Monday, March 29, 2021

Doomsday Warrior #15: American Ultimatum

Doomsday Warrior #15: American Ultimatum, by Ryder Stacy
February, 1989  Zebra Books

I had a tough time drumming up much enthusiasm for this fifteenth installment of Doomsday Warrior. In the past I’ve said that this series was like an R-rated ‘80s cartoon, but at this point it’s lost the R rating, so it comes off just like a cartoon. A lame ‘80s cartoon at that, like Challenge of the Go-Bots or something. While I’ve applauded Ryder Syvertsens dismissal of reality in the past, American Ultimatum really takes things to ludicrous levels…which itself would be fine if there were more bite to the tale, as there was in the earliest installments. Now everything’s basically G rated. 

It’s three months after the previous volume and as ever Syvertsen picks right up on things without much setting up the scene for series newcomers. The book opens with a prefigure of the goofy stuff we’re going to be encountering throughout the narrative: Colonel Killov, now a “god” in Egypt (which is populated by Egyptians who harken back to Ancient Egypt), wields a sonic wand (the Qu’ul) which emits an antigravity beam…which he uses to raise the Great Sphinx and then carelessly smash it onto the side of the Great Pyramid. The assembled priests – again, all of ‘em decked out in Ancient Egypt finery – wince a little at the destruction but shrug it off given that Killov is the promised god who would fall to them from the skies, as he did in the memorable climax of the previous volume. 

All this of course harkens back to that “goofy cartoon” vibe I keep mentioning…in fact I think there even was an episode of G.I. Joe where the gods of Ancient Egypt actually appeared. And it is very ludicrous, in a (hopefully) intentional way, as if the few past centuries never happened and the Egyptians at heart are just worshippers of animal-headed gods…not to mention that there’s an entire caste of high priests who are privy to all this secret sci-fi weaponry the Ancient Egyptians possessed. But then Syvertsen’s already in another plane of reality, given his off-hand mention that the Sphinx has a nose. In reality it fell off (or was shot off by Napoleon’s men, per the legend) centuries ago. At this point though the element of outrageousness is just old hat, and there’s no bearing of “reality” at all throughout to ground anything…every reader knows the main characters will survive unscathed, and despite what happens in the climax the next one will open with them all safely back at Century City. 

Which is what’s happened this time, of course. We meet Ted “Rock” Rockson, aka the Doomsday Warrior himself, as he’s back in Century City, with no pickup from the previous book…the same sort of series reset that occurs at the opening of every volume. The year is still 2096, and we’re told Rock first arrived at Century City “as a teen” 25 years ago. Periodically Syvertsen will drop references to previous books, telling us how long ago they were – like that Rock flew a MIG “about two years before” (an incident that happened in #9: America's Zero Hour) – but I get the impression he’s just making it up as he goes. I mean it was 2096 in the last volume, and maybe the volume before that, but then maybe 2096 just happens to be an endless year, sort of like 2020 was (and 2021’s shaping up to be). I mean, I’m still trying to cope with how Rock’s still riding the same faithful ‘brid, Snorter, which he’s been riding since the start of the series…despite the fact that he’s lost the damn thing multiple times, with no explanation how he ever gets it back. 

It's almost kind of impressive how Syvertsen sticks to his series template no matter what, sort of like how James Dockery stubbornly did the same thing on The Butcher. Each volume opens with a brief bit of Rock in Century City, then putting his team together (pretty much always the same guys), then leaving Century City to endure some rigorous post-nuke flora, fauna, or weather, and then finally arriving at their destination where Rock will get lucky with a local gal before killing a few Reds. But man this is the fifteenth volume, and we’ve already seen all this happen, uh…let me get my calculator…fifteen times already. At this point it seems pretty evident Syvertsen is just going through the motions. There are none of the fun topical touches even in the Century City sections, other than a previously-unmentioned “Sky Lounge” built high atop the city, a restaurant which affords diners a view of the surrounding mountains. 

This is where Rock takes girlfriend Rona for dinner; it’s her birthday, and once again Rona will be cast aside in the narrative – after that other series template, a roll in the hay with Rock. Which happens off-page, comrades, another indication of the increasing blandness of the series. Gone are the over the top, purple-prosed boinks of the past. As I say, we’re in lame cartoon territory here. And also Rona continues to be minimized; she was once a main character in the series, but now she’s essentially “the girlfriend,” never allowed to go on any of the missions and always stuck back at Century City. This time her going on the mission isn’t even brought up, and last we see of her she’s “bawling” when Rock leaves her bed next morning. And once again Kim, Rock’s other girlfriend, isn’t even mentioned, so I’m sticking with my assumption that we’ll never hear about her again. 

The mission at hand is Rock has received a coded radio broadcast from Rahallah, the African servant of Premiere Vassily in Moscow, ie the ruler of the world. Rock and Rahallah met back in #4: Bloody America, when Rock and team made their way to Russia, and apparently he and Rahallah came up with an agreement that if they ever needed to talk to one another, they would broadcast a code that could be deciphered via a copy of War And Peace. So Rath, the security honcho at Century City, picks up the broadcast, and then there’s the belated realization that there are multiple copies of the book in existence. Thus Rahallah’s code – which is based on certain letters on certain pages – might not be decipherable. However the problem is quickly overcome with “the computer,” and the deciphered code humorously runs two pages…again, there isn’t even the barest attempt at any realism, and the juvenile tone of Syvertsen’s prose doesn’t help add any. 

Rahallah has learned that Killov is alive and well in Egypt, and has come upon some weapons of mass destruction; Rahallah learned this in a mystical way, having seen in a dream his cousin’s African tribe being wiped out by a falling mountain or something. Basically Killov has ancient Egyptian technology which allows him to levitate anything, and he’s throwing mountains and whatnot on various tribes that don’t pledge fealty to him. Rahallah himself will be going to Egypt to put together an army to stop Killov – there’s vague mention that Vassily is too busy with internal riots to send any Russian troops – and he begs Rock to come help him. 

For once Rock doesn’t take the full team; he whittles it down to Chen, Archer, and Sheransky, the latter due to his being Russian and all and thus able to help them steal a MIG and fly it to Egypt. Otherwise Sheransky kind of comes off like a bumbling fool, the red shirt who would typically be killed in an earlier installment. We get the usual “journey through hostile terrain” setup, and Rock and team’s theft of the MIG from a Red airbase is ridiculously easy. Even more ridiculous is that Rock has to quickly read the flight manual to remind himself how to fly the plane! And not only is he able to complete a quick takeoff, but he also manages to pick up Chen and Archer and take out a few fighter jets that are scrambled after them! The plane eventually runs out of gas, conveniently right over Egypt, leading to Rock and pals parachuting into the Nile and fighting a couple sea monsters. 

Eventually they come upon the “Neo-Egyptian Army,” which is decked out in ancient Egyptian finery and the warriors of which ride elephants with lasers on their trunks. (Cue Dr. Evil.) Their leader is even named Tutenkamen. Rahallah, who is among them, explains that it’s a crazy story, “as so many are in our post-nuke world,” which led to the Egyptians of a hundred years before becoming the ancient Egyptian flashbacks of 2096. Whatever; Rock is soon making eyes at lovely “coca-skinned” Neferte, who makes a priority of tending to him. Their inevitable shenanigans occur off-page, it pains me to inform you. More focus is placed on Rock and team learning how to ride those elephants. Then the village is destroyed in a sneak attack of “falling mountains,” courtesy Killov’s Qu’ul; the only thing that can stop Killov’s weaponry is even more advanced ancient Egyptian tech: the “Ra sticks,” which we’re informed are two “levels” beneath “the Cheops pyramids.” Indeed, they are in “the level beneath” the level in which the Qu’ul was discovered! 

But honestly, just try to go along for the intentionally goofy ride, ‘cause later on Rock muses to himself that “just before the Nuke War” a McDonald’s was opened inside Grant’s Tomb, where customers could purchase “The McGrant.” Killov manages to capture Rock, the first the two have been face-to-face in I don’t know how many volumes, but not much is made of it. Instead Killov takes Rock back to his headquarters, aka the Great Pyramid, and puts him on a “sacrificial altar,” threatening to crush him with a six-hundred ton slab of rock, guiding it with the Qu’ul. It gets real goofy here when a “mysterious figure” in a black cloak comes out of the shadows and puts a knife to Killov’s throat, ordering him to move the slab away from Rock. Killov does so, manages to escape…and the “mysterious figure” turns out to be none other than Chen, anticlimactically enough. 

It all leads to a massive battle between Tutenkamen’s men and the “Amun Army,” ie Killov’s Northern Egypt warriors. This takes place along the Aswan Valley, and Syvertsen tries to go for a Biblical finale, with a flood taking everyone out, hero and villain alike. Even Rockson’s fate is left in question. (As if!) We do however, unsurprisingly at that, learn that Killov survives…now with a burning desire to get revenge on Rockson and kill him. This is kind of goofy too, as what else has been fueling Killov all these volumes? Pretty lame. But then “pretty lame” aptly sums up American Ultimatum, surely my least favorite volume yet in the series.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

The Deadly Deep

The Deadly Deep, by Jon Messmann
May, 1976  Signet Books

Like Marc OldenJon Messmann is another Signet Books author who moved into more “upmarket” fiction once the men’s adventure genre dried out in the mid-‘70s. After The Revenger and the Pyramid Books-published Handyman came to a close, Messmann began publishing one-off mystery and horror novels, this being one of the first of them. The cover blurb, with its reference to “jaws,” rather unsubtly lets you know which particular blockbuster horror novel inspired The Deadly Deep

At 222 pages of small, dense print, the novel is very much in-line with Messmann’s men’s adventure publications, with that same literary vibe where ten words do the job of two. The Deadly Deep is also gloriously, unapologetically “1970s” in its vibe: sex is a prime motivator of practically every situation and all women are referred to as “girls,” their breasts described ad naseum. All this of course is much to the chagrin of the perennially-aggrieved wokesters on Goodreads and Amazon, but it goes without saying that I personally dug it; a refreshing reminder of when books were written – and published – with a male readership in mind. Indeed, the novel’s opening sentence concerns a hotstuff “mistress” suntanning on the deck of a fishing boat deep in the ocean, about to take off her bikini top for the viewing pleasure of the first mate. 

