Monday, March 30, 2015


Madonna, by Ed Kelleher and Harriette Vidal
No month stated, 1985  Leisure Books

As should be apparent, the only horror novels I’ll read these days are the super-fat, embossed-cover paperbacks of the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Madonna is a title I spotted in a used bookstore a few years ago but have only just now gotten around to reading (my interest in horror fiction occurs in random bursts). While it wasn’t nearly as exploitative or lurid as I’d hoped it would be (or as the back cover implies), it was still a somewhat-entertaining story about an evil female being who attempts to seduce and destroy several men.

The titular character is a raven-haired beauty with an awesome bod who is generally referred to as “The Woman” throughout, rather than “Madonna.” She is an immortal being who we eventually learn is thought to be “the anti-Blessed Virgin, the antithesis of Christ’s mother,” and even “the mother of Satan.” But at any rate she’s so friggin’ hot that one look at her and any man (or woman) instantly falls in lust with her – a consuming lust which drives the person to murderous acts of madness.

But here’s the ultimate problem with Madonna: The Woman is hardly in it, her appearances in the narrative amounting to perhaps several pages of text, at most. Instead, more focus is placed on the humdrum protagonists we have been saddled with.

Also, as that “Christ’s mother” would imply, Madonna is yet another horror novel heavy on the Christian bias, with The Woman a harbinger of the devil and only good strong Christians able to defeat her – indeed, we eventually learn that she can only be killed by a sharpened crucifix to the heart! (Though on the plus side, she has to be staked while she’s orgasming for it to really kill her…!) But like William W. Johnstone’s almighty The Nursery, this is another horror novel where the reader must be prepared to accept a definite Christian leaning to the affairs; though to be sure, it certainly isn’t Christian fiction. (Nor is it as XXX-rated as Johnstone’s masterwork, unfortunately.)

This is also another horror novel that opens with a prologue in a past age: 1825, to be exact, where in a brief sequence a group of Germans storm a Satanic altar, where the worshippers are engaged in an orgy. The Woman is at the bottom of the pile, and the attackers, Christians all, pull people off her and stake her in the heart! (Jeez, how unlike a bunch of puritan prudes to ruin everyone’s fun.) Flash forward a hundred-plus years to the “modern day” of the 1980s and we read as some dude in New Orleans goes nuts and starts gunning down coworkers in his office. Meanwhile a raven-haired beauty leaves town, boarding a plane for New York City…

Here we meet who we initially assume will be the protagonist of the tale: Richard Bloch (Robert’s cousin, perhaps), a 30-something teacher of blind children who lives in a fashionable apartment in Greenwich Village with his girlfriend, Annie. Richard’s a caring sort, and he and Annie have a close relationship. Of the two, Annie is more interesting to me, given her job at the Forbidden Lore Bookshop, which specializes in rare manuscripts and is owned by an old guy named Mr. Clark. The authors spend the occasional scene in the musty bookstore, which I found particularly enjoyable…I don’t know why, but I’ve always like reading about bookstores in books themselves.

In addition to Richard and Annie there’s also Leslie, Richard’s sister, an up-and-coming actress who stars in an off-Broadway play that sounds pretty terrible. There’s also Jill, Leslie’s friend and also an actress. Kelleher and Vidal let it simmer for a good long while; true to Leisure Books form, Madonna is way too long, coming in at 384 whopping pages. Other than the Forgotten Lore Bookshop material, I found a lot of it to be deadening in this opening half of the novel; only when The Woman arrives in New York does the novel get a jolt, if albeit a slight one.

For that’s the other big problem with this novel: it’s pretty tepid. We have to endure lots of sequences where the characters discuss things we’ve already seen happen, gradually rewarded for our patience with too-brief sketches of violence or sex. But anyway, Richard gets a gander at The Woman, and from there he spirals into madness. Only Annie notices it at first, the way Richard insists on keeping dead roses in the apartment, how he’ll snap at her, how he has just started acting plain weird.

So Annie will discuss with Leslie, who will poo-poo the girl’s worries. On and on it goes. Sadly, the authors begin to shift focus away from Richard, so that we don’t get a good understanding of his personal feelings. Instead, Annie and Leslie become the stars, and eventually they figure out that this black-haired beauty, who lives in an apartment across from Richard and Annie’s, is the culprit. Meanwhile Annie comes across these old Satanic books in a new shipment to the Forgotten Lore shop, including some ancient-looking medallions which have a beautiful woman on them, complete with a serpent slithering up her thigh and right toward her crotch.

The violence of the opening pages takes its time to return, but it at least must be said that these authors don’t play favorites when it comes to the carnage. For example, the first person to go is Annie herself, who dies quite memorably – chopped to death by a food processor! This is after she’s run afoul of The Woman. Meanwhile Leslie begins receiving strange messages on her answering machine, nothing but the eerie cries of what sounds like a baby. (This by the way is a recurring plot thread that the authors never bother to explain – what exactly this thing is supposed to be is never stated.)

The sleaze element is lacking; the few sex scenes are vaguely described, such as when Richard has his first conjugal visit with The Woman, who appears naked in his apartment after Annie has met her unfortunate end. We do get the detail that she is in control during these times with Richard; despite how forcefully he wants to take her, Richard always finds that The Woman controls him. Later we see that the lady only gets off when she’s with her followers, apparently, as old Mr. Clark gives it to her good and proper – unsurprisingly, the old goat turns out to be one of The Woman’s worshippers, though his cult is yet another plot thread the authors do precious little to elaborate on.

Nope, this is yet another Leisure/Zebra/whatever other lowjack publisher type of horror novel, where the authors seem to know what they want to write but not how to write it. For once again we have a “horror novel” that not only doesn’t have much horror but also focuses on the wrong things, over and over again. If you have an eternal force of evil which is masked in total sensuality, an orgy-crazed cult that worships her, and the plot payoff that said eternal force can only be killed by a crucifix to the heart while she’s orgasming, then why in the hell would you instead choose to focus on mundane conversations where the bland protagonists sit around and discuss the possible reasons for these recent strange events in their lives?

Worse yet, on page 143(!!) the authors introduce us to the true hero of the tale: young Father Jimmy Hamilton, cousin of Richard and Leslie and the character who will (quite gradually) deduce that The Woman is a supernatural force of evil. But yep, our hero’s a true-blue Catholic, just like those German dudes in the opening section…how great would it be if one of these novels featured something unexpected, like an atheist hero, huh? But a cliché is a cliché, so I shouldn’t complain. And anyway, I don’t read these ‘80s horror paperbacks looking for high literature or something unexpected. I do however read them for twisted, lurid fun, something which Madonna only provides in infrequent and brief doses.

But yeah, “Fr. Jimmy” is now our hero (apparently “Fr.” is how one shortens “Father”), and so we have to start back at square one, over a quarter of the way into the novel, as now Jimmy has to figure out who The Woman is and what dire, evil effect she is having on his friends. This entails lots more discussions with the various characters, as well as trips to the local seminary, where Jimmy researches old Church manuscripts. Seeing one of those medallions (which Annie accidentally lifted from the Forbidden Lore, with Leslie eventually winding up with it), Jimmy can’t get over how the woman depicted on it is a dead ringer for this raven-haired fox Richard is now obsessed with.

Gradually Jimmy comes upon mentions of “The Madonna” in those old Church texts; apparently she’s the mother of Satan, and comes to the earth every few centuries to raise hell. But in each case where Jimmy is about to discover how she can be stopped, the pages are torn from the manuscript. This is a surefire way for the authors to fill more pages in their own book…making the hero uncertain how this unstoppable creature can actually be stopped. But at the very least, they do liven up the proceedings with the occasional murders The Woman causes – all of them, we slowly learn, vengeance upon the descendants of those men who killed her in the opening 1825 section of the novel.

So we get brief parts where The Woman will show up on the streets of New York and kill off some random dude. In one case she even lures a young boy to his death, but this happens off-page. In each case, even for the 8 year-old, the guy is instantly besotted with her beauty, and will kill for her. The authors don’t really elaborate on how The Woman works, though we do know that, in the case of a few of the dudes, she has sex with them in a sort of outside-of-time element; for example, she blows one guy in a punk bar, yet afterwards everything flickers and he’s not sure if it really happened.

But afterwards these guys will go nuts and start killing, and here the authors deliver sporadic bloody scenes. Meanwhile Jimmy learns that the goal of the worshippers is to make The Woman fully “walk among us,” to quote the Misfits, though this too isn’t satisfactorily explained. I mean, she’s already here on Earth! But whatever, just go with it. What I got from it was that The Woman, while powerful, isn’t yet at full capacity, something Jimmy appears to understand once he’s researched more. He also finds that The Woman, under various names, has recently been appearing around the country, leaving catatonic men in her wake – men who have murdered for her.

Well anyway, Jimmy finally meets with Cardinal Madori, who has the unedited Church texts Jimmy’s been seeking. Here Jimmy learns about the whole “crucifix stab while orgasming” deal. And hell, Jimmy’s such a sport he offers to do the job himself! But the Cardinal says that the head Church honchos back in Rome will want to clear this first…so the Cardinal has to go check on that…I mean, a guy can’t just go and save the world, you know, first he has to deal with all that Catholic red tape to ensure everything’s hunky dory!! So Jimmy begs the Cardinal to be allowed to do the job alone, even if it took six guys to kill The Woman back in the 1800s. Of course, if Jimmy were to fail, the Church will deny all knowledge of his actions…!?

Finally here in the homestretch shit starts to happen. Skip this paragraph please if you want to avoid spoilers. First, Leslie is seduced by The Woman (but it happens off-page, dammit!!); after this Leslie pulls a gun on a subway platform and starts blowing people away before turning the gun on herself. (Her gun by the way is a .357 Magnum that somehow has a safety on it.) Jimmy meanwhile storms Richard’s apartment, to slay The Woman as she’s screwing Richard, but instead he manages to stab Richard, and The Woman laughs at our priestly hero’s misguided efforts, telling him that Richard could never make her orgasm!

