Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Penetrator #29: Aryan Onslaught

The Penetrator #29: Aryan Onslaught, by Lionel Derrick
January, 1979  Pinnacle Books

The Penetrator gets weird in a far-out volume by Mark Roberts, which, per the back cover, even leaves Mark Hardin’s “mind blown.” While Roberts doesn’t fully exploit the bonkers plotline he’s come up with, Aryan Onslaught is at least a lot more entertaining than the past several volumes have been, proving that, even this far in, there’s still some life left in the series.

Quickly picking up immediately after the events of the previous volume, we have Mark already on the scene in Coalville, Utah, during the middle of a blizzard. Roberts delivers an effective action opening as the Penetrator takes out a three-man machine gun emplacement outside the small town, burtally torturing the survivor with ice water on his privates to get information. The Aryan Brotherhood, composed of Nazi radicalized ex-cons, has taken over Coalville, under the leadership of Big Toby, a punk rock-listening neo-Nazi who claims Coalville is just the spearhead of a larger movement.

In a plotline that prefigures that of David Alexander’s Z-Comm #1, the “ABs,” as Roberts refers to them in the narrative, have staged a successful coup in Smalltown, USA, and no one even noticed. The populace acts like zombies, the TV station broadcasts AB propaganda, and the neo-Nazi punks run roughshod over their subjects. Eventually Mark will discover that the ABs have poisoned the water with the mind-altering drug datura and they’re using subliminal tricks to brainwash TV viewers – cue lots of anti-advertising invective courtesy Roberts. (We also get the memorable tidbit that the sound of rock music “disgusts” Mark Hardin.)

An interesting change has slowly been occurring in The Penetrator; it appears that the attempt is being made to make it more like The Executioner. In addition to the newfangled “Penetrator’s Combat Catalog” which appears at the back of each book, we also have changes to the Penetrator’s arsenal. In particular there is “the Brown Beast,” a Ford pickup with camper that is very clearly modeled after the Executioner’s War Wagon. Never mentioned before, the Brown Beast is suddenly revealed as a key component of the Penetrator’s endless war on crime.

Roberts also fills up pages with another new element: rampant gun-porn. While previous volumes have certainly had weapons details, Aryan Onslaught goes overboard with lots of technical data on the various firearms and explosives Mark uses – and not-so-coincidentally, each of them show up in illustrated form in this volume’s Combat Catalog. It would appear then that Pinnacle paved the way that Gold Eagle Books eventually went; as I recall, all those ‘80s GE books had gun info in the back, but the Penetrator books go a step further with a handful of pages instead of just one.

While scouting out the town Mark runs steps into a backyard, only to be confronted by a blonde woman of “Amazon” proportions who holds a shotgun on him, ready to blow away this latest Aryan Brother. This will turn out to be Angie Dillon, widowed mother of pubescent twins. A former New Orleans cop, Angie moved to Coalville ten years ago, and her husband died in a boating accident under mysterious circumstances. She and Mark will ultimately fall in love, and Roberts introduces this ungainly romance angle where Mark, within a few chapters of meeting Angie, has of course had the between-chapter sex with her but finds himself practicing karate with her kids, making meals with her, and wondering if he should move the Stronghold nearby so he can marry her!!

In what can only be an authorial slap to the face to fellow series writer Chet Cunningham, Roberts even has Mark realize that he’s not once thought of Joanna Tabler, his hotstuff girlfriend of previous books – and, pointedly, a creation of Cunningham’s. But Mark’s head over heels for Angie, even thinking of having kids with her. Roberts sprinkles this stuff around periodic outbursts of quickly-rendered action; Big Toby sends in a stream of hitmen who prove humorously ineffective against the Penetrator, from a carload of Syndicate hitmen to a professional assassin. In each case the Penetrator kills his hunters with the weaponry illustrated and described in the Combat Catalog.

The veteran action reader will figure out quickly where this is going. Big Toby, who himself is a dullard ex-con, has Angie’s twins kidnapped – to be executed on live local television as an example of what happens to all who go against the Aryan Brotherhood! Mark, hearing about it on the radio(!), raids the TV studio in another hit. But while it’s all crazy, it’s another example of how Roberts so constantly squanders his bizarre setups throughout the novel. I mean, the zombiefied populace subplot is only barely explored – early on we get strange stuff like mind-blown townspeople trying to mow their lawns despite the feet-high snow, and other random oddness – and posthaste Mark’s blowing up the datura at the water processing plant.

Further evidence of this is that the last quarter of Aryan Onslaught goes in a completely different direction. Mark, wearing a gas mask and hitting the studio with tear and nausea gas, manages to take out Toby (via a falling TV camera!); the AB leader dies laughing that this Coalville plot was just the beginning. He mentions something about the three main AB leaders being in Soledad Prison. Mark returns to his desert Stronghold, where Professor Haskins and David Red Eagle realize the Penetrator has fallen in love. They also are nonplussed over his insistence that he needs to go to jail.

Thanks to a prison lead courtesy Mark’s cop pal Kelly Patterson, still recovering from the ninja beating he got back in #27: The Animal Game, Mark is able to pose as a Soledad laundry contractor in an overly-drawn out bit of setup. Funnily enough, all this elaborate “prison life” exposition and setup is quickly dispensed by one of the most lowbrow finales ever: Mark simply stabs the three AB leaders in Soledad in the back, one at a time, as he lures them into the laundry room! After this he leaves his usual arrowheads to show that the Penetrator will find his prey no matter where they are.

And talk about wiping away even more elaborate setup – despite planning to marry her just a few pages before, at the end of Aryan Onslaught Mark basically just tells Angie “so long – my life’s too dangerous to get involved with anyone,” and she’s all okay with it, agreeing that she too got a little carried away! Jeez…maybe it was the datura in the water? Mark also apparently skips all over the part where he decided the Stronghold should be moved, especially given its secure location has twice been compromised in recent volumes.

Livened up by periodic action – which unfortunately isn’t as gory as that in Cunningham’s installments – Aryan Onslaught benefits from an unusual plot and a well-described location…in fact the brutal blizzard conditions of Coalivlle bring to mind the snow-blanketed Chicago of The Executioner #8.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Eyes Of The Tiger (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #9)

The Eyes Of The Tiger, by Nick Carter
September, 1965  Award Books

For his first volume of Nick Carter: Killmaster, Manning Lee Stokes turns in a slow-moving espionage story along the muted lines of his later Mission To Venice. The Eyes Of The Tiger was also the first book Stokes wrote for series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, and initiated a writing partnership that would last between the two until Stokes’s death in January 1976.

Per Will Murray in his Killmaster article in The Armchair Detective (volume 15, number 4, 1982):

After [original author] Valerie Moolman dropped the series, Engel advertised in the New York Times for adventure writers. Award had found that Killmaster sold so well that at least six novels could be published per year. The ad was answered by an industrious and hard-drinking writer named Manning Lee Stokes. Stokes, who in the past had written a little of everything from porn novels to Classics Illustrated, had been inactive for a while and anxious for work. His first Nick, The Eyes Of The Tiger, was published in 1965. It introduced a more macho – almost brutal – Killmaster than the Moolman version had been. Over the next six years, Stokes churned out a total of eighteen Nicks, sometimes carrying the series solo for extended periods. He also wrote the first novels for other Engel series, including The Aquanauts, Richard Blade, and John Eagle Expeditor.

Stokes was not only amazingly prolific but could write solid fiction against tight deadlines. Even when he did not adhere exactly to the approved outline, usually the result was just what Engel needed. His was the first Nick to be written in the first person. This was 1969’s The Red Rays. It’s not clear how the first-person device was introduced into the series. As Stokes remembered it, it was his idea. He had used it in hardboiled mystery paperbacks in the ‘fifties and thought it lent itself to Nick Carter…Nevertheless, the first-person voice became standard with The Cobra Kill [another Stokes installment] in 1969. It became a bone of contention between Engel and Award for the rest of their association.

Inevitably, Manning Lee Stokes grew weary of Nick Carter and did other Engel projects – which he wrote right up to his death in the mid-‘seventies. 

I love that description, “industrious and hard-drinking.” I included all of this because it’s practically all I’ve ever been able to find out about Manning Lee Stokes; it doesn’t appear that he ever gave any interviews, and Murray revealed in the uncut Engel interview (which appeared in Paperback Parade #2, 1986) that he himself had never met Stokes, only talked to people who knew him. In other words, Stokes is kind of a mystery, and I’d love to know more about him – he is mentioned in this very brief biography, where it’s revealed that he and his wife never had children.

But anyway, The Eyes Of The Tiger is where it all began, and the seeds for many later Stokes-Engel gems are planted here. In fact a throwaway mention of Nick’s brutal annual training at PURG, held in a “quasi-hell in the American Southwest,” is almost identical to the more fleshed-out sequence of John Eagle’s harsh training in the first Expeditor novel, Needles Of Death. But unfortunately, Stokes’s soon-to-be-customary digressive plotting is also here; it takes a damn long time for much of anything to happen. While the writing is strong, the thrills are few. However Stokes certainly has done his homework, so far as the main characters and situations go; one would have a hard time guessing this was in fact his first installment of the series.

