Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Twilight Candelabra

Twilight Candelabra, by William J. Craddock
January, 1972  Doubleday

William J. Craddock (1946 - 2004) was a gifted writer who only published two novels in his lifetime: 1970's Be Not Content and this novel, Twilight Candelabra, from 1972, only published in a trade paperback edition. He wrote several other novels, including a sequel to Be Not Content, but none of them were published. I assume this was due to publishing house politics, as Craddock's books, despite not racking up the sales, were at least well-received by critics. Be Not Content was given a favorable write-up in Rolling Stone, and it was influential to several writers, among them Rudy Rucker and William Gibson. 

Be Not Content was an autobiography posing as a novel, the ultimate sixties counterculture novel, about a former biker getting involved in the brand-new LSD scene. It was filled with memorable characters and imaginative "tripping" scenes, a sense of reality - you knew Craddock had experienced all of these things first-hand. Twilight Candelabra is a different beast. This book is darker, shorter, harder edged, and not nearly as good. It has a lot of problems, but a lot of redeeming qualities as well. In short, it shouldn't have been Craddock's last-published novel. It should've been his Crying Of Lot 49 his second-novel "misfire" (as Pynchon considers Lot 49), a stopgap between Be Not Content and its sequel Backtrack (still unpublished, but according to Craddock twice the length of Content). 

Twilight Candelabra is like a counterculture Exorcist. It rides on the occult vibe that swept over the US in the early seventies, namedropping everything from the Goetia to Crowley's rumored last words ("I am perplexed." Though, according to the Crowley bio Perdurabo," this rumor is hogwash). Spliced in with the occult "readings" and demon talk is a lot of stoner wisdom, drug usage, psychedelic trips featuring Burroughsian stream-of-conscious writing, cops getting killed, kinky sex, and a bunch of characters ending all of their sentences with "man." 

The book opens with a rambling, stream-of-conscious "Preface" in which Craddock mentions how everyone thinks he should get a "real job" and not try to write for a living. He then claims the novel is overly offensive and warns away sensitive women. As if to prove this, the novel itself begins with twenty-four year old hero Damon Dusk sodomozing a young boy, then pulling a .45 on the kid and telling him he's "morally obligated" to kill him. 

The core problem with the novel is Dusk himself. A bad-attitude guy with shoulder-length black hair and a full beard (suspiciously much like the photo of William Craddock on the back cover), Dusk has gotten over his head in some serious occult business. The novel covers only a few weeks of action; Dusk - a new name, as the character re-invents himself periodically with a new name and background - suspects two demons are on his tail, and tries all manner of actions to get rid of them. But the thing is, Dusk is too inhuman a character to like. He's like those superhuman characters Arnold Schwarzenegger would play in the eighties - always two steps ahead of everyone, perfect in all ways, unstymied by such simple human troubles as worry and fear and compassion. We watch dumbstruck as Dusk exploits any and all characters he comes across, abusing them physically and verbally, engendering the deaths of innocents, ruining the lives of many, yet never once feeling any remorse. This would work if Dusk was an anti-hero, a villain in the starring role, but he's not; Craddock presents Dusk to us as the hero of the tale. 

Instead of a cohesive plot, the book follows Dusk as he tries to figure out what's pursuing him, going from person to person. In this way the novel is much like early Don DeLillo. As stated, Dusk is always at least a step ahead, and unfortunately this includes the reader. So we have no idea why Dusk does the things he does, plans the things he plans, because Craddock won't let us in his head to find out. Instead, we are spectators, and this reduces the novel to the level of a film, where you can only watch the characters but never experience their feelings directly. 

The majority of the scenes take place in the dilapidated house of Herwoman, a 400 pound witch who gives Dusk readings, provides him with grimoires, and in turn uses his body to serve her womanly needs. It's at Herwowan's house that the novel's first extended drug trip takes place; Dusk drinks a concoction of Herwoman's which contains a cornucopia of drugs. As in Be Not Content, Craddock uses the drugs angle as an excuse to go wild with his writing, tossing in non sequitirs and turns-of-phrase that would have William Burroughs red with envy. Despite the drugged voyage into innerspace, Dusk receives no answers, so is still clueless about his shadowy pursuers. So he arranges a drug deal. Why? No idea, he just does. He takes advantage of the hero worship a young guy has for him by commandeering the guy's place, putting his life in jeopardy, and having him arrange this drug deal. Then Dusk takes advantage of the guy's fiancé...right in the guy's bed. After which he tells the girl to get herself together and keep her mouth shut. Yep, that's our hero. 

The drug deal turns out to be a scam, as Dusk sells his criminal customers battery acid rather than bona fide drugs. Again, why there's even a drug deal is a question the novel doesn't bother to answer. I can only assume it's because Emma Oyama, a disfigured Japanese businesswoman who's really a demon in disguise, is an associate of the guy Dusk wants to screw over in the deal, and Craddock wanted to introduce her in an action-packed way. Regardless, the deal only serves to set up a few action scenes, none of them resolving much of anything. 

After this Dusk suddenly decides he wants revenge upon a former acquaintance, a fellow dabbler in the black arts named Sampah. Why? You've got me. I figure it's because Dusk assumes Sampah has set those elusive demons on Dusk's back. In order to achieve this planned murder, Dusk first meets a group of revolutionaries, buying some bombs from them. Here Dusk tells the revolutionaries their future, informing them in flat tones what exactly will happen to them if they proceed with their plan to blow up a factory. He even reveals that one of their members is an undercover agent; they frisk the guy, and sure enough he's got a "signed photo of J. Edgar Hoover" in his wallet. How Dusk can predict the future and how Dusk knows all is again something Craddock doesn't explain. 

After reuniting with a former girlfriend and witnessing the suicide of another former acquaintance, Dusk heads out into the desert where he frolics with a commune of wild women and their Herculean master who torture and then murder a cop. The commune is near Sampah's guarded encampment; after an unsuccessful assassination attempt, in which Sampah escapes with his life, Dusk is a man possessed (so to speak), finally alive, finally with a goal to achieve. This serves to make the character more human, but it's too little, too late. 

As the novel races for its conclusion (the only conclusion it can have, given its hero's actions throughout), Craddock piles on the dark humor. One chapter features an extended sequence of Dusk about to face death from an armed pursuer, only for the pursuer to be killed by yet another armed pursuer, who in turn is killed by another pursuer right before the coup de grace, and on and on. It's almost Simpsonsesque, but jarring in the context of the book. The final chapter salvages things somewhat, a metaphysical look at life, death, and reincarnation, but I can only wonder how much better it would be if the novel preceding it had packed the same amount of emotion. 

Again, it's a shame this is all we ever got from Craddock. Despite my problems with Twilight Candelabra it does have some great writing. I'm convinced it influenced Pynchon; parts of the drug trips seem identical to those fractured bits at the end of Gravity's Rainbow, when Slothrop steps outside of the narrative. Craddock's writing is strong, literary yet accessible. My only complaint is his use of adverbs; the writer in me hates the sight of them. They're strung throughout the book, augmenting verbs that would do just fine on their own. He also has a tendency to break up dialog with unnecessary modifiers; lots of "Dusk said" and "she said" after every line of dialog, even when there are only two characters speaking. 