So, just as the novel’s heating up, it ends! Even worse, it ends on a cliffhanger, with all of our heroes out of the picture and The Woman apparently triumphant. What this means for the human race is something the authors don’t bother explaining. Meanwhile Cardinal Madori boards a plane for Rome, and I guess we’re to assume he’s about to call in the heavy hitters to take on the forces of Satan.

All told, Madonna is a passable, sometimes-entertaining example of ‘80s horror fiction, with a good plot idea that’s too little explored (or exploited) and too many characters. It’s also filled with a lot of incidental, mundane dialog, and the writers tend to POV-hop, changing character perspectives between paragraphs, which always makes for a bumpy read. Saddest of all, the most interesting character in the novel, The Woman, is barely featured, and as with many of these ‘80s horror paperbacks you can’t help but feel that a much better story was lost in the mundanity the text.

In 1990 the book was actually turned into a film: Madonna: A Case Of Blood Ambition, which was filmed in Canada and is now paired on a two-fer DVD with Voodoo Dolls, another low-budget, filmed-in-Canada movie based on The School, a later Kelleher/Vidal novel. I haven’t seen either film, but judging from online reviews the Madonna movie bears little resemblance to its source material, and indeed sounds to be generally terrible and unwatchable. It also apparently removes the entire supernatural element, turning the story into a Fatal Attraction knock-off.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Decoy #2: Moon Over Miami

Decoy #2: Moon Over Miami, by Jim Deane
May, 1975  Signet Books

The second and final volume of the misnamed Decoy series is just as boring and tepid as the first. Once again our breast-obsessed narrator, Nick “The Great Pretender” Merlotti, blathers on and on as he relates his latest (and thankfully last) case, which for some reason has him trying to clear the name of a young Hispanic kid who’s been set up on a murder charge.

It’s pretty bad when by the second volume the series is already in trouble; I mean, why the hell is a master thief like Merlotti suddenly cast as a civil rights do-gooder? At least the first volume had him pulling a heroin heist. This one dispenses with all of the sub-Parkerisms and instead makes Merlotti almost like a private eye or something. What I’m trying to say is, the “hook” this series had – namely, of a notorious heister coming out of retirement – is squandered, and we’re left with a boring tale that could’ve featured anyone as the protagonist.

The one thing remaining is Merlotti’s fascination with boobs. As in the previous volume, breasts are constantly mentioned, with at times two full paragraphs devoted to describing how they jiggle. This time it comes off as even more creepy, or puzzling, as if Jim Deane were trying to compensate for something – something made even more possible by the fact that, once again, he’s all buildup. We get like a hundred words about a gal’s tits, and then Merlotti will tell us, “We fucked again.” In other words, just like last time.

It’s hard to convey how puzzling this whole boob-exploitation stuff is, when coupled with the dearth of actual sex material. Call me strange, but if you write a few paragraphs about how a girl’s breasts look and move and jiggle and sway, then why the hell wouldn’t you just go all the way with it and write some bad sex material too? It’s just really, really weird, and to tell the truth kind of creepy, especially when you factor in Merlotti’s tossed-off “nuggets of wisdom” about women.

Well anyway, Merlotti’s in Miami, which is where he parachuted to in the climax of the first book. Now he’s in a trendy house with a big pool, living there with big-boobed Faye, his moll from the previous volume, as well as Mr. Waves, Merlotti’s black partner/technology whiz. Plus Waves has picked up a girl of his own. As Moon Over Miami opens, Merlotti’s sitting by the pool, licking Faye’s breasts…while Waves is sitting right there.

My friends, who in the hell does this? Other than like members of a rock group. Would you lick some girl’s nipples by the pool while your partner in crime tried to tell you about a young Hispanic kid who’s been framed for murder?? I think even a dog would show more courtesy. But Merlotti relays all this to us like it’s the most common thing in the world…and hell, Faye only dislikes it because Merlotti gradually starts showing more attention to Waves than to her unlicked nipples!

But anyway, Waves himself has changed – where previously he too was a career criminal, now he’s all fired up over how some local kid has been arrested for the murder of an old lady. The lady was Lori Daniels, once a Follies girl who in her day was as famous as Garbo, but then became just as reclusive as her. Now she’s dead, savagely attacked by someone who broke into her apartment and beat her to death. A few people claim to have seen a “Cuban youth” running away from the apartment building, and the cops converged on a kid named Jaime Ramos, who was blithely eating ice cream in a parlor a few blocks away.

So Waves badgers Merlotti to help out. Why, I don’t know. Now “The Great Pretender” becomes like the crime world’s version of a civil rights activist, and vows to do his best to clear Jaime Ramos. Meanwhile Waves just sort of fades out into the background; even though he came up with this whole deal, he leaves it all to Merlotti. It all just smacks of some ultra-lazy writing. Now Merlotti’s back to the same tricks as last time, wasting our time with “scenarios” where he goes on for pages and pages with his theories on why Lori Daniels might’ve been killed.

More padding with Merlotti’s casing of one of the cops who arrested Jaime, an oafish drunk named Dan Wilson. Here the breast-obsession goes into overkill as Merlotti sets up a caper where Faye, wearing revealing clothes, dances provocatively in a rock club Wilson frequents, in a bid to catch the cop’s eye. Deane writes paragraphs(!) about how Faye’s boobs jiggle. But it’s blue-balling of the worst sort, as per the plan Fay leads the lucky bastard out to the parking lot…and right into an ambush by some biker thugs.

Merlotti shows up with some “karate” moves to save the day, and he and Wilson become best buds. Faye’s gone, so Wilson’s lost out on that, but he’s gained a friend…not that it goes anywhere. More stalling as we get background detail on Wilson and who he thinks really killed old Lori Daniels. Back to square one, Merlotti poses as a reporter and goes around talking to various people. More stalling as it just goes on and on with tedious bullshit that bores you to your very soul.

Already a month has passed, and Faye’s frustrated with just being thrown “perfunctory fucks” by an always-gone Merlotti, so after “The Great Pretender” catches her in bed with some other dude (since she wasn’t getting enough from our narrator she had to go elsewhere), she says thanks for the memories and heads home. Oh, and Waves is still around…doing whatever. You’d think the guy would be a little more involved in the case, given how it was all his idea.

Deane saves all the firewords for Vicki, the 17 year-old beauty who was one of the witnesses who apparently saw Jaime Ramos flee the murder scene. During his door-to-door reporter schtick, Merlotti catches a fleeting glimpse of Vicki suntanning topless, and we’re treated to another paen to boobs. But if you’re uncomfortable reading such material when it concerns a “teeny bopper,” get ready to get real uncomfortable.

Following the old porn-hack cliché of making the girl “seem a whole lot older than she really is,” Deane has young Vicki coming on strong to the Great Pretender. He has no intention of fending her off, either; Merlotti, that charmer of a man, informs us that 35 is his cut-off date, so far as a woman’s age is concerned. No, his only concern with Vicki is that she might be trying to hoodwink him, that she might know more about the Lori Daniels murder than she lets on. But with her constant use of the word “fuck” and the way she keeps batting her eyes at Merlotti (not to mention her breasts, of course!), we know where it’s headed.

And surprisingly, it’s to an actual sex scene. For the first time in this “series,” Deane actually writes more than “We fucked,” and goes all-out as his narrator-protagonist screws a 17 year-old girl. There isn’t even a hint of shame from Merlotti (or Deane, for that matter) as he happily regales us with the details of his conquest. But Vicki’s so experienced, so mature…she even promises Merlotti she’ll be “the best fuck” he ever had. And she is! I don’t know which character to feel more sorry for.

So far as the plot goes, it’s a straight-up waste of time. Merlotti eventually runs into a Mafia goon named Boom-Boom Cavaliere who briefly captures Merlotti, putting him through the horrible torture of shining a spotlight in his face(!). There’s also a big fake-out/miss on Deane’s part with the introduction of a porn actress who turns out to only appear for a few sentences; Deane builds her up to the point where you figure she’ll be another of Merlotti’s conquests. But as it is, she’s gone in a flash…and Deane doesn’t even exploit her breasts very much! Quite puzzling indeed.

The previous volume ended with Merlotti sort of hijacking a private plane; this one ends with him hijacking a courtroom. In one of the more middling “climaxes” in men’s adventure history, notorious criminal/mastermind heister Nick Merlotti acts as defense lawyer for Juan Ramos(?!), and when he discovers (as he expected he would) that the court is made up of men who have already deemed Ramos is guilty, Merlotti and Waves break out pistols and run the trial their way!

At gunpoint, Merlotti gets the true criminals to confess – as expected, it turns out to be young Vicki and her two teenaged friends. These three who claimed to see Juan Ramos running away were really the sadists who murdered old Lori Daniels. Merlotti has figured all this out on his own and only informs us here in the finale; have I mentioned that the events of Moon Over Miami occur over two long months? But yeah, young Vicki was screwing Merlotti mostly to find out what his angle was, in his research of the Daniels murder.

The truth uncovered, Merlotti and Waves take the judge hostage and board a private plane to Guadalupe. Here in the final pages Merlotti tells us he’s done for good, that this was his last job, and he’ll retire to a lifetime of screwing in Guadalupe. Waves chides the Great Pretender that he knows he’s not going to retire, that he enjoys the criminal life too much. Merlotti’s final line makes one wonder if Deane knew this was the last volume, or if he only planned to write two books, as Merlotti insists that he’s retiring for real this time.

Either way, it doesn’t matter, because whether he planned to or not, Nick “The Great Pretender” Merlotti did not return – and so much the better.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Ninja Master #4: Million-Dollar Massacre

Ninja Master #4: Million-Dollar Massacre, by Wade Barker
May, 1982  Warner Books

Ric Meyers returns to the Ninja Master series with an installment that isn’t as great as his first one, but it’s still pretty good – at least, once our author has remembered that he’s writing a bloody piece of ninjasploitation pulp. Before that Million-Dollar Massacre loses its footing in a sort of padded-out Yojimbo riff, with hero Brett Wallace posing undercover as an underworld hitman.

My understanding of this volume is that, like Mountain Of Fear, Meyers was brought into the fold once the author of the first volume (apparently some dude named Stephen Smoke) turned in a manuscript that was deemed subpar by Warner Books. Since the title, cover, and back cover copy had all been devised, Meyers was required to stick to them. But whereas the similar situation he’d been presented with in Mountain Of Fear, with its redneck kingdom of sadists, still allowed Meyers to deliver a story more in line with his natural talents, the one Smoke came up with for Million-Dollar Massacre was a little more involved.

Basically, Smoke had it that in this installment Brett Wallace would infiltrate the Atlantic City underworld as a roving hitman, playing one godfather against another. So Meyers had to follow suit with his story, and the shame of it is that the majority of Million-Dollar Massacre reads like it could’ve been an installment of any other series. There’s no ninja stuff to it, and Meyers vents his frustrations with this setup through Brett himself, who toward the end of the novel basically says to hell with it and goes back to being the ninja master he is, the whole undercover angle be damned.

The novel still opens with a sadistic bang, as we meet a young Atlantic City prostitute named Vicki as she’s “entertaining” a gun-wielding john. Vicki assumes it’s just this guy’s quirk, as the bordello she works for, The Shop, caters specifically to people into bondage and the like. This is a very disquieting scene to say the least. In his previous installment Meyers proved himself an author unafraid to venture into full-on exploitation and sleaze, and boy he does so here, with the “john” screwing Vicki and then telling her he plans to kill her.

Meanwhile, in the span of just a few pages, Meyers has gotten us to care for this character Vicki, such that her terrible death – which calls to mind the similarly-horrific end another prostitute met, in Manning Lee Stokes's novel Corporate Hooker, Inc. – really jars us. It’s way over the top, with the john, who turns out to be a hitman hired to kill off everyone in The Shop, inserting his revolver in a certain part of the poor girl’s anatomy and pulling the trigger. And Meyers does not fade to black here, with the ensuing gore copiously described.

And humorously enough, hero Brett Wallace shows up…like two seconds after the girl is dead!! We’re told later that he had trouble sneaking into The Shop, but still…you can’t help but wonder if poor Vicki might’ve survived if Brett had left home just a few seconds earlier. And it’s made even worse by the later revelation that Brett’s here in Atlantic City for the specific purpose of saving Vicki! Hired by the girl’s mother in San Francisco, Brett has come here to Jersey to find her and bring her home.

Instead he finds her mauled corpse, and thus Brett’s mission of mercy becomes one of vengeance. He promptly goes about dishing this out, and it’s that patented Ric Meyers Ninja Master vengeance you know and demand, with Brett truly making the bastards pay. In particular Vicki’s murderer, who gets his balls kicked off by the Ninja Master before finally meeting his maker. This occurs after another harrowing moment, where the killer has discovered that Vicki had a baby, one lying in a crib up in The Shop’s attic; Meyers toys with us, making us think the sadist is about to kill the baby, too, before Brett intervenes.

Brett has “plans” for Vicki’s daughter, but Meyers doesn’t share them with us until the final pages. Meanwhile he decides to go undercover to find out who exactly ordered the massacre of The Shop – every single person has been killed, gangland style. Here the novel sort of sets into a rut. First Brett hires a hitman named Stillman to kill top Atlantic City don George Arrow, but instead Brett himself kills the hitman just as the dude is about to kill Arrow. It’s all an elaborate ruse so Brett can thrust himself into Arrow’s world as an important hitman himself.

Here begins the Yojimbo stuff. Posing as “Shack Sullivan,” Brett ventures about on various assassination missions for Arrow. But instead of killing his victims, Brett instead infiltrates their security and offers his services to them. Arrow’s first job has Brett going off to kill Arcudi, owner of yet another whorehouse. After screwing one of the hookers in a nondescriptive sequence, Brett sneaks around the place, only to discover that Arcudi is not only a woman…but she’s also Arrow’s daughter!

While this is certainly intriguing, the problem is that already Meyers’s storyline for Million-Dollar Massacre has been undermined. Brett decided to go undercover to find out who ordered the massacre at The Shop, and he finds out a few pages later that it was George Arrow. But instead of killing the dude outright, Brett instead continues with his undercover shenanigans. This is all quite puzzling for the reader. To Meyers’s credit, he does eventually explain why (long story short, Brett wants to collect payment for his fake hits into a savings account for Vicki’s daughter), but he waits until the very end to do so.

This means that the reader spends most of the novel wondering why Brett Wallace doesn’t unleash his ninja skills on George Arrow and his minions. That’s not to say the novel isn’t fun. Indeed, it’s kind of cool how Brett uses his ninja skills to keep his targets alive. Meyers is smart in that he works in this angle where Brett gradually realizes he’s fooling himself with all these charades; Brett is a ninja, an assassin, and his purpose in life is to kill his enemies, not to use trickery to play one against the other.

Only when Brett is nearly killed himself, by upstart mob boss John Testi (who has a fake right arm with a gun built in it), does Brett realize the error of his thinking. From thence forth he drops the “Shack Sullivan” guise, pulls out his ninja costume, sharpens his swords, and goes on a killing spree. The final quarter of Million-Dollar Massacre is an endless action sequence, filled with the severed organs and gory bloodsprays of Mountain Of Fear, and again makes the reader wish the Cannon Group or some other production company had bought the rights and made a movie of this series back in the ‘80s.

The stuff before this is only marginally entertaining, mostly comrpised of Brett sneaking into this or that establishment in order to kill his latest victim, but instead spiriting the person away and offering him or her his services. The graphic content of the novel’s opening sequence is all but dropped, with even the hooker-sex Brett enjoys given cursory description. I bring this part up again only so as to mention how Remo Williams Brett is in the lovin’ department, so hyper-skilled that he breaks through the “professional façade” of a working girl.

But really, in Meyers’s skilled hands Ninja Master basically is a variant of The Destroyer, only with a ninja overlay and lots more gore. In fact, whereas the action scenes are generally tossed off in that earlier series, Meyers devotes his full attention to them here, so that the reader feels every slice of Brett’s blade. Meyers also imbues the books with an on-the-level vibe; in other words, this series, thankfully, doesn’t have the satirical nature of The Destroyer. That being said, Meyers himself wrote a few installments of The Destroyer in the late ‘70s, and one of these days I’ll check them out.

Anyway, the finale. After Arrow tells “Shack” to meet him late one night at the Million Dollar Pier, Brett suits up in his ninja gi and lays in wait. On his way into the place his senses, which are almost supernaturally developed, inform him that there are people lying about in ambush. Due to this he’s able to avoid the conflagration of gunfire which erupts from the silent bumper-cars around him. Here begins an action scene that will go on to the last page.

First Brett takes on the gunmen, hacking and slashing with his swords. After he’s killed all of them, he’s assailed by a helicopter that comes out of nowhere, a gunner in the passenger seat shooting at him with a sniper rifle. Proving his superhuman powers once again, Brett not only kills the sniper, but also crashes the helicopter! But his ambushers aren’t totally gone yet; after walking from the burning ‘copter, Brett’s almost ran over by a horde of limousines, which have been sitting silently off of the pier.

Worse yet, each limo bears a shotgun-wielding goon, and Brett’s shoulder is shredded by an errant blast. Once he’s hacked apart every single one of these guys, Brett limps for Arrow’s casino, where the don and John Testi are supposed to be having a face-to-face. Finding the casino security guards all murdered, Brett takes up the uniform of one of them and continues his battle, dazed and bleeding, against a group of ski-masked assassins.

It all culminates in Testi’s headquarters, where Brett finally determines who was behind the huge ambush – Arcudi herself, along with some barely-mentioned female character named Tamara, who we met for like one sentence early in the novel, where she was introduced as Arrow’s girlfriend. Despite the brevity of Tamara’s entrance, her exit is friggin grand, as Brett punches through her skull and into her brain!

Testi has a concrete room, from which all air can be sucked; this is where Brett almost died, earlier in the novel, caught unaware by Testi. When Arcudi orders him at gunpoint into the chamber at the novel’s end, she snidely assumes Brett won’t last a few seconds. Still, she gives him several moments in there. When later she goes in to look at Brett’s peaceful “corpse,” Meyers delivers yet another memorable moment, a veritable Friday The 13th-esque bit of schlock shock where Brett’s eyes pop open as Arcudi’s kneeling over her, and his hands go for her throat.

And with that Million-Dollar Masacre ends, and it’s a hell of an ending, an awesome cap-off from the previous fifty or so pages of mayhem. It’s also a sterling reminder of the insanity Ric Meyers is capable of, and makes one wish the rest of the novel had been up to the same caliber.

It appears that Meyers was able to come up with his own plots and storylines in his next two installments (volumes 6 and 8), so here’s hoping they will be more like it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Spider #6: The Citadel Of Hell

The Spider #6: The Citadel Of Hell, by Grant Stockbridge
March, 1934  Popular Publications

I’m continuing to enjoy the Spider series, and Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page delivers once again with this sixth installment, which per the norm plunges our hero into a maelstrom of blood, violence, and mass death. It’s yet another headlong rush into pulpy thrills, leaving the reader almost exhausted by the tale’s end.

The Citadel Of Hell is notable for two firsts in the series: the first appearance of the Spider ring and the first appearance of the “Tito Caliepi” disguise which would eventually become the Spider get-up worn by our unhinged hero, Richard Wentworth. The ring was sold through the magazine, and was crass marketing at its best, but the “Tito” stuff was a novel idea on Page’s part, separating the Spider from the typical masked crime fighters of his day. (Unfortunately this look was only depicted on the series covers for a brief run in 1940, though it was shown in the interior illustrations.)

But once again Wentworth is out of his depth, alone against a massive criminal syndicate that practically brings the country to its knees. Published in the height of the Great Depression (the Depression even referenced in the narrative), The Citadel Of Hell must’ve really hit home for a lot of readers, as it envisions a hellish America in which times become even more desperate and nightmarish.

A group of pyromaniacal criminals are in the process of firebombing a food industry notable when the tale opens, torching the bastard right outside Central Park. Wentworth, per the norm, is already on the scene, following along behind the cops as they get in a running battle that takes up most of downtown Manhattan. Wentworth is, again per the norm, convinced that these killers are part of a grander threat – and, per the norm (one last time), he’s right. Soon to be referred to as the “Food Destroyers,” these sadists intend to destroy all of the nation’s food channels, thus capitalizing on the limited food supplies and “fattening their wallets” as the nation suffers.

But Wentworth has more pressing issues; after an apocalyptic firefight up in Yonkers, where the Destroyers are in the act of destroying a sugar plant, Wentworth is nearly blown away by a crazed redhead (a hot one, naturally), named Janice Hally. This novel’s version of the villainous woman (every Spider novel apparently had one), Janice is a constant thorn in Wentworth’s side. After getting away from him she later shows up in Police Commissioner Kirkpatrick’s office, accompanied by a District Attorney named Glastonbury, and there she and the DA openly accuse Wentworh not only of being the Spider, but also of being the man who started the sugar plant fire.

This is yet another constantly-recurring schtick of the series, Kirkpatrick being given sterling evidence that his “good friend” Wentworth is indeed that “criminal” the Spider. And Janice has excellent proof, as earlier, at the fire, she bashed Wentworth in the head. Wentworth, before meeting Kirkpatrick, applied some of his ever-trusty makeup to the wound…but this would easily be discovered should Wentworth consent to the search Glastonbury demands.

In what almost comes off like a scene in a Peter Sellers Pink Panther movie, Wentworth avoids all this by turning about, inentionally stumbling over his own feet, and “accidentally” bashing his head onto a metal filing cabinet! The wound reopens and the blood flows, and though an attendant doctor says it’s not possible to tell if it’s an old wound or new, Glastonbury is of course suspicious. The DA is set up as more of an enemy of the Spider than even Kirkpatrick, and it makes one wonder if Page will bring him back in future volumes.

Wentworth wears a variety of costumes this time. Disguising himself as a food industry leader he attends a meeting of these men, discussing the Food Destroyers with Kirkpatrick in attendance. One of them, Xavier Jones, claims he’s been extorted by the syndicate, but begs the cops to stay away. Wentworth instead breaks out his Tito Caliepi disguise and heads for the dude’s posh penthouse, where he soon enough gets in a firefight with a “dope addict” and some others, all of them gunmen for the Food Destroyers.

An early scene that stands out has the Food Destroyers firebombing another plant near the Hudson wharves; tenement buildings soon catch fire, with countless innocent victims dying. Wentworth, on the scene, rushes to the rescue. He single-handedly saves a woman and her apartment full of children, tossing them out of their burning apartment and down to a fireman’s net. One of the saved youth, a boy named Timothy Walsh, later vouches for Wentworth when the stupid cops assume he’s one of the arsonists – Wentworth, knocked cold by one of them, has had an incendiary device planted on him in an obvious attempt at setup.

When Timothy Walsh follows Wentworth’s whispered instructions, our hero is able to escape the cops who attempt to arrest him, the boy having stirred up the crowd into a lynching frenzy. For this invaluable assistance Wentworth awards Timothy “the ring of the Spider,” which we’re informed that we too can purchase through the magazine! (By god I want one!) But the catastrophe suffered by the boy and his family is widespread, with the Food Destroyers starting fires all over New York.

Wentworth meanwhile continues to pose as Tito Caliepi, old Italian streetcorner violinist; there follows an enjoyable sequence where Wentworth’s fiance, Nita Van Sloan, bumps into him on the street and they trade knowing words. But per the series standard Nita is promptly removed from the narrative (the later volumes appear to put her in more of a spotlight, but not these early ones), and Wentworth is once again alone.

And worse yet, he’s injured, shot in the right shoulder while escaping the police. His erstwhile assistant Ram Singh saves him, takes him to the townhouse of kindly old Professor Brownlee (Wentworth’s version of Q), and there Wentworth recovers for three weeks!! When he comes out of his delirium, Wentworth is begged to rest for another week, to fully recover his strength; meanwhile he learns that the Food Destroyers have so wrecked the nation that poverty is rampant, people are starving to death, and no one can stop the menace. Plus, Nita’s been arrested for assisting the Spider, and has been in jail this entire time!

The Spider returns to New York to kick holy ass, and there follows another memorable part where he and Kirkpatrick meet face to face. Actually, that’s a third “first” for The Citadel Of Hell, this volume featuring the first meeting of the Spider and Kirkpatrick. Once again in his Tito Caliepi costume (which I forgot to mention he accessorizes with fangs when switching from the “old violinist” look to the full-on Spider look), Wentworth meets Kirkpatrick while the cop is having the meager lunch afforded him by his ration card.

The scene doesn’t go as you’d expect it would, with Kirkpatrick having obvious respect for his “enemy;” they even shake hands at the end of the conversation. We learn here that the Spider has been around for five years, as Kirkpatrick mentions at one point that this is how long they’ve been futiley chasing the vigilante. Wentworth hands over a list of men he somehow has learned are involved with the Food Destroyers, and Kirkpatrick not only tells him he’ll help, but also that he’ll loan the Spider several police cars – even putting machine guns on them!

Again Norvell Page makes it patently obvious that Kirkpatrick knows Wentworth is the Spider; when, shortly after the in-person meeting, Wentworth calls Kirkpatrick with followup requests, Page doesn’t even bother to write that Wentworth uses his “Spider voice.” Or, for that matter, to even identify himself as the Spider! All this despite the fact that, so far as Kirkpatrick knows, Wentworth has nothing at all to do with these plans.

Barrelling into the homestretch, Wentworth first goes to a meeting of the Food Destroyers disguised as Xavier Jones; this after a long, action-packed sequence where he impersonates the man in his own home, after drugging Jonrd with a “narcotic”-tipped sword edge. After more gunfights, a disguised Wentworth meets with the Food Destroyers, all of whom wear masks to protect their identities; they’re lead by the Red Mask, the only one who knows who each man is.

Wentworth is quicky uncovered, which leads to more fireworks, including the unveiling of the Spider’s own police task force, loaned to him by Kirkpatrick; guns blazing, they tear through Manhattan in a running battle with the Food Destroyers. Another thrilling sequence arrives with Wentworth commandeering a city bus and smashing enemy cars left and right; a sequence featuring a great cap-off where he marks the hood of the smashed bus with the Spider’s brand, which he usually puts on the foreheads of his victims. This time it’s a “decoration of honor.”

Page doesn’t shirk on the climax, which has Wentworth, after a running battle across Central Park (where this all started), gunning down all of the Food Destroyer henchmen. Then he brazenly heads into the headquarters of “the chief” behind it all (Page apparently forgetting that earlier he called the guy “The Red Mask”), where Wentworth is immediately knocked out by Janice Hally! This girl by the way gets the better of our hero throughout the novel; her story has it that she thinks the Spider killed her beloved, some dude named Denny.

But as usual Wentworth has figured out on his own – somehow during all the chaos – not only who really killed Denny but also who the leader of the Food Destroyers is. The finale takes place high atop the Empire State Building, where Wentworth, despite being shot again (this time in the left shoulder), is able to turn the chief and Janice against one another – yet another memorable sequence, which has at least one of them plummeting to their death far below, all while burning alive!

Strangely, the denoument is an overdone courtroom scenario in which DA Glastonbury realizes his case against Wentworth is now groundless. Even stranger is the end, in which Kirkpatrick flat-out tells Wentworth he knows he’s the Spider – and, what’s more, not only does he respect him, but he’ll be happy to help him out should he ever need his assistance! (Doubtless this mindset was lost with the series reset which occurs each volume.)

Norvell Page again grabs hold of the reader and doesn’t let go; his style has that sort of “literary” vibe of the old pulpsters, but meshed with a more modern, cinematic feel. He never bogs the narrative down, and keeps things moving. What’s crazy about The Spider is that, despite the repetition, despite the lack of continuity, despite the insistence on pointless and lame “villain reveals,” as soon as I’m finished reading one…I want to start another.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sam Durrell #39: Assignment Quayle Question

Sam Durell #39: Assignment Quayle Question, by Edward S. Aarons
May, 1975  Fawcett Gold Medal

With a cover that could come off a ‘70s sweat mag, the 39th volume of the Sam Durell series picks up “shortly” after the events of the previous volume, though be assured that reading Assignment Sumatra isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying The Quayle Question. Plus, this one features a Fu Manchu-style supervillain who runs a Satanic cult!

Our taciturn hero Sam Durell is in rural Virginia, on an assassination mission. Teamed with a few FBI and DIA agents, his assignment is to take out a Japanese terrorist named Tomashita, who we gradually learn is one of the minions of Eli Plowman, “sanitation squad” leader of Durell’s K Section. Plowman, who appared in the previous volume, has gone rogue, and for vague reasons Durell’s been selected by K Section to take him out.

But first he must take out Tomashita, who is apparently in the US to kill the recently-selected head of a Japanese business conglomerate, one that has been steadily buying out media outlets around the world. (The novel is very prescient in how it predicts the coming trends of the ‘80s, by the way.) In particular this conglomerate, or zaibatsu, now has its sights set on the global media kingdom of Rufus Quayle, a notoriously-reclusive mega-billionaire who rules from his own private castle and is never seen in public (read: Howard Hughes).

On the job with Durell, against his objections, is the lovely Deidre Padgett – the only woman Durell has ever loved, to cue the old cliché. Apparently she appeared more frequently in earlier volumes; we learn that now, in this later volume, she works in an admin capacity for the DC-based K Section, to at least be somewhat a part of Durell’s world. It seems the two broke off their heated relationship because Durell couldn’t allow himself to “go soft” by falling in love. More importantly, he doesn’t want someone he loves to be harmed by his untold enemies around the world.

But here Durell learns something new about Deidre: she’s the niece of Rufus Quayle. And now she’s the man’s only living relative, or at least only one who can be found: Quayle’s daughter, Deborah Pentecost, has gone missing, as has old Quayle himself. The K Section theory is that they’ve been kidnapped by the henchmen of the zaibatsu. Not that Deidre has much to do with her reclusive, wealthy uncle; she claims to have only seen him once in her life. But still K Section fears she might be on some Japanese hit list.

We can already tell this novel will show a more personally-involved Durell, as when Deidre goes missing in the assassination attempt he’s frantic, but hides it beneath his professional demeanor. He finds her, though, tied up beside the hippie van she was using for cover as she trailed Tomashita’s rental car. And the Japanese terrorist himself has gotten away, not only escaping Durell’s sniper round but also butchering the zaibatsu head and his entire family, including his little kids.

Meanwhile Quayle’s attractive daughter, Deborah, is held captive in a dank dungeon, constantly questioned by some evil presence she never sees. Deborah has the mind of a computer, able to predict industry trends and whatnot, but this is more of a curse; “My talent is like ashes in my mouth,” as she memorably puts it. Her unseen interrogator constantly asks why Quayle’s second-in-command (and also Deborah’s ex husband) wanted to recently meet with her; when Deborah refuses to play ball, she’s shown the poor bastard’s carcass, which is mutilated and hanging from a meathook!

Durell eventually figures Tomashita and Eli Plowman are not only working for the Japanese but that they can be found in the Ca’d’Orizon, Quayle’s castle on the Jersey shore. He also figures the old man is there. Durell’s biggest clue is a bit of sand left in his supposedly-top secret safehouse, near DC; he figures the sand was planted there by Plowman, in the expectation that Durell would see the sand and connect it to the Jersey shore – and thus go to Quayle’s private castle.

Aarons really has a gift for word painting, so there’s lots of colorful description of the scenery and terrain of the places Durell visits. This does add a literary flavor to the book, but detracts in that it gets away from the action and lurid thrills. But then again, the argument goes that the Sam Durell books were never really considered part of the men’s adventure genre. If so, someone forgot to tell the publisher and the cover artist. As it is, one gradually begins to wish that less was being described and more was actually happening.

Things pick up with a firefight in an amusement park, where Durell and Plowman have a brief face-to-face. Here Plowman plays Darth Vader, asking Durell to join his cause. Of course, Durell refuses. He’s worried about this zaibatsu, which, if it takes over Quayle’s company QPI, will have a “world-wide network of media outlets,” and thus be able to sway public opinion. Again, it’s very interesting how prescient Aarons was. The novel’s big threat isn’t nuclear war or anything of the like, it’s about how the media can be misused.

Rufus Quayle is in fact hiding in his castle, and his scenes too are memorable. Bedridden, surrounded by armed henchmen, Quayle has recently lost his voice due to throat cancer and thus “speaks” through a teleprompter. He has no intention of selling QPI to the Japanese, even if they have his daughter – even if they threaten to kill her. Durell thinks the man is a “monster” but can’t argue with him; Durell too realizes what ramifications might ensue if the zaibatsu were to gain access to Quayle’s global networks.

Aarons seems to want to hedge his bets; I know he passed away not long after The Quayle Question was published, but at any rate he appears to want to leave Eli Plowman’s fate vague; the wily villain plunges into the ocean after a gunfight with Durell, and is wiped out by a big wave. Durell later bluntly states that Plowman’s dead, though he has no proof, and is himself uncertain. But at least Aarons wraps up the Dr. Sinn character, who also apparently had a run-in with Durell in an earlier installment.

Unfortunately, it’s only in the homestretch that Aarons begins to ramp things up. The book also gets more lurid here, with Deborah getting raped by one of Sinn’s more grotesque henchmen (one with a deformed member, naturally) – that is, after she’s had her finger cut off. And true to the genre, Deidre is soon after captured, taken to Sinn’s secret hideaway of a temple. This turns out to be in Baja, California, a Maharana temple that Sinn has rented from a drunk old lady who owns the property.

Even here more time is spent on scene-setting, so that when Durell finally goes to save Deidre (and have his final confrontation with Sinn), only a handful of pages are left. Dressed like one of the monks (the robes hiding electronic gear which is necessary to keep Sinn’s security devices from going off), Durell brazenly walks into the villain’s lair, where he’s promptly captured. The cover image comes to life, with Deidre shackled before an enthroned Sinn, who has ten black candles lit; when the final candle goes out, one of his henchmen will slit Deidre’s throat.

Aarons cheats on the finale, with one of Durell’s colleagues coming to his aid at the last second. While it’s realistic, I feel that this goes against the grain of heroic fiction; the protagonist should always save himself. Instead, Durell’s left standing there powerless as the love of his life is about to die, and some random DIA agent bashes in the window and starts shooting. You’re almost like, “Jeez, maybe that guy should’ve been the star of the book.” But anyway, the fireworks here are rather muddled, with even Sinn’s comeuppance barely dwelled upon; Durell just shoots him, and that’s that.

So while The Quayle Question was moderately enjoyable, it just didn’t have the spark of Assignment Sumatra, and I got a bit frustrated with the inordinate amount of word painting. I wanted a bit more exploitative verve than Aarons was willing to deliver.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

As Evil Does

As Evil Does, by John Tigges
No month stated, 1987  Leisure Books

John Tigges strikes again with another super-fat ‘80s horror paperback complete with embossed cover. And this one’s much better than the previous one I read, The Immortal. I don’t think you can currently find the plot of As Evil Does mentioned anywhere online, so my friends, let me tell you what it’s about – a dude becomes possessed by the soul of a murdered biker and takes on a Satanic biker gang!

In a storyline very similar to Marvel’s ‘70s comic Ghost Rider (only without the flaming skull), As Evil Does mixes bikers with pulp horror in a tale that runs to nearly 400 pages of big print. Despite the plentiful sleaze and pulp, Tigges still manages to stall at times with go-nowhere digressions about boring minor characters and their humdrum lives. Luckily he doesn’t do this to the extent he did in The Immortal, so As Evil Does comes off as more of a satisfying read.

And you really know you’re in for a lurid time when the first fifty pages document the horrible rape and murder of a college-age girl and her friend by a gang of bikers. This is Cindy Wellington and Tammi, on break during Labor Day weekend (the novel appears to take place in Ohio). Walking through the woods they’re ambushed by The Light Bearer’s Chosen, a Satan-worshipping group of bikers lead by Bull, a mountain of a man who immediately announces that they’re about to have a little gang-bang.

But Buckshot, rotund and slovenly member of the gang, complains about Bull’s stalling – the leader wants to have various “games” to see who gets the girls first – and soon enough the two burly bikers are whipping at each other with chains. Buckshot manages to win through guile, and slits Bull’s throat. Now he’s become the leader of the gang, and has even taken Bull’s “mama,” a super-hot lady named Cow who wears a vest with nothing beneath it, thus showing off her massive melons with pierced nipples.

Cow is something else, my friends, and unfortunately Tigges takes too long to exploit his creation: we gradually learn that it was she who turned the gang on to Satanism, and also that she was raised in a coven. But here in the opening section she’s more so just a regular biker chick, stoically accepting that her man has been killed and then insisting they perform the proper Satanic rites over his corpse before burying him (and his Harley) in the woods. Meanwhile poor Cindy and Tami wait to be gang-raped.

And they are, the sequence harrowing but not as much as it would be in a “regular” novel – this is a cheesy ‘80s pulp horror paperback, you know, and so much the better. But it does get pretty horrible when Buckshot, after the entire gang (including some of the women!) have had their way with the girls, announces that he’s now going to slit their throats. As she dies Cindy keeps thinking about her brother Judd, a great guy who instead of marrying his college sweetheart Peggy has helped see Tami off to college, given that their folks were killed a few years before in a car wreck…

There’s something strange going on between Judd and Cindy, and the way Tigges writes about their love for one another it crosses all sibling boundaries. But anyway when Cindy doesn’t come home that night, Judd’s so frantic that he leaves his girlfriend’s place and rushes to the cops. Only late that night do they find the mauled remains of the two girls, and unsurprisingly the local cops are presented as such halfwits that it’s obvious the murderers will never be found. Even when they discover motorcycle tread nearby, they figure it could’ve been left at some previous time.

But Judd keeps hearing someone screaming for him, even leaving handwritten notes in his house. One night he’s drawn to the woods, to where his sister and her friend were murdered. There he starts digging…only to uncover the corpse of Bull and his Harley. And promptly Bull appears in Judd’s mind. Here begins the possession motif which is at the core of As Evil Does; Bull quickly learns that he can control Judd’s body, and thus swears to use it to gain vengeance upon the Light Bearer’s Chosen.

Tigges works in more supernatural stuff with Bull apparently able to imbue Judd’s scrawny frame with superhuman power; much is made over how the average-sized Judd is able to easily heft Bull’s 800-pound “hog.” Then he goes about the process of restoring it, even painting it with a big Maltese Cross, the sign of the Satanic gang. Judd however knows nothing about choppers, and his sudden personality change is the source of much confusion for his teeth-gnashing wallflower of a fiance, Peggy.

While Tigges makes their love too melodramatic, with lots of stuff from Peggy’s point of view over how she can’t handle this crazy personality switch, how Judd suddenly curses around her and treats her like dirt, how he would rather ride his “hog” than be with her, Tigges does salvage it all by delivering a pretty explicit sex sequence, a Bull-controlled Judd giving it to Peggy with an “animalistic urge.” And you guessed it, she has the biggest climax of her life!

But boy it just sort of stumbles along. Given the plot summary, I figured Judd would become this dark force of supernatural vengeance. Instead, he only has two meetings in total with the Light Bearers, and the climax of the tale doesn’t play out satisfactorily in the least. There is a bare minimum of action in the novel. I envisioned Judd/Bull blasting around in the Harley and mowing down his old partners. But nothing like that happens, other than a super-brief fistfight halfway through the tale.

