Thursday, January 30, 2020

Adventure In Paradise

Adventure In Paradise, by Emile Schurmacher
November, 1958  Zenith Books

I love these vintage men’s adventure magazine anthologies. This is another one courtesy prolific men’s mag writer Emile Schurmacher, comprising five novella-length yarns from the Diamond Line. We’re not informed of the actual issues the stories came from, just provided a note at the start of the book of which magazine each originally appeared in. Also we don’t get an introduction from Schurmacher, as with Our Secret War Against Red China. In fact Schurmacher’s name isn’t even mentioned anywhere on the book, and on the title page we’re told the book is “as told to” Schurmacher.

Which means, somewhat unfortunately, that all five stories are narrated in first-person. I’m really not into first-person narrative in my escapist fiction, but it’s no big deal, and in a way it works for the stories assembled here. Each are heavy on the nature fiction tip, like men’s mag takes on Jack London or James Fenimore Cooper. Schurmacher as ever captures a rugged feel in his books, with great descriptions of the flora and fauna of uncharted regions of the earth. However, one thing I should also mention – as is typical with most every other men’s mag story ever written, the cover slugline has nothing at all to do with the actual contents of the story. There are no “savage women” anywhere here, and the cover painting, likely taken from a men’s mag as well, does not illustrate any scene in the book. For the most part, each of the stories is more focused on survival in the wilds, with the precious few women reduced to supporting status. Save that is for one or two stories – but even here the women in question are in no way “savage.” This isn’t a complaint, though; the stories are all entertaining and Schurmacher delivers gripping prose and memorable characters.

First up is “The Girl At Fat Wong’s Place,” which is credited to “Bill Harvey” and comes from Stag. This one, like all the others assembled here, follows the men’s adventure magazine template: it opens on some dramatic moment, then flashes back weeks or months earlier to tell us how the protagonist got here, before finally in the last pages returning to the opening incident for a harried finale. I almost think there was some men’s adventure mag school course somewhere that all these writers took, like the pulp magazine equivalent of DeVry or something. This story, more than any other in the book, spends most of its running time on the flashback portion.

Anyway Harvey is “free, white, and almost 28” (curiously a phrase you don’t hear very often these days!), and when we meet him his small schooner has just crashed on an atoll in Tahiti, stranding him with a sleazy Frenchman named Blois and a “pulse-stirring beauty” named Jeanne Lu who is Chinese-Tahitian. We flash back to months before and see how Harvey got in this predicament. His backstory is pure escapist fiction: he sees an ad in the paper for a shark hunting boat business for sale in Tahiti and decides to go for it. He flies over to Papeete, excited to get the schooner, only to be swindled by a Frenchman into buying a junker. As for the shark business, it too was a lie.

Eventually Harvey works at Fat Wong’s club, which is a dancing parlor with whorehouse upstairs – you can dance with the lovely native gals, and for a few dollars more take them upstairs. Harvey has his eyes on the gorgeous young Jeanne Lu, meeting her when he beats up the drunk who tries to take advantage of her. She takes Harvey up to her room for some off-page lovin’, and by the way all the sex is firmly off-page in this book, befitting the age of publication. Wong pays for the retrofitting of Harvey’s schooner and employs him on the copra trade, and after more adventures, including a few more bar fights, Harvey ends up on the schooner with his mate Blackie, Jeanne Lu, and Blois.

Finally we return to the opening sequence, which offers a half-baked suspense angle in which the increasingly deranged Blois lusts after Jeanne. Oh at this point Jeanne feels that Harvey doesn’t care for her, thus plans to return to her island or something. They live on the beach in what is an otherwise idyllic paradise, Jeanne using her childhood knowledge of survival on remote islands. Then one night Blois tries to kill Harvey and goes to rape Jeanne, who scratches him up like a wildcat. Harvey kills Blois, Jeanne buries him(!), and now the two live together happily until they are finally rescued. This one features an interesting finale in that Harvey and Jeanne get married; this is a trend that continues through the collection, and it’s different than other men’s mag yarns I’ve read, where the studly American protagonists usually go back home and leave their exotic foreign babes behind.

“I Found The Last Blonde Of Assam” is credited to Barry Ralston and is from Male. Despite having a misleading title, this one’s a better yarn than the previous, if only because it doesn’t spend the majority of its time on backstory. Ralston is a British “white hunter” who works for a London-based outfit and is responsible for big game hunting in India. When we meet him he’s just endured a massive earthquake (the date given as August 15, 1950) in which his native guides are wiped out. Now he must venture alone into the dangerous region of the Naga Indians, headhunters who put their brutal skills to work for the government in World War II. Harvey’s been asked to find Sandra Keith, a “snooty blonde bitch-on-wheels” director who has come here to India to make a documentary on the Naga, danger be damned.

As mentioned the title is very misleading: Sandra is the “blonde” of the title, not some exotic native beauty. Schurmacher as ever excels in the nature fiction vibe and really brings to life the rigorous terrain of Assam. Harvey encounters all sorts of setbacks and threats from the flora and fauna, and also Schurmacher adds an eerie layer of destruction thanks to the massive earthquake which just rocked the area. But when Harvey finds Sandra in the Naga village, run by a chief named Gtimi, the pulp vibe comes on full force: the Naga consider Sandra a “she-devil” and have locked her up. She was filming them with her movie camera when the earthquake hit, killing hordes of Naga, and thus the Indians believe that the woman and her mysterious device caused all this death.

Harvey’s able to talk some sense into the Indians, but ends up getting bashed on the head and knocked out (a recurring theme in the book). When he wakes up Sandra’s in the village temple, where she is to be sacrificed to the Snake God. Humorously, only one Indian’s even around, Gtimi and the others presumably out hunting or something. Harvey takes out the guard and finds Sandra about to become the meal of a massive snake. He chops it in half and the two make their escape. It’s back to the nature fiction vibe as the two fend through Assam – having some hot off-page lovin’ along the way – all the while hoping to evade their pursuers. Curiously, there’s no confrontation with the Naga; Harvey and Sandra escape to safety and leave “paradise” behind.

“My Six Years With The Amazon Women” is credited to George Ravenal and comes from Stag. This one also has a misleading title, but it’s a great story with the feel of an epic, like the James Fenimore Cooper of men’s mags, or even Dances With Wolves. This is one of those yarns where I wonder why the author didn’t develop it into a full-blown novel. There’s certainly the makings of one here, as Schurmacher packs a novel’s worth of events into a 40-page short story. Like the other protagonists in the collection, Ravenal is a rugged individualist who seems happiest far away from civilization. But Ravenal takes it to greater lengths than any of them, as here he spends six years living in the wilds, and only returns home because a shaman pushes him to it. An anthropologist, he tells us what brought him to the High Andes of Ecuador was “to find places no white man had ever seen before.”

This story is total nature fiction, all about surviving in the rain forests of South America and encountering a variety of flora and fauna. Snakes are a particular threat throughout the book but in this story in particular. Ravenal also has an encounter with vampire bats. As mentioned the story packs the details of a novel, just in rushed form: early on Ravenal’s informed that many Southerners fled to Ecuador after the Civil War, and now their descendants live deep in the Andes(!). Further, he’s told that one of them, who lives alone in the jungle, might be able to point him in some good directions to explore. Ravenal does meet this guy and spends like a month with him, but it’s mostly told via summary; there was a lot of potential here to flesh this out, particularly the bonkers “Civil War descendant” bit. Instead it’s back to the nature fiction, with Ravenal spending months venturing into the rain forest, at one point caught in a torrential downpour which pushes his raft into an unknown direction.

He ends up in the land of the Piji, the very same dangerous Indians the Civil War guy warned him about. As an anthropologist Ravenal is able to communicate with them using the base Indian language of this area, but still he’s attacked promptly by them, coming across an adult male and a twelve year-old boy. Ravenal somehow manages to kill the male, after which the boy proclaims that Harvey has become his new bodyguard, given that he just killed the old one! The two go to the Piji village, which is run by the boy’s father, Chief Tacla. While there are a few Indian babes here, going around in the expected skimpy clothing, it’s worth noting that these “Amazon Women” hardly even factor into the narrative. Indeed, Ravenal’s set up with his “own woman” upon entering the village – of course, the widow of the brave he just killed – but he turns down her blunt offer of sex. This was a “hmmm” moment, particularly given the fact that the dude by this point had spent around a year in the jungle by himself, but later he hooks up with Tacla’s lovely daughter, even marrying her.

While the women are supporting characters (if that), the men take the focus, especially the village shaman. Schurmacher is very good with foreshadowing, or introducing something early in the narrative which pays off satisfactorily toward the climax. This story features the best instance of this in the collection: Ravenal shows the shaman some of his belongings from civilization, and ends up giving the shaman his wristwatch as a gift. Ravenal has realized he himself no longer even tracks time: “Somewhere along the line I had become a white savage.” He lives with the Piji for years, as I say a sort of Dances With Wolves thing, until the day that Tacla’s son runs afoul of a rival tribe and the Piji go to war. Ravenal takes part in the raiding parties, only to return one day to find their own village destroyed – Ravenal’s wife and newborn son among the massacred. He becomes a one-man army of vengeance, but sadly – and again a reminder of how this story would’ve benefitted from a longer length – all this is rendered in a few sentences.

But the ending packs an unexpected emotional wallop: after his latest vengeance raid, Ravenal passes out in exhaustion and wakes to find the shaman trying to purge “the demons” from him. After this the shaman escorts Ravenal out of the village, to the trail that will take him home, and presents him with a parting gift. Later Ravenal opens it – to find the watch he gave the shaman years before. A reminder from the medicine man of the civilized world he knew Ravenal would one day have to return to. This one’s definitely the strongest story in the collection, but I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite, at least so far as the pulp element goes. The only thing pulpy about “My Six Years With The Amazon Women” is the title.

“We Crashed Into An Unknown World” is by Roger Oakes and is from Male. This is another one that features a misleading title, as it’s more of a survival mini-epic. Protagonist Oakes is a World War Two vet who now acts as a foreign correspondent in Mexico. He tells us of that “terrible day last June” when the small plane he was in crashed over Copper Canyon, which we’re informed is an uncharted no man’s land about the size of the Grand Canyon. Also onboard is sexy Mexican actress Maria Vegas, along with her simpering heavyset assistant. Only these two and Ravenal survive the crash, after which it’s all about survival in the jungle, as they’re in the sort of underworld of the Canyon and Oakes tells them there’s no chance any planes will come looking for them, given the dangers of downdraft and whatnot.

So, they have to hike over hundreds of miles of jungle terrain, with the usual dangers both flora and fauna. Once again snakes are the top threat, one of them causing the untimely demise of Maria’s assistant. After this it’s just Oakes and Maria, living together in the jungle; when they find a nice spot by a lake, they build a sort of campsite and live together for weeks, eventually having the expected off-page sex. This one’s really more of a hunting and fishing in the wild sort of yarn, with Oakes snaring fish or bagging game and Maria cooking up nice meals. When some jungle cats show up the two realize with regret that they’ll need to leave, and eventually they hook up with a pair of Indians who lead them to safety. This one too features the unusual ending of the protagonist marrying the exotic foreign babe, but Schurmacher doesn’t follow up on movie star Maria Vegas’s miraculous return to civilization and the public which assumed her to be dead.

“I Was A Slave Of the White Savage Queen” rounds out the anthology; it’s credited to Jerry Gibson and is from Hunting Adventure. Well finally folks in this one we have a pulpy jungle tale that lives up to its title, and for that reason it’s my favorite in the book. We meet Gibson just as his two Indian guides are killed by an anaconda, and now he’s venturing all by his lonesome into a deep, uncharted area of Paraguay. A botanist in the employ of a Chicago pharmaceutical company, Gibson is here to find some plants to be used to make new medicines. This gives his character an interesting element which Schurmacher well factors into the plot, particularly given that it trades on a mysterious native drug that can control a man’s mind and turn him into an obident slave. Throughout the tale Gibson puts to use his knowledge of the various drugs in the area, making him like the men’s mag version of Terence McKenna.

In a brief flashback we see how Gibson came here to Paraguay, hired a few native guides, and bullied them into taking him down a river into a particularly dangerous region of the jungle. This is because, the previous day, Gibson came across a mysterious plant which one of his guides warned him to stay away from – the yala plant, which the Indian claims will rob a man’s mind. He says it’s used by the “Blonde Witch” of the jungle, then buttons up about it, clearly having said more than he intended to. Gibson pesters both Indians for info on this Blonde Witch but gets no answers. But anyway now they’re both dead and he’s alone on the river. He hears screams for help one day and goes onto shore to help, only to realize too late he’s been trapped. The scream was a diversion and mean-looking Indians with red-painted faces close in on him, strapping him to a pole like a “bagged tiger” and carrying him into their village.

This is the domain of the Blonde Witch, a hotstuff blonde babe in a revealing robe: “no ordinary pretty-faced blue-eyed blonde.” Early in the story, when gaining permission from the local government to venture into this part of the country, Gibson was told of other South American explorers who came down here and disappeared, one of them a female anthropologist from Argentina. Gibson quickly deduces that the “Blonde Witch” is none other than that missing scientist, Luisa Monte. But now she’s crafted herself into the merciless ruler of thse Indians; it’s a matriarchal society, Luisa later reveals to Gibson, noted for the usage of the yala plant: the women use it to turn their men into mindless slaves.

Luisa is truly sadistic; her intro features her sending a drug-controlled man to his death, bitten by a poisonous snake. This turns out to have been her previous lover – and she’s decided that Gibson will be her new one. The scene where she seduces him is a highlight of the book, inviting him to the house she’s had the natives build for her and casually reclining on animal skins while Gibson tries to throttle her. Instead her uber sexiness wins out and they have some of that off-page good stuff; Gibson serves as Luisa’s latest stud for a few days, but Luisa either finds him a subpar lay or just tires of his constant criticisms of her sadism, as she sends her henchman Felipe to round him up and force him to take the yala drug.

Schurmacher does a swell job of conveying the ensuing days from the viewpoint of a man under mind control. Gibson finds it easy to not have to think for himself and goes around doing slave jobs for Luisa, who presumably has no further use of him in the sack. But here’s where those botanist skills pay off; yala is addictive, Gibson finds, hence why these natives stay hooked on it. When it’s time for his next dose he finds some plants that cause vomiting and pukes it all out. That night he exacts his vengeance on Felipe but stops short of killing Luisa in cold blood. Instead we find out that eight months later, once he’s returned to Chicao, Gibson learns of a“skeleton of a white woman” which has been discovered in a remote Indian village; his supposition is that, with Felipe gone, Luisa was no longer able to keep her subservient Indians in check and they ran roughshod on her.

Overall I really enjoyed Adventure In Paradise. Schurmacher’s writing is skilled and evocative and he really brings to life these green hells of the world. Granted, the pulpy exploitative stuff isn’t as strong, but again that’s more so a case of the publisher’s misleading sluglines. I think the biggest indicator of the strength of some of these stories is that I would’ve enjoyed reading more of them – “My Six Years With The Amazon Women” in particular would’ve made for a great novel. However, Shcurmacher did eventually publish a story that totally lived up to the “savage women in the wild” tag – “Captured By Assam’s Amazon She Devils,” which came out several years later.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Hard Rock

Hard Rock, by Jay Lawrence
May, 1968  Dominion Publishing

I picked this one up several years ago in the hope that, despite being published by a sleaze imprint, it might still be a decent rock novel. Like a fool I figured maybe I could read the novel for the characters, the story, and a peek inside the late ‘60s hard rock scene. But of course the book turns out to be nothing but endless screwing, with the “rock stuff” only used as a framework to deliver more endless screwing. It was interesting though to see that a book published so early in ’68 already seemed to understand the difference between basic rock and hard rock, though unfortunately the author is unwilling – or unable due to publisher demands – to much elaborate on it.

No idea who Jay Lawrence was, but I’m assuming it was a house name. There’s nothing fancy in the writing department about Hard Rock and this isn’t one of those sleaze novels that’s actually a good read, ie one written by a slumming author who tried to turn out an entertaining yarn despite the demand for copious adult situations. There’s no story, the characters are ciphers with unbridled libidos, and the writing style is meat and potatoes blunt. (Actually I should employ a more “adult” term than “meat and potatos,” but you get my drift.) The book’s just a little over 150 pages with big print, every chapter detailing a sex scene with some new insatiable babe the “hero” encounters, and every once in a while we’ll get some minor rock stuff, like that he’s recording a new album or somesuch.

I put hero in quotes above because Hard Rock appears to be the sleaze version of a morality tale; “Sex made him an idol and ruined him,” proclaims the cover, and that basically summarizes the entire plot. We meet protagonist Bobby Linger as he’s playing guitar and singing somewhere in the south, flashing back to a moment two years before when he was picked up by a pair of swingers. This is straight out of the gate and lets us know what we’re in for – pure sleaze with no chaser. Bobby’s eyed by the stacked wife of some drunk southerner, and soon enough he’s back in their motel room vigorously screwing the wife while the husband clutches his “small stiffness” and watches. It gets even more outrageous from there. Curiously though hardly any profanity is used in the book; about the most we get is “breasts” for the female anatomy, otherwise Lawrence sticks to metaphorical or descriptive phrases.

Well that was two years ago and now Bobby, 21, is singing and playing and hoping for stardom. We’re told he’s tall with longish blond hair, and supposedly looks like a rock star mixed with an all-American youth or somesuch, given his athletic build. More importantly so far as the novel goes, he’s massively endowed. And also he’s driven by such unhinged lust that even the typical Harold Robbins protagonist would consider him a little too horny. But it’s hard not to get lucky over and over again when every single woman introduced into the text wants to have sex with you, and the sooner the better. As ever I got more of a creepy vibe from the book than anything else; everytime a female character is introduced we get at least a page describing her ample anatomy, down to the view provided by her hiked up mini-skirt. Sex is the end-all, be-all of existence, the only thing that makes anyone tick, like Freud taken to preposterous lengths – okay I’m reaching here because the novel’s too dumb for this sort of analysis.

