Thursday, August 3, 2017

Shroud 9

Shroud 9, by Robert Turner
No month stated, 1970  Powell Publications

This 200 page paperback seems to be exceedingly scarce; I’m unfamiliar with Powell but they must not’ve had the best distribution. They also didn’t come up with the best covers. While the artwork by Bill Hughes for Shroud 9 is nice, it’s also very misleading. It makes the book look like a horror thing. It’s not – it’s a collection of short stories the prolific Robert Turner wrote for various crime fiction digests in the mid-‘50s, Manhunt in particular. The title also has nothing to do with anything, as there are 18 tales here, not 9!! 

Another miss is the acknowledgements; we’re not told which specific magazine each story came from. We’re only given a list of publishers and dates. I know Flying Eagle published Manhunt, so I know which ones here are from that magazine. But the other ones are unfamiliar to me. Not that it matters – those crime digests are sadly tough to find, so it likely would be easier to just hunt down this book…which itself is too damn scarce! There’s no intro from Turner; about all we get are a few words of praise from John D. MacDonald and Robert Bloch on the back cover, and a few snippets of various industry reviews of Turner’s work. It’s also mentioned that Turner has written an “original script” and that some of his stories have been optioned for the movies, but I don’t think anything came of it; the one thing I recall from Turner’s autobio Some Of My Best Friends Are Writers But I Wouldn’t Want My Daughter To Marry One (1970) is that he was always on the cusp of fame and fortune, but never quite got there.

Despite coming from various crime digests, the tales in Shroud 9 aren’t really of a criminous nature; mostly the stories are about average people getting caught up in horrific situations of their own making. Stories featuring professional criminals or contract killers or the other staples of pulp-crime are relatively few. But the main thing that I disliked about the book was that all of the stories are so short – just a few pages each. After a while I really wanted something with a bit more meat to it; I know Turner wrote scads of such stories, some of them novella length, and I wish some of those had been included here. My assumption is the theme of this anthology was to stick to short, punchy tales with “shock” finales; in that way the stories are very similar to EC Comics. Another point of reference would be the Old Time Radio drama Lights Out.

The first story, “Field of Honor,” from a 1955 issue of Manhunt, isn’t what I would’ve expected, but it definitely introduces the dark theme of the book. It’s a piece of juvenile delinquent fiction in which 14 year-old Jill ducks out on her uncaring socialite mother and hooks up with her pal Thelma. The two put on jeans and tote beer can openers; they’re going to prove their mettle in a fight with a rival girl gang. In particular Jill wants a piece of big-boned Roxanne; Thelma says hunk Johnny, “nearly twenty years old,” is going to date the winner; this excites Jill greatly. But the fight doesn’t go as planned, with Roxanne tearing Jill the hell up, even gouging out her right eyeball. The juvies dump Jill off at her house and she has to scratch at the door with that beer can opener to get her mom to let her in, as she’s too busy entertaining guests. The end!

Up next we have “What Do You Want?” from 1955, another dark one with a dark comedy payoff. Rich punk Buckman is getting freaked out how “old man” Pritchett keeps staring at him; never speaking, just staring. Pritchett’s been doing it for days. We’ll learn that Buckman “accidentally” killed Pritchett’s daughter in a car wreck. It develops though that Buckman’s thing was to take girls who refused to screw him on 100mph races in his sports car, which usually thawed ‘em out. Only Pritchett’s daughter wouldn’t give. Now Pritchett keeps following Buckman around and staring at him, to the point where Buckman tries to escape him in his car, racing along that same perilous road in which he crashed with Pritchett’s daughter. You can see this one coming a mile away, if you’ll pardon the pun. Not bad but not great.

“The Two Candles” is from 1955 and concerns an old lady just returned to her apartment after lighting two candles at the local church, one for her recently-departed husband and one for her son, who died 21 years ago. She’s shocked to discover a young man waiting for her in the apartment, a self-assured punk who swears up and down that he’s her son, returned home at last. It’s none other than Mad Dog Castle, infamous bank robber, who just killed a cop last week. The lady refuses to listen to him, calls the cops, and shoots him when he tries to stop her. Up-in-the-air finale in which the reader must decide for himself if Mad Dog really was the lady’s son, and she just made herself think he died all those years ago, instead of running away and becoming a notorious criminal.

