Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Spider #25: Overlord Of The Damned


The Spider #25: Overlord Of The Damned, by Grant Stockbridge
October, 1935  Popular Publications

I wasn’t expecting much out of this volume of The Spider; all I knew about it was that Richard “The Spider” Wentworth’s best friend/arch enemy Governor Kirkpatrick (formerly the commissioner) might be the latest villain sowing death and destruction across the country. It turned out though that Overlord Of The Damned was one of the more outrageous installments of the series I’ve yet read, with copious amounts of violence and gore. There was also a bit more emotional content to the book in that throughout Wentworth not only questions his own ease with killing, but the fact that this time he might have to kill his best friend. 

The template though is firmly in place; we open on a big action scene, then jump through several more quick ones before the plot takes the expected detour midway through. One change though is that the finale actually follows on from the established plot, instead of coming out of left field like so many past ones have. One thing I’ve noticed though is that while these Spider yarns sound so crazy, with crazily-garbed and monikered villains, in reality we don’t see the main villains very much in the novels themselves; for the most part it’s just Wentworth, often in his hunchbacked Spider garb, blowing away random crooks and thugs. This volume in particular is like that, as Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page seems to have run out of steam so far as the latest colorfully-named villain goes. It’s just “The Boss,” and the few times he appears he wears nothing more than a black mask over his face. The greater concern is whether it’s really Kirkpatrick in disguise. 

As mentioned this one opens on the usual action scene, but this time there’s a nightmarish extra layer – courtesy some “acid bullets” the bad guys start shooting when they hit a bank, resulting in some of the most OTT gore yet in this series. As ever New York has been under another round of attacks, masterminded by some mysterious supervillain, and Wentworth has gotten the scoop on where the next hit will be. He watches as the raid on the bank goes down, shocked by the brutality of the crooks; men and women are both hit by acid, with Page not shirking on the messy details – faces melting off, even risque-for-1935 mentions of the “breasts” of women being eaten away by the acid bullets. Wentworth mows down a bunch of crooks with his ever-present .45s, and humorously enough is unable to keep any of them alive for later questioning; he’s so good a shot he kills them with a single hit. 

But the acid alone isn’t nightmarish enough; once the cops arrive, under the supervision of new commissioner Flynn, a few of them go nuts and start attacking innocent passersby. Wentworth immediately deduces that they’ve been driven nuts by “narcotics” in their cigars; yet another chilling plot of the mysterious “Boss” who is apparently behind this latest siege on New York. This will be the dual threat the Boss wields throughout: acid bullets for attacks, and insanity-causing drugs to create cannon fodder of maniacal rapists. Speaking of risque for 1935, we’re informed in no uncertain terms that women are “maltreated” by these psychotics; later in the book Wentworth catches one of them about to rape a woman – right after he slams her six year old son’s head into a brick wall, that is. Luckily Wentworth is able to stop the madman before he carries out either act, but afterward Wentworth bitterly reflects that the ”madman” was just as innocent as his would-be victims. 

As if all that weren’t enough, trouble is close to home for Wentworth: Jackson is nuts within the first few pages, one of the earliest victims of the Boss’s insanity-causing drugs. Later on Wentworth’s penthouse will also be trashed by the Boss’s minions, the “Negro” at the door killed (poor guy isn’t even given a name) and old Jenkyns hurt badly. Even ever-stalwart Ram Singh nearly succumbs to the madness, dosed in one memorable sequence which sees him struggling to retain his sanity as Wentworth urges him on, commanding him to remember who he is. But it’s Wentworth’s ever-suffering fiance, Nita, who saves Ram Singh in a sequence that’s borderline magical realism; the glowing force of her love is enough to help Ram Singh completely fight off the madness which threatens to overtake his mind. As for Nita herself, she’s abducted as usual – not just once, but a couple times throughout the narrative. I’m missing an earlier volume where Nita supposedly became the Spider herself, but so far as these early volumes go she’s very much a damsel in distress, and not nearly the female badass she’d become in later installments

Something I love about these Spider yarns is that, even if thousands are being massacred across the country, people still go about their daily business; innocents might be getting their faces melted off by acid bullets in random bank robberies, but by god we’re going to that gala event tonight in Times Square. Surely this is in-jokery on Page’s part, yet at the same time it’s an indication that people were just made of sterner stuff in earlier days; the people of the ‘30s sure as hell wouldn’t have shut down their entire society for a virus that’s about as deadly as the seasonal flu. But then again, individual liberty was still a thing back then. Anyway I bring this up because as ever there are massacres throughout the book, as the Boss’s endless supply of crooks ambush various affairs and melt innocent people into puddles of gore. Early on Wentworth remembers that rubber is impervious to acid, and soon enough comes up with some rubber augmentations for his Spider costume – which is again the ensemble formerly known as “Tito Caliepi,” with the cape, the hunchback, and the fangs. 

Actually Wentworth spends a lot of the novel in Spider costume, more so than many of the previous volumes. He also only goes around in disguise once: as a thug named Tony Marino, hoping to get offered a job in the Boss’s legion. Here’s where Wentworth first suspects Kirkpatrick might be part of the plot; at a party of “the great who might wish to be criminal,” Wentworth as Marino catches glimpse of Kirkpatrick, visiting some of the people Wentworth suspects might be involved with the Boss. Even worse, Ram Singh, who has been monitoring the party outside, relays that he saw Kirkpatrick talking to some of the thugs there, even ordering the death of the Spider. And it’s made clear this time that Kirkpatrick does indeed know Wentworth is the Spider; actually I think this has been implied from the first Page installment, but I was just too dense at the time to get it. 

There’s nothing subtle about it here, as a major plot point of Overlord Of The Damned is Wentworth’s growing certainty that he’ll have to kill his best friend, Stanley Kirkpatrick, who clearly knows that “Dick” is the Spider. This plays out in one of the stronger moments in the novel, when Wentworth – again in Spider costume – sneaks into Kirkpatrick’s country estate and waits for him in his darkened study. But Wentworth doesn’t seem to be very sharp this time around; every time he confronts Kirkpatrick, the man complains that he’s “tired,” or he’s just woken up, and Wentworth can’t get over how worn-out his old buddy looks. Of course, by novel’s end Page will pull out a convenient excuse for Kirkpatrick’s involvement in the massacres of the Boss, but still throughout most of the book Wentworth struggles with whether he’ll be able to waste him. A later sequence even has Kirkpatrick begging Wentworth to kill him, but Wentworth is still unable to pull the trigger. There’s also a memorable bit – only a few paragraphs in the endless barrage of action-focused narrative – where Wentworth ponders over how many he’s killed in his career as the Spider, realizing he no longer knows the answer. 

Action is as ever constant, and gets to be a little fatiguing. Even the part where Wentworth initially confronts Kirkpatrick turns into an endless action scene, as some dudes in a beer truck show up with a shipment for Kirkpatrick (!?), and Wentworth realizes this is how the acid is being transported around the city (!?), and he gets in a chase with them to a brewery, where a fullscale gun battle ensues. For the most part Wentworth as ever dispenses bloody justice with his .45s; there’s even a neat trick he pulls when he shoots a gun out of Kirkpatrick’s hand, to keep his friend from blowing his own head off. We also get a little proto-zombie massacre action when Wentworth realizes that the only way to stop the drug-crazed maniacs is to shoot them in the head, thus ensuring a kill. Ram Singh gets in on the gory action as well; one part later in the book has him getting in an (off-page) knife battle with some massive brute, Ram Singh ultimately cutting off the guy’s head. 

As for the Boss, he isn’t as memorable in the costume or name department, but he’s possibly more sadistic than many of the previous villains. A darkly humorous bit has him punishing flunkies who failed to kill the Spider; he has them walk across a plank in his domain, and with a push of a button the Boss sends them falling to an acid tank below. Nita witnesses all this, the Boss relishing her (mostly reserved) terror; we get more skirting of those 1935 boundaries when the Boss subtly threatens Nita with rape, vowing to give her to one of his “amiable madmen.” He’ll get more sadistic with her later, when he prepares to inject a syringe of madness drug directly into her eyeball. She’s only saved by the heroic appearance of Wentworth – though humorously this overlong action sequence ends with both Nita and Wentworth captured yet again! 

The Boss’s big final plan is kind of goofy; he’s got catapaults set up to launch acid into the capitol building. Here in the last pages per the template we get last-second reveals of who the Boss really is, but for once it isn’t a total copout on Page’s part, as this character was actually introduced early in the book. It of course isn’t Kirkpatrick, not to spoil the surprise or anything…but “c’mon, man!”, probably everyone except Wentworth already knew that already. The finale is a little too pat, a suddenly vindicated Kirkpatrick now fighting by Wentworth’s side. But this too is typical of the formula, and you can’t blame these people for being happy at the end of each volume – they need all the respite they can get, given that next volume thousands more will be massacred in the latest supervillain plot.

Monday, November 30, 2020

The Zodiac Killer


The Zodiac Killer, by Jerry Weissman
December, 1979  Pinnacle Books 

About the only thing that could’ve made this cover more tacky is if they’d put “From the publisher of The Penetrator!” on it. But boy, it turns out the best thing about The Zodiac Killer is the cover, because otherwise Jerry Weissman has taken one of the most infamous serial killers of all time and turned him into a bumbling clod who literally starts killing because girls won’t give him the time of day. As if that weren’t enough, whereas the Zodiac of reality almost seemed like a comic book supervillain come to life (complete even with a costume!), the one of the novel goes about his murders in clumsy fashion – almost nothing is premeditated, while the real Zodiac seemed to be all about the premeditation. 