As in The Immortal, Tigges also has no problems with wasting the reader’s time; this is mostly done through go-nowhere “subplots” about Peggy and Zelda, Judd’s elderly neighbor. The latter has ultimately nothing to do with anything, but the former succeeds in burning up more pages, with Peggy visiting a good-looking psychologist named Maceo Montgomery and telling him how weird Judd’s been acting lately.

Tigges works in an unexpected element where Bull’s possession of Judd begins to manifest on the physical level. When he drives out to the “state capital” to confront the Light Bearers, Judd finds it strange that people at the biker campsite begin calling him “Bull.” Gradually we learn that, during the drive, he’s begun to look like the dead biker. But still, Buckshot and Cow and the other Satanic bikers know it’s not their leader come back to life, and Buckshot has Judd thrown in a pitch-black cell while Cow does a Satanic rite to contact Bull’s spirit.

The scene could’ve had a much cooler outcome – maybe Bull’s spirit taking on Cow in the spirit realm – but instead Bull just hides from her. Tigges delivers another brief sex scene here, as the bikers have an orgy to fuel the “dark spirits,” but there’s not much to it, and plus it isn’t very fun to read because we’re often reminded how dirty the female bikers are! In particular Judd can’t get over how attractive Cow looks, even though she looks so dirty and smells so funky. This all just reminded me once again why I’ve never much cared for biker chicks. And plus, I want my super-hot Satanic chicks to have immaculate hygeine, you know?

Anyway, we do get that fistfight mentioned above, as Buckshot sends a biker named Snake down to kill Judd. Buckshot even gives him a weapon, his knife. Sadly, Buckshot’s damn knife appears to be the only weapon these bikers have ever heard of; we’re often told it’s not only the reason he was able to beat Bull, but it’s also the reason why he’s now the leader! Surely one of the gang could’ve bought a gun??

But the fight is quick and instead of killing Snake, Judd/Bull instead makes him go insane…followed by an unintentionally funny capoff where Judd has a face to face with Buckshot and speaks in Bull’s voice…and Buckshot faints. Instead of wiping out the gang, Judd gets back on his “hog” and heads back to constantly-worrying Peggy, who this time can’t take the suddenly-rude Judd. Bull once again in full control, he proceeds to slap Peggy and then rape her. Now we have more internal conflict as Peggy wonders if she was raped…and by who?

This incident does bring the whole “Judd’s possessed” cat out of the bag, and Peggy holds on for a few pages, listening to Bull’s voice coming from Judd’s body, before she passes out. Cute more time-wasting as we have these interminable sequences where she wonders if she’s losing her mind. Do you realize how stupid this is, given that we’re almost 300 pages into the book by this point? Yes, Judd is possessed! Get with the program already! But this is just a pulp writer at work, Tigges desperate to meet his word count. Why it never occurred to him to instead give us more action scenes escapes me.

Finally we’re wrapping up. While Judd, fully under Bull’s command, hops on his Harley and goes back to the “state capital” to kill Buckshot, we see that meanwhile the portly biker is about to be ousted, anyway. Cow and another member named Gordo are sick to death of Buckshot, and are just about to sacrifice him when Judd shows up. Even here, in the final pages, Tigges denies us a fiery climax, with Judd instead helping them tie Buckshot up to an altar. I mean, they were already going to kill him, anyway – Judd’s entire presence here is meaningless!

Speaking of meaningless, at the same time Peggy and Dr. Montgomery are high-tailing it to “the state capital” in the doc’s Trans Am, hoping to save Judd. They show up just in time to see Judd, fully looking like Bull now, slice Buckshot’s throat with a sacrificial dagger. Then Satan himself starts howling in the darkness, and the bikers fall to their knees, and Peggy pulls Judd/Bull away, and by the time they get back to the car, he looks like Judd again. And they drive off, and that’s that…Bull is gone.

But yeah…the finale sucks. There’s no resolution to any of the other bikers…the last we see of Cow, she’s on her knees, kissing the floor, thanking the devil for Bull’s return. There isn’t even any sense conveyed of Bull or Judd’s sated vengeance when they kill Buckshot. Nope, the novel just fizzles out, Judd back to normal and happy and content with Peggy, his memory of the past few days clouded. I don’t know, maybe I was just looking for something more…I mean, this is a pulp horror paperback.

But even considered thusly it’s kind of a failure. It occurred to me halfway through As Evil Does that John Tigges was just too “nice” of an author for the horror genre. There are paltry thrills here, and zero chills. The gore level is almost nonexistent, and other than the opening rape/murder, there’s no other violence in the entire novel. Rather, there’s a “safe” air that permeates the entire book, as if it were written for preteen girls.

Judging from my own memories of the ‘80s horror paperback boom, that was exactly the reading audience of these books, anyway, so who knows – maybe Tigges was just delivering the barebone thrills his juvenile readership demanded.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Spy And Die (Hardy #2)

Spy And Die, by Martin Meyers
January, 1976  Popular Library

The most slovenly, lazy, non-compelling protagonist in private eye fiction returns in Spy And Die, the second volume of the forgotten Hardy series. Once again author Martin Meyers spins out a listless tale in which hardly anything happens, other than our “hero” Patrick Hardy stuffing his face and watching old movies on tv.

It occurred to me that perhaps Hardy was Meyers’s attempt at capturing the vibe of James Garner’s The Rockford Files, with a down-on-his luck gumshoe who is constantly thrown into events that are over his head. But man, at least in that show stuff happened! Spy And Die is an endurance test of the first order; without any exaggeration at all, the novel is mostly made up of lists of what Hardy eats and which movies he watches.

My friends, there were too many times in which I wanted to put this damn book down and move on to something more interesting…like maybe watching dust form on the furniture. But I perservered so that I could bring you a full report. In the end though I probably should’ve just watched the furniture. Nothing at all memorable occurs in Spy And Die and it’s such a nonentity of a book that I wonder again if the whole thing was some dire joke – on the reader.

Despite the fact that the novel is filled with beautiful and nude women, tons of sex, a monocle-sporting villainess, and various groups of spies, Spy And Die barely registers on the reader’s consciousness. It would also be a great alternative to sleeping pills. Meyers rarely if ever describes actions, events, characters, or scenery, with those mentioned sex scenes always relegated to, “They made it again.” Action scenes are slightly more fleshed out, with details of Hardy throwing punches, but they are so few and far between that even they can’t rescue the novel from its torpor.

But what’s it about? Well as we’ll recall, Patrick Hardy, our “hero,” is an Army-trained private eye who’d rather eat, read, and watch tv all day. Who wouldn’t?? But you see, this doesn’t make for a very compelling private eye protagonist, and Meyers isn’t very interested in expanding beyond this limited scope; even when Hardy is thrust into situations which take him out of his comfort zone, he just runs away and goes back to gorging himself and watching tv. The novel is almost a litany of the various things Hardy stuffs his face with.

Anyway, some unspecified time after the first volume, Hardy is hired for another job – once again, by some hotstuff gal who waltzes into his big place on Riverside Drive and proposes the task for him. Her name is Alice King, she’s from Houston, and an uncle named Walter whom she’s never before heard of recently died and left her some money, or something. But Alice suspects that Walter was involved with the Army (apparently he died on a “post” somewhere) and thinks the story’s real weird, and wants Hardy’s help.

Well, they screw a bunch (zero details per the norm), and Alice goes back to Houston. Hardy proceeds to sit on a barber chair in his lounge and watch tv, with frequent breaks to the kitchen. We are of course well-informed of what he eats – the one element Meyers doesn’t fail to elaborate on is what Hardy eats. Soon he discovers himself being followed around by groups of strange men – spies, he’s certain.

After a half-assed chase, Hardy ditches his car and heads over to Philadelphia to hook up with his stripper/dancer friend, Ruby Rose, returning from the previous volume. More undescribed sex occurs. Hardy returns to New York, where he is contacted by members of the Central Security Force, headed by obese Julius Foxx, who inform him that Walter Henry was a spy. They want Hardy to keep working his case for Alice, basically using him as a lure for the other group of spies who are tailing him.

These other spies work for Duchess Annette de Montespan, a smokin’-hot, super-stacked blonde who goes around wearing a monocle, and usually nothing else. A bisexual fashion photographer, she calls Hardy over to her place so he can watch her photograph some equally-hot and equally-nude models. Hardy falls hard for one of them, a Chinese gal named Mae-ling, aka Linda. After this the Duchess invites Hardy up to her room, where apparently a whole bunch of sex occurs off-page.

But Hardy "can’t make it.” Due to the valium he’s taking for his high blood pressure, he can’t reach climax, and thus the whole Duchess-banging is a bummer. I forgot to mention – the Duchess keeps on her monocle during all the banging. Anyway the lady is such a missed opportunity, apparently a supervillain in the Bond mold, even with a hulking henchwoman named Claude and an assassin named Korloff. But Meyers would rather tell you about what books Hardy buys on the way home.

Not having gotten enough tail, Hardy also tracks down Mae-ling, and more bland fireworks ensue. Hardy, who is often described as rugged but slightly going to seed around the middle, must be a killer with the ladies. But then, it was the ‘70s. Oh, and like last volume, friggin’ Hardy leaves all the real work to his tv-movie actor friend, Steve Macker – in fact it’s Macker who inadvertently stumbles upon the clue which allows Hardy to break the case!

But yeah, Macker flies down to Houston and Dallas to research leads while Hardy sits in his barber chair and watches old movies. Occassionally he’ll get up to write down an idea on his cork board. People, I’m not making this up. The novel is so eventless (not a real word, I think) as to be hilarious; you can forget about the sensationalistic cover, which has no bearing on the actual contents of the novel.

I’ll just cut to the chase – apparently Walter Henry was an undercover spy, and the name “Walter Henry” was just some random name these dudes would use. Something like that. And, uh, apparently the Duchess and her people were trying to find some MacGuffin he was working on, and Julius Foxx wanted to use Hardy as bait to lure them out. But good friggin’ gravy it’s all so half-assedly played out and revealed that you actually do forget everything except what Hardy eats!

