Thursday, September 29, 2022

Traveler #9: The Stalking Time

Traveler #9: The Stalking Time, by D.B. Drumm
June, 1986  Dell Books

Traveler takes on a new vibe with this ninth volume, which was written by Ed Naha (who will serve as “D.B. Drumm” for the rest of the series). Apparently feeling that the sub-Road Warrior theme of the previous books has worn thin, Naha introduces the concept that the titular Traveler is now basically a “diplomat” who serves the newly-formed U.S. government. This means that Traveler comes off a bit differently than he did in previous volumes, and truth be told his determination to represent the government seems a little forced. 

One thing that’s made clear is that some time has passed in the series. We’re often reminded that the nukes fell “twenty years ago,” whereas previous volumes had it as thirteen or even fifteen years ago. Not only that, but Traveler when we meet him this time is headed up into the mideast, his first time here since before the war, having undertaken a “year-long mission” for newly-elected President Jefferson. When Traveler tangles with a group of roadrats (ie the leather-garbed road scavengers “inspired” by the ones in the Mad Max films), we’re told that they are better-equipped than the ones Traveler fought “a half-dozen years ago” in the western portion of the US. In other words, we’re about five to six years out from the earliest books in the series, and the year – though it’s never outright stated – is now 2009. 

In a way The Stalking Time works as a series reset; in previous volumes Traveler always had someone with him, whether it was one of his old army buddies or Jan, the American Indian babe who was the love of Traveler’s life and whatnot. This time Traveler is truly alone, driving along in the Meat Wagon and listening to John Coltrane tapes, and there’s no mention of those earlier comrades. Other that is than a few sequences where Traveler dreams about them. So in a way Traveler lives up to his mantle this time, traveling the post-nuke roadways alone…save that is for the new motive Naha has given him. 

Traveler as a diplomat is one thing, but what’s worse is that in The Stalking Time he’s often getting saved by someone else. Traveler does not come off nearly as badass as he did in the superior volumes by John Shirley. And also, whereas Shirley’s installments were fast-moving slices of horror-tinged post-nuke pulp, Naha’s are often sluggish. Even though the novel’s the same short length as those earlier books, it feels a lot longer – the same sentiment I had about Naha’s previous installment The Road Ghost

I think the reason behind this is that Naha thinks the whole storyline is ridiculous, and one can sense his sneering through the pages. I never got that impression from Shirley’s books; he was clearly having fun with them. Naha on the other hand goes for a pseudo-“spoofy” vibe that’s almost as egregious as in The Destroyer. What I mean to say is, neither the author nor the characters seem to take anything seriously, and Naha is constantly making snarky asides via the narrative or the dialog. Now to be sure it’s not as bad as in The Destroyer, I mean things still matter here and not everything’s a joke, but the vibe is close. Actually if I want to stay within the post-nuke realm, The Last Ranger would be a good comparison, with the same dark humor. Only whereas The Last Ranger has a nihilistic streak, Naha’s Traveler has a satirical streak. 

So throughout Naha constantly undercuts the tension he himself creates in the plot with sarcastic rejoinders or snarky comments ridiculing the situation. It just gives the sense that it’s all a joke, and folks if you know anything about me you know I don’t like shit like this in my men’s adventure. I want it straight no chaser. Naha’s sarcastic fun-poking was fine in his Robocop novelization, as it matched the vibe of the movie itself, but here it gets in the way of the post-apocalyptic fun. At any rate, his books so far have suffered greatly in comparison to John Shirley’s; Shirley too might have thought the series was ridiculous, but the reader never got that impression. 

But seriously, you know you’re in trouble when Naha spends more time on the trashy décor of a hotel Traveler stays in than on the action scenes. This sequence too is evidence of the new starical vibe of the series; at one point Traveler ingratiates himself into the orbit of a post-nuke warlord who calls himself Dragon, and who has taken over a hotel for his headquarters – one that is done up with themes for various rooms, and Traveler gets one with an “Arabian Nights” theme. And rather than a hockeymasked Lord Humongous type, Dragon is a dapper black man who wears “Day-Glo pimp clothing” and patterns himself after a Blaxploitation character. 

However that’s not to say we don’t have any of the customary Traveler horror vibe. There’s a cool part where Traveler almost gets eaten by blind scar-faced ghouls who live underground, only to be saved by a hulking bounty hunter called Angel Eyes. The uncredited artist who did the cover must’ve read the book or gotten some seriously good art direction, as the depiction of Angel Eyes on the cover – iron helmet, flamethrower-esque attachment on his back – is exactly as he’s described in the book. (Though I’m not sure why the artist had to put so much focus on the guy’s ass!) But this is also part of the problem. Angel Eyes saves Traveler, and Traveler is saved a few other times in the book. It just seems at odds with previous installments. That said, Traveler does save Angel Eyes immediately after. 

Traveler also seems at odds with his past self in another way – he makes dumb choices. As part of that belabored “ingratiating into Dragon’s forces” scenario, Traveler finds himself sent off with two other stooges to create a diversion. Traveler ties these guys up and leaves them to an overly-complicated fate, driving off. It’s almost as if Naha is telegraphing what will happen next, and sure enough those two eventually show up to blow Traveler’s cover story. The Traveler of the Shirley installments would’ve seen this eventuality and would’ve just blown their brains out to save himself the trouble. 

One of the highlights of the novel is the town Traveler comes upon. It seems to have come out of a Norman Rockwell painting, mostly because it was designed before the war as a tourist attraction. There’s also an underground vault of goods that the mayor, a hotstuff blonde who was in kindergarten when the nukes fell, is desperate to keep secret. This underground vault is what Dragon wants, and what Traveler must stop him from getting. But it’s almost as if Naha changes his mind about this, as in the climax it’s the town’s kids who turn out to be Dragon’s target – which leads to a nice action hero-worthy bit of Traveler racing to save a schoolbus full of abducted kids. 

The focus on youth is another weird new element to the series. Quite frequently in The Stalking Time we’re reminded that WWIII was 20 years ago, and the young roadrats and such scurrying around were, like Mayor Emma Fowler, just kids when the bombs dropped. Yet they’ve grown up in a world of hate, which is all they know – and thus Traveler sometimes has a hard time shooting these roadrat punks who are trying to kill him. It’s an understandable sentiment on Traveler’s part, yet at the same time it’s nothing that has ever occurred to him in the previous volumes. One really gets the impression here that he’s an old man wandering around a world of angry youth. 