So Bobby wants to be a star and here he is plying his trade in the South. The songs Bobby plays, how he learned to play guitar, his history, where he came from – absolutely none of it is elaborated upon. But boy do we learn about his countless conquests. The sole exception to the “bang ‘em immediately after meeting ‘em” rule is Toni, a mega-hot blonde babe Bobby spots on the beach one day. Only, there’s something familiar about her. She’s a former singer herself, one who was on the cusp of fame before she mysteriously dropped out of the spotlight. We get a few mentions that she had an “accident” and now her voice has a slightly hoarse quality, and again like a fool I figured this would eventually be explained in the text. But nope. The bigger focus is that Toni is now a lesbian, and manages acts with her partner, equally sexy redhead Marie. So anyway Toni’s been watching Bobby here on the beach, is familiar with him from his few concerts, and offers to manage him. The only catch of course is that he will never, but ever, have sex with her. Or with Marie.

The two women quickly determine that Bobby excels at “hard driving rock,” but again absolutely no description of the style is given. Then they hook him up with an all-girl backing band, figuring the novelty factor will appeal to male fans and the sight of Bobby surrounded by three sexy girls will appeal to female fans. Or something. Because folks believe it or not, the female band members aren’t even named and the author inexplicably never delivers a scene where Bobby gets friendly with any of them, let alone all three at once. This was such a bizarre miss that I figured the author was afraid that if he did name the female group members, it would mean he’d have to write more “rock stuff,” thus he kept them nameless and off-page.

Not that Bobby has to go celibate, as he does more than well for himself. From a Eurasian hooker with acrobatic skills to the never-ending sprawl of women he meets after each show – Bobby turning Toni into his pimp as revenge for not letting him have sex with her – Bobby gets lucky again and again and again. And as ever there’s absolutely nothing erotic about any of it, just pages of enthusiastic banging with no emotional or dramatic or even plot-based thrust. But back in those pre-internet porn days guys had to take what they could get, so I doubt too many readers cared.

Now we’ve got the makings of a sort of plot: Bobby has fallen in love with Toni, but “bitch” Marie runs roughshod over him, making him practice and stay focused before shows. There’s a part where he performs some, uh, oral explorations upon Toni, who immediately thereafter runs away and begs Bobby not to tell Marie. Then it’s like the author said “to hell with this” because we have an out of nowhere part where Marie comes to Bobby one night…and has sex with him! And now she’s basically like his secret girlfriend, the two keeping it a secret…until Toni finds out about it…after which the author once again denies reader expectation by not delivering an immediate three-way. Instead the expected orgy is perennially put off for one reason or another…the girls are tired from a long day “handling business,” or Bobby’s worn out from recording his latest album…or whatever. 

And yes, Bobby records albums, meaning in the plural, but we don’t get one word about any of them. We do however get a little info on at least the business end of the rock world: Toni and Marie set up an arrangement with a bigtime showbiz promoter named Carson, who is geared to put Bobby on the fast-track to superstardom. We’re already informed of the “Bobby Linder craze” and whatnot, people apparently going crazy for his “hard-driving rock” style. But immediately after this we get back to the main focus of the book: unerotic, sleazy sex. Bobby hooks up with an old flame with swinging inclinations and he brings Marie along to a party she’s throwing. Soon enough Bobby’s doing some broad and Marie’s going down on another, eventually finding herself the centerpiece of an orgy. Next morning, looking at her haggard, worn features, Bobby wonders if he’s maybe gone a little too far with Marie.

Meanwhile there are bigger issues – earlier in the book Bobby scored with a couple gals who were into whipping and the like. Well, they secretly filmed it, and now Bobby’s being blackmailed, with the threat of releasing the kinky hardcore footage. The main threat here is that the two babes in question look slightly like Toni and Marie, so the blackmailers want the world to think Bobby Linger’s in a twisted relationship with his two female managers. Today he’d score a reality TV series, but in 1968 this was bad news, so Toni, Marie, and Carson go through the process of “carving up” Bobby’s contract to pay the million bucks the blackmailers want for the footage.

Because at this point Marie and Toni are disgusted with Bobby and hate him. I mean they’ve known from the very beginning of the book that he’s a sex-mad freak, but I guess Marie’s orgy tribulations and watching that bondage video really opened their eyes. But no fear, because they show him their true feelings in a manner suitable for a sleaze paperback: they double-team him in explicit detail. Both drugged out of their minds, they wake Bobby that night and proceed to thrust themselves upon him. Over and over, until he’s passed out from exhaustion and misery. Next morning he finds this note, which made me chuckle:

“Dear Pig,” [Bobby] read. “We’re through. You’ve had us in every way possible now, and there’s just nothing more to be had. We’ll probably see you in hell, but until then here’s hoping you go on making your own without involving us in it.”

Because as mentioned this is a sleaze morality tale, and Bobby’s the villain now due his comeuppance. He discovers that the two girls are gone, never to return, and Carson’s his new manager. And a demanding manager at that. From here Lawrence skips through months (and years?) in mere sentences – we’re told Bobby releases a few more albums, but all of them tank, and he’s already being chalked off as a fad. By novel’s end Carson’s forcing him to please some old rich lady who might be willing to finance more albums, but instead Bobby ends up taking the virginity of Carson’s hotstuff daughter! The finale is incredibly bizarre and comes off like the author stabbing from hell’s heart at his perverted readers: Bobby is reduced to becoming the latest plaything of the old rich lady, being led around on a leash and whipped like a dog!

And that’s all she wrote, folks. This isn’t a “rock novel” in the least, so if you ever come across it and are hoping you’ve found another Death Rock, be forewarned. Its interest mostly lies in how it can make sex seem so sleazy, depraved, and grotesque, but this seems to be the forte of most sleaze paperbacks, a la Flowers And Flesh.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Book Of Justice #2: Zaitech Sting

Book Of Justice #2: Zaitech Sting, by Jack Arnett
February, 1990  Bantam Books

Luckily the second volume of Book Of Justice is better than the first. Interestingly this one’s copyright “Justice Enterprises,” whereas the first one was copyright Mike McQuay. I assume though he also wrote this one, as well as the ensuing two volumes: the “about the author” bio at the end of the book presesnts a fictional history for fictional “Jack Arnett,” implying that Arnett was once involved with global intrigue but now lives the life of a beachcomber. His age is given as 42, which I believe would correlate with McQuay’s age – McQuay died just a few years later, of a heart attack, at the young age of 45. (I say “young” because Im 45 and I sure don’t feel old!...At least most of the time.)

We meet William Justice and his trusty team as they’re plying the waters outside Haven, the island republic Justice heads up. There’s some business about a near-revolution in nearby Cuba and Justice has some background with the man behind the failed revolution, Marto Chavez. Currently Chavez’s people are escaping Cuba on a boat that’s just entered Haven waters. Jusitce, on a yacht that’s secretly loaded with heat-seeker missiles and various other weapons, communicates with the captain piloting the Hind helicopter that’s chasing the refugees. Sardi, Justice’s turban-wearing right-hand man, implores Justice to seek peace. Meanwhile Bob Jenks, the brawny former Federal agent, insists Justice “blow the fuckers out of the sky.”

Instead Justice does what no men’s adventure protagonist should ever do – he bides his time, indecesive. He reaches what he thinks is a d├ętente with the Cuban captain…who only pretends to fly away, but then turns back and opens fire on the ship of refugees. Finally Justice orders the Hind destroyed via those heat-seekers, after which he and his comrades board the refugee boat and gun down the surviving Cuban soldiers in cold blood. Meanwhile the refugees have almost all been massacred; lots of grim stuff here, with mentions of dead kids and even Jenks moved to tears by the sight. A bit too dour, I think, for this particular genre. Oh and throughout Kim, the hotstuff Eurasian babe who acts as the Smurfette of Justice’s main crew, goes around in a hot pink string bikini with a Wild West-style .45 strapped to her shapely thigh, blowing out the brains of surrendering Cuban soldiers with her AR-15.

Meanwhile Chika Stark, a half-Japanese lady who has also come to Haven to seek refuge, has troubles of her own: a pair of sadistic CIA goons corner her in her apartment, kill the teen girl Chika has befriended, and then tell Chika they’ll murder more innocents if Chika doesn’t come quietly with them. Apparently she created something the CIA now wants for American security, and they’re royally pissed that she “sold out” to the Japanese, apparently offering them the device. This brings Justice into the plot; while deep-diving to look at the refugee corpses – more dour stuff that seems like overkill at this point, though presumably it exists to show us how Justice gets “emotionally involved” with the people he tries to save – Justice witnesses the two goons trying to kill Chika when she jumps off their boat in an escape attemtp. Justice breaks the neck of one agent and watches as the other kills himself; we’re only like 40 pages into the book and there’s already been more action than last time.

