Monday, December 31, 2018

The Last Ranger #6: The Warlord’s Revenge

The Last Ranger #6: The Warlord’s Revenge, by Craig Sargent
January, 1988  Popular Library

The sixth volume of The Last Ranger is basically splatterpunk horror; instead of a post-nuke action yarn it’s a grim, gory, often-unsettling work by an author who clearly has death on his mind. A sense of foreboding looms over the novel, with hero Martin Stone often considering himself “lucky to still be alive,” yet knowing that death will be coming for him very soon.

Not much is known about Jan Stacy, other than that he died of AIDS in 1989. It’s never a good idea to assume, but in this case I can’t help it – the tone of The Warlord’s Revenge seems to be courtesy a writer who has been given a death sentence. Not to use the word again so soon, but “unsettling” really sums up the vibe of this book. It’s not so much an action story as it is an exegesis on death. After 180+ pages of small pages the cumulative effect is the reader shares the author’s sentiment of despair.

This has been the general vibe of the series, but normally Stacy tempers it with black comedy. This is also somewhat true of The Warlord’s Revenge, but the feeling is lost beneath the overbearing grim tone. Stacy seems to be at pains to gross the reader out from the get-go. The novel opens moments after the previous volume ended; Stone and his claptrap crew of American Indians and rogue soldiers watch as a mushroom cloud expands on the horizon, the crazed General Patton having fired a nuke at them in the previous book’s climax.

Stone and his crew escaped, but the brother of Merya (aka Stone’s latest hot American Indian flame – so far as the subgenre is concerned, the post-nuke US is almost entirely populated by hot American Indian women) was caught in the nuclear flames and melted. The Warlord’s Revenge opens on this very scene, with the group gawking at the gory puddle that was once a brave warrior – a puke-inducing puddle that Stacy goes on to describe for pages and pages, giving us our first indication of just what sort of a nasty book this is going to be. At length Stone must give the thing burial, per Merya’s wishes, and Stacy goes full-bore on the grotesque images, from steaming organs exploding to the rancid smell of the melted goop as Stone shovels it up and tosses it in a makeshift grave. 

Through all this the mushroom cloud continues to expand until it goes into the atmosphere and becomes a broiling black cloud that will follow Martin Stone throughout the the book. Another form of death that chases him relentlessly. In fact the spewing acid rain is a sort of motif Stacy returns to again and again, with the novel even ending on the image. Death is everywhere in The Warlord’s Revenge, as are the ghosts of the past – Stone again and again mulls over the futility of his life, how he is “already dead” but doesn’t know it, how the entire planet is doomed.

It doesn’t help that he’s surrounded by fools. The book starts off one way, and admittedly I’m glad it changes course soon after. But initially it looks like we’re going to get a full book about Stone being saddled with his new responsibility as leader of these Indians and tank-riding soldiers. But eventually he sends them off on their own journey – dispensing anti-rad pills to people in the nuke blast radius – and gets back to being the loner we prefer him to be. It just takes a while to get there. We have to deal for a while with the annoying Leaping Elk, an Indian who resents “white man” Stone and goes out of his way to defy him, even putting his hand on a radiation-burned tank. This results in Leaping Elk’s hand being deformed to grotesque proportions, and Stacy goes for more gross-out stuff as he waves it around in his growing insanity.

Stacy doesn’t forget the hardcore stuff, though; despite the general air of grimy despair, Stone still finds the time to bang Merya in full-bore graphic splendor. Stacy has always delivered some of the more explicit moments of sleaze in the genre, and he doesn’t disappoint here: “The entire organ entered the beautiful Cheyenne warrior in a second, stunning her with its thickness and length.” After which Stone sends Merya on her, uh, merry way; Stacy himself seems to be bored with the whole “Stone as a leader of men” idea, and the two say their goodbyes, Merya going off with her tribe.

Stone himself is headed for a remote mountaintop retreat in Coloroda his family once used as a vacation spot. Early in the book we get a brief return to Stone’s post-nuke bunker, that paradise-like fortress with running water, electricity, food, and everything else one could possibly want – you still have to wonder why Stone just doesn’t find himself a woman and just stay there permanently, forgetting about the hellish outside world. But Stone finds that April, his perennially-missing or abducted sister, has been here before him, leaving a note behind. The last time we saw April was at the end of #3: The Madman’s Mansion, where she escaped the Dwarf’s depraved mansion with the assistance of snake oil salesman Doc Kennedy.

April informs Stone that the Mafia are after them, in revenge for the events in that previous book; Stone killed a Mafia bigwig named Scalzanni, and now his brother, Joey, has sworn revenge. Joey Scalzanni then is the “warlord” of the title, but he’s not in the book much and doesn’t really make an impression on the reader, other than that he was a butcher pre-WWIII and now uses his skills with hooked blades to fillet his opponents. Now he runs a “shopping mall of crime” in Keenesburg, Colorado, as Stone learns from a dying Doc Kennedy – Stone coming across the man’s stab-riddled body at that mountaintop retreat, left to die in the ever-present acid rain. As expected, the Mafia tracked them down, Scalzanni stabbed Doc a whole bunch, and April’s been friggin’ kidnapped yet again. She is of course being held as bait at Scalzanni’s place.

Stacy’s version of the Mafia is sort of the logical progression of the one in James Dockery’s The Butcher; rather than goons in suits who discuss “whackings” over pasta, Stacy’s are superderformed ghouls, more monsters than men. Scalzanni’s “shopping mall” takes the perversions of the Dwarf’s mansion in the third volume and expands upon them – a customer can buy every weapon possible, but also there’s a section of nude women in chains up for the highest bidder. But this is all kid’s stuff, really. There’s a noxious swamp out back where corpses are tossed – each room with a handy chute for cadaver disposal – and again it’s all very splatterpunk with the copious descriptions of floating eyeballs and guts. Even Stone’s faithful dog Excaliber pukes at the sight(!). There’s also a nightclub where a male and a female corpse have sex for the viewing enjoyment of the audience, controlled by mechanisms inserted inside their decomposing forms.

In addition there’s also a torture wing, in which Stone briefly finds himself – he’s knocked out and captured twice in the book, almost back to back. To make it even more lame, he’s saved both times by an “old whore” named Peaches who now serves as a house hooker at Scalzanni’s; she was one of the hookers Stone freed from the Dwarf’s place at the end of the third volume. Here Stone has the soles of his feet punctured, but lamely Scalzanni has to take off for a deal or something, thus leaving Stone the opportunity to escape. He frees the other victims in the torture chamber, and the sad bunch serves up another example of the morbid “humor” that runs throughout:

Not one of them should have been alive. [Stone] walked over to them, and those that could, stared back at him with barely opened eyes. One guy with his head in a spike-filled mask; one guy with his body in a coffin piercing him from neck to groin; one guy with nails hammered into his head so he looks[sp] like a bloody ice-cream cone with three-penny sprinkles; one guy with all his skinned peeled off so he looked like an overgrown, peeled grape; and one guy with only the top of him left, and all his guts ready to spill out over the floor like a broken garbage bag. Just the kind of crowd Stone loved to hang out with. 

This is just one of the many splatterpunk-esque elements in the novel. There’s also a part straight out of a horror novel where Stone comes across an army of cockroaches on the destroyed highways of Colorado. He also runs into a pack of post-nuke flagellants who whip themselves into gory ribbons in atonement for mankind’s sins. In fact this horror element takes over the novel, to the extent that there isn’t much action per se, at least not when compared to previous books. It’s mostly just Stone ruminating over the futility of this hellish world as he drives across Colorado, encountering one grotesque horror after another.

Even the stuff with Scalzanni isn’t developed as much as it should be, though his send-off is appropriate, taking place by that corpse swamp behind his mall. The finale brings the cover painting (again by Norm Eastman) to life: Stone gets on his Harley and barrels through the mall, firing the machine gun and rocket launcher on his bike. He ends up destroying the whole place, which proves to be kind of dumb, as right afterwards that radioactive cloud that’s been following him the entire novel finally breaks, and as we leave him Stone is scrambling for shelter from the acid rain.

Overall I found The Warlord’s Revenge too grim and dour to be fun; I hate to speculate, but the idea I got from the book is that Stacy knew his own end was near and was sort of working through things in the text. Of course, my interpretation is likely colored by my knowledge of what happened to Stacy, but that’s the impression I got – to the extent that this one sort of creeped me out. Which is recommendation enough to check out the book, I guess. I didn’t read this one when I was a kid – the previous volume was the last one I got – but I’m curious what I would’ve thought of it at the time.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The City Outside The World

The City Outside The World, by Lin Carter
October, 1977  Berkley Medallion

Part of the Mysteries Of Mars “sequence” by Lin Carter, The City Outside The World is yet another tribute to the work of Leigh Brackett; such a “tribute” that the astute Brackett reader can easily spot the novellas which Carter has borrowed from. The top three I detected would be “The Last Days Of Shandakor” and Sea-Kings Of Mars, with a couple elements from The Nemesis From Terra thrown in for good measure. There are probably more besides.