I’m not an expert on the Zodiac Killer, but I suspect this book is rife with errors; Weissman prefaces the novel by saying that names, dates, and even locations have been altered from reality to protect the innocent. Oh yeah, a curious thing about this book is that it opens with blurbs from directors: no less than Richard “Superman” Donner gives it a sterling endorsement, as does Blaxploitation director Melvin van Peebles(!?). I guess Weissman must’ve had some Hollywood connections or experience; I’m honestly too lazy to look it up. I’m also assuming he was aiming for a more upmarket publisher, and not a paperback imprint that would put such a hilariously tacky cover on his book. (To tell the truth it took me a few minutes to even notice those eyes on the cover; for some reason my attention was rooted elsewhere.) But hell, if this book had been published a few years earlier, maybe some low-rent production company would’ve bought the rights and made a film out of it, a la the 1974 The Zebra Killer (which now that I think of it was a film about a serial killer that had a Blaxploitation vibe to it…given that the serial killer went around in blackface!). 

An interesting gimmick about the novel is that for the most part the protagonist is the Zodiac Killer himself – Robert Bennett, an introverted loser who when we meet him in 1966 is an Air Force cadet in Redlands, California. The other main protagonist of the novel is Paula Avery, a young journalist in San Francisco; per Weissman’s intro, Paula is of course based on real-life journalist Paul Avery, who covered the murders at the time and ultimately became a target of Zodiac himself. (In David Fincher’s well-done 2007 movie Zodiac, Avery was played by Robert Downey, Jr, cast against type as an egocentric smartass.) Bennett though is the character who makes the narrative happen, but he is a pale reflection of the real Zodiac; Weissman claims that he based the book on the facts, gleaning info from Avery himself and coming to his own conclusions on who Zodiac might’ve been. I almost got the impression that he wanted to whittle Zodiac down, and show that, instead of the cold, calculating killer of urban legend, he was in reality a goofball who got by more on luck than by guile. 

Bennett as mentioned is a bit of a loser, and he’s envious of his fellow cadets who can pick up chicks with ease at the local college. On this night in ’66 Bennett tags along on the latest “poon cruise” and tries to score with a couple college girls, but gets shot down relentlessly. He’s particularly focused on pretty young Bunny, but she tells him to buzz off. Bennett lurks around until night and fixes her car so she won’t be able to drive it. When Bunny comes out of class to find her car not working, Bennett materializes out of the shadows to offer her a ride. She’s grateful, but realizes it’s a setup when Bennett starts pawing at her chest. Bunny puts up a helluva fight, just about beating the shit out of pudgy creep Bennett. Until he whips out a knife and guts her. Now feeling like a big man, Bennett flees back to base and congratulates himself that he’s “not a chickenshit.” 

This is Bennett’s first kill, and the beginning of what will become the Zodiac legend. As mentioned there’s absolutely no premediation involved; Bennett we’re informed didn’t even go there planning to kill Bunny. It was only because she fought him so savagely. Also, the Zodiac was infamous for his letters and his ciphers. In the novel, these too are spur-of-the-moment things. That night Bennett, apropos of nothing, writes down a poetic diatribe about his first kill, and decides to send it to the local paper, basically just for the hell of it. Again, the idea I get is that Weissman throughout tries to show that Zodiac’s seeming omnipotence was really more just public perception, how it all could’ve been the result of a guy who merely fumbled through things. Fine so far as theories go, I guess, but it makes for an unsatisfying novel; Robert Bennett is more Mr. Bean than Hannibal Lecter. 

To make it worse, Bennett’s kills still all amount to “jilted lover” motives throughout the rest of the novel. We flash forward to 1968 and Bennett’s now in San Francisco, after a brief desk job in ‘Nam. Any hope that he was in intelligence or learned ciphers or coding or anything are quickly dashed; his position had more to do with filing paperwork, and later we learn that he did sort of learn about coding, but just from seeing some of the reports come across his desk. Well now he’s in San Francisco and he’s a…cable car conductor. That’s the Zodiac’s day job, folks. Also, he’s not the Zodiac yet, and you guessed it – his decision to take this name is again based upon happenstance and spur-of-the-moment decision-making. Bennett lives a lonely life; he has a spartanly-furnished apartment and walks to work, and meanwhile the twelve-year old kid next door idolizes him, which Bennett doesn’t realize – a curious subplot that goes nowhere. 

Bennett, still trying in vain to score, meets up with a hippie girl and hopes she’s zonked enough that he can get some easy sex from her. But even she bails on him when Bennett’s unable to rise to the occasion; of course, the subtext here is that Bennett is gay and so far in the closet that he’s willing to lash out at women who “deny” him. Well anyway this hippie chick gives Bennett some angel dust, and he goes fullbore nuts from it. In fact he suspects the drug’s what keeps him from rising to the aforementioned occasion. But the hippie chick takes off and Bennett’s once again left to seethe in rage. Next he tries to date a teen named Mary Ann, who seems to like him but feels she’s too young; Bennett stalks her, sees her going out with a guy her age, and follows them. He shoots both of them as they sit in a car on a lover’s lane. 

Another interesting gimmick about The Zodiac Killer is that all the kills occur off-page. This murder comes to the attention of Paula Avery, a journalist based on real-life Paul Avery, only given, per Weissman in his afterword, “a literary sex-change.” Paula’s in a relationship with a cop and she’s trying to make her big journalism break. She works for the Chronicle, and initially she’s covering Nixon’s run and later covers other events in the city. She has her own share of the narrative, and it takes a while before she even covers the Zodiac stuff. But she’s drawn to it on her own, and also will be the first person to tie in the unsolved ’66 murder in the Redlands with Zodiac’s kills here in the San Francisco area. 

Bennett meanwhile sees the murders mentioned in the paper, and begins writing oddball letters and threats. Weissman leaves too much of his stuff unexplored. Like we’re told Bennett has a special, apparently custom-made .22 pistol which he uses for his killings. At any rate we next flash forward to the summer of ’69 and Bennett’s latest target is a waitress he’s been stalking, who has shunned his advances. She too is killed off-page. Paula, covering the moon landing, moves on to these strange new killings, publishing more pieces in the paper and coming more to Bennett’s attention. But curiously Bennett hasn’t even “become” Zodiac yet; once again it’s all due to coincidence, as he runs into a hippie street preacher named Cyrus, who goes on about the power of “the Self.” Cyrus’s cosmonogy is right along the lines of Bennett’s own, and here he starts appropriating the zodiac stuff – again, thanks to a book Cyrus gave him. 

Cyrus also gets Benett interested in ciphers – we’re told here of his passing familiarity with them, from paperwork in ‘Nam – and he starts working on some. They’re faithfully reproduced in the text, but even this stuff is rendered goofy, with Bennett chucking “Perfect!” to himself as he tries to master the complexities of cipher-creating. I mean the guy’s such a clod. And the helluva it is, he doesn’t even seem evil, something that’s doubly conveyed by the fact that we never really see him kill anyone…save for Bunny in the beginning, and that was presented almost as a mistake. His letters and ciphers all come off like desperate attempts to seem like a big man…which again could’ve been for real, but makes the book seem more like A Confederacy Of Dunces with a serial killer overlay. What I’m trying to say is, Robert Bennett just isn’t believable; he’d get caught quickly and easily. 

Most surprising is the Lake Beryessa murder, in which Zodiac infamously appeared in costume. Again, this takes place off-page, thus denying readers of what was apparently a ritualistic or occultic murder for the Zodiac – he was under the impression he killed both the man and the woman here, thus his costume wasn’t worn to inspire fear in any survivors. But there’s no ritual drive to Bennett…he merely follows this girl who looks very much like Bunny, his first victim, and tails her and her boyfriend to the park. He takes out a bag he thoughtfully stashed in the car, one that contains a knife and rope, and then cuts his Navy cap so that he can pull the folds down over his face. So there’s no occult intent to the costume, no symbolism to the kill…we just flash forward to Bennett calling the cops and telling them he’s killed again. 

Eventually Bennett starts to set his sights on Paula. This leads to the sole tense sequence in the novel. Bennett stalks Paula to her houseboat, and confronts her in pitch darkness, given a blown fuse on the boat. But Paula’s no shrinking violet, and dives to the floor and starts shooting when she sees the mysterious shadow coming toward the boat. This brings her boyfriend running, but meanwhile Bennett’s already fled the scene – and pissed his pants! This folks is our diabolical supervillain. He’s more content to be the killer of unarmed victims; his last kill in the book is a taxi driver who is giving him a ride to the movies(!). This is because the radio happens to be tuned to a station in which a psychiatrist is evaluating Zodiac, how he clearly suffers from multiple issues, and the taxi driver goes on to Bennett about how Zodiac is a freak and a loser. Bennett has him pull over and raises the .22…for our final off-page murder. 

The finale is complete fiction. Per Weissman the Zodiac affair ends in August of 1969. Bennett has started up a phone rapport with Paula, calling her often…even here he proves himself to be a loser, as Paula constantly talks down to him and even cuts him short at times. And Bennett gets flustered and hangs up! But anyway he offers to meet her, secretly planning of course to kill her. The meet is to take place upon some steps that lead into Greenwich Village. But as Bennett waits for Paula, he’s mugged – and gets in a fight with the mugger, and as he’s chasing the dude he runs into the guy’s knife and impales himself! Thus Robert Bennett dies, and later a “Zodiac note” is found on his body. It’s assumed, then, that Bennett, a hapless cable car conductor, is Zodiac’s latest victim, no one realizing Bennet was Zodiac, himself now a victim. 

A slapdash finale for sure, particularly given that Zodiac in reality was still appearing well into the ‘70s, at least in letters and the occasional kidnapping attempt. It’s curious that Weissman skips all this, particularly given that he published his book in 1979, five years after the last known Zodiac communication. But then it’s possible he wrote this book before all that, and only took this long to get it published – hence it coming out via paperback imprint Pinnacle. Who knows. I mean overall The Zodiac Killer was marginally entertaining, but it was undone by an unbelievable villain, and for a book labelled “horror” on the spine it certainly wasn’t very scary. 

For another novel based on the Zodiac Killer, check out Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Cybernarc #6: End Game


Cybernarc #6: End Game, by Robert Cain
April, 1993  Harper Books

The Cybernarc series wraps up with a sixth installment that was clearly written as the series finale; William “Robert Cain” Keith doesn’t leave readers hanging with an unresolved cliffhanger, the title being a firm indication that we are truly reading the “end” of the series. And I’m happy to report that the bantering, action movie-esque spirit of the earliest volumes has sort of returned – if greatly minimized from, say, the first volume – though still we have to endure a lot of military acronyms and coke-industry info-dumping. 

Indeed, I get the suspicion Keith was pretty worn out at this point. End Game runs to an unwieldy 230 pages of small, dense print, and I suspect our author was struggling to fill the pages. Thus we get a lot of arbitrary detail on one-off cocaine industry characters, stuff on how cocaine is manufactured, all sorts of otherwise-mundane stuff that is greatly expanded upon for no other seeming reason than to hit the word count. The writing’s as good as ever, but you can’t help but feel that the novel would be greatly improved if it was a little leaner. Another change this time is that the plot is slightly more developed; the previous couple volumes have just been protracted action scenes, some of them taking up a full third of the narrative or more. This template is shaken up a little this time, but unfortunately the potential of the new direction isn’t fully exploited. 

I’m not sure how long it is after the previous volume; seems to be a few months. But we know at least that it’s been a little over one year since the first installment. Now Rod, the titular Cybernarc (apparently a name only used by his druglord enemies – and they all say “cybernarco” because they speak Spanish), has gone full HAL 2000 and has gained what appears to be a fully formed consciousness, with emotions and whatnot. What most troubles his government creators is his new tendency to ignore orders and make on-the-spot decisions based off his own conclusions. We see this in effect straight away, as End Game opens with Rod solo in a Peruvian jungle, tracking some drug-dealing forces. This is his first time out without his human counterpart, Chris Drake, and his mission is solely reconaissance. But Rod figures that he would do more good by destroying this pipeline, and thus goes into action, blowing stuff apart and running amok in the jungle in his Combat Mod body. 

An interesting thing about this series is that Keith writes so much of it from Rod’s point of view that you can’t help but think of him as human. But Keith’s strength is that he’ll have Rod do crazy, inhuman things, like operating on himself when he’s damaged, or accessing internal data banks. Even here though Keith relays it all in humanistic perspectives. In fact, Rod is really the main star of the book, with Drake relegated to mostly supporting status; I still like the publisher’s original request for the series, of a “crazy ‘Nam vet” building a robot to take on the drug barons, but I have to say Keith did a great job of taking the series in a more mature direction. I mean honestly that’s still the gist of the series – it’s about a friggin’ android that has been created by the US government, at the cost of millions of dollars, to combat the drug menance – yet Keith somehow has elevated it above its pulpy and goofy premise to something almost believable. 

Anyway, Rod dwells on his motive in life – to kill drug barons – and concludes, “I am Death.” Back on the mobile HQ, project boss Weston gives Rod the go-ahead for this Peruvian attack, but really it’s just so the robot won’t go nuts. Per resident hotstuff scientist babe Heather McDaniels, Rod could have some sort of mental breakdown, thus he must be treated a little delicately. Oh and meanwhile Drake and Heather are now fully an item, and indeed Drake drops the tidbit late in the novel that he intends to marry Heather and retire from the drugfighting game; yet more proof that this one was written as the series finale. As for the Drake-Heather relationship, it’s pretty much entirely happened off-page. Curious too that, while Drake himself has moved on from the murder of his wife and daughter, which happened in the first volume, Rod himself hasn’t; due to the PARET mind-symbiosis deal the two shared in that first book, shortly after Drake’s family was killed, Rod was imbued with Drake’s anger and desire for revenge. And it has now become a self-fulfilling thing, as Rod realizes that he not only was programmed to kill drugger scum, but that he now basically “lives” for it. 

Keith also resolves a longstanding series subplot with the apperance of Roberto Sandoval, drugger baron who appeared in the first book and who is one of the few survivors to have seen Cybernarc. Sandoval is about to meet with all the other major coke dealers of South America; he’s aware, due to his inside contacts, of Operation Takedown, a last-ditch CIA plan to wipe out the druggers at this meeting. Rod and Drake find this out when the two go to Bogota to round up a minor drug-world figure named Cardona. But as ever Rod shows independent thinking, and ends up blowing Cardona’s face off. This leads to an unexpected plot development: having learned of the big drug meeting, Rod and Drake will crash it…only Rod’s face will be changed to that of Cardona’s, and he will impersonate the man, with Drake acting as his American bodyguard. A further unexpected development ensues as the two arrive in the desolate Colombian jungle location of the meet – and Rod as Cardona runs into Maria, sexy fiance of Cardona. 

Neither of them were even aware of Maria, thus Rod must again fumble through the interraction. We learn here that Rod, in his Civilian Mod form, has the exact body of a human male, but the naughty parts aren’t, uh, operable, thus when Maria starts squeezing on his junk she doesn’t get the reaction she expects. Luckily a fully-clothed Rod is able to explain it away as being keyed up about the meeting – but this is that missed opportunity stuff I mentioned earlier. There was a lot of room here for some fun, with Maria trying to figure out what’s happened to her Latin lover, but she disappears for the majority of the narrative, and instead we have an overlong sequence where Rod sits in with the meeting of drug lords and they talk and talk. And we get inordinate backgrounds on many of them, and how their businesses run. Again, stuff that’s clearly there so as to fill pages. 

A quickly dashed-off subplot has it that Maria was secretly planning with Cardona to kill her own father, another drug baron who happens to be at this meeting. Rod, once he’s deduced the girl’s plot, goes about it in an odd way – he approaches Maria’s dad and tells him that his daughter plans to kill her! Something the kingpin already knows, and now he realizes that “Cardona” is someone he can trust. Again, not that anything comes out of this subplot: instead, we get into an extended action scene, as Rod, indulging in the “aggressively macho” temper of your average Latin drug lord, starts up a fight at the big meeting that culminates in a massive shootout. Here characters who were just introduced – at much page count – are casually blown away. And also Rod’s robot nature is revealed, as he takes several bullets despite his inhuman jumping around and accurate shooting; one of the shots shears off the skin of his face, so that the black metal beneath can be seen. But the robot’s CPU is knocked offline so that he appears “dead,” and Sandoval – who already suspected “Cardona” of being an imposter – assumes that it was really just a man after all, and not the cybernarc. 

Drake meanwhile is cut off from Rod and must figure out what to do. An interesting thing about Cybernarc is that Drake, who as a badass SEAL with a score to settle with the drugger scum, would be the main protagonist of any other men’s adventure series, but here he’s so out of Rod’s league that he comes off as a hapless sidekick at times. Eventually the two meet up, where Drake has to do high-tech surgery on Rod; more superb writing from Keith, as he again reminds us that Rod is not human, despite looking, acting, and thinking like one – he directs Drake on the surgery while it’s happening, even when Rod’s head is excised from his Civilian Mod body to be grafted onto his Combat Mod one. This leads us to the finale, capably depicted on the cover, with the two again bucking orders and taking the fight directly to the druggers. As Rod argues, there’s no better time than now to wipe them all out, given that they’ve so conveniently gathered here. 

Keith also excels at action scenes, but at times they tend to go on a bit. A neat quirk this time is that Rod wields an XM-214, a minigun which he uses to blast countless drug soldiers into bloody pieces. The gore is slightly toned down from earliest volumes, however, save for a crazy part where Rod, still in his Civilian body, spins like a top and uses his razor-sharp fingers to slice and dice a group of soldiers. Maria witnesses this and runs away, certain that “Cardona” is not human; she takes the info to Sandoval and another major baron, and the two realize that Cybernarc is here. This leads to a “hunted chasing the hunter” scenario where they arm themselves with LAW rocket launchers, determined to wipe out the robot that is coming for them. 