But then, McQuay clearly wants to shoot higher than “just another men’s adventure series” with Book Of Justice; there are various subplots about politics on Haven (some local rabble-rouser named Caido Lienard wants to run against Justice as boss of the island republic), investment banking, and a muckracking Haven reporter named Stromberg who wants to get the goods on Justice. Unfortunately, rather than coming off like a big suspense series, I just found it all tedious and tiresome. Justice already has a large enough entourage, we don’t need extra stuff about yet more characters. Again, this is why ‘70s men’s adventure novels were so much better – they were just more primal, sticking to their sole lone wolf protagonists. Of course there were exceptions to the rule, but for the most part ‘70s men’s adventure was more streamlined. Zaitech Sting almost needs a Cast Of Characters page for the reader to keep up.

McQuay was a veteran of Gold Eagle and brings that imprint’s distrust of the CIA to this series; after digging up the corpses of the agents he killed (seriously, the first quarter of this novel is almost ghoulish, with several scenes of Justice either looking at or searching through dead bodies), Justice determines they were working for the US government. So he heads to the White House and, amid much televised hulabaloo, reveals the charred, mutilated bodies of the CIA agents to the TV cameras – which happen to be broadcasting the event live. Oh and I forgot to mention, but either McQuay bet on the wrong horse or just decided to set this series in an alternate reality, as it’s revealed that Dan Quayle is President! But then Haven’s already been presented as an island nation with UA status, so technically this series is alternate reality. Oh and to bring it all home – none other than Donald Trump is mentioned on page 53! And to bring it even further home – CNN gets mentioned in a negative light, pushing the fake news that “William Lambert” (aka the name the rest of the world knows William Justice by) is a terrorist, con artist, and general bad guy.

Eventually we meet this novel’s main villain, a Japanese dude named Shirishata who heads up a family-owned business and employs sadistic means to achieve his goals. He wants the “organic computer” Chika has designed, a computer that mixes technology with nature and runs off biochips. He sends his sword-wielding goons after Chika on Haven, resulting in some heroic sacrifice courtesy Chavez. Oh and meanwhile Kim gets friendly with Lienard, the Haven rabble rouser who challenges Justice to become “CEO” of the island republic; they even have a sex scene that’s so off-page we only learn anything even happened via casual dialog. However McQuay will occasionally try to exploit Kim’s ample charms, with her traipsing around Justice’s fortress HQ in skimpy, nipple-revealing clothing, but honestly it comes off like half-assed catering to genre demands, with little of the impression of sleazebaggery I demand in my pulp writers.

The saddest thing about Zaitech Sting is that it has the potential for pulp greatness, but squanders it for a good 170 or so pages (the book runs to a too-long 200 pages)…and then, in the final several pages, we have Justice, Kim, and Jenks fighting actual honest to Zod ninjas in Japan. And it’s straight out of MIA Hunter #4, too: all you’ve gotta do is point your machine gun, depress the trigger, and veritable hordes of the sword-wielding crazies will just fall dead at your feet. Anyway all this happens after Justice has gone through the trouble of finding out who Chika is – this courtesy Kim, who hacks the CIA database (Haven hacking!!) and learns that Chika was working on an “organic computer” via a molecule that could render “biochips” a thing of reality and thus throw the current geo-political-corporate landscape into riot. Now she’s been taken by Shirsihata, who lives in a castle surrounded by armed men and tons of ninjas. The plot finally kicks in gear as Justice and comrades fly over there and HALO jump into Shirishata’s domain.

Even here though McQuay can’t be content to dole out “just another action series;” while the bullets start flying in Japan, we have these interminable cutovers to Haven as the election goes down, “William Lambert” versus Caido Lienard, with Sardi handling it all given Justice’s disinterest in the whole matter. After a passionate speech about the good “Lambert” has done for Haven, Sardi succeeds in winning the election for his boss. Occasionally we’ll cut back over to the good stuff, with Justice running around in “black camous” and wielding an M-16/shotgun combo, blowing away ninjas left and right. McQuay slightly gets into the gore, with descriptions of “brainpains blowing out” and the like. But even here, while they’re getting shot at, Justice and Kim find the opportunity to discuss “all this killing,” and for Justice to allay Kim’s concern that perhaps Lienard might be a better leader for Haven, given his promise of peace. Justice quashes this, though, saying that Haven needs brutal warriors like Kim and Jenks and Justice and the others – the world is out to get Haven, and it needs defenders.

So concerned is McQuay with all this stuff that, when Justice finally confronts main villain Shirishata, who is holding a sword to captive Kim’s throat, McQuay barrels through the denoument in a single, unsatisfying paragraph: Justice goads Shirihata into attacking him, stops the blade in midair with his bare hands, and breaks the bastard’s neck with a single kick. Lame!! From there it’s back to Haven, where a defeated Lienard comes across Justice as he’s breakfasting by the sea and pulls a gun on him – a gun which Justice learned about when Lienard came to the island years ago, and which Justice secretly had broken. (Guns are forbidden on Haven, by the way – except of course for soldiers like Justice and his crew, which is about as New World Order as you can get…) Anyway Justice in his omniscience knows that Lienard was sent here as a mole by the French, his purpose to wrest control of Haven from Justice and turn it over to his evil French masters. Instead Justice offers Lienard a new mission: to become a triple agent, an inside man with the wily French government.

And here mercifully Zaitech Sting ends; impossibly, the next two volumes are even longer, with the final novel in particular appearing to be a veritable doorstop of a book. I think my greatest issue with Book Of Justice is that none of it’s very interesting…the characters are not likable, and Justice still seems more like “Mr. Malibu” than the cold-hearted killer he’s constantly proclaiming himself to be. I mean folks he even gives his followers the occasional pep talk with a hug. Also, given that it’s now the ‘90s, computers have entered the fray, so we get a lot of stuff about Kim hacking the CIA database and delivering all sorts of exposition about it. All of which is to say that Book Of Justice has more in common with the “suspense thrillers” that eventually cluttered bookstore shelves, and less in common with the men’s adventure yarns of the ‘70s and ‘80s, though given the ninjas it’s clear McQuay was trying to merge the two genres.

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Groovy Genius

The Groovy Genius, by Jack Siegel
April, 1971  Pyramid Books

With a back cover slugline that proclaims, “Can a boy who loves Mom, Dad, baseball and the girl next door make the scene with a balling chick and freaked-out acid heads?,” The Groovy Genius was basically begging for me to read it. I mean that slugline’s right up there with the “freaking hippies into acid-rock scenes” promised on the back cover of Cindy On Fire. And, coincidentally, the novel was published by Pyramid, which was also the home of Burt Hirschfeld’s “Hugh Barron” pseudonym. Given this I was under the impression “Jack Siegel” was also a pseudonym, however checking the Catalog Of Copyright entries, I see this book – as well as a few others – is copyright Siegel, so I assume this was the author’s real name. Otherwise I don’t know anything about him.

But early into The Groovy Genius I was about to hypothesize that “Jack Siegel” was a pseudonym of Don DeLillo, as in many ways the book reminded me of DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star: it’s all about a teen genius from New York, one who is obsessed with baseball, and thus I got a bit of a second-hand DeLillo vibe from it. There are also mathematical formulas throughout the novel, the kid’s method of breaking everything down to an equation, which added to the vibe. Indeed, this and the baseball stuff is so prevalent through the first half of the 156-page novel that I often found myself checking the back cover to ensure I was reading the right book. I mean there were no “balling chicks” or “freaked-out acid heads” anywhere in sight. But finally they appeared in the narrative, so my perserverence paid off.

Anyway, the novel concerns Noah Giganti, a 14 year-old genius who lives in the Bedford neighborhood of Brooklyn. Anyone looking for early ‘70s New York period details will be unsatisfied with The Groovy Genius, as other than the occasional topical detail Siegel mostly sticks to his characters and their words. Noah has recently won the National Science Contest, beating thousands of other kids for the honor. His father (referred to as “Giganti” in the narrative) and his mother (who barely has any dialog) are simple folk, the dad a “civil servant” who goes around the city fixing broken pipes. They have no idea how their son became a genius but they of course are immensely proud of him, and Siegel does a great job of capturing a strong family bond. I also really appreciated the caring father figure, which is something you don’t seem to see too much of in today’s entertainment…almost as if, I don’t know, masculine role models were being filtered out. I guess this is just how it was before the sexual revolution!

When we meet Noah he’s soon to turn 15 and is already getting offers from various colleges to enroll, and a VP from the “IMB” corporation comes calling, basically telling Noah he can write his own ticket. But Noah has no desire to go to college or work in some office: he wants to be a pro baseball player. So after a fairly long sequence where we see Noah being interviewed on TV about winning the contest, we have another where he tries out for a baseball team. And doesn’t make it, despite his “power hitting,” per his best bud Rocco. There’s also lots of stuff about Rocco, a tough neighborhood kid whose cousins ridicule him for hanging out with an egghead like Noah. There’s also stuff about Dolores, a hotstuff gal in Noah’s class whom Noah fantasizes about, as she’s supposedly the school tramp (Rocco claiming to have been one of her many bedmates), and also there’s Clementine, the literal girl next door who openly tells Noah she loves him. In fact all this stuff keeps going and, while it’s good so far as inner-city melodrama goes, it’s just not the book I thought I was about to read – the book promised by the cover slugline and back cover copy.