As if that weren’t enough, Carter also liberally borrows from his own The Valley Where Time Stood Still, the novel in the sequence that preceded this one. There’s no continuity or recurring characters (other than that the first-published novel, The Man Who Loved Mars, actually occurs last in the sequence), but Carter does alert us of the previous tales via asterisks. Given that these earlier books came out through different publishers could be seen by the less forgiving critic as a testament to the size of Carter’s audience.

A big, big problem with The City Outside The World is that the characters are barely allowed to breathe; there’s hardly any dialog in the book, just blocks and blocks of narrative. And as ever Carter has a tendency to break into impromptu lectures on this or that, usually in describing how things are on his “Old Mars,” ie a Mars with its feline-descended humans who have been around for “billions and billions” of years. Brackett was sure to keep her yarns moving and to let her characters live a little, but Carter is guilty of telling much more than he shows. This makes the book sort of a chore to get through at times.

There’s no connection to The Valley Where Time Stood Still, other than a passing mention of its titular Edenic area. But then the “city” of this book is itself a hidden Eden, so as mentioned there’s some repetition afoot. Our hero this time is the cipher-like Ryker, no other name given, a big brawling bastard exiled to Mars many years ago due to his unpopular political beliefs or somesuch. Mars, we learn, is sort of like a planetary Australia in Carter’s future (which appears to be around 2077 or so); the New World Order/globalist government that rules Earth extradites particularly-troublesome “criminals” to Mars, so as to be done with them.

When we meet him Ryker is in one of those typically-downtrodden ancient Martian villages, watching a super-hot Martian babe dancing topless. Now that’s how you start a sci-fi novel! The woman’s eyes are masked, and Ryker detects something unusual about her, other that is than just the great rack. (Carter’s Martian women appear to be bustier than Brackett’s, for anyone taking notes.) Ryker finds himself following the woman and her two companions – an old man and a young, nude boy (annoyingly, the kid stays nude for the duration of the novel!) – as they wend their way through the mazelike city. When some natives try to attack the trio, marshalled by a bloodthirsty priest, Ryker steps in with his laser pistols and starts frying Martian scumbags.

After this Ryker becomes a companion of the three…not that it’s ever discussed or in fact that any of them say much to each other. Carter appears to have forgotten how to type quotation marks, so that the entire story is told via narration. Ryker goes along with the group, and what little they say to each other is relayed in summary. This leads to the frustrating development that we get no understanding of the three strange Martians, none of whom act like any natives Ryker has ever met. It becomes especially hard to buy the growing love between Ryker and the hot topless masked babe, whose name is Valarda. Valarda’s gold eyes are also very strange, and the reason she goes masked in public; eventually we’ll learn that a now-extinct race of Martians, ones who once ruled the planet, had gold eyes. The old man is Melandron (he ultimately contributes nothing to the text) and the naked boy is Kiki.

The strange group makes its way north…not that it’s every discussed why they’re going this way. One can almost feel the plot just dragging poor Ryker along as he trudges northward with them, now riding the big lizards called slidars which also appeared in the previous book. (And it’s clear the cover artist has seen a recent sci-fi movie; all it needs is a Storm Trooper on its back!) There isn’t much in the way of action, and about the most Ryker and Valarda share is a quick kiss that leaves Ryker flummoxed. However it’s the reader who is flummoxed when a nude form comes to Ryker that night in the pitch dark, and he eagerly accepts it and kisses and fondles it…only to discover it’s the ever-nude Kiki playing a practical joke! Instead of frying more Martian scum Ryker just sort of chuckles it off.

Things sort of pick up when the group latches on to a caravan run by a trader named Houm. Ryker gets a job as a guard, and they move on up north. But it’s a setup and Houm’s in cahoots with wily desert prince Zarouk, who wants Valarda and the other two. Ryker to the rescue again, wielding those dual pistols. They escape again, taking Zarouk as hostage, but that night Valarda ties up Ryker while he’s sleeping and she and the other two abandon him. Once Zarouk’s men catch up, free their prince, and beat up Ryker for a bit, Zarouk offers to take on Ryker; it’s all due to a curious icon he plundered from a Martian tomb years ago, one that’s shaped like the famous “Sphinx of Mars.”

The Pteraton, as it’s known, is a massive black structure much like the Sphinx of Giza, but bigger, and this one looks like an insect. Shrouded in mystery, the Pteraton is in the north of Mars, and now Ryker realizes Valarda et al have been headed for it all along; his earlier clue was the discovery of a faded Pteraton tattoo on Kiki’s chest. Zarouk keeps Ryker alive because Valarda stole the icon from him and it’s believed the icon can open a hidden passageway in the Pteraton. So they put Ryker under hypnosis so he can instruct a craftsman how to remake the icon(!?), after which one would reasonably expect Zarouk would have Ryker killed. But instead he lets him live and further brings him along on the merry journey to the Martian Sphinx.

Ryker is filled with the lust for vengeance, but he feels it slipping away when they (rather easily) discover the secret way into the monstrous Pteraton structure and head down it, down and down…until they come out in like a completely different world. Reminding the reader of the valley from the previous book, this one’s a paradise of lush foliage and unusual creatures and etc, and Ryker soon wishes he had died so that he wouldn’t have brought Zarouk and his warriors into this Eden. Eventually Dr. Eli Herzog, an old Israeli prisoner of Zarouk’s whose function is to serve up exposition, deduces that they’ve gone back in time – like two billion years back in time.

So it’s all like Sea-Kings Of Mars (only without the interesting characters, plot, or good writing) as Ryker finds himself in the far, far past. He doesn’t seem much upset about it, though. Anyway for hazy reasons Valarda, who turns out to be a priestess in this distant age, is now with her people in their castle which is defended by stone giants that are impervious to Zarouk’s weapons. It’s all just goofy and so juvenile; when Ryker’s caught and condemned to death by a regretful Valarda for bringing these people to the past, he sort of brushes off how she abandoned him back there in 2077 and etc.

The finale is one of the more glaring bits of deus ex machina ever, as Kiki unleashes the friggin’ god these people worship, and it’s an omniscient but wrathful entity that basically flies around and destroys all their enemies. One must credit it for taking the unusual approach of employing an army of walking dead. The “climax” rushes by with Ryker just standing on the sidelines; there isn’t even any mention of his getting back to his own era and all that. Instead, he’s happy to stay here and marry Valarda.

Carter’s enthusiasm for his own work is certainly evident, but sadly the enthusiasm doesn’t filter over to the reader. I found the book stilted and wearying, and Carter’s lecturing tone didn’t help matters. Nor did his heavy-handed attempts at conveying “drama” by arbitrary use of italicized single-line paragraphs. His reluctance to allow his characters to interract with one another really robbed the tale of any drama it might’ve had; instead The City Outside The World almost comes off like an outline or a treatment. Here’s hoping the other two novels in the sequence are more enjoyable.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Hard Corps #6: An American Nightmare

The Hard Corps #6: An American Nightmare, by Chuck Bainbridge
May, 1988  Jove Books

The sixth Hard Corps is certainly not the work of William Fieldhouse, so judging from Brad Mengel’s research in Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction it must be by British writer Chris Lowder, who is credited as the other author on this 9-volume series. It’s clear Fieldhouse is not behind the wheel for this one, as An American Nightmare is clearly by an author “taking the piss” out of the genre, whereas Fieldhouse’s installments are relatively straight (despite the onslaught of gunfights, sword-choppings, and karate battles).

But first, let’s take a moment to appreciate the cover. Those are our heroes, folks. Those insane-looking guys in grungy fatigues who in their zest to kill are almost hitting each other with their full-auto blasts. Just take a moment to appreciate the looks on their faces. I mean, would you hire these guys?

I’d say the artist isn’t taking the series concept seriously, but then neither is Lowder; this is evident from the get-go, in which the Republican caucus is bombed, immediately after which we meet our heroes, back on their expansive home base, arguing over whether 9mm is superior to .45 caliber. And mind you these are hard-bitten veteran soldiers who have lived and breathed guns and ammo since ‘Nam; I mean you’d think they’d already have thought about this topic, but here they are arguing about it in full-blown exposition.

