Monday, August 30, 2021

The Hunter #1: The Ripper

The Hunter #1: The Ripper, by Mike Newton
No month stated, 1978  Publisher’s Consultants

The first of the two-volume The Hunter series, (not to be confused with the other Hunter series) The Ripper features hero Detective Jon Steel, a Los Angeles cop who is very much a clone of Dirty Harry, only as mentioned he’s in LA instead of San Francisco, and also he carries a .357 instead of a .44. Author Mike Newton turned out the series for low-rent Publisher’s Consultants, but in content and presentation (ie the visual look of the book, with its big print, short page count, and frequent typos) it comes off exactly like something from Belmont Tower or Leisure Books. 

What’s interesting about The Ripper is that it proves Newton was capable of writing a lurid cash-in himself; I only mention this because, years later in How To Write Action-Adventure Novels, Newton sneered at such books, in particular the “Rambosploitation” cover of Firefight. And also let’s not forget how he raked Soldier For Hire #8 and Behind The Door over the coals for their unbridled sleaziness. Well folks, Newton here is sleazier than either of those books, and “Jon Steel” is pure “Dirty Harrysploitation.” Mind you, none of this is a complaint. I love sleazy and lurid and violent cash-ins. In fact, I’d rather read them than the books they’re ripping off. And what’s crazy is, Newton here turns out a book that’s better than any of the official Dirty Harry tie-ins Warner Books was to begin publishing in a few years. At least, better than any of the ones I’ve read. 

Newton also turns in a book that’s of a piece with the Ryker and Keller books; again, The Ripper could’ve easily been a product of either BT or Leisure. It has the same brutal, misogynist, sleazy, and nihilistic tone as any of the “tough cops” books those imprints put out in the ‘70s. Which is to say it was a whole helluva lot of fun to read. In fact I never suspected Michael Newton had a book like this in him! It barrels along over the short course of 158 big-print pages, Newton doling out frequent scenes of excess sleaze, murder, and mayhem, with a “hero” who comes off like such a bastard that even Joe Ryker (or his alter ego Joe Keller) would be taken aback. Again all of which is to say, The Ripper was more fun than I thought it would be. 

Plot-wise the book is also identical to the Ryker or Keller novels: there’s a killer loose, one who preys on hookers, and it’s up to pure bastard cop Jon Steel to arrest him. Or kill him – Steel, we’ll learn, isn’t much bothered with rules and regulations, and would just as soon waste his prey. And speaking of “prey,” presumably “The Hunter” of the series title is Steel himself, but he never really thinks of himself as such. There is a slight connotation that he’s hunting the killer, but it’s not really exploited much and perhaps was just Newton trying to cater in some way to the series title. And speaking of which, per an interview with Newton that Justin Marriott conducted several years ago (but which I don’t believe was ever published?), Newton wrote a scad of novels for this publisher, which ended up publishing them under various titles and pseudonyms. So I’m not sure how much input he even had into the series title. 

Also the Ripper of the title is really two guys…at least at novel’s start. We see them in action as they pull up in their blue van with custom paint job (dueling “vikings” on the side – and I wanna say Newton was inspired by Frank Frazetta’s legedary cover for Conan Of Cimmeria), pick up a hooker on the Sunset Strip, negotiate price, and then take her out to the countryside so they can rape and kill her. Yes folks, it’s one of those books, just grimy and depraved to the core. And Newton doesn’t pull away from any of it, either, with a squirm-inducing opening that’s along the lines of Corporate Hooker, Inc. in the misery the poor hooker goes through. Or “whore,” as Newton constantly refers to her and her fellow streetwalkers throughout. But anyway she’s “opened like a fish from pubis to sternum in a single disembowling stroke,” per our hero’s estimation of the carnage when he views the girl’s corpse the next day. 

This is actually the second such kill; Steel’s already on the case when we meet him and the papers have dubbed the mysterious “whore”-killer “The Ripper.” Steel is only vaguely described, but again you can’t help but see Clint Eastwood: he’s tall and thin and carries a massive revolver. But in his case it’s a .357 Colt Python…which again goes against Newton’s later How-To book, which ridiculed cop thrillers that had its protagonists toting whatever gun they’d like. Again, this isn’t a complaint. I don’t want realism in a violent cop thriller. Newton has done his research on crime scene investigation and police procedure though, or at least seems to have, with Steel investigating this latest corpse and knowing immediately it’s not the work of a copycat. 

This brings us to one of my favorite elements of the tough cop genre: the arbitrary action scene. Steel picks up a call on the radio of an officer down, and heads on over to an all-night grocery store that’s being knocked over. Two radical-types are barricaded within, shooting down the cops with a carbine. Steel, familiar with the place from previous robberies, descends into the place and takes on the two radicals in gory fashion: “The magnum roared again, a solitary word of disgust. The heavy slug passed between Arty’s silently moving lips, clipped his spine with surgical precision at the base of his skull, and then erupted from the back of his head in a frothy shower of blood, brain, and splintered bone.” This mind you occurs right after Steel has blown off the punk’s arm. The other radical is wasted in similar fashion. 

The third would-be Ripper victim happens to be packing a .25 derringer and manages to get the drop on the two killers. She shoots one of them but is knifed savagely in return, leading to corpse three, but she also manages to take out one of the two Rippers. This proves to be the biggest break in the case for Steel, and he soon discovers that the dead punk was the son of a prominent doctor. After grilling the guy and his wife in their mansion, Steel figures out that Ripper number two is also a child of wealth – the twenty-something son of “a professional liberal” city councilman who hates the cops and likes to side with poor minorities in causes, despite being a wealthy white guy and etc. 

But for being a tough cop with 15 years of experience on the force, Steel is kind of dumb, in a plot-convenient sort of way of course. He finds out where the punk lives and breaks into his apartment, where he finds all kinds of incriminating evidence. The killer shows up and Steel gives chase, ultimately beating the shit out of the punk and calling in the arrest. And then hours later Steel is called downtown, where he’s informed, of course, that the kid’s been let go, given that Steel broke into his place and thus destroyed his entire case. But after this we have a humorous sequence in which the city councilman’s hotstuff socialite wife shows up at Steel’s place to offer herself in exchange for her son’s freedom, oblivious to the fact that he’s already been let go, and Steel takes her up on the offer: 

What makes it humorous is that here we are reminded again what a bastard Steel is. When the lady’s all done she asks when she can expect her son to be back on the streets, and Steel only chooses this moment to let her know the kid’s already back on the streets, let go due to a technicality. The lady is of course shocked at the revelation that she just gave herself to Steel for nothing, but our hero counsels her, “Try to think of it as occupational training.” After this we jump forward two months and once again see the Ripper back in action. This is one of the more lurid scenes in the novel, with the freak picking up yet another “whore” and getting her naked, then whipping out the switchblade and beginning to skin her alive. When Steel shows up on the scene it’s nothing more than a skinless lump of meat left behind. 

The finale also takes a page from Dirty Harry and ratchets it up a couple notches. Steel doesn’t just chase down the killer and shoot him…he mauls him, ties him up to a merry-go-round, and guts him. Again there is no concern over realism; it would be clear to any and all that Steel killed the kid, but this is not a concern of the novel. At any rate Steel only featured in one more novel: The Satan Ring, which has the promising setup of Steel versus Satanism. I think I’ll have to check that one out sometime. Both it and The Ripper have been released as eBooks; I have the original paperback of The Ripper but not The Satan Ring, and given that it’s priced too high on the used books market I’ll probably just resort to the digital edition. 

Newton got his start working with Don Pendleton, and there are several Pendletonisms throughout The Ripper, from random “yeah” affirmations in the narrative to describing bullets as “hollow-point minimag slugs.” But as mentioned The Ripper is sleazier than any Executioner novel, and I’d be curious if Newton ran this one by Pendleton for his constructive feedback!

Thursday, August 26, 2021

The Pleasure Hunters

The Pleasure Hunters, by Irving A. Greenfield
July, 1973  Dell Books

Proving once again that there’s no sleaze like ‘70s sleaze, The Pleasure Hunters is a super-hardcore romp set in Mexico courtesy Irving A. Greenfield, who wrote sleaze novels in the ‘60s and must’ve gotten a chuckle out of writing sleaze for a major imprint in the ‘70s. But while The Pleasure Hunters brands itself as being in the tradition of Acapulco, it really has more in common with the “risque comedy” PBOs Dell was publishing at the time, like Black Magic and Greenfield's own Making U-Hoo, with the caveat that this one’s a lot more hardcore. 

