Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Guns Of Terra 10

The Guns Of Terra 10, by Don Pendleton
No month stated, 1970  Pinnacle Books

Just when he was getting started on The ExecutionerDon Pendleton turned in this standalone sci-fi paperback that attains to be more than its action-centric cover painting might imply. While it does indeed have uniformed men and women taking on robots and battling on ships in outer space, The Guns Of Terra 10 is actually more concerned with what it means to be a human in a homogenized future era.

Actually – make that what it takes to be a man. In what would no doubt be mocked and derided in the “advanced” modern era, Pendleton’s characters in this unstanted far future still talk about concepts of manliness; the women are still in subordinate roles, very seldom taking part in any decision-making. In a way it’s odd that Pendleton failed to see this encroaching equality of the sexes; his future world has been “homogenized” via genetic programming so that humans are now “homans,” ie “homogenized humans,” the various ethnicities wiped out so that all people are of equal skin color (a tan sort of brown), height (around 4 feet), and weight (about 90 pounds). This has been done so there can be true equality. Also, women’s busts have been so drastically reduced that “only the faintest swelling just behind the nipples [marks] the vestigial female breast.”

This is the future of The Guns Of Terra 10, in which the Solan Corporation rules the solar system and Earth has been abandoned, save for a few humans; it is now solely used for mass production of food for the star-flung peoples of Solan. Peace reigns, and “taking human life is a high crime.” Homans have been so roboticized that speech is now “image based” rather than “language based,” meaning that everyone speaks in this annoying, rushed style, ie “Right, is like same.” Also, proving that he’s read Stranger In A Strange Land, Pendleton gives us the irritatingly-overused word “Skronk,” which basically means the same thing as “Grok.”

Not all humans are homogenized; in particular our protagonist, Zach Whaleman, is a hulking, redheaded 25 year-old who is much brawnier than his fellows. This is because Zach too has been genetically programmed, born and bred specifically to man the guns on Terra 10, a “deepspace super-dreadnaught” developed for the possible invasion of an alien fleet – not that any aliens have ever been encountered, but still. There are also the Reevers, aka “reverts;” those freaks who have either never been genetically programmed or who rejected their “GPC” programming and so grew larger than the homan average, got bigger boobs, etc.

It’s all a bit overwhelming at first, what with all the acronyms and stilted speech, and Pendleton does a good job of showing instead of telling. Yet at the same time it’s not very compelling, at least not to me – it’s hard to care about any of the characters in this bland future. And Whaleman is a bit too na├»ve to root for, though of course that’s not his fault. The crux of the story is his awakening to his humanity – actually to the fact that he’s a man.

Terra 10 has just been completed and when we meet him Whaleman’s firing its AGRAD (“anti-gravity diffusioner”) guns and whatnot in trial combat; he’s on Board Island, somewhere on Earth, his first time here since he was a child. In this future, children only spend a couple years with their parents before being sent off to be indoctrinated into whatever field it is that’s been chosen for them. There is no free will and each person is literally created to fill a function. It is all frighteningly progressive – all races gone, all people literally the same, all imaginative thought curtailed, all independence eradicated. Everyone the same, serving the same goal.

But Whaleman is abducted by Tom Cole, a towering giant with “spaceblack hair;” the “King of the Reevers,” Cole lords over a small commune here on Earth that is composed of reverts. Forbidden to travel in space, the Reevers are segregated here on Mother Earth; there are around 80 of them, but only a few pop up in the narrative: in addition to Cole, there’s big blond Hedge; a little Homan named Blue, and most importantly (so far as Whaleman will be concerned), a stacked blonde named Stel, who goes around in a “black crotchguard” and nothing else, showing off her “exquisitely formed mammalia.” These reverts are, of course, what humans once were, and they seem positively bizarre to Whaleman. (Humorously, whoever wrote the back cover copy of the book got pretty much all of this wrong.)

The Reever commune is straight-up Haus-Rucker Co.; people sit around on “plastic bubblechairs,” live in plastic domes, and wear “transparent vests” and those ever-present “black crotchguards.” Cole and the others try to get through to Whaleman that he’s a man like them, that he needs to break free of those Solan Corp controls. The Reevers want the Terra 10, we’ll learn, as a bartering tool – they’ll take it, with Whaleman’s help, and only return it if they are granted certain freedoms. Whaleman’s mind is mostly blown by Stel’s big boobs, though. He just can’t stop gandering at them, and Pendleton serves up a few riotous descriptions of those glorious orbs for the reader’s enjoyment. 

Interesting to note, The Guns Of Terra 10 is copyright Bee-Line Books, Inc, with the specification that “Pinnacle Books are published by Bee-Line Books, Inc.” As sleaze readers know, Bee-Line was a smut peddler, eventually supplanted by Pinnacle (which per Pendleton was specifically created for the Executioner series), however be aware that there is zero sleaze, sex, or general tomfoolishness in The Guns Of Terra 10. Just a couple descriptions of Stel’s boobs, which Whaleman usually appreciates from “an engineer’s point of view,” don’t ya know. Long story short, he’s never seen such big ones, and his interest is piqued. Even Whaleman’s subordinate on Terra 10, a raven-haired beauty with the typical small Homan bust, can’t stop staring at Stel’s rack.

Even in a sci-fi setting Pendleton is still Pendleton; there are copious scenes of characters talking and arguing and punching each other when they want to press a particular point. Speechifying runs rampant. We’ll have a few action scenes, and then chapters in which other characters stand around and recap the stuff we just read. This is just Pendleton’s style, and it must be said that, despite being an inordinate 180+ pages, the novel moves at a snappy pace. The action though lacks the gunplay of The Executioner; mostly it involves the Reevers running afoul of “the Boob,” a massive insectoid robot that fires ultrasonic beams which scramble Reever brains. Whaleman can’t believe the unjustness of this, and it is one of the things that makes him rally for the Reever cause.

Eventually Whaleman is discovered by a passing government patrol, and when he pleas for the Reevers, his words falling on the deaf ears of the Solan Corp Chairman – who is never seen and speaks through an “automat” – Whaleman is sent to a Lunar rehab joint where he’s to have a bunch of rest and sex and whatnot. But another thing Pendleton fails to foresee is the 24/7, Big Brother surveillance of the actual future; security is laughably lax in this fictional future, with Whaleman almost casually escaping his Lunar pen and able to get around on Earth without much fuss. He finds that the government has attacked the Reever commune, but meanwhile Cole, Stel, and the others have made their way to Board Island, hoping to commandeer the Terra 10.

But a “Solan Emergency” changes everything; as deus ex machina as can be, an alien invasion fleet just happens to enter our star quadrant at this very moment. And only the Terra 10 can stop it. So there ensues this chaotic part where Whaleman and the Reevers separately converge on the space-dreadnaught, which has gone into a glitch “runaway mode” and headed for Venus – only Whaleman, who was literally bred for such things, can successfully stop the ship. He then quickly instructs the Reevers on how to man the various guns – even finding the time to explain warp drive to them(!) – and together they stave off this alien invasion.

But man is all this so arbitrary. Pendleton doles out the alien stuff almost in passing; we’re informed at the last moment that this invasion fleet, which is “two full flotillas,” is “fully automated,” meaning there isn’t a single alien onboard – much to Stel’s relief, as she frets that the aliens on the opposing ships “might have wives at home worrying about them.” This is her sole contribution to the climactic battle scene. To tell the truth, though, it was a nice change of pace from the commonplace gender-bending of the action epics of today, where kick-ass women call all the shots. 

The climactic battle lacks much spark because most of it is relayed via jargon-filled dialog, ie “It won’t take Scale Max!” At any rate Whaleman successfully commands his Reever troops and the Terra 10 wipes out the entire alien fleet; after which Whaleman is seen as a hero. He uses this status to argue his case at a tribunal in which the Solan Corp Chairperson once again appears via automat; the Chairman turns dictator, demanding that the Reevers be destroyed and Whaleman jailed. Then it’s discovered that the Chairperson is now “99% machine,” and has been for perhaps centuries; the Solan board of directors decide at that moment to change their ways, and the Reevers are brought back into the fold – for, as Whaleman declares, “Reevers are highest expression of human spirit.”

And that’s that – as for the aliens, Pendleton briefly explains that the invasion was an accident(!?) and no more flotillas are forthcoming. Meanwhile the human race will get around to finding what it has lost – and Whaleman can get back to oggling those “impressive mammalia” on Stel, whom he plans to marry (another forgotten custom, and one that immediately appeals to Whaleman).

Overall I enjoyed The Guns Of Terra 10, which is just one of a few sci-fi paperbacks Pendleton wrote at this time, but to tell the truth I enjoyed The Godmakers a lot more.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Don't Bet On Living, Alice! (Hitman #6)

Don’t Bet On Living, Alice!, by Kirby Carr
No month stated, 1975  Major Books

The penultimate volume of Hitman* sees the sleaze quotient continuing to ramp up; there’s no full-bore hardcore material as in say The Illusionist, but boy is it filled with some grimy smut, Kin “Kirby Carr” Platt mostly relaying the sleaze via dialog or digressive background material. To the extent that Mike “Hitman” Ross is almost lost in the shuffle – but then, the dude is such a friggin’ superman that he barely registers on the reader’s conscious anyway. And yet for all that I appreciate this series because it clearly strives to be a Spider for the ‘70s, even operating on that same sort of pseudo-reality as Norvell Page’s earlier pulp work.

