Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Marksman #17: Killer On The Prowl

The Marksman #17: Killer On The Prowl, by Frank Scarpetta
No month stated, 1975  Belmont Tower

This volume of The Marksman seems to have been written by a committee, one that couldn’t agree on anything except that the book should be written in English. In one plot Philip “The Marksman” Magellan is in New York to take out a notorious Mafioso, and in another plot a trio of smalltime crooks kidnap that very same Mafioso for ransom. In a third plot the Mafioso’s “family” engage in internecine warfare to determine the new leader. And seldom do these three plots meet.

Once again a big thanks to Lynn Munroe, who revealed that Killer On The Prowl started life as a manuscript by Paul Hofrichter but was rewritten, perhaps by George Harmon Smith, a writer often used by series editor Peter McCurtin to fix up manuscripts. Harmon Smith’s presence is a guess on Lynn’s part, but the writing doesn’t seem to me the same as that in supposed Harmon Smith offerings, like Savage Slaughter.

Whereas Harmon Smith was given to almost literary flourishes, especially when compared to the genre average, the writing in Killer On the Prowl is stilted and bland, given over mostly to flat, declarative sentences. Lynn spoke with Hofrichter, and had him look over the novel. What’s strange is that Hofrichter remembered some of the stuff in Killer On The Prowl as things that had interested him at the time – rocket launchers, one of the settings, and such – but he didn’t recognize much in the book as being his own writing. So one wonders why his manuscript was even used…for example, the novel opens with Magellan in California and hating it; he wants to get back to action. Then he sees in the paper that infamous Mafia boss Vito Narducci is about to make a deal with the army on some new rocket launchers.

And yet, this is never mentioned again in the narrative; Magellan recognizes Narducci’s name and decides to head back East and kill him. First though he mails his guns to himself so he doesn’t have to worry about getting busted carrying them. The front and back cover copy refer to Narducci as “The Animal,” and have it that he’s been sicced on Magellan to finally take him down. But in the novel, Narducci comes off more like a businessman, running his empire from behind a desk. The author(s) clumsily inserts a reference to him being called “The Animal” by other mobsters, but this comes off as editorial emendation.

Narducci’s given an elaborate background overview first courtesy Magellan, who does his research on his target, and then in the section featuring the three punks who have decided to kidnap him. All this stuff seems to have come out of Mario Puzo and perhaps might be the work of some other writer other than Hofrichter or Harmon Smith; it’s certainly not the former. We also get inordinate backgrounds on the kidnappers, one of whom is a jockey – cue more page-filling stuff about one of his races.

Magellan is at his most cipher-like here, going about his motions in a matter-of-fact, almost robotic nature. Surely the intent is to make his actions appear even more savage, because this time Magellan does some crazy stuff, perhaps even more so than in the average Russell Smith installment…for even Russell Smith never had Magellan gun down defenseless women in cold blood. He also literally “fondles” his guns in the comfort of his hotel room. In other words he’s a deranged freak, and this author doesn’t even waste our time by introducing a female companion for him…this version of Magellan is more Terminator than human.

We learn Magellan’s been fighting the mob for two years. He doesn’t have the usual “artillery case” this time, but he’s got a ton of goodies, from pistols to submachine guns. He’s also got a “knee mortar,” one of the things Hofrichter told Lynn Munroe he was studying at the time; this is a WWII mortar that got its name because some soldiers mistakenly thought they could prop it on their knees or thighs when firing. Later Magellan gets some explosives from a dealer who operates out of a grocery store. There’s a lot of gun-talk and info on plastic explosives, as well as lots of detail on the scuba gear Magellan buys at a sports store for an underwater raid. 

However it must be said that Magellan rarely appears in the book; it’s really given over to Narducci, the kidnappers, and various one-off characters. The trio of losers who kidnap Narducci are given the most narrative, followed by the underlings in Narducci’s family who vie for power. When Magellan appears, he’s in total robot mode, planning hits and buying the supplies needed for them. The author(s) studiously avoids giving Magellan any personality; we’re given modicum details about when or where he eats, or what he’s thinking. But we’re with him step by step as he haggles for plastic explosives or buys scuba gear for his hit on one of Narducci’s boats.

And as mentioned, Magellan is more ruthless than ever in this one. He starts assaulting Narducci’s places and possessions, not aware that the man himself has been kidnapped…blowing up those boats, shotgunning one of Narducci’s lieutenants in a drive-by, starting a fire in one of his sleazy hotels (though at least here Magellan gives the innocents a fighting chance for survival). It’s still surprising though when Magellan blows away a gaggle of hookers in Narducci’s employ as they walk across the street:

When [the hookers] were passing a group of darkened stores in the middle of the block, [Magellan] swung directly across the street towards them, lifted the machinegun and aimed it at them, as he used one hand to steer the car along. 

The girls looked at him in amusement, thinking him to be a john, until they saw his submachinegun and screamed and began to scatter. 

He fired in short bursts, watched them twist and turn and fall as the bullets chewed into their perfumed flesh. The girls fell down on the sidewalk and turned it red. He continuted to fire until his clip was empty. Then the car swung away from the lane in which it was in and went back into the lane in which Magellan had been driving. As he sped off, he looked into his rearview mirror. At least half a dozen bleeding forms lay on the sidewalk. He smiled. 

When news of this got around no more dirty, little whores would be coming around to work for Vito Narducci.

Those poor hookers!! But seriously I think this is the most vile thing Magellan’s done in the series, which is really saying something. And of course note how he fires until he has an empty clip and then smiles…you don’t have to be Dr. Phil to realize the guy’s a fucking nutcase. And he’s the hero of the series! It’s for reasons like this that I’ll always prefer ‘70s men’s adventure novels to the ones from the ‘80s…they’re just so much crazier and more lurid.

Everything proceeds in the usual Marksman template, with unthrilling “action scenes” that entail Magellan shooting unarmed mobsters or blowing places up. This includes the “climax,” in which he takes care of a ton of guys with that knee mortar. But it’s all rendered so blandly that you could yawn and miss important events. Here’s a late action sequence, which demonstrates the meat and potatoes, “see Spot run” vibe of the prose – not to mention how “important characters” are so anticlimactically killed:

They saw Magellan and fired at him. He fired back. They sought cover. The two Mafioso saw them and assumed they were with Magellan and offering supporting fire. They turned and began to fire at the police. 

Dunn lifted his pistol and fired two shots at them. Royden lifted his gun and fired. A lucky shot struck Dunn in the chest. He fell. Stemmer was at his side, pulling him towards the bushes as Wimark crouched and fired at the other men. 

But Dunn never made it, he expired before they reached the bushes. Stemmer dropped him, shouted the news to Wimark and they ran into the bushes and up the street to take up a more favorable position.

And on it goes, with no dramatic thrust or impact upon the reader. This same sort of lifeless, juvenile prose marred Roadblaster, which makes me assume Hofrichter was responsible for a lot of the book, or at least the Magellan parts. And finally, any action series author who uses the word “expired” to describe a bad guy’s death needs to be sent to men’s adventure remedial school.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Michelle, My Belle (Michelle #1)

Michelle, My Belle, by Barney Parris
September, 1971  Dell Books

The first of two novels about a “seventeen year-old vixen” who has the powers of “Extra Sensual Perception” (per the back cover), Michelle, My Belle is another of those light-hearted sexual romps that apparently littered the paperback stands of the early ‘70s. Most of them were courtesy Dell Books, sporting risque covers and overly-salacious back-cover copy. As is the case with Michelle, My Bell. The book is copyright George Wolk, a prolific writer who published under a slew of pseudonyms; he died in 1980.

This is one of those novels where I have to wonder what the author was thinking. I mean, I don’t expect these paperback writers to be James Joyce, but still – this is a book in which the titular main character barely appears for the first hundred pages, and the free-ranging plot concerns a young, upcoming artist trying to get out of paying a bar tab. Meanwhile a superhumanly-hung basketball player searches for “the right fit.” I mean you don’t just wake up one day and think this is going to be the novel that puts me on the map…my suspicion is the majority of these Dell pseudo-sleaze books were done at the behest of horny-but-skittish editors who wanted to capitalize on the increasing permisiveness of sexual content in mainstream fiction but didn’t want to go “full sleaze.”

I say pseudo-sleaze because, with the exception of Irving Greenfield’s Making U-Hoo, none of these Dell books I’ve yet read are overly explicit. Some of them have great titles and covers, with cover copy that promises a hot good ol’ time, but each without fail are ruined by overly-“comedic” plots. My assumption is that this too was some sort of editorial mandate; even Greenfield’s novel has a goofy plot. I guess Dell wanted to have its cake and eat it, too…salacious covers, titles, and plots, but tempered a bit with a “humorous” approach. Who knows. About the most I can say is that, whatever the story behind these books, they’re sort of chores to get through.

As is the case, sadly, with Michelle, My Belle. But it did well enough with ‘70s readers that Wolk, again serving as “Barney Parris,” turned in a sequel two years later, confusingly just titled Michelle. Hopefully the titular character puts in more of an appearance in that one; in this first installment, Michelle initially just serves as a convenient means of tying together disparate plot threads. This is due to her ESP, which has gotten her into such trouble back home in Los Angeles that she’s been sent off to stay with her aunt Elaina in Manhattan.

Another of those characters with her own subplot, Elaina is a hot-to-trot divorcee in her mid thirties; she and Michelle look very similar, we’re informed, brunette vixens with smokin’ bods, but whereas Michelle, as we’ll learn, is a virgin, Elaina’s been around the block and then some. Currently she has her sights on oafish Bernard – older, not very handsome, and sporting a paunch – solely due to the reason that he’s wealthy. To this end she kicks out her latest live-in lover, walrus moustache-sporting artist Timothy June, the latest darling of Manhattan’s pretentious art crowd.