Even the finale sucks – Hardy, with Mae-ling, crashes an upper-crust party and the Duchess captures them. In the span of two sentences, my friends, the Duchess kills Linda, and then Ludwig Lurche, a “black Teuton” who is behind it all, kills the Duchess! Seriously, there’s no drama behind either death…just like, “The Duchess stabbed Linda in the heart. Ludwig shot the Duchess.” It’s like that throughout, like an outline.

In fact, once again it occurred to me (you see, I was desperate to at least find some value in this book) that Meyer’s intent was that he himself was just as lazy and indolent as Hardy; that, just as Hardy is too lazy to actually do anything, the joke would extend into the metafictional realm with the author himself to lazy to write anything, churning out an outline instead of a fleshed-out work of fiction.

Does Hardy learn anything from the tale? Of course not. After Lurche is caught and Foxx and his minions arrive, Hardy mourns Mae-ling for a hot second before announcing, “I’m starving.” At this point Spy And Die mercifully ends, the tedium of it all is finally over, and the reader can recuperate and move on…until the next volume. And like a fool I bought it, years ago – and like an even bigger fool, I’ll read it some day.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Camp

The Camp, by Jonathan Trask
No month stated, 1977  Belmont Tower Books

An interesting obscurity in the work of Len Levinson, The Camp is notable because it was a collaboration between Len and his editor at Belmont Tower, Peter McCurtin. Len provides the full story below, but long story short, McCurtin came up with the plot, wrote the first chapter, and then handed it over to Len, who ran with it.

Speaking of obscure, The Camp is real obscure, even for one of Len’s Belmont books; the only other review you can currently find of it online is by Marty McKee. Thus once again I have to bemoan the fate of Len’s early books, the majority of which deserved better distribution and recognition. While I wouldn’t rank The Camp as a lost pulp masterwork like his earlier Shark Fighter, it is still a fun and breezily-written tale that attempts in its short length to tap into the post-Watergate paranoia that gripped the nation in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Our narrator is Phillip “Phil” Gordon, a ‘Nam Green Beret who now works as a reporter for Tomorrow magazine, which is dedicated to outing corruption and whatnot. Phil regales us with stories of the many powerful men he has toppled, and then informs us that “last summer” he went up to northern Maine for a much-needed vacation, to reconnect with the land in which he’d been born. The novel is his report of what happened to him there.

I’m not sure if I would’ve recognized this without knowing beforehand that Len and McCurtin co-wrote the novel, but the switchover after chapter one is very apparent. In McCurtin’s hands Phil comes off as a lazy sort who seems more curious than intrigued by the strange tale told by his old Indian pal, Jimmy Jacks; Jimmy informs Phil that one of his nephews, who was like a son to him, has gone missing, last seen as he was attempting to get a closer look at the mysterious new Army base that’s been built about five miles away, deep in the Maine woods.

Jimmy himself is vastly different in McCurtin’s first chapter; all he wants to do is drink beer, eat bear steak, and watch old Westerns on TV. But then Phil slouches off for bed, chapter two begins, and Len takes over – and suddenly Jimmy is waking Phil up, armed with a bow and arrow and ready to go out into the woods and kick some ass. The affable drunk of chapter one has become a “native warrior” type who dispenses his wisdom as he moves stealthfully and swiftly as a fox through the darkened forest.

Phil changes, too; per the standard Len Levinson protagonist type, he’s become a man driven to succeed in life, despite all the odds. Now he’s chomping at the bit to get at the story of “the Camp” – later to be revealed as Camp Butler, an Army installation that doesn’t exist on any record. As a sidenote, I found the name “Camp Butler” interesting, given Len’s later Leisure series Butler, which he wrote under the pseudonym Phillip Kirk. Could he have been flashing back on The Camp when he came up with it?

Sneaking through the barbed wire fence, Jimmy and Phil find a crazed Army base which is more like a prison, with watch towers and roving guard dogs. They find even crazier stuff, like the mutilated remains of a few hippies who have apparently been tied up to a post and used for bayonet practice. After a quick skirmish with the bloodthirsty soldiers who have discovered them – including a bit where Jimmy Jack takes out a bunch of dogs with his arrows – our heroes manage to escape.

Jimmy again proves himself a superhumanly capable person, showing Phil a hidden cave he’s used before, in a ravine outside of the camp’s territory. Hidden by a rock, the cave not only has a fresh-water stream but also a bunch of beef jerky and booze Jimmy has hidden here…just for these sorts of situations, of course. The two stay here for a few days, waiting for the soldiers to stop searching the immediate area. After this Phil heads back home to DC (Phil being one of the few Levinson protagonists who doesn’t live in New York), where he tells his editor that he’s got a whopper of a story.

At 155 pages, The Camp is even shorter than the average ‘70s men’s adventure novel, but Len tries his best to present it as a gripping suspense thriller, concerning a plot that threatens the American way of life. True to the era in which it was written, this means that there are shady political overtones; through a contact, Senator Wingfield, Phil is put in touch with General Ed Sutherland, an old military man who is stationed in the Pentagon and who tells Phil that “a secret government” is threatening to take over the current one.

I forgot to mention – Phil’s meanwhile found the time to sleep with Susan Cole, Wingfield’s pretty secretary. However there’s no funny business at all, Len cutting to the next chapter before the exploitative hijinks start; as a matter of fact, there’s barely any sex or violence in The Camp, even the action scenes going down with little detail of the blood being spilled. But then there really isn’t much detail in the novel, the events transpiring as quickly as Len can pound on his typewriter; I get the feeling that he wrote this particular novel very fast.

General Sutherland proposes Phil with an idea: for Phil to be the general’s inside man and actually be sent to Camp Butler. A soldier can only be ordered to the camp, and even then he must face a tribunal to be accepted; Camp Butler is reportedly the training ground for ultra-special forces. Sutherland relates that it’s really a training ground for a fascist group within the military that plans to take over America. Sutherland plays on Phil’s nature by telling him that it’ll be the story of the century – guaranteed money in Phil’s pocket.

Despite being out of the army for several years (not to mention being out of shape), Phil is able to pass himself off as a bona fide Green Beret with papers forged for him by Sutherland. He meets with the Camp Butler tribunal and gives them a bunch of fascist swill in response to their questions, ie “What would you do about hippies and other protestors?” “I’d kill them or throw them in jail,” and etc. All of it of course over the top – any man on that board would easily know Phil was bluffing – but the tribunal buys his story without question.

The actual material in Camp Butler is unfortunately brief. Phil spends a whopping single day there. In his entrance with the other camp recruits he’s informed that all of his ranking is now moot; you’re either a private or a captain here, a leader or a slave. But when Phil is bullied by his drill seargent – who has the right to beat his recruits to death, by the way; another Camp Butler oddity – he refuses to back down.

“I shit on your mother’s soul, you fat fuck,” Phil tells the seargent, in what is probably the greatest put-down in literary history. This obviously leads to a fistfight, in which Phil makes short work of the guy. Then a dude who announes himself as a captain enters the fold, escorting Phil away – and telling him that the only way to succeed at Camp Butler out of the “slave” role is to affront authority. And guess what, within like a few hours of his arrival into camp, Phil has been promoted to a captain!

From here the novel plunges into cartoonishness, likely due to that short wordcount; Phil, brand new at Camp Butler, is able to use his newly-given authority to freely walk around the top-secret camp, and also to find Jimmy Jacks’s three abducted nephews. He even blithely asks where the armory is! So then that night he merely gets up, waltzes to the stockade, informs the guards to let the Indian prisoners go, and then hands them a bunch of guns he’s stolen from the armory! Taking off in a commandeered jeep, they make their escape.

The action scene is quickly rendered, the four men barrelling across the camp fields as they’re chased by foot soldiers and helicopters. For a special forces camp, the soldiers of Camp Butler are not an impressive lot, easily taken down by an out-of-shape ‘Nam vet and a trio of untrained Indian youth. To Len’s credit he explains this away with Phil’s sideline commentary that the Camp Butler soldiers seem more interested in sadism than coordinated action, thus the four are able to get away unscathed.

And guess where they go? Yes, that same hidden cave, where they hide for three whole weeks, Phil almost in a delirium due to a flesh wound he’s suffered in the escape. Rushing for the conclusion, Len employs a requisite downbeat ending, mandatory in the mid-‘70s, in which Phil discovers that no one is interested in his story, once he’s escaped the cave, returned to DC, and written it in a feverish haste – not his editor at the magazine, nor his friend Senator Wingfield, nor even General Sutherland.

Len works this up that all of them are either concerend over the mass panic that would ensue if the story broke, or concerned over the patriotism which would be lost in America, or even that America has already become so desensitized that its citizens need only food and TV to be happy, so who cares if an ultra right-wing group is plotting to take over? The only problem here is that these characters are suddenly presented as villains, which doesn’t jibe with what came before, particularly in the case of General Sutherland; otherwise, why would he have sent Phil to Camp Butler in the first place?

So Phil, escaping an attempt on his life (by none other than Susan Cole, his former bed playmate), heads on down to Mexico, where he has now written down his account of Camp Butler…which is presented as this very novel. His intent is that, couched as “fiction,” the story will get across to Americans, who will head up to northern Maine to see what’s really going on up there at Camp Butler. I don’t know about you, but I’m not planning my trip anytime soon.

What was most enjoyable about The Camp was how Len worked with what was given to him. In addition to the title, plot, and characters, I’m betting McCurtin also gave Len the cover, and insisted he include a scene with it. There’s a part where Phil strangles a Camp Butler guard with the man’s own carbine, and Len writes the sequence exactly as shown on the cover, even down to the detail of the blood drizzling from the guard’s mouth. This brings to mind a real-life incident Len spoofed in The Last Buffoon: when Len was writing The Sharpshooter #5, McCurtin called to tell him to include a part where hero Johnny Rock was being chased by a helicopter, as that was the cover McCurtin was having painted for the novel.