It’s here in this major action piece that Drake informs Rod he’s “too old” for this sort of thing, and plans to retire and marry Heather. Rod seems to take the info well, but as mentioned there is an air of finality to the entire book. It’s clear that Rod has gone too far rogue from his programming and, were he to return to Weston and his controllers, he would be deprogrammed or have some major changes to his CPU. The finale plays out in a well-done sequence in which Rod, alone, goes after Sandoval and the rest, blitzing them to pieces. The final confrontation is suitably apocalyptic, with Rod calling in an air strike on his exact location and strangling Sandoval as the bombs come down. In the aftermath it seems that the robot has “died” with the baron; Drake is told nothing at all is left of Rod in the destruction. 

But the book isn’t over yet; we’re treated to an almost humorously-rushed conclusion, in which it’s a few months later and Drake and Heather have just returned from their honeymoon. And of course they’re talking about Rod. Drake still wonders if he survived, but Heather’s like, “It’s time to move on.” But there are all those mysterious drug-world deaths Drake has read about in the papers…then the doorbell rings, and Drake answers it, and it’s none other than Rod at the door! This is the end of the book as well as the series. As stated it seems clear Keith knew this would be the final volume, but of course the setup exists for future installments, with a fully-rogue and independent Rod taking on the drug barons on his own. Actually now that I think of it, the series ends with the setup Keith was supposedly originally given: Drake’s not a “’Nam vet,” but he does now have his own drug-fighting robot, and plus he’s married to the scientist who created the damn thing. 

Well anyway, I enjoyed Cybernarc, and I’m always happy when a final volume of a series gives a fitting conclusion, which End Game certainly does. Overall this was a fun series, with the caveat that the first couple installments were better, while the last couple got more into humorless “military fiction” and somewhat lost the action movie-esque banter between Drake and Rod. But Keith did a great job with the series, investing it with a lot more thought and care than you’d expect.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Rape Squad


Rape Squad, by Simon Wolf 
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books 

First of all, this obscure Manor paperback original is not a novelization of the 1974 grindhouse film of the same title. It’s a slim police procedural about a three-person team of police officers trying to prevent rape in a small city, and it isn’t nearly as exploitative as the title, cover, or publishing house would have you suspect. In fact, there is a conservative tone to the narrative, almost approaching a Gothic at times. This would make sense, as if I’m correct “Simon Wolf” was the pseudonym of an author who had previously published a Gothic novel. 

A curious thing about Rape Squad is that it unwittingly prefigures and mirrors the despicable exploits of Joseph DeAngelo, a recently-convicted serial killer and rapist who operated in California in the ‘70s and ‘80s under a host of monikers: the Cordova Cat, the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, the Original Nightstalker. We learn within the first few pages of Rape Squad that the villain of the piece, a rapist who has been attacking single young women throughout the city of Mayfield, is himself a cop – just as Joseph DeAngelo was at the time. However this is one of those sad cases where reality is much worse than fiction; the rapist villain of this novel is almost Mr. Rogers when compared to DeAngelo, who perpetrated some of the most nightmarish and violent attacks on innocents I’ve ever read about. I’m really not a fan of DNA databases and etc – personally I think it’s incredibly foolish to willingly send some company a sample of your DNA – but in this case I’d say the Big Brother methods police used to finally identify and apprehend DeAngelo were justified. 

Of course, none of this has anything to do with the novel at hand. It’s the usual 190-page length of the average Manor paperback, and again is copyright the publisher, implying that “Simon Wolf” is either a pseudonym or a house name. I suspect the author was really Morris Hershman, who as “Evelyn Bond” wrote the gothic novel Bride Of Terror, published as a Lancer/Magnum paperback in 1968 (and supposedly reprinted by none other than Manor in 1975, though I can find no evidence of this printing). I suspect “Wolf” was Morris Hershman because, for no reason whatsoever, Bride Of Terror is actually mentioned in Rape Squad; the wife of one of the main characters happens to be reading the book. It’s a literary in-joke if ever there was one, about on the level of Manning Lee Stokes's subtle references to himself and his past work in his pseudonymous novels. 

Whoever the author is, he has a hard time figuring out who the main protagonist is. We start off under the impression it will be Detective Sherwin Millard, a young police officer newly assigned to the fledgling “rape squad,” which currently is only composed of one member: tough as nails old cop Lt. Hatton (misspelled “Hatten” on the back cover). Also, I should mention here that we are never informed where “Mayfield” is. Millard when we meet him is transferred to the rape squad..then we flash forward some time and he’s practically a veteran, already out handling cases and the like. One call takes him to the hospital to speak with young rape victim Evelyn Dempster (the “Evelyn” being another possible clue to the author’s identity, ie his previous pseudonym “Evelyn Bond”). The author well captures the shell-shocked nature of a victim here, with Eveyln taking multiple showers in the hospital because she feels so dirty now that she’s been violated. Here we learn the rapists’s m.o.; he always approaches his victims from behind, slams his hand over their mouth, and rapes them from behind. 

The next day a young policewoman who looks a little familiar storms into the rape squad office and announces she’s joining the team, per her own request. At length Millard realizes she looks very much like Eveyln Dempster. This is how he meets Joan Dempster, sister of the young rape victim; Joan is a cop, and is frustrated that nothing’s being done about the rash of rapes occurring in the city. There’s a fair bit of police world detail here, with Joan complaining that the squad doesn’t even own an identikit, and Hatton saying they’re useless in rape cases. There’s also a fair bit of the oldschool attitudes, with Hatton sort of uncertain about a woman being on the squad, but not entirely against it. One cop who does show the old misogyny is Hector Ritman, a surly detective Joan runs into when canvassing the school in which her sister works. 

Ritman instantly runs afoul of Joan, with the two arguing; Ritman too is here investigating the rape, presumably. There’s also some red-herring stuff as Joan has a lot of conversations with the young man who is engaged to her sister, himself a teacher at the school, and one of Joan’s early suspects. But the reader soon learns who the Mayfield rapist is: Ritman himself. As mentioned, he’s a cop, and the author does a good job of getting into his psychosis. This is displayed in an eerie sequence. Joan requests to pose as rape bait that night, trouncing around a nightspot in revealing clothes. Ritman, coming out of a bar, sees her…and thinks he should go over and tell this young lady that she shouldn’t be waltzing around like that in the city, as it’s dangerous. He walks over to her, and, “as if in despite of himself” he raises his hand to her turned back…as if to grab her from behind. In other words Ritman’s sick compulsions run so deep he isn’t even consciously aware of them. One wonders if similar compulsions drove super-twisted individuals like DeAngelo. 

Joan spins around and catches Ritman about to grab her; he plays it off that he was in fact preventing a carhop from grabbing her, even roughing the poor innocent carhop up a little. But from here Joan is pretty certain Ritman is a suspicious character. However, Lt. Hatton can’t hear of it – the man’s a cop! Again, one wonders how the cops of the day would’ve reacted to learn that the East Area Rapist was a fellow officer…but then DeAngelo was never even on a suspect list. Hatton for his part slowly warms to Joan’s suspicions, eventually giving her clearance to prove Ritman is the rapist. This is compounded when Ritman, apropos of nothing, runs for mayor – a random plot detour if ever there was one. It does get a bit comical though, and not in a good way, as Ritman often tries to attack Joan, and she fends him off (in one memorable moment wielding a bayonet), but he’s always able to play it off as a prank and escape any kind of repercussions. Hard to see such a thing happening in today’s #metoo era, where all a woman has to do is merely accuse a man, and it’s guilty until proven innocent (depending upon political affiliation, of course). 

Speaking of oldschool values, there’s a humorous-in-hindsight bit where Joan preaches the ‘70s version of diversity and inclusion. She and Millard are called to another case, in which a pair of “dykes” have been raped. Millard for his part has seen so much that he’s unfazed by the fact that these two women live together, something which rattles the “bull” of the couple – interesting to see that, even then, some types clearly got off on being branded as “different.” The bull keeps pushing Millard, and Joan cools off the situation by saying the following to the lesbians; it probably seemed “liberal” in 1975 but in today’s progressivised society practically comes off as cromagnon: 

“Let’s agree that one of you two is a bull dyke and the other is a femme. Let’s agree that the words are ugly. Let’s agree that homosexuals feel that they can’t help themselves and that the so-called straight world distrusts them and detests them and is afraid of them. Let’s agree, too, that homosexuals are poor people, emotionally, and that their problems are rooted in childhood. And let’s change the subject.”

These two of course are yet more victims of Ritman’s, but a midnovel plot detour introduces another rapist, a hapless loser who when we meet him is presented as a victim. This curious subplot has the dude, Manton, being harrassed by a local couple, who believe he raped their 14 year-old daughter. Manton was able to free himself of the charge in court, mostly because the girl was a notorious loudmouth and no one believed her – again, pre-#metoo stuff here for sure. But this wasn’t good enough for the girl’s parents, who are certain Manton raped their daughter, even though we readers know he didn’t. So Manton is called at work and home, where a mysterious voice demands he leave town, calling him “rape artist” and the like; the capoff comes when he’s actually shot while walking on the street, and the person who shot him was the girl’s father. 