Then out out of nowhere there’s this emotional sequence where Noah’s dad goes over all the offers Noah’s gotten from colleges and companies, and tries to tell the obstinate kid that maybe playing baseball might not pan out. But Noah is determined to play ball. This leads to their first-ever argument, where Noah’s dad says he “doesn’t deserve” a kid who is so smart and that he’s a gift from God and thus he’ll do whatever he can to protect him and ensure he takes the right path in life. When Noah says he’d consider being an astronaut after his baseball career’s over, his dad is totally against it – “No! No kid of mine’s gonna float around the world way up there in the sky. The chances are too big, you could be a loser there and I don’t wanna lose you to something like that, something I can’s see where I can’t help you.” I realized as I read this part that, after forty-some years of reading, this was the first time I’d ever found myself identifying with the words of a father in a novel. The entire speech resonated with me. But don’t get me wrong, I was still impatiently waiting for the hippie chicks and the LSD-fueled orgies.

And luckily after this we finally get to them – after this brief argument with his dad, Noah announces he’s going downtown. He’s realized that for him to be on the same “worldly” stature as Rocco he’ll need to go down to the city on his own. His dad and mom are against it but Noah goes anyway. Again, different eras here…can’t see too many parents letting their 14 year-old kid go to downtown New York all by their lonesome. At least, parents who give a shit, and Noah’s parent’s certainly do. But off Noah goes, catching the sub to the Village, where he spots some hippie-types on the train and a pretty blonde girl. Eventually he wanders to a park…where he’s almost mugged by those same hippie-types. An interesting thing about Noah is, while he’s smart, he’s still a tough city kid, and he fights off the would-be muggers.

Here he also runs into the pretty blonde who was on the train with him. We don’t get too much exploitation of her physical charms – Noah’s thoughts and impressions are seemingly relayed by a much more mature character than his age would imply – but we at least learn she’s pretty and she’s built. She’s clearly one of those hippie types, though, and wants to treat Noah to a cup of coffee after this ordeal. Eventualy they wind up in a place she helps run with some other guy, and she’s drinking wine with Noah. She says her name is Abby, she’s from California, and she’s an 18 year-old college dropout. We get some character-developing dialog here and Abby’s character does sparkle; Siegel doesn’t go all the way with the hippie tropes but she’s definitely on that wavelength, going on about finding herself and communes and all that stuff which would sound dated in just a few years.

She apparently gives Noah something, because when she takes him back to her little house in the Village he promptly passes out on her bed. She’s brought Noah here because she wants him to see her “raft,” aka her bed, so dubbed because she “takes trips on it.” Presumably this is Noah’s first trip but neither he nor Siegel make much of it; Noah just wakes up, having dreamed of Abby, and finds that it’s the following day. At four in the afternoon. Clearly his folks will be panicked, but Abby instead talks Noah into hanging out with her. Also she reveals she knows who he is, having seem him on TV. She wants to recruit Noah into a “controlled experiment” in which a group of people will go on a “trip” to see if they can understand one another. Noah, despite his brilliance, doesn’t know what kind of trip Abby means.

Meanwhile he feels the obligation to at least let his parents know he’s still alive, so he calls a newspaper and leaves them a formula. He knows that if his parents see it, they’ll be assured he’s still alive. However this leads to a nigh-surreal subplot in which Noah is believed to be kidnapped; periodically over the next day, as he stays with Abby, he’ll see newspaper headlines or hear radio reports about “the possibly kidnapped National Science Contest winner.” This stuff is so overdone, with even crowds of New Yorkers standing around and talking about the situation, that inititally I feared the whole Village sequence was just a dream. But it’s not, and Noah really loses some “good and caring son” points by letting his parents (and the news) theorize that he’s been abducted and can only communicate with them via impossible-to-decipher formulae.

Abby’s trip of course has to do with acid; the session will be overseen by Wiseman, a brawny black guy who talks “like no other black Noah had ever met,” which is to say like a professor. Which apparently he was – there’s a lot of hippie-era navel-gazing here, so far as Wiseman’s quest to find his identity. A couple others come over and Abby hands out the sugar cubes, and the ensuing psychedelic sequence is short but vividly rendered, enough to presume that Siegel might’ve tried a trip himself. Otherwise the (too brief) acid trip is mostly rendered through banal poetry (most of it courtesy Noah, unfortunately) and navel-gazing dialog. I did find the following exchange, spoken by an older novelist who takes part in the group trip, particularly interesting from the vantage point of our modern era:

“We also need a kind of ethic radar to guide us through the fog of our history. So that we can return to course. That’s why my book is a blue comedy, in which the minority-minority…” 

“Two minorities make a majority,” Wiseman said and turned to Noah. “Right?” 

“Right,” the writer said. “So the hero takes a trip from the absurdity but in the end he must return to his own stagione and face up to life.” The writer belched out an exclamation point. “But who wants to be a hero in a non-heroic age. That’s like being a heterosexual in a queer society.”

Humorously the cops show up – we’re later to understand it’s because they’re looking for Noah, who presumably was spotted with Abby – and Noah and Wiseman take off. Here the psychedelic stuff is replaced with lots of talk from Wiseman about wanting to be a “black star” in the white man’s world, to which Noah responds, “But a black star couldn’t be seen.” The two go through various adventures in this mini-episode which seems to come from another book but which apparently exists so as to convey Noah’s right of passage into adulthood, or at least how he attains a mature understanding.

After saying bye to Wiseman Noah heads back to Abby’s and discovers that the cops have left – she says they couldn’t find any evidence. This taken care of, the two finally get down to the dirty business of screwing. Interestingly, the fact that Noah’s losing his virginity is not mentioned, but surely Abby knows – she seems to know everything in that annoying hippie way. Siegel doesn’t fade to black and does a good job of conveying the happenings via prose that’s borderline explicit while also being conveyed from the naiive point of view of a teenager:

He took his hand away and rolled over looking for entry. She maneuvered him in and he felt the soft, gliding tightness until the walls of her thing reached the base of his and he could go no farther. Then he retreated, advanced and retreated, all his concentration on the very edge of his body. Her eyes were closed, her mouth partly open. He moved up and own as he had rehearsed in his own mind a thousand times and Abby moved in counter rhythm, whas was different from how he had heard it.

As if that weren’t enough we get another explicit sequence on the next page, this one complete with oral ministrations from Abby. The “balling chick,” baby! But when Abby asks Noah to leave the city with her and go start a commune somewhere, Noah gently kills the idea. Definite prescience here from Noah (not to mention Siegel); Abby insists she’s “not crazy” for believing in communes – and that “most of the country” will be a commune in the future(!) – but Noah knows better. It’s all just LSD-borne cloud talk. They say their goodbyes, and Noah returns home to find a block party waiting for him, his parents knowing he’d be arriving thanks to another formula he sent the papers. The finale is even emotional with Noah’s dad openly crying that his son is home and safe. But Noah’s sudden maturity is a bit hard to buy, particularly his abrupt decision to give up on the baseball and astronaut ideas. Here the novel comes to a close, Siegel providing a handy key to understanding the forumlae he’s sprinkled through the text.

 All told The Groovy Genius isn’t bad, it’s just missing something and seems somewhat unfinished. Given the vocabulary, the mathematical symbols, and the character depth, I wonder if Siegel was shooting for the hardcover market, as the novel is very much in-line with a lot of the “hippie lit” that was being churned out by hardcover publishers at the time. Yet at the same time the book just doesn’t offer much: it’s about a 14 year-old genius who wants to play baseball, goes to Greenwich Village, takes acid with a couple people, and gets laid. I mean that’s the plot; there just isn’t much “there” there. And yet it’s also missing the trashy elan one would suspect (nay, demand) of an LSD-sexploitation paperback. Regardless, this was the sole printing of the book, thus I conclude it either didn’t resonate with readers of the day or it just had poor distribution and no one was aware of it.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

A Time Of Ghosts (Raven #2)

A Time Of Ghosts, by Richard Kirk
May, 1987  Ace Book
(Original UK edition 1978)

The Raven saga continues with a second volume that seems to be set shortly after the first; Raven and her guru warlock (plus occasional bedmate) Spellbinder are still in the same region in which the previous volume concluded, however now Raven is training some new character named Silver on how to be a warrior in the army Raven’s apparently decided to form. Oh and meanwhile the novel has opened with that same future prologue with some unnamed old guy traveling around a desolate world and telling tales of long ago – tales about Raven. Last time I opined this guy was Spellbinder but I could be wrong.

Anyway in the narrative itself – the prologue and epilogue are the only parts set in this post-disaster future – Raven’s taken on a Conan-type barbarian from the north named Silver, who when we meet him is being trained by the ghost of Argor, the warrior who trained Raven herself a year ago. It’s not really Argor’s ghost, though, but just his spirit or somesuch, magically teleported here by Spellbinder as Argor doesn’t want to venture out of his city. Silver has long black hair and a Conan build, with the novel addition that he’s a mutant who can turn his body into silver, hence his name. Backstory has it that he scaled some magical tower in his homeland, the result of which gave him this supernatural ability. We’ll roll with it.