Those books, while promising salacious reads, often turned out to be tiresome, unfunny “comedies” with smutty undertones, and hardly ever were as sleazy as the covers implied. The tone was usually farcical, with goofy characters encountering goofy situations. The same holds true for The Pleasure Hunters, which is a bummer, because I was hoping it would be a slightly more sleazy take on the typical Burt Hirschfeld novel. But then, Greenfield I think was incapable of writing a potboiler like Hirschfeld; Greenfield’s books are usually fast-moving yarns with paper-thin characters and not much in the way of the introspection you’d get in Hirschfeld. What I am trying to say is that Greenfield was a lesser writer, but then he made up for it with much more explicit adult shenanigans than you’d find in Hirschfeld…or really most mainstream authors of the day, save for perhaps Harold Robbins, who usually went to even more extremes than the “in the tradition of”-type authors. 

The Pleasure Hunters actually starts off like a regular steamy ‘70s type of novel, though. We meet young Sergio Martinez, a hunk bellboy in Oaxaca, Mexico, as he goes to an attractive guest’s cottage to “fix her window.” But after some banter it’s clear the young lady, an American tourist, has called Sergio over for something else. The bellboy is quite familiar with such requests and goes about pushing the initially-reluctant young woman into an explicity-detailed sexual escapade. In fact Sergio is so used to such matters that he also expects payment in return for his Latin lovin,’ and is angered when this latest lay doesn’t take the hint that he wants money. So he basically tells her “no more for you” and leaves! This opening gives a good indication of the novel we’re about to read – it’s incredibly raunchy in the exploitation department, and Greenfield pulls no punches. To the extent that I refrrained from excerpting anything for fear of offending any of you! 

But shortly after this a new shipment of tourists arrives at the hotel, and slowly The Pleasure Hunters will transform into one of those “risque comedies” like the other paperbacks mentioned above. One of the guests is a sleazy salesman type named Harry Harris, who has come here as the leader of the group and is a loudmothed type, but he has ulterior motives: a friend who stayed at the hotel months before claims that the bellboy named Sergio has an in-line to an incredibly valuable mural that’s hidden somewhere in Oaxaca. So, per this vague backstory, Harry thinks he can finally strike it rich by taking Sergio into his confidence and finding out where the mural is. Only as it develops Sergio not only doesn’t remember Harry’s friend, but also has no idea of what “mural” Harry is referring to. Comedy, uh, ensues. 

Greenfield at least knows to throw us a bone with frequent explicit shenanigans. He proves this posthaste with a random sex scene between Harry and the beautiful, black-haired Elli, a topless dancer with “voluptuous breasts” that Harry’s brought along. Greenfield tries to establish a former affair between these two, but it broke off due to Harry’s business sleaziness or something, but now against her better instincts Elli’s come along on this latest caper, or some such crap. The point of it all is that they get right down to the sleaze posthaste, a scene featuring Elli’s memorable line: “Just stop talking and put it inside of me!” 

But this rampant sleaze is soon clouded over by those farcical tones that sunk all those other Dell paperbacks, like when Harry insists that Sergio take a busful of guests on a tour of Oaxaca, and it descends into a goofy sequence in which Sergio and a hotel colleague he’s brought along try to b.s. their way through it for the behest of the gringos. Speaking of which there’s also a lot of stuff from Sergio and the other Mexican employees’ points of view, and Greenfield makes them all seem rather dumb but still cagey in their street smarts of how to get more money out of the gullible gringos. Eventually the crux of the plot revolves around Harry trying to convince Sergio that Sergio knows where this mysterious mural is, and, uh, comedy ensues. 

I really don’t feel like writing more about the book because it sucked. So what the hell, I’ll go ahead and randomly excerpt some filth after all. Read at your own discretion! 

Monday, August 23, 2021

Steele #3: Killer Steele

Steele #3: Killer Steele, by J.D. Masters
February, 1990  Charter Books

It’s been so long since I read a volume of Steele I almost forgot about the series. Actually I meant to return to it many years ago but just kept putting it off. I rank this one along with The Guardians: a series I have every volume of, but just can’t bring myself to actually read. Like that post-nuke series, Steele is just too ponderous for me, but it’s more frustrating here because ostensibly this series is just a ripoff of Robocop. Only with interminable “is the hero human?” pondering in place of all the dark humor and gore. 

And as it turns out, Steele has something in common with The Guardians: the author of the final few volumes of Steele was Victor Milan, who also wrote The Guardians. This does not instill me with much enthusiams for the later volumes, folks. At any rate, the first six volumes of Steele were penned by Simon Hawke, at least according to sometimes-reliable Wikipedia. And clearly Killer Steele has the same author as the previous two books, with the same writing style, the same focus on internal probing and character introspection at the expense of action – and the same outline-esque treatment of what action does occur. 

So it’s some time after the previous volume, and Steele’s hanging out in his loft penthouse in New York with his teenaged former prostitute girlfriend Raven. Steele’s plagued by a nightmare in which someone else’s memories seem to be mingling with his own; a mere foretaste of the interminable stuff Hawke will deliver in this regard, as once again his focus is on plumbing the metaphysics of whether an archived database of memories can have a soul and whatnot. To which I can only cry out, “Who cares?!” Steele wakes up to be informed of a double-whammy: One, his teen children Cory and Jason have run away from home in Boston, and Two, a fellow cyborg has run amok in the headquarters Steele operates out of and wiped out several of the scientists who created Steele himself. 

Steele’s choppered to the HQ, which is the former UN Building; here in this future, a “bio-war” has wiped out hummanity, thanks to an experimental virus some Muslim terrorists got their hands on.* Here we get backstory on the world in which Steele occurs, where the virus quickly mutated and spread across the population. Boy, I sure hope no one dared to question the government’s handling of the pandemic in this reality! But then there wasn’t a 99% survival rate for this particular lab-created virus, and thus huge chunks of the population died off. After which the US itself broke apart, with Texas forming its own separate republic. All this is relayed in backstory, and by the way we’ve already gotten egregious backstory on Steele’s origin as well. 

While Hawke isn’t much for action, he does have a lot of post-action gore; Steele’s shown around the building and sees the eviscerated remains of the various scientists from the project, their organs ripped out by the marauding cyborg. But this will become an unintentionally humorous scenario, as multiple times in the narrative Steele will just miss the enemy cyborg and come upon the gory aftermath of his destruction. It happens throughout the novel, Hawke clearly padding until having the single – and final – fight between the two cyborgs at novel’s end. Meanwhile Steele gets more bad news: the new cyborg, codenamed Stalker, is his old cop parter, who apparently was killed in Steele #1, but hell if I can remember it. 

So Hawke has the makings of an interesting thriller here. Steele is faced with two problems, both personal – his son and daughter, just finding out that their dad is alive, have come to New York to find him, and two, Steele’s old buddy has been reborn as a psycho cyborg out for revenge. And Hawke takes this setup and…delivers endless scenes in which Dev Cooper, the new doctor on the Steele team, sits around for hours pondering whether Steele’s database of memories has a soul or not. Folks I kid you not. This series is excruciating in that regard. It’s like I said last time – you look at those covers and they promise greatness. I mean they look like the VHS covers for some ‘80s Italian sci-fi action movies that never existed (ie Hands Of Steel). But when you read the books, that’s not what you get…and, as with the previous books, the cover for Killer Steele is something that only occurs at the very end of the novel…and is over in just a few sentences. 

As for the other plot, as these things happen, Steele’s daughter Cory came looking for Steele in the big city and ended up becoming a hooker. Raven, a former pro herself, handily spells out how such a thing could’ve happened, and her blasé attitude toward it all is pretty funny. When Steele finds his son, Jason, the kid’s beaten to a pulp, courtesy a run-in with his sister’s pimp. There’s extra stuff here with backstory on Steele’s wife; a hotstuff social-climber type, she dumped Steele and told the kids he was dead, but when they found out they left Boston to come look for him. There’s a bit of melodrama, again along the lines of Robocop, where Steele reflects back on his pre-cyborg life and marriage and whatnot. 