To wit, Ross is called onto his latest case by none other than Lt. Martin of the LAPD, who wants Ross to look into something concerning a judge named Gavin. But when Ross gets to Gavin’s house, he finds the judge’s throat slit. Then Ross is shot at by a passing car, guns it down with his trusty Mauser and P-38, and calls up Martin to tell him what’s gone down. It’s like that throughout Don’t Bet On Living, Alice!, with Ross existing in this alternate reality in which his guise as “Hitman” is an open secret with the cops, who look over the carnage he constantly leaves in his wake.

The case with dead Judge Gavin and the would-be hitpeople, one of whom turns out to be the busty secretary of a record industry bigwig, soon puts Ross on the trail of the mysterious “Mom” who is behind it all. There have been a rash of mysterious deaths and suicidides, all of which turn out to be Mom affairs – like for example when Alice Cooper-esque transvestite rock singer Mabel Babble has an “acid freakout” and jumps out of “her” car on the LA Express, being run over and killed. Ross reads about this stuff in the paper and suspects something’s up, and this deal with Judge Gavin having his throat slit seems to be connected.

Mom turns out to be a lady named Mabel Oretha Mack – ie “M.O.M.” – a “svelte” 40-year-old blonde with “no tits to speak of.” Given the lack of attention men gave her, due to her boyish build, Mabel grew to hate all men. She began plotting against men in general, and put her plan in action several years ago; working as a secretary in various fields, she gathered enough dirt on various high-level men to bring them down via blackmail. She even built up a network of spies, all of them women – other secretaries, hookers, etc. Now she has endless reams of data on various infidelities carried out by men, to such an extent that she can get her blackmail victims to do her bidding, no matter how criminous the action she demands of them might be.

And of course, the dirt Mom has on her various victims is all sleazy in nature. As mentioned Platt gets pretty scuzzy in this one, with the majority of it relayed via backstory of this or that sexual excursion. This goes from the blowjobs given by that above-referenced secretary (complete with grossout descriptions of “hot loads,” folks) to even more pervy, unsettling areas, like the “child buggery” enjoyed by a dirty cop. But it’s mostly done via dialog; I can’t recall that there’s an actual sex scene in the novel. Even when Mike Ross has sex with Alice Britton, a senator’s wife turned whore due to her gambling addiction, it sort of happens off page.

As for action, there’s actually a bit more than I expected there would be – I didn’t think a plot about a blackmail-scheming woman would serve up too much in the way of gun-blazing action. But Mom has various stooges at her disposal, from victims-turned-assassins to Mafia torpedoes she hires for her personal security. Platt serves up several action scenes, and while they’re all nicely gory – lots of exploding heads and guts – they’re a bit neutered because Ross is so superhuman. Indeed his enemies even think he’s “not human,” which I guess gives the series even more of a Spider vibe. But seriously, the closest Ross comes to harm is when one guy shoots at him and Ross feels the bullet pass over his head(!). Most of the time his opponents don’t even get to shoot at him, Ross is so fast on the draw.

Some action highlights would be when Ross is attacked by hitmen while having sex with Alice – he kills them without any fuss and goes back to Alice: “Now, where were we?” Another bizarrely-underexploited part has Mabel putting together, with much setup, an army squad of rejects, gathered together by a war department dude Mabel has dirt on, and sending them after Ross, to ambush him in the hills outside LA. Instead, Ross finds out about the plot and guns them down while they’re still sitting in their cars, negating the chance for a big firefight that seemed to be promised. It does have a nice capoff, though, where Ross mutters under his breath to Mabel, “Better luck next time, bitch!” 

We also get lots of backstory about various one-off victims of Mabel’s blackmailing, with Alice Britton getting the most space. A senator’s wife, Alice is forced into whoredom when her gambling debts get too unwieldy. We’re given lots of info about how she started to screw various men for her bookie’s benefit – and enjoying it. So again there’s a heaping helping of sleaze throughout Don’t Bet On Living, Alice!, including Alice’s training in whoredom from said bookie. But eventually Mabel gets hold of Alice and siccs her on Ross, though Alice instead blabs to Ross that it’s all a setup and she has no idea who this “Mom” is, etc.

Alice serves to take the narrative into the homestretch, and to give Ross a clear lead on Mabel and where she can be found. They use Alice’s husband, Senator Britton, as bait, Mabel calling him to make him her latest blackmail victim, using of course her knowledge of Alice’s wrongdoings. As a clincher she even plays the senator an audio recording of Alice blowing some guy. But when Ross confronts the senator, pleading with him to make an arrangement for payment dropoff and etc, Alice too comes clean about her dirty extracurricular activities. As if proving the goofy (but gory) vibe of the Hitman series, Senator Britton is totally forgiving of his wife’s adultery – “Just give my cock the same treatment you gave his!” being his only caveat, referring to the lucky blowjob-recipient on that tape Mom played for him.

Ross still wears his Hitman guise: the “black paratrooper suit and slitted mask” that he’s worn throughout the series, as depicted on the cover of the first volume. He carries around an arsenal in his “war wagon,” which is a modified “Chevyvan.” He does his kiling in the finale with an M-16, and Platt delivers copious gun-porn throughout, with technical detail on firing rate and velocity and whatnot. But the finale again sees Ross being a regular superman, gunning down an entire houseful of Mafia torpedoes without so much as breaking a sweat. As for Mabel, she is rendered her comeuppance, but unsatisfyingly not by Ross’s hands – and our hero is all fired up to kill her. In the end, though, there’s “Nothing left to kill but the bottle.” 

Platt delivers pretty much just what you’d want from sleazy ‘70s men’s adventure pulp; the prose is rough but economical, coming to life with the gore and the grime. But there’s something that keeps Hitman from true men’s adventure greatness…not just that Ross is too superheroic, too unfazed and untouchable; there’s just this rushed, messy feeling to the books.

*As mentioned in my review of the first volume, the series was really only seven volumes; The Impossible Spy, a 1975 Major Books paperback credited to Kirby Carr, is sometimes listed as the eigth volume. However the book is really a standalone spy novel, with no connection to Hitman.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Ardor On Aros

Ardor On Aros, by Andrew J. Offutt
May, 1973  Dell Books

Reading this novel was a personal milestone – I first became aware of Andrew Offutt back in 1993, when I spent the fall semester of my sophomore year at a college in Maastricht, Holland. There in a used bookstore I found some paperbacks in English, among them two Cormac Mac Art pastiches by Offutt. I knew the character but not the author. How those old Ace paperbacks made it to a bookstore in Holland no one knows, but I’ll tell you one thing – I bought ‘em both and brought ‘em back to the god-blessed USA.

But I could never get through either of them. I remember trying to read them a few times there in Maastricht, but just couldn’t get into them. Many years later I got more Offutt novels – some of his historical sleaze Crusader series, written as “John Cleve,” some of his sci-fi sleaze Spaceways series, also written as John Cleve. Even a sci-fi paperback under his own name with an awesome psychedelic Vincent Di Fate cover titled Genetic Bomb. But I couldn’t get past the first few chapters of any of them.

Well this time I swore by all the trash gods I wouldn’t fail. I’ve been on a sword and planets kick of late, and given that Ardor On Aros proclaims itself as a satire of the subgenre (indeed, a “satiric masterpiece,” per the cover – though every time I see it I think it says “satanic masterpiece,” which would of course be even cooler), I figured it would finally be an Offutt novel I started and finished. And I did! And the book wasn’t that bad, though not that great…and really the whole thing appeared to be building up toward something for the majority of the text, only to come to a rushed end.

If anything Ardor On Aros reminds me of fuzzy-freaky ‘70s sci-fi like Venus On The Half-Shell, by “Kilgore Trout” (aka Philip Jose Farmer). Not in content but in spirit. But this one’s very much indebted to the sword and planet of past authors; Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Albert Kline, even John Norman are referenced throughout – and part of me suspects that Ardor On Aros was more of a satire of Norman’s Gor novels, for reasons I will soon elucidate. It just takes this subgenre satire and mixes it with that special ‘70s sci-fi freakiness.

In keeping with the trappings of sword and planet, Ardor On Aros is written in first-person, a schtick begun by Burroughs in his 1911 novel A Princess Of Mars. I’m not crazy about first-person narration in my escapist fiction – I think it’s better suited to literary-type novels – but I guess you have to accept it, so far as this subgenre goes. But for other reasons this first-person narrative is one of the things I disliked about Offutt’s novel, in particular due to the snarky tone of the narrator, Hank Ardor.

A regular guy with nothing but a college degree to his name, Ardor takes a job with a “scientist who was not mad.” In keeping with the subgenre template, Ardor is relaying all this to us “many years” after the story’s events, by the way, and he tells us all about this strange new job. But as mentioned his snarky tone, which runs throughout, quickly begins to grate. While this sort of thing might’ve seemed novel in 1973, in our current era of snark overload, in which even supposed news articles are written in a smarmy, arrogant tone, it was more annoying than anything. But throughout Ardor (and thus Offutt) takes pleasure in constantly playing against our expectations, throwing it in our face that he’s not the typical sword and planet hero, and also making off-the-cuff, arbitrary condemnations of our modern era.

Ardor hits on Eveyln, sexy but all-business co-scientist on the mysterious transporter project Ardor’s boss is working on. Here the in-jokes begin, as the two engage in a conversation about sword and planet novels, of all things; Eveyln is actually writing her own(!), and Ardor offers to help her, given that he himself likes to write. The two argue over how unbelievable Burroughs’s Barsoom was, with Eveyln arguing for it and Ardor against; in particular, he dislikes how women are treated so chivalrously in the Mars of Burroughs, which is supposedly a barbarian planet, arguing that “you either kill ‘em or rape ‘em” when it comes to how women are treated in a barbaric culture. He also feels that the Burroughs books were overly stuffy and tame, apparently not realizing that the characters in those books were nude.