The speedy writing mentioned above does lead to some unintentional humor, like when Phil tells us, “One man can make a difference. I truly believe that. Just look at Woodward and Bernstein.” Uh, Phil – Woodward and Bernstein were two men. Also, the story is not nearly developed as it needed to be, to fully impart the dire ramifations of the men behind Camp Butler; even the bizarre subplot about hippies being murdered is barely explored, and Phil himself seems to forget about it when he’s first relating the horrors of the camp to his editor and friends.

Regardless all of that, this is still a Len Levinson novel, which means there is still a lot of enjoyment in it. His characters still seem to be cut from life, and not the cardboard caracicatures you usually encounter in pulp fiction. Minor characters sparkle with life, like even Susan Cole, who trades barbs with Phil during her unfortunately-brief time in the narrative. And as usual there is a lot of fun dialog, including incidental bits of wisdom sprinkled throughout.

So long story short, while I enjoyed The Camp, I felt that something was missing from it, that it was just too speedy and bare to make a lasting impact. Len, in his comments on the novel below, seems to feel the same way:

The Camp wasn't my idea. Peter McCurtin, editor at Belmont-Tower, wrote the first 30 pages or so, and hired me to finish it. I really don't know why Peter didn't finish it, or what happened. Perhaps he had more commitments than he could handle, because in addition to being an editor, he also wrote novels.

I seem to recall that he left BT around that time, and was replaced by Milburn Smith. I don't know why Peter left, but he embarked on a career of writing novels full time. Occasionally I ran into him on the street, because he also lived in Hell's Kitchen. One day he asked if I knew of inexpensive office space he could rent, because his apartment was too noisy. I told him that if I knew about inexpensive, quiet office space, I'd rent it myself.

I was very fond of Peter's warm, affable personality, especially his sardonic sense of humor. He influenced my writing tremendously, and I'm very sorry he's no longer with us. I hope he's in a quiet corner of heaven now, with a good working typewriter.

I don't remember much about writing The Camp. I just picked up where Peter left off and kept going, creating scenes, situations and characters out of my lurid imagination. Sometimes I wonder what would've become of me if I didn't have a lurid imagination. I might've been a doctor, lawyer or engineer, and led a decent middle class life, instead of low rent paperback commando. But I've never been a very decent person, so I probably ended up where I belonged.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Spider #3: Wings Of The Black Death

The Spider #3: Wings Of The Black Death, by Grant Stockbridge
December, 1933  Popular Publications

The third volume of The Spider is notable because it was the first to be written by Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page, who would go on to write the majority of the ensuing 115 volumes. Having read some of Page’s later volumes, I was curious how different this first one would be. Surprisingly, it’s almost identical to what came later: a breathless excursion into bloody action and chaos.

One thing that does separate Wings Of The Black Death from the others I’ve read is that it seems Page put a little more care into this storyline, at least insofar as how the villain of the piece is outed. Whereas other volumes throw a lame “reveal” on the reader in the final pages, some barely-mentioned character unveiled as the main villain, this time Page appears to put more thought into the mystery. But we aren’t talking Arthur Conan Doyle here – this is still first and foremost an action pulp, designed to be speedily read and quickly forgotten.

But anyway, in his first Spider novel Norvell Page hits the ground running; within the first few pages Richard “The Spider” Wentworth is already shooting someone point-blank in the forehead, then a few pages later he’s shooting down a dog, and then a few pages after that some little kid is dying horrifically (and graphically) of Bubonic Plague. There are no tentative steps as the author attempts to familiarize himself with the characters, the audience, or the genre; from first page to last Wings of the Black Death delivers the same blunt impact as the rest of Page’s Spider oeuvre.

It’s interesting to note that Page uses characters and situations that had been created by original writer RTM Scott, without attempting to change the scenarios Scott had laid out. What I’m trying to say is that Page never changed the setup very much; I mean, Nita van Sloan started out as Richard Wentworth’s fiance, and she stayed that way for the next ten years. Similarly, Scott had Commisioner Stanley Kirkpatrick and Wentworth be friends, even though the commissioner suspected Wentworth of being the Spider – in fact Kirkpatrick apparently knew he was – yet he was duty-bound not to act on it until he had verifiable evidence. Page never changed this, either.

Scott only wrote the first two volumes of the series, and there’s apparently even debate if it was the same RTM Scott who wrote the second volume as the one who wrote the first; Scott had a son of the same name, who was also a pulp writer. So to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “RTM Scott, or another hack of the same name” wrote the first two volumes of the Spider, and by all accounts they were more tepid, mystery-focused yarns, lacking the psychotic, violent spark of Norvell Page’s work.

But Scott(s) created the characters, situations, and setup, and Page ran with it; within the first few pages Wentworth and Kirkpatrick are bantering at a social event, the commissioner implying that, now that Wentworth has returned from a trip to Europe, so too might the Spider be returning to the city. (Again, it’s bluntly obvious Kirkpatrick knows!) Meanwhile Wentworth has hurried here after taking care of business in that very personage, though this early in the saga the Spider dresses more like the Shadow; ie, none of the fangs and “fright wig” stuff. Instead he wears a mask over his eyes with a black veil covering the lower half of his face.

The plot is overly complex at the outset, but never fear as it soon straightens out into more of an action blitz. At any rate, Wentworth has decided to investigate a muddled plot about forged bonds that were unwittingly used by a girl named Virginia Doeg, whose dog soon thereafter died of Bubonic Plague, aka the Black Death. Somehow Wentworth knows there’s more to this story, and thus in the opening pages he’s already putting a hole in the head of some hapless, gun-wielding pawnbroker; thousands more would die at Wentworth’s hands in the coming decade.

Now begins a veritable war between Wentworth and Kirkpatrick, one because Wentworth is determined to visit Virginia Doeg, despite her being in police custody, and two because someone is killing New York cops…and putting the seal of the Spider on their foreheads. This leads to strange bits where Kirkpatrick will snarl at Wentworth, ready to kill him on sight…gullibly believing that the Spider, despite his “services for the city over the years,” has become a cop killer. Yet Wentworth has seen one of these seals, and knows them to be fakes – someone, as will become standard in Page’s work, is setting up the Spider. And now the whole world is against him.

From meager leads Wentworth eventually comes upon the whole Black Death scheme, which shows itself early with a horror-esque scene where a little boy and girl are dosed with an advanced strain of the disease…by a cute little puppy! A masked villain calling himself “The Black Death” is now extorting wealthy people; pay up, or you and your loved ones suffer from the Bubonic Plague. Wentworth is able to shoot the dog, but too late to save the kids, and Page delivers an unforgettable bit where we are informed of the grotesque deaths the children suffer.

Meanwhile, someone’s still killing cops and branding them with the fake Spider seal. There are several Wentworth/Kirkpatrick confrontations throughout Wings Of The Black Death, with the cops more focused on bringing down the Spider than saving citizens from the random outbreaks of Black Death which are now occurring throughout New York. These confrontations reach their climax with Kirkpatrick arresting Wentworth – a scene which has the commissioner finally discovering the hidden compartment of Wentworth’s lighter, which contains the Spider seal. However due to overly-described mumbo-jumbo, the seal disappears before Kirkpatrick can see it.

Wentworth then pulls the first of his escapes from the police; many more such incidents would follow in the coming years. This one’s pretty impressive, with Wentworth taking the wheel of the police car taking him to prison and wrenching it, sending the car off a bridge and into the Hudsdon. In the aftermath everyone thinks Wentworth – and thus the Spider – is dead. Even poor Nita thinks he’s dead, and for a stretch of the book she becomes the star of the show, with Wentworth well out of the picture.

Nita is just as resourceful as her fiance, using her wits to figure out what Wentworth already has – that someone is spreading the plague through pigeons. Out in Long Island Nita manages to get herself caught, by ruffians who work for the Black Death – who, per pulp standards, is a masked fiend, his face covered by a black veil. The thugs openly discuss raping Nita, though Page glosses over it a bit; one element missing from Wings Of The Black Death by the way is any sort of sexual element. Also missing is the hot evil woman who tempts Wentworth, another element which will be much used in later Page novels. Nita is the only female here, other than rarely-seen Virginia Doeg.

Anyway, Nita is tied up in a cave…only to be discovered by a still-alive Wentworth, who has been hiding throughout. This is all after a big fake blowout Wentworth and Nita had in a restaurant, to fool people into thinking Wentworth was leaving town; a ruse rendered moot by his later faked death. And also I’ve neglected to mention Wentworth’s random fights with various Black Death thugs, including a big firefight in a burning building. But the reader of The Spider already knows that he’s in for an action onslaught.

Wentworth is also captured a few times in this novel, including here in the end, where both he and Nita are tied up in the cave, with a convoluted death awaiting them. Nita has a loyal Great Dane, Apollo, given to her by Wentworth back in the first volume or something (the dog was fated to die in one of the later Page novels, only to be accidentally brought back by Emile Tepperman, one of the authors who occasionally filled in for Page); the Black Death has drugged the dog, and placed a water bowl filled with Bubonic Plague near him. The idea is that the dog will wake, drink the water, and then be called to his owners, lapping them with the plague.

Long story short, this is a stirring scene in which Nita again displays her bravery, calling for the dog despite Wentworth’s objections – and the guaranteed death which will follow. (It’s all rendered moot with the deus ex machina reveal that one of the Black Death’s goons accidentally spilled the water bowl!) The climax seens Wentworth and Nita in a biplane, Nita flying while Wentworth blasts at the Black Death with a machine gun. The final confrontation is even better, with Wentworth strangling the villain with his bare hands!

“Only” a thousand people die of the Bubonic Plague – a hefty number, but paltry given the widespread death of later volumes. However the Black Death incurs Wentworth’s wrath, and he’s more driven to kill this particular villain than in the other Spider novels I’ve yet read. But “driven” sums up Richard Wentworth, who blazes through this novel, killing thugs, escaping the cops, faking his death, and even finding the time to madly play his violin for a few hours.

Summing up, Wings Of The Black Death was another entertaining, bloody, action-filled entry in the Spider saga, and it was very interesting to see that Norvell Page already had command of his craft in his first contribution to the series.