More evidence of the sort of goofy tone is the villain of the piece: Ennio Coscia, aka Nero, an infamous left-wing terrorist trained by the KGB and the like, but now stark raving mad. Nero plans to wipe out the US political system, and his soldiers in the battle are SDS and Weather Underground and other ‘60s radical terrorist groups. So while Lowder never outright states it, it appears that the majority of Nero’s soldiers must be over-the-hill hippies, given that they started fighting for their various causes in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. But at any rate in this volume you have many scenes of the Hard Corps blowing away male and female hippie terrorists; unfortunately Lowder doesn’t go all the way with it and have them screaming stuff like “Power to the people!” while blasting full auto hellfire.

After blowing up the Republican caucus, Nero next takes out hundreds of voters at a Democrat primary. In this manner he hopes to throw chaos and disorder into the American political apparatus. Enter “Saintly,” the Corps’s CIA contact, who choppers onto HC HQ and offers them the job, trying to appeal to their patriotic sense. Lowder has the Hard Corps more distrustful of Saintly and the government, with Corps honcho O’Neal trading acidic banter with the Fed throughout. Speaking of banter, sword-wielding Wentworth and wise-cracking Fanelli go back and forth throughout the novel, exchanging barbs.

Yet the goofier stuff goes unexplored, like the errant mention that Wentworth likes to look presentable when going into battle. This odd quirk is not fully exploited. There is however some subtle humor at play, like how the Hard Corps ride around in a “Volkswagen minibus” when they’re out on this particular mission – more fitting transportation for a group of hippies than a pack of mercenaries. But there’s a definite goofy tone to the finale, which sees the Hard Corps “undercover” at a national convention; they each wear goofy disguises, sort of like the Beastie Boys in the “Sabotage” video: O’Neal sporting a fake moustache and pastic-lensed glasses, Fanelli in a “checkered-cloth cap” with a bunch of political party pins on it.

There’s definitely less of an action onslaught than you’d get in a Fieldhouse story. In fact it takes a while for our boys to see any fighting; after taking the job from Saintly, who hires them for dubious reasons (something about using their underworld contacts to see if any left-wing terrorists are trying to buy bombs or something), they head for Buffalo, New York, where they look into a coke-sniffing arms dealer who might’ve had contact with Nero. Lowder seems to have seen Scarface recently, as the guns dealer comes off like a Tony Montana ripoff, his cocaine-fuled paranoia building and building until the scene escalates into violence.

Even here Wentworth manages to find a sword – another recurring joke, in that the others make fun at his knack for always picking one up somehow – and slice and dice. So this is reminiscent from the Fieldhouse installments and likely was a publisher requirement; no surprise, then, that later in the novel Nero picks up an accomplice, a Japanese commie terrorist, who wouldn’t ya know it likes to carry around a pair of sais. Lowder might as well flash a sign that indicates a sword battle is soon approaching.

The outrageous gore of the Fieldhouse novels is missing, though. Lowder is slightly more reserved in that department (and true to ‘80s men’s adventure, there’s zero in the way of sex, with the few female characters reduced to background left-wing terrorists). The Hard Corps take out a ton of left-wing scum, but there’s not much spark to it – no exploding geysers of cerebro-spinal fluid or whatnot. That being said, he seems to be fond of overdetailing the death throes of his victims, with frequent descriptions of an already-killed terrorist falling or dropping or being riddled with even more bullets. But again this lends the novel a darkly comic tone, which I’m betting is intentional; as mentioned, one gets the definite feeling that Lowder’s tongue is in his cheek.

In this regard the Nero stuff is prime because he’s batshit crazy. He calls himself “Nero” because he had a vision that he would become a ruler of the world or something, and now instead of any political causes he’s wreaking havoc so as to fulfill his delusional purpose. He’s also the kind of psycho no one would ever work for – when late in the novel he orchestrates a helicopter attack on a Democrat primary, Nero we learn has the ‘copter and its crew blown up after the mission. Like the Zodiac Killer, Nero believes that he owns the souls of all his victims, and they will serve him in the afterlife. Fittingly, his Japanese accomplice shares this belief, which is the only reason the two never try to kill each other(!).

The action mostly revolves around three set pieces: the arms dealer scene, a raid on a theater in which some of Nero’s crew is hiding, and the final battle at the national convention (for which political party Lowder doesn’t inform us). In each it’s clear the Hard Corps vastly outskills their opponents; many parts are basically variations of shooting fish in a barrel. More interesting is the impromptu weaponry of Steve Caine, the bearded night fighter who, we are reminded quite often, lived with the Montagnards after ‘Nam and picked up their guerrilla warfare skills. In the climactic battle he fashions his own “knife on a pole” thing which he uses like a spear.

Overall An American Nightmare is entertaining for what it is – just another generic ‘80s action paperback. There’s nothing particularly memorable about it, other than Nero’s megalomania, and while Lowder is certainly trying to have a little fun with it, the novel still comes off as a little restrained. Oh, and there’s no action scene by the Lincoln Memorial – misleading cover art! Perhaps it’s intended to be metaphorical...

Finally, I think I’m going to take a break next week, so just one post – it’ll be up on Wednesdsay. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Chinatown Connection

The Chinatown Connection, by Owen Park
February, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Of all the BCI crime paperbacks I’ve yet read, this one comes closest to being the first installment of a men’s adventure series that never was. “Producer” Lyle Kenyon Engel likely tried to pass it off as such, as The Chinatown Connection is unlike his other standalone crime novels of the day; this one is more along the lines of Dark Angel, with a bit of Mace thrown in for good measure, and leaves the possibility open for more adventures. Either the readers or Pinnacle didn’t bite, though, so the series never happened. But at least Pinnacle mainstay George Bush (H. or Dubya??) gave it a typically cool cover. 

Speaking of Dark Angel, I wonder if James D. Lawrence was behind this one; my only other guess from Engel’s stable of writers at this time would be Nat Freedland and Bill Amidon, who wrote Chopper Cop #3 for him. If I had to go out on a limb I’d guess it was the latter two, given the similarity of setting (San Francisco) and the general vibe of the book. Also, to get a bit lowbrow from the get-go, I think it might be Freedland and Amidon due to the use of the word “pussy,” which to my recollection I’ve only seen in one other 1970s men’s adventure novel – Dynamite Monster Boogie Concert. There is also the focus on making young kung fu-fighting Eurasian hero Tommy Lee hip and “mod,” which reminds me of the authors’s similar attempts at making Chopper Cop Terry Bunker a hip mod cat.

As mentioned our hero is named Tommy Lee; he’s “barely thirty,” the son of a Chinese father and Russian mother who Bruce Lee-style is American by birth even though he grew up in Hong Kong. Tommy has extensive intelligence world experience, drafted while still a teen into serving in ‘Nam; now he’s a successful private investigator who runs a global company called East-West Investigations, with branch offices all over the world and an army of investigators in his employ. While he is as expected a master of martial arts, he’s also prone to carrying a pistol with him and actually gets in more gunfights than fistfights. While Tommy identifies as Chinese – his mother is rarely mentioned, and he seems to have no interest in his Western heritage – the author(s) are at pains to let us know he’s a hip modern young Chinese, one who drives a white Jaguar XKE and wears mod fashions. His main EWI office, in a SanFran high rise, is decorated with “old Fillmore rock posters.” 

When we meet him Tommy’s in the process of beating the shit out of a couple Chinese punks on a dark San Francisco street. Tommy’s been hired as a guard to ward off this recent crop of violent young Chinese thugs; gradually we’ll learn they are members of the Thunder and Lightning gang, a new wave Chinese tong looking to corner the heroin market in Chinatown. Tommy gets wind of it when he learns his new employers – wealthy financier Bartlett Delmonico and his sexy daughter Lisa – are pulling a fast one on him. Delmonico is actualy a Mafia bigwig and he’s looking to crush the competition. And also Lisa’s actually his wife, not that this prevents her from engaging Tommy in frequent sexually-explicit sequences.

As with the third Chopper Cop, there seems to be two authors here: one who handles the intricacies of plotting and one who just wants to get down to the hardcore screwing. Lisa meets Tommy in his office, hiring him to find out who these Chinese toughs are who are threatening her “father’s” business; she and Tommy are in bed within hours of meeting, our author serving up the first of several such graphic scenes. How graphic, you may ask?

[Lisa] threw herself into sex like a berserk Venus, yet it was clear that her piledriving vaginal churnings were the result of a consciously willed plunge into erotic thrills, not a desire that had swept over her uncontrollably.

Or how about…

Tommy bent down and went into the classic sixty-nine position, thrusting his tongue deeply and actively to see if that was the best way to get her off. 

It certainly was, this time. Her muff throbbed up in his face and arched high as he cupped her globed buns from behind. Quickly she drew him into completion and swallowed the discharge. This seemed to be her final signal to shudder brokenly over the orgasm line herself.