Speaking of which there’s a reveal on Angel Eyes that’s crazy but also sort of telegraphed, and also way out of the realm of previous installments. It does however have an unexpected emotional impact, given the reason behind Angel Eyes’s determination to kill Dragon. The problem though is that Traveler sort of sits on the sidelines in the climax, that is after he’s saved that schoolbus of kids. After this Traveler sits around – or perhaps that should be flies around – as Angel Eyes gets his revenge on Dragon. But it’s just another indication of the sort of weakened state Traveler has in this volume. 

Maybe it’s just something we’ll have to get used to, as Naha wrote the rest of the series. And given that he wrote the first volume, perhaps Naha’s Traveler can be considered the Traveler. Who knows; as usual I’m probably putting too much thought into it. All told, The Stalking Time was an entertaining installment of Traveler, maybe less violent than previous ones – and certainly less sexually-explicit, with Traveler’s one score occuring off-page at the very end of the novel – but entertaining nonetheless. I mean when it comes to post-nuke pulp, I’d certainly rather read this than Roadblaster.

Monday, September 26, 2022


Wolfsbane, by William W. Johnstone
March, 1987  Zebra Books
(Original Zebra edition 1982)

Yet another thick horror paperback courtesy the prolific William W. Johnstone, Wolfsbane was first published in 1982; shown here is the cover of the 1987 reprint, which I lifted from Too Much Horror Fiction (where you can also see the original cover). I can’t make out the artist signature, but this cover, while super cool (and embossed in true ‘80s horror paperback style), has no relation to the story itself. This one is Johnstone’s take on werewolves, but don’t go into Wolfsbane expecting a typical werewolf tale. 

Instead, expect Johnstone’s typical horror novel plot: Satan comes to Smalltown USA in the 1980s. (I grew up in Smalltown USA in the 1980s, and trust me, Satan would’ve gotten bored quick.) Actually, Wolfsbane takes place in 1976, though the “shock twist” finale occurs in 1981. Otherwise it’s the same as the other Johnstone horror novels I’ve read, with the caveat that Wolfsbane isn’t nearly as twisted, perverted, or downright great as The Nursery. But on the other hand, it’s definitely better – which is to say sleazier – than Toy Cemetery. It just isn’t as sleazy as The Nursery

I say this is a werewolf novel, and technically it is, but Johnstone rarely uses the word in the book; instead he calls them “loup garous,” given that the novel takes place in Louisiana. But man, these creatures, when they do appear in the book (which honestly isn’t all that often), are hardly even described. Johsntone’s powers of description fail him greatly when it comes to the creature feature material; about the most we get is that the beasts are hairy and have hideous faces. Most of the time they appear in shadows, and there are other monsters besides the werewolves, like a witch and a horde of things that try to attack the protagonist during a memorable if brief sequence in the finale. None of them are much described. 

Otherwise, Wolfsbane was a lot better than I expected it would be. For the first hundred pages or so I was thinking to myself that it was a fine novel, with little of the rampant exposition or page-filling of Johnstone’s other novels. Unfortunately though, the book kept going. In fact, it kept going to almost 300 pages, and by novel’s end all that exposition and page-filling was out in full force. The novel actually got to be humorous with the lame page-filling, with interminable stalling in the third half as the hero, Pat Strange, incessantly traded barbed dialog with the villain, 90 year-old witch Madame Bauterre. That said, Wolfsbane does not feature any of Johnstone’s right wing sermonizing, but to tell the truth I wouldn’t have minded much if it did. In fact that was just the extra icing on the cake in The Nursery, which is seeming more like the William W. Johnstone horror novel that has it all. 

The opening seems to be inspired by the old Universal horror classics, with a werewolf loose in the bayou hamlet of Ducross Parish, in 1934. The werewolf is taken down by the townsfolk and the human corpse immolated and sealed up so that the creature will never rise again. Then the guy’s wife and children are kicked out of town. We move then to 1976, and that wife, the aforementioned Madame Bauterre, has returned to Ducross Parish. She will be the prime villain of Wolfsbane, a 90-something crone of pure evil…one who indulges in a few super explicit sex scenes that are actually stomach-churning. Johnstone clearly seems to be chortling to himself as he details, in graphic detail, M. Bauterre’s rape of a few captured men in the novel…it’s sleazy stuff for sure, but just extremely gross, with lots of detail about the old witch’s various, uh, “dry” bodyparts. 

But it wouldn’t be a horror PBO without a hotstuff heroine, and she comes in the form of Janette Bauterre Simmons, granddaughter of M. Bauterre and widow of a ‘Nam special forces commander. Janette seems to be the main protagonist as the novel starts, and I thought Johnstone for once was going to get away from his traditional “Vietnam vet badass” hero. But I was wrong, as Pat Strange – a Vietnam vet badass – is the true hero of the tale. Janette is atypical of the usual Johnstone heroine, though, or at least unlike the ones in the other Johnstone novels I’ve read: she’s determined, brave, and follows her own path. She sets the events in motion, deciding to visit her grandmother in Louisiana despite M. Bauterre’s order not to – and Janette soon figures there is some crazy stuff going on. 

Given the bayou setting, be prepared for a lot of hamfisted “accented dialog” stuff; ie “you rat” instead of “you’re right” and “lak” instead of “like.” Luckily neither Pat nor Janette speak this way, so we only have to endure this when it comes to a few minor characters. The opening has you prepared for the worst, though, with a lot of Ducross Parish locals gawking at the returned Madame Bauterre and going over the events of 1934. The only local character who has more of a part in the novel is Sheriff Edan Vallot, and Johnstone pulls an interesting trick here in that Vallot, the cop, is actually more believing of the supernatural than Pat Strange is. 

As for Pat, he’s of a piece with other Johnstone protagonists: yet another professional soldier in his 40s who is chosen to become God’s Warrior. It’s goofy but fun as Pat, when introduced, is gone to fat and living in a shack in South Carolina, having recently given up his warring ways. But for reasons he can’t comprehend, Pat abruptly stops drinking and begins working out and running ten miles a day(!), to the point that he’s a fit fighting machine when Janette shows up at his door one day. Of course, “God Himself” has chosen Pat to be “His Warrior,” to fight Satan in this latest installment of the “game” the two beings engage in. 

Oh and that’s another thing. Wolfsbane answers a question I’ve wondered about for a while: whether William W. Johnstone had a sense of humor. He clearly did, because there is a lot of humor in the novel; tortured, unfunny humor, but an attempt at humor nonetheles. This is mostly relayed via none other than Satan himself, who often appears (via his voice only) in the final third of the novel…and starts talking about his love of baseball! The devil’s voice comes from a “bubbling” section of the bayou and makes sarcastic comments throughout the novel’s climax, disparaging “Him” and taunting Pat. It’s all more goofy than actually funny, yet at the same time it could be evidence that Johnstone realizes his repetitive horror plots are shit and he himself doesn’t take them seriously. I mean folks the devil at one point actually says to Pat, “Who do you think I am, Barbara Streisand?” 

But the unintentional humor is more prevalent. As mentioned the book becomes almost tiresome in the second half with the egregious stalling. Actually this starts off even in the first half; Janette, in Paris, is attacked by a werewolf in her grandmother’s study, actually sees the beast revert to human form after being shot by a guard, and yet spends the next several chapters wondering if there is “more going on” with her grandmother. So Janette goes to Ducross Parish, where M. Bauterre bluntly tells Janette she should leave, but Janette stays behind, suspecting something is going on (remember, she was attacked by a friggin’ werewolf), and she even goes to the lengths of getting a nightvision camera so she can take photos of the hairy beasts that congregate in the courtyard at night. 

And all along her grandmother keeps appearing to her, telling her to leave, etc. It’s tiresome but only a taste of the tiresome events that will ensue. Pat comes into it because Janette just happens to come across an old letter from her deceased husband, the Special Forces commander, which mentions Pat Strange – and yes, Janette’s husband was indeed Pat’s commanding officer! All this is just the work of God, of course! So Janette goes down to find Pat Strange in his South Carolina shack…and the two immediately start screaming at each other…which of course leads to one of Johnstone’s OTT sex scenes. Again, not nearly as OTT as when the hero first had sex with his girlfriend in The Nursery (a scene which featured such unforgettable dialog as, “I want to suck you, Mike. I want to suck your cock.”), but still pretty OTT, with dialog like, “It’s called doggy style,” and “Cum with me!” And yes, it’s spelled that way, same as in The Nursery

Actually the two go at it all night long and into the next day, there in Pat’s shack, which doesn’t even have indoor plumbing. Johnstone leaves the ensuing boinkery mostly off-page, and only a stray mention of it here and there in the latter half of the novel, when Pat returns to Ducross Parish with Janette and stays with her in her room in M. Bauterre’s mansion. For Janette has brought Pat back with her as her guardian, and now it’s Pat’s turn to wonder if all those creeping shadows down in the courtyard are really werewolves and whatnot. Here the stalling hits us full force, as Madame Bauterre incessantly taunts Pat, only for Pat to taunt her back, the old woman getting angry at Pat’s uncouth language. It goes on and on, with “I could destroy you now, but I won’t” crap, only nothing happens, mostly because M. Bauterre is aware that Pat is “God’s Warrior,” thus he cannot be touched due to the rules of the “Game.” 

Pat’s investigation entails lots of driving around Ducross Parish and meeting the locals, including an old witch-woman who lives in the swamp. Johnstone also brings in a “family” subplot in that warring dynasties are involved with the werewolves, but this too just comes off like more page-filling. The sad thing is it takes forever for anything to happen. A few corpses pile up, clearly werewolf victims, but we have the usual horror trope where no one wants to believe it was a werewolf who did the killing. Again though Johnstone subverts the usual by having the sheriff be the one who suspects werewolves, and not Pat, who keeps searching for rational reasons. 

This too is another Johnstone schtick, the warrior chosen by God who not only isn’t religious but who also doesn’t believe in the supernatural. But also part of the schtick is God’s Warrior gradually coming to accept his lot – which of course means a finale in which he takes up a gun and shoots down a bunch of people. Oh I forgot, another Johnstone schtick is where the town is slowly corrupted by Satan, with the small group of heroes excised from the community; this happens so quickly and with such little setup and followthrough in Wolfsbane that it was actually humorous. But anyway, as God’s Warrior, Pat is able to gun down werewolves and such with nothing more than a shotgun and a “.41 mag.” Whereas the average person would need silver bullets or whatever, Pat’s divine blessing allows him to kill the creatures with regular bullets. 

But man, any hopes of Pat going up against a host of creatures are quickly dashed. Johnstone blows through the action like he’s running out of space…and I guess he is, given that he’s spent the past 250-some pages stalling. Again, it’s nowhere near the craziness of The Nursery, where that “God’s Warrior” gunned down possessed teens with nary a concern. Instead here Pat heads onto Madame Bauterre’s grounds – after enjoying a quick snack on her lawn! – and is quickly shooting at zombies and werewolves and other assorted monsters, none of which are described. Johnstone also has that goofy quirk of referring to various characters Pat’s gunning down by their names, with no reminders, and the reader has no idea who the hell they are. So that too adds to the unintentional comedy. 

The biggest miss here is the abovementioned part where Pat is chased by sundry monsters on the estate, but the description of them is vague at best. There was all kinds of opportunity here for true horror as Pat is chased by creepy crawlies across the estate. Also the final confrontation with M. Bauterre is a bit weak, with the old evil woman standing there patiently as Pat sets her up for a divine shotgun blast. But even worse is that Johnstone rushes through the monster-killing action, and instead goes for a “shock” finale where the devil plunges Pat into a deep sleep…and he wakes up on Halloween of 1981. Johnstone seems to be setting things up for a sequel, with Pat vowing to stay in Ducross Parish to ensure the devil never sets foot in it again, but I’m not sure if Johnstone ever wrote a sequel to Wolfsbane. It’s looking like he did not. 

Overall though Wolfsbane wasn’t too bad. It had a lot of stalling and padding, but there was just enough of Johnstone’s typical goofiness to make it fun. I mean I know I’m supposed to say he’s a horrible writer and all, but I’d rather read something like this than “serious” horror fiction.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

The Peacemaker #4: The Wyss Pursuit

The Peacemaker #4: The Wyss Pursuit, by Adam Hamilton
March, 1975  Berkley Medallion Books 

The Peacemaker limps to a close with a fourth volume that’s even more tepid than the previous three; titular “Peacemaker” Barry Hewes-Bradford doesn’t even kill anyone in this one. I mean at least he shot the occasional bad guy in the previous books. This time ol’ Barry spends the majority of the narrative doing exactly what Mel Crair depicts on the cover: making phone calls. 

Speaking of the cover, again we get confirmation that Crair’s depiction of Barry is his own invention. The moustached lothario of the Crair covers does not exist in the actual novels. Instead, Barry is specifically stated as being “tall and black-haired” – no mention of a moustache, blondish-brown hair, or a bow tie. Also speaking of Crair’s cover art, it’s misleading in another regard: the scene shown doesn’t actually happen in the novel. While Barry and his assistant Lobo do ski down a slope as someone fires at them, Barry does not return fire – in fact he and Lobo flee off to safety and hide, waiting for the sniper to go away. The Peacemaker!! 

Yeah, but this one’s really lame, and just further evidence that the series was DOA from the get-go. I mean like Zwolf said, it’s supposedly a men’s adventure series, yet they named it “The Peacemaker,” and they got a woman to write it!! Maybe some editor at Berkley just had a goofy sense of humor. Whatever, Marilyn “Adam Hamilton” Granbeck again writes what is really a mystery novel, one that isn’t even gussied up with the paltry thrills of the previous installments. 

The series concept itself is also ungainly, that mega-wealthy Barry operates on the side as a crimefighter. The problem is, as I’ve bitched about in each previous review, Barry himself doesn’t do much – he just gets one of his untold employees to do the work for him. Thus there is very little tension or excitement in the series. Barry isn’t even given a proper background of a men’s adventure protagonist; he's just rich and has legions of employees at his disposal, so it’s not like he’s some ‘Nam vet out for payback. In fact it’s Lobo who does most of the “action stuff” in the series, but this time even Lobo doesn’t do much. 

The plot this time has to do with a heroin smuggling scheme; some mysterious drug kingpin known as “Wyss” seems to be targeting Barry’s freight line, using the ships to transport heroin out of the fictional Southeast Asian country of Balarac. Just forget about any promises of action and think of The Wyss Pursuit as a mystery novel and you might enjoy it more than I did. As mentioned it’s even slower-going than previous volumes, but Granbeck’s prose is strong enough that I figure she’s probably a fine writer in an element she’s more comfortable with. 

Granbeck is good with effective scene-setting, like the opening in which a hapless sailor on one of Barry’s ships accidentally uncovers the heroin and is killed for it. However Granbeck again proves that Barry is not really an action hero in the standard mold when later in the book Barry and Lobo get ahold of the killer and grill him for info on the heroin scheme. This takes place inside Barry’s limo as it slowly moves along Broadway in Manhattan; Barry doesn’t threaten or harm the killer. Indeed, Barry pays the guy and drops him off! A guy who killed one of Barry’s own men! It’s all just so against the grain of what makes for an action hero that you can only shake your head at the poor editorial decision-making at Berkley. 

So to reiterate, in the course of The Wyss Pursuit Barry doesn’t get in any fights, doesn’t shoot anyone, doesn’t do much of anything except travel around the country and make some phone calls. That said, he does get laid this time, by two different gals (not at the same time, though!)…however if you just thought to yourself, “Yeah, but Granbeck probably keeps it off page,” then award yourself a no-prize. And neither female character is exploited in the wonderful way mandated by the men’s adventure genre. One’s an insurance investigator who seems to have her own agenda and travels around the world with Barry, the other’s one of Barry’s jetset acquaintances. Curiously Granbeck seems to imply early on that the insurance investigator is interested in Lobo, but that might’ve been a misreading on my part; I did doze off a few times while reading the book, after all. 

Reinforcing the “mystery novel” vibe is the titular Wyss, a notorious figure in the drug world. It turns out that Wyss is behind the heroin-smuggling on Barry’s ships, with the added kick in the crotch that Wyss wants the heroin to be discovered so as to cause Barry legal and other woes. Even here we get more of a lowkey payoff, with Wyss finally being tracked down in Switzerland…but posing under another name. Instead of taking direct action, Barry tries to entrap him and all that, and it’s lame. And yes, it’s in Switzerland that the cover incident occurs, with Barry and Lobo hitting the slopes as one of Wyss’s goons sharpshoots at them. 

I mean this one’s so lame, Barry doesn’t even take part in the climactic action scene. It’s all relayed via report as Wyss and his ship get in a fight with some Balarac forces, and Barry frets while it goes down. And smokes a bunch of cigarettes. In previous installments he’d at least blow something up. It’s like with this one Granbeck didn’t even bother to give us that. But one must appreciate her steadfast determination to not cater to the demands of the action genre. Anyway not that it matters, as with this volume The Peacemaker comes to a close. It shan’t be missed.

Monday, September 19, 2022

The Nightmares On Elm Street Parts 1, 2, 3: The Continuing Story

The Nightmares On Elm Street Parts 1, 2, 3: The Continuing Story, by Jeffrey Cooper
February, 1987  St. Martins Press

I’ll start this review with an admission: I have never seen A Nightmare On Elm Street nor any of its sequels. But having read this novelization of the first three films in the series – which is yet another book Robert Mann hooked me up with – I now feel that I have. For my friends The Nightmares On Elm Street is essentially a straight-up, no-frills synopsis of the first two films, with the same blasé narrative approach extending to the third film…though it’s my understanding that the plot for the third film, The Dream Warriors, differs here from the actual movie. 

Each film gets about 70 pages of text, meaning that for the most part The Nightmares On Elm Street reads like a collection of novellas. But that isn’t a problem. What’s a problem is that author Jeffrey Cooper turns in the most bland prose I’ve ever encountered in a book; Paul Hofrichter would consider this book poorly written. It’s seriously a wonder it was even published, but I’m imagining the studio was behind the push. Copyright “The Second Elm Street Venture,” The Nightmares On Elm Street was likely timed to hit bookstore shelves at the same time that The Dream Warriors was released, so I’m guessing speed was more of a concern than quality. To be fair, Cooper does appear capable of putting a bit of an emotional drive into some sections, but for the most part the book comes off like he watched the first two movies and just wrote down what he saw, then took the same approach for the script of the third film. 

The most humorous thing is that, reading this book, you’d never get the idea that these movies were violent, R-rated horror flicks. The novel is curiously bloodless and the horror stuff is weak at best, mostly because the prose is so blasé. I mean Freddy Krueger will pop out of the shadows or whatever and there’s zero in the way of terror. I mean it will just be point blank blasé prose, like literally, “Freddy jumped out of the shadows,” and that’s it. It’s lame, is what I’m trying to say, and comes off like the work of an author who doesn’t give two shits about his assignment. In fact, hardly anything is even described. About the most we get is that Freddy wears a “Fedora hat” and has a scarred face. It’s like the author has done the bare minimum requirement to get the novel done. 

So anyway, the book runs to 216 pages, with a section of black and white stills from the first two films. In addition to the novelization of the first three films there’s a several-page “bonus” section detailing “The Life And Death Of Freddy Krueger.” The curious thing is that this bonus section has more bite than anything else in the book; it’s incredibly grim and has the dark humor one would expect from the films, and I wonder if it was even written by Jeffrey Cooper. Otherwise The Nightmares On Elm Street Parts 1, 2, 3: The Continuing Story doesn’t have much going for it, and would only be recommended for the collector. 

Actually, the book is almost written on the level of juvenile fiction. Other than a few utterances of “fuck” or the like, it’s PG at best. All the sex is off-page, but this too was humorous because all the protagonists are teens, for the most part. The sex is one thing in the films, where you can tell it’s a 20-something actors playing the role, but in the book it’s another thing entirely when you’re reading about a 15 year-old girl suffering from “sexual tension.” I mean I hate to sound like a reactionary prude but it made me downright uncomfortable at times. But then I flat-out loved the part where the possessed teen gal begged a guy to sodomize her in The Nursery, so I guess maybe it’s just the bland, boring prose that put me off instead of the content itself. That said, Cooper shows no compassion for any of these kids, so I guess that’s what you’d want from a horror novelist, just no holds barred. But then he shows no compassion because all these characters are ciphers at best. 

Well anyway, the novelization of the first flick takes up the first 70 pages, and again one would never get the idea that this was an R-rated horror movie. Nor does the reader get a good picture of Freddy Krueger, meaning that black and white section is a real help, because the photos do the job that Cooper’s prose doesn’t. No attempt is made of establishing the location nor any of the characters; the vibe really is very much that Cooper’s just popped in the VHS of A Nightmare On Elm Street and typed out the events as they transpired onscreen. We do get a brief prologue, though, that “ten years ago” Freddy, the “Springdale Slasher,” was hunted down and killed by residents of the community. 

From there we jump into the novelization of the first film. Cooper makes no attempt at setting the time or the place, but then that only adds to the skewed fairy tale vibe of the novel. Strangely, a gal named Tina seems to be our protagonist, as it’s through her perspective that the novel opens; she wakes from a dream, one in which Freddy was chasing her, and then goes to school and talks to her pal Nancy about it. But as it turns out, Tina will not be in the novel long, and Nancy will be the protagonist of this section – and also will return in the third section, ie the novelization of the third film. 

So I can save everyone the trouble of the belabored rundown: Freddy Krueger is appearing in the dreams of kids in this area and trying to kill them. The novel does not address the span of Freddy’s reach, though it seems to be confined to this specific area of Elm Street. Not that this is clearly established. For that matter, there is the promise of the theme here that Freddy is going after the children of the residents who killed him a decade ago. This theme bubbles to the surface, only to be forgotten; I’m not sure if it’s the same in the film. But at any rate, we do eventually learn that Nancy’s mother was one of the people who took part in the killing of Freddy, and what’s more she has retained a memento of Freddy’s, which she keeps in the basement furnace. 

The only problem is, even in this thin paperback, there are a ton of continuity errors. For one, the novelization of the first film seems to imply that Freddy was killed via fire: he was burned to a crisp by the town residents who cornered him and torched him. But then, the novelization of the third film – as well as the “life and death” postscript – state that Freddy was burned as a child. Also, the theme of Freddy getting revenge is poorly conceived, with no follow-through. When he tangles with Nancy’s mom at the end of the book, there’s absolutely no payoff to the fact that she was one of the townspeople who killed Freddy years ago – Freddy is just concerned with Nancy. 

There are other gaping plot holes besides. Like in the novelization of the first film, Nancy decides to trap Freddy…and there are all these dream sequences where she’s walking around, fully aware that she is dreaming. How Nancy became an expert in lucid dreaming is not explained. It took me personally years to do lucid dreams, and that was through focused effort. (The trick, by the way, is to sleep for at least six hours, wake up and do something – like walk around the house or whatever – and then go back to sleep. You will slip right into the REM stage due to the fact that you were just sleeping, but you’ve jogged yourself awake enough that your conscious mind is still active and will realize it when the dream starts.) 

But the bigger problem is that Nancy also has unexplained superpowers. Not only can she lucid dream at the expert level, but she also has the ability to pull things out of dreams. This happens most notably in the finale, when Nancy manages to pull Freddy himself into the real world. Of course the question dangles at the end whether this is just another dream, but still; the problem is, in the novelization of the third film there’s another teen girl, Kirsten, who is specifically described as a “dream warrior” whose power is pulling things out of dreams. An older Nancy at first can’t believe this is possible, then is shocked to see Kirsten actually do it…and the reader is like, “Lady, you just did the exact same friggin’ thing like a hundred pages ago!” 

But man, it’s all so blasé and half-assed. Nothing is described, nothing is explained. About the most Cooper does is inveigh a sense of doom and foreboding in the perspectives of his characters, but motivations and dialog and all that fall flat. Freddy Krueger suffers the most; he appears infrequently at best, and he conveys none of the menace of his film counterpart. For that matter, he comes off like a fool in the novelization of the third film; Freddy gets his ass kicked regularly by the Dream Warriors, so it’s no wonder this section was reportedly changed in the actual movie. Indeed, Freddy is rendered a sort of non-menace in the second and third sections, only killing a few people in the second novelization and taking pretty much the entire narrative to get his act together in the third novelization. Also worth noting is that Freddy turns himself into a woman in the third film – one of the Dream Warriors is a kid named Joey, and in one of Joey’s dreams a hotstuff, barely-clad girl appears and throws herself at him…and, uh, starts to make out with him…only for the girl to suddenly change into Freddy. I’m betting this is another part that didn’t make it into the actual film! 

I haven’t said much about the novelization of the second film, and it’s my understanding Elm Street fans rank that one as one of the worst in the series. It’s easy to see why, as here in the novelization it comes off more like an outline than an actual story: some teen guy moves into Nancy’s old home, “five years” after the first movie, and soon becomes plagued by Freddy. Apparently Freddy wants to possess the kid, or use him to kill for him in the real world, but it’s all so vague. It’s also confusing, because the reader keeps wondering what happened to Nancy in the first film; and when she does appear in the novelization of the third film, Cooper does little to explain the confusing finale of the first movie. (Spoiler alert: but the novelization of the first film ends with Nancy about to be killed by Freddy, who has trapped her in his dream after all…or something.) 

But then, each novelization ends with a “fake out” surprise twist horror ending, which is uninentionally humorous on the printed page. Maybe Freddy suddenly jumping from the shadows before the end credits made teen viewers freak out in 1980s movie houses, but on the printed page – at least in the blasé prose of Jeffrey Cooper – there is little impact. There is also little attempt at capturing the surreal texture of dreams; The Dream Warriors in particular sounds like a promising idea, with a group of Freddy-tormented teens banding together to fight him on his own turf, but again Cooper does nothing to bring the proceedings to life. 

Overall I’d have to say this one is really for the collectors. There was nothing here that made me want to see the actual films, and the novel did not work as its own separate thing, such as a superior novelization might (ie The Rose). But at the very least, The Nightmares On Elm Street Parts 1, 2, 3: The Continuing Story did succeed in one unexpected regard: it put me back on one of my very infrequent horror novel kicks. The last time I was on one was six years ago. Of course this means I’ll soon be reading another William W. Johnstone novel!

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Hostile Fire (Super Able Team #2)

Hostile Fire, by Dick Stivers
August, 1990  Gold Eagle Books

It’s not mentioned anywhere in or on the book, but apparently this was the second and final volume of a sub-series titled Super Able Team. So sort of like there was a “SuperBolan” series of extra-long Executioner novels, Gold Eagle also attempted the same thing for Able Team. But clearly it didn’t resonate, because it only lasted two volumes; there was also a “Super” Phoenix Force series that lasted four volumes. According to the copyright page, Hostile Fire was written by an author named Ken Rose, who also wrote some of the latter Able Team novels. He does his best to fill up the book’s unwieldy 346 page count. 

I discovered this one several years ago via the reviews on, in particular comments around a gun Able Team used in the climax which “seemed more like the chainsaw from [the video game] Doom.” Not to mention “a crazy woman” who served as the villainess and who “likes to torture people.” So I picked up Hostile Fire, as well as the first Super Able Team, Mean Streets, which was also written by Ken Rose. I haven’t read that one yet, but no concerns because as ever there’s zero continuity. In fact, the members of Able Team aren’t even introduced or described…save for an errant mention that “Politician” Balancales has a moustache. So now finally I know that Balancales is the moustached one, “Gadgets” Schwarz is the gray-haired one, and Carl “Ironman” Lyons is the burly blond-haired one – and also Lyons is the one who usually acts as the protagonist in most Able Team novels. 

But not here; in Hostile Fire, Balancales is given the majority of the limelight, with Lyons’s part much reduced from the other Able Team novels I’ve read. As for Gadgets, he’s basically a supporting character, only contributing a few lines, though he does get to wield that unusual gun in the climax – a “handheld minigun” straight out of Predator. Technically it’s referred to as a “7.62 electric Gatling gun,” and it’s a dual-barrelled contraption complete with a power-source backpack. But curiously Rose does not much exploit the gore when it’s put to use; indeed, the novel is relatively bloodless, especially when compared to the earlier Able Team masterpiece Army Of Devils (still to this day possibly the best men’s adventure novel I’ve ever read). Another thing missing is the customary banter and rapport of the Team; in Rose’s hands, the three men almost have an antagonistic relationship, often snapping at each other. 

This could just be in this particular novel, though, because one of the themes is that Balancales goes through a sort of PTSD and starts reliving Vietnam, much to the chagrin of his comrades. Not that PTSD is ever mentioned; so far as Lyons and Gadgets go, Balancales has just “lost it,” what with his frequent declarations that Nam never ended and Charlie’s still lurking out there in the shadows and whatnot. For this reader, though, Balancales got to be pretty damn annoying, and I missed Lyons as the main protagonist. But then Balancales’s sentiments turn out to be true, as Hostile Fire ultimately concerns an army of VC setting up shop in the US, running out of Southern California and with an actual base in Oregon. In many ways the story is similar to the plot of The Hard Corps #1

With one difference: Hostile Fire is not an action onslaught. Ken Rose seems to be at pains to right a “standard” sort of novel, and there are only a few action setpieces. A lot of the novel has Able Team, with the help of local cop named Vong, investigating the situation and trying to figure out what’s going down. However, the final quarter-plus of the novel is comprised of a big action scene, as Able Team and a group of vets storm that VC base in Oregon. Other than that, there are just a few action scenes here and there, and none of them are of the page-filling variety. They are kind of unintentionally humorous, though, as Able Team will often break out “modified” weapons that they’ve brought along, and it gives the impression that they’re just overgrown kids trying out new toys. “Hey, let’s go check out that VC activity in California – the perfect opportunity to use my new modified M-16!” 

As a quick recap, Able Team is an “extralegal” squad working out of Stony Man. There’s not much setup here, and as mentioned no introduction nor description of the three characters. Rose doesn’t even do much to bring them to life, save for Balancales. The way it works is that Stony Man operates at the behest of the government, but separately from other agencies; there is the healthy disrespect of the CIA that is typical of a Gold Eagle publication. And, like many other Gold Eagle publications, the CIA ultimately turns out to have a hand in the shenanigans: namely, they are using a former Vietnamese general named Trang to ship heroin into California, the money being used to finance anti-communist struggles around the globe. But Trang has also brought along a ton of former VC soldiers, among them the “White Bitch,” a female commander known for torturing captives. 

When I read about this female villain in the reviews, my gutter imagination was instantly piqued: I could only imagine some hotstuff Asian temptress in thigh-high boots stringing up the Able Team guys and having her way with them. But folks, not only is this a novel from 1990 but it’s also a Gold Eagle novel, so all my pulpy dreams were dashed. I mean if this setup had happened a few decades before in a Nick Carter: Killmaster novel, then sure. Here the “White Bitch,” whose name is Phom-do, is barely even described, let alone exploited. About all we get is that she wears a white uniform and has an “angular” face. There’s absolutely none of the exploitation one would expect, and per usual it’s all handled relatively “realistically,” with Phom-do just a sadist with a proclivity for torture, and nothing more. Hell, she doesn’t even get her hands on the Able Team guys. 

Action as mentioned isn’t as overwhelming as I expected it would be. More importantly though, the few action scenes have more the vibe of military fiction. Rose really rams home the “Vietnam never ended” motif, with Able Team venturing into humid Orange County environs and Balancales having flashbacks to ‘Nam. At one point they’re even attacked by VC with mortar. And yes, they are VC, complete with black pajamas and everything. The finale too has a military fiction vibe; it isn’t so much Lyons or Balancales or Gadgets gunning down the enemy in glory splendor as it is various fire teams going off to engage the VC. What I mean to say is the action lacks the personal touch you’d expect of action novels and instead concerns various “soldiers” going off into the fray – and these are literally soldiers. In one of the novel’s more interesting subplots, Able Team puts together an army of veterans who were tortured by Phom-do decades ago. 

But it all just lacks the pulpy touch I thought it would have. It’s 1990, it’s Gold Eagle, so all the pulp has been carefully erased. “Realism” is the key here, despite the fact that we have an army of Viet Cong operating on US soil, complete with a tunnel network. The only thing that has not been erased on the pulp spectrum is the racial angle: the phrase “Gook Town” is used repeatedly in the text, but it’s the local Asians who use it so that’s okay. Seriously though, the phrase recurs throughout the book, referring to the section of Orange County with a heavy Vietnamese presence; here too Rose plays out his “Nam never ended” theme, with Able Team walking around parts of “Gook Town” with street vendors hawking bowls of noodles and rock music blasting on cheap radios. That said, this must be the only men’s adventure novel that mentions Fine Young Cannibals and Milli Vanilli(!).

I always appreciate unintentional prescience in old novels – stray dialog or narrative that seems to predict our miserable modern world. Thus I was amused by this comment, by a CIA agent who is working on the heroin pipeline scheme: 

This seems particularly relevant today. (And let’s not forget about Europe!) Yep, the “Reds” sure have cut off our oil supply… 

Otherwise the writing is fine; Rose has a skill for moving the plot and doling out just enough personality for his one-off characters. Unfortunately the Able team guys come off like ciphers, especially Gadgets. Balancales gets too much narrative space, which is unfortunate because he really got on my nerves. And also the female villain could’ve been a lot more exploited, but at least she’s delivered a fitting comeuppance. At the very least Hostile Fire made me want to read Ken Rose’s other Super Able Team, 1989’s Mean Streets.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

The Terminator

The Terminator, by Randall Frakes and Bill Wisher
November, 1985  Bantam Books

It’s hard to recall how big a deal The Terminator was when it was released; that there was a time when “I’ll be back” was fresh and fun. I think I first learned of the movie due to a poster a friend had in his room, around the time of the film’s release – the same image of Arnold Schwarzenegger which graces the cover of this tie-in paperback. I didn’t see the movie in the theater – I was only 9 when it was released – but I rented it on VHS as soon as it came out and watched it over and over. 

Several years ago I was researching the tie-in novel for The Terminator and discovered that there were two different Terminator novelizations: this one, by screenwriters Randall Frakes and Bill Wisher, and one that was published in the UK and written by British horror novelist Shaun Hutson. At the time, I decided the Hutson novelization sounded like the one I would enjoy more, and so I ordered a copy…and I still haven’t read it. It was in at least 2013 when I bought it, maybe before. At the time, I don’t think this Frakes-Wisher novelization was so scarce, but I can’t remember; I didn’t research this novelization much because it didn’t sound as interesting to me as the Hutson version. Per what I had read, Frakes-Wisher hewed incredibly close to the actual film in their novelization, whereas Hutson went for a pulp-horror approach. 

But as it turns out, the Frakes-Wisher Terminator novelization was included in the latest box of books Robert Mann sent me, and it appealed to me so much that I decided to read it, even though I still haven’t read the one by Shaun Hutson. An important note is that the Frakes-Wisher novelization came out over a year after The Terminator was released. Also, the authors worked on the script itself with director James Cameron. So in this case we don’t have a novelization that wildly veers from the source material. Indeed, the Frakes-Wisher Terminator is pretty much the epitome of a movie novelization in that it is literally a novelization of the movie, with only a few minor tidbits that diverge from the film – and the only “new” stuff is a bunch of background material. And the majority of the background material concerns one-off minor characters. 

It's been decades since I read a Stephen King novel, but his stamp is all over this book. I’m certain the authors were fans; as if confirming this, we’re told that one of those one-off minor characters – the gunstore owner who is shot by the Terminator in one of the movie’s more memorable scenes – is from Bangor, Maine. But man, “background material about one-off minor characters” is pretty much the main thing you get from the Frakes-Wisher Terminator novelization. I knew I was in for a bumpy read when the book opened with four pages of backstory about a random garbage truck driver. You know, the garbage truck driver who witnesses the Terminator as he materializes in the middle of a dark Los Angeles street in 1984. A character who is in the film for a handful of minutes (if that), yet the novel opens with a veritable case study on the guy. 

And folks it goes on like this through the entire novelization. The three punks who foolishly accost the naked Terminator – we get their names, what they are up to, all kinds of filler material about them. Hell, the garbage truck driver even sees them as he’s driving along his route and we get his opinions on them. It doesn’t sound like much, but I’m not joking when I say it is like this throughout the novel. Many years ago I read Gary Provost’s Make Your Words Work, and he used a great metaphor: he said little things like this might seem minor when taken one instance at a time, but if you were to take all those instances and put them together into a suitcase or something you’d find that it was too heavy to lift. Well, I’ve butchered the metaphor, but what I’m trying to say is, this is exactly what happens here – there’s just way too much incidental detail about incidental characters throughout this novel, to the point that the book comes off as a slow-moving bloat. 

Also, there is an almost slavish fidelity to the movie. All dialog is rendered faithfully, all the scenes are here as they are in the movie. But here’s the thing: all the dark humor is pretty much lost. Again, there was a time when “I’ll be back!” and “Get out!” and “Wrong!” would make viewers laugh, just the deadpan dark humor Arnold conveys as the titular Terminator, and absolutely none of that is captured in the Frakes-Wisher novelization. In fact, the novel is just too damn serious, and takes itself way too seriously. This is why I figure I’ll like the Hutson novelization better, and if anything reading this Frakes-Wisher novelization has inspired me to finally read the Shaun Hutson novelization. The uber-seriousness of Frakes-Wisher means that the pulpy fun of the actual film is lost. 

But I don’t mean to come off as too negative. I mean there is some humor here and there, just not much of it. While all of Terminator’s lines are here, including of course “Fuck you, asshole,” the authors present everything point blank, with that same serious vibe. Only minor asides feature any dark humor…like when a random cop is killed by The Terminator. In the film, this cop was played by William Wisher himself, so it’s possible he wrote this scene in the novelization. But anyway, in the book we learn that the cop is responding to a call – and yes we get a lot of detail on the cop and his background – and he sees the Terminator hit by a car. “DOA,” the cop automatically thinks to himself…and moments later when the Terminator slams the cop’s head into a car, killing him, we’re informed that the cop’s last thought is “DOA,” ie referring to himself. I’ve mangled the setup but it was fairly funny in the actual reading. 

Midway through The Terminator I attempted to change my mindset and judge the novelization as if it were 1985 and I hadn’t seen the movie a hundred times. It totally succeeds in that way; one can easily relive the movie through this novel, as every moment is captured here, just fleshed out with emotional depth via the backgrounds or the impressions of the characters. So if you didn’t have the VHS, the Frakes-Wisher novelization would be the next best thing in 1985. Plus it does have a little more that’s not in the film, like more of a glimpse into how the Terminator functions and thinks, and also there’s just a little more on the future world Reese has come from – a future that’s just a few years away now. Here too the authors bring to life minor characters; like say in the actual film, in the flashforward sequence, you might see one of Reese’s comptariots get gunned down. Here in the novel, you’ll be told that compatriot’s name, get a little more detail on him or her, stuff like that. 

And so for people who love the film and just want more of it, the Frakes-Wisher Terminator would totally hit the spot. But I’m one of those readers who likes a tie-in that’s different than the film…even wildly different, like Invasion U.S.A. Or novelizations that hew close to the film, but add a lot of extreme stuff that could never be in a mainstream film, like Coffy. This is why I’m assuming Shaun Hutson’s novelization might be more up my alley, as I’m figuring it will diverge from the film more than this one does. I guess what I’m trying to say is, when I read a movie novelization I would prefer something original, instead of a straight-up literary recreation of the film.

So otherwise there isn’t much else to say. You just get the movie here, but with a lot of extranneous background material. Like we learn more about the other Sarah Connors who are killed by the Terminator, and also we learn that the roommate of the real Sarah Connors is pregnant. More stuff on the restaurant Sarah works at, more stuff on practically every character who appears in the movie, no matter how minor they may be in the scheme of things. The authors most succeed in bringing Kyle Reese to life, though. They totally capture the feral nature of a man – whom we learn here is only twenty – who has lived his entire life being hunted. Kyle’s reactions to 1984 Los Angeles are very much explored here, better than the film, and there’s extra incidental stuff like him stealing a slice of pizza and some candy bars. 

One random “new” thing I liked was the bizarre note that the Terminator would break out an X-Acto knife and slice into the thighs of the freshly-killed Sarah Connors, inspecting their corpses. This only served to make the cyborg seem even more weird and dangerous. It isn’t until late in the novel that Kyle reveals that the Sarah Connor of his future has a metal pin in her leg, and the Terminator is checking the corpses for ID verification. But what the cyborg doesn’t know is that Sarah doesn’t have the pin yet – and, of course, she gets it in the very end of the novel, when the Terminator finally explodes and a shard of its exoskeleton impales her leg. Another thing with the novel is that the authors do try to explain a lot of what happens, and why, but they still have to ignore obvious questions…like how The Terminator could know Sarah Connor lives here in LA in 1984 but not that she doesn’t have the metal pin in her leg yet. (The explanation is that “records were lost during the war.”) 

The Terminator is also explored a bit more here in the novel; the authors refer to him as “Terminator” in his sections, ie no “The.” Actually they also refer to him as “he,” but then once his underlying exoskeleton is revealed he suddenly becomes “it” in the narrative. We get a better look into his programming parameters and how much power he has – we learn at reduced power he could last for a few decades – and the authors do a good job of making him seem more realistic. But as I say they miss the dark humor Schwarzenegger brought to the role. Also I had to laugh because as the movies progressed, Schwarzenegger’s poor T-800, which appears in this novel as a perfect machine of destruction, was outclassed by ensuing upgraded Terminator models (T-1000, T-X, etc). You have to wonder why Skynet didn’t just send one of those upgraded models to 1984 instead of the T-800. 

Now as for the action, while all the big scenes are here, and go down identically to how they do in the film, the violence has been almost totally removed.  This I understand is another big difference from the Hutson novelization, which appears to be more gory (always a good thing around here!).  People get shot in the Frakes-Wisher and fall down, and that is it.  There is none of the violence of the film; even the big attack on the police station is fairly bloodless.  Reading this novelization, one would get the impression that The Terminator was rated PG.  Same goes for the Sarah-Reese conjugation, which occurs mostly off-page, and what juicy details we do get are clouded in metaphors and whatnot.

Actually now that I think of it, the vibe of the Frakes-Wisher novelization is closer to the gravitas of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and fittingly Frakes penned the novelization of that one as well (which Robert also sent me a copy of). What I mean is, when you watch the original Terminator, it’s like an edgy John Carpenter sort of thing, kind of low-budget looking but with its own weird punkish drive. All the sequels went for bigger action, better special effects, and etc, but the edgy core was lost – and the edgy core is lost in this novelization, too. It just doesn’t have the neurotic drive of the film, and comes off as too literary. And at 240 pages of smallish print, it’s also too long; again, it has more the nature of a bloated epic. 

But, the Frakes-Wisher Terminator novelization did entertain me, and achieved the goal of a tie-in by making me want to watch the actual movie (again). It also made me want to read Frakes’s T2 novelziation, and it inspired me to finally look into S.M. Stirling’s early 2000s T2 trilogy, the “serious” vibe of which seems to be directly inspired by the work of Frakes and Wisher.

Monday, September 5, 2022

The Illusionist #2: All Of Our Aircraft Are Missing!

The Illusionist #2: All Of Our Aircraft Are Missing!, by John P. Radford
No month stated, 1974  Canyon Books

It’s been seven years since I read the first volume of The Illusionist, and it’s taken me this long to recover from it. As we’ll recall, The Illusionist pretends to be a light-hearted caper series, but in reality it’s nothing but gutbucket sleaze. The sleaze isn’t even the problem; it’s that the sex is thoroughly unpleasant, with author John P. Radford clearly trying to gross out his readers. 

I still don’t know if Radford was a real person or some ghostwriter using a house name. The novel is copyright Canyon Books. The writer certainly appears to be the guy who wrote the first book, and also I have to wonder if he was involved with the Space Race. