest wall. Guys are blown up, gutted, decapitated, chopped apart, strangled, sliced and diced, impaled, and just plain shot, and each and every death is rendered in super-gory detail. In other words, it’s awesome! Almost as exploitative is the gun-porn, with reams of egregious detail doled out anytime someone whips out a gun, even if it’s some nameless gunman who just showed up long enough to get blown away.
As mentioned, the book runs 325 pages, and roughly 90% of it is comprised of various battles, with members of the Hard Corps taking out Vinh’s soldiers on their own or together. Somehow Fieldhouse manages to drop some comedy (mostly via banter) and even suspense into the tale, but for the most part it’s just an endless aciton fest. Stephen Mertz mentioned once that Fieldhouse was part of a “Rosenberger Circle” of writers, and that’s very apparent here – while the writing style is vastly superior to Rosenberger’s own, the action scenes do tend to go on and on, with a special focus on hand-to-hand combat.
But again, given the almost cartoonish level of gore, one can hardly complain…the book was almost like a writing exercise on how many ways a writer could describe a character getting killed. I’ve picked up most of the rest of the series, and happily it looks like future volumes are much shorter – meaning they can focus more on the carnage and less on the arbitrary and needless backstories.