June (arbitrarily also referred to as “Timothy” in the narrative – Wolk lacks consistency in this regard for all the characters) is the bar tab owner…honestly folks this is one of the lamest plots I’ve ever read in a novel, and it turns out to be the main plot! At novel’s beginning we learn that the bar he owes two thousand bucks to is about to be taken over by the mob, and the owner wants June to pay up his tab posthaste so he, the owner, can keep the place. So when June’s kicked out of Elaina’s penthouse apartment he hides out with fellow young artist Cooper.

Given the novel’s publication date and setting I do wish there was a bit more of the vibe of the times; we only get a little groovy stuff, here and there – like how Cooper paints up the nude body of busty Rena in psychedelic colors. Strike that – Rena isn’t just busty, she has “Class A” boobs. She’s also kind of chunky, in a pleasing way…Wolk actually can’t seem to decide how to describe her. But everyone lusts after her. When we meet her Cooper’s just managed to sleep with her when the characters are introduced – Rena has a casual sex thing going with both he and June – but, per those Dell dictates, it isn’t anything too explicit.

Meanwhile Michelle when we meet her is on a flight into New York; we don’t get the full details, but somehow her ESP visions has so angered her mother that now Michelle is being sent off to stay with Elaina. Seated beside Michelle on the flight is an incredibly tall black guy who turns out to be a star basketball player; his name is Harry Oliver. Apropos of nothing they discuss Michelle’s ESP, and Oliver’s hip to it, and even says he’ll try to help Michelle figure out whoever this “April, May, or June” person is she’s having ESP flashes about – someone she doesn’t know, but is certain is in trouble.

It’s all very ridiculous; Wolk brazenly takes all these unrelated plots and just messily hooks them together via Michelle’s supernatural gift. So we follow Harry Oliver as he visits a deluxe bordello, discusses his unique problem, and ends up engaging all the hookers during his visit. This is the most explicit sequence in the novel, and also where we learn Oliver’s got a 14-inch dick, for crying out loud. It also takes a lot of work to bring him to climax, with the girls working in tandem in various capacities.

Meanwhile another plot has the increasingly-unlikable Timothy June ambushing meek Bernard, ie Elaina’s wealthy target. Ostensibly this is so June can keep Bernard from marrying Elaina, but instead the two start hanging out, June pushing himself on the loser as the best friend he never had. Eventually they go back to Cooper’s place, where it’s busty Rena’s turn to, uh, waylay Bernard. This she does in another fairly explicit sequence, and while she starts off very unattracted to the old creep, she soon finds herself orgasming mightily. Love ensues.

The bar tab subplot is the most stupid in the book, but the one Wolk focuses the most on. June and Cooper run around Manhattan, eventually meeting Michelle – and June instantly loves her, declares she is his muse. At dinner in a fancy restaurant, June announces to the shock of Elaina and Michelle’s gay father (another subplot, this one only vaguely covered) that he plans to marry Michelle. But later on the two are cornered by a pair of crooks looking to steal the two thousand bucks that Michelle’s managed to get for June – the benefit of having jet-setting, soul-lacking narcissists for family is that they’re rich, I guess.

Harry Oliver, who reveals that he’d planned to seduce Michelle that night, virgin or not, meets Elaina – and instantly knows that she’s one of the precious few women in the world who can fit him. I guess he’s got his own sort of ESP. And guess what, folks, she can – all 14 inches, all the way until their “pelvic bones meet.” Good grief! And Michelle gives her virginity to Timothy June while they’re being chased, a goofy scene that features them being force-fed LSD sugarcubes(!) so as to make their murders appear to be suicide, with the crooks intending to push them off a building. Instead it’s Harry Oliver to the rescue, even though we just saw him in bed with Elaina.

Well folks, that’s it for Michelle, My Belle. There’s not a single thing here that would warrant a sequel, but one was forthcoming; at least the cover slugline of “Michelle meets the Godfather!” makes Michelle sound interesting. But honestly it couldn’t be worse than this one. Or at least so one would hope.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Butler #3: The Slayboys

Butler #3: The Slayboys, by Philip Kirk
No month stated, 1979  Leisure Books

The third volume of Butler picks up some unspecified time after the previous volume, the events of which are referred to as “a long time ago.” We do learn that the first volume was three years ago, and when we meet up with him Butler’s in the Caribbean, checking out some hot blonde from afar with a pair of binoculars. And no, he’s not on assignment – Butler’s on vacation, and he’s just kind of pervy that way.

And speaking of which, when Butler hits on the lady it’s in a way that would even make a horny teenager cringe. The Slayboys runs to over 200 pages, and a lot of the running time is made up of long, discursive dialog, usually of a “You wanna have sex?” nature. Here we get our first, uh, taste of this, as Butler hits on the lady by telling her how good he is at dining at the Y – and this like mere seconds after he’s introduced himself. It goes on and on, with Butler doling out lines that would get a guy slapped (at least!), but instead serves to catch the lady’s interest. But just as he’s sealed the deal and he and the lady are headed for her room, a representative of the Bancroft Institute shows up and calls Butler away.

Not to worry, as Butler will get plenty of tail in the ensuing novel. There’s actually more sex in this one than the previous two, I believe, which is funny when you consider how often Butler reflects on his poor relationships with women. In Miami Butler briefly meets with Sheffield, the never-seen head of the Institute; he tasks Butler with posing as a “wealthy Mexican” to infiltrate a right-wing Cuban patriotic force which is in league with HYDRA, that military-industrial complex that has engineered the deaths of various politicians…including, as Butler and Sheffield discuss in humorously casual tones, the murder of JFK.

Butler has the gig because he speaks Spanish fluently, and soon enough he’s “Hector Suarez, of Mexico,” as he constantly introduces himself to all and sundry in Miami. He gets in the graces of the Cuban Patriotic Front rather easily, first bullying his way between a bickering couple, then beating up the irate husband. This puts him in line with Armando Gonzalez, who happens to be one of the Patriotic Front bigwigs. There is a definite humorous tone to the series, and it’s all very light hearted as Butler bluffs his way into the fold as a macho millionaire who happens to be a supreme sharpshooter…just what the Front might be looking for in their plot to assassinate President Jones.

As we’ll recall, Butler is very left-leaning, and Jones, a Democrat, must die because not only does he plan to formally recognize Cuba, which infuriates the right-winger Patriotic Front, but because he also plans to nationalize the banks and other Leftist stuff. Per the series overview he kindly provided for my review of the first volume, Len seems to regret the left-wing tone of the series. However I’d say his only fault here is the naïvety that politicians actually do anything they promise. But anyway, Jones, who will be giving a speech at Union Square, is to be killed by Cuban sniper…some of them the very same who killed JFK, years before; something also conveyed by glib dialog.

Speaking of which, there’s a part early on in the Miami portion where Butler checks into a hotel and discovers that the older guy behind the counter is gay and, guess what, has developed a crush on Butler. This results in Butler ridiculing the dude in dialog that would consign The Slayboys to the average college campus book-burning of today…isn’t if funny how what was once acceptable to the Left soon becomes the very thing the Left stands against? (At least the Right is consistent – they’re against anything that’s fun.) But anyway, while the gay-bashing Butler puts this guy through would no doubt have been considered too much even in 1979, the fact remains that it actually saw print. Today that certainly wouldn’t happen…unless of course the character doing the bashing was clearly definted as your cliched “homophobic straight white male villain.”

All this makes me curious…Butler was e-published a few years ago, but didn’t make it past the second volume due to poor sales. I wonder how the publisher would’ve handled this material in The Slayboys. Would they have just removed it? Or left it in? My jaded senses figure the former…I was recently contacted by a reader who was wondering what happened to all the sleazy sex scenes in the recent eBook editions of The Specialist. After consulting one of my reviews, he concluded that, indeed, the sexual material had been gutted from the eBooks. In other words, Jack Sullivan meets Thomas Bowdler. I might do a longer post on this in future, but anyway, it’s just another sad example of how our sensitive modern era can’t handle what was once considered disposable pulp fiction.

Oh, and if that wasn’t enough…just wonder how the eBook publisher would’ve handled this: one night a dopesmoking sixteen year-old comes to Butler’s hotel room, asks for his help fixing the TV in her room because her mom’s gone out for the night, and Butler decides to fuck her teenaged brains out, whether she likes it or not. He begins in his usual method, hitting on her in outrageous XXX dialog. He then proceeds to screw her silly, the teen giving as good as she gets – she informs Butler she’s fucked the majority of her high school football team – and folks all this goes on for a good 20 pages. So we’ve got gay bashing and underaged sex in this “left-leaning” book…my how the times have changed.

Having gained the trust of the Patriotic Front, Butler sends info back to the Bancroft Institute in another XXX sequence; just a few hours after boffing the teen girl all night long, Butler’s contacted by a sexy redheaded Institute agent posing, naturally, as a hooker. So our boy Butler of course insists she go through with her act up in his room…after all, the place could be bugged, and whoever’s listening in will have to believe Butler’s really getting laid by a pro. So we get another long sex scene as Butler relays info we readers already know while he screws her silly. Not that much comes out of this, as Butler’s all on his own when the next day Armando takes him to California for a rundown of the plot, after which they head to New York. Butler’s under watch the whole time and can’t even let the Institute know where he is.

The attempted assassination of President Jones goes down in almost anticlimactic fashion; Butler quickly deduces he’ll be the Lee Harvey Oswald of this particular plot, and takes matters into his own hands. This leads to one of the better parts in the book when Butler escapes into New York, the cops and the Feds all out to get him…for as with the JFK murder, they’re all part of HYRDA and in on the assassination attempt. This part also sees the return of Wilma B. Willoughby, Butler’s sort-of girlfriend who has been appearing since the first volume. Now she claims to hate Butler, for having “raped” her in the finale of the previous volume, which Butler shrugs off as happening “a long time ago,” so he tells her to just let it go. Wilma doesn’t stick around long, but Len makes it clear that Butler has feelings for her and seems to understand she is the woman for him.

The Jones stuff handled a little too quickly, Len comes up with a new plot to fill out the rest of the novel; Sheffield calls Butler in again and wants him to find out who was behind the plot to kill Jones. It was, of course, the CIA; in particular Butler’s old boss FJ Shankham made the order. So we have another returning character; Butler gets him via another sexy Institute agent, this one a rock chick named Cora Calloway (who of course Butler also screws, but this time it happens off-page). Shankham has a weakness for willowy blondes, so Cora, who of course is one, easily gets past his defenses, drugs him, and questions him, and thus it’s learned that a certain Swami Coomiswamicurry is the one who brainwashed Shankham and ordered him to have President Jones killed.

So the finale goes off on a different tack, with Butler infiltrating the Swami’s ranch near Mount Shasta, where he runs into another recurring character – his ex-wife Brenda, whom Butler engages in more long dialog before screwing. The dude seriously does pretty well for himself, it must be said. But at this point Len’s no longer concerned with writing an “action novel,” per se, such that Butler’s kidnapping and interrogating of the Swami comes off as incredibly easy. But then I don’t think one should look to Butler for action, even though it’s how Leisure Books packaged it…it’s really more of a satire sort of thing, more about the goofy characters and situations and the fun dialog.

Overall the series is growing on me, now that I know what to expect from it…it’s sort of like, I don’t know, maybe James Bond by way of Mel Brooks, courtesy the editors at Penthouse Forum.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Tale Of Willy’s Rats

The Tale Of Willys Rats, by Mick Farren
No month stated, 1974  Mayflower Books

Unjustly obscure and unbelievably scarce, The Tale Of Willy’s Rats is a super-cool (and super-sleazy!) rock novel by a guy who was born to write rock novels: Mick Farren, onetime frontman of garage-psych outfit The Deviants, and later a solo artist and producer (he produced the great Think Pink) before turning his hand to novels and rock journalism. The guy was so devoted to the rock life that it’s believed he intentionally took the stage in July of 2013 for a Deviants gig knowing it might well prove fatal for his failing health – and his friends say his death onstage of a heart attack was likely the way he wanted to go out.

I’ve only known Mick Farren’s name in the past…I just knew he was a writer, one who appeared to have mostly dealt in sci-fi. I discovered this forgotten novel by a fluke, and I’m glad I did. It’s better than most other rock novels I’ve read, which makes me wonder why it’s so impossible to find. It only received this sole Mayflower edition, and good luck finding a copy. It must’ve sold poorly, as there doesn’t appear to have been a reprint edition. Why it was never brought over to the US is another mystery. Luckily a website – now defunct – offered the entire book for free download at one point, but more on that anon (after I’ve bored you with my review).

This is a fat paperback, 351 pages, and to be sure most of it’s composed of sex scenes with one-off female characters, with only the occasional tidbit about the world of rock music. It seems clear to me that Farren was tasked with writing a blockbuster in the Harold Robbins vein, and to be sure he hits his target better than fellow sci-fi writer Norman Spinrad did in the following year’s Passing Through The Flame. This is mostly because Farren sticks to the basics: this is truly a tale of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, with few pretentions toward being a “real novel.” That is not to say it is poorly written, though, or amateurish. I found it quite well written and certainly entertaining.

The cover promises a tale of “the most demoniac rock band ever,” and that’s sort of what Farren delivers, though honestly Willy’s Rats seem patterned after pre-Altamont Rolling Stones more than any one else, with a bit of early Alice Cooper tossed in for good measure. In fact the story, recounted by lead singer Lou Francis in his easy-going first-person narrative, seems to be taken from the Stones as well – the same origin story that most of those ‘60s rock groups of the UK had: growing up with a love of US rock and blues, learning instruments, dropping out of art school and getting a band together. And taking a lot of drugs and banging a lot of girls along the way. And perhaps maybe, in their drugged-out excursions into total excess, banging each other…!

Lou tells us his story from the beginning, with the framing device of a big concert he occasonally cuts back to. This part is told in present tense and appears to take place in late 1968. Farren rarely gives any specific dates, usually just relaying the era via topical details, ie the assassination of JFK, “the year of Bob Dylan’s motorcycle wreck” (1966), and the occasional mention of recently-released rock albums. It’s through the latter method that we learn the framing concert sequence must be in ’68, as Dr. John’s Gris-Gris gets a mention. However as will soon be noted, Willy’s Rats have a stage show more akin to the mid ‘70s, when Farren was writing the book, so I wonder if he was trying to cater to what readers of the day might expect in a “rock novel.”

At any rate our narrator, Lou, is, despite his tale of wanton sex and incredible drug usage, really just a regular (almost boringly so) guy. Which was perhaps one of the many in-jokes Farren littered the text with (some others might be that the sound of Willy’s Rats is “the Rolling Stones with a Bob Dylan influence”). Lou’s story will be familiar from any rock bio or VH1 Behind The Music special; growing up in England, falling in love with early rock and blues, learning to play the guitar. And learning about girls. I don’t exaggerate when I state that much, much of The Tale Of Willy’s Rats is given over to Lou’s recounting of this or that female conquest, and surprisingly it’s all a lot more explicit than I expected from British pulp. We’re talking the whole shebang.

Farren’s writing is assured throughout, with good dialog (even if he occasionally doles out scenes of inconsequential chattering), but he does make a few misses…like the fact that Lou’s first, pre-art school band is given more intro and buildup than Willy’s Rats is. We learn more about these guys and their in-fighting than we do about the later, more narratively-important Rats, and also get more glimpses of them actually performing. I must also note a creepy-in-hindsight bit where Lou collapses on stage at their first gig, much as Farren himself would many years later. When this first group finally breaks up – after an increasingly-disullusioned member quits and Lou gets his breasty girlfriend to screw the annoying and virginal guitarist – Farren introduces us to the members of Lou’s next band, aka the future Willy’s Rats, with much less fanfare. To the extent that only one of them, lead guitarist Jerry, doesn’t come off like a monosyllabic cipher.

Back to the Stones – Jerry seems to me a clear stand-in for Brian Jones. He has that same egalitarian bitchiness about him, cruel and petty but apparently irrresistable to the ladies. He also has a sado streak that Jones himself probably would’ve envied: Jerry is quite fond of whipping his girls or putting them through other tortures. A humorously undeveloped subplot has it that Jerry was a child actor and thus gets a large monthly allowance; Lou runs into him shortly after dropping out of art school in London and discovers that Jerry is an infinitely better guitarist than he could ever be; soon enough Lou drops the guitar and sticks to lead vocals. They put together a group, eventually going by the name Uncle, and play blues and folk numbers.

Along comes Jimmy Di Angelo, a gangster slash band manager; the boys have become too big for their ineffectual, smalltime manager, and Jimmy gives him the boot and also brings in a new rhythm guitarist and bassist. Now he wants a new band name. After reading Naked Lunch Jerry suggests “Willy’s Rats,” after one of the Heavy Metal Kid’s nicknames, and everyone goes for it. Personally I don’t like the name, but whatever. Jimmy sees potential in the boys, particularly that they could be “the most evil” rock group going, even more evil than the infamous Rolling Stones. So maybe Farren was using the Pretty Things as inspiration for Willy’s Rats…

Another miss, at least for me, is that Farren rarely describes what their music sounds like. He gives inordinate rundowns of Lou’s lyrics (natch), but when it comes to the music itself, we just get bare details. We know they do a storming cover of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” and at one point they do a woefully-undescribed “psychedelic album,” but otherwise it’s up to our own imaginations what Willy’s Rats sound like. Eventually I decided that all their songs sounded like the Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out version of “Midnight Rambler.”

With Di Angelo’s connections the group plays gigs to bigger and bigger crowds (garnering more and more one-off female conquests, of course), eventually cutting their first single. Here’s the only real time Farren gives a peek into the recording studio, with Lou having some trouble getting a good take on his vocals. When the single finally takes off they move up into the limelight, and here Farren takes us out into Swinging London, the year now sometime in ’66. So far as the drugs go, the novel follows the same path as familiar from all those documentaries about real ‘60s groups: the naïve, almost innocent early years of dope, followed by amphetimines, followed by LSD, and finally coke – heroin not getting much of a mention, but doubtless it would have had there been a sequel, which would’ve picked up after ’68 and presumably gone into the heroin-happy ‘70s.

Lou is the trensdsetter so far as psychedelics go; he hooks up with a young London beauty named Ruth who makes more of an impression than any of the other female characters; indeed Lou tells her he loves her, though admittedly he’s flying on LSD at the time. Ruth though ultimately becomes just another one-off conquest – the Lou-Ruth relationship coming to a sudden end when Lou catches her in bed with Jerry – but she actually stays in the novel, becoming a peripherarl character who serves the band meals and sleeps with them when necessary. Humorously Farren fails to inform us of this, so that when a “Ruth” is abruptly mentioned a hundred or so pages after this ’66 sequence, I at first thought he’d made a mistake or that it was another Ruth. Only gradually do we learn it is the same Ruth, just vastly reduced in narrative importance.

But anyway she’s the person who introduces Lou to LSD (and also tells him about the famous psych club UFO, more of which anon); there follows a memorable “trip” sequence where Lou ponders love and reality and later grooves to “Tomorrow Never Knows.” This song makes an impression on him, even though he’s never cared much for the Beatles, and presumably it has an impact on the Rats’s ensuing psychedelic album. More focus is instead placed on the drug itself than the new avenues of creativity it leads the characters to. So rather than rushing to the studio, Lou concerns himself with introducing the other four members of the group to the drug. First though they visit UFO, where Lou gets a gander at the famous new group The Pink Floyd. There’s no mention of Syd Barrett, but Lou informs us that he is suitably impressed with the Floyd’s mix of Bo Diddley and psychedelic fuzz.

In these scenes Farren brings to live Swinging London, and I wish there was more of it. This was the one area where Spinrad exceled more than any of the other genre authors gone mainstream; his Passing Through The Flame is filled with such groovy early ‘70s detailing that it gradually becomes overbearing for the reader, despite its grooviness. And for that matter, it would’ve been nice to see more of the Rats in action. Instead much more focus is placed on them scoring with a variety of girls, some of whom they put through bizarre paces in their increasing drive toward sadism.

Lou tells us toward the end that he’s shocked people find the Rats so vile and evil, as to him everything they’ve done has been normal. This is also conveyed in the personal, chatty way Lou tells us his story. But the guy is just as bland as his name, and I feel that Jerry should’ve been the star of the book. This is a guy who doesn’t give a shit about anything or anyone and is just looking for the next high or the next babe. He’s the one who comes up with the group name, with “press personalities” for each member, and who also introduces the novel concept of a bull whip to their act. Further proto-Alice Cooperisms include makeup and garish costumes. As I say, all this is more “early ‘70s” than the mid-late ’60s in which the action occurs, but whatever; we can just assume Willy’s Rats were trendsetters.

The novel takes on an episodic structure as it proceeds. The Rats tour around England and pick up countless chicks, including a long sequence where Jerry picks up one who is into being subjugated, so he puts her through a variety of tortures, including an orgy. There’s also an overlong bit where they take a vacation in the country and Lou, against the wishes of his bandmates, brings along an old, pre-fame girlfriend who turns out to be much too prudish. She doesn’t even smoke dope! Even a trip to the US is rendered more in flashes of sex and drugging, with Lou relaying it all in scattershot bursts of prose, trying to make the reader as exhausted and disoriented as he is himself.

This does lead to one of the more interesting episodic sequences; the Rats get a letter from a Satanic cult promising to make them better musicians and etc, and for the hell of it Lou and Jerry go off to their desert commune outside LA. It’s all very Mansonesque and Farren does some good dark humor here with the glazed, dazed, and hypnotized girls on the commune. So out of it that even Jerry turns down an offer of sex from the robot-like girls! Unfortunately this part fizzles out quickly, with our two heroes watching a sacrificial rite and freaking out, escaping from the cult. I was hoping Farren was about to introduce a Kenneth Anger type who would become the Rats’s Satanic guru, a la the pre-Altamont Rolling Stones.

The framing concert sequence becomes more involved with each cutover; gradually we learn that it’s the last show of the US tour, and the Rats have been receiving death threats, each postmarked from New York. And guess where the last show’s being held? However their management – and by the way they’ve replaced Jimmy Di Angelo with a sort of Alan Klein businessman – is humorously unconcerned. And just before going on stage, Lou gets an impromptu zodiac reading from a girl who freaks out that his sign is Scorpio– normally the sign of violent death or whatnot. Farren ends the tale on a growing vibe of tension, with neither the reader nor Lou himself sure if he’s about to get his head blown off by some madman in the massive audience.

In 2002 the website Funtopia, dedicated to the work of Farren, offered The Tale Of Willy’s Rats for free PDF download. Farren himself blessed the e-publication, even writing a new introduction for it, where he admitted he remembered very little about the book. Unfortunately, Funtopia went offline in 2011 or so, but thanks to the Wayback Machine it can still be accessed. Funny story – I found all this a few months ago after some deep diving on the Wayback Machine, but when it came time to write this review I was unable to find the links again. In other words, sometimes I go so deep down these rabbit holes that even I can’t find my way back in! Then a had a rare lightning bulb moment and realized I could just search my Chrome history.

Anyway, enough patting of my own back – follow the below nine links to the Wayback Machine, where you will be able to download each installment of The Tale Of Willy’s Rats. For whatever reason the Funtopia folks didn’t make the book a single PDF document. Also be aware that the thing is littered with typos, some of them downright bizarre, so clearly there was no real editing going on. But at least Funtopia made the book available to read again; The Tale Of Willy’s Rats is much too scarce and obscure, and that’s a shame, because it’s a helluva rock novel.

Mick Farren intro

Pgs 1-37

Pgs 38-55

Pgs 56-77

Pgs 78-104

Pgs 105-135

Pgs 136-164

Pgs 165-199

Pgs 200-222

And one more link – here’s a great review of the novel from The Pop Music Library blog.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

The Sharpshooter #14: Las Vegas Vengeance

The Sharpshooter #14: Las Vegas Vengeance, by Bruno Rossi
No month stated, 1975  Leisure Books

John Marshall, who wrote the earlier #10: Hit Man, returns to The Sharpshooter for his second and final volume. But then there were only two more volumes of the series left, anyway – I mean can you believe it?? We’re almost to the end of this twisted, disjointed, but usually-entertaining “saga.” This was also the last volume to carry a number.

Like with his previous entry, Marshall is clearly writing a “real” Sharpshooter novel, which is to say he wasn’t writing a Marksman manuscript that was magically transformed into a Sharpshooter in the “editing” stage. His Johnny Rock is the same as the one in the first volume, a guy whose parents were killed by the Mafia, and unlike Philip “The Marksman” Magellan he doesn’t have a penchant for drugging people and cutting off their heads. Marshall not only refers to that first Sharpshooter yarn but also mentions his own Hit Man. I mean it’s almost enough to make a guy weep – actual continuity in The Sharpshooter!

We learn that the first volume was “well over a year ago” and the tenth volume was ten weeks ago. “Johnny” (as Marshall refers to him) has killed 278 mobsters in the past year; when we meet him, he has just arrived in Las Vegas for a well-earned vacation. Marshall clearly has taken Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel On Her Majesy’s Secret Service (1963) as inspiration, with gaudy Vegas standing in for Casino Royale and Johnny standing in for Bond, even down to the “cruel mouth” Fleming gave Bond. Like that Bond novel, Johnny encounters an ultra-gorgeous but “galacial” brunette beauty at the tables and watches as she bets – and wins – with an almost casual disregard. When he follows her later on, he comes upon her just as she’s about to commit suicide.

And just like Tracy in OHMSS, the young lady is Italian and involved with organized crime – but here it’s not her dad who runs it, but her husband who was in it. He was the cash collector for the mob’s various Vegas interests, but was gunned down by the family when it turned out he was skimming profits. This Johnny learns in a nicely-done scene between the two; the lady turns out to be named Elisa Parendetti, and because her husband was Mafia the family now looks out for her. Thus she “can’t lose” in any of the casinos, much to her dismay – she hates “dirty money” and is about to blow her brains out in her new Maserati when Johnny comes upon her.

Johnny makes the mob widow an offer: if she listens to his story but isn’t interested in his offer, she can not only go ahead and kill herself but he’ll finish her off if necessary. He tells her he’s the infamous Sharpshooter, and proposes that together they’d make a winning team: with her mob-world contacts she could feed Johnny info and he could take out the Vegas Mafia. She of course takes him up on the offer, then insists he get in her Maserati so they can go back to her place: “You’re going to get the best tail of your life,” she promises. But all you fellow pervs out there looking for some hot ‘70s sleaze action will be disappointed, for once again Marshall is stricty an off-page kind of writer when it comes to the sex scenes…though curiously, as I’ll elaborate upon presently, he has no such qualms when it comes to the rape scenes.

The Johnny-Elisa team not only reminds the reader of the Johnny-Iris Toscado team of the first volume, but also of the Johnny-Ginny Reid team of Marshall’s own previous volume. Only here the relationship isn’t nearly as developed. In fact, Elisa ultimately provides zilch, either to Johnny’s mob-busting efforts or to the narrative itself. She’s there to trade exposition with Johnny, to cook and serve him his meals, and to have off-page sex with him. And speaking of exposition, Marshall, despite a strong opening with Johnny and Elisa’s first meeting, is soon back to the same tricks as in Hit Man, with countless scenes of Johnny sitting around and expositing on what he’s planning to do…after which Marshall will describe Johnny doing exactly that. And even worse, in each case it all goes down just as Johnny planned.

For new stuff, Johnny has a Travis Bickle-style derringer holder on his forerm; a flex of his muscle and the two-shot gun jumps into his hand. This is employed in a memorable scene where an unusually-gullible Johnny is briefly in the clutches of a dirty cop – one who claims to be taking Johnny “down to the station” but is really planning to blow his head off and collect his mob reward. Johnny’s also back to his disguise trickery, spending portions of the novel going around as a hippie. In a humorously go-nowhere subplot, Elisa occasionally dresses up like “the hippie’s wife,” but we never see what the intention of this, as she goes off on her own.

The confrontation with the dirty cop is the highlight of the novel, with Marshall doling out some nice suspense even though every single reader knows what the outcome will be. Here too he shows a nice touch with dialog. But for the majority of the novel he’s content to dole out exposition for the dialog, with Johnny lounging around after the latest Elisa-prepared meal and stating, “After this I shall…” Otherwise the “action scenes” follow the usual template of the series, with Johnny planting explosives and killing scads of villains en masse; especially lame is a “climactic sequence” where Johnny takes out practically all of the villains off-page. In fact this is so lame that Marshall has to introduce a new “main villain” in the veritable 11th hour so Johnny can have someone new to kill (and Marshall can meet the page requirement).

Instead, Marshall focuses more on the capture, rape, and rescuing of Elisa. Those dirty cops strike again, finding Elisa’s fingerprints in Johnny’s hotel, and soon enough a Mafia crew is sent out to round her up. They get her just as she’s in the shower, Johnny having just left to handle more mob-busting business; of course, Elisa has fallen in love with Johnny as expected. The creeps take her to a remote ranch and set about gang-raping her. Marshall goes into full-bore sleaze territory here, including even sodomy: “It was as though her rectal passage was being ripped apart.” As ever, the bland, meat-and-potatoes nature of the humdrum writing makes these sleazy scenes even sleazier.

By the time Johnny tracks her down, poor Elisa’s been raped so much that she’s plumb insane. Johnny kills the rapists and takes her back to a hotel, later having her doctor look at her. By novel’s end Elisa is so far gone that she’s burning mob money and babbling like a child; Johnny calls the one good cop on the force and tells him to come pick her up! And with that Johnny makes his leave from Las Vegas, having broken the local mob apart – and the dude still hasn’t even taken his vacation. This was it for Marshall on the series, and while his two stories are okay, he’s really only just a rung or two above Paul Hofrichter.

And you’ve gotta love Ken Barr’s typically-outstanding cover art. It practically screams “Cint Eastwood is…!!”

Monday, January 14, 2019

Conan The Freebooter (Conan #3)

Conan The Freebooter, by Robert E. Howard and L. Sprague De Camp
November, 1986  Ace Books
(Original Lancer Books edition 1968)

I had a tough time with this third volume of Conan. In fact I read it over a year ago, but at the time I found myself skimming the collected stories, to the point that when I “finished” the book I didn’t have any idea how to review it! So I waited a while until getting back to the series, only to find my interest again sagging at times. I guess the tales here didn’t pull me in like the ones in the previous books did, other that is than “Black Colossus.” But it also appeared that Robert E. Howard himself was bored; in the stories collected here, Conan is usually in a supporting status.

At least the posthumous tinkering isn’t as egregious this time; Lin Carter is a no-show, and L. Sprague De Camp only works his “magic” on two of the tales, where he again demonstrates he has no real understanding of Conan. This is especially true in a story he and Carter later wrote that isn’t actually in Conan The Freebooter but takes place within this time period (or at least this time period as defined by De Camp and Carter), but I’ll get to that one anon. Even the Howard originals here sort of come off like repeats of his previous ones, or vice versa.

“Hawks Over Shem” opens the book, and this is one of the two stories Sprague edited; it was first published in 1955, and De Camp tinkered with a Howard manuscript titled “Hawks Over Egypt,” which featured the character Diego de Guzman. I’ve never looked for Howard’s original, but I wonder if it’s as all-over-the-map as this one is. The plot changes constantly and Conan spends long stretches off-page, providing an early indication of the ensuing stories and novellas.

I like the opening, though, because it reminds me of John Milius’s Conan film; Conan’s slinking through the dingy streets of Asgalun in Shem and runs into a Hyrkanian archer-thief who becomes his best bed. All sort of like the relationship between Conan and Subotai in the movie. After Conan bashes the guy in the head for following him, they become BFFs; he says his name is Farouz. While drinking at nearby tavern Conan exposits (there’s lots of expositing throughout the book) that he’s come here to get revenge on some guy, and Farouz says what the hell, let’s do it now.

So what is initially promised to be the plot of the story is resolved within a few pages; Conan and Farouz break into the royal chamber – Conan’s target, Othbaal, is one of the rulers here – and kill him without much fuss. The storyline then sort of focuses on a busty redhead named Rufia; apparently once owned by Farouz, but then belonging to Othbaal, but now trying to maneuver her way into the graces of nutcase King Akhirom, who rules the city with an iron fist. I suspect the Rufia stuff was more central to the original Howard tale, but here comes off like, well, like material from a completely unrelated story.

Akhirom is at least interesting, a ranting and raving madman with delusions of godhood. Conan takes a break as we focus on Rufia, who doesn’t come off as a very likable character. It’s especially frustrating because the entire narrative seems to build up to Conan meeting her, but this doesn’t happen until the very final sentences and the story ends with Conan hauling her off – he does of course get a new woman each story. Much more interesting than Rufia is Zeriti, a witch in an Anita “The Great Tyrant” Pallenberg sort of vein. She schemes to get hold of Rufia for her own twisted ends, torturing her in the finale.

It’s all just very random and disjointed. Conan returns long enough to arbitrarily decide he wants to track down Zeriti, and of course comes upon her just as she’s torturing Rufia. She summons some creature from the darkness, and our hero Conan just sort of stands around while the other characters deal with everything. He doesn’t even fight the demon, which disappears(!). Then he picks up Rufia and takes off, and here the story mercifully ends.

“Black Colossus” follows, and it’s my favorite in the book by far. This one’s solely by Howard; I read the original version as published in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian (Del Rey, 2003). This is a very cool tale, even though it has elements from other Conan yarns. But one can see how Leigh Brackett was so inspired by Howard, as this story is quite similar to the Eric John Stark novella Queen Of The Martian Catacombs, particularly in how an ancient menance has risen in the desert and is slowly invading the surrounding areas.

But I’d say Brackett handled the setup a lot better, if only because she kept her protagonist in the action throughout. “Black Colossus” is unfortunately yet another story in which Conan disappears for long stretches. He’s absent until the story is well underway; we get a too-long but otherwise sort of cool opening in which a thief breaks into an ancient Egypt-style crypt, thus unleashing a ghost or malevolent entity or what have you. Then we get lovely Princess Yasmela, ruler of Khojara, having a bad dream – she’s awakened by the ghostly presence of Natohk, the Veiled One, whose army is slowly coming upon Khoraja. He is the spirit unleashed in the opening, and he basically tells Yasmela that her hot little body will soon be his.

This finally leads us to Conan – Yasmela and her maid get nice and nude and pray to the old god Mitra, who tells Yasmella to go out on the street and offer her kingdom to the first man she sees. Sure enough, it’s Conan himself, skulking around the dark streets and looking for a tavern. Howard proves once again that his Hyboria is a strange amalgamation of barbaric and High Middle Ages; Conan, when Yasmella presents him to her slackjawed military leaders, is bedecked in full plate armor. I remember as a young geek this is one of the things that always annoyed me about Marvel’s Conan comics…about the most they’d ever give Conan was a helmet or something.

The tale simmers on and on, with Conan marshalling the army to take on Nahtok’s horde. Strangely though, Howard keeps the climactic battles off-page, for the most part, and even worse when Conan’s around he’s playing general and isn’t even in the fray. Some characters are killed off-page and we only learn about it thanks to Howard’s usual reliance on exposition. But still, it’s all like a pulp version of the Iliad, with lots of chariot battles and the like. I found the finale a bit underwhelming, though, with Conan merely throwing a sword through Natohk. That said, the story ends with Conan about to get some fresh after-battle booty courtesy Yasmella.

“Shadows In The Dark” – This one’s a bonus, because it’s not in Conan The Freebooter. It’s actually in Conan The Swordsman (Berkley, 1978). I only include it here for two reasons – one, because chonologically it takes place right after “Black Colossus,” and two, so as to warn others to avoid it. This short story is L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter at their very worst. Even someone with zero knowledge of Howard’s originals will know something is amiss within the first pages, in which Conan, now raised to a high military rank in Khoraja, stomps about the palace, pouting that Princess Yasmella doesn’t spend any time with him! And when he pleads with her for more time together and Yasmella says the people would frown on their princess consorting with a barbarian, Conan suggests that they get married!!

From there it devolves into the usual cliché fantasy junk these two authors seemed to love…Conan heads out with a small retinue on some mission to free Yasmella’s brother. It goes on and on, with the expected supernatural trimmings and random betrayals. Conan’s ostensibly on the mission so as to free Yasmella’s brother so he can rule and thus Conan and Yasmella can be together more(!), but what’s especially dumb is that by story’s end Conan has had a sudden change of heart and just goes on his merry way, not returning to Khoraja. But yeah, don’t seek this one out.

“Shadows In the Moonlight” is the actual next story in the collection, and is an all-Howard yarn; I read the original version as reprinted in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian, where it appears under the title Howard gave it, “Iron Shadows In The Moon.” This one has many similarities with the superior “Queen Of The Black Coast,” which is interesting given that it was written directly before it – I almost suspect Howard wasn’t happy with this one and reworked some of the elements in that later tale.

There are also similarities to “Hawks Over Shem,” in that the story opens with Conan promptly getting revenge on some guy he’s been hunting for a while. Along the way he manages to save yet another nubile wench, Olivia, a perennially-distraught type who both clings to and shies away from Conan for the rest of the tale. She’s pretty annoying, but she’s also a princess, same as Yasmella was. As a sidenote, I find it interesting that in his “edits” De Camp never includes minor references to the previous tales, say for example Conan briefly ruminating on what led him here after the events of “Black Colossus.” Obviously such a thing wouldn’t be in Howard’s original, but you’d think De Camp would’ve figured he could tinker with these stories to make the book seem more like one multi-chaptered story instead of a sequence of random short stories.

Making their escape, Conan and Olivia find refuge on an island. Here the story reminds me of the later epic, in that Olivia has a dream – which goes on for pages – about these creatures that once lived on the island and might, gasp, still be here. Then some pirates come along and Conan goes to powow with them, getting knocked out for his efforts. Here ensues another stretch where Conan takes a bit of a break, and we must deal with Olivia, who spends most of her time either worrying or passing out from worrying. She does at least manage to free Conan from the pirates.

This is another one where you get the feeling Howard added a “supernatural” element to appease the Weird Tales editors. The thing that has been following them around the island turns out to be a giant ape with vampire fangs. A humorously-nonchalant Conan (he’s basically like, “Oh, it’s one of those things”) makes short work of it, and then Howard decides the true climax is Conan making himself the new leader of the pirates – that is, after Olivia’s dream has come true and a bunch of castle statues have come to life and gone on the attack.

“The Road Of The Eagles” is next, and this is another non-Conan yarn that De Camp has tinkered with. It’s so lame that on this second reading of Conan The Freebooter it took me over three weeks to finish it – that’s how little I wanted to return to the tale. It too is similar to “Hawks Over Shem” in that it’s clearly several unrelated storylines jammed together; the majority of the tale is about some Zamoran dancer babe trying to free her brother, and meanwhile Conan’s hanging out with some pirates and seeking revenge on a commander who betrayed them. I honestly can’t remember much else about it, other than it’s another where Conan sort of stands around while other characters finish each other off in the finale, clearly because Conan wasn’t even there in Howard’s original version.

“A Witch Shall Be Born” is the mercy shot that finally finishes off this drag of a book; it’s another Howard original, and I read the version featured in The Bloody Crown of Conan (Del Rey, 2005). Considered one of Howard’s best Conan tales, “Witch” provided inspiration for one of the most famous scenes in Milius’s Conan (though to be fair, the scene was originally in Oliver Stone’s script): Conan being crucified. Parts of the plot also appeared in the sadly-lackluster Conan The Destroyer (1984). And yet for all that, this is another Conan story in which the hero barely appears. 

There’s a bit of a “shudder pulp” vibe to this one, mostly due to the cruel horrors bodacious babe Queen Taramis of Khauran endures throughout. First she’s awoken from a nightmare – a recurring image throughout the book – to find a sister she has long thought dead glaring at her. This is Salome, Taramis’s twin, who was born with the sign of the witch (a crescent shape on her breast – which she of course happily shows off), and thus castigated from Khauran per tradition. But, as Salome relates via endless exposition, she was found by a sorceror from Khitai who raised her to be a super-powerful witch for real. Now she’s back for some hot vengeance, baby!

First Salome hands Taramis over to Constantius, evil ruler of a mercenary army; in fact, posing as Taramis, Salome has even opened the city gates to Constatius and his horde. But anyway a leering Salome commands Constantius to lock Taramis up in the dungeon, but allows him to have his way with her first. Eventually we get to one of Howard’s more famous scenes; after a sort of narrative jump-cut to some weeks in the future, we finally come upon Conan as he’s nailed to a tree. Conan, again serving in a mercenary capacity, has been stirring up the army that “Taramis” is not who she says she is – for of course Salome has been posing as her sister.

Unlike in the film, Conan doesn’t die on the cross, though he does take out a vulture looking for an easy meal. In the story he’s saved by a guy on horseback who turns out to be an infamous bandit leader. The guy makes Conan walk through the desert as a test; if he survives, he’ll give him some water. We learn via a letter that seven months pass, and when we meet him again Conan is of course fully recovered, and basically he’s become the leader of the bandits without the other guy realizing it. He dispenses some sweet revenge to the guy – sending him off into the desert – and goes about marshalling the bandit warriors to launch an attack on Khauran.

But this is another one where Conan just sits out large portions of the narrative. There’s even a running subplot about some Khauran native who loves Taramis and is sneaking around the gutters of the city, picking up choice intel – like confirmation that the queen on the throne is an imposter, and the real Taramis is in a dungeon. Speaking of which we get more shudder pulp stuff with occasional cutovers to Taramis enduring some new torture at the hands of Salome. But anyway the big battle is again relayed via exposition, with Salome learning that her much-vaunted warriors have been taken out by a bandit army.

The finale is even reminiscent of “Black Colossus,” with minor characters killing off main characters while Conan’s off-page, but this time Howard doesn’t have the excuse of being posthumously messed with. He once again blows any cool potential with Conan going up against a witch, instead having someone else take care of Salome…who manages to hang onto life long enough to unleash a demon, again like the previous yarn. Even more lame, the demon is killed by some arrows courtesy Conan’s archers. It’s all so anticlimactic, but at least in the end Conan gets to crucify the guy who did the same to him at the start of the tale.

Well, I was happy to be done with this volume of Conan, and I sincerely hope the next one is better.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Justin Perry: The Assassin #3: Born To Kill

Justin Perry: The Assassin #3: Born To Kill, by John D. Revere
October, 1984  Pinnacle Books

I needed some weirdness in my life, so I decided it was finally time to get back to Justin Perry: The Assassin. And if anything Hal “John D. Revere” Bennett turns in an installment just as flat-out weird as the others, with the added bonus that in this one we get to see an 8 year-old Justin Perry screw a chicken!! Even crazier: the sequence is masterfully written, insofar as it plumbs into our protagonist’s twisted psyche!

It seems something was going on behind the scenes at Pinnacle; this volume was published a full year after the previous one, and this time it carries the short-lived “Pinnacle Crossfire” label. However the events take place in October of 1983, which leads me to believe that the manuscript was held from publication for whatever reason…either soon-to-collapse Pinnacle was struggling to stay afloat and didn’t have the resources to funnel into this strange series, or they just didn’t want to deal with it and thus put it off as long as possible.

It becomes more and more apparent to me that Bennett really had something up his sleeve with Justin Perry: The Assassin, particularly in how each book plants seeds for the final volume. In fact something jumped out at me this time and I’ve got a hunch I’m right…Justin Perry, as we’ll recall, reports to the “Old Man,” chief of the CIA’s Special Assignments Division. In other words, “SAD,” though Bennett never refers to it as such. And Justin’s recurring enemy throughout the series is SADIF, aka The “Sons And Daughters In Freedom,” a more twisted version of SPECTRE. But as we discover in the final volume, SADIF is just a cover for the Halley Society, which hopes to take over the world with the passing of Halley’s Comet in ’86, using Justin’s, uh, seed to impregnate their women through the millennia. Justin learns his entire life has been a lie – he’s been groomed from birth for this special destiny, and the Old Man himself is the “Grand Halley” who has orchestrated the grooming. So anyway, here’s what just occurred to me: perhaps “SADIF” really stands for “Special Assignments Division Is Fake,” or “False.” Possibly yet another clue Bennett has been planting from the first volume.

Another thing that quickly becomes apparent is that with Born To Kill Bennett is doing a riff on the James Bond film Dr. No (yes, the film and not the original novel). We’ve got a Jamaica setting, a native sidekick for Bond, a SPECTRE-like evil organization, a duplicitous but of course ultra-sexy villainess, and a plot that hinges on a US space launch. The only thing lacking is the colorful main villain, but Justin himself is so whacked-out that we don’t really need one…I mean folks this is a guy who screws a girl and then tosses her to a bunch of sharks, later musing over the fact that he’s “still hard” as he thinks of her body being ripped apart. And he’s the hero!!

If our protagonist is messed up, the so-called plot is even worse. Bennett jumps all over the place in this one, to the extent that Justin himself sits around and mulls over what the “real” threat is he’s supposed to be stopping. We get our first indication of this straight off the bat – not to mention a healthy reminder of how weird and lurid this series is – when in the opening pages a young opera usher in Germany gets so excited via his sexual fantasies that he rushes off to the restroom to jerk off! And just as he is “shooting his milk into the sink” he hears a scream out in the theater…to find a German government official has been beheaded in his private box. The first thirty pages continue this trend, with various government officials around Europe and the UK getting their heads cut off in mysterious circumstances, the killer or killers never apprehended.

When we finally meet him, Justin’s in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, checking out the “exquisite English breasts” of Dr. Janice Madison, a British specialist in chickens and other fowls who has been called here to help Justin on his latest case. Plus sleep with him a bunch – this installment is noteworthy in that the sex scenes are not only more explicit, but for once they are not focused on Justin having sex with unattractive women, as previous volumes have been. Justin needs Janice’s expertise due to the rash of chicken attacks which have recently occurred here in Jamaica, with another happening in Florida – perhaps not-so-coincidentally, not very far from Cape Canaveral. The Old Man is worried that all this might have something to do with the Challenger launch, coming up the next week. 

Justin’s certain the chicken attacks, random European beheadings, and space shuttle thing are all connected, though certainly some of them are red herrings. In the meantime Janice Madison is blown up by a bazooka on her way to the airport, and then a Jamaican cop tries to kill Justin. He’s yet another undercover SADIF operative, and fellow CIA agent Lucas Waugh shows up just in time to see Justin kill the man – who by the way has a somewhat feminine form and shrieks “sexually” as Justin strangles him, just so we don’t forget for one hot second how deeply perverted this series is. 

Very much a Fleming sort of character, Lucas Waugh is a black Jew a la Sammy Davis Jr, one who has his own harem in the Bahamas, but quickly rents some time at the local cathouse so he and Justin can engage in a days-long orgy while discussing this latest caper. Also throughout there is a lot of focus placed on sperm – “I’m filled with come” is a recurring phrase, believe it or not, from both Justin and Lucas – which is doubtless yet another uh, seed-planting for the revelations of the final volume, where Justin’s sperm is so important to the Halley freaks that they bottle it up for preservation through the ages. Personally though if I was hanging out with guys who randomly announced they were “full of come,” I’d think it was high time to get myself some new friends. 

Meanwhile, a blonde babe in a sports car takes pot shots at Justin, and he mulls over this a bit, then heads on to Florida; he’s decided that the space shuttle factor is the true threat, with the chicken attacks a sort of bizarre diversion. And speaking of bizarre, folks…well, we get a random flashback where eight year-old Justin Perry decides one day, apropos of nothing, to “screw a chicken.” This he does, and the chicken promptly dies as soon as Justin inserts himself. I stand by what I wrote above – this entire sequence is masterfully done, despite how sick it is, and it is yet another indication of Bennett’s strengths as a writer. For we read as an increasingly-uncomfortable Justin, who at this time is staying on the farm of his grandparents, is served chicken and dumplings that very night, and he’s of course frantic that this is the very same chicken he just fucked to death.