Per the horror novel template, The Deadly Deep begins with a few one-off characters meeting their grisly fates. In short, marine life has run amok and begun attacking humans. The opening sequence, with the babe on the fishing boat, takes place in July 1975 (the rest of the novel spanning the ensuing months), and the “girl” (whose name is Candy!) is the mistress of a professional deep sea fisherman(!). As she suntans on deck, a big blue whale comes out of the Pacific and closes in on the boat, capsizing it. Only Candy survives, clinging to a shard of debris; “She was a survivor, and, as such, she would survive.” (That’s downright Biblical!) Her story is not believed by the authorities, but when a few weeks later a crab fisherman is similarly killed by crazed crabs it would seem that something rotten’s going on in nature. 

This brings us to the hero of the tale, studly ‘70s dude Aran Holder, a freelance science writer. (I assume his name is pronounced “Aaron.”) Again Messmann caters to the ‘70s demand for ruggedly virile protagonists; even though Aran is introduced while merely lying asleep in bed with his girlfriend, Jenny, we’re informed posthaste that the two recently did the deed: “[Jenny’s] moaning screams of ecstasy still seemed to echo in the silence of the cottage.” Curiously though Messmann isn’t as forthcoming with the sleazy details, until later in the novel when he almost randomly delivers a fairly graphic encounter between the two. And as ever it’s very much on the Burt Hirschfeld tip, with that same pseudo-literary vibe when the hanky panky goes down, a la “He moved his tongue through the deep soft-wire mossy triangle.” Talk about the deadly deep! Or my favorite, when Aran gets lucky with another swingin’ chick later in the novel: “She was sensuality…the Circean cup made flesh.” I mean that one’s almost straight out of the Loeb Classical Library. 

The major problem I see with The Deadly Deep – other than the inordinate narrative flab, that is – is Aran Holder himself. For some reason Messmann has chosen to give us a hero who is a freelance science writer, one who occasionally teaches on the side. And this is a tale about sea life going crazy and killing humans. What it needs is a more action-prone hero, like a grizzled ‘Nam SEAL vet or something, or like the dude out of the Sea Quest TV show. Someone who’d be out on the sea battling this threat. In other words, the type of hero you’d encounter if this story had been told a dozen years before in the average men's adventure magazine. But at this point in his career Messmann as mentioned is aiming for a more upscale market, thus his hero is more of a thinker than a doer, and in fact Aran’s major contribution is that he knows people, mostly via features he’s written. 

Otherwise the brunt of the “sea action” is handled by one-off characters who, in many cases, take up a lot more narrative space than necessary. Again, I know it’s part of the horror novel template, but still it bugs me to read several pages of backstory and setup on a character who’s about to meet a grisly fate. Messmann does this throughout, cutting across the globe and introducing sundry characters who make the fatal discovery that the denizens of the deep have now become supremely pissed off at human beings. Messmann gets pretty inventive with the various scenes, with all manner of aquatic attacks: giant squid, killer whales, pirhanas, and even your common everyday cod and other coastal fish. Surprisingly the one marine lifeform he doesn’t much exploit is sharks, probably because he didn’t want to be too on the nose so far as what particular blockbuster inspired this one. 

We see our first couple attacks in July of ’75, from the killer whale to a bunch of crabs eating some guy. Aran hears about this on the radio, vacationing in a seaside cottage in Maryland, and is further pulled into the mystery when his girlfriend, Jenny, is bitten by fish while the two are swimming. (Of course she happens to be topless at the time.) As mentioned Aran’s “skillset” is mainly that he knows people, so he puts in a call to the Fish and Wildlife Service and is eventually put in contact with East Coast boss Emerson Boardman, who works out of Boston. Aran knows Emerson from previous work, so the two already have a rapport. Emerson invites Aran to Boston to help serve as a sort of public relations guy, the setup being that Aran has experience with breaking down highfalutin “science” concepts so that even slackjawed yokels can comprehend them. 

This brings us into what The Deadly Deep will mostly be comprised of: Aran attending a ton of meetings. Meetings with other men, it should go without saying, with no females present other than secretaries, but I don’t want to elaborate too much else they come after Messmann once they’re done cancelling Dr. Seuss. But man, it does sort of go on and on, in particular Aran’s run-ins with a “let’s kill ‘em all” Admiral. Meanwhile Emerson (unfortunately there’s no mention of Lake or Palmer) proves himself incompetent; another horror novel template is the humorously-unecessary death scene, and this duly occurs when Emerson tells his secretary/mistress that it’s safe to go swimming with her girlfriends. When meanwhile there have been fatal fish attacks all over the coasts. This part is particularly unsettling given that the fish rip the girl’s breast off as they attack – I guess the dark side of the whole breast objectification thing. 

Meanwhile Aran shuttles back and forth from Boston to the cottage retreat along the Maryland coast. He again is brought into the dangerous situation in an eerie scene in which a “phalanx” of crabs set upon the area one night. Here too Messmann’s able to work in the ‘70s obsession with sleaze and sex, with the first victims being a married couple who enjoy getting sloshed and having sex on the beach (the literal thing, not the drink). This part also shows a sadly-unexploited hint of dark comedy when the poor woman’s last thought is that she ate crab for dinner! Otherwise Messmann plays it pretty straight throughout; sometimes, as is his wont, a little too straight, with his usual penchant for characters who will spout philosophical quips that would have Descartes stroking his goattee in thought. 

Emerson turns more and more to booze as the situation becomes untenable – the sea has become hazardous to any craft, and given the attack of sea life even the beef industry has to introduce limitations on product – and Aran takes over his role. This of course means more meetings for the reader to endure. There’s a definite focus on eco-concerns, again par for the course in ‘70s sci-fi, with some go-nowhere stuff from a marine biologist that all this might be due to chemical changes in the layers of water that make up the ocean. What initially comes up as yet another red herring turns out to be the prime mover of the narrative: Aran learns that one of his past studies, a “marine life communication” researcher named Evan Taylor, has just committed suicide down at his lab in the Florida Keys. 

Aran keeps wondering why Taylor would do this now of all times. When he goes down to the Keys to investigate he finds, you guessed it, a drunked-up hotstuff babe with “heavy breasts” and an otherwise brick shithouse bod (which is lovingly objectified for us) just waiting all on her horny lonesome for him. Her name is Kay Elliot (which we’re reminded of practically every time she’s mentioned or spoken to – as ever, Messmann has this strange quirk of always referring to minor characters by their full names) and yep, within like a few sentences she’s already propositioning Aran: “Let’s screw all afternoon.” She was Evan Taylor’s assistant (his full name is constantly given, as well) and clearly she’s gone to drink as a sort of security blanket. Aran fends off her amorous advances (he won’t later, though) and heads back to Boston…only to come right back on down when he suddenly remembers that Taylor was researching genetic engineering. All this is curiously modern sounding, with talk about human DNA being implanted in some killer whales and Taylor and colleagues raising the three calves. 

All this Aran finally learns from a sobered-up Kay. It gets kind of goofy here as it turns out that the baby killer whales learned to “talk” to the researchers via a series of panels in their tank, which was channelled off from the ocean. So basically one day, about a year after the implants and etc, the three orcas just didn’t show up anymore…and a few weeks later was the first sealife attack, ie the whale attack that opened the book. It gets super-‘70s quasi-mystical here with talk about Jung of all things, I mean the last thing you’d expect to read…but Messmann’s philosophy-prone characters speculate that “the awakened phylogenetic consciousness of an entire species” (!!) has turned non-killers into killers, as has happened with sea life across the globe. 

But hey, let’s get busy! That’s pretty much the idea that night as Kay, as expected, slinks naked into “the spare room down the hall” where Aran is spending the night. Messmann delivers another of his patented pseudo-literary “what exactly is even happening?” sex scenes, as the two find “respite” in one another. Because meanwhile the world’s gone to hell, Messmann delivering a suitably apocalyptic scenario that only gets worse and worse as the novel progresses. The gung-ho Admiral continues to botch things up, which only leads to more reprisals from the amassed sea creatures, including even a tsunami they manage to create. There’s also “guerrilla warfare” via fish that cling beneath the coastal crusts and venture out to attack oblivious swimmers…people still so obstinate that they’re willing to go to the beach. 