So after recovering Manton goes to confront the young girl, gets her to relent on her story…and then he rapes her?! It happens off-page (as all the rapes do – and there are no regular sex scenes, either…as mentioned the book is very tame), and it leaves the reader flummoxed. I mean I thought Manton was innocent? He’s arrested, but let go…and then as soon as he’s out we discover he raped the couple’s other daughter, who is only six years old! Good grief! This time he’s taken away for good. Otherwise this part has nothing to do with the rest of the novel, and Millard and Joan only appear infrequently in these sections. There’s also never the suspicion that Manton might be the main rapist in town; Joan is certain it’s Ritman. 

As stated Ritman makes a strange run for Mayor, leading to a goofy sequence that had me chuckling. So Ritman has a rally with a record player doling out “military music,” and one of his volunteers cuts himself on the “phonograph needle” – I’m talking a “deep gash” on three fingers that requires stitches! Folks if I ever ran my finger over my stylus, I’d be more concerned I’d break the damn thing. And plus, just imagine the damage such a sharp needle would do to the vinyl. Anyway, I found this part humorous. But hell for all I know, maybe in 1975 you could buy ultra-cheap stylii that could cut skin so deeply that you’d need stictches. As Ritman’s getting the volunteer into the ambulance, Joan happens by, and once again Ritman tries to attack her, and once again Joan fends him off – at this point the whole thing taking on the vibe of a Road Runner cartoon or something, with Ritman constantly trying and failing to get his prey. I almost expected him to receive a package from Acme. 

There’s yet more out-of-nowhere narrative detours with a subplot about the cops going on strike, and some of them plot to kill the current Mayor. Speaking of modern-day connotations, this part reminded me of our recent “summer of love,” in which “peaceful protesters” looted and burned cities across the United States to their heart’s content, brushing off their criminal acts by saying that “insurance” would cover the looted stores. Folks, the exact same thing happens here…without the cops, riots break out and looting ensues. (Funny how that happens, isn’t it? But yeah, let’s defund the police!) And when Joan encounters the owner of one looted store, she informs him that his insurance should cover the loss. To which the dude basically responds, “Uh…no, it won’t.” Exactly as in the real world, where the actual losses of this past summer are only finally coming to light. 

The rioting does at least play into the finale, in which Ritman is serving on riot duty, but still takes the opportunity to rape some poor woman on the street. Joan and Millard hear her screaming, and Joan rushes to help, only to be attacked yet again by Ritman. This time he almost seems to get her, but Joan fights himself off yet again. The author denies us a fitting conclusion, though. As Joan and Ritman confront one another, Ritman sees a sniper about to take out the Mayor – and pushes Joan aside so he can block the bullet with his own body! Thus Ritman dies a hero, and Joan argues at novel’s end that the truth should be let out so that the public knows Ritman was really a serial rapist scumbag. Hatton tells her the real world doesn’t work that way, or something, and the novel plods to a close. 

All told, Rape Squad wasn’t very interesting, nor was it very entertaining. Speaking of Manning Lee Stokes, he still wrote the best sleazy ‘70s rapesploitation crime novel I’ve yet read: Killer At Large. I’d advise you to seek that one out instead of this. 

In closing, I wrote the above before doing another search of the Catalog Of Copyright Entries, where I got confirmation that Morris Hershman did indeed write Rape Squad, serving as “Simon Wolf.” However the entry misspells his name as “Morris Harshman.”  

Monday, November 16, 2020

Trashing


Trashing, by Ann Fettaman 
No month stated, 1972  Belmont-Tower 

First published in hardcover in 1970 by Rolling Stone Magazine’s short-lived imprint, Straight Arrow Books, Trashing is the veiled autobiography of Ann Fettamen, aka Anita Hoffman (aka Abbie’s wife) writing under a pseudonym. I'm not sure if it was well-known that Hoffman was the author; the blurbs on the hardcover dust jacket make it clear that “Fettamen” is a cover name for a “well-known troublemaker;” one of these blurbs is even provided by Abbie himself. I've read somewhere that Abbie and Anita went on a cross-country booksigning tour, as Abbie’s Steal This Book was released at the same time, so both husband and wife had a book to promote – meaning Anita was making it clear she had written Trashing. So if Hoffman really being Fettamen was a well-known secret, then why even bother with the pseudonym ruse? Anyway, I digress. 

Readers of Abbie’s afore-mentioned Steal This Book will remember Anita from the photos of her therein. A tall and slender brunette with a fondness for stealing groceries and smashing apart the machinery of the Man, she poses throughout the book in the latest insurrectionist fashions. 

Besides being a primer on what Anita must’ve hoped would become the new model of American citizenry, Trashing is also pretty much the love story of her and Abbie. Only here Anita becomes “Ann” and Abbie becomes “Danny,” with the only change being Abbie’s trademark afro turning into shaggy blond locks. Other than that it’s the Abbie Hoffman you remember from your History Channel specials, spouting off about anything and everything and causing trouble for the establishment. Ann, who narrates the novel, meets Danny on the first page, and you'd be forgiven for thinking the novel’s some Harlequin Romance for the counterculture set; Anita writes about him in the most rhapsodic prose this side of Danielle Steele. They meet, Danny spouts some rhetoric, Ann swoons. They’re married a few pages later. 

Trashing comes off as a manifesto of the Yippie movement. Published in 1970, it belies none of the cynicism which later set into the counterculture/revolutionary movement. Instead, the characters (and our narrator) talk blithely and at length about the coming war against The Man, how life will be so splendid once the Man has been destroyed. Stealing is fine, as long as it’s from those in power – which, according to the novel, even includes the youthful rich, as one disgusting scene features Ann stealing as many purses as she can at a socialite party, only to be congratulated by Danny. Hoffman writes the scene in heroic fashion – yet another blow against the empire! – but really it shows the backstabbing treachery which eventually killed the hippie movement. 

Anita’s writing is pedestrian at times (lots of turgid dialog, pointless scenes), at others fantastic. One nightmarish setpiece involves her walking home from a friend’s place, through a dark alley, only to be kidnapped by three neo-Nazi thugs. A graphic, minutely-detailed, several-pages-long rape scene ensues, Hoffman writing with the precision and clarity of an objective observer. I’m unfamiliar with Anita’s life story, so I can only hope this portion of Trashing is pure fiction; no one deserves what her character goes through during these horrifying pages. But then a strange thing happens. The setpiece ends with a switch-up that makes me suspect the whole situation is a literary trick. Because, a few days after the incident, Ann feels well enough to be with Danny again. He’s distant, surly, obsessed with finding the now-disappeared neo-Nazis. Ann seduces him, and the words and descriptions Hoffman employs for this scene are mostly the same as those she used for the rape sequence. It’s fantastic how she thus toys with the reader. Is it a spot of literary innovation, light years away from the writing Hoffman otherwise displays in the novel? Or – more likely – is it just peacenik Hoffman’s way of bookending a scene of brutal sex with an act of actual lovemaking? 

Things proceed in an episodic fashion. Ann and Danny go about a number of “happenings,” most of them Danny’s idea. These include impromptu plays in the park, throwing red dye in the city’s fountains on President’s Day, and in the longest “let's freak the straights” sequence, mailing a joint to 3,000 random people. This scene involves Danny and Ann requesting financial backing from a wealthy rock group manager. This scene is nearly laughable, all these decades later. Danny and Ann berating the rocker for not backing the “true” revolution (that is, fighting against the man in the streets), the rocker claiming that his revolution is “in the consciousness.” 

From here we proceed to a Valentine’s Day orgy (now theres an idea for Hallmark), exuberantly attended by Danny and Ann. Again, Hoffman’s detail here is as graphic as your average trash fiction. It’s like she wrote portions of the book with Penthouse Letters in mind. Was she just trying to spice up the manuscript? Did Rolling Stone demand the book be filled with as much sex as possible? I think maybe the idea is we’re to witness how Ann “grows” from a straightlaced conformist to a wanton, uninhibited rabble-rouser whose unafraid of anyone or anything. 

The book culminates in Ann gaining revenge upon those neo-Nazi rapists, beating them to a pulp with Danny and a fellow revolutionary at her side. This is another tautly-written scene, with chain whippings and stabbings and boots to the face. After this things are rosy, until a friend of the couples’ posts a complete list of local narcs in an underground newspaper, with names and addresses (ie proto-doxing)...and everyone’s shocked when the cops arrest him and proceed to beat him to near death. Ann and Danny try to raise cash for his too-high bail, but when it proves unfeasible they instead plan to bomb the local precinct as a warning. This leads to some intrigue and suspense as they discover a co-plotter is really an undercover Fed. The novel ends with Ann and Danny escaping to Canada, leaving their fellow revolutionaries detailed plans on how to destroy the US economy (a plan which hinges upon corrupting the computer that runs the ticker machine on Wall Street). 

It seems that Trashing was very much a product of its time, a forgotten period early in the radical movement when optimism still held sway. I have a feeling it was already dated the moment it was published. Hoffman wrote no other novels, and her only other publication was a collection of Abbie’s letters in the mid-seventies. She divorced him shortly after. It's a sad end to their tale; one can tell these two were truly in love, but with Abbie off in hiding and Annie raising their child “america” all by herself, it's not a surprising end. 