And those are just two excerpts from similar scenes throughout the novel; all of them feature such memorably bizarre phrases. Lisa is Tommy’s sole conquest in The Chinatown Connection, with their casual bangs dutifully described every several pages; Tommy will go to Delmonico’s place, get some info, then rush off to a room with Lisa for “documents” or some other pretense. Otherwise there’s no main squeeze for Tommy this time, which I found surprising, though we do learn early on that he has a casual thing going with his sexy cousin, who wears tight Rolling Stones t-shirts and works as his secretary. While the two never break the taboo and have sex, they still provoke each other with racy dialog. Now that I think of it, this is the only other female character in the novel, and she only appears in the opening.

At 183 pages of small, dense print, The Chinatown Connection is a bit overwritten. The author does a capable job of keeping it moving, with frequent scenes of sex or violence, plus a little bit of sleuthing as Tommy tries to figure out who is behind Thunder and Lightning. But there’s just too much fat, in particular the background material on Chinatown tongs or the inner workings of the “Oriental” world. One thing I was glad not to see was a profusion of overly-detailed kung-fu fights, a la Mace. Tommy usually so outskills his opponents that he makes short work of them with a kick or two; his only real martial arts battle is with Hatchet Wang, a notorious axe-wielding thug who sports a silver nose due to an old injury. This fight goes on for quite a while, only for Hatchet Wang to be rendered an almost perfunctory sendoff in the climax.

Upon outing Delmonico as a Mafioso, Tommy is ready to quit, but Delmonico threatens to kill random Chinatown residents every few days until Tommy complies and finds out who is running Thunder and Lightning. Tommy brings in the tongs, resulting in a stalemate between the two forces – the tongs will prevent the Mafia scum from murdering innocents, but the tongs don’t want the T&L thugs around, themselves. So Tommy ends up doing the job, but sort of working with both forces. There is a fair bit of shuffling around, with the Mafia stuff more interesting than the tongs stuff, mostly because the Mafia stuff usually entails sleazy sex with Lisa Delmonico.

There is a bit of a pulp vibe in that Tommy has a host of toys at his disposal, from an armed and armored communications van that’s disguised as a delivery truck to a fancy underwater sled he uses in a climactic scuba sequence (actually this is the first of two or three climaxes – the book sort of doesn’t know when to end). He has all kinds of weapons stashed in safe places in his apartment and office, and can get a sportscar delivered to him on a moment’s notice from one of his army of employees. Even more on the pulp vibe is the late revelation that Tommy is also a master of disguise, and with a few cosmetic tricks can make himself look completely different. We see this in effect in a somewhat-arbitrary part where he stakes out a dingy bar in the hopes of encountering one of the few known Thunder and Lightning members, Tommy posing as a greasy-haired punk just off the boat. 

Action is capabaly handled if a little bloodless. Tommy blows away a couple goons, but mostly beats people senseless with his kung-fu skills. But we get a varied selection of action, from car chases to underwater demolition to protracted martial arts combat. We don’t get much of an idea of what makes Tommy tick, but again this is par for the course so far as the men’s adventure genre goes, and again my suspicion is The Chinatown Connection was conceived as the first installment of a series that never was. I’d love to know more about it, especially who wrote it, but as is typical with Engel’s BCI, it’s shrouded in mystery.

As for Tommy Lee, he went on to other things; word is he eventually became the drummer in an ‘80s hard rock band.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Doomsday Warrior #13: American Paradise

Doomsday Warrior #13: American Paradise, by Ryder Stacy
April, 1988  Zebra Books

The thirteenth installment of Doomsday Warrior introduces a Foreword, which clues in new readers on when the series takes place (109 years after WWIII) and who the main protagonists are. Actually I think the earliest volumes also featured such a thing, but here Ryder Syvertsen just limits it to the setting and the “Rock Team,” aka the five-man band that comprises Ted “Doomsday Warrior” Rockson’s team of freefighters. And once again hotstuff redhead Rona is given short shrift, not mentioned in the foreword or in the text.

There is as ever no pickup from the previous volume, nor even any indication how long ago it was. That “109 years after” bit would mean it’s 2098, though, given that the first volume had World War III occurring in September 1989. So if Syvertsen is paying attention to his own (perhaps arbitrary) dates, this would mean Death American Style was three years ago, given its stated date of June, 2095. At any rate Syvertsen dispenses with the usual template of Rockson in Century City being briefed on the latest threat, enduring the usual arguing and lobbying of the Century City political wing, and then finally going out into the hostile post-nuke world: American Paradise opens with Rock and his team (Chen, Detroit, McLaughlin, Archer, and Scheransky) already on the way to California.

Contacted by the local Freefighters, bodybuilding surfers called the Surfcombers, Rockson has hurried his team across the blasted US to see if this story of a mysterious new Red weapon is true. Chief Knudson of the Surfcombers claims he saw a big weaponized crystal device on far-off Rapari island (which Rockson believes was once Johnston island), eight thousand miles away. Knudson never saw the thing himself, but natives described it to him – that, and a ghoulish Red they called “Killawee” came along and took the crystal away. Of course this was recurring villain Colonel Killov, something Rockson immediately deduces.

The Surfcombers like to goof off and take it easy, and say stuff like “Life’s a beach!,” and they live in a beachside community attended to by busty blondes in leather string bikinis. Sounds great, doesn’t it, and I wonder if this place was intended to be the “American Paradise” of the title. But Syvertsen passes over them posthaste; instead, more focus will be placed on “New Tokyo,” an island in the Pacific which was rebuilt in the post-nuke 1990s by surviving Japanese (Japan itself having sunk!). The Surfcombers stuff is over and done with so quickly that you wonder why Syvertsen even included it. As it is, only one of them makes an impression on the reader – Murf, who goes along on the voyage to Rapari and shows Rock and team how to sail and live on the sea and whatnot.

Rapari itself is given more focus than the Surfcombers retreat; it’s populated by Pidgin-speaking Polynesians and Rockson instantly falls in love with the diminutive beauty Leilani. Unfortunately for Rockson, Leilani is not only a priestess of the massive crystal, but she’s also a virgin, and must stay that way as part of her holy duties. Archer has no such problems, though; he’s instantly smitten with Hohannah, the obese daughter of the island’s chieftan. This leads to some humor that results in the woman becoming Mrs. Archer, much to Archer’s dismay. As ever Syvertsen clearly seems to like the hulking, idiotic Archer, who for the most part has become Rockson’s sidekick.

Speaking of Rockson, one thing I’ve noted is that his old title “The Ultimate American” isn’t used anymore (and I can’t recall the last time it was); if he’s referred to as anything it’s the “Doomsday Warrior.” Here we learn that Rockson himself isn’t too thrilled with the title. But he’s not given much depth this time around – I mean “depth” so far as in comparison to the other volumes in the series – and instead is more desperate to prevent Killov from using the giant crystal, with no spare time for character development or anything. The crystal, Rockson learns from old military documents on Rapari, is from the late ‘80s ZILCH project, a Star Wars defense sort of thing. Now Killov, commanding his own “rogue army,” has the crystal, and has set it up on New Tokyo, not far off.

Killov meanwhile lords over his underlings, being chaffeured around New Tokyo by his loyal henchman, Nakashima, a post-nuke samurai who loves death as much as Killov does. So much so that Killov actually calls the man “friend,” the first friend he’s ever had – not to mention the only person who has ever liked Killov, other that is than Killov’s mom (and we learn that Killov actually killed his own mother!). This whole part is just super weird, but again it’s the arbitrary weirdness that I so enjoy about Doomsday Warrior. And I haven’t even mentioned the return of Killov’s life-sized dolls, one for each of his enemies (Rockson, Premiere Vassily, etc), and how he melts them with lasers. Or where Nakashima begs Killov to chop his head off, a request that leads to a goofy “emotional” payoff!

But otherwise I found the whole New Tokyo stuff dull, even if it’s up to the usual ridiculous levels of the series – I mean the entire island is built exactly like old Tokyo, even down to the grave of the 47 Ronin. Rockson instantly meets up with the underground resistance, the native Japanese being ruled roughshod by Killov and his sadistic soldiers, but there are precious few of them – wouldja believe, just 47 of them?? And guess what, they’re masterless samurai! Meanwhile Rockson gets in the occasional action scene to keep the plot moving, like when he and Archer arbitrarily assault a Pleasure Pagoda in which captive Japanese women are raped and whipped by the Russians. Rockson and Archer work their way from level to level, killing Russians and freeing young women. There’s also an arbitrary but quick part where Rockson, posing as a “crazed poet,” is captured and put in an insane asylum.

The climactic sequence goes on for a while and starts off with Killov activating the crystal laser, killing 160,000 people in Siberia. It nevertheless maintains the goofy tone of the series; with the flick of a button Killov’s able to break into all radio and TV signals around the globe, so he can state his demands. There’s also a comic book sort of touch where the crystal, in “pain” due to Killov using it to kill (Leilani has a psychic bond with the crystal, you see), activates the crystals in Archer’s head and turns him into an impervious superhuman. Bullets bounce off him as he crushes the KGB soldiers, and in one memorable part he smashes a tank. Despite which, the once-outrageous gore of the series has been toned down, and the epic battle comes off a little bloodless.

It’s also over a little too quickly, Rockson’s team blowing up “Tokyo Tower” right before Killov can fire the crystal beam at Century City, back in Colorado. After this we have a protracted sequence where Leilani, speaking for the crystal, says the thing wants to be destroyed due to the misery it has caused, so Rockson et al have to drag it to the “Mount Fuji” volcano and drop it in. And meanwhile Killov as expected still lives, but Syvertsen gives him a bizarre finale; Killov goes inside the volcano, finds himself in a chamber, and the chamber turns out to be a space ship! Last we see him Killov is in zero-g above Earth, trying to figure out who these people in strange spacesuits are who have “saved” him.

Overall American Paradise is more juvenile than the average volume of Doomsday Warrior, which is really saying something. And not only has the gore been toned down, but so too has the once-outrageous sex; Rockson of course ends up sleeping with Leilani (with the crystal’s destruction, she no longer has to be a virgin priestess), but it happens off-page. In fact the last we see of Rockson he’s pulling her away to a nearby cave! The stuff with Killov in space is promising, though, so I look forward to seeing where it goes – and I hope the next volume sees a return of Century City and Rona.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Web Of Doom

Web Of Doom, by Len Levinson
September, 2018  Rough Edges Press

The first new novel by Len Levinson in twenty-some years, (not to mention the first published under his own name), Web Of Doom is courtesy Rough Edges Press, run by our good friend James Reasoner. I wasn’t even aware that Len was writing a new book, so a big thanks to James for sending me a copy for review. If anything Len proves that he hasn’t lost his touch in the past two decades since his last published work, turning in what is ostensibly a thriller, but one leavened with wacky characters and the occasional philosophical pondering.

Speaking of decades, Web Of Doom is the first of Len’s novels I’ve read that isn’t set in the ‘70s; it’s set in 1995, though to tell the truth I would’ve preferred if it had been set in the ‘70s. But Len’s goal is to focus on the anti-corruption sting which resulted in many New York cops losing their jobs: our protagonist (who also narrates the tale) being a case in point. His name is Patty Shapiro, and despite the fact that he’s a muscle-bound brawler with a broken nose, he comes off like Len’s typical protagonist – overly anxious, prone to reading the great classics, and doggedly determined. His name is cause for much discussion in the text, given that he is the product of Irish-Jewish parents.

One thing that hasn’t changed is the setting – Patty is from the Bronx, and the novel ranges all over Manhattan, with a brief trip upstate. There really isn’t much difference from the New York of Len’s ‘70s novels…given the setting, cell phones aren’t near as prevalent as today (in fact I don’t think they’re even mentioned), and Patty does his sleuthing via oldschool detective work instead of checking some damn database or something. However the sleaze and grit of those ‘70s joints is gone, and black characters are sometimes referred to as “African-Americans.”

The first quarter of the novel is very hardboiled and it seems evident Len is trying to stay true to the template: Patty is down and out, your typical grizzled narrator, and he’s offered a job by Tony Pass, his ex-partner on the force. Now working as a private eye, Patty is to break into a sleazy hotel room and take photos of a blonde bimbo named Christine Rutledge while she’s screwing another guy; Christine’s married, and the husband’s attorney (a cougar named Nadine Coleman) offers Shapiro a couple thousand bucks for the job. Christine is a notorious hussy but is trying to bilk her wealthy husband in court, so this incriminating evidence will put her in her place.

So it’s all very much out of Hardboiled 101, as is the “surprising” turn of events – when Patty, who learned how to pick locks while a cop, breaks into Christine’s hotel room for the photos, he finds Christine’s corpse on the bed. What is a bit unsuspected is that Patty calls the cops! Patty himself will soon wonder why he did this. Given his cred as a “dirty cop,” Patty is hassled by the cops throughout, and to tell the truth it gets to be a bit unbelievable. Patty is of course being framed for Christine’s murder, but he never knew her and he was offered the job by a lawyer, yet he’s arrested (a couple times) with the main charge being he’s a psycho killer who stalked her and murdered her. The argument is he’s a dirtbag ex-cop who was fired for corruption and now he gets his kicks via rape-murder. The fact that he’s cleared of the rape charge doesn’t help his case.

Len is almost as relentless as his protagonist in hewing to the hardboiled template – Patty goes through a succession of wild goose chases as he tries to clear his name. This even entails a part where he drives upstate and camps out in the woods in the desperate hope of cornering a suspect. But after all this the novel begins to open up a bit and becomes more like the Len Levinson sort of novel we know and love; Patty’s hitting on women, pondering his thoughts, and reading Crime And Punishment. Given that the book’s written in first-person, it at times comes off like Len speaking directly to us, and I have to confess I kept picturing Patty Shapiro as looking more like Len Levinson himself than the broken-nosed brawler Len had in mind for the character.

Patty bounces around a small cast of characters, with cougarish lawyer Nadine standing out most in the early pages. There’s also Flacco, a photographer who always wears mirrored shades and who serves as one of Patty’s informers. There’s also a scenery-chewing mob boss who was friends with Christine, and who hires Patty to find the real killer so that he and his Mafia pals can kill him. He funds Patty’s investigation but also threatens him a lot – ie “Find the killer or I’ll kill you” and the like – but it gets a bit old after a while.

I’d say that’s my main problem with Web Of Doom; it just sort of goes on a bit too long. Patty is caught in a metaphorical web as he strikes out on one lead after another; he desperately chases clue after clue and bullies witness after witness, but nothing comes out of anything and he’s always stuck at square one. There’s even a part where he flies around the country to question the various people who were staying at the hotel Christine was killed in, and it’s one “strike” after another. While the various one-off characters are memorable, the whole sequence comes off as unnecessary and should’ve been cut for a faster-moving tale.

But when Len gets away from the “hardboiled template” stuff, the characters breathe a bit more and it’s all more reminiscent of his funky-freaky novels of the ‘70s. This especially becomes apparent in Patty’s increasingly-frequent complaints and paranoid fantasies, not that this stops him from hitting on the occasional babe. Len doesn’t go for the full-bore sleaze as he did in his vintage yarns, leaving Patty’s conquests off-page for the most part. Late in the game he hooks up with a sexy neigbor in his apartment, and she turns out to be his main squeeze in the book. She’s another of Len’s memorable female characters, serving up impromptu psycho-analyses of Patty.

There isn’t much action per se, though Patty runs around a lot and gets in the occasional fistfight. The focus is more on his using his brains to figure out who murdered Christine. Len clearly met with some cops for research, as Patty occasionally informs us of the inner workings of the police world. He’s also a big believer in the mindset that if you keep searching for clues, something will eventually turn up. But as mentioned this does get to be a bit wearying after a while, as Patty seems to question a seemingly endless parade of witnesses. But the impression that Patty is caught in a “web of doom” is quite clear, even though I had a hard time believing he’d actually be convicted of killing Christine. 

Overall I enjoyed Web Of Doom, and it’s great to see that Len is back to writing. Here’s hoping there will be more to come. How about a return of The Amazing Frapkin?

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Traveler #6: Border War

Traveler #6: Border War, by D.B. Drumm
June, 1985  Dell Books

It’s a veritable Old Home Week in this installment of Traveler, which sees John Shirley writing what comes off like a series finale. This leaves me with many questions, as Shirley did pretty much the same thing in The Specialist #3; he caps off the entire series with a satisfying conclusion. One wonders what led him to this, as there were seven more volumes of Traveler to go.

I wonder if Shirley just figured this was it for him on the series, but as it turned out he wrote one more volume: the eighth installment, with series co-writer Ed Naha writing the others. Maybe it looked like Traveler was about to be cancelled and Shirley wanted to give the readers a proper finale. Who knows. Whatever the story behind its creation, Border War is a blast, my favorite volume yet in the series. It features everything you could want in post-nuke pulp, save for the inexplicable lack of Shirley’s patented hardcore sex scenes. Bummer!