As mentioned though the goofiness really comes to the fore toward the end, to the point that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. So presumably the three DNA-impacted orcas have started this underwater rebellion, the fish deciding to kill mankind. The three orcas occasionally come back to their research pool, so as to taunt their former captors; the reason Kay’s still been down here. Aran gradually learns what really happened to Evan Taylor; the orcas would come to taunt him via those stupid panels, and he went out there on a boat with a gun one day…only to find out the orcas weren’t messing around. Aran’s plan is for Kay to call him as soon as the orcas show up again, and he’ll get a special Navy transport to whisk him down to the Keys to try to reason with the whales. So you see even here, Kay, the original researcher on the project, isn’t even given the opportunity to reason with them! Nor is the opportunity even presented to her. 

But the stupid Admiral strikes again…actually his plan isn’t that dumb. When Kay calls that the orcas have shown up, the Admiral doesn’t send a transport for Aran…but instead sends a couple fighter jets to take the “terrorist leaders” out! However this too fails, ultimately leading to a nicely-done scene in which Aran does indeed have a “talk” with the orcas. He goes out on a boat and carries out a discussion with them on those panels, and here the whales too are even philosophers, turning Aran’s arguments around on him. A nicely-done scene, but also increasingly ridiculous…especially when Aran displays heretofore-unknown badass skills when he sets his boat on fire and jumps out into the sea to swim away from the shocked killer whales. 

At 222 pages of super-small print, you’d think The Deadly Deep would tell a full tale with a satisfactory conclusion, but unbelievably enough the finale’s as ridiculous as the entire premise. SPOILER ALERT so skp to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know. Well, things have gone from dire to worse, with the entire world in the balance due to the sea attacks; the military has no choice but to nuke various areas so that the entire geography will be redesigned. There are end of the world cults, panic in society, etc. And then, virtually overnight, the attacks just stop. This then plays out with an overdone part where two kids go out fishing one day and don’t have any trouble. Soon enough it is apparent that sea life has gone back to normal. Aran opines that the genetic engineering “expired” and everything’s okay now…but really all this was a “warning” that man should respect other creatures. As if chortling to himself over how ridiculous this is, Messmann ends the tale with a couple yokels excitedly getting into their fishing boats, almost slobbering at the thought of all the fish they’ll catch! 

With a couple Biblical quotes here and there, Messmann clearly tries to convey a “serious” vibe, but really The Deadly Deep is pretty goofy…which by the way isn’t a criticism. If I’m going to read something like this I want it to go over the top. But as mentioned Messmann’s dogged insistence on stretching things out and making them overly “serious” tends to kill the fun. Oh and the uncredited cover art, while cool, turns out to be misleading – unfortunately there is no weird underwater babe who is behind all the attacks. After The Deadly Deep Messmann turned out a few mysteries, then some Westerns under a house name or two. The book features a bio of him, which I thought was pretty cool, if only because this might be the most we ever know about the guy: 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

A Dirty Way To Die (The Sharpshooter #15)

A Dirty Way To Die, by Bruno Rossi
No month stated, 1975

How in the world have I gone over two years without reading a Sharpshooter? Maybe I’ve been putting it off because, as hard as it is to believe, there’s only one more volume after this one. It’s taken me over ten years to get this far, which only again reinforces how quickly this series was written and published – all these books came out within the span of two years. 

Once again a big thanks to Lynn Munroe, who revealed that A Dirty Way To Die is a sort of collaboration between series editor Peter McCurtin and series mainstay Russell Smith. As Lynn notes, “McCurtin only wrote the first chapter. The rest of the book has different characters and is actually a different story, changed ever so slightly to tie it to Chapter One.” We might be in a similar situation to another McCurtin venture, The Camp, for which McCurtin wrote the first chapter and Len Levinson wrote the rest. But whereas Len at least hewed a little closely to McCurtin’s opening chapter, Smith seems to turn in an entirely unrelated book, so I guess another possibility is that McCurtin welded a chapter of his own to Smith’s manuscript, so as to set up the storyline. Because as ever Russell Smith turns in a “plot” that requires the reader to do some very heavy lifting in order to make sense of anything. 

So in chapter one, which clearly seems to be by McCurtin, a New York Don talks to a dirty New York cop about that perennial problem, Johnny Rock. The cop’s novel suggestion is to kill a kid and pin it on Rock; there’s mention here, finally, that Rock has gunned down women and hookers and whatnot in his past exploits, but the public at large, we’re told, has sort of brushed off these kills given that the women were involved with the Mafia anyway. Thus Rock’s folkloric heroism is strong as ever. But if a kid were to be killed – especially a “problem” kid – and Rock was blamed for that, the situation would change. The cop even has a kid in mind – the retarded eleven year-old son of a Mafia floozy whose husband was killed years before by Rock; she beats the kid anyway, so they’d be doing him a favor. The Don likes the idea and gives the go ahead. The cop says he didn’t come up with the idea alone, that he hired a “one man think tank” psychologist “in California” named Dr. Dorelli to come up with a way to finally bring down Rock – and thus the idea was Dorelli’s. 

So there’s the setup. Next chapter opens, and we’re thrust without preamble into the typical surrealism of a Russell Smith novel. We meet Rock as he’s in Palo Alto, California, scoping out VAPA, the Veteran’s Association of Palo Alto. This hospital for vets is where Dr. Mario Dorelli serves as chief psychologist, and Rock’s here to settle a score. So then, the killing of the kid has already happened…but what’s curious is that we learn so little about it that one gets the impression Smith himself doesn’t even know what happened. All we’re told is that Rock is furious because “every cop in New York” is out to get him, and he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to get the heat off. But even more curiously this concern is never brought up again, nor is whatever brought Rock out to Palo Alto…for the most part, he just seems to be stalking Dr. Dorelli, whom Rock only suspects of being involved with the mob. 

Whereas McCurtin’s chapter vaguely set Dorelli up as a “one man think tank,” in Smith’s narrative Dorelli is a Mafia bigwig who was previously known as Joseph Reitano, and who worked with the CIA in ‘Nam and ran a dirty black ops squad that was known for sadism. For reasons never really disclosed, Rock is the only person in the entire world to figure out that Reitano and Dorelli are one and the same, and Rock decides to jolt the doctor by leaving a message in his office at VAPA under the name of “Joseph Reitano.” Rock gives the message to Dorelli’s lovely assistant, Eleanor Wood, a Jamaican woman “as black as a moonless Jamaican night and equally as romantic.” This sets off a strange cat and mouse game between Rock and Dorelli, with Rock at one point disguised as a doctor and spying on Dorelli inside VAPA, then later asking the always-horny Eleanor on a date to get info out of her on his prey. Meanwhile Dorelli – who as typical for a Smith novel gets way too much narrative space of his own – frets over who could know that he was once Joseph Reitano, or if it’s just some cosmic fluke that this guy has the exact same name that he once did. 

Smith serves up what have become staples of any of his Sharpshooter or Marksman manuscripts; Rock gets a room in an old hotel, murders a few thugs in cold blood, captures and interrogates a few people, and ultimately ends up on a boat. Smith also refers back to many of his previous manuscripts, in particular Vendetta, given that Rock ventures over to Sausalito, “well remember[ing] his last trip there.” Of course Smith’s narratives have been published as both Sharpshooters and Marksmans, even though they all clearly feature the same protagonist (Vendetta for example being a Marksman installment), which yields an extra metafictional layer to it all. There’s also curious mention here of a supposedly-recurring minor character named “Frank,” a short-statured Mafia flunky who has run into “Rock” three times in the past and has just managed to escape death each time. I have no recollection of this character, but presumably he must’ve appeared in previous Smith novels (in either series). 

One interesting “new” element in this one is that Rock actually gets in a firefight; in most other Smith yarns, Rock (or Magellan) just shoots down his prey in cold blood, usually while their backs are turned. He does that here, of course, gunning down some thugs who have shown up to ambush him in a bar, but later on he gets in a protracted gunfight with more thugs in yet another bar. This is in another of those surreal Smith sequences where Rock just goes into this dive with zero explanation or setup, talks to one of the Asian hookers who work the joint, then figures out the place is a Mafia front. Some thugs come in to get him and Rock blasts away with a pistol in each fist: the customary Beretta 9MM (which has appeared in every Smith manuscript, despite the series) in his right and a Colt .38 revolver in his left. The gore factor is very pronounced in this one, with characters puking at the sight of the shattered, brain-spewing skulls left in the wake of Rock’s bullets. 

But as mentioned, regardless of the series, Smith has always and ever been writing about the same protagonist, and since Philip Magellan came first then that ultimately means that A Dirty Way To Die is just another Smith installment of The Marksman. As the novel proceeds it only becomes more apparent. “Rock” wears a “nylon cord” around his waist, lugs an artillery case, wields the same 9mm Beretta, has a penchant for disguises, and drugs up a few random women before interrogating them in sadistic fashion. These are all hallmarks of Philip Magellan. Anyway I’ve beaten this dead horse enough in past reviews so it’s safe to say that by this point we all understand that, for the most part, Johnny Rock and Philip Magellan are one and the same, at least when the book is written by Russell Smith. 

I would say that all the Smith novels from both series could be gathered together and a running narrative might be found within them, but that sure as hell isn’t the case. Smith’s “plotting” is just as nuts as his protagonist. Things happen for absolutely no reason throughout A Dirty Way To Die, with no setup or explanation for most of it. This is why I suspect that McCurtin’s introductory chapter might’ve been added after Smith submitted his manuscript. Otherwise Rock just arrives in Palo Alto, stalks Dorelli, kills a few thugs, captures, drugs and interrogates two women, blows away a few more thugs in a rushed finale, and only at the very end are we even given a hazy explanation of why Rock’s here: In ‘Nam, when Dorelli was a CIA spook named Reitano, he would murder servicemen about to return home and then sell their IDs to other soldiers who were desperate to get out of the war. But Smith still forgets to inform us how Rock figured out that Reitano became Dorelli, or even how Rock became personally involved in the situation, save for a vague but compelling mention that one of Dorelli/Reitano’s affairs in ‘Nam “involved Rock.” 