Anyway, Nick’s in Zurich, posing alternately as a grungy sailor and a portly American businessman named Frank Manning – Stokes already employing his customary in-jokery within the first few pages of his first Killmaster novel. When we meet Nick he’s standing over the comatose form of a gorgeous, stacked blonde whom Nick has given a mickey finn; the woman made a play for him in his sailor guise, and a suspicious Nick took her back to his hovel of a hotel room…and promptly knocked her out! (Be prepared for the egregious usage of exclamation points that mars most of Stokes’s early Killmaster yarns, by the way.)

This will ultimately prove to be the Baroness Elspeth von Stadt, lovely West German secret agent who carries derringers in her garter belts and the photo of a hanged man’s face in her locket. Nick’s boss Hawk has sent the Baroness to meet up with Nick and join him on his latest assignment, which has him plotting to steal a tiger statuette with diamond eyes from a Swiss bank. Old Axis comrades Shikoku Hondo and Max Rader also plot to get the statue; Rader killed the Baroness’s father back during the war years (it’s her father’s face in that grisly locket photo), and the Baroness, who is consumed with vengeance so far as Rader goes, is the only person who knows what the old Nazi’s new face looks like.

So The Eyes Of The Tiger limps into action; it takes a good 40 or so pages of super-small and dense print to learn all this. The short bit of early action occurs when Nick finds Hondo about to rape the Baroness’s comatose form; Stokes here doles out hordes of racist stuff which is pretty unusual for him, referring to Hondo as everything from an “ape” to a “lustful little Nip” to even a “saffron-faced monkey.” Anyway Nick barges in, saves the Baroness’s honor, and then tosses Hondo out the window after savagely kicking him in the crotch. So much for Shikoku Hondo, promised on the back cover as one of the novel’s main villains.

While the book lacks much in the way of action until the final pages, The Eyes Of The Tiger is surprisingly more robust in the sexual hijnks, which is particularly interesting given the publication date. Stokes here is more explicit than he is in later volumes, with Nick and Elspeth’s initial boffing given an elaborate three-page sequence that, while never outright hardcore, leaves nothing to the imagination. More importantly, this sex scene prefigures every other sex scene Stokes wrote: it’s sexual mortal combat, man versus woman, Nick “mastering” the female, who of course has never had a real man and thus never had a proper orgasm. We also get the memorable detail of Elspeth “leeching at [Nick’s] manhood.”

All this occurs on a lakeside villa near Zurich, owned by a wealthy lesbian friend of Elspeth’s and staffed by a grossly obese butler named Osman (whom Nick thinks looks like the Michelin Man) and a “pleasantly plump” horny maid named Mignon (who insists Nick have sex with her…mere hours after his herculean bout with Elspeth, but Stokes leaves this one to our imagination). Osman turns out to be working for Rader, and we have a tense and long knife fight between him and Nick on a clifftop.

As Will Murray states above, Stokes’s version of Nick Carter is certainly brutal at times; he ends up using Elspeth as bait, same as he will use other sexy sirens as bait in later Stokes novels. When she’s taken captive, Nick is contacted by Rader’s men and informed that Elspeth is in the bowels of a medieval castle, where she will be tortured if Nick doesn’t turn over the part of the key he stole from Shikoku Hondo, which Rader needs to open the Swiss vault with the tiger statue. Stokes delivers one of his effective scene-setting moments where Nick, stripped to swimming trunks, his face and skin blackened, infiltrates the castle during a heavy storm and plants his weapons in the torture chamber. 

The finale also prefigures another mainstay of Stokes’s later fiction: the “bluff or brawn” gambit, where Nick, alone and unarmed, bluffs his way into Rader’s castle and tries to con the old Nazi sadist into giving up Elspeth and letting them both go. He fails, and Stokes delivers in the final pages the moment promised on the first-page preview: Elspeth is stripped and put on the rack, hot pokers about to be applied to her by Rader’s men. But Nick’s planted trusty Wilhelmina and Hugo beneath the rack, and Stokes doesn’t cheat us out of an action-packed finale.

In many ways, The Eyes Of The Tiger is like Stokes’s version of Casino Royale. Mostly in how Nick, like Bond in that first adventure, here begins to fall in love with a woman he’s uncertain he can trust – the Killmaster, you see, is shocked to discover he’s developed feelings for Elspeth, and wonders if he might want to quit the spy game. Admittedly this is some lame telegraphing, but Stokes handles it well, and of course it leads to the expected outcome – Elspeth is like Vesper Lynd in that she is hiding a few things from our hero. Her finale is also similar, with her proclamations of love falling on deaf ears; this leads to a nice bit, and another indication of the brutality of Stokes’s hero, where Nick leaves Elspeth “one last bullet” – for herself.

It moves a lot slower than its 159 pages would imply, but The Eyes Of The Tiger is still pretty enjoyable. One can imagine that Lyle Kenyon Engel was certainly happy that this particular writer responded to his ad. I’ve managed to pick up all of Stokes’s Killmaster installments and look forward to reading the rest of them.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

SOBs #3: Butchers Of Eden

SOBs #3: Butchers Of Eden, by Jack Hild
November, 1984  Gold Eagle Books

Alan Philipson turns in this third volume of SOBs, which takes place not long after the previous volume, which was also courtesy Philippson. Running to 219 pages (a bit long for a Gold Eagle novel of the era, I believe), Butchers of Eden doesn’t really feel much like a SOBs novel for the first half or so.

Instead, it’s more of a no-frills suspense deal, one with a vague Joseph Conrad vibe, or maybe that was just the Nyquil I was taking at the time. Nile Barrabas is in Sri Lanka with his “blonde goddess” girlfriend Erika Dykstra and her heavyset brother Gunther; the siblings run the family arms-supplying business, and are series regulars while not officially being members of the SOBs. The trio have come here to Sri Lanka to help out T.M. Something-Or-Other (he has like a sentence-long last name), who oversees the family business in this part of the world.

But there’s trouble brewing in “Eden” (as Barrabas thinks of Sri Lanka); the population, roughly split between Buddhists and Hindus, is on the verge of civil war. The Buddhists, whom we are told are lazy and indolent, like to blame all their troubles on the hard-working Hindus, and given all the problems lately the Buddhists are becoming even more and more hostile. To the point that T.M., a Hindu, is pressured by Erika and Gunther to leave Sri Lanka, taking his family along with him. Barrabas has come along…well, for some reason, I guess.

This opening section seems to come from a whole different genre than men’s adventure, with the Buddhist-Hindu tensions rapidly heading toward boil, and Erika and Gunther vainly trying to get T.M. to leave the country. Philipson occasionally cuts over to Karl Heiss, onetime CIA agent turned heroin trafficker turned mercenary, last seen in the first volume. Back during the ‘Nam days Heiss ran a heroin empire with the depraved Vietnamese colonel Son Ny; a heroin empire which was destroyed by young Nile Barrabas, in an origin story somewhat similar to that of The Penetrator.

As we’ll recall from the first volume, Heiss was not killed by Barrabas at the end of that story (for lame reasons), instead turned over to the local police there in Kaliba, Africa, where Heiss had been part of a revolutionary plot. Butchers Of Eden opens with Heiss in nearly skeletal shape, having suffered these past three months in the dank hellhole; he is saved by merciless American mercenaries he remembers from the ‘Nam years. Men who were part of Son Ny’s mercenary army, these guys free Heiss and take him to Sri Lanka, where Son Ny has set up his most recent shop.

Son Ny wants to start up his heroin empire again, and wants to work again with Heiss. As an incentive he offers Barrabas’s head on a silver platter; knowing Barrabas is here in Sri Lanka, Son Ny has planned a trap. He’s taken over a rubber plantation deep in the jungle and stocked it with men, machine guns, and booby traps. The plan is to capture Erika Dykstra, whom Son Ny himself has lusted after since Vietnam, and to lure Barrabas in to rescue her. Heiss says what the hell and agrees. 

The trap is sprung while the Buddhists are in full-on riot in the streets of Sri Lanka; Erika and Gunther, having been taken downtown along with T.M. by the corrupt cops, are attacked by those mercenary soldiers. Despite being shot in the friggin’ head, Gunther somehow lives, but Erika is captured. Barrabas scouts out the rubber plantation and makes a call to his CIA contact, Walker Jessup, who each volume is the man who assembles the SOBs. Nearly haflway in we are finally reunited with them, and all the surviving members from previous volumes return, save for Hayes (aka “the black one”) and Dr. Hatton (aka “the female one”).

While those two don’t appear, a quite unexpected character does – none other than The Executioner himself. While dozing in the jungle Barrabas dreams of a ‘Nam incident he shared with “Sgt. Mercy” as they chased a phantom squad of Viet Cong. It’s a nice scene but one gets the suspicion the idea was forced upon Philipson by Gold Eagle’s editors to ensure consistency with the rest of the line. And anyway it’s all forgotten once the SOBs show up and launch their assault on the rubber plantation.

Obese Walker Jessup has also come along, much to Barrabas’s surprise, and Philipson has him meeting the other SOBs face-to-face for the first time. He remains behind to watch for any attempted escapes on the sole rode out of the plantation while the rest of the force handles the dirty work. It’s all very military fiction-esque as the SOBs take out gun towers and roving security patrols. It gets a bit more men’s adventure-esque (ie less concerned with real-world “strategy” and such) when Lopez, the wiry Hispanic SOB, appropriates an M-60, drapes some ammo across his shoulders, and goes around blasting people, places, and things to shreds.