First though a bit of pedantic housekeeping: the back cover states that the novel takes place in 2015, which is odd given that previous volumes were set in 2004. In the text itself, Shirley writes that WWIII happened in 1995, “seventeen years before.” This would place the action in 2012. First I thought Traveler took one hell of a detour in his drive to Arizona, which he began in the climax of  the previous volume, but later we’re told that the third volume was just a year ago. So what I assume has happened is that Shirley intended to write that the nukes came down in 1985, not ’95, or maybe a copy editor just goofed. But even that doesn’t work out, as seventeen years after 1985 would be 2002, not 2004. Ultimately I just said to hell with it and enjoyed the book.

So Traveler is headed for Arizona in the Meat Wagon, his buddies Link (a muscle-bound black dude first introduced in the third volume) and Hill (an old Special Forces pal who debuted last volume) riding along, as well as the seldom-speaking Rosalita, the sexy Hispanic babe Link has hooked up with. Traveler himself wants to hook up: with Jan Knife Wind, the Indian babe who was established as his soul mate back in the third volume, but whom Traveler unceremoniously dropped at the end of that volume so he could get back to travelin’. Traveler is so intent upon reuniting with Jan that one wonders why he didn’t just stay with her in the first place. Again, it seems clear to me that Shirley assumed this would be the last volume of the series, or at least his last volume, and wanted to give Traveler a proper sendoff.

But nothing’s ever easy in the post-nuke US, and when Traveler and crew arrive in Pyramid Lake, Arizona, they find the place overrun by Hispanic-looking soldiers in black uniforms. Jan’s tribe has been imprisoned, and these soldiers, as Traveler learns after a soft but violent probe of the area, are from El Hiagura. The same Central American country Traveler was stuck in doing CIA stuff when WWIII happened. I’m not sure if this has been stated before, but here it’s relayed that El Hiagura is actually Guatemala, the new name coined by commie dictator Diaz, aka “the Colonel Qadafi of South America.”

In a unique spin on things, Shirley has it that the United States has become the stomping grounds for “military advisors” from other countries; in other words, the US has become the new Vietnam. And those former third world hellholes are veritable industrialized empires in comparison to the nuked US. What really makes Traveler seethe is his realization – perhaps grasped a bit too quickly – that senile President Frayling, commanding his lunatic “army” the Glory Boys from a bunker in Las Vegas, is clearly working with Diaz, despite Frayling’s hatred of commies. It’s again made clear that Frayling “started World War III,” something the entire surviving populace of the US is apparently aware of, and this is just yet more of his nefariousness.

Each volume of Traveler has been heavy on the action, with many of the books really just extended chase scenes; Shirley continues the trend but varies things up a bit. For one, people finally seem aware that bullets and ammo would be scarce 17 years after nukes destroyed the country, so Traveler, in an attempt to save his ammo, often resorts to using a crossbow. There are still many scenes of gun-blazing gore on full auto; even the mounted machine guns on the Meat Wagon see some use, and Traveler at one point takes out a Russian helicopter with an M-79 grenade launcher, just like Rambo was doing in movie theaters at the time. The El Hiagurans tote new submachine guns Traveler’s never seen before, things that look like Uzis, but surprisingly there’s never a part where Traveler gets his hands on one of them.

Each volume of the series has also had a bit of a metaphysical slant, and Border War really goes all-out with it. In many ways this volume comes off as almost New Agey as the average volume of Doomsday Warrior. Traveler is briefly captured by the El Hiagurans and finds Jan’s tribe in the camp stockade; Jan herself unsurprisingly has been taken away, to serve as Diaz’s personal concubine. Meeting with the chief of the tribe, our hero learns he is the clichéd “Chosen One” of prophecy who will lead “the red man” against “the white man.” Through the novel Traveler will experience the occasional astral voyage, meeting a spiritual Indian and reconnecting with mysterious holy man Nicholas Shumi, returning from previous volumes.

One of these astral voyages features a surprise appearance by a previously-vanquished foe: the super-cool Black Rider, Traveler’s mutant archenemy who was killed off in the fourth volume. As part of a test to prove he is indeed the chosen one, Traveler is baited by the Black Rider, who claims that while his body is gone, his spirit is strong as ever. But Traveler is powered by his love for Jan, whereas the Black Rider is just fighting out of hate: “Traveler kicked his ass but good.” All of this seems to me another indication that Shirley intended this to be the series finale.

We also see a return from Orwell, another of Traveler’s old Special Forces guys, last seen in the third volume. Now he’s a prisoner at a Glory Boys base, but manages to break free and assemble the surviving soldiers into another of the rag-tag armies Traveler will use to beat the El Hiagurans. Orwell is also our guide through the horror element Shirley delivers each volume; there’s an arbitrary but fun bit where he takes a tour of all the gruesome mutants Frayling’s men have created out of unwilling test subjects. I believe Shirley has a bit of in-jokery here, as we’re told that Orwell’s second-in-command is a guy named Bolan who looks around sixty and claims to have fought in Vietnam. More in-jokery comes courtesy Traveler, who early in the book poses as “Robert B. Parker” to avoid the Glory Boys who are looking for him.

Shirley introduces a new character, one I assume will become important in later volumes: The Grizzly, a burly, red-bearded roadrat leader who was a friggin’ professor of Medieval Literature and Mythology pre-war. Now he’s like a figure from Beowulf, commanding his loyal army of bloodthirsty roadrats. Shirley clearly has fun writing this character and I appreciated how he wasn’t just another of Traveler’s many one-off enemies; Traveler and comrades free Grizzly and his crew from the El Hiagurans, after which Traveler appeals to the man’s patriotic instincts – America is being overrun by a militant horde, and it’s time to band together and kick those South American asses back where they came from. To its credit, though, at least this particular horde is honest about the fact that it’s an invading army.

Another new character is one of those one-off enemies: the Gila Lord, another roadrat leader, but this one a super-massive monster with lizard eyes. Word has it he’s not human, and I kept picturing the Mutant Leader from Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. In an arbitrary but very entertaining sequence, Traveler must fight the Gila Lord in a match to the death in order to win the support of his roadrats. Shirley again shows his mastery of the minor details: the Gila Lord comes onto the stage amid much fanfare, biting off the fingers of one of his attendants to feed to his pet gila. After all this, Shirley just has Traveler “stroll” onto the stage, which I thought was very funny. But then as ever there is a subtle comedic element that runs through Traveler.

Traveler becomes a post-nuke Patton, putting together a makeshift army of Indians, roadrats, and “real” soldiers who have become sick of the ruling Glory Boys. Speaking of which we have an almost anticlimactic sendoff for President Frayling; the Reagan analogue hasn’t even appeared yet in the series, I think, but here Traveler and his army finally decide to make short but final work of him. Frayling’s exit would of course be another indication of the quick wrap-up Shirley appears to be giving the series, but it leads to fun potential developments for future volumes, in particular a character at the end of the book who reveals his surprising intent to become the next president. 

Action is frequent and as usual well-handled. Shirley as ever delivers appropriate gore, as well as a cruel streak in Traveler – his torture of a captured El Hiaguran soldier shows a new side, though in his defense the soldier beat Traveler around during Traveler’s brief imprisonment with the El Hiagurans. Toward the end of the book Traveler becomes more of a field commander, so that the climactic battles for the most part feature Traveler watching from afar while others do the fighting. Indeed, Shirley attempts to shoehorn too many big battles into the text, and given that the book’s so short this means that many of them are basically dealt with in summary. We do get more detail in the bigger battles, like the fight to free Kansas City – which sees yet another return of previous characters, like Baron Moorcock (yet another in-joke), last seen in the second volume.

But as mentioned Shirley doesn’t treat us to one of his purple-prose XXX scenes. Jan stays off-page for the duration, and in fact I think she has like one or two lines of dialog. Shirley is more intent on giving Traveler a Happily Ever After; he is as expected reunited with Jan (like a page or two before the end of the book!), and further decides that he’s going to go off with her on Diaz’s captured yacht. Further, Traveler gives the Meat Wagon to Hill and Orwell, who are going to stay behind and help rebuild the United States – Traveler just wants the tape deck and the tapes! Meanwhile Link and his girlfriend Rosalita will come along with Traveler and Jan on the yacht, hoping to find some paradise in this post-nuke world.

 And that’s it for Border War, and seemingly for Traveler. Curious then that there were more volumes to go. A peek at the back cover copy of the next volume would indicate that Traveler is not headed for a Happily Ever After, which reminds me how I felt when I saw Alien 3, the opening of which completely ruined the dramatic finale of Aliens. I’d love to know the story behind Border War; did Shirley intend it as his swan song? If so, was it because he wanted to leave or because it looked like Traveler was going to get cancelled? Or did he just want to wrap up all the plot elements he’d created in the previous volumes so that Naha could work off a clean slate upon his assumption of the writing duties?

Regardless, I loved this one, and it encapsulates everything that’s great about post-nuke pulp.