In a way Ardor On Aros is like a spoofy take on the Richard Blade books, even down to how Ardor is sent to the planet Aros; as Richard Blade is strapped onto a table and sent to the latest dimension via a computer, Hank Ardor clumsily slips into the transporter device and comes to, nude and confused, on a strange new planet – same as in the Barsoom books. This “arriving on a new planet in the nude” seems to be a sword and planet motif, I suppose the idea being the character is reborn.

Not that Hank Ardor is much reborn. He goes about the planet Aros with his twentieth-century attitudes and opinions unchanged. He’s also not shy about letting us know how much of a coward he is. Again, the spoofing of the subgenre template is strong throughout, but at the same time you almost wish Offutt had just played it straight and delivered a real sword and planet novel – something he appears to have done a few years later, with Chieftan Of Andor (Dell, 1976; published as Clansman Of Andor in the UK). But then this is a “satiric masterpiece and all.

But all the staples fall in place right on cue; I haven’t read too many books in this subgenre, and even I could see them coming. Posthaste Ardor runs into a dying native, Kro Kodres, who teaches Ardor all about this strange world as the two hide in a cavern in this vast desert. The people of Ardor can speak via telepathy, and Ardor, being human and all, somehow is able to pick up broadcasts better than the natives, even though he’s unable to send communications. In this way he quickly learns the language, and also that Kro Kodres is on the search for “the Jadiriyah,” who was apparently captured by someone called the Vardors. Kro dies and Ardor takes up his quest, also purloining the guy’s simple leather harness and sword. As in Barsoom, fashions and armor are a bit on the low-tech side, as is the weaponry – however there are no ray guns as on Barsoom.

But the real differences begin to show when Ardor finds the Jadiriyah, a good-looking brunette babe who, Ardor gradually realizes, looks like a “pre-Cleopatra Elizabeth Taylor.” She’s broadcasting telepathically for help, being closed in on by a pair of Vardors – blue-skinned, hulking apelike creatures – who proceed to rape her. Ardor, for his part, hides, knowing he’s no match for these monsters – and since he feels everything the woman feels via that telepathy, he’s soon “draining” himself into the sand(!). For you see, despite being raped (at one point even double penetrated), the Jadiriyah is, believe it or not, getting off royally – “her prime though was to gain all possible clitoral stimulation.” Because, folks, women actually enjoy being raped on Aros.

Friends, I don’t see Ardor On Aros being reprinted anytime soon. Good grief, we live in an era in which victim culture is so prevalent that people get upset about cereal boxes; could you imagine how triggered they’d be by a novel in which female characters enjoy being raped??

This is the concept of Julan, in which an Aros woman is obligated to offer herself to the man who saves her life – and a man better except, or at least turn her down gently following the formal wordings. But Hank Ardor doesn’t know anything about this, so he politely turns down Jadiriyah’s strange offering of sex, once he’s killed off the two Vardors who were, you know, just raping her…at the same time. She doesn’t seem to appreciate this. Then she takes the ring Ardor took from Kro Kodres’s corpse, slips it on her finger, and vanishes. Eventually our hero will learn that “Jadiriyah” is actually a title, meaning “the Ringbearer,” and the lady’s name is really Sorah – and she’s not one to offend by bluntly turning down an offer of Julan.

The book gets more dreamlike as Ardor runs into Pope Borgia, the lab parrot which preceded him through the astral portal to Aros. But here Pope Borgia speaks fluent English – and rules an army of labcoated humans who go around with parrots on their heads. Maybe this is the part that had me thinking of Venus On The Half-Shell, as it’s all just so weird in that funky ‘70s way. But Pope Borgia is sick of this boring rule and goes along with his old buddy Hank – more dreamlike stuff as Ardor notices the jungle they just left seems to disappear when he looks behind them, but when Pope Borgia’s also looking back, the jungle is there again.

The thing about Ardor On Aros is that it sort of drifts along, with no real quest or mission for Hank Ardor. The whole book seems to be building up toward something…only it’s not. Ardor just sort of bumbles along with the parrot, taking up a pair of horse-like creatures called “slooks” (he names one ERB and the other Kline). He runs into another Vardor attack, and this time manages to save a lady from being raped – a gorgeous hotstuff who looks like Sophia Loren, and is the most beautiful woman Ardor’s ever seen.

Her name is Dejah Thoris, and at this point the Barsoomisms are getting egregious. But then, there is a Wizard of Oz vibe to the whole book (ie the film), with all the people Ardor meets resembling people he knows back on Earth. Soon he begins to question where in hell he really is – could he somehow have teleported into the book his old coworker Evelyn was writing? Things get more surreal when they arrive in Bythna, home of Deja Thoris as well as Sorah, the Ringbearer, who teleported here via the ring.

Having proven himself as a warrior – and by the way, Ardor can jump super-high on this lower-gravity planet, just like John Carter could on Mars – Ardor becomes a member of the Guild, a warrior class which is run by Sorah’s father. Meanwhile Ardor tries to court Dejah Thoris, first explaining to her upset father, a silversmith, why he didn’t accept her offering of Julan when he saved her! Throughout Ardor argues to the reader that this world cannot be of his own creation – ie Aros really being some sort of weird dream he is experiencing – because he wouldn’t have created anything like this place or its strange customs.

Eventually Ardor does take Julan from the lovely Dejah (of course, she’s been sulking because he didn’t take her, earlier), and Offutt fades to black just as it’s getting to the graphic stuff, Ardor snarkily telling the reader he won’t get “a free ride” out of an explicit description of his sex with her. But next day Ardor finds that Dejah and her dad have been taken prisoner, on orders of the Guildmaster himself – who himself takes orders from his daughter, the spoiled sorceress Sorah, who is affronted that Ardor didn’t accept her offer of Julan, but did accept it from the daughter of a lowly silversmith.

Here I was, assuming Ardor On Aros would lead up to this big action finale, with Earthman Hank Ardor marshalling the forces of Bythna against a Vardor assault, or something along those lines, but as Ardor gratingly keeps reminding us throughout the book: “I’m no John Carter.” And Andrew J. Offutt is now Edgar Rice Burroughs. Instead, the novel features a bizarrely underwhelming finale in which Ardor engages Sorah in a “sorcerer vs sorceress” battle; if Ardor can “magically” best Sorah, Dejah and her dad will go free.

But like a regular Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Ardor’s “magic” is mostly due to his knowledge of science and his pocket watch, the sole item he brought with him from Earth. After being bested – unable to gauge when an hour will begin, like Ardor can, thanks to his watch – Sorah first asks our hero to marry her, and upon his refusal, zaps herself back to her castle, where she goes into a mad rage. The climax features more of this low-key stuff, with our hero basically hiding out while Bythna suffers her wrath, and finally it’s up to Sorah’s dad to deliver some long-delayed discipline.

I’m not sure if Offutt planned to write more books about Ardor’s adventures on Aros; there’s no indication that this wasn’t intended as a standalone novel. It ends with Ardor relaying that all this was “long ago,” and that he is now old and married to Dejah Thoris, with several children by her, and he has become very wealthy thanks to his many business ventures on Aros. He also worries what will happen when Evelyn, back on Earth, eventually dies, having come to the theory that Aros is a creation of his, Pope Borgia’s, and Eveyln’s minds.

Overall I didn’t dislike Ardor On Aros, but I didn’t much like it, either. Despite such a salacious setup, the book itself is pretty theadbare in the exploitation aspect, and it’s almost as if Offutt wanted to write a straight-up sword and planet yarn, but figured it would be laughed at, so decided to angle it more as a “satire.” But as mentioned it appears he did write a genuine sword and planet novel a few years later: Chieftan Of Andor If I ever manage to read another Offutt novel, it will probably be that one.

And the Frazetta cover, by the way, is surprisingly subpar…I mean the giant snake looks great, but what’s up with the dude’s lack of a face? According to the 2003 documentary Frazetta: Painting With Fire, at one point publishers were begging Frazetta for paintings to use as covers, even if the painting had nothing to do with anything in the book. I’m assuming this is what happened with Ardor On Aros, as there’s no scene like this anywhere in the novel – hell, there isn’t even a snake in the book. Or maybe the snake is a metaphor, representing of course man’s inhumanity to man, and the dude’s lack of a face is representative of the dehumanizing, emasculating effects of the modern era? Yeah, that sounds good, let’s go with that.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Traveler #5: Road War

Traveler #5: Road War, by D.B. Drumm
February, 1985  Dell Books

Probably the best way I could describe this fifth volume of Traveler, which is once again courtesy John Shirley, would be “a post-nuke Cannonball Run.” Seriously, Road War is all about a diverse group of cutthroats who engage in a race to discover a perhaps-mythical cache of gold. And, as with Shirley’s past Traveler output, it’s basically an extended action scene, one that doesn’t let up from first page to last.