Heiss for unstated reasons spares Erika, who has been kept bound to a chair throughout. Heiss and Son Ny escape, but Jessup stops them – turns out Jessup has come here because he was under orders to ensure Heiss’s escape, as the CIA wants to use him for some unknown purpose. Barrabas is properly pissed when he finds out, but there isn’t much he can do, plus Erika is unscathed, so there’s that. And meanwhile Barrabas has sliced Son Ny in half with a car! A pretty grisly ending, but I figured Son Ny would stick around for more volumes.

And that’s that – T.M. Whasisname and family do in fact leave Sri Lanka at the end (and Philipson by the way includes a too-long subplot about T.M.’s family overcoming various setbacks and dangers), and Barrabas heads off for the next volume, which hopefully will be a bit more entertaining. Not that Butchers Of Eden was bad – Philipson’s writing was as ever quite good – I just didn’t enjoy it as much as the other SOBs I’ve read. Save of course for the first one, which was a dud.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Endworld #1: The Fox Run

Endworld #1: The Fox Run, by David Robbins
No month stated, 1986  Leisure Books

Clearly tapping in on the post-nuke success of Doomsday Warrior, Endworld was courtesy David Robbins and ultimately proved to be even more popular, spanning twenty-some volumes and even a sister series, Blade, which also ran for several volumes. Like Doomsday Warrior, this one takes place one hundred years after “The Big Blast,” aka World War III, however unlike Doomsday Warrior it doesn’t play it all so over the top. While some might appreciate this, I missed the typical craziness of post-nuke pulp.

Just to get the similarities dispensed with, Endworld also concerns a group of American heroes a century after nuclear war, living in an idyllic, almost socialist sort of paradise safe from the radioactive rigors of their post-nuke world. But, judging from this first entry, the series lacks the spoofy jingoism of Doomsday Warrior, and indeed we aren’t even told who the nuclear war was between – in other words, there are no “Reds,” aka Russians, making life miserable for the surviving Americans. And while this series does have radiation-spawn “mutates,” unlike the creature features of Doomsday Warrior these ones are scarred, half-dead animals that are covered in pus-filled carters and boils. 

We’re also missing the patented ultra-gore and graphic sex of Doomsday Warrior, more on which later. The Fox Run has violence throughout, but Robbins is in more of a streamline/outline mode than Ryder Stacy, usually just stating that a character is shot and leaving it at that, rather than detailing the exploding brains and spouting cerebrospinal fluids. As for sex, forget it. This book could almost pass for juvenile fiction – again, more on which later.

Our heroes are members of the Family, a group of survivors who live on the Home, built shortly before the war and nestled in a desolate area of Minnesota. Made up of seventy-five or so people, the Family lives on a bunker-type compound complete with fortified shelters, tons of stocked food, and even more guns and ammo. Led by the wizened Plato, who looks much older than his fifty-odd years, the Family is broken up into different specialized units, a la the socialist setup of Doomsday Warrior; as in that superior series, it’s all about the community and not the individual in Endworld

A squad of three-man Warrior teams lead the Home’s defenses, “Alpha Triad” being the top one, and its leader being a 24 year-old mass of muscle named Blade, who appears on the cover of every Endworld novel in full homoerotic splendor. Lacking the memorable, outrageous charm of Ted “Doomsday Warrior” Rockson, Blade is as naïve and innocent as the rest of the Family, completely ignorant of the world outside and uncertain what pre-nuke society was like – in another parallel to Doomsday Warrior, the Family has scads of books in its library, but none of the videos or other computer tech of that other series, so all they’ve learned has come from the several hundred books the Home’s builder, Kurt Carpenter, stocked for them. 

This first entry is very concerned with world-building, often shoehorning background material in the narrative with no warning. At length we learn that Carpenter, paranoid of a nuclear war, bought the land on which the Home was built and started off the community shortly before WW III; he himself was killed by a radioactive cloud. In the last similarity I’ll mention between this series and Doomsday Warrior, here too our heroes must endure the harsh and bizarre post-nuke weather patterns, in particular green clouds that can kill a man with just a single vapor. We get to see one of these in action early on, as even studly Blade is almost killed by a mere cloud.

It’s almost 100 years to the day since “The Big Blast,” and Home leader Plato has a concern – everyone’s growing old much too fast. He feels that it’s time for the Family to finally venture outside of the area of the Home and go to far-off Twin Cities, where Plato hopes to find research equipment that will help him figure out why everyone seems so much older than they really are. Plato himself looks to be in his seventies despite being twenty years younger, and his concern is that if something isn’t done hummanity itself will be gone within a generation.

Blade, bowie knife-wielding leader of Alpha Triad (we’re informed each member of the Family choses his or her own name at age sixteen), will head up the journey to Twin Cities. The other two members of his Triad will go along: Hickock, lean and rakish crackshot who talks and acts like he’s in the Wild West, and Geronimo, muscle-bound, spear-fighting “Indian” (who humorously enough is like 98-percent caucasian, only calling himself “Geronimo” due to a smidgen of American Indian in his genes). These two characters annoyed me no end – it was nauseating how many times Hickock would call someone “pard,” and Robbins develops a three-way banter between the Triad that strives for comedy but only seldom attains it.

The thing is, I didn’t like any of these guys. Even worse is Joshua, young Jesus-wannabe acolyte of Plato, a pacifist who preaches of “the Spirit” and whom Plato insists will go along to Twin Cities with the Alpha Triad. I kept waiting for Joshua to get killed, but unfortunately it never happened. At least we don’t get to read too much about him, given that, after an almost humorous amount of narrative buildup, the Twin Cities run is called off! When some enemies raid the Home – apparently the first non-Family humans our heroes have ever seen – and steal away the young women, the Family’s priorities quickly change.

No, instead it will be the Fox run, as it develops that these villains, who call themselves The Trolls, reside in Fox, Minnesota, much closer to the Home than Twin Cities. Unbathed cretins in foul-smelling, raggedy frocks, the Trolls take advantage of the Home’s sluggish defenses and steal off several women, including Blade’s flame Jenny, a bland but busty blonde. To further evidence the juvenile nature of the series, our heroes constantly question why the Trolls would take their women – the entire abduction is a mystery to them.

And to me this is the biggest drawback of Endworld. Our heroes, while being super-skilled at killing mutates and talking about guns and whatnot, are almost Edenic in their blissful ignorance of man’s dark heart. We will learn eventually that Home founder Kurt Carpenter wrote a sort of guidelines that has become a veritable bible for the Family. One of its stipulations was “no promiscuous sex.” What a bummer!! Hence Blade and Jenny apparently have never consumated their love – to do that requires “binding” to one another, aka getting hitched.

So anyway, with Jenny and the other gals captive, Blade and the others – even Plato – are plain flummoxed. “Why would anyone want to abduct our women?” Becomes almost a constant refrain. This, coupled with the lack of gory violence, is what leads me to almost classify Endworld as juvenile fiction. It’s even written in juvenile fiction tones, as shown here in a sequence in which Blade kills a mutate:

Blade watched the headless body flop on the grass, blood and pus forming a pool around it. He repressed an urge to continue hacking the body, to chop it into tiny little pices[sp]. How he hated the mutates!!! Every damn one of them had to be exterminated! After all, one of them had killed his father. 

Yes, friends, “After all, one of them had killed his father” is really a sentence in the narrative. And let’s not forget the triple exclamation points, not to mention the Leisure Books-mandatory typo of “pices” instead of “pieces.” This section not only shows the book’s juvenile tone, but is also about as gory as it gets – everything else is pretty bland, so far as the violent setpieces go. So if you know a kid who likes to read, I’d suggest Endworld. It’s certainly going to be better than whatever progressivist bullshit is currently passing for juvenile fiction today. Plus, given the lack of late ‘80s period details or USSR villains, the series is almost timeless.

To me, this juvenile vibe is both good and bad. Bad, because personally I prefer my post-nuke pulp to be insanely gory and filled with graphic sex, a la Doomsday Warrior, Traveler, and the almighty Phoenix. But at the same time it’s good because…well, to briefly broach a personal subject, after 14+ years of marriage my wife and I are about to have our first kid, due in late January. It’s a boy, and if it develops that he likes to read as much as I do, then I’ll have the perfect set of books to turn over to him when he’s 11 or so (which is the age when I started reading men’s adventure – though I went straight to the “adult” stuff like Phoenix Force, so maybe Endworld could be read by someone even younger).

Anyway, to get back to the review. While the women are carted off to Fox (and one of them, Joan, happens to be the sole female Warrior in the Family), the Alpha Triad heads off in hot pursuit, taking advantage of the just-unearthed SEAL. Yet another bit of prescience courtesy Kurt Carpenter, the SEAL is an all-terrain, solar-powered vehicle of opaque plastic-light material that’s impervious to bullets. It’s been stored in an airtight, grave-like chamber for the past century. Our heroes first must learn how to drive it, having never seen a working car before – again, this series, at least this first volume, lacks the quasi-futuristic tech of Doomsday Warrior or even the sub-Mad Max gearhead stuff of Traveler.