So there’s no mention throughout of the “special kid” whose fate was determined in the first chapter, and it’s possible that the line early in chapter two that “every cop in New York” is out to get Rock could’ve been a McCurtin amendment to Smith’s manuscript. But without McCurtin’s opening chapter the novel takes on an even more surreal vibe, as Rock stalks and strikes Dorelli even though he’s not certain until the very end that Dorelli is really in the mob and is trafficking cocaine. Smith really drags this out past the breaking point, clearly trying to fill pages – we know from the get-go that Dorelli’s in the mob, given the parts of the narrative devoted to him, and we also know that Rock is in town trying to figure out how dirty Dorelli is. Yet the characters themselves don’t learn the truth about one another until toward the end of the novel. Dorelli’s realization that the young doctor calling himself “Dr. Joseph Reitano,” who just arrived in town is indeed Johnny Rock is especially ridiculous, given all the thug-killings that follow in the wake of “Dr. Reitano’s” presence…not to mention the little fact that “Reitano” has the same exact name as Dorelli’s original one! 

As Lynn Munroe notes, Smith also worked in the sleaze market, and if what he serves up late in A Dirty Way To Die is any indication of the kind of books he wrote for that market, then you’re well advised to steer clear, as it’s grimy and gross to the max. So out of nowhere, really absolutely nowhere, we suddenly learn that Dorelli has a sadistic self-punishment streak. For one, kind young Eleanor Wood, that “moonless Jamaican night” babe, turns out to be his private “slave owner,” torturing Dorelli in the office between patient visits. There’s some real sleazeball stuff here, like how Eleanor enjoys using her panties to give Dorelli a “rubdown,” and how Dorelli later must do something rather unseemly with the “soiled panties.” This part alone might have the less hardy reader racing for the restroom to spew his guts. 

Even more outrageous is the later off-the-cuff revelation that Dorelli has a live-in Filipino maid named Alicia who is hooked on coke and thus will do any sort of depraved sex act for him; we don’t see one happen, but witness the disgusting aftermath of a particularly depraved orgy, in which the stench of “shit” and “vomit” fills the room in which Dorelli and others “gang-banged” Alicia, who by the way spends the entire novel in a drugged stupor. Rock later comes upon her comatose form in the aftermath of the orgy, Rock having broken into Dorelli’s house, and wakes her up, sickened at the sight of her “chewed-up vagina” (!!). He is taken aback how casual the girl is about everything; she says she’s in no pain and instead just wants to take a bath; Rock figures she must be “used to being gang-banged!” 

Here there’s also promise that Rock himself might get in on the dirty festivities; a Mafia stooge shows up at Dorelli’s house with a hotstuff floozy in tow, assumes Rock is Dorelli, and tells him that the hotstuff babe is the latest scheme to rope in the Sharpshooter. Rock, pretending to be Dorelli, listens patiently and then excuses himself; he rushes outside, blows off the head of the Mafia stooge’s driver, and leaves! And not much else is made of the proposed floozy entrapment. But this is just how Smith rolls; it’s one wild sequence after another, usually followed by lots of page-filling where characters sit around and reflect over recent bizarre circumstances. It’s like they’ve all been plunged into a surreal nightmare in which nothing makes sense, which pretty much sums up ever Smith novel I’ve yet read. 

The helluva it is, Smith shows that he can deliver memorable characters: Eleanor Wood, despite the eleventh hour revelation of her sadomasochistic impulses, is a likeable character with a gift for sarcastic comments. Rock takes her on a “date” in which he first mows down several Mafia thugs and then threatens to kill Eleanor if she doesn’t get on a Chris-Craft boat he steals in Sausalito (the same boat he – as Magellan – stole in Vendetta), and throughout Eleanor keeps joking about when they’re going to get around to eating dinner. Of course Rock ultimately drugs her up (this after copious description of her vomitting due to sea sickness) and, when she won’t talk, terrorizes her with water snakes in what is clearly a shoutout to when Rock terrorized his captives with rats back in #3: Blood Bath (another Russell Smith joint, and another that clearly started life as a Marksman manuscript). 

Oh and Rock also captures another woman, just out of the blue; after the gunfight at the dive, Rock jumps in a car and beats the woman behind the wheel silly. He appropriates the car, taking the comatose woman along with him, and then tosses her, naked, into the hold with Eleanor. Absolutely no explanation is given of who this woman is…Smith seems to imply she’s a “driver” for the Mafia, but she’s presented as yet another innocent caught up in the sadistic sway of “Rock.” She too will be drugged, but Rock doesn’t even interrogate her, thus her entire presence is as baffling as anything else that happens in the novel. And another thing – after all this cruelty, Eleanor’s interrogation is mostly off-page! We are informed she’s privy to all of Dorelli’s mob dealings, but after Rock spends “ten minutes” explaining to her the dangers of narcotics and how they damage the “society he still believes in,” Eleanor’s suddenly on Rock’s side…despite all the torture with the snakes, some of which tried to crawl between her legs, we’re informed. 

Meanwhile Dorelli gets a lot of his own text, as does a Mafia executioner named Zanicchi who is fond of “hanging a man on a meat hook, drenching him in urine and shit and watching him die slowly.” Zanicchi we’re informed will get a $90K bonus for killing the Sharpshooter, but what the actual bounty is we’re not informed. Regardless this particular plot, which promises so much, goes nowhere – as is typical for any Smith venture. Zanicchi’s goons are the ones mowed down by Rock while on his “date” with Eleanor, after which Smith seems to forget about Zanicchi…until the final three pages, in which Rock dispenses justice in customarily rushed fashion, wiping out sundry villains who as ever have all gotten together in one spot so he can conviently kill them all at once with his Uzi. 

Sometimes these books give a peek into the disturbed mentality of their authors, and A Dirty Way To Die is a definite case in point. Lazy plotting, go-nowhere digressions, random acts of depraved sex, and torture with water snakes. Smith is so focused on all this that he, as typical, races through the last pages with such abandon that you can almost feel his joy at finally meeting his word count. In fact the finale makes as little sense as anything else in the book. So we’re informed, again in the very final pages, that Dorelli would kill ‘Nam soldiers about to return home and sell their IDs, with the compelling hint that one of his “atrocities” over there “involved Rock.” So Rock gets Dorelli, blows apart his guts with the Uzi so he’s near death, and then straps him onto a gurney in the Chris-Craft…and apparently sets the controls for Vietnam, over the horizon? After this he calls Eleanor, who asks him to “hurry” over to her place because she “wants” him! The end! WTF?! 

By all accounts the next volume, Mafia Death Watch, is just as depraved, if not more so. That one was written by series newcomer Dan Reardon, and I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. While this was it for Smith on The Sharpshooter, he was still churning them out over on The Marksman, so we’ll be seeing more of him in future reviews. Oh and Bob Larkin’s (uncredited) cover for A Dirty Way To Die is one of the best in the entire series, and not just because of the cleavage! Okay, so maybe the cleavage has something to do with it, but still!

Monday, March 15, 2021

Moon Zero Two

Moon Zero Two, by John Burke
February, 1970  Signet Book

If Moon Zero Two is remembered for anything today, it’s for being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 – bearing in mind, though, that it was on the mostly-lame first season (which is still better than the recent “reboot,” in which the new Millennial cast replaces comedic riffs with woke virtue-signaling). Otherwise I don’t know if Moon Zero Two resonated much on the cultural radar…I believe it was marketed as “the first space Western” when it was released, but for the most part people thought of it as a poor man’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

I personally like it, if for nothing more than the outre mod fashions – I mean, people wear DayGlo spacesuits in the movie! And there’s a weird dance club on the moon and funky-looking vehicles called “Moonbugs.” That’s the future I want. And to make it even worse, we learn here in this novelization courtesy John Burke that all this takes place in May 2020! I can’t remember if the movie also informs us of the date – the novel informs us courtesy a sign in the “Moon Hilton” – but man. The real May 2020 was mandatory lockdowns and quarantines and other assorted bullshit, so it’s safe to say that once again we’ve been screwed by reality. Lame or not, I’d much prefer the world of Moon Zero Two to the one we got. 

Well anyway, none of this has much to do with the novel at hand. As mentioned, it’s by John Burke, of whom I know absolutely nothing and am too lazy to research. His credit is “adapted by” rather than “written by,” and he takes the interesting approach of writing the novel in first-person. Personally I didn’t like this very much, as Burke writes the novel in a clipped, pessimistic tone, clearly going for a hardboiled vibe, which ultimately makes Moon Zero Two seem more like the novelization of some ‘50s sci-fi movie instead of the glorious modtastic technicolor one that came out in late ’69. And for that matter, the novel doesn’t capture any of the modtastic stuff, either; no description of the various-colored space suits nor of the wild “mod” fashions worn by the women throughout the film, and the dance club at the Moon Hilton is simply stated as having “garish” colors rather than the cheap but cool psychedelic look we got in the movie (complete with dancing girls in white leotards – and they don’t appear in the book, either!). 