It’s still 15 years after 1989, when WWIII went down, so time hasn’t really moved on much in the past few volumes, even though we learn the third volume was “months before.” It must be some short time after the previous volume, as Traveler is still hanging out with Link, the muscle-bound black guy he met in the climax of that installment, a former Green Beret so big that an M-16 looks like a “toy” in his hands. To tell the truth I kept confusing Link with Orwell, Traveler’s black buddy back in the third volume – not to sound racist or anything. The characters are just very familiar, and are basically just ciphers for Traveler to talk to, so it isn’t just him driving around alone in his “Meat Wagon” armored van. And another character in the book also confuses Link and Orwell, so there.

But anyway Traveler and Link are hanging out in a bar in the Drift, in the desert ruins of Nevada; a radiation-poisoned prospector known as the Old Man in the Hole gets in front of everyone, throws out some platters of beaten gold with maps scrawled on them, and claims he found a huge stash of gold out in them thar hills. The old man is a notorious bastard, prone to lying and deceit. He claims he’s telling everyone this because he himself will have no use for the gold, as he’s dying of stomach cancer – and also because he hopes everyone kills each other while hunting for it. For gold can still buy a passage to peace here in the post-apocalypse; supposedly there are areas relatively unscathed by radiation, but it costs a pretty penny to get there.

Then the Old Man starts off a gunfight which results in him getting killed – the tumor blown out of his stomach via shotgun and splattering on the wall. As ever Shirley provides his tale with customary ultra-gore, which is how I demand it. But be warned, friends, Road War is the first Shirley offering yet that does not offer any of his weird creature feature radiation-spawn mutants or any of his just-as-outrageous sex scenes! I mean for once poor old Traveler doesn’t even get laid, folks. As for the monsters, perhaps Shirley felt he’d gone overboard with them in the previous volume, which was stuffed to the mutated gills with various disgusting monsters. This time the only monsters are the human survivors of WWIII.

Chief among them is The Spike, leader of a gang of roadrats called The Wasps. The roadrats have appeared throughout the series, and are basically the mohawked, heavy metal-wearing barbarians of Road Warrior. The Spike is suitably horrific, with teeth filed to fangs and the usual screwed-up punk aesthetic; she even claims she wants to cut her “tits” off and cauterize the wound, because they just get in the way. Traveler runs into The Spike and her obedient roadrats in the bar, sparking a rivalry that will last throughout the novel. For of course, she is one of the people who sets off on the gold-hunt, as do Traveler and Link.

Traveler for his part could care little about the gold, but Link’s all fired up about it, so what the hell? “Let’s go get killed,” Traveler says; our hero is in an especially cynical mood this time around, but that only serves to make the usually-dark humor of the series all the more humorous. But man he’s like a post-nuke Philip Magellan in this one; there’s a total Marksman moment where Traveler ties a bunch of freshly-killed corpses to the back of the Meat Wagon and barrels past the Wasps, cutting the cord so that the corpses sprawl in the van’s wake as a warning.

The book really is just an extended chase scene, but it’s delivered incredibly well. Traveler and Link get in one battle after another; even “quiet” interludes, like when they pull off for a rest or to save apparently-stranded motorists, turn into full-bore action scenes. So really it has much in common with the action movies of the day; Shirley even provides a sort of soundtrack, with Traveler at one point hauling out a boom box to blare out the window as a distraction, blasting “Raw Power” by Iggy & the Stooges: “Early punk-metal rock. The raw stuff.” Link even gets in on it in a later, entertaining part where he gets behind the wheel of the Meat Wagon and comes to Traveler’s rescue, the Stooges scaring the shit out of the latest enemy they’ve encountered.

There’s even a bit of action-comedy banter between Traveler and Link, usually delivered while the bullets are flying, like when Link blows away a dude who tries to crawl into the Meat Wagon and his blood and brains splash inside – “Don’t mess up my car, bro,” complains Traveler. A bit more comedy comes via Jamaica Jack, a Drift resident captured by the Wasps and freed by Traveler and Link, at the latter’s request – Traveler as ever doesn’t go out of his way to help people, trusting no one. But Jamaica Jack doesn’t make as much impact in the narrative as I thought he might. Nor does Rosalita, a sexy Hispanic gal used as a sex-slave by The Spike(!); she rides along in the Meat Wagon with Traveler and Link, but does not engage in what I figured would be the obligatory sex scene with Traveler. Instead, she becomes Link’s woman, mostly because he’s the only one who can speak to her in Spanish.

Action is constant and energetically-delivered throughout; you never get the sense that Shirley’s just going through the motions like you would in the work of a lesser writer – like say Joseph Rosenberger. He writes every action scene as if it’s his first, with copious gore and gunplay and deadpan dialog. Some highlights would be an encounter with the Glory Boys – aka what remains of the US Army – in a ghost town, as well as a pitched battle with the “digmen” who live beneath the earth and try to catch Traveler and Link with their sticky, gladiator-style nets. And of course there are countless fights with the Wasps, The Spike increasingly desperate to kill Traveler, and vice versa.

Throughout the race our heroes keep encountering a dragster, which sometimes shoots at them as it flies by. At length – and the book occurs over two or three days – we discover that the dragster is occupied by Hill and Margolin, the two remaining members of Traveler’s old CIA Special Forces squad (Orwell, from the third volume, being the third). This is the first Traveler’s seen them since 1989, and they are ruined versions of their former selves, their minds warped by the neurotoxins Traveler himself was dosed with, back in ’89. But unlike Traveler, they were never cured of the effects, to the point that Margolin in particular has become like a machine gun-carrying Cassandra, prone to visions, just one step away from full-blown insanity.

The four manage to locate the hidden gold, which is buried in a ravine surrounded by a colony of hostile digmen. But The Spike and her sole remaining follower get the jump on our heroes, with the Spike using Traveler as a decoy for any traps the Old Man might’ve left behind (of which there are a few). The gold does indeed exist, but Traveler’s heightened senses detect something unusual about it. Not that it matters, as The Spike gets locked inside the vault due to one of those traps – and suffers one grisly fate, as we learn the Old Man really was a bastard, as the gold is radioactive and whoever finds it will die from it, just as the Old Man himself did. Plus he’s even left some food behind for whoever gets locked in the vault so they’ll live longer – to suffer longer!

There are so many pitched battles throughout Road War that the last one with the digmen doesn’t make much of an impression, but Margolin does suffer in the skirmish, offing himself via heroic sacrifice. As if proving how pointless everything is in this hellish post-nuke USA, Traveler, after going through hell to find it, basically shrugs off the lost cache of gold, and he and Hill give Link their gold maps so Link and Rosalita can go find happiness. Meanwhile Traveler’s decided to head on south to hook up with Indian galpal Jan again, last seen in the third volume. Hill says he’ll go along, which means Traveler will have a new co-riding buddy next time around.

I’ve enjoyed every volume yet of Shirley’s Traveler. He doesn’t waste the reader’s time with padding or digressive nonsense, and instead delivers a thrill-a-minute action story with plenty of gore. Not to mention a heaping helping of dark comedy. You can tell he was having fun as he wrote it, and that fun carries over to the reader.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Coming Of The Terrans

The Coming Of The Terrans, by Leigh Brackett
No month stated, 1967  Ace Books

A few years after Ace published The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman and The Sword Of Rhiannon, they published this fine collection of Leigh Brackett stories that had originally appeared in various pulp sci-fi mags. This book collects both early and later Brackett, the tales spanning from 1948 to 1963 – in fact the sole two sci-fi stories Brackett wrote in the ‘60s are collected here, and I wonder if writing them is what inspired her to go back and revise “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” and “Black Amazon of Mars” for their Ace Double expansions.

All of the stories collected in The Coming Of The Terrans have an anti-Earthman, anti-colonialism vibe, more so than any other Brackett tales I’ve yet read. The “Terrans” are either foolish interlopers, well-meaning incompetents, or rugged individualists out to help the Martians. All of them, that is, save for the hero of the first yarn, Captain Burk Winters; but then, “Beast-Jewel of Mars” has a different vibe than the other stories collected here, and is more along the lines of the sci-fi action tales of Eric John Stark. Winters is even reminiscent of Stark (who actually hadn’t been created by Brackett yet, so maybe it should be vice versa), with sun-darkened skin; however he has sun-bleached, almost white hair. This one’s my favorite tale here, mixing sci-fi, action, and even nightmarish body-horror straight out of Island Of Lost Souls.

“Beast-Jewel of Mars” is from the Winter, 1948 issue of Planet Stories (I’ll link to the Internet Archive where scans of the magazines are available for free download). This is a great opening to the anthology, and it’s prime Brackett. One thing added to this Ace anthology is a date for each story, something unstated in the original pulp versions – we’re informed that “Beast-Jewel of Mars” takes place in 1998. Good grief, in the real 1998 I was barely making a living, driving a beaten-up Volkswagen Rabbit, but damn if I don’t look back on those pre-marriage/pre-responsibility days with nostalgia. Anyway, in the 1998 of Leigh Brackett – and I wonder if the dates for each story were arbitrarily determined by Ace, and not Brackett herself – space exploration is rampant and humans have ingratiated themselved onto all the already-populated planets.

When we meet him Burk Winters is landing in the spaceport of Kahora, one of the few places on Mars where Terrans are allowed. It’s a domed city straight out of Logan’s Run, with all the comforts of home. As the tales in the collection progress, we will see how Kahora grows and prospers, but in this earliest-set tale it’s more of a waystation. Winters has come here on a mission, one for which he’s apparently given up his commission. His fiance, Jill, supposedly died in a “flier” crash in the Martian desert, but Winters suspects there was foul play, as Jill had become involved with the Martian drug Shanga – so memorably featured in “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” with a bit more detail about it in The Secret Of Sinharat. In fact, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” featured a reference to this very story, though the reference was edited out in the Ace Double expansion.