More comedy ensues as first Hickock nearly wrecks the SEAL and then Blade, being overly cautious, refuses to take it over 15 mph as they head after the Trolls. Eventually he’ll get on a blasted highway and take it up to 60. The SEAL doesn’t factor much in The Fox Run, other than providing basic transport, but one figures it will heavily feature in upcoming volumes, as all books in the series featuring “Run” in the title. I forgot to mention that Robbins shoehorns a bunch of gun-porn into the book, courtesy Hickock; there’s an interminable part where the Triad go into the Home armory and Hickock rattles off several guns and their attributes as he outfits his comrades with the weapons he thinks they’ll need.

The finale sees the Trolls returning to their blasted home, Fox, and putting the women through a series of trials to filter out the hardiest. Here the women encounter Nadine, a crone-like lady who seems familiar; turns out she’s Plato’s long-lost wife, abducted by the trolls seven years ago. The trials are kind of lame, and end with one of the women tossed to a pack of ravenous wolverines. Robbins plays some time tricks with the narrative, having Blade magically show up disguised as a Troll in the wolverine arena before backtracking to explain how he got there, as if this is post-nuke Elmore Leonard or something.

While Hickock, Geronimo, and a family they encountered on the way to Fox blast away at the Trolls, Blade engages titanic Troll leader Saxon in a grisly knife fight, which is likely the most violent part of the book, featuring as it does a character’s groin getting hacked off (hint: it isn’t Blade’s). We also get tantalizing mentions of a group called “The Watchers,” who apparently have their own motorized vehicles and whom even the Trolls seem to fear. But otherwise that’s that – a few casualties, but otherwise the women are saved, including of course Jenny, and it’s back to the Home.

At 255 pages of super big print, The Fox Run is fast moving and does a capable job of introducing this post-nuke society. I’ll keep reading the books – and I’ve managed to pick up most of the series, as well as all of Blade – but I have a feeling I’ll be turning them all over to my son in about a decade or so.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Countdown At Monaco (Don Miles #2)

Countdown At Monaco, by Larry Kenyon
May, 1967  Avon Books

The Don Miles series returns with a second adventure that takes place one year after the first; Lew Louderback once again serves as “Larry Kenyon,” just as he would for the next two volumes in this brief series. And once again he turns in a complexly-plotted spy yarn that comes off as a helluva lot longer than its misleading 159 pages would imply, thanks to the small, dense print. But as ever Louderback’s writing is good (he remains locked in Don’s third-person perspective throughout, without a single instance of POV-hopping!), and he’s very much in-line with the high-caliber writing expected of book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel’s writing stable.

Don Miles does a little better for himself this time around, not coming off quite so much as the bumbling fool he was in the first volume. (That being said, he does manage to get captured at one point, has electrodes implanted in his brain, and is turned into a mind-controlled would-be assassin of his comrades.) We’re informed at the outset that Don has had no other missions since his first one in Le Mans; he is for the most part a sleeper agent, only activated when his latest race happens to be occurring in some area US Intelligence is interested in. Thus he is eventually contacted while in scenic Monaco, training for its upcoming Grand Prix.

As with the first book, the race itself doesn’t feature much in the novel (and we’re informed that Don did win Le Mans after the events of volume one, using his American-made Panther racer), with the majority of the action taking place in the days leading up to the big event. Louderback provides the racing stuff via training and heats Don competes in; to tell the truth I skimmed over this stuff, as it doesn’t have much appeal to me, all about performance engines and hugging the curves in sharp turns and Don feeling alive behind the wheel. I’m more interested in the spy stuff.

Louderback typically delivers complicated scenarios, and such is the case in Countdown At Monaco, though it’s nowhere as complex as the one in the previous book. Don isn’t even on assignment when the book opens, blissfully unaware he’s about to be activated by his still-unseen handler, who is back in the US. Don’s here in Monaco noticing how many of the residents seem so strange and sleepy, and he’s driving along the twisting roads on the everyday model of the Panther when some beautiful blonde engages him in a high-speed chase, a la your average James Bond novel.

This turns out to be Airadne Dexos, 20 year-old daughter of multibillionaire shipping magnate Apollo Dexos. Ariadne crashes her car and confesses to her rescuer Don that she’s a huge fan of his and engaged him in a race just to meet him. Posthaste they’re having sex at a nearby hotel. Louderback writes three sex scenes this volume and they follow the same template of the previous book, with copious detail of the women’s anatomy before cutting away from the action. But whereas last time Louderback would quickly fade to black via an ellipsis, this time he provides a bit more juicy detail before the inevitable three dots appear.

The novel touches on mind control, which is pretty cool given it’s early date – published even before the RFK assassination, which was a mind control job if ever there was one. A post-coital Don flips on Radio Monte Carlo, which is the hip “ye-ye girl” station here in Monaco, and as soon as the station’s signature “Domino” tune kicks in Ariadne turns into a veritable zombie and comes at Don with a knife. It gets weirder still when a trio of beautiful but zombie-eyed gals in swimsuits break in, hold Don at harpoon point, and steal Ari off; one of the girls even tries to kill Don by knocking him off a cliff. He survives and puzzles over this super-weird shit.

Shortly after this Don is activated; his race team mechanic/fellow secret agent Buck Garrett is sent in, speaking in the same painfully-rendered “Southern dialect” as the previous volume. The assignment hinges around missing uranium, Apollo Dexos, a Swiss psychiatrist named Dr. Hirn, and Dr. David Wollenberg, “the father of the A-bomb,” who has retired here to Monaco after a stroke years before. There’s also a plot that’s turning the residents of Monaco into half-asleep zombies; at length Don will discover that the tap water is poisoned with a chemical called BZ, and Don has remained unscathed because he “never drinks the stuff.”

The racing aspect of the series isn’t nearly as prevalent this time, and indeed comes off as a hindrance to the action. With the fate of the world in the balance, I could care less that Don has a big race coming up the day after next. Perhaps this is why Don Miles never achieved the success of Engel’s other 1960s spy series, Nick Carter: Killmaster. I don’t think the fault could be laid on Louderback, who keeps everything moving and introduces enough unusual concepts that Countdown At Monaco stands out from the countless other spy paperbacks of the era.

One thing missing though is action. Don goes unarmed for the majority of the text, and doesn’t even have any of the gadgets he used in the previous book. He’s chased several times by mind-controlled zombies, and shot at even more times, but it gets to be a little old how bad of a shot the ambushers are; it seems like Don dodges about a zillion bullets in the course of the book, usually by just rolling around and jumping. As for the other kind of action, in addition to Ariadne, Don also scores with the girl’s young stepmother, superhot superstar Danielle Corri, Bardot-esque latest wife of Apollo Dexos.

This score takes place on a nudist beach immediately after Don has ducked and dodged bullets courtesy the latest round of mind-controlled ambushers. Danielle is free of the mind control but lives in fear of Apollo, however she reveals that Ariadne herself is under control, something Don has already suspected. In the last pages we’ll learn a twisted family dynamic is behind all this, but at any rate Danielle is the closest thing to a heroine in the book, whereas Ariadne is in love with Don while at the same time under mind control by her father, who loves Ariadne in a non-fatherly way and thus resents Don.

Also, Don Miles works in more of an investigator capacity throughout, tracking leads and clues to find out what’s going on in Monaco. He puts together the mind control scheme, which is courtesy Dr. Hirn and has to do with electrodes placed in the brains of several subjects who are activated by a remote control center which broadcasts via computer through radio relays. In this way the novel has a sort of modern, almost sci-fi aspect; there’s even a part where Buck handles an IBM computer, much to Don’s amazement. It seems both outdated and modern at the same time; there aren’t too many other ‘60s or even ‘70s action series where the two-fisted heroes do research on a computer.

But this investigative stuff serves again to make Don Miles seem like a second-stringer in the world of Nick Carter. He’s constantly being jumped by ambushers and walking into traps, and as mentioned he’s captured late in the book. Louderback retains the locked third-person perspective even though our hero is under mind control, and it’s masterfully done, with a bit of a psychedelic edge. Don stumbles around in a confused fog, at Apollo’s beck and call, having become “a life-sized doll” for Ariadne – who goes into a rage when she discovers that Don can no longer “perform” for her, thanks to the mental blocks her dad has put on him. However those blocks don’t prevent Don from having sex with Danielle again…

When Don is sent via mind control to kill Buck, the Southerner saves Don’s ass with a jury-rigged scrambler device which sends out white noise or somesuch, thus cancelling out the mind control waves. We’re in the homestretch now, as a freed Don realizes that Apollo has all the uranium and plans to destroy the entire planet while he and Ariadne stay safely below the ocean in an aquatic home, to come out afterwards and repopulate the world together(!). Louderback, as last time, works in Don’s race car driver profession here, with Don doing the high-speed driving while Buck shoots at their pursuers. Even here in the finale we’re denied an ass-kicking title hero.