And Justin’s mom has just shown up to take him back home, openly cavorting with her studly chaffeur; Justin sees them rubbing legs beneath the dinner table. Then months later Justin, back home now, is woken by his mother in the middle of the night; she happily tells him she knows how that poor chicken died, and what’s more if Justin tells anyone that she’s sleeping with her chaffeur, she’ll tell Justin’s dad about the chicken incident. Weird scenes inside the goldmine, folks!! And as we learned in the first volume – and are briefly reminded here again – Justin’s mom (and dad) were secretly members of SADIF. Again, practically every single person Justin knows is a secret member of this organization, only adding to the general head-fuckery of the series.

And yet this chicken-screwing is itself a repeating motif of the series; I mean not the chicken stuff itself, but how some bizarre, ghoulish thing in Justin’s childhood will be trolled out as an augmentation of the main plot. Last time it was weird stuff about a bunch of massacred cows; this time it’s a screwed-to-death chicken. Which is to say it’s all very thematic, but “thematic” in a way that would send an AP professor screaming in panic – that a writer as gifted as Hal Bennett would write shit as sick as all this is kind of funny. I mean I think it’s pretty incredible he even decided to wade into the murky waters of the men’s adventure genre…let alone the fact that his stuff is even more outrageous than the stuff that less-“skilled” but equally-weird writers like Russell Smith or Joseph Rosenberger churned out. (Anyone who could follow that sentence gets a no-prize; I sort of lost it myself halfway through.)

This “literary” bent is further displayed in another seemingly-arbitrary bit; first Justin, with no reason why initially offered to the reader, decides to stop in a male stripper club near Cape Canaveral. Here he muses over the housewives who pack the place and gawk at a couple men onstage with “infant-sized” units; Bennett goes off on a pages-long diatribe on what happened to the American female, and how the Kennedy era unleashed their sexual inhibitions, given their rampant fantasies about JFK. I mean it’s all like something out of, I don’t know, John Updike or whatever, the last thing you’d expect in a book titled “Born To Kill” with a cover illustration of the main character shooting a black guy in the back.

But then it gets even more bizarre, as top male stripper Garth Durant waltzes out, showing off his massive wang; he dances for the feverish women and ejaculates on them for the, uh, climax. Eventually we’ll learn Justin hasn’t just randomly stopped in here; the stripper is the nephew of the lady who was killed by chickens here in Florida. Justin interviews the dude in the very shed in which the lady was killed – and the chickens surround them and go in for the kill. They’re mutant chickens, baby – as big as dogs and rabid as Cujo. This time Bennett appears to have finally bothered researching guns, so that Justin’s earlier revolver (you know, the one with a safety and a silencer) is gone, replaced by a nifty 9mm auto; with it he blows away a couple mutant chickens.

The cover art is again faithful to the events (and yes, Justin does shoot a black man in the back at one point), with Justin finding a Jamaican guy with a bazooka lurking behind the shed, about to shoot at the Challenger as it launches! There with him is the mysterious blonde who shot at Justin back in Jamaica; turns out her nickname is “Tillie the Turd,” despite which she’s one of the most attractive women Justin’s ever seen, and he can’t wait “to get his dick up inside her” before he kills her…and kill her he will, because the Old Man has issued specific orders on this mission: no SADIF prisoners.

Justin drugs and interrogates Tillie and Durant on a yacht surrounded by sharks in a sequence which almost casually demonstrates the sleazy sadism of the series (and hero). Increasingly turned on by Tillie as he questions her – and Tillie increasingly turned on as well – Justin ends up screwing her to get her to talk: she reveals SADIF’s true plan. All the other stuff has been distraction; SADIF really is using gene-manipulation chicanery to breed prepubescent assassins! They even have women that give birth to litters of ‘em, and a fast-growth serum results in junior-aged killers in a matter of weeks. Cold and emotionless, but with innocent faces, they will be SADIF’s new secret weapon, and were already employed in Europe, where they decapitated all those government officials. So Justin learns all this during sex, after which Tillie screams “I love you!,” Justin says, “I’m sorry,” and then he tosses her still-orgasming(!) body into the ocean:

The sharks tore into her like she was raw garbage. Justin turned away from the stern, feeling quite strange. The sharks were eating his sperm too.

Well, at least he’d told her he was sorry.

But Justin isn’t all “screw ‘em and chum ‘em” this time around…Bennett tries, and pretty much fails, to develop a romantic element with Janice Madison…who by the way urns out to have been a fake, the real Janice’s corpse having been discovered at Heathrow. And also this fake Janice with her “exquisite English breasts” didn’t die in that bazooka attack…turns out there was no female corpse in the car wreckage. The problem is, we only meet “Janice” before she exits the narrative, and she doesn’t return until the very end (where she is of course revealed to be a SADIF agent, I mean who would be surprised?). Thus the occasional soul-plumbing bit from Justin on his feelings toward her come off a bit lame. However we do get some choice lines in these soul-plumbing bits, such as: “But what had [Janice] gotten out of him of him except an awful lot of dick and enormous quantities of sperm? And what had he gotten out of her, except for probably some of the best pussy he’d had in recent memory?”

At any rate, the finale is a rushed action scene in which Justin and Lucas, both wearing form-fitting black combat suits (a recurring series element is that Justin wears such a suit, a la the cover, in the climax), stage an assault on a remote jungle hospital in Jamaica. Here Bennett delivers one of his customary uneventful action sequences, with Justin gunning down a few random guards while Lucas does all the heavy lifting, planting bombs and etc. Instead the big finale is given over to the fake Janice, who turns out to be the head of this bizarre bioscience affair in which protoplasmic things are grown into human children. Bennett even cops out of his own suspence, with Justin struggling with the fact that he’ll have to kill Janice, but then lamely having “fate” intervene thanks to a stray bullet. 

Overall though I found Born To Kill pretty entertaining, with the caveat that it doesn’t have much action, it features way too much random pontificating, and also it’s just twisted to the core. I mean folks this is a men’s adventure novel in which the hero fucks a chicken. That alone says pretty much all there is to say about Justin Perry: The Assassin. There is nothing stranger than this series in the entire men’s adventure genre…so you’re either on the bus or you aren’t.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Armageddon Rag

The Armageddon Rag, by George R.R. Martin
January, 1985  Pocket Books
(original hardcover edition 1983)

This is still the only George R.R. Martin novel I’ve ever read, and I’ve read it twice now. I first read The Armageddon Rag a little over twenty years ago. I can’t recall how I discovered this obscure novel, but I figure I was probably just searching the internet for rock novels. Something, sadly, I still do to this day. I got the original hardcover from the Dallas public library and enjoyed it, other that is than a few reservations.

Anyway long preamble short, re-reading the book brought those reservations back home. Similar to Glimpses, this is a great concept that is given a poor protagonist and a sometimes-muddled execution, with an author apparently uncertain what type of novel he wants to write. Perhaps tellingly, “Lew Shiner” is thanked as one of Martin’s rock researchers, which really brings home the similarties between the two books – not the least that they’re both by authors known for genre work who were attempting to go mainstream. Something another genre author, Norman Spinrad, did years before either of them in Passing Through The Flame.

On his website, Martin states that The Armageddon Rag was his lowest selling novel by a country mile. I’ve seen other reports that its failure led him to give up novel wrting for over a decade, branching out into TV scriptwriting before returning to books in the mid ‘90s with the sequence of fantasy novels commonly referred to as A Game Of Thrones (which I admit to knowing absolutely nothing about). The closest comparison I could think of to Martin’s style would be Stephen King – who, again perhaps tellingly, graced the novel with a glowing cover blurb.

So far as Martin’s comment that the book sold poorly goes, my assumption is it was just too soon for this particular novel. Characters here act like the ‘60s was decades ago, whereas the big events were slightly more than a decade before – the novel hinges on the aftermath of 1971. Perhaps if the novel had been published just a few years later, maybe in ’89 to coincide with Woodstock’s 20th anniversary, it might’ve fared better. Or perhaps the problem is the book is just too bloated and uncertain of itself; it veers everywhere from murder mystery to Big Chill “what happened to us?” bullshit to a somewhat-trashy rock novel, before finally shaping itself into straight-up horror fiction for the finale. One suspects that Martin should’ve chosen one genre and stuck with it.

Which is to say Martin’s writing is fine, and he brings to life his characters and various fantastical sequences, but the problem is the book is so incredibly fat. It could stand to lose a good hundred pages and still come off as too overstuffed for its own good. This is especially bothersome because much of what Martin writes about is uninteresting at best – that is, unless you want to read about a bunch of thirty-something navel-gazers moaning about how the ‘60s ended, taking with it all their youthful dreams.

In this regard our protagonist is perfect for the job – he’s a cynical, self-obsessed, entitled asshole…pretty much the same as the protagonist of Glimpses. But whereas Ray of that later novel at least loved rock music and partook of the occasional drug, the hero of this book, Sander “Sandy” Blair, doesn’t even seem to even much like rock ‘n’ roll. And the most he does in the book is drink the occasional beer. We learn that even in the ‘60s he shied from LSD, even though all his college pals were into it. But it’s the rock stuff that most makes you wonder why Sandy is the hero of this particular tale; it’s a couple hundred pages before he even does any serious music-listening.

Back in the late ‘60s into the very early ‘70s, Sandy was a roving reporter for Groundhog magazine, an underground rag not to be confused with Rolling Stone – which in true roman a clef fashion is mentioned once or twice in the novel, so we don’t assume it and The Groundhog are one and the same. But Sandy lost the faith in ’71 and eventually turned his hand to writing novels. Now he’s 37, moderately successful, lives in a New York brownstone, and drives a brand new Mazda RX-7, the capitalistic sellout. But seriously, Sandy will be chastised for this, as will his other freak-flagging pals who have gone straight – the novel wants us to understand it’s a bad thing not to be a dirty hippie. 