Shanga, known as “the going-back,” is a drug that makes its user regress down through the phases of evolution. Sounds horrific, but apparently it evokes feelings of euphoria in the user. Speaking of drugs, Winters enjoys calming his nerves with “Venusian cigarettes,” which we’re informed have a sedative effect. (Part of me believes – wants to believe – that noted sci-fi geek Jimi Hendrix had this paperback in his collection.) He contacts a Martian named Kor Hal who runs the local Shanga operation, but learns that the Shanga of Kahora, used only by visiting Earthmen, is a pale reflection of the real thing, which Kor Hal says was created by the people of Caer Dhu, 500,000 years ago. Readers of The Sword of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings of Mars will recall Caer Dhu was the domain of the Serpent Men, the Dhuvians, but that was a million years before…so one suspects regular ol’ Martians must’ve moved in afterwards.

Winters plunks down heavy cash and is taken by flier to Valkis, Low Canal city that’s been in other Brackett tales. Here he sees real Shanga, which the Martians don’t touch – it wiped out the people of Caer Dhu in a single generation. It’s run via giant prisms that harness celestial light or somesuch, and Winters is taken up in the “magnificent, unholy sensation” of Shanga. He regresses to beast, and then is challenged by a regal, bare-breasted woman (the Martian and Venusian women are always bare-breasted in Brackett, by the way – it’s like the eternal style on these planets). Still in beast form, “Burk,” as Brackett refers to our hero when a beast, is chased through the streets of Valkis, the angry Martians herding him up to the ruins of Old Valkis, which once loomed over the now-vanished sea. 

The Terran-hatred is strongest in this story, and thus it could use a more proactive Earthman hero. Winters though, back in normal form, is locked in an arena with other Shanga sufferers, some of them so regressed that they’re so hideous they can’t bear description. And here Winters discovers Jill, still alive, but regressed almost permanently into an almost missing link sort of thing. The Martian lady who challenged Winters is the Lady Fand, who rules Old Valkis, bringing the Terran Shanga-sufferers out each night for the amusement of the locals. Using his wiles – not to mention the unbelievable lack of security – Winters is able to sneak out, catch Fand, and put her under the Shanga lights, that night – and we see why the Martians forever swore off Shanga. Features a rushed but bloody ending in which the Shanga freaks wreak vengeance on the Martians, and Winters escapes with Jill, to alert Terran authorities – per the sidenote in “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” he was successful, and Lady Fand’s Shanga ring was crushed.

“Mars Minus Bisha” follows, and immediately we detect a different vibe. This one’s a heartbreaker, folks – who’d expect such an emotional tale from an old sci-fi pulp mag? Originally appearing in the January, 1954 issue of Planet Stories, this one lacks the action and violence of “Beast-Jewel of Mars” but makes up for it with characters you grow to care about. In earlier yarns Brackett’s protagonists were almost ciphers, but here we have Fraser, a doctor who has come here to Mars to study viruses. He’s sequestered in a Quonset hut in the desert, almost forbidden from contact with the locals. The year given in this Ace edition – but not the original story – is 2016.

One day a Martian desert woman storms up to the hut on one of those “lizardlike mounts” the Martians are always riding, and dumps off her daughter, whom she says is sick. Then the mother takes off. The child is named Bisha and she’s around seven. Gradually Fraser will learn that Bisha has affected her tribe with a sleeping sickness, reminiscent of the one in Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude, to the point that the entire tribe was in such jeopardy that the child was ordered to be put to death – the Martians having none of the “humanity” of Terrans in such matters.

But the mother instead snuck Bisha off to Fraser, hoping this strange Terran doctor might cure her…and apparently raise her, as the mom isn’t coming back. Thus begins a compelling drama between Fraser and his new charge, with Brackett subtly hitting all the right notes, like when Fraser realizes belatedly that he’s just gotten a family. Soon he’s talking to the brooding young Bisha about Earth and the home they’ll share when he takes her back with him. But then Fraser begins blacking out, going into minor comas for several hours at stretch. When he tells a local about it, the local instantly knows Bisha is with him, thus setting off a tense finale in which the two attempt to escape across the desert via “trac-car” before Bisha’s former tribesmen can stop them. Be prepared to have your heart ripped out and stomped on.

Next up is “The Last Days of Shandakor,” from the January, 1952 issue of Startling Stories.  The book gives the date as 2024. This one’s unique, at least so far as the other Brackett stories I’ve read, in that it’s in first-person. Our narrator is John Ross, a “planetary anthropologist” who knows more about Mars than most Martians do. Then one day in a Barrakesh tavern he sees a strange native in a billowing cloak with coal-black eyes – eyes like no Martian Ross has ever seen – and realizes he’s looking at a “new” Martian race. The fact that the other Martians give this dude wide berth, almost pretending he’s not there, only adds to the mystery.

The strange Martian’s name is Corin (Brackett did love her Celtic names), and he claims to be from the lost city of Shandakor, which is dying. Ross talks Corin into letting him tag along on the journey back, knowing that Corin plans to kill him – which he does, though Ross defends himself. Afterwards Corin kills himself, refusing to take a Terran into Shandakor. Ross looks for the first time at Corin’s uncovered face, and it is almost reptillian. Ross, thirsty and alone, is jumped by a pair of hulking barbarians; turns out a barbarian army has surrounded Shandakor, refusing to go inside, even though the ciy appears to be unguarded. They take Ross’s money and push him into the city, telling him the people of Shandakor are rich, with water to spare.

Ross finds a literal ghost town, populated with the usual human-type Martians and other Martians such as he’s never seen, walking around, doing business, etc. But there is absolutely no sound, and no one sees him. Brackett mentions that some of these beings have wings, and others have the snakelike features of Corin; she doesn’t elaborate, only stating these are “the lost races of Mars.” My suspicion is we are to assume the people of Shandakor are the descendants of the “Halflings” which proliferated in the time of The Sword Of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings Of Mars, and this is where they segregated themselves from the human-stock Martians who gradually took control of the planet. 

Eventually Ross learns that these “ghosts” are recordings pulled from the very stones of Shandakor, a sort of bizarre security device to keep away the superstitious barbarians. In truth Shandakor is peopled by a few thousand survivors, all of them with similar features as Corin. One of them is a “girl-child” named Duani who wants to keep Ross almost as a pet, claiming she’s never seen a real Terran before. Ross is enslaved, his job to clean the gears of the strange machine that runs the holograms. He learns about Shandakor and falls in love with Duani; this is the second tale in which a Terran protagonist plans to take a Martian girl back to Earth with him, though here it’s a different sort of love, Ross belatedly realizing how damn hot Duani is (plus her being topless all the time doesn’t hurt).

But prepare to be gutted, once again – Brackett it appears went more for emotional, poignant finales in her later yarns, and this one’s no exception. The people of Shandakor know their time is limited, and thus willingly go to the Place of Sleep, which is like a euthenasia center or something. When it’s Duani’s turn, Ross freaks and smashes the hologram machinery, so that the barbarians can come in – and a devastated Duani is glad Ross is only a human, so he will never know how horrible his actions were. Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton deemed this “the last and best” of Brackett’s Martian tales, but I disagree – it’s great and all, but I prefer the more action-centric tales.

“Purple Priestess of Mars” follows, and it really is the last of Brackett’s Martian tales, the last story she published to occur on the Red Planet. It’s from the October, 1964 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and it’s the shortest tale collected here, not to mention the most Lovecraftian. It also has a different vibe, in that the Terran “hero” is a liberal academic Brackett clearly dislikes. I read somewhere that Leigh Brackett hated liberalism (I also read somewhere online that her mid-‘70s The Book of Skaith trilogy was like an anti-liberalism diatribe), and that’s very apparent here.

For, like the typical uber-liberal, our “hero,” a government social worker named Harvey Seldon, is a sanctimonious know-nothing know-it-all, the kind of guy who thinks he knows what the Martians need more than the Martians themselves do, even though he’s never even been to Mars. This is his first time, coming into the Kahora spaceport, which we learn is now a city of eight vast domes. Also, humans have more so integrated with the Martians, the date for this story being given as 2031. Seldon even looks down on the crewmember of the transport ship that’s brought him here to Mars, but accepts the man’s offer to hang out with some real, live Martians that night. Seldon practices some positive reinforcement antics to groove himself up; Brackett really had the nascent liberal movement figured out.

That night Seldon goes out of his way to apologize for the previous Terran “exploitation” of Mars (you could even say it’s the first stop of his Martian Apology Tour), even correcting the natives that there was never any “human sacrifice” in the “mad moon” religion of yore. Despite the fact that the locals insist there was. But as we’ll recall, Seldon knows better than everyone, and insists that the legends that there was once a cult that worshipped a supposedly-lost race on Mars’s moon Phobos, referred to as Denedron by the Martians (Deimos is called “Vashna,” by the way), is all make believe courtesy the first Terrans who came to Mars, lying “adventurers” all of them.

Then he’s drugged and these Martians sneak Seldon through the streets and the desert to Jekkara, the anything-goes Low Canal city from previous Brackett joints which is still forbidden to Terrans even at this late date. Here he is thrust into a religious ceremony, given a drink that is possibly drugged, and sees a lovely native gal named Lella, wearing a silver mask like the gal on the cover painting, leading a group of worshippers. Then a demonic “eye” opens, and Seldon loses his marbles – could this “mad moon” demon really exist, and demand a regular sacrifice? The Martians take Seldon back to Kahora, claiming that this was “the only way” they could get him to see the reality of this bloodthirsty religion, which can only be found in the hills outside Jekkara; they plead with him to tell his superiors about it, so it can be stamped out and the demon destroyed. No one else has believed their story, but they figured if an actual government employee saw it for himself, something could be done.