“A Life For A Life” is from a 1954 and is a little better. This one’s also about a killer bank robber; the cops have come up with this sting where they’ve made the guy think that a lady he knocked up is about to give birth in a local hospital – in reality the lady was moved out of town long ago. They set up their dragnet, with the narrator and his junior partner concerned that the sadistic sergeant in charge of them, a top marksman, is going to kill the crook instead of arresting him. This is what happens, but as the crook is dying in the hospital he calls in the cop who shot him – and gouges out his eyes with his bare hands! That makes for two eye-gougings in one book!!

We return to the Manhunt yarns with “Fight Night,” from a 1955 issue. Our narrator tells us about the night he went to a bar to watch a boxing match with his pal Max, a dude who, despite his “sensitive face,” is actually quite manly and served in the war. But a drunk starts up a fight with Max, insinuating he’s gay and whatnot. The two get in a brutal brawl which climaxes with the drunk smashing a bottle and grinding it in Max’s face. Our narrator finally gets off his ass – he’s been in shock throughout – but the drunk escapes and Max later dies from too much blood loss. He leaves behind a wife and kid, and the narrator questions the “macho” sentiments which demand that men must defend their honor and not turn their backs to drunken challenges.

“A Living From Women” is from 1957 gets back to the third-person narration and concerns good-looking stud Danny Lund, who is notorious for marrying rich women, burning up their money, and then divorcing them. But his latest victim, a willowy girl named Levora, keeps following him around the country, getting frailer and frailer. Danny goes on with his con work, and has his biggest coup in sight, an ultra-wealthy woman who admits to him that she knows he’s only after her for her money, and that’s fine with her – she just wants to be seen around town with a pretty face and will give Max a thousand bucks a month, and he won’t even have to touch her. Levora louses all this up when she throws acid in Danny’s face one day! The rich woman leaves him and, despite extensive plastic surgery, Danny now looks like a “gargoyle.” Features an EC Comics finale in which Levora now happily cares for Danny.

“Who’s Calling?” is from a 1956 Manhunt and actually received a TV adaptation. It makes for good early television fodder, taking place in one location and featuring only two characters: Jay Breen and his wife, Beth. This one is totally in the Suspense mold as Jay keeps receiving calls from New York, the operator asking for “James Binford.” What freaks Jay out – and he gradually loses his sanity over the few pages of the story – is that this is his old name; five years ago, in New York, he embezzled a lot of money and killed a guard or something in the escape. He changed his name from Binford to Breen, but only Beth is aware of this new life. But the calls keep coming and the mystery of who knows Breen is Binford deepens, our “hero” getting closer to panic. It’s a taut, suspenseful tale, and very good, though given that only Beth knows Jay’s past makes it quite obvious who the culprit is. The ending though goes on a surreal tangent as Beth, happily with the man she used to drive Jay nuts (to the point of suicide), starts to receive mysterious calls for a Mrs. James Binford…

“Shy Guy” is from a 1954 Manhunt and is screwy in that it’s narrated by a dude who is telling us about a story he heard – it’s overly pedantic, with too much background detail and setup, something for which the narrator apologizes. Apology not accepted! The story is overly dull and is yet another tale about a guy driven to insanity – in this case an artist named, on-the-nose as can be, “Artie,” whose wife Della insists on going to big parties and is likely whoring around. A few years ago Artie and Della lost their unborn child in a car wreck, and the narrator intimates this is what has driven Della to her behavior, though he also claims she pretended not to be overly concerned about it. Ends with Della leaving her latest part and coming back with other people for Artie, who refused to go because he had a premonition bad stuff would occur if he did. But when they get him to the party they ignore Artie, and he sees his wife hanging around with some men…he finds a .45 in a deputy’s car and shoots everyone, the end. Thought this one was lame.