Abbie died in 1989 (by suicide, though this is debated by those who knew him), and Anita died in 1998 (of breast cancer), but the world she depicts in this novel had died long before.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Sabat #2: The Blood Merchants


Sabat #2: The Blood Merchants, by Guy N. Smith 
May, 1982  New English Library 

So I pretty much forgot all about the Sabat series; it was over a decade ago that I read the first volume. Literally all I could remember about it was the part where the titular “hero” ran over some random pedestrian and chalked it up to the whims of fate. Oh, and I also seemed to recall a lot of self-pleasuring courtesy said hero. And pipe smoking. Other than that the first one was a blur, so I had to refer to my review to familiarize myself with this series, which ran for four volumes and attempted to meld men’s adventure with horror. 

There’s no indication how long after the first volume this one occurs, but Sabat does make passing mention to its events. Also, unless I’m mistaken, we have no indication where exactly this series occurs. Just somewhere in England is all I know. We do have a recurring character in Sgt. Clive McKay, a cop who was also in SAS with Sabat back in the day and who comes to him with any sort of “supernatural” situation the police have encountered. Such is the case this time; the book opens in true horror novel fashion with a sequence of one-off characters meeting their gory fates at the hands of skinhead punks – skinhead punks who seem to be vampires! But we do get a lot of stuff from the perspectives of these characters, most of them poor young women who are attacked out of the darkness by “sallow-faced punks” with “corpse-like appearances.” 

Meanwhile Sabat’s busy playing with himself. No joke, this is exactly what he’s doing when he gets the call from Sgt. McKay. Smith injects a bunch of “subtle” foreshadowing here, with Sabat thinking about the hot babe who got him kicked out of the SAS three years ago – Catronia, wife of Sabat’s commanding officer at the time. Catronia was into whips and chains and the like, and Sabat we’re reminded really gets off on that, and when his affair with the blonde torture artist was uncovered he was drummed right out of the SAS. All this backstory was relayed in the first volume, but here it’s really brought to the fore, to the point that even a first-time novel reader can see where it’s going. 

Sabat grudgingly postpones his self-pleasuring and ventures with McKay to the morgue, where he checks out a few apparent vampire victims. They’ve got drained blood, two dots on their throats, and everything. Sabat does what any other gung-ho men’s adventure hero would do: he calls up an old acquaintance, a “brothel keeper” in her early 50s named Ilona, and asks her to pose as pseudo-vampire bait. Ilona we are told is still pretty hot, and plus she too is into whips and chains and the like (indeed she even reminds Sabat of Catronia), and she and Sabat were an item at one time – not that anything comes of it in this particular installment. Instead Ilona waltzes around in the darkness of whatever the hell city this series takes place in, and Sabat scores on his first night out – one of the pseudo vampires swoops out of the darkness for Ilona, and Sabat just barely fights him off in time. 

Here we see that these aren’t real vampires; the punks all wield “syringe-guns.” They jam the sharp end into a victim’s throat and depress a plunger and the thing sucks out a few liters of blood. Sabat takes the captured punk back to Ilona’s S&M basement and proceeds to beat the shit out of him. Sabat we’ll recall has a definite dark side and gets off on the thought of killing his enemies. He at least gets the info that the punk and his brothers are all worshippers of Lilith, which freaks Sabat right out – Lilith being one of the darker entities, one with a fondness for human sacrifice. But this is pretty much all the punk will say, so Sabat gleefully kills him, using the bastard’s own syringe-gun on him. But this will be the extent of “action” in the novel, save for a part later where three more punks attack Sabat in his home, and he uses his fancy SAS combat training to wipe them out; he particularly likes this “uppercut from a crouched position” move. 

We soon learn that Sabat wasn’t exagerrating: the Disciples of Lilith are pretty evil. This is demonstrated in a horrific sequence in which a young woman finds her newborn baby is missing – and the Disciples of Lilith, assembled around Lilith herself, drink its blood! In addition the Disciples have taken over a fascist movement, and further they are led by a “New Fuhrer” who is in league with Lilith, the demoness here on Earth. Sabat gets the scoop on all this during an astral voyage (he makes several voyages to the astral plane this time), where he’s informed by various spirits that Lilith has possessed a human woman – perhaps a woman Sabat might even know. But our self-pleasuring hero isn’t very sharp, for despite being told this he doesn’t put two and two together…not even after he’s astrally transported to a house somewhere and looks inside and sees a hot blonde in stockings in there, and it’s none other than Catronia! 

But no, Sabat wakes up and, “for some reason” feels the urge to call Catronia up for the first time in three years. He does so, and she’s eager to see him, and it’s all Sabat can do to contain himself for the rest of the day. But at no point does he think back to that message he was conveyed in the astral realm and think to himself, “hmmm, maybe those spirits were trying to tell me something about Catronia!” Instead, he heads over to her place in blissful ignorance and engages her in one of those sex scenes where something seems to be happening but the prose isn’t very clear about what. And of course Sabat ends up in one of Catronia’s torture devices, where he is “shocked” to discover that – brace yourselves for this – Catronia is really Lilith! I mean who could’ve guessed it?? 

It gets worse, though, as Catronia is able to hypnotize Sabat, same as she has all her punk followers, and now he too is a Disciple of Lilith. It makes for a strange read when the hero of a “horror-action” novel is possessed…Sabat just sort of walks through the next few chapters in a daze, fully part of the left-hand path but otherwise still normal (comparitavely speaking). It makes for a weird narrative vibe as Sabat himself doesn’t see anything wrong…he still goes home, talks to McKay, and etc, but his soul belongs to Lilith. Even here he visits the astral realm in his sleep, and there’s a creepy part where he encounters the spirit of a murdered friend. Instead of offering solace Sabat spurns this person, pretty much saying this is what you get for fighting Lilith. Speaking of which, the goddess herself appears in this sequence, saving Sabat from some spirits that attack him for being a spawn of Lilith. 

After this Sabat is doubly indebted to Lilith, and reports willfully to Catronia and the New Fuhrer (who of course turns out to be Catronia’s husband, aka Sabat’s former SAS officer). Even as the Disciples begin to raise bloody hell around the globe, our hero does nothing. True to form, he only becomes heroic when his own ass is on the line. This happens in an otherwise goofy bit where some punk tries to assassinate Sabat – a punk who was sent out earlier in the book to kill Sabat, and hasn’t gotten the memo that Sabat’s now one of Lilith’s followers. It all just seems like a Monty Python skit as this punk tries to kill Sabat, screaming that Lilith has ordered him to do so, and Sabat keeps screaming that those orders have been countermanded. Of course Sabat finally manages to save his hide, in the process coming free of Lilith’s mind control. Now finally Sabat as we know him is back. 

But really the series is more horror than’s men’s adventure; the final battle takes place almost entirely on the astral realm, or at least outside the physical realm, with Sabat launching off a series of spells that bind Catronia and her husband. Further, he summons a trio of angels who are dedicated to hunting down Lilith and disposing of her, and these three show up as police officers to round up Catronia at novel’s end. Sabat at least doles out a little physical punishment to Catronia’s husband, who we learn will ultimately spend the rest of his days in an insane asylum – crazy now that Lilith has left him. The punk Disciples all return to their former punk selves, save for the fact that they have no idea what these syringe guns are they’re holding. As for Catronia, we see her comeuppance in yet another trip to the astral realm, where Sabat sees that Lilith aka Catronia is to be chained and whipped for eternity. Indeed Sabat is asked to whip her himself as the novel concludes. 

Overall The Blood Merchants is a fairly fast-moving novel, filled with a lot of italicized narrative and one-off characters meeting their grisly fates. It also has that clinical tone you know and love from British pulp. I can’t say I enjoyed it more than the previous volume, mostly because I can’t remember the previous volume. But I’ll try to get to the next one a whole bunch sooner.

Monday, November 9, 2020

The Endless Orgy (Roi Kunzer #2)


The Endless Orgy, by Richard E. Geis 
No month stated, 1968 Brandon House Books 

I picked up this old sleaze paperback over a decade ago and forgot all about it until I found my three-year old reading it the other day. Just kidding; it was in a box with a bunch of other books I forgot I had. (Turns out I also have a copy of the Gutenberg Bible!) Anyway, all “kidding” aside, The Endless Orgy was the second and final paperback to feature Roi Kunzer, advanced “Lover” from the year 2069 who finds himself transported back in time to 1970, where he tangles with a bunch of evil spies and lots of eager women (plus, ahem, an eager dude in one unforgettable part). 

Judging from this volume, the series seems to be of a piece (so to speak) with the spoofy spy satires of the day, a la The Man From Orgy, The Man From Tomcat, and etc, only “slightly” more serious. Actually, this book is sort of The Mind Brothers meets The Man From Planet X meets After The Good War. The Mind Brothers due to the whole “future man fighting spies in the present” setup, and The Man From Planet X because hero Roi Kunzer is not only a humorless superstud but can also control the size of his “member” (he keeps it “at a normal four” when flaccid, usually “at a six” when pleasuring the average woman, and can go way bigger when needed; “a ten” isn’t even max!). And finally After The Good War due to the first-person narration, in which Roi drops a host of lingo and phrases from his future, sex-focused era. 

Richard E. Geis seems like an interesting dude. Supposedly the author of over a hundred sleaze novels, it appears he was even jailed in the early ‘60s for publishing filth. He was also a sci-fi geek and published various fanzines or somesuch. The Roi Kunzer books seem to have been his attempt to meld his two main topics: sleaze and sci-fi. The Endless Orgy clearly sets up a sequel in the end, but so far as I know one was never published. Geis passed away in 2012 and I belive I might have some other books by him. Judging from this book his writing is pretty good, pretty much the same caliber as book producer Lyle Kenyon Engel’s stable. Heck, it’s possible the Roi Kunzer books even inspired The Man From Planet X; we know for example that Engel came up with the Operation Hang Ten books after being inspired by a surfing-meets-sleaze papberback George Snyder wrote. 