Instead, Seldon flees back to Earth and convinces himself it was all a drug trip. As if her wit couldn’t get any more acidic, Brackett delivers a finale in which a psychoanalyst listens to Seldon’s story and tells him it was all a manifestation of his mind, the demonic eye he thought he saw merely a sign from his subconscious that he needs to accept the fact that he is a “latent homosexual.” All this is exactly what Seldon needs to hear, the supernatural explained away in a fashion he can accept, and thus he can get back to being a sanctimonious jerk. And then a letter arrives from Mars, telling him Lella awaits him at the next moon…

The final tale is “The Road To Sinharat,” from the May, 1963 issue of Amazing Stories. This one gets back to the novella length of the other tales, and also somewhat has the vibe of the more action-centric yarns. It also seems to have served Brackett with some inspiration for The Secret Of Sinharat, mostly in the details of the titular location; in that 1964 Ace expansion, we learn that a constant wind in Sinharat has the sound of ghostly screaming, something I don’t believe was mentioned in the original “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” version of the story. The year given is 2038.

We’re back to the third-person narration, and our hero is Dr. Matthew Carey, who is so reminiscent of Matt Carse of The Sword Of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings Of Mars, from the similar name to the same occupation, that you wonder why Brackett didn’t just make it the same character. Like Carse, Carey’s a rugged archeologist, very much in the Indiana Jones mold, and he’s been at it for a while, his hair getting touches of gray. When we meet him Carey’s run afoul of the United Worlds Planetary Assistance Committee, yet another Terran government body of liberal do-gooders who think they know what’s best for Mars. In this case the Committee, led by one Winthorpe, plan to use science to transform the deserts of Mars into oceans and forests. They care little that the Martians themselves do not want this to happen – the humans know better. But they want to arrest Carey on grounds that they believe he’s so stirred up the natives to the point of revolution.

Carey though recalls something like this happened in Mars’s dim past. Brackett skillfully divulges Carey’s plan as the narrative progresses, to the point that we don’t even initially know why he wants to go to mythical Sinharat, ancient abode of the Ramas, those Martians who used their own science to gain immortality. Carey evades the police (for some reason, Interpol is after him – even operating here on Mars – led by a bloodhound of an agent named Waters), and hooks up with an old tomb-raiding Martian pal named Derrech. Along with them comes Derrech’s sexy sister Arrin, who you won’t be surprised to know traipses around in that traditional Martian garb of kilt and no top – however it appears that Martian women are mostly all small-breasted, as Brackett seems to consistently use that description for them.

The action starts in Jekkara, and we get references to barbarian leader Kynon, from “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” which Brackett would soon expand as The Secret Of Sinharat. Carey refers to this as the last time Sinharat reached the public conscious, but he knows that there might be something in the Rama archives that can stop the so-called Rehabilitation Project from terraforming Mars. Carey also makes the interesting comment that he knows, from “a pretty good authority,” that there is a water well hidden in Sinharat. Could that “authority” be none other than Eric John Stark? 

So begins a journey across the Low Canals of southern Mars, heading up north to the Drylands of the barbarians of Kesh and Shun, the group travelling in a barge that’s pulled along the dried-out canals by those lizard beasts. There’s sporadic action, like when in Valkis a group of barbarians storm the barge while Derech and his crew are off in the city; they’re no doubt muscle paid for by Waters, who knows Derech is secretly transporting the fugitive Matthew Carey. But as mentioned Carey’s no wimp, and, naked, he hefts a war axe and starts screaming at them, having learned long ago how to “go Martian” and fool people into thinking he’s a Dryland barbarian. Brackett uses the phrase “go Martian” in the same connotation as “go postal,” a phrase that wouldn’t even be coined for a few more decades.

Soon Carey’s going all the way with it, wearing a leather armor kilt and harness – ie, just as depicted on Gray Morrow’s great cover art, which you might have noticed from my overlong writeup actually depicts characters and incidents from the book, which is cool. When Carey and friends arrive in Sinharat, they find the warriors of Kesh and Shun surrounding the place, and Interpol agent Waters hiding within the city – Waters having guessed where Carey was headed. But Brackett doesn’t give us a bloodthirsty finale, instead having our heroes trick their way into Sinharat, and Carey finding the material he wants, visually recorded on ancient Rama technology.

Instead, the finale is more on the lines of drama, with Carey presenting the recordings to the Committee, he and his comrades having been safely flown out of Sinharat before the barbarians could close in. Here we get the humorous note that a Committee translator speaks in Esperanto! Well, I guess that seemed “futuristic” in 1963. But we see that the Ramas tried to terraform Mars long in the past, only with disastrous results – to the point that the Committee determines that they will not in fact bring water to the Martians. Thus, revolution is averted.

Brackett’s writing throughout is strong as ever: concise, evocative, and poetic. Special mention must be made of her brief Preface, in which she discusses how science has now confirmed that there is not and has never been life on Mars – but she still vouches for the truth of these stories. “After all, I was there.” But I have to say, it would be a damn shame if this is why Brackett’s work fell out of favor, and was out of print for so long – who cares if there isn’t life on Mars, or any of the other planets in the solar system? That doesn’t detract from the enjoyment value of Brackett’s work; the stories collected here are the very definition of escapism. And I think Leigh Brackett has become my new favorite writer.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Assignment: Israel (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #26)

Assignment: Israel, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1967  Award Books

I had low expectations for this volume of Nick Carter: Killmaster, another one by Manning Lee Stokes – not due to Stokes, as I always find something enjoyable about his books – but because the plot didn’t much grab me, about the Killmaster staving off a potential Middle East war, one that Israel would falsely be blamed for starting. I like the more fantastical Killmaster plots, and this one appeared to be more on the mundane level, a la other Stokes joints like Mission To Venice.

And while that’s true, it turned out that Assignment: Isreal was very entertaining, and moved at a fast clip, particularly when compared to Stokes’s other series entries. In other words, there’s very little of the padding and stalling one finds in the typical Stokes work, and for once he even provides a good villain for our hero: Gunter Gerhardt, infamous “Butcher” of WWII, a Nazi soldier who was known as “the German T. E. Lawrence” due to his skills in desert warfare.

Gerhardt, or “G.G.” as he’s constantly referred to, is now William Lucy, a British mercenary who works around the Middle East. His current plot has him coming up with a mission for Syria: he will take a group of Syrian soldiers, dress them in Israeli Army uniforms, slip across the border to Jordan, and massacre a village, leaving behind the corpses of a few Israeli “soldiers” – in reality, Israelis G.G. killed in an earlier raid and put in uniforms to leave as decoys. To test his mettle and see if there’s still any “thrill” in killing, G.G. himself guns down those captured Israelis, including women and kids, shocking even the bloodthirsty Syrian troops under his command. The ultimate goal is a Middle Eastern war, one funded by China, G.G.’s secret backer.

As usual, Nick Carter’s on vacation when we meet him, shacking up with an old flame named Peg in a ski resort in Gstaad, Switzerland. Stokes doesn’t go full-bore with the explicit detail, but we get enough to know these two are having a grand old time. Then Nick discovers a tape hidden beneath the bed and kicks himself for losing his skills and not detecting it. He sends Peg off and lies in wait for whoever placed it. It turns out to be the fat old cleaning woman, who was paid to do it by two East Germans; also, she put the tape there before Nick’s arrival, as the Germans were interested in Peg, whose husband is a noted industrialist.

Nick confronts the two German agents in a tense scene that occurs on the snowswept mountain in the dead of night. Unfortunately, the entire sequence is arbitrary and has nothing to do with the book’s plot. However Nick looks upon his easy killing of the two agents as “good practice!” Then boss David Hawk summons him to AXE HQ in DC, where Nick is appraised of a situation that involves the CIA and Israel’s Shin Bet. They’ve gotten wind of “G.G.’s” plot via overly-complicated backstory, and Nick’s to head to Tangier, where he will be reporting to a Shin Bet agent – and Hawk warns Nick it’s a woman, which of course makes Nick bridle.

In Tangier Nick meets his new boss, a ravishing brunette named Sabra. She’s capable and deadly, and even gifted with disguise talents, able to transform herself into a jawdropping blonde. But Nick deems her a “talented amateur,” as she does not have the cool efficiency of a professional. She tells Nick that she is “married to Israel,” and this to Nick is the true mark of the non-professional, as she’s become a spy for patriotic reasons. Also Sabra insists Nick forget any dreams of bedding her – maybe “after” the assignment, but not before.

Together they head to Israel, where Nick is promptly captured and tied up by a KGB duo, Gregoff and Yashmin. Shin Bet’s biggest fear is that the Russians will find Gerhardt before they do – he killed just as many Slavs as Jews and thus is equally wanted by the Russians – and these two are prepared to literally rake the coals over Nick to find out what he knows. But while Gregor, whom Nick has realized is insane and ready to snap at a moment’s notice, is down stoking the fire, Yashmin slips over and begins to “stroke” Nick. That’s just the way things roll in a Manning Lee Stokes novel, and I for one am not complaining – these kinds of books should be outrageous and exploitative.