Now you might think a barbarian warrior with mutant powers is cool enough to warrant his own series, but “Richard Kirk” (aka British authors Richard Holdstock and Angus Wells) doesn’t have much time for Silver: more focus is placed upon two other new characters who become part of Raven’s growing army. Like some primordial Spartacus Raven’s intent is to free slaves, train the notable ones as warriors, and use them as her personal army of chaos. Or something. I’ll admit it’s been a while since I read the first volume, so it’s possible I’ve forgotten some of the finer details of the saga. At any rate Raven and Silver crush a slave caravan, hacking and slashing the slavers, and two of the freed slaves get Raven’s interest: one’s a hotstuff brunette, also from the northern tribal lands, named Karmana, the other’s a tall and lanky guy with pale, haunting eyes named Moonshadow.

Of the two, Karmana is the one to gain the most spotlight, at least initially. Karmana is a proud warrior woman who was captured and enslaved, but worse yet was raped – the memory of wich haunts her. I have to say, speaking from the perspective of our #metoo world, the subject of rape is treated rather delicately here, at least so far as ‘70s fantasy goes (the series didn’t make it to America until about a decade after its British publication…things just moved more slowly then, folks). Whereas other series of the day like Gor had tons of rape-fantasy throughout (I should admit I’ve never actually read a Gor novel), the female characters in Raven struggle with how to cope with the fact that they’ve been raped. Of course, this being a fantasy adventure series and all – plus the women in question being kick-ass warrior babes – the coping method involves gutting, emasculating, and just in general killing their rapists.

All three of these things Raven did to her own rapist, Karl ir Donwayne, at the conclusion of the first volume; thus imagine Raven’s shock when she learns that the man who raped Karmana was…Karl ir Donwayne. Now, my immediate reaction was that maybe Donwayne did this particular raping you know, before he was emasculated and gutted by Raven, but Raven’s immediate reaction is that Donwayne is still alive. This just proves once again that the “Swordmistress of Chaos” knows more than I do, because Raven turns out to be correct, at least sort of – at length she decides to consult one of the apparently-many oracles of her world to find out what the hell is going on. Eventually she and Karmana set off for the Sons of Ulthann, a remote area which is the remnants of a once-great civilization.

There’s a fair bit of world-building here, more than last time, with lots of stuff about the new lands Raven visits, their history, and their people. After many pages have elapsed Raven and Karmana hook up with Moonshadow, who upon being freed by Raven has set off on his own quest – one which coincidentally also involves speaking to the oracle of Ulthann. With his long hair, slim build – so unlike any warrior Raven has ever met – and moon eyes, Moonshadow brings to mind David Carradine, and given the ’78 publication date it’s possible our authors were inspired by Kung Fu. Whereas Silver and his mutant abilities sounds ripe for the exploiting, the authors set their sights on Moonshadow, and he too has a story that could warrant its own series: he appears to be from some other world and is on a lifelong hunt for a force of evil known as the Crugoan. His power is also fueled by the moon: when it’s full he is at the height of his strength, but when it fades away in the sky his energy ebbs to almost nothing and his skin becomes transluscent.

Eventually the trio wind up in the courtroom of Karagan, high prince of Ulthann (the authors still have the unfortunate tendency of giving their characters similar names, I mean “Karagan” and “Karmana” in the same book)…and eventually Raven winds up in the bed of Karagan. Surprisingly, this being Raven’s first bed action in the novel (and we’re almost halfway through), the scene isn’t overly explicit (“When he entered her” and the like). Even more surprisingly, when Karmana shows up and pushes Raven aside for her time with the hunky high prince, the authors not only skip the opportunity to depict a friendly three-way but also leave the ensuing boinkery off-page.

Raven talks to the ghostly voice of the oracle, which tells her that Donwayne is sort of alive, his spirit or somesuch saved by that dastardly necromancer Belthis after the gory denoument of the previous volume. Sadly friends this means that A Time Of Ghosts is a retread of the first volume, given that the two main villains of that one return for this one…even though one of them was soundly killed by Raven in the previous book. The oracle opines where Donwayne might be, and of course this becomes Raven’s new destination; conveniently it’s pretty much where Spellbinder wants her to be, given the main plot thread of the novel – that Gondar Lifebane, the viking ruffian of the previous book, has abducted the fair Kyra, co-ruler of the empire of Altan (and yet another of Raven’s bedmates in the previous volume…as was Gondar himself).

We’re getting pretty well into the book now and there haven’t been any major action setpieces for our heroine. This occurs finally; while aboard a ship taking her to the waiting Spellbinder, Raven and Karmana are attacked by the crew, all of whom want a piece of these two hotstuff, busty, scantily-clad babes they’ve taken on as passengers. So the two warrior chicks start hacking and slashing their would-be rapists, with Moonshadow assisting, proving finally he’s the warrior Raven suspected, despite his frail build. This part features the unforgettable moment in which Moonshadow slips on a trail of gore and knocks himself out. It also features the memorable moment of a friggin’ sea monster coming out of the ocean and attacking all and sundry, only to be stopped by a giant bird Raven calls for help.

Now reconnected with Spellbinder, Silver, and a bunch of other characters the two have drafted in the interim – Raven’s “army” now up to a total of 12 warriors – Raven and her comrades scale the cliffs of Lifebane’s island fortress Kragg, Raven surprising the brawny viking while he’s in the bath. However Lifebane swears he has nothing to do with the kidnapping of Kyra, and that it’s all a setup. He gives Raven one of her ships and it’s off to meet the navy of the Altan to tell the crazed ruler that his sister is not on Kragg. The authors realize they’ve been short on action, thus provide a sequence in which Raven fights the Altan’s “Night Warrior,” a swordsmaster who happens to be invisible. Raven uses her wits and the help of Silver’s shining hands to see the unseen foe – Silver’s hands allowing Raven to see the outline of her opponent.

In a cool sequence Spellbinder sees back in time and their ship follows the ship which abduced Kyra, a few days before. They follow after it over a few days to see its destination, the spell exhausting Spellbinder. Eventually they learn the ship has gone far north, to the Ice Lands, but for some reason they don’t head straight there to kick ass and rescue Kyra. Like last time the plot just jumps everywhere; eventually Raven and army head back to the Altan’s home, which they’re surprised to learn has been overtaken by an “army of millions” comprised of various tribes. Raven stages some campaigns which end up freeing the city, after which she and her comrades finally head up north to free Kyra.

Here the novel gets down to what it’s supposed to have been about from the beginning: of course, necromancer Belthis and zombiefied Karl ir Donwayne were the true abductors of Kyra, and when we finally meet up with them the zombie Karl has just finished raping the poor girl yet again. Silver again comes to the rescue, turning his whole body silver and fighting a bunch of warriors made of ice. The climax has Raven again fighting Karl ir Donwayne, even though we already saw her defeat him last time, but the bastard escapes yet again, annoyingly enough. Belthis isn’t as lucky, as it turns out he is the current vassal of the Crugoan entity Moonshadow has been hunting across worlds. But it escapes, too, pulling itself out of Belthis’s body (the corpse of which is unceremoniously kicked off a cliff) and disappearing into the void, Moonshadow following behind. And meanwhile Raven’s army suffers a surprising loss, but curiously not much is made of it.

And with this A Time Of Ghosts finally comes to a close; at 198 pages of small print it was a longer read than I expected. This was mostly due to the slow-moving nature; whereas Swordsmistress Of Chaos was a bit juicer in the sex and gore departments, this one was downright sluggish, and often faded to black when the goings got good. In fact, Raven manages to hook up with Moonshadow as well, but it too happens pretty much off-page. I’m too lazy to research it but I wonder if this wasn’t so much a case of authors co-writing each volume, but taking turns on them. Meaning, a different writer churned out A Time Of Ghosts than the one who wrote Swordsmistress Of Chaos. Not that the writing seems totally different, it’s just the vibe that has changed, and more importantly while I enjoyed the first one I found this second one a chore to read.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Random Record Reviews: Volume 2

More obscure ‘60s/’70s rock LPs: 

After the riproaring success of my first Random Record Review, I thought I’d do another – last year, that is. But at least I’m finally getting around to it. So, with another tip of my nonexistent hat to 00individual (who else thinks he should write a bio – and send me a review copy of his ‘60s counterculture compendium???), here a few more obscure rock LPs I think some of you might like.

1. Jacobs Creek: Jacobs Creek
Columbia, 1969

The group bio on describes Jacobs Creek as “roughly in the realms of The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane,” which is pretty accurate, though I'd toss in some late-period Beatles and probably some others I can't think of at the moment. Centered around brothers Derrek and Lon Van Eaton, the group apparently didn't get much notice at the time. I searched my Rolling Stone Cover to Cover CD-Rom and the only mention I found of Jacobs Creek was in the 1972 review of the Van Eatons LP Brother, released on Apple; just a minor mention that previously they'd been in the band Jacobs Creek. The LP seems very long for the era, six tracks per side, and two of them are over 6 minutes long. There's a lot of variety, from psychedelic rock (“Colors”) to Doorsy “theater rock” (“Anonymous Verdict”) to a sitar-banjo hoedown sort of thing (“The Circle”). In fact this variety might've been why the album didn't resonate at the time, as it's hard to pigeonhole the group. But the album is well produced, with a lot of different instruments in the mix.