Hawke has established a small group of recurring characters, so there’s also Ice, hulking black criminal overlord who helped Steele in the previous volume. To continue with my ‘80s action movie comparisons, Ice is essentially Isaac Hayes in Escape From New York. And also there’s the Borodini mob family in play, and eventually they of course get hold of Steele’s daughter. Meanwhile Stalker continues to run roughshod over sundry victims, mauling and ripping with cybernetic aplomb…and Steele consistently shows up too late to catch him. This is the holding pattern that constitutes the meat of the novel – that and more “is Steele human” bullshit from Dev Cooper. Boooring!!! 

Steele’s poor daughter is passed around; she ends up working for one of the stables owned by the Borodini clan, who of course plan to use her as bait for their long-simmer vengeance on Steele. But then Stalker wipes out a bunch of the clan and takes the girl for himself. This leads to the long-delayed confrontation between the two cyborgs, which is of course the incident depicted on the cover. Which occurs over just a few pages. It follows the same outline-style treatment of action with minimal violence, Hawke even here going for “the humanity” of it all with Steele trying to reason with his dead cop friend. Oh and Stalker fires “plasma” beams, but even that’s not treated cool enough. 

Really Steele is just an exercise in tedium, and it befuddles me that something with such a great setup (and such great covers!) could be so boring. I mean just imagine if they’d hired someone like John Shirley or David Alexander to write this series. By far the best thing about Steele is the Brady Bunch parody graphic at Gellaho

*I imagine featuring villains like that could get you cancelled these days – today’s narrative is “They seem friendly,” even if they’re literally chanting “death to America” right behind you!

Thursday, August 19, 2021

No Man’s World

No Mans World, by Martin Caidin
No month stated, 1967  E.P. Dutton

Part of a sequence of Space Race novels Martin Caidin published in the ‘60s and early ‘70s,* No Man’s World takes place in the then-future year of 1971: Russia has won the race, first landing on the moon in 1968 and setting up a lunar base “for the enrichment of the entire world.” Meanwhile the United States is still struggling to keep up, and the novel concerns the first-ever Apollo lunar mission, the objective being to set foot on the moon and get America back into the game. 

Caidin then is just projecting out the early years of the Space Race; as anyone who studies the subject knows, Russia really trounced the US when all this first began. First with Sputnik, then with various men and women in space. Younger people today probably don’t realize how huge President Kennedy’s challenge to the nation was in 1961: to get a man on the moon before the end of the decade. Having been born in 1974 and thus after all of it happened, I personally didn’t realize how big of a feat it was until I started getting into the subject. But when Kennedy made his challenge, America was in a serious game of catch-up with Russia. Getting a man on the moon seemed like an impossible task, given that America hadn’t even gotten a man in orbit yet. 

Of course as reality panned out, America slowly but surely caught up with Russia and then overtook it, just as President Kennedy had said would happen. Caidin, writing in the mid-1960s, is conservative in his predictions: he doesn’t see America launching a successful lunar bid until 1971. Reality would soon prove Caidin’s predictions too conservative, with the Russians not only never even making it to the moon but Americans going there a handful of times by the late ‘60s, with a few more trips in the early ‘70s. It’s curious that Caidin was so conservative in this regard, but I’m betting he was writing when the Gemini Program got started, thus he had no idea how successful (and quick-moving) the program would be. For in fairly short order NASA not only caught up with Russia but surpassed it. 

No Man’s World clearly didn’t make much of an impact on the reading public, as it only received this hardcover edition. It’s way overpriced on the used books marketplace, too, so I had to get it via Interlibrary Loan. Plus I had to request an extension on my hold, as this is a doorstop of a book, 414 pages of small and dense print. I know, 414 pages doesn’t sound like a lot, but I think with bigger print and less “stuffed” layout this book would probably come in closer to 600 pages. In a way it’s almost a prefigure of Tom Clancy’s doorstop techno-thrillers; while ostensibly No Man’s World is about the first American lunar launch, it also encompasses polticial infighting, espionage, and even melodrama in a love-triangle subplot. 

The first fifty pages are pretty hard going, and doubtless turned off a lot of readers of the day. We meet Colonel Lev Barkagan, commandant of the USSR lunar colony, the man to have lived longest on the moon – there 3 years, and commanding the base ever since. The moon is a harsh climate that he hates, and there’s lots of buzzkilling here with all the men stinking and the monotonous toil of living on the moon. There are twenty-seven cosmonauts in the base, and many have died on the way here and during their stay. This interminable opening describes the hellish moon and Barkagan’s methods to survive on it. It possibly gave readers of the day the impression that the main characters would all be Russians…lots of backstory to Barkagan’s start as cosmonaut in 1961, his first space trips, training at the lunar training ground, and finally the trials and tribulations of the lunar base cosmonauts. A lot of Russian names and backstories are thrown at us at once. 

Things pick up significantly with the introduction of our Apollo crew: Commander Rance Allenby, Command Module Pilot Gene Stanley, and Scientist Leigh “The Brain” Raymond. Allenby and Stanley are cut from the same cloth as their real-life counterparts: veteran flyboys who have made the jump over to the space program. Allenby started in the Gemini years, and Stanley a little later; he also happens to be a ‘Nam vet, whereas most of the real-life Gemini and Apollo guys had been in Korea. As for Raymond, he’s a scientist, one who learned to fly so as to become an astronaut. According to Tom Wolfe, this means he could never achieve “The Right Stuff,” but regardless the other astronauts respect him…even though Raymond has a monumental ego. In fact we have a long flashback to how his wife learned to hate him, given his complete disregard for other people. This element of characterization, so heavily built up in the opening chapters, is basically dropped. 

No Man’s World is almost as much a technical manual as it is a novel. Caidin thoroughly – one might even say pedantically – spells out the entire operation of the Apollo craft, from launch to lunar landing. But in hindsight I realized that it was only in later years that all this would seem routine; Americans became used to Apollo launches in the later ‘60s and early ‘70s, but this novel was published before an Apollo or Saturn V rocket even had a public launch. In fact, Caidin was likely writing in ’66 or earlier, so before the Apollo 1 disaster, which isn’t mentioned anywhere in the novel. Thus Caidin was writing speculative fiction in this regard, based off what he knew was coming with the Apollo program. For that matter, the ship is constantly just referred to as “Apollo,” with no numerical designation as with the real launches, and also there’s no naming convention for the command service module or the lunar module (ie Columbia, Eagle). 

Another indication of when Caidin was writing is that Rance Allenby is given a backstory – clunkily delivered in expository dialog by Stanley – that mirrors the real-life Gemini 8 mission with Neil Armstrong and Dave Scott. Just as their Gemini almost crashed after docking with an Agina station in orbit, so too did Allenby’s. Also, Allenby’s career trajectory is very similar to Armstrong’s: he started flying at a young age, served as a decorated fighter pilot in Korea, then turned his hand to test piloting before entering NASA with the beginning of the Gemini Program. (All this too is delivered in clunky exposition!) Allenby’s backstory diverges from Armstrong’s in the personal arena, though; in another clunkily-delivered bit of backstory, we learn that he married his college sweetheart, had a son with her….and then she died in a freak skydiving accident! This bit was so random it made me laugh out loud. It’s made even worse because it’s all relayed via a dream sequence, Allenby sleeping on Apollo and flashing back to the event several years before where his wife decided to surprise her family at an airshow, having taken secret skydiving lessons and looking to give them a big surprise, but her parachute failed and she plummeted to her death. 

All this is relayed in backstory and exposition as “Apollo” rockets toward the moon, with arbitrary digressions on this or that and a lot of technical stuff. Finally around page 200 things pick up(!). The first steps on the moon are pretty interesting. In this reality, Russia’s already been on the moon for three years; Allenby and Raymond even see their lunar monorail in action as they glide over the surface to land. Per Houston, Allenby is to take the first steps on the moon, as commander of the mission. But when they land Allenby pulls rank and tells Houston there’s a change of plans, that Raymond will be first. Houston acknowledges that Allenby has the control, as he’s up there and they are down on Earth. Allenby as it turns out has no interest in being remembered in the history books; he explains to Raymond that because the Soviets are already here, America’s lost the moon race. Their only chance to make a big statement for the world is for the first “astronaut-scientist” on the moon be an American. So he requests that Brain hoist an American flag and venture down on the lunar surface and announce, to the TV camera beaming this back to millions on Earth, “For God and country.” 