Special mention should be made of the packaging. The book sports a blacklight-poster-in-waiting cover of a Day-Glo demon ripping open its chest to reveal an angel inside (a clue to the novel's moral). Even better is the appendix. Craddock has a series of questions and revelations at the end of the book, my favorite being: 

A Suggested Question Concerning Twilight Candelabra: Why? 

There's also a list of "Sixteen Sexual Acts Performed Or Mentioned In Twilight Candelabra," as well as "Nine Causes Of Death To Be Found In Twilight Candelabra." It all reminds me of the Appendices in RAW/Shea's Iilluminatus!, only a bit more revelatory in some aspects (perhaps foreseeing that his book would be ignored, Craddock took it upon himself to give Twilight Candelabra a critical analysis, pointing out "Some Suggested Considerations"). In other words, the sort of thing which should've guaranteed the novel a cult badge of honor, but it was ignored, as was its author.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Loaded (aka Smokescreen)

Loaded, by Robert Sabbag
No month stated, 2002  Little, Brown and Company

In 1976 Robert Sabbag published Snowblind, an account of a coke smuggler which was greeted with much critical acclaim; Rolling Stone excerpted it extensively, and no less than Hunter Thompson showered it with praise. Sabbag didn’t focus on “drug books” for a while after that; I think I read an interview with him where he stated he didn’t want to to only be known for drug-related nonfiction, so focused on other material. But in 2002 he returned to the field with Loaded (retitled Smokescreen for its trade paperback reprint), which concerns the much more interesting (to me, at least) subject of ‘70s marijuana smuggling. 

In the afterword to Loaded, Sabbag states that he almost wrote this book back in the ‘70s, and that it would’ve been an of-the-moment documentation of the era. It’s kind of unfortunate he didn’t. I’ve searched, and it doesn’t seem like there were many books published on dope smuggling in the ‘70s; you’d figure Rolling Stone would’ve done a story on it, maybe with Thompson himself or some other roving reporter tagging along with some dope smugglers on their DC-3 as they winged their way across the border from Mexico with a huge stash of Colombian Gold. I’ve searched my Rolling Stone: Cover To Cover CD-ROM and have been unable to find any such story…the closest thing would be the occasional “dope pages” updates from Charles Perry which ran in the early to mid ‘70s, but the majority of those were just news bulletins on happenings in the world of dopesmoking. 

My assumption is the smugglers were so under the radar they didn’t even want any publicity in Rolling Stone. It seems that the only place you can find stories about them from the era itself would be in the fiction of the day, a la Night Crossing and The Mexican Connection. (And let’s not forget a modern attempt at this subgenre, High Fliers.) Well anyway, all of which is to say that Sabbag could’ve dominated the field if he’d done this book back then, because as it is, it doesn’t seem like Loaded reached anywhere near the success (critical or commercial) that Snowblind did, implying that readers in the ‘70s were much more interested in drug-related nonfiction. There’s hardly much about this book online, either; part of it could be confusion over its retitling, which also implies it didn’t do as well as expected, thus a new title was devised for the paperback edition, to increase awareness or somesuch. 

Given that Loaded was written decades after the events described, there is an air of detachment to the narrative, which unfortunately robs it of impact. Also there is an air of a time lost. But on the other hand, at least this method allows the tale to fully be told, given that our protagonist escapes custody until the early ‘90s. Allen Long is that protagonist, a man who starts out in 1971 as a struggling documentary director, but who by the end of the ‘70s has become a kingpin of the drug trade. In a way he represents the era itself, starting off as your typical young hippie who is into the whole peace and love movement, but ending the decade as a guy who does deals with former CIA agents who carry along grenade launchers in case their coke deals go bad. 

Greil Marcus also gave Snowblind a laudatory review in Rolling Stone, in particular marvelling over the hardboiled style Sabbag employed in it. Sabbag doesn’t seem to go as much for the same vibe here, instead giving the narrative more of a snarky, or at least somewhat humorous tone. I guess the difference is that Zachary Swann, “hero” of the earlier book, was a coke dealer, employing all the heavy vibes of that trade, whereas Long is at times more in the Cheech & Chong spectrum of things. This is just the difference between the two drugs, personified; Long, like so many others who became smugglers (as Sabbag informs us), only got into the business because he enjoyed smoking dope, not because he wanted to get rich. Indeed, the wealth was basically a bonus. But whereas the world of cocaine dealing is a dangerous one, wraught with murder and burns and blackmail (as documented in the awesome period study Cocaine), the marijuana trade – at least in the ‘70s – was one of a closeknit group of peace-lovers who just wanted to get stoned on good grass. 

The novel opens with a taut, gripping sequence; it’s Fall of 1976 and Long’s just arrived in Colombia on his DC-3, along with pilot Frank Hatfield and Long’s partner Will McBride. Long, against Hatfield’s suggestions, has loaded the plane with marijuana despite the rough conditions; Hatfield is adamant the plane won’t make it. As usual it makes sense to listen to the pilot, as the plane does indeed crash – a grueling sequence that goes on for several pages. There’s about as much “flying material” in Loaded as in Maryjane Tonight At Angels Twelve (another of those dope smuggler novels published in the actual era), and I guess other readers would enjoy it more than I did. But this opening sequence definitely gets your interest. 

But Sabbag leaves us here with the protagonist’s fate in question and then cuts back to 1971, so we can see the rocky path which led Allen Long to this predicament. In ’71 he’s a young wanna-be documentary director, looking to ride on the success of the countercultural milieu with a documentary about smuggling – showing it actually happen, the people behind it, etc. Long has a private investor and has what he thinks is a great subject: El Coyote, a notorious big time smuggler who is given to boastful stories of his smuggling escapades and whatnot. Long puts together a crew and goes with Coyote down to Mexico to film the deal…only for Coyote to be informed by his usual contacts that it’s not the right season for marijuana, that it will be another couple months until product is available. Everyone’s stunned that El Coyote entirely forgot about this, and the big man heads back to New York in shame, never to be heard from again. 

Long stays in Mexico and meets up with various fringe-world drug characters. Sabbag throughout captures the shaggy freak vibe of the era, often documenting the fashions and hairstyles of the various characters. Long quickly bumps into another smuggler, Lee Carlyle, and figures this guy can be the new protagonist of his doc, particularly given Carlyle’s grandiose flourishes, like when he shows his last penny and proclaims he’s going to turn it into a million dollars. Which he does, in one of the more entertaining stories in the book, even if it happens mostly off-page; Carlyle goes through the novel means of smuggling marijuana via Greyhound Bus, and when Long meets up with him later in the US, Carlyle’s a wealthy man with a fancy sportscar, an actress girlfriend, and etc. Then his latest smuggling caper falls apart and Carlyle’s penniless again, and Long is once again back where he started so far as his documentary goes. 

When his independent backer says he’s finished, Long decides to become a smuggler himself, so as to raise the necessary $100k to finish the documentary. Curiously, his original plan will soon be forgotten as Long enters the big leagues of marijuana smuggling and just starts living the life. This takes us into the meat of the tale, with his meeting of McBride and Hatfield, as well as other associates in the drug biz. Some of these characters are more interesting than our protagonists, like JD Reed, a “practicing noble savage and sagebrush philosopher,” who starts each day with a full joint soaked in hash oil. A musclebound giant whose father is a contract killer for the mob, Reed is given to philosophical meanderings as he goes about his smuggling ventures, and he has a sort of “made for a movie” partnership with a science professor named Abe. The material with these two in their Cesna, plotting new smuggling ventures over fatt joints, is entertaining enough for a novel itself. But these are supporting characters, and not seen enough. 

The only time we get this sort of madcap fun from Long and crew is on their first big venture; they fly down to Colombia to handle a shipment to make up for one that was lost, courtesy a bust. On the several-hour flight back up into the US, they inhale copious amounts of marijuana and coke, drinking beer on the side. In various states of inebriation Long takes control of the plane, gliding along without a care in the world. It’s a surreal sequence, very entertaining, particularly the “pullover” that happens in mid-air when a pair of US fighter jets accost them – the pilots having to slow way down to keep abreast with the DC-3. Turns out Long and crew are over US military airspace. They respond with meek shrugs when the fighter pilots call for them over the radio – Long and crew pretending that their radio is broken. “Just some more drug smugglers,” they hear one of the pilots say over the radio. “None of our busines.” And the fighter jets just leave! 

But otherwise Loaded is comprised of straight-eyed recountings of Long’s various smuggling ventures, with little of this zaniness. More of the novel has to do with the machismo of the Colombians, who particularly value masculinity when it is combined with recklessness. This is most displayed when Long bluffs his way out of a bad situation by telling his Colombian partners that he wants them to give him a shipment of marijuana on credit, so he can sell it to pay them back for both it and the shipment he lost. When the Colombians ask how he will carry off such a plan, Long grabs his crotch and announces, “I have only my airplane and my balls.” This delights the Colombians so much they shoot off their guns in the air. But it really is a man’s world in Loaded, the only females a series of romances Long has along the way, from the daughter of a prominent Colombian smuggler to a swingin’ American chick whose pubic hair is trimmed into the shape of a heart – I really wanted to know more about her in particular, but the sleaze quotient is nil, more’s the pity. Again, the book is the product of the ‘00s, not the ‘70s. 

When we pick back up on the opening 1976 sequence, we find that Long has crashed into the sea, though everyone has survived. They are saved by the “deus ex machina” appearance of Tony, a Miami-based drug dealer who arrives on the scene on his boat. He’s not only familiar with Long, he’s more than happy to help him save his shipment. This new partnership leads into the latter half of the book, with coke making a bigger presence on the scene – Long smuggles some of it, but just can’t get into it, finding something evil about the drug. He’s very much a marijuana guy, and finds himself more and more out of touch with the times as coke becomes the drug of the late ‘70s, with all the violence and high-stakes dealing. Around 1978 Long gets a publicity job for Nemperor Records, but quits and gets back into dealing. The book ends rather anticlimactically with Long’s plan for one last big job – one that goes south, losing him 3.5 million dollars. 

At this point Tony, who has had CIA training, has moved on to greener pastures, leaving another CIA trainee, Jimmy, to handle his coke business. Jimmy comes off like the prototype of all the coke dealers you’d see on Miami Vice, down to convincing his partners to do jobs by holding guns to their heads. With Tony’s dealing in guns and grenades on the side, Long has had enough and says goodbye to the business. A brief epilogue gives us a rundown of the fates of the various characters, the majority of whom were eventually caught and did time. Long managed to evade capture the longest, not arrested until 1991. But given that so much time had passed since his smuggling, there was no interest in throwing the book at him, thus he only did 30 months in prison, the last several months in minimum security. 

Sabbag does carry the story along with panache and a definite skill, but at the same time something seems to be missing from Loaded. Maybe it’s because the reality of dope smuggling in the ‘70s wasn’t as fantastical as you would imagine…a lot of it comes off as boring, just a lot of planning and flying back and forth from South America. I get the impression that Snowblind will have all the elements I found lacking in Loaded, so I’m sure I’ll give it a read someday.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

The Penetrator #38: Hawaiian Trackdown

The Penetrator #38: Hawaiian Trackdown, by Lionel Derrick
October, 1980  Pinnacle Books

I love the cover of this installment of The Penetrator – take that, “Adult Books!” And humorously enough there is a sequence where Mark “Penetrator” Hardin assaults a series of adult bookstores; he doesn’t do it with a shotgun, but instead goes into them and rips up all the pedo magazines. For that’s what Mark is up against this time: I was hoping for a sleazy installment of the series, with Mark wading into the murky waters of porn flicks and whatnot, but instead the focus is on child exploitation. Fortunately Chet Cunningham isn’t nearly as exploitative of this topic as the somewhat-similar Ninja Master #7 is. 

We meet Mark as he’s pacing around the Stronghold, wondering what to do next. He gets wind of some recent pedo-ring busts in California, violent ones in which people involved with it have been murdered or found dead. In fact we see a few one-off charcters meet their grisly ends on account of their involvement with it, in particular one young guy who fell into it thanks to a honey trap who took him to an orgy which “introduced” a few kids into the mix, with the guy – drunk and high – being photographed as he was encouraged to engage with the kids! For this he’s being blackmailed, but at any rate his head is blown off like a few pages after he’s introduced, so really it’s just Cunningham filling pages instead of introducing a character that will have ramifications on the plot. 

Mark has to look up “pedophilia” in the dictionary – a sad reminder of when stuff like this wasn’t common knowledge. He is sickened by the very thought and decides to bust some heads. He flies to Sacramento – luckily there’s no “amateur aviation” stuff as there would be in a Mark Roberts installment – and hooks up with old pal Captain Kelly Patterson, last seen in #26: Mexican Brown, but I believe first introduced in #2: Blood On The Strip (which happened to be Cunningham’s first novel in the series). Here Mark muses that he first met Kelly “more years ago” than he’d like to think of, yet Mark is still presented as being the same age he was back in the first volume! Otherwise there’s no big character development here, and Patterson could’ve been any other one-off character; he has no reall scenes with Mark other than to trade a little info and to then show up and arrest the people Mark has tracked down – Patterson being one of the few people who know that Mark Hardin is the Penetrator. (This list seems to be growing!) 

Mark won’t be in California long; he first visits a few adult bookstores, where he’s sickened by a kiddie-focused magazine titled Life Child. He tries to find where it’s published, but there’s no info. Eventually he meets up with a producer in Hollywood, Mark posing as a “member of the league” who is into pedo stuff. The guy, who is involved with pedo movies and magazines, throws a party, where Mark runs into hotstuff babe Drisana, aka Drisa, who comes on strong to him. She turns out to have “acted” in some adult films on the side, though she claims to have nothing to do with the pedo stuff. Mark ends up torching the studio and tying up the producer – not to beat a dead horse, but let’s recall that Mark Hardin is curiously wimpy these days, the series having more of the vibe of Magnum P.I. than the ultra-violent early installments. In fact Mark doesn’t kill anyone until page 161 – which makes it all the more grating how he’s constantly threatening people throughout. There’s even a part where he tells some guy, “I should cut off your balls and laugh while you bleed to death,” and of course it’s just bluster…but in reality you could see the Mark Hardin of an earlier Cunningham novel, say #12: Bloody Boston, actually doing such a thing. 

Drisa will turn out to be the main female character of the novel, and she’s a typical Cunningham creation: hot-to-trot but with the emotional content of a child. She’s the closest we get to what I wanted this novel to be – a hotstuff pornstar who becomes Mark’s willing accomplice. But Cunningham is just as determined to neuter the sex as he is the violence – the expected boink occurs off-page, Mark scoring with Drisa in the back of the Brown Beast (that sounds wrong on so many levels, so I should clarify that “The Brown Beast” is Mark’s nickname for his truck and trailer combo). As if to jab the knife in further, Cunningham has Drisa merely talking about the sordid activities, next day, which is how we even learn anything happened between them. As Mark Twain once said, “Don’t just tell me the hero banged a pornstar, show me!” 

But as mentioned Drisa is woefully unexploited; Mark learns from her that all the “pedo stuff” comes from Hawaii, so off he goes to track down the source of Life Child. Drisa manages to tag along because she claims to have overheard the name of the guy behind the magazine and other pedo ventures; she just can’t remember the name, and swears to Mark she’ll be able to if she can come along with him and stay in the hotel, etc. Cunningham must’ve recently visited Hawaii, as we get a lot of topical detail when the two arrive at the airport, Drisa going on in total childlike detail about every thing they see as they drive to the hotel. Mark for his part is humorously blasé, as he’s “visited Hawaii several times.” I imagine this must’ve been back in his ‘Nam days, as I don’t recall him visiting Hawaii at any point during the series. Also the fiftieth state is here transformed into a murky den of iniquity, in which pedo rings secretly operate out of every other business and all one has to do is bypass “the usual tourist spots” to find hardcore smut, particularly of a child-exploitative bent. 

The Magnum P.I. vibe is very apparent, what with the Hawaii setting (not to mention Mark’s moustache on the cover)…and the fact that all Mark does is drive around and question people. At this point he’s essentially a private eye himself. For the most part a large portion of the novel is Mark looking around for wherever the pedo magazines are published from. Along the way he spots a trio of young black men, and wonders if they’re members of a rock band(!?), given that he believes black people aren’t commonly seen in Hawaii. This turns out to be the clunky introduction of the main villain of the novel, “the amazingly evil black man” Mark tangled with back in #24: Cryogenic Nightmare: Preacher Mann. For this is the name Drisa finally remembers…folks, her part in the book is literally reduced to sitting around in the hotel room and scribbling names in a notebook until she remembers the name of the mystery figure behind the pedo ring. 

But at least Cunningham makes it interesting: After Mark realizes Preacher Mann is indeed the same guy he fought before, Drisa whips out a gun and says “they” told her it could only be the Penetrator if he knew the name Preacher Mann. So she’s been a plant all along, which of course calls into question the part where she stood by as Mark torched an entire warehouse of porn flicks and magazines. Anyway she shoots at Mark and takes off, and this is the last we’ll see of her until the very end. Mark picks up another helper, though: Uchi Takayama, a buddy of his from ‘Nam who lives in Hawaii and has fallen on hard times. Uchi becomes yet another person who learns that Mark is really the Penetrator, and helps him out as Mark continues his seemingly-endless search for where Life Child is published out of. Along the way they get in a few fights and shootouts, but still Mark doesn’t kill anyone. He threatens people a whole bunch, though, and even throws in some unexpected racial slurs when he gets hold of that black trio he spotted earlier in the book. They of course turn out to be thugs employed by Preacher Mann. 

And just as with Kelly Patterson, there’s no reason why this particular character has been brought back; Cunningham does nothing to bring him to life and it could’ve just been any other random villain for the Penetrator. Preacher Mann only appears a handful of times, where we learn he now has a burnin’ yearnin’ to wipe out the Penetrator, given that he destroyed his whole “let’s freeze hookers and send them to clients” plot. It’s assumed he now heads up this “International League” of pedophiles, blackmailing people and whatnot, but ultimately we’ll learn – via lazy exposition – that Preacher Mann isn’t even the leader of the group. All of which to say Cunningham does little to exploit the fact that this is one of the few (if only) times we’ve had a recurring villain. 

As if to further distance ourselves from early volumes, in which Mark Hardin would go around with enough weapons to take on a small army, we have a protracted sequence here where he tries to buy some guns. This takes us to the climax, such as it is, where he and Uchi assault Preacher Mann’s hidden headquarters. Cunningham has a fondness for pulp-style death traps Mark gets caught in, and he delivers two of them here in the final pages. The second one is the most tedious, with Mark trapped in a bathhouse while little darts are fired at him. When Preacher Man arrogantly comes in to look at Mark’s corpse, he finds that the Penetrator was able to protect himself with nothing more than a few bath towels(!!). This leads to a big reveal where Mark learns who the real villain was – culminating in one of the few instances in which our hero blows away a female character. Actually now that I think of it, that is something we haven’t seen since the earliest volumes, though here it’s made very clear that Mark only pulls the trigger after he’s been fired at. 

Overall Hawaiian Trackdown is an altogether stilted, slow-going affair, with little in the way of the sadistic action of earlier installments. Probably the highlight is Mark’s rampage through several adult bookstores in Hawaii, where he grabs up every issue of Life Child and tears them up, telling the owners if they don’t like it they can call the cops! Otherwise it’s more of the same…just a slow-going and generic entry in what was once a very entertaining (and brutal!) series.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Mission: Impossible #3: Code Name: Rapier

Mission: Impossible #3: Code Name: Rapier, by Max Walker
No month stated, 1968  Popular Library

No idea who served as “Max Walker” for this penultimate volume of the Mission: Impossible series; it might’ve been the same author as the previous volume, I’m not sure. Michael Avallone is usually pegged, but supposedly he himself said he didn’t write it, and besides the flat prose style is nothing like Avallone’s. Whoever it was, he (or she!) clearly had no understanding of the actual TV series; Code Name: Rapier is just a generic pulp-spy novel, with absolutely nothing unique about the Impossible Mission Force. Indeed the team is usually one step behind “The Other Side” throughout the book, leading to a climax in which team leader Jim Phelps breaks his cover to ask someone for help – and the only time something like that ever would’ve happened in the show, it too would’ve been revealed as just another facet of Phelp’s master strategy. 

All of which is to say, the show presented an IMF team that was almost godlike, in that every little detail of every mission was carefully plotted and executed. And just as they were masterful strategists, they were also ciphers in the personality department. Not true in either case, here, with the team fumbling through the assignment and also joking around with each other throughout. Again, the author had likely never seen the show, same as with the previous volume – there’s also a bit more action here than in the series, but nothing too outrageous. Actually the “climax” features the IMF taking on a gang of imposters…fighting and capturing them all in the span of a single paragraph. The most interesting action scene isn’t even explained; some guy waits with a submachine gun in Phelps’s apartment, but is taken out by some unknown person courtesy some poison gas. Otherwise the book is very rushed, and more narrative focus is placed on the one-off character the IMF team is tasked with protecting. 

Dr. Roberto Blackthorn is this character, a scientist who has invented a miniature computer which makes possible a host of things that would give America the edge in the Cold War. But word is “The Other Side” (aka “Them”) will try to kidnap Blackthorn…there might even be a third party behind a possible abduction attempt. Phelps is briefed on all this in a novel way: ripping apart a stuffed doll in a factory to find the customary briefing tape. After this it’s back to his New York loft where he looks at the IMF dossiers and picks the usual group: actor Rolin Hand, muscleman Willy Armitage, electronics whiz Barney Collier, and blonde sexpot Cinnamon Carter, who is again described in such a way that the reader in no way envisions Barbara Bain. This “putting together the team” is the last part of the novel that even seems like Mission: Impossible; from here on out it’s just a generic spy yarn, where the carefully-chosen IMF members could’ve been replaced by any other agent and not a difference would be made. 

As mentioned Blackthorn really gets the most narrative time. Rather than the frosty “scientist type” of cliché, he’s a brash, brazen young man given to chewing on unlit “stogies” and hitting on any woman who catches his eye. He’s also got a soft spot for mod discotheques (and really who doesn’t??), as he visits two of them in the course of the short novel. We first meet him in one, checking out the mini-skirted go-go dancers who hip-shake away to the “hard rock” group on the stage. He’s a loudmouthed jerk, and Walker does a poor job of conveying how such a guy would even have the time or wherewithal to come up with a slew of electronic inventions. Blackthorn takes up a lot of the narrative, too, giving the impression that Walker was more comfortable writing about this character he created than the IMF protagonists. 

Otherwise the feel of the show is completely absent. There’s a part that would be more at home in The Man From UNCLE where some mysterious assassin breaks into Phelps’s apartment, gets a submachine gun out of a briefcase, and waits patiently for Phelps to arrive so he can blow him apart. But instead the would-be assassin is killed by poison gas, which emits from a piece of paper his prey slips under the door. It’s cool and all, but doesn’t seem like something from Mission: Impossible. More importantly, it turns out later that it wasn’t even Phelps who killed the assassin, as when Phelps does return to his room he deduces that someone has broken into it and tries to figure out what they did. Eventually he finds a nasty anti-personnel mine has been hidden beneath his mattress. Here we learn that Phelps is a veteran of the Korean War; I’m assuming this is another invention of Walker’s, as Phelps and the others were such ciphers in the show they didn’t even have much in the way of background stories. 

Blackthorn has been invited to a science conference in St. Michel, an isle in the Caribbean. Phelps and team are to secretly guard against any potential abduction attempts. Phelps will pose as a lawyer for a patent company, Cinnamon as his secretary, Barney as an employee in Blackthorn’s hotel, and Willy and Rolin as “loud American tourists.” That’s it, folks. That’s the extent of Phelps’s strategy. Even more shockingly, absolutely nothing is done with the setup. Whereas in the show Phelps and team would roll out with a minutely-plotted plan in which every step – and potential misstep – was planned for, here it’s clearly just the author following an outline with no real understanding of the why of it all. As it is, the Phelps and team of this novel could be replaced by any other generic spy heroes. 

And as with the previous book Cinnamon is presented as the honey trap, a gorgeous blonde dish who could ensnare any man. As she does with Blackthorn, at one point going with him to yet another mod discotheque – probably the highlight of the novel, with yet another hard rock band playing in a club filled with psychedelic lights. But this part is goofy; there are big screens in the club, playing clips from old monster movies, one of them King Kong. And Cinnamon, dazed by the flashing lights, seems to hallucinate Kong reaching out from the screen and grabbing her – and apparently this is exactly what happens. A bizarre plot development that is never explained. Long story short, the IMF team is being picked off one by one, but this is a pretty “G” rated novel and none of them are killed. It’s just curious that this scenario is never explained, as the last we see of Cinnamon she’s doing a tribute to Fay Wray, being lifted up into the air by King Kong.  

Barney’s also abducted, and soon thereafter so are Rollin and Willy. Phelps eventually gets on the ball and realizes a pseudo-IMF team is afoot, made up of lookalikes. Curiously nothing is made of any of this. There’s even a pseudo-Phelps which the real Phelps takes on – after, that is, completely dropping his cover and telling Blackthorn he’s an agent here to protect him. Phelps soon locates his abducted comrades, leading to a painfully anticlimactic fistfight between the fake IMF and the real IMF. It’s over and done in a paragraph – one part that makes me suspect Avallone might’ve been behind this after all is a lame paranthetical aside that Rollin and Barney have a tough time with their opponents, because “in real life the good guys don’t always win.” Of course no insult meant to Avallone, but I could see him writing something like that. 

Even more painfully, the finale is given over to exposition in which the plot is explained to us. We also have the IMF team celebrating that Blackthorn gets away safely. The whole thing lacks the feel of the real show, and while the previous volume at least had some action, this one doesn’t even have that. Fortunately Walter Wager (aka “John Tiger”) returns for the next (and final) volume; he’s clearly the only writer to serve on this series who had actually watched the show.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Kyrik: Warlock Warrior (Kyrik #1)

Kyrick: Warlock Warrior, by Gardner F. Fox
April, 1975  Leisure Books

I picked this one up a few years ago when I was on a sword and sorcery kick; the typically-great Ken Barr cover drew me right in. Barr has always been my favorite of these ‘70s cover artists, and as ever his art completely captures the subject matter. Also if you closely inspect the cover art, as I did, you’ll note that the green-haired babe is fully nude. However Barr’s artwork is more risque than anything in Kyrik: Warlock Warrior; the book is very tame in both the sex and violence departments, more tame even than Robert E. Howard’s original Conan stories. Also I hate to inform you of this, but Barr’s cover is also incredibly misleading: there is no green-haired babe in the book…nor is there a pterodactyl-type flying creature, either. There is a brawny dude with a sword in the book, though, so at least there’s that. 

Speaking of Conan, Leisure Books clearly wanted to follow the trend, hence Fox delivers an intro where he tries to argue that the novel, which takes place in days of old when magic filled the air, could’ve possibly happened in some prehistorical era. His Kyrik is sort of a combo of Conan and Howard’s other creation, Kull, in that Kyrik is a legendary, almost mythical ruler of the past. As the novel unfolds we find that Kyrik’s backstory is a little involved, but here’s the gist of it: a thousand years ago he was a powerful barbarian who took control of a kingdom, a la Conan. But he ran afoul of a black magician and was turned into a statue…and the statue was lost. Now, a thousand years later, the statue is found by a young sorceress, and Kyrik is brought back to life. This first novel details his battle against the descendant of the man who turned him into a statue. 

Aryalla is the young sorceress who finds Kyrik; beautiful and built, with “long black hair, like that of a harlot of the traveling fairs.” Her own involved backstory has it that she was the daughter of the chief mage of Tantagol, the kingdom which Kyrik once ruled. But rival sorcerers plotted to get the ruler of Tantagol to kill her father, and now Aryalla travels around the known world, seeking out the Kyrik statue she learned of through her father. She believes that a reborn Kyrik will help her gain revenge on Devadonides, despotic ruler of Tantagol – and the descendant of the original Devadonides, who had Kyrik turned into a statue a thousand years ago. As the novel opens Aryalla, still in her early 20s, has been searching for a few years or somesuch, and finally comes across the statue in the booth of a travelling salesman. 

Demons are very active in this world; Fox almost implies that all the “gods” people worship are in fact demons. But nothing much is made of this, really, other than Aryalla and others standing in pentagrams when they call forth this or that god or goddess. What’s interesting is that these various gods are clearly not omniscient nor omnipotent; later in the book Kyrik summons his personal goddess, Illis, an Aphrodite-type whose cult has disappeared in the past thousand years. Not only has she lost power on earth because no one worships her anymore, she also often tells Kyrik she’s unable to do this or that thing for him – and, when she appears in human form (as a super hot, super-built blonde, of course), she comes off more like a damsel in distress, displaying no godlike attributes at all. 

Illis no longer having any followers is one of the few ramifications Kyrik experiences a thousand years in the “future.” Humorously, almost nothing has changed in this prehistorical world; there’s even a part where Kyrik reveals to Aryalla that he hid something in a favored tavern…and not only is the same tavern still there, but so is the item Kyrik hid in it! About the most we get out of the whole “thousand years” schtick is Kyrik’s constantly going on about how he hasn’t eaten in a thousand years, or drank any ale, or had a woman – which of course he pointedly reminds Aryalla of several times, though suprisingly the two of them never do the deed. It got to the point where I kept waiting for Kyrik to go to the bathroom so he could boast that it was his “first dump in a thousand years.” 

Well anyway I got ahead of myself; Aryalla finds the statue, summons some demons, and they help her bring Kyrik back to life. He seems pretty blasé about it being a thousand years later, so I guess he didn’t leave a wife or children or any friends behind. But then, the characters here are pretty one-dimensional, and Fox delivers only what is expected of him: a cheap Conan knockoff for a low-rent publisher. But then again this is what elevated Howard’s original stories over all the ripoffs; there was a lot more meat to Howard’s stories. And as mentioned they were more risque as well, despite Howard publishing his stuff over forty years before Fox. We’re sometimes informed that Aryalla has “high breasts” and whatnot, and there’s also a part where she gets hot and bothered by Kyrik’s “Luststone” (a magical gem that arouses lust in whoever looks upon it – the item Kyrik hid in that tavern centuries before), but the two are constantly spurning any opportunity to get busy, as there are “more important” things to do, like the whole thing’s a stupid TV show where they’re constantly putting off the sexual tensions between the male and female protagonists, like that dumbass Lost show, where we were supposed to buy into a love triangle scenario when these damn people had just been in a plane crash and were now stranded on some remote island (which turned out to be about as populated as Manhattan), but it was a loooong-simmer of “will they or won’t they,” while you’d figure in reality any such inhibitions would be tossed aside. Same goes for Jerry Ahern’s The Survivalist series, which took that whole love triangle nonsense into even more absurd dimensions – literally the end of the world and the titular “survivalist” was wondering if he should be unfaithful to his wife (who could’ve been dead, for all he knew) and give it to the hot Russian spy-babe who was in love with him. And this went on for like twenty novels! I remember listening to the Graphic Audio adaptations of the series years ago, during the commute to work, and ultimately banging the steering wheel in frustration over this endless, go-nowhere subplot – I know not once but several times I yelled, “It’s the end of the world, just do it already!” 

But I digress. I bring this up because we’re constantly told Kyrik is a lusty warrior of legendary repute, so you’d think he’d be tossing little sexpot Aryalla into the nearest bed. And he has the opportunity to do so several times. He doesn’t, and it’s an indication that Fox is much more conservative in this regard than Howard; same goes for the violence, which lacks any of Howard’s customary gore. Curiously Kyrik does get lucky, but it’s with newly-introduced Myrnis, a busty vagabond-type beauty who has been living in Kryick’s cabin in the woods – yes, even his cabin is still here, a thousand years later. A love triangle quickly develops, with Aryalla jealous of the attention Kyrik gives Myrnis, and vice versa; luckily Fox doesn’t draw this out for the entire novel, with Kryick finally “getting laid for the first time in a thousand years” (not an actual quote from the book) courtesy Myrnis. Fox leaves the event entirely off-page, as he does Kryick’s few other “encounters” with Myrnis. 

As for the action quotient, Kyrik doesn’t make his first kill until nearly page 50. His customary sword is named Bluefang – it was turned into a statue along with him. As for Kyrik, he’s also a Conan ripoff in physical stature, save that he has “tawny” hair. Otherwise there’s no personality about him, and the “warlock” aspect of the title is seriously unexplored. Indeed, late in the novel Kyrik tells Aryalla that he’ll need her magic in the climactic battle, so any hopes of Kyrik casting spells while waving his broadsword are quickly dashed. But then, even later in the book Fox reminds us that Kyrik is “also” a practicioner of magic, same as Aryalla…not that he does anything to prove it. This “warlock” deal promised to be the only thing that would separate Kyrik from Conan, but I get the impression Leisure just came up with the title and Fox didn’t do anything to exploit it. 

Aryalla gets Kyrik’s aid, after bringing him back to life: they will return to Tantagol and Kyrik will help her vanquish Devadonides – the descendant of the Devadonides who turned Kyrik into a statue. Along the way they encounter various brigands and foot soldiers of the evil king, and Bluefang tastes blood “for the first time in a thousand years.” Along the way Kyrik also “encounters” Myrnis, who initially promises to be a more colorful personality than the mostly-icy Aryalla, but then drops from the text when the trio arrives in Tantagol, only to return at the end so she can ride off into the sunset with Kyrik. About the most she does is darken Kyrik’s skin so that he can pass as a vagabond and enter the city undetected. But immediately after this Kyrik gets in a two-hour bar brawl which promptly gets him tossed into prison. 