The year ’71 is central to the novel because that’s when the ‘60s dream died – September 20th, 1971, to be precise. For that was the day Pat Hobbins, albino lead singer of the mega-popular group The Nazgul, was assassinated while singing on stage at a massive midnight outdoor festival in West Mesa, Arizona. (Curiously, the sniper was never apprehended, but the various reveals of the climax seem to imply who pulled the trigger.) Hobbins was the fourth and final of the big four rockers to die –  Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and then Hobbins; for the Nazgul, we are informed, was the defining rock group of this alternate reality, more important than even the Beatles. This is a bit humorous, given that Martin describes their sound as something like Sir Lord Baltimore mixed with Blue Oyster Cult: hard-driving proto-metal mixed with occult (or at least geeky) lyrics. A group like this would be cult at best in reality.

Sandy’s called up by old Hog boss Jared Patterson, as blatant a Jann Wenner clone as possible, who informs Sandy that infamous Nazgul manager Jamie Lynch has been murdered. Jared wants to do a story on it and figures Sandy would be great for it, despite the fact that he fired Sandy from the mag years before, even though Sandy started the Hog with him in the ‘60s. This is just one of the many, many sources of anger and frustration for Sandy throughout the novel; he is very much an unlikable protagonist. Sandy is drawn to the story, mostly as a way to get out of struggling more on his latest novel, which is overdue; his wife isn’t thrilled with the idea, and we have here another mirror of Glimpses in that Sandy’s shrew of a wife just doesn’t get it, man.

Sandy heads off in his new Mazda, on up to Maine where Lynch was murdered. He discovers this was a ritual sacrifice; the Nazgul was blaring while Lynch’s heart was cut out, his body later wrapped in a Nazgul poster. Sandy works with a local cop who occasionally feeds him info, but this subplot sort of fizzles out. Instead the narrative here becomes more focused on Sandy hitting the road in his Mazda and reconnecting with all his old college pals, passing judgement on them and bemoaning what has happened to the world. At least he gets laid, hooking up with an old girlfriend in Chicago, and here Martin proves that, while his prose might be similar to Stephen King’s, he’s a lot more sexually explicit than prudish King ever was.

This Big Chill stuff is the most grating element of the novel and would be the first thing I’d cut. But basically Sandy hooks up with an old girlfriend, visits a former freak-flagger who is now a successful advertising executive, and hangs out with another old female pal who now lives on a commune, a lady who rails against the sexism and racism of the western world. (These godamn people would be lost without their “isms.”) This sadly is a motif of the novel, so she isn’t alone in her complaining, but Sandy’s happy to note that, despite the careful emasculation of the commune, the little boys still play cowboys and Indians when their parents aren’t around. Another old friend is now a college professor who complains that the kids of today are too docile and not radical enough; one wonders how proud he would be of Antifa, or those leftist college thugs of today who burn books that run counter to their agenda, completely oblivious of the fact that the Nazis did the very same thing.

There’s also a completely arbitrary part where Sandy visits his former best friend, who now lives a virtual prisoner in the mansion of his bestselling novelist of a dad, a Hemingway type who writes, you guessed it, sexist and racist action novels that sell bujillions of copies, much to Sandy’s dismay. This whole part exists so Martin can rail against the previous generation, with Sandy defending his old buddy for his heroism in dodging the draft and not taking the “easy way out” and going to Vietnam. I’m not sure too many vets would agree with Sandy’s sentiments, but if nothing Sandy is a man of his deluded convictions. There’s also a random freak-out part where Sandy walks the streets of Chicago and flashes back to when the cops beat him unmerciful in ’68, when he was here as part of the Democrat convention…this part at least factors into the supernatural element of the novel, eventually.

Mingled in with all this padding we occasionally get a return to the main plot, such as it is; Sandy visits each surviving member of the Nazgul, all of whom have moved on since 1971, the band breaking up when their lead singer’s brains were blown out. First up is the drummer, Gopher John, now remodeled as a slick bar owner, where he gives new rock bands their chance; that is, until a fire breaks out at the place while Gopher’s having dinner with Sandy, and 75 young people die in it. Next up is Maggio, the guitarist (the equal of Hendrix and Clapton, we’re told), now an obese psychopath who lords it over the underlings of his new bar band, bullying and beating his latest jailbait girlfriend. Finally there’s Peter Faxon, the bassist-songwriter, who has a wife and kids now but misses the music biz. There’s a nice part where he takes Sandy up in a hot air baloon over Arizona, Faxon now living not far from West Mesa.

Along the way Sandy gets wind of a mysterious individual named Edan Morse, a supposed rock promoter looking to get the Nazgul back together. Here Sandy sees motive, as with former producer Lynch dead, there’d be no one to get in the way of this reunion. During the interminable “commune” section Sandy finds out that Morse is just one name used by a nigh-mythical ‘60s radical who was behind a lot of bombings, hippie terrorist movements, and the like, but who eventually got into black magic and the like. This of course all ties in with the occult elements of the Nazgul. And all these sequences have their own subplots, making the book even fatter; there’s even the typical rock novel cliché stuff, with a go-nowhere Brian Jones sort of riff, with Faxon being the guy who started the Nazgul and wrote all their songs, but slowly feeling the focus slipping over to Pat Hobbins, much to his dismay.

Things pick up when Morse enters the narrative, mostly due to his henchwoman, an ultra-sexy brunette named Ananda who promptly comes on to Sandy and takes him to bed. Pretty much the ideal ‘60s babe, Ananda’s kept the flame burning despite being in her 30s, plus she’s into occult stuff too. There’s also a monosyllabic henchman named Gort who seems to have walked out of a fantasy novel, which is likely the intention; the novel is filled with Tolkein references, some subtle and some overt. Both serve Edan Morse, an otherwise ordinary-looking dude who occasionally goes into delusional spiels about the supernatural and cuts his palms so that his blood can fuel visions.

At this point the novel is firmly in Stephen King territory, but then the Nazgul do in fact get back together and it abruptly changes tack into “rock novel” territory. For reasons neither Sandy nor Martin himself can explain, Sandy takes up Edan’s offer to be the PR man for the reformed group – even though Morse has taken the ghoulish approach of recreating dead Pat Hobbins in the form of a kid named Larry who looked sort of like Hobbins, but Morse paid to have cosmetic surgery so he’s now an exact duplicate of the murdered Nazgul singer. Only problem is, as Sandy discovers when he watches them practice in Chicago, the kid can’t sing worth a damn, and has none of Hobbins’s pint-sized menace.

We get a fullblown rundown of their first gig, playing to a packed auditorium who have come out to see the finally-reunited Nazgul. While things start off well, soon the audience is downright hostile. They resent the new songs and they mock Larry’s attempts at mimicking Pat Hobbins. It goes on and on, but Martin does a good job of describing the various songs to the point that you’d like to hear them – though again it’s pure “cult band” stuff, again sounding along the lines of Sir Lord Baltimore’s material on Kingdom Come mixed with a little early Blue Oyster Cult. Then Faxon finally relents and the Nazgul do an old number at the end, and it’s as if a completely different band is on the stage – and a different singer. For it very much appears that Pat Hobbins lives again, having taken over poor Larry’s body.

What’s funny is, Martin proceeds to write the exact same sequence over and over again. Sandy follows the group around the country and we get more rundowns of ensuing shows, all of them following the same path – lousy on the new numbers, the old group and singer reborn on the old numbers. Despite all the repetition the plot develops into a magical realism deal, with the hippies of old being reborn through the power of the Nazgul. True to Edan Morse’s proclamations, the old days are coming back, and it’s becoming more like 1971 than 1983…cool stuff here with the Nazgul being seen as dangerous, and cops blocking off areas from roving reborn hippies and radicals and the like. There is an aura of menace and danger that has been lacking from rock for over a decade, and Sandy’s at the center of it. So it’s funny to think of all this going down in the era of Tears For Fears. 

Also as Morse predicted, the future is becoming the past in that the Nazgul’s tour will culminate in a massive midnight outdoor festival in West Mesa, on the exact anniversary of the disastrous one in ’71. Along the way they’ve become more the Nazgul of old, only doing the old songs now, and Pat Hobbins himself walking the stage, to be replaced by an increasingly confused and scared Larry when they’re offstage. And meanwhile Sandy has lots of sex with Ananda, who proves to be more instrumental to the plot than initially suspected, to the point that the various reveals and turnarounds in the climax aren’t as hard to believe as might be imagined.

But still it’s as if we are reading a completely different novel in the homestretch; indeed, it’s as if we’re reading the novel the opening chapters promised us, before we took that looong detour into The Big Chill territory. It’s all reborn ghosts and Orc-like roadies and the supernatural spirit of evil about to take over the Earth, with a drugged and betrayed Sandy set up as a modern-day Lee Harvey Oswald or somesuch. However the Nazgul’s show sounds fantastic, sort of capping off the prematurely-ended ‘60s, complete with cameos from the ghosts of Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison! This entire sequence is very well done, and one suspects if the majority of the previous 300+ pages had been whittled down Martin would’ve had a hit on his hands.

All that being said, the novel kept my attention – save that is for some of the “visit my old pals and complain about today” bullshit. Some of that got tiresome and I’ll admit I skimmed over it. And the stuff with the Nazgul performing was cool, but suffered from too much repetition. I also feel the supernatural element could’ve been more properly explained; Martin tries to keep it all as a mystery, something Sandy can’t quite comprehend, which again makes the reader wonder why Edan Morse puts so much importance on him – one of the biggest fails of the novel is that it’s never satisfactorily stated why Sandy is so important to the various characters. He’s disagreeable at best, plus he’s not even the best representative of his generation: as mentioned the dude was never into drugs and really doesn’t even seem to like rock, let alone live for it, like the dude in Glimpses did. 

But still, I have read The Armageddon Rag twice now, which must at least be an indication of its quality. I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a fairly good rock novel, but it’s certainly no Death Rock or even Passing Through The Flame.