So this is another curious projection of Caidin’s. In reality, Harrison Schmitt was the first scientist to walk on the moon, on the Apollo 17 mission. Who today could name him? But I guess in Caidin’s imagination this was the only way America could at least get one big development over the Russians; there’s a subplot, not much explored, where a military general bitches at a congressman that America could’ve had a shot at being first on the moon if not for budget fights and restrictions. I don’t see this entire “race to be second” as believable, though. It doesn’t fit the American spirit (or at least the American spirit that once existed). If Russia did get to the moon first, the US would’ve strived to get there sooner than three years later, at least. Caidin tries to work up an underdog sort of spirit to the entire Apollo program here, but it’s just not believable, particularly when the astronauts themselves are dispirited about the situation. 

Caidin brings a tense Cold War element into the tale with the wily Russians “going silent” upon the American landing on the moon; soon thereafter Moscow releases a statement that it’s lost all communications with the lunar colony. And yes, that’s “colony;” the Russians of course have claimed the moon for themselves, given that they’ve landed here first. Meanwhile on the moon, the lunar bug is surrounded by three “Cats,” massive vehicles the Russians use to get around on the moon; they sound very much like the vehicles seen in Moon Zero Two. Allenby again bucks Houston by insisting that both he and the Brain will go out to talk to them, disregarding Mission Control’s orders that one person stay in the lunar craft. But the two are given a frosty reception, Colonel Barkagan flatly announcing that the moon is Russian territory and they are trespassing. 

Barkagan orders Allenby and Raymond to get back in their lunar lander and join up with Stanley on the command module, which will be passing overhead in 45 minutes. Raymond proves he’s not just a meek scientist when he challenges Barkagan, the “low gravity” rifles his men bears notwithstanding. Allenby has to tell him to stand down, leading to a lot of hostility between the two crewmembers; Allenby is “yellow” per Raymond, who is in disbelief when the commander “puts his tail between his legs” and gives in to the Russian demands. This after Barkagan’s men have even broken apart the American flag Raymond just planted. So they return to Earth in great dispirits, Allenby reasoning with Raymond that it was a losing proposition; the Russians weren’t bluffing, and the whole world heard what happened via the radio link. 

After this things get lame again. Incredibly, we’re faced with overlong chapters in which various characters exposit and exposit, from newcasters (who go on in pages and pages of unbroken dialog) informing us of developing situations to even a part where the Russians argue their case at the UN. Finally things sort of build up again when NASA decides to go in a venture with the UN and scrub “United States” off the next Saturn launch and put “United Nations” on it, so as to poke the Russians a bit – see if they’re still so cocky to challenge when the astronauts represent “all nations” and not just the US. Rance and his military pals are chagrined by this; there’s a fair bit of UN hatred here, in particular how it caves under any pressure and will be quick to turn its back on the US. So I guess that was a thing even in the ‘60s! 

But as Allenby said, the Russians aren’t bluffing, and this next NASA crew meets with trouble: Barkagan has his men cut down the commander when he refuses to leave the moon. The scientist-astronaut is taken prisoner. Things are finally coming to a boil. But Caidin cuts back to Earth and puts the brakes on again. At this point a major character commits suicide…and we learn about it from a letter Allenby is sent. This is Caidin’s approach to writing in a nutshell. We already had a bit of backstory devoted to this character at novel’s beginning…backstory that didn’t pan out…after which the character was sort of relegated to secondary status, only to end up offing himself, uh, off-page. One would think that important dramatic developments like this would warrant more narrative space than UN speechifying or newscaster blathering. 

Things again threaten to pick up when Allenby and an Air Force general begin to roll out a massive operation, in which a veritable armada of Saturn rockets blast into the sky, even setting up a space station in “Polar orbit” so that more ships can be quickly assembled for a military assault on the moon. But there’s also some subterfuge afoot, as the Americans successfully fool the Russians that they have more men on the moon than they actually do. This time however the US heads for the dark side of the moon, claiming this area for themselves and thus provoking the Russian bear. Barkagan eventually assembles his Cats and makes his way over there, leading to a skirmish that’s almost altogether ruined by Caidin’s prose style; there’s absolutely nothing thrilling or gripping about it. But by skirmish’s end both Allenby’s team and Barkagan’s team must work together, to either “die separately or live together.” 

The novel ends with Caidin introducing a new element: while Barkagan and Allenby have learned to work together, the Red Chinese meanwhile throw their hat in the space ring and nuke the Russian base, then go about challenging the US position with their own space launches. Rather than get into a major world war, everyone decides to back off from the moon, though Allenby and Barkagan are already looking to Mars as the next desitnation. And with this, mercifully, No Man’s World finally comes to a close. 

Now, as for Caidin’s prose. I think I used the word “clunky” a few times above, and I’ll use it again here. I’ve said it before, but this guy’s prose reads almost identically to that of Mark Roberts or William Crawford. Everything from sentence construction to reliance on exposition, not to mention the obsession with all things aeronautical. Caidin was a sort of infamous pilot himself, so it’s possible he was friends with fellow pilots Roberts and Crawford, or at least knew of them. But Mark Roberts was fond of incorporating the names of his friends in his books, as he did with Crawford in The Penetrator #9; I’ve yet to see a Roberts novel in which Caidin is mentioned. Anyway, given that Caidin was publishing earlier than these two I’m going to assume they were just greatly influenced by his style. 

All of which is to say Caidin’s writing leaves a little to be desired. The reliance on exposition is bad enough, but the overly-thorough technical stuff gets to be a drag, too. It also doesn’t help that he introduces interesting touches but fails to follow up on them. For example, we learn that the Brain’s wife hates him, and is in love with Allenby, but this doesn’t amount to much in the narrative. Same goes for various minor characters who are introduced at great narrative expense but who soon disappear from the text. In most cases it just comes off like Caidin showing off, like the newscaster who drones on and on for his report on the American lunar landing, but before we even get to it we have a lot of interminable background about his start as a reporter and what all he learned about the space program and whatnot. Unfortunately this stuff takes precedence over telling a gripping story with compelling characters. And some of the sentences are incredibly awkward, ie “[Allenby] annointed his inner pain by melting into the intricacies of the space-time velocity vector that would boost them out of lunar orbit to begin the long journey Earthward.” 

As mentioned, No Man’s World only received this hardcover edition, and it’s pretty evident why. It seems to be pretty much forgotten today, with not even a scanned version on the Internet Archive. So if you’re interested, do what I did and request it via Interlibrary Loan. Just don’t pay the exorbitant amount online booksellers are asking.

*The others being Marooned (first published in 1964, then revised as a film tie-in in 1969), Four Came Back (1968), and The Cape (1971).

Monday, August 16, 2021

Time Clock Of Death (aka Nick Carter: Killmaster #58)

Time Clock Of Death, by Nick Carter
No month stated, 1970  Award Books

Not just “yet another insallment of Nick Carter: Killmaster,” Time Clock Of Death is special for a few reasons: One, it features the last-ever appearance of Julia “Julie” Baron, a fellow AXE agent (and bedmate) of Nick Carter’s. And two, in a 1981 interview with Will Murray (published in Paperback Parade #2 in 1986), series producer Lyle Kenyon Engel stated, “I know I did that one,” referring to Time Clock Of Death.* 

Officially Time Clock Of Death is credited to George Snyder, and the book reads identically to the rest of his work. The only interview I’ve ever read with Lyle Kenyon Engel is Murray’s, and I’ve never seen it stated anywhere that Engel himself wrote anything. He was the idea guy, the one who would farm out plots or concepts to his ghostwriters. So either his claim of authorship for this book (and the others, noted below) was b.s. or maybe it was just exaggeration; maybe Engel just embellished the manuscripts in question. I would believe this one if only because Julie Baron, the hoststuff brunette AXE agent with “almond eyes,” is heavily built up in Time Clock Of Death and her previous adventures with Nick are often referred to. I would believe that the series producer would be more aware of these previous yarns than a contract writer would be. 

First appearing in Run, Spy, Run (ie the first volume of the series), Julie is presented as Nick’s equal in most ways, the yin to his yang and whatnot, and they’re clearly made for each other. In fact she is so empedestaled (I just created that word, btw – you can file it beside “embiggened”) that it’s almost ridiculous; not only is she in love with Nick, but Nick is in love with her! Besides Run, Spy Run (in which the two also seemed to fall in love), I’ve only read one other installment with Julie: Lew Louderback’s Danger Key, and it’s been so long ago I can’t recall how lovey-dovey the two got in that one. The way they come off in this one you wonder why they don’t just quit the spy game and get hitched – a proposition Julie actually makes in the course of the novel. And indeed, Julie was removed from the series for precisely this reason: In Will Murray’s excellent article on Nick Carter: Killmaster in the The Armchair Detective volume 15 number 4 (1982), he states that Engel “eliminated Julie Baron, Nick’s steady girlfriend,” because she “kept getting in the way of Nick’s love life, which became increasingly torrid after [initial series ghostwriter] Valerie Moolman left the series.” 

However the Engel embellishing – if indeed there is any here in Time Clock Of Death – is only partly accurate: Nick tells us that he’s been on “two assignments” with Julie, but meanwhile she appeared in a handful of volumes, this being the last of them. And yes, Nick “tells us;” we’re now in the series’s unfortunate first-person narration years, which, also according to Engel in the above Will Murray pieces, was a requirement of the publisher, so as to compete with the Matt Helm books. I personally hate first-person narration in my men’s adventure, but as I’ve mentioned before, George Snyder’s hardboiled narrative style usually comes off as first-person even when it’s not, like in the Operation Hang Ten series. 

And Time Clock Of Death is definitely the work of Snyder, or at least the majority of it is. It has all the hallmarks: a pessimistic hero, burned-out vibe, focus on fisticuffs and knife-fighting instead of gunplay, and a fair dose of misogyny, not to mention women getting killed. In fact the novel opens with Nick in bed with some chick, and someone comes in and blows her away while Nick’s sucking on her nipple! His life is literally saved because she offers him her “large breasts” before their latest round in the sack. A murdered woman almost always factors into a George Snyder novel (again, the hardboiled connotations), and this one’s no different. 

Nick’s already on the job when we meet him; he’s been handed an assignment so vague that you wonder how he even gets started. But Snyder barrels along so that the novel speeds by; as most others at this point in the series, it’s a mere 156 pages of big print. So Russia has revealed a new “super jet airliner,” a big passenger airliner that’s faster and more massive than anything America has. They were in the process of showing it off in New York when the thing plumb disappeared. Yes, someone managed to heist an actual airliner; we’re hastily informed that a new “antiradar” device onboard has prevented anyone from finding out where it has been taken to. So clearly the plot is implausible, but then also seems to predict the future real-life MH370 mystery (which doesn’t seem to be much of a mystery anymore; the wreckage appears to be in the middle of the Cambodian jungle). 

With this shaky setup Snyder still manages to deliver a fast-moving yarn with plentiful action and a lot of sex, most of it more explicit than earlier instances in the series. And all of it – save for a bit where Nick is raped(!) by a heavyset woman into whips and bondage – is with Julie Baron, again putting forth the notion that the two are a steady couple. Nick, following scant leads, heads over to London, where he gets in a fight with a hulking “Oriental.” This leads Nick to Hong Kong, where boss Hawk tells him that, conveniently enough, Julie Baron’s been working on a case, one involving a mysterious figure known as “The Colonel.” And wouldn’t you believe it, but the two cases soon coincide! Nick is actually excited to see Julie again, and the part where he meets her in a crowded Hong Kong bar is nicely done. 

In Snyder’s hands, Julie Baron is memorable indeed. She too has been looking forward to seeing Nick again, to the extent that she’s taken “the pill” in preparation for her first night with him! This bit is actually turned into a running gag, as Julie fears she’s “wasted” the pill, because duty interferes with the longed-for shenanigans; that “Oriental” from London is here as well, and Nick manages to knock him out and take him back to their hotel. Angered at this intrusion, Julie wants to be a “sadistic bitch” when the guy wakes up, toying with Nick’s stiletto and begging “please let me have him” to Nick in a sort of twisted good cop-bad cop routine. From here – their burning yearnings still unfulfilled – the two fly off to Singapore, trying to track down the Colonel. 

Snyder can’t be accused of spending much time on the plot, though. Nick and Julie, disguised as a traveling salesman and his somewhat-portly wife, merely go around saying they’re looking for “The Colonel,” and the villain comes to them. At any rate they get to the bedroom stuff straightaway. Snyder really pours it on thick here, with Julie telling Nick “I want you so bad I can taste it,” and Nick responding “I’m going to take my time having you.” And he certainly does, as the scene starts off pretty explicit so far as Nick’s oral explorations of Julie go, but then it takes a turn to the poetic, complete with a random bit of present-tense narration (“I’m always afraid I will hurt her,” etc), before getting into a fantastical vibe with stuff about a “cloud” the two are on in some metaphysical astral plane or somesuch. Another Snyder hallmark: “completion” is here and elsewhere used instead of “climax.” Nick and Julie are such a fantastic match that Julie actually cries afterward…not that this stops her from waking Nick a few hours later, for another somewhat-explicit bout. 

Snyder doesn’t let the lovey-dovey stuff get in the way of the random lurid factor, though. Soon enough Nick and Julie are captured, and Nick eventually finds himself naked and chained to a medieval torture rack. He’s now the captive of Fancy, a “husky” woman of indeterminate age (Nick tells us she could be anywhere from her 40s to her 60s) who dresses in an s&m leather getup and employs a legion of similarly-husky women, dressed the same, who wield whips and like to snap them in Fancy’s direction while she rides her latest victim. Fancy works with the Colonel, who of course turns out to be the mastermind behind the plot, coincidence be damned. The Colonel will get Julie, and Fancy will get Nick; both will die, it’s just a matter of how. 

So Snyder delivers this crazed, out-of-nowhere sequence where Julie, clearly harboring a secret plan, gets Nick all worked up so he can, uh, respond to Fancy, and then Fancy gets up on top of Nick and starts riding away while her “leather ladies” snap their whips at them! And then Julie sneaks off and gets a submachine gun. Folks it’s for insane shit like this that I will always prefer Nick Carter: Killmaster to the James Bond books. But unfortunately after this things sort of stall out for a while. First we have some nice running action where Nick and Julie, dressed like coolies to blend in with the other Asian soldiers in the place, blow away scads of goons with various weapons. But then they sneak on a freighter bound for Java and it’s back to that other perennial Snyder hallmark: excessive description of the characters sneaking into and out of places. 

Things finally come back to a boil when Nick and Julie find themselves in a remote location complete with a medieval-style castle. Plus the plane’s here. They set fire to the place to alert the nearby marines, which leads to this curious typo: “My eyes were stinging as I stepped away from me.” Ponder that, friends! Julie really does get in Nick’s way here in the finale; she certainly holds her own in the action scenes, and even proves she’s made of tough stuff when she walks off a major knife wound (actually she drinks it off, more like, thanks to a shot of bourbon), but of course Nick spends the climactic action scene afraid that she might get killed. Snyder has no qualms with his hero fighting female opponents, so we have some nicely-handled stuff where Nick takes on Fancy’s leather ladies, all of whom wear knee-high boots and leather cossets with holes for their nipples to stick out of, by the way. (Yet curiously Snyder buzzkills his own lurid imagination by constantly telling us how fat and ugly the women are!) Nick shoots them, beats them up, and even in one memorable bit repeatedly bashes the face of one of the bondage women into a brick wall. 

As for the Colonel, he’s not nearly as memorable as Fancy: he’s a Napolean-esque squat little guy with a bald head and beady black eyes. He too enjoys his time with Fancy; not content to just have this happen once in the novel, Snyder has Fancy again riding someone while her leather ladies snap their whips around, only this time the guy’s the Colonel and he’s apparently enjoying it. That said, Fancy’s sendoff isn’t very spectacular; Nick doesn’t kill her, at least, but he does as mentioned take her leather ladies through the wringer. Meanwhile the Colonel somehow manages to escape with a knocked-out Julie, and it’s up to Nick to save her. But again, Julie isn’t nearly a damsel in distress. Snyder is at such pains to put Julie’s fate in doubt here, even at one point having her fall off a cliff, that I thought she was going to be permanently removed. 

As it turns out, Snyder could’ve just followed through with the death threats, after all, as Julie wouldn’t appear again after this one. Instead Snyder ends the tale with Nick and Julie about to enjoy some more “down time,” as it were, and again the lovey-dovey stuff is so thick that you can’t comprehend how these two could even bear to separate. Interesting then that she wasn’t to appear again; certainly some readers out there wondered when Julie Baron would return. It makes Nick especially appear like a cad in that he’s clearly in love with her, even as mentioned telling her so, yet in the following books he won’t even mention her again! But then that’s only to be expected when you’re the product of a revolving cast of ghostwriters. 