This is a brutal sequence, with Nick pinioning the girl between his thighs and smashing her face apart. The fight with Gregor is even more brutal, as Nick, unarmed and his hands still tied, desperately tries to evade the madman’s gun. It climaxes with Nick pulling a Van Damme and launching a savate kick with both legs, breaking the bastard’s neck. He even thinks of all this as more “good practice!” From here the action moves to the desert, where Sabra has retained the services of a band of Bedouin mercenaries.

I’ve always been interested in that whole desert warrior aesthetic, from the Bedouins to the Tuaregs, and Stokes nicely captures the atmosphere. These desert warriors will be the sole army in the fight against Gerhart’s Syrian troops, across the border, but Sabra’s certain not a single one of them is trustworthy. Speaking of Sabra, she and Nick finally get it on, out in the cheap showiness of the desert one night: “Sabra wrapped her slim legs about [Nick], locked her heels high on his back and sought to devour him.” Yeah!!

Things get real when one of the Bedouins does turn traitor, and Gerhardt sends over a Syrian plane to bomb the hell out of them. Stokes is grim in the ensuing massacre, with nightmarish descriptions of dead women and children. The Bedouins are mad with rage, and Nick turns into a veritable Alexander the Great, marshalling them into a bloodthirsty force of vengeance. By this point Sabra has already turned over command of the assignment to Nick; it began, as expected, when she gave herself to him in the desert.

Nick goes on and on about a “plan” he has that might be suicidal, but he (or Stokes) never tells us what it is – instead they luck out when they sack a mop-up convoy and steal a military half-track and lots of machine guns. Here Nick is pure Killmaster, dropping down silently onto the half-track as it drives by and slicing and dicing with Hugo, his stiletto. The climax plays out on Gerhardt’s headquarters in the desert, known as “the Ravine of the Devil,” a “cross between a moonscape and the floor of hell.” Stokes suitably brings the hellish place to life, with descriptions of spooky lava formations jutting from the desert ground.

Meanwhile Sabra has declared to Nick that she loves him. Pop quiz, folks: What do you think happens to Sabra?? This actually serves to add an unexpected dramatic depth to the finale, as after a pitched battle on the Ravine of the Devil, Gerhardt escapes up a mountain, Nick in close pursuit, with no escape possible for “the Butcher.” But he’s under good cover, avoiding Nick’s steady fire. He only comes out when someone poses as a decoy for him. Guess who? And Stokes ends the tale here, abruptly but effectively, with the impassable Killmaster for once affected on an emotional level.

This was a good installment of Nick Carter: Killmaster; nothing phenomenal, but consistently entertaining and well written. Stokes is still my favorite writer on this series, and he especially shines in these earlier volumes.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Conan (Conan #1)

Conan, by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter
July, 1984  Ace Books
(original Lancer Books edition, 1968)

If you had asked me when I was 13 years old who my favorite author was, I probably would’ve said Robert E. Howard. When my men’s adventure novels phase abruptly fizzled out around that time, I found myself moving on to sci-fi and fantasy, in particular the Conan stories. At that time these Ace paperbacks were ubiquitous in bookstores, at least in my area – unfortunately though I was just a poor kid and couldn’t afford all of them. But I had this one, though I have no recollections of it, other than one or two stories – and I can’t believe it was almost exactly thirty years ago that I first read it!

These days the Ace books (which themselves were reprints of the original Lancer editions) are out of print and out of favor; Howard purists lose lots of sleep over the editing L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter did to the original Howard tales, not to mention the “pastiches” they wrote to fill in the gaps in Conan’s life. As is well known, Howard didn’t write the Conan stories in any sort of chronological order, but in response to a fan’s letter he did construct a sort of template; de Camp used this when fleshing out the Conan saga.

The Conan series ran to 12 volumes, taking Conan from youth to old king; initially most of them were published by Lancer, but after that imprint went out of business, Ace took over. The books also weren’t published in order; Conan The Adventurer, for example, while being the fifth book in the series, was actually published first. Millions of copies of these books were sold over the decades, no doubt due in large part to the cover paintings by Frank Frazetta (his work is kind of butchered on this Ace edition of Conan #1, though; the original Lancer edition shows more of the painting). Boris Vallejo’s paintings, later in the series, are also great, I think.

Anyway, for this re-read I did something a little different. For the Howard tales contained herein, I read the original, unadulterated versions, which are now readily available in a trio of Del Rey trade paperbacks that came out several years ago. (I would bet good money that these Del Rey editions haven’t sold anywhere near the amount the old Lancer/Ace editions did, though…) So I can’t speak to the tinkering de Camp/Carter did to the REH originals, though you can find copious amounts of info about this sort of thing online, particularly on Wikipedia.

Re-reading Conan #1 all these years later, in addition to finding that I hardly remembered any of the tales, I also found that the majority of them were overly repetitive. The same thing basically happens over and over again, and Conan himself doesn’t really stand out until late in the book. In this way perhaps this book isn’t the best introduction to the character, but I decided to start with it (again) anyway.

Here are the stories:

“The Legions Of The Dead” (de Camp & Carter) – Okay, I’m cheating here; this story doesn’t actually appear in Conan #1. It’s from the 1978 Bantam paperback Conan The Swordsman, which is yet another book of Conan pastiches by these two authors, written after their Lancer/Ace stuff. I included it here because this story takes place before “The Thing In The Crypt” (below), thus chronologically it was the earliest tale in Conan’s life that these two authors wrote.

Conan is just a teenager when we meet him, serving as a mercenary with an Aesir war party that has ventured into “haunted” Hyperboria; we’re informed he has left his native Cimmeria due to a “blood feud.” The Aesir are here to rescue Ranni, daughter of Njal, the Aesir leader. There isn’t much to the story, and Conan doesn’t really come to life – we’re just informed that his ideas are usually discarded by the Aesir. But through his ingenuity he’s able to rescue Ranni from the castle in which she’s imprisoned, and the Aesir escape.

The titular legion of the dead soon attack – it is an army made up of their fallen comrades, as well as other “gaunt” Hyperboreans they’ve recently killed. This is necromancy courtesy wicked Queen Vammatar of Hyperborea, an ageless beauty with “high breasts.” It was she who took Ranni captive, and now aims to get her back with her undead warriors, but Conan again saves the day; as Njal and the others fall to the sword-wielding zombies, Conan knocks Vammatar off her horse, puts Ranni on it, and the horse races off. Meanwhile Conan is caught, destined for the Hyperborean slave pens, and here the tale ends.

“The Thing In The Crypt” (de Camp and Carter) – The previous story was basically a prequel to this one, which is the official first story in Conan #1. It’s another trifle of a story, but well-known in its own right because writer/director John Milius included it in his awesome ’82 film Conan The Barbarian. (The sequence is not present in Oliver Stone’s original draft of the script.) The problem with reading “The Legions Of The Dead” before this one is that repetition I mentioned above.

I imagine Lin Carter got a chuckle out of seeing this story in the film, as it turns out “The Thing In The Crypt” started life as a story featuring Carter’s character Thongor of Lemuria. Thongor was changed to a young Conan, who when we meet him has escaped those Hyperborean slave pens and is running from wolves that chase him. He has no weapons, same as in the film, and finds a passageway into an underground crypt – again, same as in the film. But where the movie diverges is the skeleton in the crypt is inanimate, other than when Conan takes the Atlantean sword from it.

In the story, the “thing in the crypt” is actually a “mummified” corpse with rough gray skin, and it comes to life to attack young Conan when he has the umbrage to take its sword away. Conan is understandably freaked out, but fights back – however, given that I read “The Legions Of The Dead” before this, I was like, “Conan, you just fought an entire legion of zombies – you’ve got this, man!” But admitedly, that story was written much later, and clearly the authors didn’t go to too much trouble to connect the two stories. Needless to say, Conan gets the sword and makes his escape.

Back to the film, Milius also improved on the sequence by making the sword so important that it became Conan’s main weapon – indeed the one he used to break his father’s sword, thus implying that Conan had become stronger than his father. In this story, the sword is just a sword, and it’s not mentioned again as being important in any way. I know purists dislike Conan The Barbarian, but I love it; I could care less that it isn’t faithful to Howard’s work, as it stands on its own…the movie is like a Nietzschean myth on film, and it might be my favorite movie ever. Here is a great review by someone who gets it.

“The Tower Of The Elephant” (Howard) – First published in the March, 1933 issue of Weird Tales, “The Tower Of The Elephant” is another Conan yarn that found its way (sort of) into the ’82 film; it’s even present in Oliver Stone’s original script. This was the only tale I remembered from this book. But I didn’t read this version, this time – I read the faithful reprint of “The Tower Of The Elephant” that can be found in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian (Del Rey, 2003).

I actually re-read this story several years ago, when I got that Del Rey book at the library, shortly after it was published; I recall at the time I was underwhelmed by most of Howard’s early Conan yarns, not liking them nearly as much as I had when I was a kid. And with this reading…well, I sort of felt the same. “Elephant” is a cool story, sure, but there really isn’t much to it. Conan’s in depraved Zamoria, where he wants to prove his mettle as a young thief. Promptly displaying his barbarian nature, he kills a local who has the temerity to mock him in a tavern. Oh and incidentally, the tales collected here are ones in which Conan is actually stated as wearing the damn loincloth-and-sandals ensemble he wore in every single issue of the various Marvel Comics series. So Conan’s a true barbarian here with no refinements.