The novel follows the film pretty closely; if there are any embellishments, it’s mostly via the cynical thoughts of our narrator, Captain Bill Kemp (as played by James Olson in the film – who in 1985 would appear as Schwarzenegger’s former commanding officer in Commando!). In the film Bill has an acidic temperament and a fondness for venomous barbs; Burke takes that and writes the entire novel in the same manner. So gone is the wide-eyed wonder you’d expect from a sci-fi yarn in a world with DayGlo spacesuits and Moonbuggies. Instead, narrator Bill Kemp hates everything, buzzkilling any vicarious thrill the reader might seek, sort of like how Gore Vidal buzzkilled any ancient world fantasies with his similarly-bitchy narrator in Creation

However, with his hardbitten attitude and gift for one-liners, Bill brings to mind the protagonist of a typical Leigh Brackett story. In fact Bill, who was the first man to land on Mars, yearns to continue exploring the depths of space but is prevented from it by a tyranical government that has banned deep space voyages, a setup Brackett herself delivered in Alpha Centauri Or Die. As we learn, once the Moon and Mars had been somewhat colonized, the “Corporation” (formerly just the “Company) shut down any further exploration and focused solely on exploiting these two new worlds. Bill has become so dispirited that he gave up his job with the company as a pilot – determined to never be just another pilot on one of their space liners – and now makes a meager living harvesting space junk in his antique spacecraft. 

This would be the titular Moon Zero Two, once a top of the line ship but now about to fall apart. Bill’s engineer is Dimitri, who as in the film contributes nothing to the plot, other than saving Bill’s hide in the finale. The novel opens same as the film, with Bill and Dimitri aboard Moon Zero Two and bringing in a faulty radio communications satellite in orbit around the Moon. Burke here lets us know what we’re in for: he will hardly describe anything, so locked is he in Kemp’s pessimistic viewpoint. Throughout the novel we’ll get threadbare descritpion of this or that – like the “domes” of the big main city on the Moon, or maybe that a set of rockets are “bell-shaped” – but otherwise the reader must do the heavy lifting of imagining what everything looks like, even the characters. He does at least mention some “green” and “red” spacesuits later in the book, with the caveat that the colors are there to differntiate the wearer from the rocky terrain of the Moon – no mention, then, of the outrageous mod fashion factor. 

But really, if you’ve seen the film then there’s nothing new in the book. Maybe a little more background on the relationship between Bill and Liz, the hotstuff police presence at Moon City. She’s a rep for the “Bureau,” and we learn in a few paragraphs of backstory that she met Bill the year before; Bill went off to a vacation spot on the M oon ordinarily set up for liner pilots (a luxury place with saunas and the like), and the Bureau questioned how a guy with his paycheck could afford such a vacation. Liz’s assignment was to get cozy with Bill, up to and including going to bed with him, with the ultimate outcome that she not only fell for him but also revealed to him who she truly was. Now it’s a year later and they seem to have an on-again, off-again thing going, with Bill still holding some resentment toward her. But really that’s about all the “new” stuff you’ll find in the novel. 

So then as in the film Bill runs into a pretty young lady newly arrived on the Moon who is looking for her brother; there’s a cool setup that “Farside,” aka the dark side of the moon, is sort of like Alaska during the Gold Rush, with various prospectors staking their claims. This young lady, who turns out to be named Clem (for Clementine), is the sister of one of these prospectors; she claims he “cabled” her that he’d struck it rich in his claim, but she hasn’t heard from him in many weeks. He was supposed to meet her here but hasn’t shown up. Since Bill just happens to be walking by, he’s asked to show her around. There’s also an uber-wealthy guy named Hubbard who has come in on the same space liner, and of course both plots will eventually merge. 

Hubbard, one of those typical supervillain types given his vast wealth and the cheap stooges he employs, offers to hire Bill to “nudge” an asteroid out of orbit so that it will crash on the Moon. This is highly illegal; Hubbard wants the asteroid, which was first discovered in 1998, as it turns out to be a massive ball of sapphire. We get a trip into space, playing out identically as in the film, where Hubbard and Dimitri fly out a few of Hubbard’s men to place rockets on the asteroid. We get slightly more backstory in the novel in that the four engines Bill uses to nudge the asteroid are taken from the ship he landed on Mars, years before – he buys them from a scrap junker on the Moon with the money Hubbard fronts him. 

A thing about novelizations is that goofy plot contrivances can’t be hidden by fancy editing or snappy scores. After doing the job Bill’s at the bar on the Moon and Clem approaches him again, wanting to hire him to fly her over to Farside to find her brother. But Hubbard’s goons come in and say Bill’s already been hired. This leads to a bar fight, hallmark of cheap films everywhere, with the added bonus that the Moon’s lower gravity causes people to fly around. Well, after the fight Bill’s arrested, by old flame Liz no less, and put in jail. He’s then freed by Dimitri and Clem…and then they all rush to Bill’s ship and head for Farside. I mean in the film this just happens and you take it at face value, but in the novel you can’t help but wonder why the sudden mad dash to Farside – does Bill think Liz and the Bureau will just forget he broke out of jail? 

This leads to the most memorable part of the story, both film and book, with Bill and Liz in a Moonbug, where they find that her brother, as expected, has met a grisly fate – and soon enough they’re being shot at by a trio of goons in colorful spacesuits. But even here it’s more like a hardboiled yarn, as Bill displays quick knowledge on how to even the odds on armed opponents, complete with even fooling them via the radio. The action scene is played out a bit more in the novel, mostly insofar as the dire conditions of the location go. As in the film this leads to Bill and Clem in a “Bugdozer,” a massive construction vehicle that isn’t designed for long-distance travel, but is the only vehicle available after the firefight. 

Here too the novel plays out the grueling overland journey a bit more; Bill and Clem only have several hours of oxygen left, and must get through the dark, freezing section of the Moon into the light section – and they’ll be traveling over it while temperatures are at the boiling point. Regardless of the bad situation, the two manage to talk a little more…not to mention engage in a little off-page Moon lovin’ once they park the Bugdozer in some shade. Burke also injects a vague subplot here about legendary “Moon women,” the story going that “housewives” back on Earth wonder why their husbands suddenly refuse to return to Earth after their work is done on the Moon. An urban myth has arisen that there are batches of “Moon women” up there to keep the men happy. This weird tidbit comes out of nowhere and is one of the few instances of Burke adding something new to the story; Bill muses over the lovely young lady beside him in the vehicle and thinks of those mythical Moon women. 

During the shootout Clem discovered a patch of rock with a vein of nickel in it, and it’s clear her brother was murdered because he did indeed strike something valuable in his claim. As mentioned the two main plots merge, as obviously rich villain Hubbard is involved. Speaking of whom, his character is the most memorabe in the book as well as the film, spitting out venomous lines to his underlings throughout…even when he’s on an asteroid headed for impact with the moon. But as with the film, Bill Kemp himself proves woefully inadequate in the finale, with Dimitri and Clem in Moon Zero Two coming to his rescue while he’s held at gunpoint on an asteroid. Dimitri even drops him a pistol and Bill manages to run out of bullets before he hits any of Hubbard’s goons! 

I’m not sure if there were ever plans for a sequel to Moon Zero Two, but the storyline resolves sufficiently, with Clem coming into a lot of money – money which she’ll use to fund new deep space explorations, with Bill as one of the pilots. That’s the setup for a future storyline, at least. Instead the novel – and movie – ends on a sex joke, with Bill in a “hurry” to get back to the Moon to check out Clem’s room at the Hilton! But still, the story loses something in the translation to novel…Bill’s narration is just too cynical and dour, and we miss out on the colorful stuff from the film. But at least it’s nice this tie-in was even published; too bad there wasn’t also a novelization of a superior ultramod “future ‘60s” sci-fi flick, Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Stars Cast No Shadows

Stars Cast No Shadows, by William Hegner
November, 1974  Pocket Books

Apparently I read this William Hegner novel seven years ago, at least judging from the last paragraph of my review of The Lovelorners, but it looks like even then I couldn’t remember much about Stars Cast No Shadows. I decided to “re-read” it again, but honestly it was like reading the novel for the first time, as it’s clear this book made zero impression on me. I’m happy to say it did on this reading; I can attest, though, that I got one thing correct in my previous mini-review: the book is more a series of inter-connected short stories than it is an actual novel, with a flurry of characters for the reader to keep track of. 

As usual with a Hegner book, the focus is on Hollywood, and Stars Cast No Shadows has an interesting take: a prep school for the children of stars. But rather than tell a regular sort of novel, it is instead arranged into a series of twenty-six short chapters, one for each letter of the alphabet, each of them focused on a different character (“A is for Amy,” “C is for Christy,” etc). The “main” character in the novel is Dean Jesse Wellman, who when the book opens is about to retire after 42 years of being the Dean at Hollywood Prep. We’re informed that the Dean has written “dirty limericks” about many of his students over the years and kept robust scrapbooks on them, but curiously we only see one limerick in the course of the novel – and also, the novel is not arranged like a scrapbook, with the Dean’s first-hand recollections of this or that student. Instead, each chapter is told like your typical Hegner novel, in third-person, focusing mostly on memorable one-liners (with a special gift for sleazy repartee) and brazen sex acts. 

Indeed, Stars Cast No Shadows is like an even more surreal take on Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon; here the various stars think of nothing but sex, men and women alike booze-guzzling, pill-popping sex maniacs. This of course makes the novel seem all the more wild in our #metoo era. Another thing that only occurred to me late in the game is that the vast majority of sex scenes in the novel concern teenagers, though given that they’re all the sons and daughters of megastars they are so jaded and blasé that they come off like adults. At any rate this would be another indication of a novel that could’ve only been published in the ‘70s. What makes it all the more interesting is that the age of the kids is rarely mentioned. 

Well anyway, the setup here is that Dean Wellman is about to retire and he looks back fondly on his 42 years with the school, which as you’ve probably guessed by now is an exclusive preparatory in Hollywood for the children of stars. As usual with Hegner the novel for the most part seems to occur in an earlier age; the chapters can jump all over the place, from material in the ‘30s and ‘40s to as late as the early ‘70s, which apparently is when the main storyline takes place. But also as usual with Hegner there are zero topical details; a mention of “rock bands” and “Woodstock” is really all we have to even let us know when the latter-day sequences are exactly occuring. Otherwise the novel is incredibly bland so far as scene-setting or period flavor go; Hegner is so locked into the sexual personae (to quote Camille Paglia – and I’ve been waiting years to write “to quote Camille Paglia”) of his characters that little else matters. 

Dean Wellman is the main character, but he doesn’t much feature in the interconnected chapters, other than a minor appearance here and there. The book is framed as his recollections on his past 42 years, but as mentioned it’s not told in first-person; each chapter will open with some new character and the sexual adventures he or she gets into during their time at Hollywood Prep Academy. Of these students, probably the main character is Amy Winters, who opens the tale with “A is for Amy.” But already we get an idea that Stars Cast No Shadows will jump all over the chronological map; Amy, when she comes to HPA as a student, is a “hubba-hubba girl” whose own parents are actors, and we learn that she too will eventually gain superstardom due to her acting and singing talents. But we also eventually learn she is “class of ’39.” 

Amy Winters will come and go in the novel, mostly appearing later in life as the parent of three hell-raising daughters of her own; the youngest, Bella Donna, also coming close to appropriating the “main character” status. But the problem with this book is that characters and subplots will emerge, seem to build toward something, and then drop. I mean, you all know I’m a sucker for a vintage rock novel. Well, it develops that two of the male characters become “teen idols” who front rock bands (though Hegner’s knowledge of rock music seems incredibly vague), and toward the end of the book we learn of plans for a “TV Woodstock” which will feature a “Battle of the Rockers.” But this subplot is never brought up again. Same goes for other characters and subplots, and in fact Amy Winters is the only character who has a complete story arc other than Dean Wellman. 

Given this, there’s no plot per se, other than the Dean’s upcoming retirement; another late subplot has him choosing his successor and transferring duties to him, but even this is overshadowed by the wanton escapades of the students, new and old. As the novel progresses, the majority of the stories seem to take place in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, with some of the earlier students, like Amy Winters, now adults. As ever with Hegner all this stuff is roman a clef territory, with these oversexed and overdrugged stars paper-thin caricatures of real-life celebrities. Amy Winters is more than likely Judy Garland, with the same sort of career trajectory, and Bella Donna would be Liza Minnelli. There’s also comediane Lilli Havoc and her husband, Ramon Cortez, blatantly obvious stand-ins for Lucy and Ricky, even down to their beloved TV series and ensuing production company. I mean, if you’ve ever wanted to read a novel where a Lucille Ball stand-in gives a blowjob to Ricky while he’s on the phone, complete with Ricky shooting his “essence” on Lucy’s cheeks, then this would be the novel for you. 

In fact it gets to be humorous – and possibly intentionally so – that all these stars think about is sex. That and how to advance their careers. Ramon Cortez is the most level-headed of the lot, gifted with a ruthless business acumen…but still given to openly grabbing his crotch during meetings. True to the trash fiction template, every chapter revolves around sex, either among the older generation or the younger generation. As mentioned though it’s the teens who get the most of the narrative as the novel progresses, particularly Bella Donna, who swoops in on new guys who enroll in the school and has sex with them within the hour. The intentional humor is especially pronounced when the celebrity parents start to worry about the sex lives of their kids; not that they’re having sex, but that they aren’t having sex. Two sequences of inverted parental concern stand out in particular. 

In one, Davy Lord, a famous comic, pushes his son Greg into rock stardom as singer for the group Greg Lord and the Hereafters. Lord Senior gets a home studio and relentlessly pushes his kid, Murry Wilson style, for number one hits. But as mentioned Hegner has no concept of rock, or at least doesn’t seem to – he tells us absolutely nothing about the sound of the music (nor about any of the movies or TV shows the other stars are in, for that matter). Davy also expects his son to be a ladykiller, thus gets Greg a limo with a bar in back – Davy even telling his kid he could “go at two broads at once” on the big comfy mattress back there. But Greg, we learn, is so shy he prefers to sit in his room and pleasure himself…something a sickened Davy discovers while secretly monitoring his kid on hidden cameras. Later Davy will be even more sickened to learn that Greg has taken to driving around that limo…while other kids have sex in the back! “He’s a good boy,” the private detective who has discovered this informs Davy, confused why Davy Lord is acting so horrified. “The kid’s a fuckin’ chaffeur!” The disappointed father says. 

Even more outrageous is another sequence in which Frannie Moon, another comediane (and also a former HPA student), hosts a party for her dopesmoking teenaged daughter, Maggie, and her druggie friends. Frannie is infamous in the movie colony for picking things up with her…well, you can guess. So after the kids have been smoking joints and whatnot, Frannie’s on the fringes, hoping to be invited to join in. When she is invited, she of course shows off her nether-region talents to the delight of the teens…then an orgy ensues, with Frannie ultimately getting double-teamed. The orgy rolls into the following morning, and when the kids get up and wearily head home, Frannie reflects how not a single one of them was checked on by their parents. She congratulates herself that at least she knows where her daughter was last night! “The family that lays together, stays together,” she later tells her current stud. 

This alone is almost enough to make Stars Cast No Shadows a classic, but the problem is the reader is robbed of the full dramatic impact with the too-short chapters and the dropped subplots. Also, some of the characters are easily confused, mostly because they’re presented as ciphers with no emotional makeup other than the most basic drives for sex and power. But there’s one kid named Jaguar Stoddard, whose dad is an agent or somesuch and thus not a star, so Jag’s not able to enroll in HPA, so he instead acts as resident drug dealer. He’s easily confused with a kid named Owen who is the son of a star and does enroll in HPA; the two are hellraisers and become friends, but the characters are too similar. Owen is nicknamed Bullet, by the way, due to the bullet he wears on a necklace; the bullet his superstar old man used to kill himself. Bullet even starts up a biker club, and there follows another of those “couldn’t be published today” bits where Pamela Grass, another of Amy Winters’s daughters, tries to join the all-male gang; Bullet makes her wear a strap-on dildo so she’s truly “one of the guys”…and then he and the others gang-bang her after a trip to Mexico. Indeed, all thirteen of the bikers “enter her anal passage” during the festivities. 

So as you can tell, Hegner pulls no punches in his tale. It should be mentioned though that, as ever, the actual boinkery is seldom described, other than one or two lines of graphic depiction. Hegner’s talent is witty repartee, which comes off like an X-rated take on classic Hollywood dialog. Like notorious felatrix Maggie Moon’s comment on her ex-husband: “I never want to look his cock in the face again!” Or when Amy Winters, in the opening chapter in which she herself is just a teen, informs Dean Wellman that she missed class for the past couple weeks because she was having an abortion. The Dean’s response: “That is an adequate excuse.” As for the actual hanky-pankery, Hegner’s descriptions usually go for more of a sleazebag literary approach, a la “She knelt before him and fed the soft cylinder of flesh into her mouth.” 

The novel seems to be building toward something: Ramon and Lilli start their production company and sign on the progeny of their movie-world friends for future plans, but nothing comes of it. Like as mentioned the TV Woodstock, which would feature Davy Lord’s kid as well as Ramon and Lilli’s own teen idol son, Dudley. But all this is dropped. Hegner delivers an epilogue which does the heavy lifting of informing us of what happens to the various characters, many of whom are in store for sad fates. There’s also a curious circular approach to the narrative, as the tale ends with the Dean’s last day on the job, yet we’re informed in the epilogue that he’ll be back within the year, given the outright failure of his successor (who, much to the Dean’s horror, starts hanging around with the party scene that exists on the fringes of Hollywood). 

So I’m not sure why Stars Cast No Shadows made such little impression on me when I first read it a few years ago. I really enjoyed it this time, to the extent that I wished there’d been more to it – more of a storyline, more content to the characters, and especially more description of the various time periods and productions the characters worked on. But don’t get me wrong, as it’s certainly a fun novel, and if you enjoy Hollywood-style repartee, especially of a venomous nature, you’ll find a lot of gems in the book.

Monday, March 8, 2021

Psi-Man #1

Psi-Man #1, by David Peters
October, 1990  Charter-Diamond Books

Back in the very early 1990s I was a teenaged comic book geek – this was in the days where you had to keep such things secret, otherwise you would be ridiculed as a complete freak and girls would laugh at you. I liked the popular stuff, like the ubiquitous Uncanny X-Men and the various Batman titles and etc, but I also collected The Incredible Hulk, mostly due to the writing of Peter David. While my comic-collecting friends were really just into the art, even back then I was more into the writing, and I recall David’s work really appealed to me. 