I don’t have the first volume, The Sex Machine, which Brandon published the year before this one. Presumably in that one Roi was transported back to the late 1960s and stirred up lots of controversy with his “Pleasure First Principle,” which was at odds with the “Puritan” mindset of the 20th Century. Now he lives in a large house in Tahiti, pleasuring his four main wives – there’s Suzy Cum-Cum (seventeen but looking “even younger”), Kinky Kinkaid, Honi Brest, and Shirley Likit. Surprisingly none of them take a big role in this particular novel; we meet Roi as he’s boffing Suzy, but after this the wives are mostly there just to get kidnapped and, uh, forced to “try out” a pseudo-Roi the villains attempt to create. Roi of course saves them from captivity, but otherwise there’s no main female companion for him; in true stroke book fashion, he instead sleeps with about a gazillion other chicks instead of just sticking to one, the poor bastard. 

The previous book featured not only Roi journeying back in time, but also another woman from his era: Sharyn, who now goes as Dr. Mai Be, evil ruler of SNARF, an organization bent on world domination. We learn in brief backstory here that Mai Be became who she now is because she was “perverted” by the 20th Century; she was actually sent back to 1940, and thus has been here a few decades, long enough for the mindset of our “Puritan” era to subvert her free-lovin’ 21st Century mind. Oh and last time Roi shot her tits off. This bizarre and horrific act is so casually relayed to us by Roi that it must be some in-jokery on Geis’s part. But apparently she had some mini-atomic bomb or something “buried under her massive breasts” and Roi shot ‘em off to save the day. However Mai Be seems to have survived this, still ruling SNARF, however she doesn’t appear in this book. 

The curious thing about Roi Kunzer is that he’s pretty lame as a superhero. We’re to understand he has a perfect physique and all, but he’s so na├»ve to the violence of the 20th Century that he comes off as buffoonish. At least the Man From Planet X was able to use his alien superstrength to make up for his buffoonery. For example, Roi is fooled in the first few pages of the book; a TV crew comes to interview him, but they turn out to be SNARF in disguise and Roi’s drugged. When he wakes up, he’s on a yacht somewhere in the Pacific and a pair of sadistic doctors are making molds of his body. It gets real weird real quick when they get to the expected “plaster caster” mold; Roi’s asked to extend to his max, and one of the doctors keeps looking at the massive whang with lustful eyes. Roi gets out of this predicament in the expected fashion: offering to have sex with the gay doctor. When the guy lets Roi loose, expecting some hot action, Roi doesn’t punch him and run away. No, he gave this man “his word” that he’d screw him, and screw him he does! 

One wonders if Geis had a “include something gay” mandate from the publisher, so as to cover all the possible readership bases. But probably not, as otherwise the book is marketed as a straight sleaze paperback. Also, the act is kept for the most part off page – we’re informed Roi finds it “unpleasant,” and also he tells us that though he sees nothing wrong with homosexuality, given his 21st Cenutry mindset, he personally has not been “trained” for it. I forgot to mention. So like in Roi’s future, special young men are chosen after puberty to become “Lovers,” trained in the arts of sex – and also given the ability to control their dicks. This is due to like a regulator valve implanted in the little toe of their left foot, which allows them to control blood flow…not to mention the weird quirk that, given this augmentation, Roi can’t lift said toe. As a Lover, Roi is tuned in to the frequency of a woman’s sexual needs; if she’s horny, he is “obligated” to give her the sex she needs. But if he goes more than three days without sex, “hormone sickness” will plague him – to the point of actual death, if he doesn’t have sex in a week. 

So that’s the hero of the series. Well anyway he gets away -- after being true to his word with the doctor – and jumps off the yacht. But he’s only just learned to swim! Honestly you kind of get the idea Geis is spoofing the typical spy hero type. The bad guys shoot at him but Roi goes under, swims away, and is found by a native fishing boat. Sure enough a hot teen girl’s on it, one Roi’s “seen around” the islands, and the two engage in some shenanigans. But while there’s a lot of screwing in The Endless Orgy, it’s not very explicit, nor exploitative of the women’s bodies, due to the “tech talk” Roi employs throughout: “…her body was of the B-28-rz4 type,” and etc. 

Back home, Roi learns that his wives have been taken, and his secretary seems to have been part of the plot. His neighbor happens to be a plastic surgeon, and the dude offers to give Roi a new face and phsyique which will last for one month; a “special technique” he’s devised. Oh and this guy’s brother, Redd, just happens to have committed suicide recently, though no one but the surgeon knows this (something about a criminal background Redd was trying to escape)…and hey, Redd was about the same height and build as Roi, if only a little heavier. So Roi will become “Redd,” with a new face and excess fat on him, so he can track down his wives incognito. There is of course the last test to ensure he really passes as Redd – the real Redd’s wife comes in, thinks Roi is her husband, and instantly takes off her clothes. This sex scene is for some reason played off like something out of an X-rated Jerry Lewis film, with the two screwing on the hospital gurney, which becomes a “sexmobile” (per the flabbergasted plastic surgeon), rolling out of the surgery room and out into the yard, powered by their energetic coupling. 

It’s clear though that it’s not to be taken seriously. Roi traces the duplicitous secretary to LA, where of course they have sex – a recurring bit is Roi determining the capacity of his women, always starting at a “basic five” before expanding up, per the girl’s wishes. Curiously none of these women seem taken aback that this guy “Redd” can willingingly expand his dick…even more humorous because Roi’s supposed to be “dead,” and by doing this he’s giving away who “Redd” really is. As a further testament to the goofy nature of the book, the lady wants Redd to prove he’s really a criminal, and to do so he robs a bank. And it happens like in one chapter, with Roi pulling the job through guille and quick planning. 

This taken care of, “Redd” is now a part of SNARF. Off they go to a remote island, where he’s given the job of security detail. This part goes on a while and is annoying. Also here Redd suffers from serious hormone sickness, near death from lack of tail…he stumbles to the nearest whorehouse and replenishes himself. Good grief! Eventually Roi’s wives are brought in, as well as a dude with his face in bandages, and gradually the plot emerges that a pseudo-Roi Kunzer is being developed by SNARF. There’s also lots of internal rivalry among the bad guys, like a revolt against the leader, a “95% pure lesbian” named Liz (yes…Liz the Lez, though to his credit Geis doesn’t actually write this). 

There’s no attempt at suspense of anything; at one point Roi is uncovered by the newly-arrived boss, an Amazonian blonde named Venus Du Mont. Having tasked “Redd” with killing off Roi’s wives, Venus secretly had an underling follow Roi and the women into the jungle…and watch as he let them go. So Venus pulls out a gun and shoots Roi, point blank. And he dies! But as he’s dying a blue light envelopes him…it is the Great Mother Computer, the tech deity of his future world, coming to save him – and to send him several minutes back in time, so he can do all this over and not get killed! I mean talk about deus ex machina

Roi does things right this time, pretending to strangle his wives while whispering to them that they’re being watched. For this “successful” job, Redd is rewarded – oh and meanwhile SNARF has learned that Redd, ie the real one, was wanted for a bunch of rape-murders. This curious plot development goes nowhere, but it does sit well with the SNARF bosses, who prefer to have deviants in their employ! But really the novel is filled with too much of Roi standing around, wondering what the plot is against him…as mentoined it turns out to have the fake Roi venture to a new African kingdom, one ruled by a “hotpants” queen who is notorious for her sexual escapades. The fake Roi is to win her over with his superior screwing, so SNARF can take control of the precious mineral which is unique to this African country. 

Unfortunately for the fake Roi, he’s been given disinfo: a humorous bit has Roi’s wives ordered by Eve Du Mont to teach the fake Roi how the real Roi screws…and the girls give him all kinds of wrong tips, like saying that women enjoy their nipples being chewed on and whatnot. But really it just kind of goes on and on, and by the time we’re in the final quarter of the novel we’re ready for it to end. It culminates with the two Rois engaging in a gladiator match, with the real Roi of course triumphant, though curiously he never returns to his normal form by novel’s end. Throughout the book he’s rather portly, we’re to understand, which makes it kind of humorous that women are still flocking to him chapter after chapter – oh, and that’s a “sleaze novel rule” Geis doesn’t ignore. There’s a sex scene every chapter. 

Geis clearly had another adventure in store – the book ends with Roi picking up the paper and reading about an anti-sex movement spearheaded by a young woman, and figures it is inevitable the two will meet. However no further novel was forthcoming, so one can only conclude that readers in 1968 felt the same way about The Endless Orgy as I did.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

The Liquidator #1


The Liquidator #1, by R.L. Brent
 
No Month Stated, 1974 Award Books 

I’ve been meaning to get to this series for a while, but I have to admit I’m a little bummed that it isn’t about a dude who helps retail stores “liquidate” their unsold merchandise. Instead, The Liquidator mines the same territory as The Lone Wolf and Stryker, only without the surreal edge of the former or the arbitrary backstory-dumping of the latter: it’s about a tough cop who is framed for getting too close to the mob, and ultimately takes the law into his own hands to dish out a little bloody justice. Writing-wise it’s superior to either of those series, “R.L. Brent” going for a terse, almost hardboiled tone that comes off like “Fawcett Gold Medal for the ‘70s.” 