Conan sneaks into the titular Tower, accompanied by a famous and portly fellow thief. On the temple grounds they are attacked by trained lions, and other evils wait inside the tower. Up top resides a Ganesha-like creature which appears to be an ancient alien, one imprisoned here by the evil wizard below. Conan just sort of stands and listens to a long speech, kills the elephant-headed alien at its bidding, then watches as the evil wizard is shrunk down in celestial vengence. Sadly, this isn’t the only story in the book where Conan just stands around.

“The Hall of the Dead” (Howard, de Camp and Carter) – This is a de Camp and Carter fleshing-out of a Howard outline; the original outline can be found in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian. Conan’s still in Zamora, still thieving, and tries to loot a deserted section of the city that’s supposedly haunted. A group of soldiers are chasing him, led by a “Gunderman.” Conan kills all of them and gets into the city, in which he finds a massive slug, which I guess just lives there. Anyway, it tries to attack him, and he kills it. He then finds that the Gunderman’s still alive, and Conan talks him into looting the place with him.

The titular hall features a bunch of skeletons which, you won’t be surprised at this point to learn, come to life and attack Conan and friend. So that’s the third tale in which our hero encounters the undead. De Camp’s dialog is incredibly lame and juvenile throughout, including even a “Let’s get out of here!” courtesy the Gunderman. The story features an O. Henry-esque finale in which the priceless jewels the duo have looted either crumble to dust or become animate – and poisonous.

“The God in the Bowl” (Howard) – This one was rejected by Weird Tales when Howard submitted it sometime in the ‘30s; it was published decades later with de Camp revisions, and that edit is included in this Ace book. However, I read the original Howard version, again collected in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian. I can see why this one was rejected. It doesn’t feel like a Conan yarn at all; it’s a locked room murder mystery in which our hero once again stands around for long portions of the narrative.

Anyway Conan’s in Nemedia, having been hired by a fallen noble to loot a temple. However Conan is wrongly accused of murder; he’s caught in the act of snooping through the temple by a guard who has come across the murdered corpse of the temple owner. Conan’s accused of murder, and there follows a tedious story of various one-off characters coming along to exposit on this or that, accusing Conan of murder, when of course he’s innocent. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the supernatural is to blame, as the dead owner had recently curated an ancient artefact of Set – another element which made it into the film, as the Set logo is even described as a two-headed snake.

Another element that made it into the film is the creature itself – here it is a massive snake with the head of a man, which of course brings to mind Thulsa Doom’s transformation to a snake in Conan The Barbarian. (Thulsa Doom of course was a villain of Howard’s other character, King Kull, but then, the ’82 movie has more in common with Kull than it does Conan, even down to the titular character, as Arnold’s Conan is just as prone to brooding as Kull was.) But otherwise the only thing I found memorable about “The God in the Bowl” was Conan constantly calling his accuser “dog.” Conan The Gangsta Rapper!

“Rogues in the House” (Howard) – The REH originals continue; this one first saw print in Weird Tales, January 1934. Once again I read the faithful reprint in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian. This turned out to be my favorite Howard story in the book, even though I had no recollection of it from my first reading, three-score years ago. It also sufficiently inspired Frank Frazetta, who chose a scene from this story for his awesome cover painting – a scene that also appeared to inspire the producers of the crappy Conan The Destroyer (1984).

Conan’s in a prison near Zamora when we meet him, having been working as a thief alongside a “Gunderman” who went rogue from his ranks – a Gunderman who is dead before the story even begins, having been hanged. Likely we are to assume it is the same Gunderman who became Conan’s sort-of ally in “The Hall of the Dead,” which I guess one could see as clever pastiching on de Camp’s part. Conan’s in pure badass mode, finally; he’s visited in prison by a nobleman named Murilo who wants Conan to kill an evil priest named Nabonidus. In return Murilo will engineer Conan’s breakout.

Conan takes the job, and manages to escape prison even when the nobleman’s plans fall through, “braining” a dumb guard with a bone and making his “leisurely” escape. Conan then takes care of unfinished business: revenge on the whore who sold him out. First he guts one of her customers, then he dumps the half-nude babe into a cesspit. After this he figures it’s “time to kill” the priest. In a nice bit of characterization, while Conan is an uncivilized barbarian, he keeps his word and he pays off his debts; he feels indebted to the nobleman, even though technically Conan freed himself.

The “rogues in the house” turn out to be Conan, Murilo, and Nabonidus himself, all of whom make it into the darkened tunnels beneath the priest’s home. Nabonidus’s apelike creature-servant Thak has taken over the place, sitting above on Nabonidus’s throne in the preist’s red robes. There’s a lot of standing around and listening and watching as Murilo and Nabonidus take turns expositing on this or that (a Howard mainstay, one I always forget about until I read him again). Then they all watch as some interlopers are killed off by Thak, using Nabonidus’s hidden weapons. The cover painting comes from Conan’s brutal but brief mortal combat with Thak. This one’s good, but a bit too much of it is composed of exposition and characters just standing around.

“The Hand Of Nergal” (Howard and Carter) – Now it’s Lin Carter’s turn to flesh out an untitled outline Howard jotted down in the ‘30s. Despite its reliance on coincidence (a Carter specialty), and the fact that Conan acts a bit out of character so far as his willingness to fight the supernatural goes, I liked this one a lot more than I expected. Conan’s serving as a mercenary in a Turanian army, battling the forces of Munthassem Khan; Carter attempts to tie back to the previous story by mentioning that Conan is riding the horse Murilo gave him. The opening is the best part, with a gore-spattered Conan on a bloody battlefield of corpses. You won’t be surprised to learn that this is the portion that’s mostly by Howard; the outline he wrote can be found, again, in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian

Carter adds supernatural stuff – a horde of demon-bats descends on the carnage, and Conan alone has the gumption to fight them off. In his escape he finds a nubile wench named Hildico who, Carter coincidence in full effect, was tasked by her ruler to come here, to a battlefield, and find Conan. Conan recently came across a talisman of sorts, just plumb found it (Carter in effect again), and it turns out this means he’s now “the chosen one” who can stop the evil Munthassem Khan, possessor of the titular Hand of Nergal. This talisman by the way also succeed in scaring off those demon-bats, which turn out to have been sent by the Khan.

This one’s kind of similar to the previous story, in that Conan stands around in a dungeon-type setting while supernatural forces come into play, but this time those spirits do all the heavy lifting and Conan just watches it all go down. His ass is saved by Hildico, who coincidence-again-be-damned knows how to use Conan’s talisman against the Khan; despite all the fuss made about Conan being chosen and whatnot, only this serving wench-type knows that you have to throw the talisman at your victim to full activate it(!). Pretty damn dumb, but Carter’s invested in the tale, so it’s entertaining despite its dumbness.

“The City Of Skulls” (de Camp and Carter) – We end the anthology the way we started it: with another pastiche by de C and C. Believe it or not, this was my overall favorite story in the collection, and by a wide margin. I really liked it! The authors do an admirable job of capturing the vibe of a Howard original, but I liked this one better than any of the actual Howard originals in the book. It opens identically to the previous yarn, with Conan serving as a mercenary in a war party that’s in the process of being slaughtered. It’s a little over a month after the previous story (which is recapped, as if we didn’t just read the damn thing a few pages ago), and Conan’s in a party that is escorting sexy Princess Zosara into Hyrkania to marry “the Great Khan.”

I read somewhere that, in his “edits” of Howard’s original work, de Camp removed some of the more racist material. This accusation is thrown into doubt within the first few pages, where we come upon stuff like, “[Conan] drove the point of his tulwar straight into the slant-eyed, yellowish face,” not to mention our introduction to Conan’s new best bud, Juma: “a gigantic black from Kush.” Conan, Juma, and Zosara are captured and taken on the long journey to Shamballah, the City of Skulls, the capital of a hidden kingdom called Meru which is like at the bottom of a valley or something. Zosara is to be wedded to the depraved “god-king” ruler, and Conan and Juma are consigned to the galley of a ship as slaves.

Conan’s actually pretty badass here, “braining” dudes left and right, even with the chains of his manacles. The authors dole out lots of gore, from the opening massacre to Conan and Juma’s inevitable revolt on the slave galley. The novella ends in Shamballah, where the duo rescue the bound and nude Zosara from the god-king, who sits on a throne of skulls, worshipping a massive jade statue with many arms. It comes to life, trying to smash them, and Juma saves the day, tossing the god-king beneath the statue’s crushing feet. Features a goofy finale in which, a month later, the two safely deposit Zosara in the kingdom of the Khan she’s to marry, and Conan gossips to Juma that, unbeknownst to the Khan, Zosara’s already bearing him a heir – courtesy Conan, of course.

Overall I enjoyed Conan #1, with the caveat that none of the stories were particularly memorable. You know something’s up when the de Camp and Carter pastiche is the most entertaining story in the book! Writing-wise, Howard’s prose is head and shoulders above de Camp and Carter’s, but bear in mind that REH was a pulpster given to some seriously purple prose; he is in particular enamored with the word “ejaculated,” which isn’t used in the sleazy way you might think but instead as a dialog modifier. And he regularly uses thirty words where two would suffice. (Hey, just like my wife!!) He is also prone to exposition, and telling rather than showing. It appears that de Camp and Carter tried to mimic his style in their pastiches, but I’m unfamiliar with either man’s work outside of their Conan oeuvre. Regardless, their stories don’t have that weird fire of Howard’s original work.

On to Conan Of Cimmeria, which is one I do remember very well, if only for the masterful “Queen Of The Black Coast.”