I had no idea at the time that David was also publishing a “men’s adventure” series under the not-even-trying pseudonym “David Peters;” I probably would’ve been very interested in it, given my love of men’s adventure during my middle school years. (I recall the line of progression was comics to men’s adventure to sci-fi and then back to comics…then, of course, on to sex, drugs, and rock and roll.) Psi-Man, which amounted to four volumes, was another of those last gasps of the men’s adventure genre…not as sleazy or grimy as the the series of the ‘70s, nor as guns-and-commandos oriented as the series of the ‘80s. Still following the series template, though, with a heroic protagonist encountering some new threat each installment…but also catering to the reading tastes of a new era, with a slightly politically correct vibe. While Psi-Man is neutered, at least compared to something like The Sharpshooter, it’s thankfully not on the level of another early ‘90s “new men’s adventure series” (courtesy the same publisher): the abyssmal Tracker

That said, the titular Psi-Man, a dude named Chuck Simon (the name as not-even-trying as David’s pseudonym), goes out of his way not to kill anyone, and also spends the majority of this first novel fending off the advances of two eager young women. So yep, we’re in the early ‘90s, and everything is kinder and gentler than what came before in this genre. There’s also a sci-fi overlay in that the series takes place in the future, ie 2021(!), but quite presiciently as it turns out David doesn’t present a world with space travel or any other “sci-fi” trappings. In fact, the 2021 of Psi-Man is pretty much identical to our current one…people still drive cars, watch TV, and the like. Actually if anything it’s less sci-fi than our real era, in that there’s no internet, or mobile phones, or etc. 

Otherwise the author has hit the nail on the head in quite interesting ways. In David’s 2021, the U.S. government has become an oppressive, menacing presence that’s known for disappearing any dissenting voices (no comment!), and both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights have been “suspended” so that free speech and the like no longer exist (definitely no comment on this one – I mean, I don’t wanna get deplatformed!). There’s vague backstory about “Extremists” having caused this situation – and as if that weren’t prescient enough, it turns out that these so-called “Extremists” have been villified for political power-grab purposes, as while there’s a minority of radicals among them, in reality the majority of them are just ordinary people who are concerned about the environment. However the government is so aligned against the movement that Constitutional freedoms have been suspended so as to wipe out this contrived threat…ironically, a threat which has been created for narrative purposes by the government, so as to carry out all of those power grabs (no comment!). 

In addition, there’s a shadowy Federal agency which doesn’t so much protect the populace as it does mercilessly enforce the government’s mandates. This is the Complex, the agents of which are hunting Chuck when we meet him at novel’s beginning. He’s pretty much as depicted on the cover, just an average dude with sandy blond hair, but as it turns out he has telekinetic powers that are off the charts. He’s also got a massive German Shepard that travels with him: Rommel, with whom Chuck enjoys communicating with via ESP. There’s a humorous, snappy rapport between the two that brings to mind that of Remo and Chiun in The Destroyer, with the same setup even occurring here: Chuck, the Remo-esque straight man and Rommel the Chiun-esque smart-ass. 

As it turns out, the Chuck-Rommel rapport is pretty much the only thing that elevates Psi-Man #1. Another thing that separates these latter “men’s adventure” series from their earlier brethren: the first volumes spend much too long on the origin story and the series setup. And that’s pretty much what this first volume is. We open in late 2021 with Chuck hiding out in Kansas with a traveling circus, he and Rommel clearly on the run from someone. Then “they” show up at the fair one night, and Chuck knows he’s finally been tracked down. At this point we flash back to 2020 and begin the long-simmer, somewhat slow-moving narrative which will encompass the majority of the tale. This certainly isn’t an action-packed novel by any means, and for the most part comes off like a standalone thriller instead of the setup for a continnuing men’s adventure series. 

The majority of the tale takes place in Ohio, Chuck living in a small town and serving as the coach at a local high school. He’s around 27 (meaning he’s a Millennial!) and comes off as overly naïve and unaware of the world around him. Hey, he is a Millennial! Seriously though, we’re told at one point that Chuck’s heard that “British Prime Minister McCartney” was once in some band called the Beatles, but Chuck’s never bothered looking into it. Otherwise there’s vague backstory that Chuck’s girlfriend or wife or something left him two years ago; a pretty fellow teacher has made her intentions clear, but Chuck as mentioned keeps fending her off. Supposedly because he thinks his ex will return or something. Really though it’s a slow-moving tale at this point, David delivering something far removed from men’s adventure and more along the lines of Stephen King…only without the supernatural stuff. 

Save, that is, for Chuck’s somewhat-latent mental powers. These are introduced to us casually, with Chuck rarely using them. He’s pretty much an easy-going Quaker who does karate to focus his will. Eventually we’ll learn that both the religion and the martial arts are there so Chuck can make himself “normal” and suppress these mental powers which separate him from others. However as it develops the Complex is already onto him, and shadowy agents appear in town to monitor him secretly. When Chuck finally goes out on a date with the young lady, the novel picks up. He’s managed to run afoul of some local drugdealers, one of whom he found trying to sell junk to one of his students. These guys ambush Chuck during the date – and his house blows up, while Chuck’s outside and his date is inside. 

Here finally the novel seems like it’s going to become a vintage men’s adventure: Chuck’s girlfriend has just been blown up by drug dealers, and now he’s all raring to kill ‘em all. This he does, in one of the novel’s few action scenes – ripping people apart with his mind, hurling them into the burning flames. Only…it turns out Chuck’s girl wasn’t in the house, and after a quick peck on the cheek she gets the hell out of Dodge, terrified of this mental monster she’s been wanting to date. At this point the narrative coalasces into a thread: Quinn, manipulative agent in charge of the Complex, appears and offers to recruit Chuck, to teach him how to hone his TK powers, all in exchange for “serving his country.” 

We jump forward again and it’s still all about the story and character development. Chuck’s living in the Complex HQ and trying but failing to use his TK. Meanwhile he learns that Quinn will likely expect Chuck to serve as a sort of psionic assassin; there’s another, named Beutel, who enjoys his work and who begins to resent Chuck’s presence. Even though the TK isn’t coming for him, Chuck’s display of his powers on the drug dealers was beyond what anyone else has ever done. It just sort of goes on and on, but really picks up when Rommel is re-introduced into the tale. The dog is “subject 666” at the Complex and is so big and mean he’s scared away everyone, particularly Beutel, who as it turns out is terrified of dogs. Quinn, who has set Beutel on Chuck to test him, further introduces Rommel into the mix so as to scare Beutel, given his increasingly-insubordinate attitude. 

Rommel is by far the most memorable character. With an off-colored tuft of hair on his forehead in the shape of a “Z,” he has an instant mental rapport with Chuck. Rommel tries to kill Beutel but Chuck calls him off – again it’s a kinder, gentler sort of men’s adventure, and Chuck’s forever trying to not kill someone – after which Chuck and Rommel escape the Complex. Chuck’s had enough of this shit and refuses to be an assassin. This of course causes a big standoff with Quinn, who sarcastically refers to Chuck as “Psi-Man,” as if he were a superhero in a costume. After this the narrative picks back up where we started, Chuck at the fairground in Kansas around a year later, Quinn’s men closing in on him at last. 

At this point the novel finally picks up. The Complex agents dose some of the lions in the circus act so they go nuts and attack the trainer, and Chuck has to save his friends while, you guessed it, also not hurting the lions. There’s also a nice showdown with Beutel, who ends up losing a hand in the melee but isn’t killed, of course. Dakota, a tightrope babe from the circus who also has a thing for Chuck (not that he reciprocates) almost gets the better of Beutel, too. The novel ends with Chuck and Rommel again on the road, with Dakota in tow. She too is a memorable character, and in fact if David’s style reminds me of anyone it would be Raymond Obstfeld. Snarky dialog with memorable comebacks and one-liners, a spunky female character, and a lack of the hardcore gun-violence one usually demands from this genre. 

I think I’ve only got the last volume of Psi-Man, or maybe I have the third one as well. I can’t remember. I know I don’t have all of them, at least. I found this first one marginally entertaining, and figure I’ll enjoy the other ones more, if anything because they’ll likely spend more time with Chuck and Rommel instead of on setting up the overall storyline, like this one did.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Last Great Death Stunt

The Last Great Death Stunt, by Clark Howard
January, 1977  Berkley Medallion

With a plot that practically cries out for a film adaptation, The Last Great Death Stunt is courtesy prolific author Clark Howard, who published many novels, both hardcover and paperback, but this is the first of them I’ve read. The plot is also as “late ‘70s” as you can get, however the novel takes place in the future – only it’s the best kind of pseudo-future, as it’s basically just the 1970s with slightly higher technology, a la The Savage Report

Howard clearly seems to have been inspired by the bummer “future ‘70s” movies of the day, particularly Rollerball, but with much less of a downer vibe. The Last Great Death Stunt takes place in the then-future of the mid-1980s, in which there is no war or other sorts of suffering. All professional sports have vanished: people just want to watch Death Stunts, which have taken over from boxing, basketball, football, and etc. From vehicular jumps to high-wire walking to free-falling, these “Death Stunt” athletes certainly have a broad portfolio, and don’t just stick to one stunt like Evel Kneivel did. And yes folks, just to let you know how “futuristic ‘70s” this is, Evel Kneivel is in fact mentioned frequently in the narrative – even by the President of the United States in a televised address to the nation! 