*The other Killmaster titles Engel claimed to have written were: Cambodia, Ice Bomb Zero, and The Mark Of Cosa Nostra. Curiously, all four of the titles Engel claimed as his are officially credited to George Snyder.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Random Movie Reviews, Volume 15

Even More Space Race Documentaries: 

In The Shadow Of The Moon (2007): Released theatrically in 2007, director David Sington’s documentary (produced by Ron Howard) presents the novel approach of having the lunar astronauts speak directly into the camera and tell us their story, with vintage film footage bringing their words to life. This turned out to be one of the best moon landing documentaries I’ve seen; it doesn’t have the visual sweep of Apollo 11, but it has the most heart of any of these documentaries, for it quickly becomes apparent that these astronauts were profoundly changed by their lunar experiences. As the onscreen legend tells us at the opening, the 27 Apollo astronauts who voyaged to the moon between 1968 and 1972 are the only human beings in history to have actually visited another planet. And it is very compelling to watch them, older now and with decades to reflect on their experiences, as they tell us of what they encountered and how it changed them. In this regard the film pairs perfectly with Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary For All Mankind; there the astronauts also told us their thoughts, but their voices were never credited, and everything seen was archival footage. Here we see them and hear them, and it makes for absorbing viewing. 

But this is not to detract from the film footage. Sure, it doesn’t have the epic visual majesty of Apollo 11, but there is a lot of great material here. And as with For All Mankind, Sington has assembled many of the Apollo astronauts. Neil Armstrong is again a no-show, but Buzz Aldrin’s here, as is Mike Collins. Charlie Duke and Gene Cernan are also present; these two are almost the opposites of Armstrong in that they seem very willing to participate in these documentaries. Another interesting presence here is Edgar Mitchell, who I believe was sort of ostracized from the NASA world after his ESP and UFO interests became well known. In fact the following year the Discovery Channel released When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions (review forthcoming), a joint Discovery Channel-NASA production, and Mitchell’s barely a footnote in it, relegated to half-second archival footage. I’m glad he’s here, as I found his comments fascinating throughout; Mitchell, who died in 2017, would’ve certainly understood that in earlier, more magic-inclined cultures, he and his fellow lunar journeyers would’ve been seen as mystics of the highest order, given that they’d literally walked on another world. 

One of the great things about In The Shadow Of The Moon is that it shows how each of these astronauts have their own personality: Alan Bean comes off like someone’s slightly loony grandpa, Gene Cernan makes every statement as if he expects someone to chisel it in stone, Mike Collins is like the best friend you never knew you were missing, and Charlie Duke just seems happy to be there. In the celebrity lookalike contest, Buzz Aldrin here looks so much like Kirk Douglas that at first I thought it was Kirk Douglas in some sort of weird metatextual thing, and Jim “Apollo 13” Lovell looks a helluva lot more like Kevin Nealon than he does Tom Hanks. What I mean to say is, all these guys come off as just regular dudes, even Mitchell, and the way they talk so forthrightly directly into the camera you could almost get the impression that they’ve come over to your house to tell you about their moon adventures over a beer or two. 

Sington basically just lets the astronauts tell their stories and pieces this together into a running monologue. In other words, he doesn’t do much to mess things up, but I did feel that some of the shots and angles in these interviews were a bit too “art for art’s sake.” Like super extreme closeups of Mike Collins’s eyes while he’s listening to a JFK speech, etc. Sington’s use of archival footage is better, though, visually complimenting the words of his subjects. This documentary also features footage I haven’t seen in any others; when Armstrong and Aldrin break off from Columbia in the lunar module, for example, Collins says to them over the commlink, “That’s a nice looking vehicle you have there, even if it’s upside down.” To which Armstrong responds, in a rare moment of levity, “Somebody’s upside down.” 

Speaking of Armstrong, another thing that becomes clear from In The Shadow Of The Moon is that all these astronauts hold him in high respect. They almost talk about Neil Armstrong the way regular people talk about astronauts. Alan Bean tells the story, told elsewhere (particularly in Chasing The Moon), of how Armstrong barely avoided death by ejecting out of a lunar module training vehicle while test flying it, as shown in vintage footage. Bean, who shared an office and secretary with Armstrong, relates how he heard about this happening later that day, and so he went into the office – immediately after ejecting Armstrong just went back to the office to get back to his paperwork! – and he asked Armstrong about it, and a blasé Armstrong just responded, “Yeah.” Bean gets a lot of amusement out of this, and also he’s the only subject here who discusses The Right Stuff (the original Wolfe book, too, not just the movie!). He also has a laugh out loud bit where he refers again to the book when talking about how Armstrong’s lunar landing could’ve been scrapped due to low fuel. A bit, by the way, that Charlie Duke completely rips off in When We Left Earth

But then the humor is more prevalent than you’d think in this documentary. Mike Collins in particular displays a wonderful sense of humor. Another bit that made me laugh out loud was his comment on President Kennedy’s challenge to the nation in 1961: “It was beautiful in its simplicity. Where? Moon. When? End of decade.” I also appreciated his comment on the success of Apollo 11, and how everything about the mission went perfectly: “No one messed up. Even I didn’t mess up!” Speaking of Apollo 11, Buzz Aldrin doesn’t feauture as much as you’d think he would, and for the most part his most memorable comments are about how he must live up to his historical moment every day of his life, and also how he was sort of the butt of a joke among the other astronauts in that at the time he was so focused on the lunar “rendezvous” operation that he would rarely talk about anything else, so people would try to avoid him. Aldrin displays his own sense of humor, too; here is likely the only documentary in which the man himself will tell you that he took so long getting down the ladder of the lunar module to the moon’s surface for his first steps because…he chose that moment to, uh, fill up the urine collector inside his spacesuit. “Everyone has their own first,” Aldrin says. 

I’ve mentioned Gene Cernan in previous reviews, and again he’s a memorable presence, and one the director latched on to; indeed, the title of the documentary comes from Cernan’s monlogue about how the entire voyage of Apollo 17 (or maybe it was Apollo 10; he went to the moon twice) was in the light of the sun, until abruptly everything was dark: “We were in the shadow of the moon.” As ever he has a lot of compelling things to say. So too does Mitchell, who relates the feeling of oneness with the universe he experienced on the voyage home, a feeling that was clearly akin to the spiritual revalations experienced by ancient mystics. On the more religious side of the specturm, Charlie Duke reveals that shortly after his own trip he became a Christian. It is very interesting to watch these astronauts – trained scientists and, per Aldrin’s description in Chasing The Moon, “technical people” – talking so earnestly about their spiritual beliefs. Collins too says that his mission to the moon has made him approach life with “more equanimity,” and Bean’s comments are also memorable – he says that since his trip to the moon he’s never once complained about the weather, or about other people: “We are literally living in the Garden of Eden.” 

In fact the final half of In The Shadow Of The Moon is very emotional, a word I don’t often use here on the blog, given how its lost much meaning due to its overuse in our touchy-feely modern era. But man some of the words here are very moving, and you wonder how different the world woud be if men like this were put in positions of power. As Jim Lovell relates, these guys got so far from Earth that you could block out the entire planet with just your thumb; from that perspective, all the bullshit of Earth – the wars, politics, etc – seemed like absolutely nothing. It’s touches like this that elevate In The Shadow Of The Moon above most other documentaries, and I’m thankful of Sington for making this movie, particularly given that so many of the astronauts seen here have since passed on. 

Neil Armstrong’s presence would’ve made the documentary even better, but unfortunately he’s not here. However as things worked out, a year before he died Armstrong gave a rare interview…to an Australian accounting firm! This 2011 interview is now up on Youtube, and it’s highly recommended as it comes off like a postscript to In The Shadow Of The Moon. This 45-minute interview is more fascinating than I thought it would be; Armstrong talks about many of the same topics covered in Sington’s documentary, and we even get his side of the lunar rover training accident in which he ejected. There’s also a great part where Armstrong takes an audience through the actual landing on the moon. Fascinating stuff, and Armstrong is very relaxed and candid, and the reviewer is great as well: he’s very respectful, lets Armstrong speak, and even tries to get him to laugh a bit. He’s also damned determined to make Armstrong understand how important he is to so many people: “You’re a wonderful man,” he tells him at the end of the interview. You can tell Amrstrong really didn’t give many interviews, as most of what he says here is repeated verbatim in Armstrong

Armstrong (2019): But if that isn’t enough Neil Amrstrong for you, there’s also this 90-minute documentary directed by David Fairhead, produced with the assistance of Armstrong’s family, and featuring, uh, the voice of Harrison Ford reading material Armstrong wrote, ie “the voice of Neil Armstrong.” It’s cool Ford is here and all, but his gravelly voice sounds nothing like Armstrong’s. That being said, at least Ford’s voiceover isn’t delivered as half-assedly as it was on Blade Runner (though in Ford’s defense I read many years ago that he gave such a blasé voiceover performance in the hopes that director Ridley Scott wouldn’t use it, as he supposedly felt the film was better without a voiceover). But man, a lot of Ford’s voiceover is comprised verbatim of what Armstrong said in that 2011 interview, linked above. One wonders why they just didn’t dub Armstrong’s voice on here instead? Maybe it was a rights issue? 

Indeed, perhaps it was a rights issue, as Armstrong has the lowest production values of any of the space race documentaries I’ve reviewed here. The majority of the footage is unremastered public domain stuff, in particular sequences from Theo Kamecke’s Moonwalk One; even this is shown in the public domain 4:3 aspect ratio. We aren’t talking full remastered widescreen glory like in Apollo 11 or Chasing The Moon. One thing the documentary does have going for it is the participation of Armstrong’s family and friends, which means we get a lot of home movies and photos that you won’t see anywhere else. Otherwise the production sticks to promotional films or archival material that, as mentioned, hasn’t even been remastered. Other than that, we have talking heads who try to tell us their impressions of the man: Armstrong’s ex wife, his two sons, some friends he made later in life, and fellow astronauts Mike Collins, Frank Borman, Charlie Duke, and Dave Scott, along with NASA flight director Chris Kraft (who comes off as a particularly cantankerous 95 year-old!). 

I was gutted, as the British say, by the sequence about Armstrong’s daughter, who died at age two. Here we learn that the little girl, Armstrong’s second child, was immediately her father’s favorite, and that he would ignore anyone else when she was around. Amrstrong carried her early passing with him through the rest of his life but never spoke of it, save to close friends. It’s my understanding that the 2018 Armstrong biopic First Man reaps this for all its worth, even up to the point that the film’s big “emotional moment” is Amrstrong paying tribute to his deceased daughter on the moon…instead of planting the US flag, a moment which was infamously removed from the film. (Tellingly, only professional movie reviewers defended this – so far as audiences were concerned, though, the movie was a bomb.) So Hollywood has shown us something that 99.9% didn’t happen instead of something that 100% did. I’ve read that Armstrong’s wife complained that he didn’t take any mementos of his family along on the Apollo 11 flight, so there goes that particular Hollyood delusion…which, let’s face it, is a ripoff of the subplot in Gravity anyway. Here, though, the little girl’s presence has a real impact, brought to life by vintage photos and film, and is a million times more meaningful than anything some Hollywood hack could conjure up. 

Armstrong’s former wife Janet doesn’t come off as too bitter, but I guess there aren’t too many guys in the world who would be thrilled that their ex-wife showed up in a documentary about them. But it’s made very clear that Armstrong was hardly around and that his wife and family were low priority for him, particularly when compared to the space program. Frank Borman pretty much states the same thing about himself in his portions. But this makes it clear that Armstrong, despite being dedicated to the man at the expense of other NASA figures, doesn’t tell us much about Armstrong, because his family didn’t really ever see him. In fact it also becomes clear that Armstrong’s fellow astronauts knew him better, and even they didn’t know him that well, thus one actually learns more about him in the other docs I’ve reviewed. And for that matter, many of those astronauts had unfortunately passed away by the time Armstrong was produced; doubtless Alan Bean could’ve given us some fun material, given that he shared an office with Armstrong at NASA. 

One astronaut who is still living but doesn’t appear in Armstrong is Buzz Aldrin. But this documentary tries to imply there is a fifty-year rivalry between the two, over who toke those important first steps. Flight Director Chris Kraft happily boasts that he was the one who chose Armstrong to take the first steps on the moon: “I did it!” Kraft says that Deke Slayton pegged Buzz Aldrin for the honor, but Kraft felt that Aldrin wasn’t the right man for such a momentous occasion, and insisted the honor go to Armstrong. Kraft clarifies, “I didn’t dislike Aldrin…I didn’t like him, either.” Curiously, the same year Armstrong was released, Kraft gave an interview in which he discussed this decision further, but in the interview he states that he and Aldrin are still “good friends!” Even more curiously, this interview was published just a few days before Kraft died. Anyway, poor Buzz Aldrin doesn’t come off very well in Armstrong, which is a shame; “the voice of Neil Armstrong” (aka Harrison Ford) informs us that he personally liked Aldrin…but soon noticed some “eccentricities” about him. And yet Buzz Aldrin was just as responsible for Apollo’s success as Armstrong was, in his own way; without Aldrin’s expertise in scuba diving, NASA would’ve taken a long time to figure out how to do EVAs, aka spacewalks; per When We Left Earth (to be reviewed next time), Gene Cernan got his ass kicked while attempting an EVA, and it was up to Buzz to teach his fellow astronauts what to do on spacewalks. 

Armstrong’s post-moonwalk life is almost humorously rushed over. Granted, not many people will be going into Armstrong wanting to know about his spell as a college professor in the ‘70s, but still. It’s intimated that he became “reclusive” for a time, yet no one bothers to mention that Neil Armstrong hosted a weekly TV series in the early ‘90s: First Flights, which played on the A&E Network and featured Armstrong flying various planes. Again, Armstrong himself is a mystery; we learn his wife finally divorced him, fed up with his taciturn nature (“He had forty-eight years to change”), but Armstrong’s second wife doesn’t appear. And also the producers, perhaps chaffed that Aldrin didn’t appear, again try to stir the pot with a quick post-mission press interview in which a reporter asks the Apollo 11 crew how they’ll handle “the future” given their newfound fame. Aldrin gives a somewhat jokey response on wishing he could see the future to properly answer the question, and for no reason Armstrong razzes him: “I think it’s up to you.” Later we’re informed that Aldrin went through a few marriages, had a mental breakdown, and etc, the unstated implication that Kraft et al made the right choice. But honestly, Aldrin’s the only member of the Apollo 11 crew still living, and the dude looks fit enough to get on a flight to Mars tomorrow, so he must’ve done something right. 

Overall though, Armstrong isn’t nearly the spectacle of the other documentaries I’ve reviewed here. It’s a bit let down that a lot of it is a retread of what’s shown in the other docs, and also the footage isn’t nearly as spectacular. I did feel that the doc did a better job of focusing on Armstrong and Scott’s near-fatal Gemini mission than most other documentaries, particularly given that Scott himself is here to talk about it. Oh and Armstrong’s death isn’t even really elaborated on; basically it was completely avoidable. “Bypass surgery” is vaguely mentioned as a risky proposition for an 82 year-old man, but in reality it turns out that some sort of snafu caused Armstrong’s death. According to a news story that came out a few years after his 2012 death, the hospital gave the Armstrong family a $6 million settlement, as it turns out that the staples in Armstrong’s heart had been improperly removed after surgery, or something to that effect, and he bled to death internally. In other words, the man whose entire career had been built on careful attention to detail died due to someone else’s lack thereof. 

Still not enough Neil Armstrong for you? Then check out this clip from a 1983 Bob Hope TV special, shot for the 25th anniversary of NASA, some of which appears in the Armstrong documentary. Here you’ll see the first man on the moon in a comic dialog with Bob Hope! Armstrong’s a little stiff and awkward on stage, but his comedic timing is good…his “things that get off the ground” punchline made me laugh out loud. In the segment Bob Hope plays some clips of Armstrong’s appearance at various USO shows in Vietnam in ’69, and here Armstrong is much more comfortable, even making a risque joke for a couple blondes in the audience. (Though of course Hope – then in his late 60s – has even better ones for the two blondes.) And is it just me, or does Armstrong in the 1983 stage material give off some Dick “Bewitched” York vibes? Same mannerisms, posture, pitch of voice, etc. Yeah, it’s probably just me. 

Bonus Record Review Section: 

Michael Drew and John Petrone – The Flight Of Apollo Eleven (Jamestune Records, 1979): This obscure LP, released on a vanity label, is along the same lines as the earlier Journey To The Moon, telling the titular flight of Apollo 11 in a narrative of audio footage and original music. But there are a few differences: One, there’s no narrator here, and the story of the flight is relegated to a single side, with Side 2 being unedited versions of the songs on Side 1. The biggest difference however is the style of music – just as Journey To The Moon captured the vibe of its era with vaguely psychedelic easy listening tunes, so too does The Flight Of Apollo Eleven capture the vibe of its own era: That’s right, folks, disco! And disco of a decidedly jazz-funk vein. Everything is professionally produced and recorded, and the LP even comes in a very nice gatefold jacket that’s filled with pictures and a glossary of terms on the back, so it’s a mystery why this was released on an independent label. But I must admit that the music doesn’t capture me nearly as much as Journey To The Moon, and relegating the narrative to just one side robs the story of drama. Another difference is that there are vocals here; the last track, “Where Do We Go From Here?,” features a female singer. 

But as with that earlier LP, the actual NASA recordings are interspersed throughout, from the astronauts to Mission Control. We have some stuff here that wasn’t in Journey To The Moon, particularly a bit at the end where you can hear Nixon’s voice asking for the chaplain on the recovery ship to say a prayer. And also the LP opens with a long snippet of President Kennedy’s speech to Congress in 1961, similar to the opening track of Public Service Broadcasting’s 2015 LP The Race For Space. As mentioned Side 2 features most of the songs that were on Side 1, only in slightly different arrangements and lacking, for the most part, any of the NASA recordings. 

I’ve played the LP a few times and it still hasn’t clicked with me, as opposed to the immediate response I got from Journey To The Moon, which is still one of my all-time favorite albums. The Flight Of Apollo Eleven is so obscure I’ve not been able to find out anything about it, and there aren’t even any uploads on Youtube. However it does look like Michael Drew, crediting only himself, released the album under the title One Small Step as an “audio book,” and you can hear a few minutes excerpt on Amazon – heard in the clip is the end of track 1, all of track 2, and the beginning of track 3, all three from Side 1. No idea if this “audio book” features the entire LP, or just the Side 1 narrative. At any rate, I got my pristine copy of the LP for two dollars, so I can’t complain about the price!

Monday, August 9, 2021

The Last Ranger #8: The Cutthroat Cannibals

The Last Ranger #8: The Cutthroat Cannibals, by Craig Sargent
July, 1988  Popular Library

At this point Jan Stacy’s clearly bored with The Last Ranger; the previous volume was a tepid bore and this one I thought was even worse. For some reason Stacy here decides to give us what is for the most part a post-nuke Jack London type of story, only one with the usual absurdist Stacy touches. And not only that but he also cripples hero Mark Stone for the entire tale, having him hobble around with a broken leg. Plus Stone’s lost all his weapons and the Harley Electraglide he’s been riding since the beginning. 

Stacy also co-wrote the earliest volumes of Doomsday Warrior, and everyone knows the template of those books: each will open with Ted Rockson and team heading out into the post-nuke US and encountering all manner of wild flora and fauna. But whereas those sequences are usually over and done with pretty quick in Doomsday Warrior, Cutthroat Cannibals is like that for almost the entire novel. And that’s another thing: the title. If you read the back cover, you expect a splatterpunk yarn; it mentions “The Hunger,” a possibly inhuman group that feasts on human flesh. In reality, this group, which is made up of a mere two individuals, doesn’t appear until the very final pages of the novel. Instead, Cutthroat Cannibals features Stone being assailed by the weather, rugged terrain, treacherous rivers, superstitious Indians, and even a cult-like group of rabid dogs. 

Well anyway, for once we have an installment that doesn’t open immediately after the previous volume. Rather, Stone’s just driving around on his Harley, his pit bull Excaliber as ever with him, when he’s suddenly caught in an avalanche. (“Jesus, mother of God,” he thinks to himself, not realizing this is “biologically and theologically impossible.”) This goes on and on, and sadly is just an indication of the similar material that will occur throughout the book. Ultimately Stone’s caught in a river and swept away – and friends this isn’t the only river he’ll be swept up in during the course of the novel – and along the way not only loses his bike but all his weapons and even suffers a nasty compound fracture on his femur. Now we have more survivalist stuff as he tries to hobble around and survive even more chaotic weather. And meanwhile Stacy keeps up the goofy “banter” between Stone and Excaliber. 

Stone’s bashed into unconsciousness at one point and wakes to find some Indians looking at him. They seem to proliferate here in this post-nuke US, which now that I think of it might be commentary from Stacy that the original inhabitants of America are taking the place over again. And per genre madate they’re the Road Warrior type, a motley crew of bizarre fashions. Oh and they live in houses made of tires. But Stacy’s really focused on dogs this time, so these hardy Indian braves are unsettled around Excaliber, and can’t believe the dog actually listens to Stone. Well anyway they worship a dog whose statue looks nuch like Excaliber, but they end up keeping our hero captive anyway and wondering if they should kill him. 

This too goes on for a long time. Also the shaman shows up, and he’s a former doctor who escaped the world and returned to his Indian roots; it’s intimated that these Indians are so cut off from society that they aren’t even aware a nuclear war has occurred. He tries to fix up Stone’s leg, but it needs to be rebroken first, so he kicks it and then lets it set. Then he makes a crutch for Stone; our hero continues to hobble through the rest of the novel. Honestly I’m not sure what Stacy was going for here, giving us such a defenseless hero for the entirety of the book: Stone’s lost all of his guns, his bike, and can’t even walk around. Humorously he thinks he can make another bike with “spare parts” at the bunker…if only he can get back there! 

Stacy retreads the usual tropes here, with Stone having to prove himself in man-to-man combat with the top brave, yet afterward he’s still doomed to death. But the brave becomes his friend and the two escape. Here we get, unbelievably, even more post-nuke weather insanity, with the two encountering more waterfalls and rushing rivers and etc. Then it gets real goofy when a sort of cult-like army of dogs, two hundred strong, starts chasing them; the brave says these are “demon dogs” and it’s implied they’ve become almost supernatural as they’re able to outwit and outfox the two humans. But even here Stacy proves that The Last Ranger is really just a goofy series at heart, when the demon dogs and Excaliber start “singing” to each other that night:

In the battle – and by the way, the dogs are led by three mutts Stone considers the canine equivalents of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco – Stone is again swept up by a waterfall and thrown around like a ragdoll, to come to in a new predicament. Here, on page 137, he awakens to find himself being watched by a pair of obese albinos…albino cannibals, that is, who have named themselves Top and Bottom. These are the “Hunger” promised on the back cover. Things get real ghoulish here, very splatterpunk, with the cannibals having a sort of mental hold on “Cro-Magnons” who act as their slaves. It’s a charnel house setup, with human skin used as drapes for the village and other horrific displays of past victims dangling everywhere. 

Stone’s thrown in a cage with…you guessed it, a smokin’ hot blonde babe, because he hasn’t gotten laid yet this volume. Even though the girl’s brother and father are also strung up and all of ‘em are waiting for their turn to be eaten – and plus she’s a virgin – the girl insists that Stone take her right then and there, so that at least she’ll have known a man before the cannibals eat her! Or as she succinctly says, “Please, do it, get it in!” The sequence which follows isn’t as hardcore crazy as previous ones, but we do get the added bonus that the girl falls in love with Stone (of course she does), and Stone feels the same – but by novel’s end he’s already preparing to ditch her and her folks so he can get back to the bunker and fix up his bike. 

Norm Eastman’s typically-great cover depicts Stone blasting away with a .50 caliber machine gun. This does actually happen, at the very end of the novel. The girl and her family turn out to have a jeep armed with this gun, and Top and Bottom have just lazily left it sitting there. After a gutchurning bit where the girl’s brother is eaten alive on the dinner table, Stone’s able to escape and commandeers the jeep, getting some bloody .50 caliber payback. And here the novel ends, Stone and the girl and her dad hopping on the jeep to “head north,” but as mentioned Stone’s planning to say goodbye soon so he and Excaliber can go and get their supplies…and, of course, continue the search for his ever-missing sister. 

Two more volumes were to follow, but we’ve had two duds in a row now. We’ll see if Stacy is able to get the series back in shape before the big apocalyptic finale.