We’re also denied much of a send-off for the main villain; he’s piranha-bait after a quick tussle with Don aboard his massive personal ship. Countdown At Monaco climaxes with a long racing sequence as Don competes in the Monaco Grand Prix, just a few hours after brain surgery to remove those electrodes(!), and he still doesn’t know where the atom bomb is. Louderback successfully combines Don’s racing and spy halves as our hero discovers that two of his competitors are also mind-controlled Apollo dupes who have been preprogrammed to initiate the atomic countdown; Don has to take them out while making their crashes appear natural.

Overall Countdown At Monaco is a lot of fun, and definitely has that ‘60s spy-fy vibe, though I can’t say it’s one of the best such spy series out there – I still much prefer the ‘60s installments of Nick Carter: Killmaster and even Mark Hood. Louderback’s writing is skiled and fast-moving, but it must be stated that his plotting is so overly-complex that his finales are usually composed of some villain are other explaining everything in bald exposition. Anyway, Don Miles returned a few months later in Revenge At Indy.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 3


008 Operation Exterminate (1965): This was the first Eurospy flick from prolific Italian writer-director Umberto Lenzi, who went on to do “Superseven Calling Cairo” and “The Spy Who Loved Flowers.” The guy really knew his spyghetti because this is another good one. Perhaps the main gimmick of “008 Operation Exterminate” is the fact that 008 is…a woman!! Seriously though, blonde German babe Ingrid Schoeller plays 008, an American agent sent to Cairo to find out the truth behind a rumored radar-blocking station. Unlike the “tough chick” cliché of today, 008 is svelte and self-assured, with none of the aggressively macho posturing of today’s female action characters. That being said, she carries a derringer with “supersonic” rounds in her garter belt and has knock-out mist in her lipstick tube. The actress is certainly pretty and enjoys showing off her impressive cleavage with various plunging-neckline outfits, but one issue I had was the constant vacant expression on her face. She doesn’t look very comfortable in the role at times, perhaps reason why there was never a followup, even though the finale points the way to one.

008 teams up with a British agent (played by an oily and hirsute Italian actor) and together they run afoul of various spy-world types, including a henchman who wears a leather glove that shoots projectile knives. The plot features the usual incomprehensible detours expected of Eurospy, and sometimes it seems to lose its way, but we do get yet another egregious trip to the pyramids. It wraps up in a nice climax in the villain’s high-tech underworld lair, complete with flashing balls of light and whirring electronics. Strangely though the film doesn’t end here, but goes on for another 20 minutes as 008 and partner head to Switzerland to track down the man who has stolen the radar-blocking plans. It all ends with various turnarounds and reversals, but everything wraps up nicely. Overall “008 Operation Exterminate” is another sterling example of the Eurospy genre and would be a great gateway drug into the world of spyghetti.

Devilman Story (1967): Also known as “The Devil’s Man,” this is my favorite Eurospy of all, even though it isn’t technically Eurospy, given that our hero is a journalist. But otherwise it has all the motifs of the genre and delivers them with aplomb. The movie also comes very close to capturing the vibe of a Nick Carter: Killmaster novel; the villain, the titular Devilman, even shares some similarities with Nick Carter’s archenemy Mr. Judas. The movie is very much on the sci-fi tip with a plot about electronic brains, mind control, and human experimentation. It takes a while to get there, though, with a first half that’s more along the lines of typical Eurospy. A sexy brunette Eurobabe named Christine is visiting Rome with her brain surgeon father when he’s abducted; along comes Mike, ruggedly handsome American actor Guy Madison, who looks sort of like a tough guy version of the Professor from “Gilligan’s Island.” Claiming that he’s a newspaperman, one who works for a “scientific journal,” Mike could in fact be a spy in reality – for a reporter, he certainly knows his judo, not to mention how to handle a submachine gun. Mike and Christine follow various leads until they get to Africa, where it develops that Christine’s father has been taken to the desert fortress of a madman who is considered a devil by the Tuareg desert tribes. Christine herself is captured by the “black riders,” ie the black-robed desert warriors who work for Devilman; mind-controlled desert warriors at that, with milky white eyes. Mike manages to infiltrate the place, and here the movie goes full-on sci-fi, with whirring blips and bloops from the bizarre contraptions the villain has stocked his lair with. We have nude men and women in weird red-lighted cryogenic chambers, electronic brains, and even a gizmo that makes a corpse crush a heavy iron ball in his fist.

By far the coolest villain in all Eurospy, Devilman wears a black uniform, leather gloves with blades that are perfect for slicing throats, and a silver mask, so that he sort of looks like the Eurospy equivalent of Destro, from GI Joe. Beneath the mask his face is a scarred ruin, like Mr. Judas. The filmmakers don’t cheat us out of a good finale, either, as is typical for many of these movies; Mike escapes and comes back with those Tuaregs for an action-packed finale that sees hell unleased on Devilman’s fortress, countless men gunned down and a climax that features about a gazillion explosions. Mike even takes on Devilman in a quick judo tussle, before everything quickly wraps up for a happy ending – Devilman’s plot averted (something about becoming a “new messiah” with his electronic brain), Christine’s dad freed from his mind control, and Mike and Christine no doubt about to hop into bed together soon. Previously only available in a poor-quality print, “Devilman Story” is now available on the underground circuit in a nice widescreen print with the English dub. The compilers even included fansubs for the few scenes that were never dubbed into English.

Lightning Bolt (1966): Another of my favorites in the Eurospy genre. It very much has the feel of a Bond film of the era, but it’s interesting because the hero is more along the lines of Roger Moore’s take on Bond. Strangely, I don’t think the dude kills a single person in the film. Instead he busts out a checkbook – he has an unlimited account – and offers to pay off the latest villain whatever he demands! The ass-kicking is mostly courtesy the babes of the film; our hero’s boss is a busty Italian babe whose code numbers are her measurements. The hero narrates the film, which gives it a hardboiled angle, and overall you could be fooled into thinking this was an American movie.

The finale is very Bond-esque, with the villain, who is based in Florida and trying to sabotage a NASA moon launch, capturing the hero and taking him to his underwater lair. The dude’s henchmen are outfitted almost identically to the Cobra soldiers in the GI Joe cartoon. Cool stuff here like a bunch of people the villain has cryogenically frozen; in the finale they melt and we get eerie shots of decomposing skeletons. There’s another ass-kicking babe in the underwater complex, a busty blonde Eurobabe whose father is the villain’s captive and who runs around in a red jumpsuit. Overall this one is a lot of fun and a great example of the genre, but again slightly let down given that the hero doesn’t even shoot anyone, which is very strange given that it’s a spy flick from the ‘60s.

Operation Atlantis (1965): I’ve watched this one twice now and still don’t know what the hell it’s about, yet for all that it’s one of my favorites. A strange, dreamlike film, “Operation Atlantis” doesn’t make a lick of sense. Our American hero, the muscular dude who co-starred in the old “Honey West” TV show (and who would’ve made for a perfect Nick Carter if a film had ever been made from that series), is apparently a spy or somesuch, and he’s hired while on his way to vacation to go to North Africa and look into…something, I’m not sure. Instead our hero gets in one bizarre misadventure after another. At one point he’s taken captive, put on a plane, and ends up with a bunch of desert dwellers in North Africa.

Then around the halfway point the film takes on this unexpected sci-fi angle. The hero and his latest female companion put on these cool leather “space suits” and cross over a radioactive forcefield in the desert (relayed via cheap red lines on the camera)…and enter the lost colony of Atlantis! Here the movie suddenly becomes like a sword and sandal flick, with the “Atlanteans” going around in robes and performing weird rituals. Of course there’s a hot, busty “princess” who takes a shine to our hero – who by the way is the most ineffectual protagonist in any of these movies. The dude does nothing! Turns out the Atlantis colony is really a Red Chinese decoy or something (despite which all the Atlanteans are Italians), its purpose to hide from the world a store of uranium the Chicoms have discovered. (There isn’t a single Chinese actor in the film, by the way…I think we’re only informed the villains work for the Chicoms.) From there it’s back to regular Eurospy territory for a quick action scene in Rome, the end. Strange and perplexing, the film is somehow still compelling, perhaps because it’s so weird. Plus it’s got three very attractive Eurobabes in the main female roles.

The Spy Who Loved Flowers (1966) “Superseven” Martin Stevens (Roger Browne) returns in a sequel to the previous year’s “Superseven Calling Cairo,” with Umberto Lenzi also returning as writer-director. Interestingly Stevens is never referred to as “Superseven” this time, and the gadgetry/sci-fi vibe of the previous flick is for the most part gone. So are the Eurobabes, with Stevens mostly sticking with just one lady throughout, a somewhat-attractive blonde who is a big step down from the previous movie’s Rosalba Neri. But Stevens is still brutal; the flick opens with him poisoning a pretty female agent and casually making off with the blueprints she stole. Stevens’s chief has it that others know of these blueprints and must be killed.

Off Stevens goes around Europe and the Mediterranean, acting as an executioner; the main villain he chases is the titular flower-loving spy, a bearded rake who is more a thorn in the side than an actual supervillain. Another of the villains is a female Red Chinese agent (Yoko Tani); Stevens calls her a “robot” in an effective moment later in the film. During his travels Stevens runs into the aforementioned blonde, who is a magazine photographer. There are a couple firefights and chases here and there, but nothing as fun as in the previous movie, and the gadgets are nowhere to be found. But at least Stevens is dubbed with a British accent this time. We get a brief repeat of that cool negative photography trick from the previous movie when the blonde is trapped in a cell and a special light turned on to torture her, but otherwise the movie just lacks that fun spyghetti spark. Superseven Martin Stevens did not return.

The Spy With Ten Faces (1966): Another one I rank very high on the list. Our hero is “Upperseven,” a superagent for British intelligence (despite which he and his superiors are all dubbed with American accents – but then I believe the actor, who was an American, dubbed his own voice). Upperseven is a master of disguise, and the film has the feel of the “Mission: Impossible” show with latex masks transforming him into a completely different actor. At first I thought this disguise bit was going to result in a more “gentle” hero, like the one in “Lightning Bolt,” but Upperseven is damn bloodthirsty. I think he kills more people than any other Eurospy hero yet; he has a special fondness for breaking necks. This caper has him going from Copenhagen to Italy to South Africa and back again; I’d say the film had a healthy budget. Upperseven also scores often with women, and is bloodthirsty with them, too; when he sleeps with one of them (hotstuff genre mainstay Rosalba Neri) and discovers she’s set him up for a trap, he pushes her out into the street to take the bullets that were meant for him!

Lots of action in this one, including a “Thunderball”-mandatory bit where Upperseven dons scuba gear and blows up a bunch of villains. The main babe is super-hot redhead Karin Dor, a German actress who the following year played the sexy henchwoman in the Bond film “You Only Live Twice.” She is one of the better-looking women in these films, and that’s saying something. The finale sees her and Upperseven in silver jumpsuits, running around in the villain’s high-tech lair in Africa. (During the action Upperseven, disguised as the main villain, finds the time to sleep with the villain’s hot girlfriend! Even Bond wouldn’t have had the courage to pull that one off!) Karin Dor’s character is a CIA agent and another of those Eurospy chicks who gets in on the action, throwing a few fancy judo moves. That being said, she’s easily captured at one point, with her dress pulled over her head, thus showng off her black lingerie. Overall this one was a total surprise and I’d say it’s definitely one of my favorites yet.

Superseven Calling Cairo (1965): The first of two films featuring agent Martin Stevens (played by American genre mainstay Roger Browne), apparently a Canadian working for British Intelligence whose code name is Superseven (ie even better than plain ol’ 007!!). The movie is bright and colorful and a perfect example of the “Budget Bond” of these Italian Eurospy movies. Filmed in Rome and Cairo, the movie makes the most of its location footage, including an arbitrary trip to the pyramids midway through where this dumbass character tries to escape the villains…by running up the Great Pyramid!! Where did he think he was going? Most importanly, the film features some uber-sexy Eurobabes. For one we have the exotic Rosalba Neri (briefly seen in “The Spy With Ten Faces,” above) in a big part, and later we have another that is quite easy on the eyes.

The plot has Superseven chasing around a film camera that has some sort of new uranium metal or something in it; as usual for the Eurospy genre the plot is both preposterous and convoluted. Fairly good action, with some clever gadgets as well, and also cool psychedelic visuals where at one point Superseven is put in a radioactive room that glows red and these dudes with goggles come at him, and he sees them in a cool negative photography shot. The middle loses its way a bit with some dumb stuff (ie the guy running up the pyramid), but it climaxes with good dramatic reversals and action scenes. Superseven returned with the same director in the following year’s “The Spy Who Loved Flowers,” reviewed above.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Ninja Master #6: Death's Door

Ninja Master #6: Death’s Door, by Wade Barker
November, 1982  Warner Books

Ric Meyers is back with another Ninja Master that pushes all the sicko sleaze buttons – honest to god, Death’s Door features some of the most outrageously twisted stuff I’ve ever read in a men’s adventure novel, which is really saying something. But in this slim novel you’ll read horrific sequences of teenage boys being chopped up on butcher blocks (as well as chainsawed), their girlfriends skewered on pot racks and raped (as well as chainsawed), and entire families being slaughtered. Hell, even little kids are killed!

It’s my understanding that this was the first volume Meyers got to conceive and write on his own, his previous volumes having been catered to plots begun by another author(s) and already-commissioned cover artwork. But man, if Death’s Door is any indication, Meyers has one twisted imagination. The book seems to be inspired by the era’s fascination with slasher movies, only everything is taken to an absurd degree of sick insanity. I’ve read a bunch of these books by now, so I thought I was pretty desensitized, but as I read the nightmarish opening sequence I was like, “Please god, let it end!”

But we read as a pretty teen girl, her friend, and their boyfriends come back to her parent’s home after seeing the latest slasher horror movie. They walk into a horror movie of their own when three sadists swoop out of the shadows and begin torturing and mutilating them. One wears an old man mask, another has his face painted white and black, and the third is fat and wears a leather mask. Gradually, as her friends are being butchered in super-graphic detail, the teen girl realizes that all this seems familiar; the sadists are in fact recreating certain scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, up to and including a chainsaw. Only, the girl discovers as this grisly opening scene finally ends, the trio plan to “change the ending” for their recreation – the girl will not escape, as in the film.

We finally meet up with Brett “Ninja Master” Wallace, who is keeping abreast of these horrific massacres occuring here in Southern California – the girl and her friends weren’t the only victims; her mom and dad were also slaughtered that night. Later there will be another killing courtesy the three sadists, again going on and on and raising hackles; in this one they also kill two young boys as they watch a horror movie on television in their bedroom, even hanging their corpses in garish displays for the teenaged babysitter to discover, before her own gory end. I mean good grief, forget about the desensitization I thought I’d achieved – I was about ready to email Dr. Phil!

Meyers clearly makes his villains as horrible as can be so that we readers can feel the rush when Brett Wallace ultimately takes care of them; Meyers has done the same thing in each of the two previous books he’s read, only a helluva lot more so this time around. And also Meyers is unique among these men’s adventure authors in that he doesn’t shirk on the villain’s payoff; Brett usually goes to great pains to ensure the villains suffer mightily before he finally sends them to hell. But at the same time, I wasn’t sure Meyers really had to go that far – I mean, you don’t have to see Doctor No murder a bunch of kids to feel satisfaction when James Bond kills him.

Anyway Brett is on the scene, as ever perfecting his “no man” aura. Brett has also mastered the vibes he gives off, so that whatever he pretends to be, the person he is speaking to will presume that’s what he is. In other words, if Brett gives off “cop” vibes and talks to a real cop, the cop will just assume he’s speaking to a fellow officer who happens to be off-duty or somesuch. So here Brett is in a diner, mulling over these nightmarish atrocities, when in walks Lynn McDonald, a good-looking babe Brett apparently had a brief fling with sometime between volume 1 and volume 2. Brett’s just agreed to see her again for dinner when a group of psychos break into the place and start coming after her.

Meyers also reinforces the concept that Brett Wallace is a modern superhero, one with a “half-secret identity;” twice Brett makes comparisons to Batman, even reflecting that he has his own high-tech “Batcave” beneath the Asian restaurant he co-owns with his girlfriend Rhea. So here, as the psychos attack, Brett must stop them while not demonstrating his near-superhuman abilities to any of the witnesses. This is one of those fun action scenes Meyers does so well, with Brett using everything from dinner plates to barstools to take out the psychos, who prove to be suicidal in their vain, desperate attempt to kill Lynn. 

The reader thinks Lynn’s going to be the novel’s heroine, but she’s off-page for the duration; shortly after this she is abducted from her apartment, carted off by an old woman and her young son, both of whom also seem violently insane. Brett ends up killing both of them in another novel action sequence, one which again sees the would-be assassins turn suicidal when they too fail in their goal. However Lynn is hurt in the action, knocked out, and spends the rest of the novel comatose in the hospital. Brett will save her life again and again as more would-be assassins come for her.

Indeed, one of these would-be assassins turns out to be a sexy nurse named Claire, and her sequences lend the novel a similar vibe to that of Murder Ward, which is interesting given that Meyers himself turned in a few Destroyer installments. But then Meyers’s Ninja Master practically is The Destroyer, only with better action scenes, more sex and gore, and none of the annoying genre-mockery. (I also enjoy it a whole helluva lot more.) But anyway Brett, superhuman as ever and invisible in his ninja costume, prevents Claire’s attempts at putting Lynn to sleep forever and then corners Claire in a closet, slicing away her nurse uniform shred by shred until she’s mostly nude. 

From Claire Brett learns of Dr. Shenkman, who runs the government-funded insane asylum The Sanctuary. The Murder Ward similarities continue as Brett gradually learns that Shenkman might be behind these crazy murders. There’s also a link to a company, which the fathers of the two massacred families worked for. Claire turns out to be the closest thing to a lead female character, and she also turns out to be the novel’s female villain – every Meyers installment has had one – sent to Brett one night to seduce him, but really acting as a diversion for some thugs who show up to kill him. We get more Remo Williams-esque stuff as Brett uses his masterful technique to reduce Claire into a quivering wreck of ecstasy, but the Ninja Master himself is interrupted while taking his share of the pleasure, as the thugs break in at that moment.

None of these thugs prove much of a match for Brett, of course. As for the three main psychos, turns out they do in fact work for Shenkman, but have been doing jobs for the CEO of that big company; Shenkman provides psycho-assassins for mercenary work, and the fathers in the two massacred families, as well as Lynn McDonald, somehow got wind of the plan and had to be taken out. But the three psychos are just demanding more pay from the CEO when Brett sweeps into the room, decked out in his ninja suit and bearing all his ninja gear, and starts slicing and dicing.

As mentioned Meyers usually doesn’t cheat us when it comes to villain comeuppance, but again it must be stated that these three don’t suffer nearly enough for the awful things they’ve done. In a running sequence Brett doles out his typically-brutal punishment, from a plain old sword through the head to one dude getting a “steel enema” and then his dick chopped in half. The fat psycho manages to escape, leading to another slasher flick tribute where he runs to a camp filled with sleeping kids and takes them hostage, giving in to his lurid impulses with the busty teen chaperone. Meanwhile Brett slips in and takes care of the bastard; Meyers has a great knack for having Brett magically appear, pull of some superhuman feat, and then backtrack to quickly explain to us how he managed to pull it all off.

This kill is particularly inventive – Brett appears to enjoy trying out new techniques on his victims – with the Ninja Master slicing a square through the fat dude’s chest and then punching it out, heart, guts, and all. The finale continues with the gory vibe and retains the “Brett vs an army” climax of Meyers’s previous books. Brett heads back to the Sanctuary and takes on the legions of psycho-assassins, to the point that he’s “ankle deep in gore and guts.” However this sequence is more quickly-relayed than previous finales, likely because Meyers at this point is past his word count, Death’s Door being slightly longer than previous installments.

The Ninja Master also isn’t one to screw over, even if you happen to be a sexy woman, as duplicitous Nurse Claire discovers; after Claire tries to kill him with a syringe injection, Brett overcomes the fatal dose with some ninja internal magic and then hunts her down in the burning ruins of the Sanctuary. And that’s that – Shenkman’s plot is foiled and Brett’s secret identity is safe, but meanwhile poor Lynn McDonald has finally woken up and it turns out she’s now practically a vegetable.

Meyers’s writing is as ever good, with lots of forward momentum and as mentioned copious gore, but he is a rampant POV-hopper, and he neglects to use the same names for his characters in the narrative, which causes confusion. For example characters are referred to by first and last names throughout in the narrative, which jars the reader, in particular when it comes to the female characters. When you read “McDonald was still in the hospital” or somesuch, after a pause you’re like, “Oh – he means Lynn!” Meyers does this for Brett as well, randomly referring to him as “Brett,” “Wallace,” or “Ninja Master” throughout. I mean it’s fine for the characters to use multiple names for each other, but the narrative should be consistent.

But it’s only these pedantic little things that annoy; otherwise Death’s Door is a lot of fun, with the caveat that some of it will certainly raise your hackles.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Mission To Venice (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #21)

Mission To Venice, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

Manning Lee Stokes is in pure Ian Fleming mold in this installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster. While it still has Stokes’s usual literary flair, Mission To Venice lacks the more outlandish elements of his other installments, sticking to the “real world” for the most part. It also has some trace elements of Fleming’s From Russia With Love. But I definitely enjoyed it – mostly because, this early in, Stokes was clearly still enjoying the series, unlike later dialed-in deliveries, a la The Red Rays.

This one’s also a short 156 pages and moves throughout, proving again that the shorter the word count, the better Stokes was. There’s no action intro for Nick Carter; he’s on vacation in Paris with a young “sex machine” named Georgette when he’s called into AXE boss Hawk’s office in Washington and given the latest assignment. A US plane carrying an H-bomb has gone down somewhere over the Adriatic Sea, and the US figures the Yugoslavs have found it. Their goal will likely be to use it for leverage against the Italians in the long-running Yugo-Italian rivalry for control of Trieste.

Nick (as he’s referred to in these early volumes) is told his companion will be an “international courtesan” who was once an Italian princess but who now works as a part-time AXE agent; he is to meet her on the Orient Express, which is where the From Russia With Love feel comes in. (Nick’s also given a special briefcase courtesy Poindexter of AXE Special Effects & Editing, a suitcase much like the one Bond was given in that novel.) Hawk informs Nick that the man behind the Yugo plot is Vanni Manfrinto, head of Yugoslavian intelligence; Hawk makes it clear that he wants Manfrinto dead by mission’s end.

Manfrinto is a “satyr” with a “woman a day habit,” thus AXE is using the former princess as a “stalking horse” to lure in Manfrinto so Nick can spring the trap on him. The princess is Morgan de Verizone, a beautiful brunette with delicate features who in fact looks more like a princess than a whore – Nick, disguised as a travelling businessman from the midwest, can’t get over how beautiful she is as he secretly watches her onboard the Orient Express. For reasons Stokes muddles around, Nick doesn’t outright present himself to Morgan as her AXE contact, even though he’s supposed to; instead he just bides his time.

Not that this stops them from the expected sex; in a complete disregard for plot contrivance, Stokes has Morgan sitting beside Nick on the dining cart that evening and promptly presenting herself to him, just thinking he’s a good-looking dude and looking to pass the night in memorable fashion. The sex scene is vague and not as explicit as such material in later volumes. Whereas the typical guy might be a bit winded after all this, “Killmaster” instead allows himself to be captured by the two thugs who have been shadowing the princess. Once he’s learned they’re Yugoslavian agents, he kills them quite brutally – bashing their heads together.

When Nick and the princess get to Venice Stokes really goes for the Fleming vibe. It’s all fog-clouded, cobblestoned streets and men in suits lurking in doorways as Nick secretly follows Morgan around the city, eventually tailing her to The Lido, where it turns out Manfrinto has stationed himself, operating out of a closed-down casino. This is where the majority of the action takes place, particularly in one sequence where Nick scouts out the casino while Morgan’s “entertaining” Manfrinto. Nick, infiltrating the henchman-infested casino, takes the time to spy through the keyhole to Manfrinto’s bedroom, where he sees the man “going after [the princess] like an oestrual goat.” 

Nick is eventually cornered, and after killing another man he has to escape, with the thugs closing in on him floor by floor. The suspense is ultimately runined with the deus ex machina presence of a long rope up in the attic, which conveniently enough goes all the way down to the ground, six floors below! There’s also a nice bit where Nick has to elude a “radar truck” that pursues him. All that accomplished, however, he gets shot in the leg the next day while again stalking the princess through the fog-bound streets, killing the Yugo agent who shot him.

Only here does Nick reveal to Morgan who he is, with one of the greatest dumb lines I’ve ever read: “Forget the theatrics. You’re a prostitute and I’m a secret agent!” One of these days I’m going to try to work that line into everyday conversation. Anyway this leads to the veritable climax, as Nick, for once not boffing the gal (who is limping due to being so worn out by that oestrual goat), instead again uses her as prey, sending her off to the casino that night to distract Manfrinto. Oh and by this point Morgan has told Nick she loves him and wants desperately to get out of the spy game and be with Nick forever and etc, in some of the lamest telegraphing ever.

The action stuff doesn’t really occur until the final quarter, and for the most part it’s briefly rendered. Manfrinto’s casino is near an “isle of the dead,” ie a cemetery-filled island which is being used as a forward base for the Yugo and Russian scuba divers who are searching this section of the Adriatic for the H-bomb plane. Nick sneaks onto the island, hiding in the muddy graves and whatnot, until he is “a mud-plastered statue of a latter-day Hercules,” who runs roughsod over the foreign agents. As ever Stokes’s version of Nick Carter is particularly cold, blowing up a bunch of scientists with a few grenades and then gunning down unarmed soldiers with a stolen tommy gun.

Stokes takes us into the homestretch with the expected development – Nick is captured, and easily, at that. It’s that damn attic rope again, which is still hanging outside the casino, and like a dumbass Nick decides to chance it and hefts himself up there, only of course to realize it’s a trap, after all. And, sure enough, the bastards also have Morgan, whom they’ve been torturing for fun. She’s bound and topless, and they have a grand old time jabbing lit cigarettes onto her abdomen and breasts.

In a twisted bit reminiscent of the even-more-twisted finale of Stokes’s The Golden Serpent, Manfrinto and his men have Nick strip and cajole him to get on top of the now-catatonic princess, and screw her for their viewing pleasure! Stokes doesn’t get as outrageous as in that earlier installment, but still it’s pretty crazy. And even though he’s “balls deep” (as a friend of mine in college always put it) and surrounded by armed goons, Nick still manages to grab away a tommy gun and start, uh, blasting. He even manages to capture Manfrinto, chasing him over to that muddy island of death and beating the shit out of him.

In the climax Stokes delivers a few reveals; for one, Manfrinto expected “someone else” to come for him, instead of Nick Carter. This turns out to be Hawk himself, who for once is here on the scene of action – Nick realizes with a sinking sensation that he himself has been used as the stalking horse, all along. Hawk and Manfrinto were best friends during the war, Hawk reveals, until Manfrinto went over to the Nazis and sold out their OSS team. Also here Stokes introduces the tidbit that Hawk’s full name is David Alexander Hawk, a name so seldom used that “Nick had almost forgotten it.”

The finale is the usual rush job of quick info that Manfrinto was tortured into revealing the whereabouts of the H-bomb, after which Hawk’s left orders for his death. And meanwhile the princess is nuts, but she’ll be taken care of in a sanitarium and given a new name and new life when she gets out. And that’s that – lots of Fleming suspense and atmosphere with occasional thrills and a too-quick action finale.

But Stokes is on form throughout, and as mentioned keeps the ball rolling. Interestingly, he mentions that Nick is “thirty-odd years old,” which is much younger than the World War II vet of the first volume. Stokes also occasionally delivers on the pulpish, perhaps-intentionally goofy stuff also expected of him; for example this time he writes “Killmaster” not only without the “the,” but in all caps, ie, “KILLMASTER ran down the corridor,” and the like. And while Stokes goes easy on the spy-fy gadgets this time, he does at one point have Nick wearing gloves made of skin flayed from the hands of executed criminals!

Thursday, December 1, 2016


Creepers, by Robert Craig
October, 1982  Signet Books

Another of those horror paperbacks that promises so much but delivers so little thanks to way too much padding, Creepers is apparently considered an early example of what came to be known as splatterpunk, ie horror with heaping helpings of gore. But bear in mind that while the book does occasionally get gory, it is for the most part a slow-moving procedural until the final several pages of graphic violence.

Coming in at 248 pages of small, dense print, Creepers is more of a thriller with occasional horror overtones. Robert Craig is a good writer, though it must be stated he’s guilty of POV hopping, starting off a scene in one character’s perspective and then abruptly jumping into another’s with no warning. He also, as mentioned, pads the pages a bit too much; Creepers, regrettably, is one of those novels where, after a hundred and so pages of not much happening, the action-packed finale is rendered in summary. In summary!!

Anyway, the novel takes place in grungy New York; despite the ’82 publication date this is still a ‘70s novel in spirit. Our hero, for the most part, is a maverick New York Transit Authority police detective named Frank Corelli. As described, Correlli is practically Tom Selleck – tall, muscular, black hair, black moustache, real popular with the ladies. In his thirties, Corelli lives for his job now, given that his fiance was murdered in a mugging six years earlier. When we meet him Corelli has no knowledge of the legendary “creepers” which are rumored to live in the bowels of the New York subway system.

Those expecting a tough cop yarn will be upset; while he definitely has all the makings of a horror novel version of Dirty Harry, Corelli doesn’t do much. The character who actually takes on the brunt of the action is a young black man named Willie Hoyt, who from his Harlem apartment runs Cerebrus, aka “The Dogs of Hell,” an army of unpaid, unofficial subway guardians. Given the increasing violence and crime in the subways, Willie’s army provides passengers with an extra level of protection, in which regard they’re constantly running afoul of the Transit Authority.

The novel occurs over the Labor Day weekend, and Craig opens it with one of the novel’s few horror sequences. Here we see the titular creepers in action as they snatch a lone woman off a deserted subway platform. Be advised that Creepers is another of those horror novels that tires the reader with inordinate backstory for one-off characters. This scene is the first indication of this, as we have to read pages and pages about this woman’s sob story of a life. It’s like this throughout, and just one of the things that adds to the reader’s frustration so far as the hurried finale goes. I mean, maybe Craig could’ve skipped this stuff and given us a more exciting climax, but I digress.

Another major character is introduced here: pretty brunette Louise Hill, whose young daughter Lisa is the next creeper victim, snatched away when Louise isn’t looking. In most fiction this would make for a traumatized parent, but throughout the book Louise, a single mother, will eventually hook up with Corelli, have sex with him(!), and then finally remember she should be looking for her lost little girl in the final pages – that is, well after she’s learned that the “things” that kidnapped little Lisa are cannibalistic mutants!

Corelli, who reads about these mysterious disappearances, decides to research the case off the book. This gets him into trouble with his “stupid chief” boss, Captain Dolchik, whom Corelli will slowly realize is hiding something. Meanwhile more people are taken by the creepers, including one of Willie Hoyt’s men. In each instance Craig spends an inordinate amount of time on backstory for these one-off characters, with the creepers themselves making brief appearances. They are for all intents and purposes zombies, described as having “dead white transluscent skin,” lank hair, and crazed bloodshot eyes, as well as inch-long claws instead of fingernails.

The splatterpunk stuff develops midway through when Hoyt, spelunking in the subway tunnels, finds his dead comrade. His face has been surgically removed, his shoulder and bicep muscles cut off, and most horrifically of all his testicles have been bitten off. There comes more overly-drawn-out material where Corelli, still on his own, finds that all creeper victims seem to be sent to Mercy Hospital in Manhattan, which itself appears to have some shady connection with the government. Eventually he’ll discover that Capt. Dolchik is well aware of the creeper plight, and is keeping a lid on it, working with the corrupt mayor.

This leads to Corelli being on the run from mysterious men in black cars; eventually he’ll have Louise being chased by them, too, with both of them having to hide out in a safehouse in Greenwich Village. Meanwhile the two have become an item, Corelli seeing something in sexy young Louise that makes him feel like finally moving on after his murdered fiance. Craig doesn’t dwell on the sleaze in the eventual sex scene, sticking to more haughty stuff like, “Corelli’s lovemaking was almost brutal, but Louise’s response matched his fervor.” We also get periodic mentions of Louise’s “voluptuous breasts,” as Corelli usually takes long ganders at them everytime Louise speaks. 

Meanwhile the creepers continue to dine on subway passengers; in one extended scene they attack a train as it sits between stations, ripping the occupants apart. Another gory scene has them feasting on graffitti artists. A survivor of this latter attack is sent to Mercy with the story that he’d been attacked by “rabid dogs;” seeing that the man’s under police guard, Corelli continues his research, which entails another overlong bit where he researches the microfiche archives in the New York Library, going through newspapers back to the early twentieth century, when the subway station was first opened in New York. Here he learns that the creepers first came into the news in 1911, when the leader of them, presented in the story as a “vagrant,” ran afoul of the cops for mugging subway passengers.

Corelli theorizes that the modern creepers are descendants of these original vagrants. Later he’ll learn it’s more horrific. The creepers of today are basically C.H.U.D.s, and pure zombie-style their bite can infect humans with “super-rabies,” which is government spook codespeak for becoming a full-on creeper yourself. Also the creepers are dying due to some genetic quirk, and thus are being pushed to propagate the species – hence, the government spooks theorize, the creepers will be real game to kidnap young women for breeding purposes. Corelli, vowing to destroy the creepers, teams up with Willie Hoyt and his Dogs of Hell, planning to run a gauntlet of the subway tunnels. Louise around this time finally realizes she should be out looking for her kid.

The novel moves to a promising finale as we learn that the mayor and Captain Dolchik are also planning a secret ambush of the subway tunnels that very night, with a platoon of flamethrower and machine gun-wielding National Guard troops sent in. Here’s where Craig drops the ball. Louise, having gone off on her own, is saved by Corelli, who himself is knocked out by the creepers. They’re both tied up in the veritable headquarters of the creatures, which is an abandoned station between the 96th and 86th street stations. Oh, and little Lisa is there, too – turns out she’s been unconscious since she was abducted a few days ago.

It’s up to Willie Hoyt to save the day, taking on several creepers with a hunting knife in a great sequence. And then our heroes…run away. That’s it, friends. There’s no point where studly Frank Corelli takes out his service revolver and mows down hordes of the creatures. Instead the trio, carrying the still-unconscious Lisa, race for safety while the National Guard moves through the subway system, the soldiers under orders to kill anything not wearing a uniform. Corelli himself is anticlimactically removed from the narrative, off to Mercy to be with Louise and Lisa.

And here’s the ass-kicker. The creepers, driven above ground due to the pincer movement of the National Guard, burst into Times Square and go into a feeding frenzy. And Craig writes all of the ensuing carnage and action in summary. I couldn’t believe it! So many, many pages of nothing happening and here, in the climax, when the shit finally hits the fan, Craig informs us after the fact of “a war” that went down between the National Guard and the creepers in Times Square, just outlining the eventual destruction and death toll. To say it’s an unfulfilling finale would be an understatement. 

We’re informed that “hundreds” of creepers are dead in the aftermath, with nearly fifty human casualties. The scene at least starts off memorably, with a creeper loose in Grand Central Station, going for the soft flesh of a woman’s throat, which we’re informed is like sirloin for creepers. But after that it’s summarized action, with the final pages reading almost like a newspaper article. We then flash forward to that Christmas Eve, with Corelli and Louise now happily married and a fully-recovered Lisa accepting Frank as her new dad. Oh and meanwhile Willie Hoyt has become a creeper, having been bitten during the escape, and likely will propagate a new strain of them.

I really wanted to enjoy Creepers, and for the most part Craig’s writing and characterization are good, but there’s just too much missed opporuntiy in my opinion. I so wanted to read a gory rollercoaster of a finale with Corelli and the Dogs of Hell going down into the subway tunnels and extracting bloody payback from the cannibalistic bastards. Instead I read in shock as Corelli got knocked out, freed by someone else, and then ran away, leaving the payback to be delivered by a group of faceless, nameless National Guard troops – in summary, no less.

The several-page sequence with the subway-dwelling satanic mutants in John Shirley’s One-Man Army is better than the entirety of Creepers, so I’d suggest you check that out instead if you’re looking for some action-horror set in the New York subway tunnels.