Monday, December 3, 2018


Glimpses, by Lewis Shiner
August, 1995  Avon Books
(original hardcover edition 1993)

I first read Glimpses back in the late ’90s, when I was on an inexplicable Beach Boys kick(!). In fact this is how I discovered the novel, as at the time it was quite famous among hipster Beach Boys fans for its altertnate reality look at the making of Brian Wilson’s never-realized psychedelic masterpiece Smile. (Which of course Wilson ended up completing in 2004.) Learning this I couldn’t get the book soon enough, and I believe this mass market papberback was one of the first things I ordered off of the just-launched

This is another of those novels that’s stayed with me over the years, both the good and the bad of it. Given that I’ve been on a classic rock kick lately, in particular Jimi Hendrix stuff, I thought I’d give it another read. Betrayed by a sci-fi label on the spine, Glimpses is about a former child of the ‘60s who discovers that he can channel the unfinished rock albums of that era. Further, he eventually discovers he can even go back in time and meet the rock stars themselves. In this regard the Beach Boys stuff is key, as Brian Wilson is given the most spotlight – telling, then, that his portrait isn’t shown on the cover. At the time Brian Wilson hadn’t yet achieved his current status with the hipsters, I guess. Perhaps this book helped him to achieve it.

It’s a great concept, and my understanding is Lewis Shiner is/was a rock reporter, so he certainly has an appreciation for the topic and brings the music to life. But boy oh boy has he saddled us with a loser of a protagonist – a narrating protagonist at that. This is Ray Schackleford, and it is his material which I still recalled as the “bad” of Glimpses. And sadly, he and his sad-sack bullshit account for around 75% of the novel. You crack open the book expecting to read about the Beatles, the Doors, Brian Wilson, and Jimi Hendrix (especially Jimi Hendrix), but instead for the most part you get the navel-gazing banalities of a potbellied 38 year-old with that patented ‘90s cliché of a plot: Daddy Issues. This soon becomes quite a beating over 328 pages of small print.

It’s even more of a beating that Daddy Issues is the theme that unites the novel. Ray in the course of the novel will encounter Jim Morrison, Brian Wilson, and Jimi Hendrix; each of them, Ray’s sure to tell us, had overbearing fathers: Morrison cut off all ties with his parents once he became famous, Brian had a dad who once told him “You’re not the only genius in the family, Brian” (which honestly I’ve always thought was pretty funny), and finally Jimi’s dad never cared much for Jimi or his work while Jimi was alive, and it was only after Jimi died that Ray Hendrix became such a champion of his son (or so Ray argues).

An Austin, Texas-based stereo repairman, Ray identifies himself for us as a “college-educated liberal” (as if there’s any other kind); to ensure we grasp this he finds the odd moment to complain about President Bush (the first one), global warming, and heavy metal. He even manages to make an off-handed apology for Muslim terrorists, claiming that “desperation,” due to the global economy and exploitation of their land and whatnot, has driven them to acts of terror. I guess it’s that “desperation” that also makes them strap bombs onto their own children. Ray, just a teenager in the late ‘60s, was the drummer in a rock group (before he was unceremoniously sacked – cue more woe-is-me bullshit), had all kinds of dreams and the like, but of course was eventually beaten down by life.

And you know, I could deal with all this stuff if Ray wasn’t such a goddamn loser. Practically the entire book is him worrying over his feelings, or crying, or dreaming about his recently-dead dad, who wouldn’t you know it, never really showed Ray any love. Ray is such a navel-gazer that he turns away pretty much everyone (not just the reader!), though he’s so self-involved he doesn’t even appear to realize it. Oh, and there’s his growing realization that he’s a drunk, so we also have that other ‘90s-approved subplot going for us: coping with addiction.

Honestly, you read this book and you want a roller-coaster ride into the rockin’ sixties, but instead Shiner has clearly struggled to write a “Real Novel,” as literary and weighty as could be, something to be pondered over while sipping your latte at Starbucks. Ray Shackleford carries the brunt of the blame, and eventually I started to wonder if this is why Shiner named him thusly: that we readers are “shackled” with a loser protagonist. Hell, I woulda been more entertained if we had been given a Church Lady type, or a Tipper Gore type or something – someone who went back in time to prevent rock albums from being completed. I mean anything would’ve been better than this sad sack.

Well anyway, Ray’s our hero so here we go. The novel opens in November, 1988, a week before Thanksgiving (ironically, exactly when I was re-reading the book), and Ray’s dad recently died in a scuba-diving mishap in Mexico that might’ve been suicide. Well Ray’s worrying himself over that – as he will frequently for the next 300+ pages – and he’s listening to Let It Be. Ray works on stereos so there’s lots of audio gear namedropping, which I appreciated, though I did get a chuckle out of Ray telling someone in the ‘60s that the CDs of his future era are “perfect reproduction” of music(!).

Shiner includes nicely concise backgrounds on the various albums Ray listens to, though I’d imagine the audience for Glimpses would already know all this stuff. Like for example here, that this infamous Beatles album was the result of Phil Spector’s postproduction tinkering, and that the Beatles’s originally-envisioned album (which was to be titled Get Back) was never properly captured. Ray sort of drifts off while listening to the album, and next thing he knows he’s hearing a completely different version of “The Long And Winding Road” on his stereo, one clearly done live in the studio and featuring a musicianship the Beatles never succsessfully attained in the real recordings of the track.

So really, the novel is more magic realism than sci-fi, as Ray’s newfound talent is never much explored or even explained. But basically he’s able to zone into the music, hear what was not but should have been recorded, and pull it back into his reality. More importantly, he’s able to capture it on tape. After finding that Elizabeth, his wife of several years, isn’t much interested (big shock, huh??), Ray eventually hooks up with wheelchair-bound Graham Hudson, owner of Carnival Dog Records in Hollywood. Graham is appropriately blown away by this “new” Beatles song, and sort of becomes Ray’s taskmaster – he’ll suggest a never-completed ‘60s album, hook Ray up with research material on the artist and era, and then get it all on a digital recording to be released as a bootleg CD(!).

First up is the Doors’s unrealized “Celebration of the Lizard,” an epic piece that was to encompass the full side of an LP of the same title. Mostly due to Jim Morrison’s hard drinking – booze having supplanted LSD – the group never got their shit together and eventually released an album titled Waiting For The Sun. Graham is a Doors fan, the name of his record label taken from a Morrison lyric, and he proposes that Ray make this his first project.

Any Doors fans should steer well clear of Glimpses, in particular fans of Morrison. I wonder why Shiner even included them in the book, as he doesn’t seem to care much for them at all; it’s almost as if he wants to get this section over and done with as soon as possible. But Morrison comes off as a loutish drunk with no redeeming features at all; this might even be a true indication of the guy, but what’s worse is that later in the novel Ray and Graham are almost embarrassed by this album because it’s so “evil” and etc. Instead it becomes apparent that Jim Morrison is just too much of a natural born rocker for sad sacks Ray and Graham; one gets the feeling these two would be happier listening to the gentle pan flute of Zamfir.

Here Ray discovers there’s an extra avenue to his new gift: he can sort of travel back in time. This time he just sees the past, sitting in on a “Celebration” session that goes nowhere. So Ray plays god, thinking back to how Morrison seeing a bunch of dead Indians when he was a kid was an image that plagued and inspired him his entire life. Ray pulls astral strings and has Morrison run over a bum; this serves to reinvigorate Jimbo’s creative juices, and he and the band tear up on a killer take of “Celebration of the Lizard.” Ray says it’s even more powerful than their epic “The End.”

After this the ensuing album is almost rushed over, and is seldom mentioned again in the text. Graham takes the resulting digital tape, mysteriously culled from Ray’s brain – again, there’s no study into how it’s even happening – and burns it onto CD. With an embossed cover and fancy packaging, Celebration Of The Lizard goes for a hundred bucks(!), Graham releasing it via a secret subsidiary of his label. If the album is referred to at all anymore, it is in a deragtory light, and Ray ultimately is apologetic about it. At the end we learn Graham’s let it go out of print and doesn’t mind if bootlegers bootleg him, as he wants nothing further to do with it!

Much, much more time is spent with Brian Wilson in 1966 as he works on Smile. This is the centerpiece of the novel and almost serves as a novella; indeed, the rest of the book almost comes off like filler. And speaking of filler, we have to get through more interminable stuff with Ray and his moaning before we even get to Smile, in particular his suddenly-failing marriage with Elizabeth. Who by the way comes off as a fine wife, as far as I’m concerned – she basically lets Ray do whatever he wants, up to an including going to Mexico by himself.