This then makes who “Brent” really was pretty surprising: according to James Reasoner, it was Larry Powell, who also for Award wrote the Donovan’s Devils series. I remember absolutely nothing about the first volume of that series, other than that it was boring and padded to the extreme. Such is not the case of The Liquidator #1, so either the same writer did not in fact write both series – for what it’s worth, Hawk’s Authors Pseudonyms credits Robert Turner for Donavan’s Devils – or Powell’s heart was just more into The Liquidator, and the writing displayed that. (Let’s just assume that sentence made sense.) I went into this one not expecting much, and found myself greatly entertained; it was a fast-moving tale with little fat, a good plot, and strong characters. Another thing I dug was tht Powell (or whoever) clearly wrote it as the start of a series, with several subplots still dangling by novel’s end. 

Another interesting gimmick is that The Liquidator appears to take place in the “future” of 1978 – which, curiously, is the year the fifth and final volume was published, a few years after the previous four had been. Granted, this gimmick isn’t even mentioned and is only inferred from the narrative: when hero Jake Brand, the tough Miami cop who stars in the series, is arrested midway through the novel, we’re informed that it’s the biggest thing to happen in Miami “since the Dolphins won the Super Bowl.” This would place the action in 1973, which according to usually-reliable Wikipedia is the first time the Dolphins won the Super Bowl. This would also coincide with the time Powell was likely writing the manuscript, as it’s my understanding it took these books about a year to get into print from the time of manuscript submission to the publisher. Well anyway, Brand spends five years in prison…meaning it’s 1978 when he’s released, if we’re to take that Super Bowl reference literally. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Brand when we meet him is a former football player who now works as a cop in Miami; he has a grudge to bear on the Mob, particularly local creep Leo Hester. Brand’s dad was a beat cop, and was killed by a junkie when Brand was a teenager. Brand’s older brother went to law school as a result of that, imploring Brand to pursue the football career their dad wanted for him. But then Brand’s brother was killed, too – while trying to bring down Hester’s racket. Upon this Brand dropped out of football and joined the force, and now in his late 20s he’s been successful in derailing Hester’s pipeline. Powell doesn’t waste our time with a lot of “realistic cop stuff;” within the first few pages Brand’s blowing away a pair of drug dealers, with little concern over rules and regulations. 

Brand isn’t so sharp, though; his contact is a stripper at one of Hester’s dives, and early in the book one of Hester’s stooges catches Brand and the girl meeting. Brand tries to rough up the stooge, claiming he has the hots for the stripper and all, but it’s clear he’s been made…not that our hero realizes this. Instead he goes back to bang his hot girlfriend, Diana, whom we’re often reminded is way out of Brand’s league; he constantly wonders what she sees in him. I mean Brand as presented is six-plus feet of pure musclebound stud, but at the same time he’s a cop with a cop’s pay, and Diana is high-class stuff. Again, this too should set off Brand’s sixth sense. Also it would help if he, like us readers, could consult the back cover, as the copy there completely blows the surprise that Diana will sell him out. 

This happens in a memorable moment about a quarter of the way through the book. Brand’s already taken down so much of Hester’s setup that the Mob executive board, run by Mr. Orsini in New York, plots to take him out of the picture. Rather than just kill him, which Orsini thinks is the better option, Orsini’s “slick” lawyer Cordetti devises a “cute” scheme to frame Brand: a lookalike (who remains off-page the entire narrative) is hired to blow away a minor cog in Hester’s pipeline, making it look that Brand has finally taken the law into his own hands. This, uh, “brands” him as a dirty cop in the eyes of his fellow cops – especially when Diana lies that Brand was not with her all night. Indeed, she further fibs that Brand admitted to killing this guy, asking her to keep quiet about it and cover for him. All this is relayed to the cops in her bedroom, the cops coming to arrest Brand at three in the morning; meanwhile in reality, Brand has been in bed with her all night. 

Quick sleaze quotient note: Powell is not one to much exploit the sexual tomfoolery, with nothing here approaching say Harold Robbins levels. But on the other hand, you definitely know some hanky-panky is underway, with occasional mentions of “deep thrusts” and the like. As for the violence, that too isn’t much played up, with no copious descriptions of exploding faces or fountains of gore. And in fact, Brand kills relatively few opponents, at least when compared to his men’s adventure comrades. He blows away a couple guys, usually using pistols, and Powell never dwells on the carnage. Even a hardcore bit where Brand fixes a guy’s shotgun – jamming up the barrels with shards of soap – is handled conservatively, with the ensuing face-blowing-offery of the jammed shotgun happening off-page. 

Brand’s time in prison is compactly conveyed over a few chapters; this is by no means a “prison novel.” After a few attempts are made on his life due to his ex-cop nature making him a top target, a black acquaintance outside sets up a group of “brothers” to serve as his guardians – a subplot that could’ve been more elaborated upon. Even behind bars Brand proves his heroism, first foiling an attempted prison break and later saving a doctor from a raging psycopath. This final act results in the warden making a call to the governor and getting Brand’s sentence commuted. All told, Brand “only” spends five years in prison, and when he gets out he immediately sets upon his plan to dish out a little payback to Leo Hester and the mob. In particular he has a score to settle, given that he’s found out his stripper informant was gang-raped and murdered by Hester’s thugs, courtesy an icepick to the spine. 

Brand understands that he can never be a cop again; even though he’s innocent, he is forever tainted as a dirty cop. But this is no big deal; it’s the ‘70s, and practically everyone is taking the law into their own hands to fight the Mob (at least according to the proliferation of similarly-plotted men’s adventure novels on the racks). He even comes up with the “Liquidator” title at the very end of the book, though otherwise he doesn’t have any fancy gimmicks or calling cards. And so far as guns and stuff go, he just uses a revolver and whatever else he picks up along the way, like a silencer-equipped .45. Initially he doles out revenge in fitting methods, like icepicking the thug who icepicked the stripper informant. There also follows the memorable bit where Brand sabotages another thug’s shotgun. 

But still, the vibe, at least to me, is like something from Gold Medal in the ‘50s. Like when Brand starts staking out Hester’s beach house, and spies his hotbod brunette mistress sunning on the beach – topless, of course. She catches him and rushes over to confront him, catching Brand off-guard. Turns out she’s been instructed by Hester to tell Brand that the mobster wants to talk, and also that she, the mistress, is Brand’s for the taking – she looks forward to it, having never been with a guy who has been celibate for five years. Surprisingly Brand doesn’t take the bait, and instead has her call Hester to set up a meet. The girl is named Gwen, and Powell gives her a memorable personality; she certainly doesn’t consider herself some cheap whore, and promises Brand that she’s super-skilled in the sack. At length our hero of course relents, but as mentioned Powell isn’t one for the sleazy details: “She gasped when he made the deep stroke” and the like being the extent of it. And it must be some deep stroke, as Gwen isn’t eager to let Brand go afterwards, insisting that their time together “meant something” to her. 

The meet with Hester is also pretty cool; the portly mobster swears it was the higher-ups who framed Brand, and further offers Brand enough info to get started on his mob-busting. Hester’s no fan of Brand’s, but figures he can kill the proverbial two birds: take out some competition in the mob, and along the way Brand might get himself killed. Hester tells Brand about the frame, who was behind it, and also where Diana has disappeared to. Curiously though at this point the book takes a slight detour; Brand’s also been informed of a new mob computer setup in Virginia, and goes about a lengthy plan to bring it down. But even here there’s more characterization than you’d expect, from the proto-computer geek who turns out to really be the boss of the operation to the shrewish lady who ends up helping Brand. Here Brand gets more info on the mob, and more importantly does more damage to them, but at the same time it detracts from the revenge scenario. 

The finale also takes an unexpected direction; Diana is in the suburbs of Maryland, where she’s married to a wealthy plastic surgeon who runs a fortified clinic. Brand basically just walks in the place and asks for Diana! This turns out to be his entire plan. He’s drugged, surrounded, and wakes up on a hospital bed; he was hit so hard the doctor actually gave him stitches. Diana returns to the narrative here, and again the plot goes in an unexpected direction, with Brand getting lucky and suffering a loss in quick succession. In the ensuing gunfight Brand also winds up taking out the guy who killed his brother, without even realizing it (though he’s informed so later). Powell pulls an interesting trick here with Brand being saved by women twice in the finale; first Diana gives him a gun no one knows she has, then after the climactic firefight (in which Hester is almost casually dispensed with), Gwen shows up and escorts Brand to safety. 

Gwen is actually still with Brand at novel’s end, but I doubt we’ll see her next volume. These ‘70s mob-busters were pretty much swingers. Anyway, I enjoyed The Liquidator #1 more than I thought I would, and I’m glad I picked up the rest of the series several years ago. FYI the last one, The Exchange, which as mentioned came out a few years after the others, appears to be the hardest one to track down. It was also published by Charter, which might be one reason it came out in ’78 while the others were in ’74; maybe publication was delayed when Charter took over Award’s books.