Here Kyrik manages to reconnect with his goddess, Illis, who appears to him in human guise – and implies she wants a little lovin’, though curiously once again Fox doesn’t follow through. Instead, Illis spends the rest of the novel in the form of a snake, wrapped around the hilt of Bluefang, speaking telepathically with Kyrik. The confrontation with Devadonides isn’t very memorable, as he’s fat and powerless; the real battle is with the demon he and his chief mage worship. Everyone’s whisked away to a magical lair, where Kyrik supposedly uses his own warlock powers to suss out the demon’s location, but even here the fighting’s mostly done with Bluefang. By novel’s end Kyrik has deposed Devadonides and could regain control of his old kingdom of Tantagol, but instead he decides to hand it over to Aryalla so that he can hit the road with Myrnis and have more adventures. 

Three more novels followed, all published by Leisure and now all available as cheap eBooks, it appears. I found this one pretty tepid, but it must be stated that Fox acquits himself better in the fantasy arena than he did in sci-fi, at least judging Kyrik: Warlock Warrior against Beyond The Black Enigma.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Operation Hang Ten #9: Death Car Surfside

Operation Hang Ten #9: Death Car Surfside, by Patrick Morgan
No month stated, 1972  Macfadden Books

Well friends, this is the last volume of Operation Hang Ten I currently own; this series is grossly overpriced on the used books market, so I’ll just have to be content with what I have. And besides, it seems evident that George Snyder, again posing as “Patrick Morgan,” has run out of steam. The previous volume was a chore of a read, with “The Cartwright” falling in love. This one’s even more middling, the only difference being that “The Cartwright” is an outlaw for the majority of the tale – and a pretty unlikable one at that. 

I’ve noted from the first volume I reviewed that Bill Cartwright, “hero” of the series, is probably the biggest dick in all men’s adventuredom. But what’s become more clear with each volume I’ve read is that he’s also a pretty lame-ass “spy.” He talks a big game and thinks very highly of himself, but “Bill” (as Snyder most often refers to him…or, as ever, “The Cartwright”) really doesn’t do much of anything. He’s a grand failure, so far as a surfer turned spy goes; Jim Dana, head honcho of the Operation Hang Ten program, supposedly has taken hippies, surfers, and other assorted “youth types” from their elements, trained them to be spies, and put them back in their elements as operatives. And I believe Bill is the best one he’s got (at least according to Bill!), which is not a good indication of this particular agency’s effectiveness. 

Past volumes have featured Bill blundering his way through the latest assignment, usually getting a woman (or two) killed in the process before finally figuring out the bad guys’ plot and shooting a few people in the final pages. He’s certainly not a hero; he’s too assholic for that. I mean he’s not even an antihero, he’s just a plain jerk. Death Car Surfside takes Bill into even more jerky territory. In this one, which occurs over a single day, Bill manages to knock out a cop, steal tips off restaurant tables, carjack a Mustang, break into an innocent person’s house, and even barges in on the homeowner just as she’s stepping out of the shower. When she asks him if he’s going to rape her, Bill checks out her hot nude bod and says he’s considering it! Of course, this being a men’s adventure yarn and all – not to mention one of the more aggressively macho ones, courtesy Bill’s assholic attitude – the young lady doesn’t mind Bill too much, given that he has “good vibes.” Oh and Bill also beats the shit out of this girl’s boyfriend, tying him up in a closet…where he’ll later be discovered by the bad guys and murdered. Not that Bill feels one pang of guilt over it. 

There’s no pickup from the previous volume, just a passing mention that Bill took a lot of grief from Dana for the events that happened therein. When we meet him at the start of Death Car Surfside, Bill’s doing some pre-dawn surfing at Hermosa Beach. We’re informed this is because all the lousy tourists clutter up the beaches during the day; per the series template, the narrative is peppered with arbitrary and digressive bitch sessions on this or that. Humorously this time they are shoehorned in at the oddest places, like during car chases or when Bill’s running from someone. But while Bill is surfing in the dock he’s shocked to see a Mustang hurtle over the pier and crash spectacularly into the ocean. He barely caught a glimpse of a comatose young woman behind the wheel. 

Bill dives down to save her; this will be his only heroic act in the entire book. She’s been tied into the car and clearly was planted there to be driven to her death. Bill pulls her up to the surface and some other girl comes out of the gloom, saying she witnessed it all. Bill checks the comatose girl’s ID, and next thing he knows he’s slammed in the head, obviously knocked out by the girl who claimed to be a witness. When he comes to it’s morning and the girl from the car is still lying there, but now she’s dead, courtesy several stab wounds. Here’s where Bill’s taken in and read his rights by the cops; the muleheaded main cop won’t buy Bill’s story and comes up with an even more unbelievable one, one which of course “proves” Bill is the killer. Instead of asking to call a lawyer – or better yet Jim Dana – hotheaded Bill instead decks the cop and makes a run for it. 

He’ll operate in this capacity for the rest of the novel, trying to stay one step ahead of the law to clear his name by finding the girl’s killer. But he only makes things worse for himself, proceeding to commit even more crimes along the way – stealing, carjacking, breaking and entering. Even as mentioned unintentionally causing the death of an innocent man who has nothing to do with anything – save for being the boyfriend of the girl whose house Bill breaks into while hiding from the cops. Pretty much everything he touches turns to shit in the book, yet Bill never once questions himself or his actions. Hell, as mentioned even when running from the cops or the bad guys or whatnot, he still finds the opportunity to bitch about society or people in general. He’s almost comically unlikable, but the thing is the reader doesn’t get the impression that Snyder himself feels this way – Bill is presented as the studly and cool hero, even though he comes off like a complete prick. 

Bill’s escape from the cops is one of the few action scenes in the book. Bill runs and swims and runs some more, eventually losing them in the summer tourist crowd. Here’s where he starts stealing so he can get to a payphone and call Jim Dana – and also where Snyder starts page-filling with abandon. It starts off with a pair of old ladies finishing their lunch at an outdoor restaurant and getting into a long conversation – which takes up a few pages – over the tip amount they should leave. Bill, dressed only in a “mini-wetsuit” deal, is actually asked by the management to leave, given that he’s been standing there so long , waiting for the women to leave their table so he can steal their tip. Next he sets his sights on a few dudes who have just eaten, and he snatches their tip. However, Dana doesn’t answer the phone – and won’t answer it until the very final pages, giving the lame excuse that Bill “isn’t his only Operation Hang Ten operative” and thus has been busy with another of his spies! 

The murdered girl was named Charlene Morris, and Bill remembers her address from the ID he briefly looked at. It’s in Newport Beach, so Bill steals some poor guy’s Mustang so he can drive back to his car, “the woody.” At least this preys on Bill’s conscience, to the point where he calls a tow truck driver and offers him a bonus if he hauls the Mustang back to Hermosa with no questions asked – yet more page-filling. I forgot to mention, Bill learned from the cops that there was another corpse in Charlene’s car: her father, a rocket scientist, whose body was shoved in the trunk. Of course the cops are trying to pin both murders on Bill. So he heads to the home Charlene supposedly shares with her dad, and there finds a bunch of hippie squatters – obese Ma and two Manson lookalikes. There are also two women, one of them a willowy blonde and the other a super-stacked one named Cherry. 