Top Track: My favorite would have to be the psych rocker “Behind The Door,” which builds to an awesome fuzz bass raveup.

2. Jimmie Haskell: California ‘99
ABC Records, 1971

Haskell was a film composer who here did a “thematic fairytale” of a rock concept LP, set in the far-flung year of 1999. Possibly one of the more elaborate packages of the era, the sleeve folds out (and keeps folding out) into a big wall map of the United States of 1999, complete with a “marijuana insect corridor” in the midwest. The belabored backstory has it that the US has gone bankrupt and renamed itself “California,” with legal dope and etc, and the story concerns a young man who has been tasked by the Big Brother government to find three “lifemates” instead of performing his otherwise-mandatory military service. Groovy orchestral stuff that would sound at home on the Barbarella soundtrack trades off with spoken word passages (complete with cool sonic trickery), random moog freakouts, and the occasional rock song (including an arbitrary cover of The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”). Guest list includes Joe Walsh, who sings and plays guitar on two tracks. 

Top Track: Would have to be one of those Walsh songs, “Jessica Stone,”  a nicely mellow psychedelic rocker with a little sitar in the mix. If only the entire album sounded like this!

3. Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint: Lo And Behold
Sire, 1972

The cumbersomely-named Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint was an offshoot of obscure British group McGuinness Flint, which was sort of the UK equivalent of The Band in that they played country-flavored rock. After two albums the group reformed itself, with lead singer Dennis Coulson now receiving billing in the name of the group and a new bassist with the last name of Dean joining the fray. This was their sole album, released initially in the UK and then the US, where it received a rave review in Rolling Stone. Despite this the album didn’t register and quickly sunk, which is a shame. Of all the records I’ve featured on these two Random Record Reviews, three of them I’d say should have become classics: Wilderness Road’s self-titled debut album, Neil Merryweather’s Space Rangers (both reviewed on the previous list), and this one. Seriously, Lo And Behold encapsulates everything that is great about classic rock, and many of the songs on this unsung album should’ve become FM radio staples. It features the novel conceit of covering Bob Dylan songs that hadn’t been released at the time – but have no fear. This isn’t a “Bob Dylan” sounding record at all.

Whereas the first two McGuinness Flint albums had been mostly country, Lo And Behold features all kinds of styles: the Velvet Underground vibe of the title track, the Stonesy swagger of “Gets Your Rock Off,” even a pitch-perfect recreation of the Byrds sound on “Eternal Circle.” In addition there’s an Indian raga, a gospel-tinged epic, and a jokey circus-sounding song. The four-man band nails each style perfectly, Coulson’s voice defines the classic rock sound, and the record features great production, sounding incredible on vinyl. It’s a mystery why this one slipped through the cracks. After its release Coulson went off to a solo career, releasing a single self-titled album (Elektra, 1973). It also went nowhere (I have it and it’s good, but nowhere as great as this album), after which he seems to have retired from the music biz. As for McGinnis, Dean, and Flint, they continued on without Coulson, but I’ve not heard any of their albums.

Top Track: My favorite song, “Let Me Die In My Footsteps” (the Indian raga tune), isn’t on Youtube for some reason. In fact, hardly any of the album is on Youtube! So I’ll just have to settle for “Lay Down Your Weary Tune,”  which was released as a single – and is one of the tracks that should’ve become a rock radio staple.

4. The Move: Split Ends
United Artists, 1972

If The Move is remembered at all today, it’s for being the group that became Electric Light Orchestra. Started by multi-instrumentalist Roy Wood, the Move released a few LPs that critics loved but didn’t do very well commercially, at least here in the US. Jeff Lynne joined for the heavy progressive rocker Looking On in 1970 (“heavy progressive rock” being different than “prog rock,” at least in my definition –more of a heavy psychedelic rock thing with little of the self-indulgent wankery prog rock would eventually become known for), after which Wood and Lynne came up with the idea for ELO. However they still had to release one more Move LP, and while working on the first ELO LP they released Message From The Country in 1971. Also at this time they released a slew of singles, like “California Man” and “Do Ya,” all of which were great but none of which were actually on the album.

Well, some executive at UA got this great idea: “Since Message From The Country didn’t do so well here in America, why don’t we cut out all the filler tracks and replace ‘em with those awesome singles, and release it as a pseudo-album sort of thing?” This they did, the resulting “album” being titled Split Ends for the American market. This one actually garnered a review in Rolling Stone (the Cover To Cover CD-ROM again coming to the rescue), by no less than Lester Bangs, who regaled “Do Ya” as the hit it should’ve been. Well, eventually it was – when Lynne re-recorded it with ELO a few years later.

As it is, Split Ends plays like a great album, and I certainly like it better than the cello-heavy first Electric Light Orchestra album, because this one rocks, and is basically the definition of early ‘70s heavy prog. Also worth noting: Split Ends has more copy than any LP I’ve seen, ever: four columns of small print on the back cover, and dense copy on both slides of the inner sleeve, all explaining the reasoning behind this compilation’s release and also providing a history of the band.

Top Track: Well, “Do Ya” of course is the hit single that never was, but I’ve always liked the proggy epic “The Words Of Aaron.”  Ironically, it wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the first ELO album.

5. Rabbit: Dark Saloon
Island, 1974

John “Rabbit” Bundrick was an American keyboard player who went over to England in the early ‘70s and joined the group Free, appearing on their final two albums. After this he ventured into a solo career, this being the second of two albums he released. Whereas the first album is more of a rough, almost demo-like sort of thing, Dark Saloon is gloriously overblown coked-out ‘70s studio rock, covering the gamut from heavy rock to reggae(!). The sound textures are phenomenal; Rabbit plays a host of keyboards and synthesizers, employing a variety of sound effects to all the instruments. Super cool stuff, and very ‘70s (but I repeat myself). Once again we have a scenario where Rolling Stone gave a good review, but the record didn’t resonate. In fact I could barely find anything about Dark Saloon online, and I only discovered it after some random browsing on But man is it a great album…I’ve played my copy many, many times, and it’s a shame more people aren’t aware of it.

Top track: That reggae number is actually pretty cool (“43 Revolution”), sounding like something that might’ve been on John Lennon’s Walls And Bridges, but my favorite track is the funky, psych-tinged “Dig It Johnny Walker.”

6. Neil Merryweather: Kryptonite
Mercury, 1975

A year after Space Rangers (reviewed on the previous list) came out, Neil Merryweather got his Space Rangers band back together, only with a new guitarist this time – due to behind the scenes nonsense, the main guitarist on Space Rangers, Timo Laine, went uncredited on that album. By the time the LP released, Laine was gone and new guitarist Michael “Jeep” Willis had taken his place, and he received credit on Space Rangers, even though he only provided a few licks to some tracks. Thus there is a different vibe to Kryptonite, and not just so far as the guitar goes; whereas Space Rangers had a sprawling, heavy progressive vibe, with long tracks merging into one another, Kryptonite sticks to shorter, more focused songs. But it’s still heavy, and Willis’s guitar work is just as good. However I’d be lying if I said I preferred Kryptonite to the previous album. I’m listing it here because it is still a great record, just not as great as its predecessor – and I was very fortunate to acquire a still-sealed copy. (I ripped that sucker open without a moment’s hesitation!)

Top Track: Closing songs “You Know Where I’d Rather Be” and “Let Us Be The Dawn” are great because they sound like something off Space Rangers, but I think “Star Rider”  best represents this album, and possibly Merryweather’s entire Space Rangers output (this sadly being the last of the albums he put out with the group, which disbanded). It also encapsulates the cosmic vibe of ‘70s Marvel Comics, and juding from the cover art, courtesy Captain America artist Don Rico, I’m assuming Merryweather himself was a Marvel reader. Plus it features one of the greatest opening lines in sci-fi space rock: “Been saling the spaceways it seems like forever/I can’t count the miles, my mind is blown.” You could see countless long-haired ‘70s teens firing up their bongs to those words…too bad no one bought the damn record!

7. The Pretty Things: Real Pretty
Rare Earth, 1976

The Pretty Things were like the UK equivalent of Spirt: a trendsetting group that should’ve been huge, but the stars just never aligned for them. Thus, like Spirit, the Pretty Things are unknown to the average music fan, but beloved by hardcore rock fanatics. In 1967 they holed up in Abbey Road studios and spent apparently the whole year recording what is now considered one of the greatest psychedelic rock albums of all time: S.F. Sorrow. But upon its release in 1968, the other trendsetting acts (ie the Stones, the Beatles, etc) were moving into more of a “organic” direction, or at least in a mostly non-psych direction, so the album sounded outdated. Also it seems that the LP was given a muddled release, and ultimately went nowhere. The Pretty Things reshuffled their lineup a bit and, undeterred by the failure of S.F. Sorrow, they again holed up in Abbey Road in 1969, again working with producer Norman Smith (Pink Floyd, etc), and in 1970 turned out an album that I think is even better: Parachute. This album basically picks up where Abbey Road left off (side 1 is a long suite in the manner of side 2 of the Beatles record), and I think it had an even greater right for instant Rock Legend status. But it too failed upon release, picking up its reputation along with S.F. Sorrow over the decades.