“Business Trip,” from a 1957 Manhunt, makes up for the previous misfire, and is probably my favorite in the book, even though it too is too short. We go back to the third-person narration and meet our protagonist, Burke, a “Specialist” for “The Organization.” He sits in a nondescript office with a few other Specialists while the Organization rep, an older VIP type I pictured as legendary character actor John Vernon (who of course would’ve pronounced his outfit “The OrganIZE-ation,” in that old-school way I love so much), goes over the latest target. We’re informed of the Organization’s weird way of assigning hits; all men are briefed, then a random drawing determines who actually gets the job. Burke of course pulls it, and he takes a train to the unnamed city – banging some broad he meets off-page, the first mention of sex yet in the entire book – and then buys an ice pick. He jams this into the ear of the target when the man gets in his car. Burke flies home to his nice house, with his lovely wife and adoring kid, reflecting over how he only needs to be a Specialist for a few more years before he too becomes a VIP. The “shock”-type finale we now expect has it that Burke suffers from recurring nightmares in which his ear is clogged and only an ice pick could unclog it, with Burke nightwalking to the kitchen to do the deed, ie kill himself. His wife stops him this time – but who knows about next. Other than the dumb finale, I liked this one, and it has that vintage pulp-crime vibe I love.

Next is “Everyman’s Woman,” also from 1957, and slightly longer than the other tales collected here. Our narrator is Brad, a cartoonist who moved to a cabin in the woods a few months ago with his new wife, a mega-babe named Nikki. One day Nikki comes home from the long hike to the town post office – Brad was too busy on a project to go with her, as he usually does – and she’s distraught because some creep followed her home. Eventually Brad rousts out the creep; it’s a dude with a limp named Carl Brand, who announces himself, “I’m free, white, and twenty-five.” He insists on his right to walk along the country road, and says he wasn’t following Nikki, but eventually Carl will flat-out tell Brad that he, Carl, has figured out that Nikki is a “nympho,” and it’s only a matter of time before he screws her. Unfortunately for Brad, this turns out to be the truth, at least so far as his wife is concerned; he met her, he tells us, when she was about to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in suicide to escape her condition, which compels her to screw countless men. A doctor recommended moving to the countryside where there were less men(!). This one ends with Brad finally having enough of Carl’s shit and accidentally killing him in hand-to-hand combat. Turner just says “to hell with it,” with Brad going home, realizing he’ll never be free of the worry that Nikki might screw every man she meets, and so killing her to end his worries!

“Accident” is from 1955 and goes back to third-person; it’s a short about a rich drunk who crashes into a car one night, wiping out an entire family except for the father. He lies to the cops that the other driver was at fault, and gets away with it; when the father who drove the other car comes out of his coma, he basically just shrugs it off, for what will bring back his wife and kids? Features a nasty finale in which the father shows up one night and carjacks the rich dude, tearing off into the night with the rich man’s own wife and kids in the car and plowing into a tree, killing them all – poetic (if draconian) justice is served, as now the rich man must live with everything also having been taken from him.

“Don’t Go Away Mad” is from a 1956 issue of Justice and is a highlight of Shroud 9 as it was a highlight of The Hardboiled Lineup; I reviewed it in my writeup on that one.

“Repeat Performance” is from a 1957 Manhunt and concerns a nameless guy who fondles teen girls at rock concerts. He’s all jazzed up about how he went “too far” with one of them at a concert this afternoon; the intimation is that he raped the girl and got away with it due to the noise and the crowd. He’s all excited to go to this evening’s concert and do it all again, but when he gets there he sees his victim from this afternoon, with a bunch of other girls. She saunters over to him and, just when he thinks she actually enjoyed her raping and has come back for more, she and her friends stab him to death with hat pins. Ends with the cops figuring they’ll never figure out who killed the guy! 

“Vacation Nightmare” is from a 1956 Manhunt and is like a ‘50s Deliverance. Our narrator informs us how he was driving his wife and teen daughter back from vacation, and decided after a full day’s driving to sleep in the car one night, at a fishing camp just off the highway. Next morning they woke into a nightmare: a trio of rapist-hillbillies were leering in the car at the women. Our narrator gets beaten while the hillbillies take their turns with the women; Turner keeps it all off-page, with the narrator knocked unconscious. When he comes to he staggers to his car despite the pleading of his wife and daughter and finds the three men down at the lake fishing(!). He steers his car toward them, jumps out, and the car runs over them – the cops chalk it up as an accident, the end.