After the usual background research, including more concise history on this famous never-realized Beach Boys album (which I myself was obsessed with back in the day – I even got a 3LP bootleg on colored vinyl at one point), Ray puts together his “work tape” of tracks in the order he thinks they’d go, and starts zoning out. The ensuing section is really enjoyable, though I’ll admit it was more enjoyable back when I was into the Beach Boys stuff. Or maybe now that all of the Smile sessions have been officially released, with countless fan recreations of the album available for free download, the whole thing has sort of lost its magic. But Shiner, uh, “shines” here, and it’s a testament to his word-spinning that I found myself thinking of this book when I watched Love And Mercy (2014); parts of that biopic were very similar to scenes in this novel.

Here Ray himself goes back in time – this after blasting the obscure track “Glimpses” by the Jimmy Page-era Yardbirds while driving in a half-asleep state on the streets of Los Angeles. He passes out in his car in ’89 and wakes up in ’66. With his future knowledge he’s able to bluff his way into Brian’s home; conveniently, he’s appeared right outside the front door! Here Ray finds a portly, childlike Brian Wilson surrounded by nervous family and band members who fear he’s losing his mind in his all-consuming quest to record a psychedelic pop album that will beat the Beatles.

Shiner develops a nice rapport between Brian and Ray, who initially poses as a record label rep but is quickly outed by Brian’s suspicious wife, once she calls the label to verify his story. But Brian is trusting and innocent, and takes Ray in. All of it is very memorable and engaging as Ray smokes hash with Brian and goofs off with him, trying all the while to push him to finish Smile. There’s the inevitable confrontation with Brian’s band members/family as he plays them some of these new tracks, Brian at this point recording all the music with session musicians and just bringing the boys in for vocals.

This part also features an unintentionally hilarious scene: a desperate Ray employs the progressive liberal version of Scared Straight to get Brian to finish his album. Ray makes 1989 sound like a dystopian hell, sort of implying off-handedly that it’s all Brian’s fault because he never completed Smile, which could’ve brought happiness into the world!! Ray describes his hellish future, with its global warming, its “sexual cancer” called AIDS that killed free love, and most horrifically of all its “heavy metal music.” And Brian starts to cry, my friends. It’s no wonder the Brian Wilson section is the longest in the book, as Ray has finally found almost a big a loser as himself.

Brian is awoken and plunges into finishing the album, even doing new pieces Ray’s never heard of before. Here’s another part that’s stuck with me over the years, as Brian does a solo rendition on piano, for the “Air” section of his “Elements Suite,” and when Ray says he always thought “Wind Chimes” was the Air piece, Brian just looks at him, as if he were seeing all those future fans looking back at him, fans who have mistakenly believed this for decades. Shiner describes the ensuing Smile album in a way that makes one want to hear it, unlike the harried Doors album; individual songs are described, as well as linking pieces. It would be interesting to hear a fan mix that followed Shiner’s idea; he even pulls in the avante-garde studio goof “George Fell Into His French Horn,” with the horns serving as “laughter” between some tracks.

All of this 1966 material has been very entertaining, so we must be punished for it. Ray heads to Mexico for a recounting with his dead dad, planning to scuba dive in the same area in which his father drowned. Along the way he’ll ponder his failing marriage and fall in love with someone new. This goes on from pages 134 to 207 and will be a trying read for most, as it too comes off as its own novella, though one that doesn’t have the draw of the previous section. In fact, skimming is advised, and is advised for the majority of the parts focusing on Ray.

The crux of all this is that Ray hooks up with a frosty-exterior gal named Lori who happens to be in a relationship with an old friend of Ray’s dad. But she listens to his magical story of the making of Smile, complete with how he traveled back in time, and this alone is enough to make Ray go head over heels. He’s finally found a woman who will listen intently as he talks about his favorite subject: himself. But this initially is a relationship of heavy petting, neither Ray nor Lori willing to go all the way. This made me chuckle – I thought AIDS killed free love, Ray! Instead it’s Ray’s own anxiety that keeps him from knowing Lori in the Biblical sense. Meanwhile we get lots of scuba diving mixed with emotions-plumbing (Ray cries frequently and often), including a part where Ray pushes himself too far, just like his dad did, and almost drowns.

By the time this part is over you’re pretty much exhausted. It doesn’t help that it just keeps going and going, even when Ray returns to Austin. Now the plot’s about him and Elizabeth splitting up and Ray pining for Lori, wishing she’d come stay with him. Meanwhile Graham returns, as if trying to rein the novel back together: his latest assignment is for Ray to do Jimi Hendrix’s never-completed fourth studio album, First Rays Of The New Rising Sun. Well, this would be fine reward after the previous pages of doldrums, but Shiner is determined to deny us our pleasures. Ray is deadset against it, not wanting to go into the coma-like state which befalls him while traveling back in time, but nonetheless he does his research and even goes to London to take a look at Jimi’s old stomping grounds, including the place where he died. Along the way his guide is rock journalist Charles Shaar-Murray, author of the Hendrix bio Crosstown Traffic.

I didn’t remember much about Jimi being in the studio from my first reading of Glimpses; I just remembered random stuff, like Ray telling Jimi that he was still ranked as the greatest guitarist of all time in the future, and also a part where Jimi took Ray to eat at a soul food place in Harlem. Upon this re-read I realized why – there are no parts with Jimi in the studio!! I couldn’t believe it, friends. Because when Ray finally decides to do the job and ventures back to 1970 London, his goal to save Jimi’s life and help him finish his album, Lewis Shiner makes one of the more “interesting” authorial decisions I’ve ever encountered. He decides that we readers will be more interested in Ray’s story than we would be in Jimi Hendrix’s!!!

That’s right! It’s all about Ray Schackleford now, folks. His own reality is melding with these alternate pasts he visits, again giving the impression Ray has been visiting his own imagination all along. Soon Jimi Hendrix will be asking Ray shit like, “How’s it going with your dad?” At least before we get there Shiner promises to give us what we want; after a little background on Jimi’s intended album, along with the now-discredited “facts” on how he died (ie Shiner relies on the b.s. story told by Monika Danneman), Ray’s off to the past. I was really looking forward to this. If you could imagine any ‘60s rocker being open-minded about a visitor from the future, it would be Jimi Hendrix. 

As with Brian, Shiner does “get” Jimi; he is very believable and sounds like the real thing. As in reality, Jimi’s eager to please everyone and he is indeed open to Ray’s harried story about being from the future – though you can tell he’s just being polite. Something that occurred to me as I was writing this review is that Ray is never really taken aback by these rock gods in their prime…it’s all very matter of fact in a way. He goes back in time, he meets them, he tries to help them record their albums. But there’s never a part where Ray’s like, “Holy shit! I’m talking to Jimi friggin’ Hendrix!!” Perhaps yet another indication that all this is the product of Ray’s own imagination, and the resulting music too is being channeled from his subconscious.

The Jimi sequence does feature some nicely dark comedy, though: despite Ray’s best efforts, Jimi keeps dying. From choking on his own vomit (as in reality) to being shot in the street, even run over by a truck, Jimi keeps dying and dying, and Ray becomes increasingly desperate in his trips to the past. At this point everything else is unraveling for Ray, and it has become clear even to him that a rock album, despite how great it is, cannot save the world. The reader looking to see some of the making of Jimi’s album will be just as disappointed as the Doors fan.

Jimi’s last death, which occurs outside that Harlem soul food joint, results in Ray too being dead – or at least in a sort of limbo where he walks through an endless park, once again running into the rock stars from the previous chapters. Here we also learn that Ray’s a bad guy, folks. In one of the more cringe-worthy scenes in a novel filled with them, Ray not only meets Jim Morrison but also the nameless drunk Ray made Jim run over. Seriously. Morrison takes a moment to shame Ray for being a murderer, and the vagrant himself gets in a few jibes. Cue more woe-is-me shenanigans from Ray. 

After this the novel goes into an interminable free fall; the plot is now all about Ray, back in reality, and how he’s getting his life back together…even looking up (and hooking up) with old girlfriends. I mean we coulda had another trip to the past to meet a dead rocker…how about Janis Joplin? Or maybe Ray could go to 1980 and save John Lennon? Or, I don’t know, maybe a more satisfying part with Jimi Hendrix?? But as mentioned Shiner has decided that we readers are now invested in the doldrum, mundane story of Ray Schackleford and his tedious life.

Again, Glimpses has a great concept, and Shiner capably brings these dead (or forgotten) rock stars to life, letting us see them in their prime. I just wish that more of the novel had been focused on that…it would’ve been so much more satisfying if the whole of it was about Ray being stuck in the psychedelic sixties, and if the tedious “grownup worries” stuff had been relegated to a subplot. But for inexplicable reasons Shiner has reversed this, so that Ray’s story is the center of Glimpses. It’s a testament to how well he did handle the rock stuff that one wishes there were more of it.