There’s an internet rumor that Parachute was ranked “Album Of The Year” by Rolling Stone in 1970, but I’ve searched my Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM, which has every page of every issue from the first one up through 2007, and the Pretty Things aren’t even mentioned until the release of Silk Torpedo, in 1974. I do know there was a British version of Rolling Stone in the early ‘70s, so maybe that’s where Parachute was listed as Album of the Year. No one really seems to know.

Anyway, both S.F. Sorrow and Parachute are now considered classics, and original pressings go for high dollars. Even modern pressings are overpriced. But then there’s this budget-priced two-fer, released for the American market in 1976, which no one seems to know about. Because folks it features S.F. Sorrow on the first disc and Parachute on the second! It’s a great pressing, too, not to mention all analog, unlike the sourced-from-digital stuff that’s passed off as records today. I got my copy for five dollars, friends. Five dollars! In near mint condition to boot! Plus you get a nice writeup about the Pretty Things and their history.

Top Track: For S.F. Sorrow I’d have to go with the Black Sabbath-sounding “Old Man Going.” For Parachute, the “Good Mr. Square/She Was Tall, She Was High” medley from the first side’s suite is my favorite. The bass on this sounds huge on vinyl!

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Springblade #3: Stiletto

Springblade #3: Stiletto, by Greg Walker
April, 1990  Charter Books

The “new breed of commando” series Springblade continues with another installment that comes off a little more like military fiction than men’s adventure pulp. Nothing in Stiletto matches the outrageous elements of the previous volume, and indeed for the most part it’s a long-simmer suspense yarn that saves its fireworks for the final quarter. However when those fireworks occur Greg Walker once again delivers some glorious gore, with noses bitten off, privates ripped asunder, and even anal impalements via pliers – so far as I know the latter being a first for the genre.

There’s no pickup from the previous book, and in fact much is made this time around about how main protagonist Bo Thornton is a “civilian” and no longer a military man. Meanwhile he’s already undertaken two covert military operations in the previous books. But then, Walker seems to have run out of steam, so far as his trio of protagonists goes, with the titular Springblade commando team playing second fiddle to a bunch of one-off Nicaraguan soldiers and terrorists. Bo himself doesn’t even appear until around thirty pages in, with the opening quarter devoted to a character named Angel Barahone, a Nicaraguan native who grew up in the US and currently serves in the Special Forces alongside series regular David Lee – the only member of the Springblade commando group who is still active in the military.

Angel, despite taking part in missions that wipe out the Sandanistan rebels, is actually a Commie at heart, and turns out to be a traitor in uniform; after an opening sequence in which he and David Lee take out some Sandanistas, Angel goes AWOL and delivers himself to the front door of a Sandanistan office in Managua, where he claims to be a believer in the cause. More importantly, he has intel which the Sandanistas can use to crush the Contras and the Americans. Later we’ll learn that Angel was not only trained by Bo Thornton, but is also “like a son” to him, not that Walker does much to exploit this relationship. Indeed, when Bo finds out Angel’s a traitor he has a few moments of disbelief, then basically vows to kill him.

We meet Bo as he’s practicing his knife-fighting technique with Jason Silver, the third member of Springblade, however this will be it for Silver this time around. The two get in a knockdown, dragout mock knife fight along the beach, complete with them rolling around in the sand and stuff – it isn’t the least homoerotic or anything – and after this Bo gets the call about Angel. This is also the only time series regular Calvin Bailey appears, ie the DEA agent who serves as Springblade’s handler. Bailey calls Bo with the bad news and Bo heads for Honduras, where he’s briefed on the situation by local army boss Major Gaston. Even here Walker manages to work in the series fixation on bladed weaponry, with Gaston showing off a butterfly knife he picked up in ‘Nam.

Gaston and Bo figure that the damaging intel Angel’s taken to the Sandanistas must have to do with the recently-built US base in Choluteca, right on the border of Nicaragua. Angel was part of the team that built this base, thus he would know the best means of destroying it. Here Walker injects a bit of commentary on the situation in Central America; Gaston claims that the situation is shit, with the US-backed Contras suddenly showing their sadistic impulses, butchering people right and left, yet the politicians would still rather back them than the Commie Sandanistas. Bo meanwhile is more pissed over the fact that a Green Beret has turned traitor; he’s never heard of such a thing happening before. 

Bo’s plan is to go in with just one other guy to head off the squad Angel will be leading on his attack. He requests David Lee, mainly for the reason that Lee’s familiar with the area and also has stake in the game, given that he served alongside Angel. Armed with a Stoner machine gun, an M-16, various sidearms, knives, and explosives, the two are dropped into Nicaragua and begin the arduous trek through the jungle. I suspect Walker must’ve been familiar with such operations as he brings a lot of authenticity to the narrative, down to Bo and Lee arguing over which of their prepackaged ready-to-eat meals (aka MREs) are the worst. However there’s still been no action for our main characters thus far, unlike last volume where Walker would toss in random but insane action scenes – most notably when Bo and Bailey were attacked by transvestite bikers with intentions of sodomy. (Now that's the story Jussie Smollett should’ve gone with!!)

In a Manning Lee Stokes yarn, our heroes would bump into some native gals who would serve as their guides and soon get all nice and cozy on the jungle floor with them. But we’re in the ‘90s now, and all that pulp stuff is frowned upon; the focus is on “realism,” so there go the sexy jungle babes with their pidgin English and “full breasts.” In fact the only woman in the novel is Bo’s girlfriend, recurring from previous books; they have an off-page sex scene shorty after Bo’s introduction into the text, after which she disappears from the narrative…with Bo often wondering if he’s in love with the girl. Oh wait there’s also a buxom waitress David Lee hits on before the operation in Nicaragua, but we don’t get any more detail on that.

However as mentioned the feeling of realism is strong and Walker does a great job of putting us in that green hell alongside Bo and Lee. There’s some good foreshadowing – not to mention Walker again working in the grander theme of knives in relation to the series concept – when Bo and Lee are surprised by some helicopters which are circling the area, and in their quick escape Bo manages to lose the trusty combat knife he’s carried since Vietnam. He and Lee get in a long discussion about it, Lee concerned that Angel’s men will find the knife and Angel will realize Bo is here, but Bo disbelieving this will happen. However the veteran reader will know that, given the amount of dialog which has been devoted to the topic, this is indeed what will happen. And it is.

But there’s no big “you were like a son to me!” climax here. Bo and Lee set up traps in the jungle and wipe out several of Angel’s Sandanistas before they can reach the American base, and at one point in the melee Lee is shot, his rucksack abosrbing most of the damage, but losing most of his ammo in the process. This leads to an awesome sequence where Bo and Lee split up, the former to head off Angel’s mortar team before they can hit the base, the latter to act as a one-man army and wipe out the rest of Angel’s squad. The stuff with Lee is the best and the highlight of the novel. He proves his badassery in a grand way, using Bo’s Stoner, various weapons, and even his own teeth as he takes on the attacking squad, biting off one guy’s nose in a brutal brawl.

This is just Walker getting warmed up, though. After this insane fight, Lee briefly passes out – only to wake up as he’s getting pissed on. Turns out there was one more Sandanistan in that party. But while the Nicaraguan is busy shaking himself off, Lee grabs hold of the only weapon in his reach: a pair of pliers. First he rips off some of the dude’s dick, then he flips the pliers around and jams the barbed handles up the guy’s ass! For the coup de grace he blows the guy’s brains out with a Magnum. Given this, Bo’s confronation with Angel is spectacularly anticlimactic; they get in a brutal martial arts fight with Angel ultimately getting the upper hand, training a gun on Bo. However the series title Springblade not only refers to the name of Bo’s commando team but also to the Russian-made springblade knife he carries in combat – a knife he hasn’t used yet this volume. Walker of course saves this for this climactic battle.

Walker at times approaches David Alexander levels; there’s a great bit where Bo’s Stoner is referred to as a “death guitar.” And in addition to the copious gore we’ll occasionaly get combat description like, “Lee blew the point man’s shit away.” But it’s in the gory details that Walker really shines, with Lee at one point cutting a guy in half, from crotch to head, with the Stoner. The knife-fighting stuff isn’t as prevalent as last time, though when it happens it too delivers heaping helpings of bloody violence. There’s also a memorable moment where Bo offers Lee some speed, to give them a boost of energy. 

So in the end, Springblade is kind of an anomaly. It veers a bit too close to “realistic” military fiction for me, but when the shit goes down it happens in a gory manner that’s more akin to what we expect from men’s adventure. At any rate I’m missing the next couple volumes, but will return to the series anon.