This is how the novel opens; the President is unveiling to the public the “Anti Death Stunt Bill,” which within a month will ban death stunts forever. The President, who is young at 50 and serving “the first of what he hoped would be two six-year terms” (remember, it’s the future, folks!), states that this bill is near and dear to him, as human life is precious and the death stunts have resulted in too many fatalities…not just among the actual stuntmen, but also due to civilians, particularly children, who have tried to recreate the dangerous stunts. Although “only a few thousand” people have died in this manner, the President is still concerned. He somewhat needlessly reminds his public that the population is tightly controlled in this future era: immigration is banned (no comment!) and the government has become so totalitarian that it even mandates how many children a family can have (no comment!). 

The novel concerns two Death Stunt artists who try to achieve the titular “last great Death Stunt” before the ban kicks in: Jerry Fallon, 42 years old and retired, but considered the greatest Death Stunt artist of all time, and Nick Bell, 28 year-old current Death Stunt champion who many consider to be even greater than Fallon was. Like I said, the plot of this one is so geared for film adaptation that you can almost see the “Soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin” credit. It seems pretty evident that Howard has James Caan in mind for Bell and maybe Paul Newman for Fallon. He even lets us know his casting ideas directly: Bell’s girlfriend is a “Death Stunt groupie” named Janis who looks “like a young, blond Ali McGraw.” Throughout the novel the cultural references are from the 1970s; this isn’t a complaint, as I sure would’ve preferred a “futuristic 1970s” than the actual future we got. It’s sort of like the Buck Rogers TV series that came on around this time. I mean dammit, I’m still waiting for disco clubs on the moon! 

The biggest problem with The Last Great Death Stunt is that there’s little difference between Fallon and Bell. Save for that Fallon is older and has a wife and a teenaged daughter, there’s no real differentiator between the two men. Both are calmly detached about their superhuman skills, both are confident that they are the top of their field, and both have a sort of humble approach to their fame. I mean I thought there’d be the total cliché with Bell the arrogant young punk, eager to destroy Fallon’s legendary record, but nope…Bell only claims he’s the “greatest” after a notoriously-aggressive sports reporter pushes and pushes him for a comment to that effect. And this happens toward the very end of the novel. Otherwise the two men are so identical in their natures that there’s hardly any tension in the plot Howard attempts to cook up. 

Another big problem is that we hardly see any Death Stunts. The novel opens with the President announcing they’re to be banned, thus we’re constantly told about such and such Death Stunt of the past. Indeed, there are only two Death Stunts in the novel: Nick Bell gets in his “Death Sled” and rides it down a mountain early in the book, and then there’s a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge…at the very end of the book. Actually we don’t even see the jump, either. We see the events leading up to it, then move forward to the aftermath in the next chapter. So basically there’s an entire “future world” that hinges around Death Stunts – it’s literally the only thing people talk about, with crowds of thousands congregating at each Death Stunt location – but none of it is brought to life for us readers. 

So the only real Death Stunt we see is Bell’s slide down Mount Witney early in the novel. He wears a “padded gunmetal-red racing suit” and a visored helmet, and Howard makes the internal workings of the Death Sled suitably “futuristic:” viewscreens that allow him to see outside and keep him connected with the live TV coverage. This is a suitably tense sequence that nonetheless seems to go on too long. The Sled is rigged up so that it’s like a snowsled high up on the mountain, but then treads roll out for when it gets lower, so it can navigate the rocks and foliage and such. Bell gets bashed around a lot, suffering minor injuries in the suicidal race down the hill, yet at the same time it’s not the most effective Death Stunt for us readers to witness, as really he’s just sitting in a sled throughout. And sad to say, this will be the only Death Stunt we get to witness! 

Meanwhile Jerry Fallon is content with his domesticated life in California, watching all this on TV like the others. We learn he retired two years before and is content that his legend will never be outdone; he is roundly considered the greatest of all time, but there is the nagging worry of Nick Bell taking the top spot. Actually this is only inferred. Fallon is so calmly blasé about the whole thing that it almost comes off like the author is pushing him into being worried about Bell’s rising star. At any rate, we learn that Fallon started off as a race car driver, but when that circuit washed up, like all other professional sports, he moved into Death Stunts – and was about to jump the infamous Snake River in his first go. This was only the beginning of his legend. And yes, Evel Kneivel’s failure “some years ago” at Snake River is mentioned frequently in the narrative, even by the President in his address – now there’s a State of the Union I’d enjoy watching. 

Speaking of the President, Howard only vaguely brings to life this future world. The focus is really on the popularlity of Death Stunts. But we are informed that “the world is half-Communist, half-quasi-Socialist” (no comment!), and that there are no wars supposedly as a result. This would be a naïve assumption on Howard’s part, but at any rate the political climate isn’t much explored – save, that is, how Nick Bell’s abruptly announced “last Death Stunt” of jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge causes ripples in California. For some curious reason Howard burns pages on subplots about politicians, from “the first black Governor of California” to the Mayor of San Francisco, all of them heated up over Bell’s announcement. He’s made it right after the President’s address; the ban will go into effect on New Year’s Day, thus Bell announces he’ll jump on New Year’s Eve. 

This pisses off the President, who spends a lot of the narrative on the phone with various California politicians, usually while watching his wife get dressed. Howard almost half-assedly caters to the ‘70s demand for sex with occasional scenes of undressed women, like here, with the President’s wife coming out of the shower and trying to keep on her towel while the President talks on the phone. Yet this only displays Howard’s non-understanding of what us sleazebag readers want. I mean who gives a shit about the dude’s wife! Make it the President’s whip-cracking bondage mistress or something who keeps dropping the towel. Further displaying this non-understanding, Howard later gives us a somewhat-explict sex scene between Fallon and his wife. We also get minor hanky-panky between Bell and his girlfriend, but again this is a miss, as Bell is so devoted to her that she is practically his wife. And yes, in case you are taking notes, the only female characters in the novel are either wives or girlfriends, with none of them having any roles of importance in this future world, meaning that this is likely another book that will be consigned to the flames when the perennially-aggrieved Millennials finally take over. 

So much of the novel is padding, though. It opens memorably enough, with the President’s announcement of the ban, followed by Bell’s plunge down Mount Witney. But then the narrative goes into a stall as we get a lof of stuff about minor characters, from local politicians to various reporters. Meanwhile Fallon just sits calmly in his home, drinking various juices. Eventually he meets with a psychiatrist to see what would compel Bell to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, given how “over six hundred people” have attempted this, but only eight of them have ever survived. Through this we are to understand that Fallon is interested in jumping himself, but again the reader has to do a lot of heavy lifting here, as Fallon is presented as such a complacently content guy that there’s no real impetus for him to cement his legacy. 

Bell for his part begins to practice jumping off a smaller bridge in Lake Havasu, this one a mere sixty feet above the water. But even this is sort of lost in the narrative, which more so spends its time on background of how Bell met groupie Janis and fell in love with her. Through Bell’s character Howard really had an opportunity to bring this future era to life, but for the most part the opportunity is lost. This is also due to the fact that the novel occurs over just a few weeks, and Bell spends it jumping off this practice bridge. Oh and also it’s via the Golden Gate that we get an indication of when the novel is set; we’re told it was built in 1937, “nearly fifty years ago.” And here’s another line I jotted down, from the aforementioned part where Bell gets it on with Janis: “[Nick] looked down the length of their bodies and watched himself enter her through the field of pubic hair that was as yellow as the hair on her head.” See, friends, even the pubic references are from the shaggy ‘70s! 

Finally New Year’s Eve is upon us, the last quarter of the novel taking place on this day. Nick Bell arrives in San Francisco amid much hoopla; throngs of his followers who are excited to see him, and cops who are determined to prevent his jump. Howard adds some lame eleventh hour suspense when Bell goes out on his stories-high hotel windowsill to wave to his throngs far below, but he stumbles on his way back inside and nearly falls over – the first time, we are portentiously informed, he’s ever lost his balance. Just mere hours before his jump off the Golden Gate! Shortly after this a pushy reporter basically corners Bell into “admitting” he’s the greatest Death Stunt guy in history, and this finally gets through the frosty exterior (and interior) of Jerry Fallon…who is, you guessed it, once again watching it all on TV back home. 

Now it becomes ridiculous as Fallon merely goes to his gym out back and does two workouts, like on the parallel bars and whatnot, and then he says so long to the wife and kid and hops in his car and drives on over to San Francisco. Yes, he’s decided to jump off the bridge as well! Zero training, zero practice other than those two workouts – however we are informed that he’s already stayed in peak condition. Must be all that pinneapple juice he drinks. The novel climaxes with Fallon making a surprise appearance on the bridge and telling Bell he’s come because Bell should never have said he was the greatest. The two men jump off at the same time. 

And, infuriatingly, Howard jumps forward to the aftermath in the next chapter. It gets even more ridiculous as the mystery of whether either of them survived is teased out past the breaking point. SPOILER WARNING so skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know. Well anyway friends, this is a tension-lacking book, ‘cause they both survive…Fallon with nothing more than a broken ankle, but Bell all busted up, with smashed knees, knocked out teeth, and basically just in general broken apart. However the doc says in time “he may be a man again,” and Fallon invites Bell to come stay with him and work out in the gym together! Further, nice guy Fallon tells the press that “the last great Death Stunt” was a draw, as both men survived – both are now the greatest. 

Overall The Last Great Death Stunt was marginally entertaining, but there was a lot of potential that wasn’t reaped. It just felt like the reader was missing out on the larger story. So in other words, if this really was a ‘70s movie, it would be more along the lines of a TV movie.