“Everything Has To End,” from 1956, features the most disturbing “shock” finale in the book. We’re informed that a rich bastard named Vincent has knocked up his latest mistress, Verna, and he’s taken her to a doctor who handles abortions; indeed, this isn’t Vincent’s first time handling such an issue. But this time it’s cheaper, as we’re informed that Vincent has learned that dumb, poor women like Verna are much more “enjoyable” than the rich dames he used to run with – plus they’re easier to handle. But Verna’s waited four months to tell Vincent, which makes him wonder if he should break the affair off for good once the abortion is over. The doctor gives Verna a pill and Vincent drops her off at her place and gets back to his society life with his rich wife – Vincent is only wealthy due to her inheritance. Then one afternoon a few days later Vincent is drunk at a big party at his house; so drunk he thinks it’s his imagination when he sees a taxi pull up and Verna herself get out. She looks disheveled and she’s carrying a small box. She comes up to Vincent and tells him that she didn’t know what to do, especially since “he” was Vincent’s – “he” being the aborted child, of course, which Verna proceeds to dump on Vincent’s lap, right in front of his wife and everyone!

“Movie Night,” from a 1957 Manhunt, gets back to the juvenile delinquent fiction. Our narrator tells us how he and his family would often go to the drive-in with the family that lived next door. The father of that family, Fred, was a hothead who would get worked up over nothing, as he does this particular night; the movie is about juvenile delinquents, and Fred rants and raves that the “jaydees” get away with their rule-flaunting and bad behavior because no one ever stands up to them. Fred gets his chance to do this very thing when everyone goes to the crowded snack bar between movies; a group of jaydees are horsing around and one of ‘em knocks Fred’s soda all over Fred’s shirt. This leads to a brawl in which Fred gets the better of the punks, but when a cop comes by and is eager to bust the jaydees for causing a disturbance, Fred’s wife pleads with him not to press charges and to just forget it. Fred does so, reluctantly – and that night our narrator and his wife are woken by the horrible screaming of Fred’s wife. Turns out the jaydees lured him out of his house and beat him about the knees with axe handles before smashing him in the face with glass-filled socks. He’s now crippled and half-blind, and the narrator receives notice that he’s next on the jaydee revenge list.

“The Onlooker” is from a 1954 Manhunt and concerns a dude named Blake who watches a blonde in the hotel room across from his own. This is a stalker tale, with Blake becoming increasingly worked up as the blonde talks to the young soldier she’s invited up to her room; when it’s apparent the two are having sex in the now-darkened room, Burke whips out an automatic rifle and fires. Ending has the cops discussing this nutjob Burke, who didn’t even know the blonde, and was just some psycho who thought she was “his” girl; he didn’t even know that the soldier was actually the blonde’s husband, just returned from the war.

“Room Service,” from a 1955 Manhunt, follows, and is of a similar bent; indeed it’s so similar to the previous story you wonder why it was placed right after it. This one’s also about a guy hanging out in a room with a rifle, but this guy’s watching a parade pass by beneath him. Occasionally he checks over a dossier at his side, which shows an older man and a young, pretty woman – the last photo shows them being married. Then we see the main attraction in the parade below is the man and woman in the photo; our nameless rifleman blows the woman away and escapes. Ends with the revelation that the older man was the rifleman’s father, and apparently he killed the woman out of jealousy because she was going to get in the way of all the big game hunting he’s done with his dad(!?).

And that’s that, 18 tales that mostly just go for shock and usually succeed. I really wanted to read something by Turner a bit longer, which I guess is an indication that his writing is good enough that it made me want more. I think next I’ll get around to one of his actual novels. Anyway, Shroud 9 is entertaining enough, but I’m not sure it justifies the exorbitant prices it goes for on the secondhand market.

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