Bill suspects something’s afoot, and gets confirmation when they try to attack him. This leads to yet another chase scene, with Bill running from the “family” as well as the cops. He plows through the back yards of some residences and then ditches the woody, picking out which house to break into to hide. I mean folks this is our hero. Of course, the house he settles on turns out to be occupied by a super-built blonde with long legs…and of course, she just happens to be in the shower when Bill breaks in. So he looks around her stuff, checking out her photos and her drawers and stuff…and then waits to confront her as soon as she’s stepping out of the shower! This is how he meets what will become the main female character of the novel: Sam, aka Samantha, probably the most memorable female character yet in the series given her smart comebacks. 

She’s not too shocked by Bill’s appearance, and indeed goes about getting dressed…while Bill keeps oggling her, holding his .22 Magnum on her. Again, this is our hero. As mentioned, she does wonder if he’s going to rape her, and Bill rubs his chin and says he’s thinking about it. Bill is also a dick when it comes to his verbal treatment of women; his style of coming on to them appears to be mocking and denigrating them. All very schoolyard juvenile, but again nowhere is it implied that Bill is wrong for this. Nor is it implied he’s a bad guy when Sam’s boyfriend comes over, a big lug who towers over Bill…and Bill proceeds to beat the shit out of him. And then tie him up and toss him in the closet. Sam says she’s not too crazy about the guy to begin with, plus she’s upset he failed to protect her! Oh and Bill’s such a dumbass he’s unaware “Sam” is a nickname for Samantha. I guess he’s too busy surfing and bitching to watch Bewitched

So Bill, who still can’t get hold of Jim Dana, goes back to follow Ma and her people, because he assumes they were behind the murder of Charlene and her rocket scientist dad. Now here we get an opportunity for some “secret agent” sort of stuff, but as mentioned Bill’s a joke in that regard. He has Sam drive her car and sits there as she follows Ma and her group in their school bus, Bill finding the opportunity even here to bitch about society. But of course Ma’s freaks have spotted the tail and end up crushing Sam’s car. Bill’s knocked out, and when he wakes up he’s tied up in the back of the school bus and Sam’s gone. I should mention we’re over halfway through the novel at this point. I mean it’s almost a joke, that’s how bad it is. 

Ma’s not here, and a bound Bill watches as Cherry goes out into a school, talks up some teenaged girl, and brings her back on the bus – this is how Ma’s family kidnaps people. The new girl’s tied up alongside Bill, and off they go to find Bill’s trailer. Here things get pretty dark, as the poor teen girl is raped by one of the Manson types; this, we’re to understand, is her punishment, given that she didn’t free Bill when she had the chance. The poor girl deserves it! Cherry takes Bill into his swank trailer and basically demands that he screw her on his round bed with the roller bar and the colored lights that change in tempo to the “violin music” Bill can play with the touch of a button. Here ensues one of the more explicit sex scenes in the series, as Bill manages to talk Cherry into untying his hands…then taking her and himself all the way to “completion” before knocking her out. 

Oh and meanwhile, the Manson-esque rapist has accidentally killed the poor girl he was raping. Yet another female character Bill Cartwright has failed to save. He gets his .22 Magnum and finally dishes out some payback. Here we get an almost arbitrary catering to the cover art, where a helicopter comes out of nowhere and starts dropping grenades on Bill. I almost get the impression Snyder was ordered to include such a scene by series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel, as the cover artwork had already been commissioned. Perhaps the biggest development of Death Car Surfside is that Bill’s beloved “woody” (for some reason the car is never capitalized) is destroyed, courtesy the helicopter falling on it when Bill shoots it out of the sky. 

Bill cries over it a bit, then later wonders over how much work it would take to build a new one. But ultimately he seems to cast aside this idea, feeling that a new woody would just be a recreation, a replacement for something he loved and lost. He rents a Charger, which he drives the rest of the novel, but I’m assuming in the next (and final) volume, Freaked Out Strangler, he gets himself a new car. I don’t have that volume, so we’ll have to be content with Olman’s review. Olman excerpts some narrative about Bill’s car in his review, but doesn’t state what car it is. At any rate Bill’s big problem right now is finding Sam, whom he’s been told is a captive of Ma’s. Only, Bill doesn’t know where Ma lives. All this is so far removed from a spy novel – the entire book really has nothing to do with the rest of the series, save for a last-minute development that Ma is working with some Red Chinese agents and she’s been kidnapping the children of prominent American scientists and whatnot for ransom, to give their secrets to the Chinese. 

The book’s only real action scene occurs in a big shopping mall; Bill finds out that Ma’s meeting with a secret Chinese agent who runs a restaurant inside the mall(!?), and Bill barges in there…and is immediately caught. Yes, that’s correct…Bill, who again has the opportunity to demonstrate his bad-ass secret agent skills, is immediately captured by the Chinese agents when he walks into the back room, in which Ma is meeting with her contacts. There are several men there with guns, and Bill meekly hands over his .22 and has a seat. As I say, Snyder was clearly worn out with the series at this point, as so much of the “plot stuff” is relayed via lazy exposition, as here, where the entire plot is exposited by these one-off characters. At least it culminates in a long-running action scene, with Bill, once he’s found out Ma’s address, gorily disposing of several Chinese agents with his .22, before getting in a long chase with Ma that turns into a knockdown, dragout fight. 

You’d think Sam would be a little freaked out that she’s spent the last few hours tied to a bed in a darkened, empty house, but instead she just has a few smart remarks for Bill, once he’s taken off her gag – and Bill replies with some acidic retorts of his own. At this point the entire thing is just nauseating. And of course, next chapter picks up with the couple post-boink in Bill’s swank trailer; the little fact that Sam’s boyfriend was murdered just a few hours before is brushed under the narrative carpet, with Sam pretty much shrugging and saying she never felt the same way about the guy as he did for her! Oh and here Bill finally gets a return call from Jim Dana, who as mentioned basically says he was busy with other crap, so stop your bitching. 

In his review of Freaked Out Strangler, Olman comments that, by that tenth volume, the “faux beat poetry style” Snyder employs for the series seems “almost condensed, thickened, as if it had been left on the stove too long.” This is pretty spot on. As mentioned in my review of the seventh volume, decades later Snyder was under the impression he’d only written five volumes of the series, whereas all other sources peg him for all ten volumes. Could it be that he grew so bored with the series he merely forgot he’d written five more volumes? Or maybe it’s because each volume seems like a retread of the one that came before, so he just thought he’d only written five when he really wrote ten. 

Who knows. This is all of them I have for now, so unless I spot some more for super cheap these are the only volumes of Operation Hang Ten I’ll be reviewing. I’m certainly not going to shell out the $$$ online book sellers are asking. And in fact, what with the woody being destroyed and all, Death Car Surfside makes for a fine pseudo-finale of the series.

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.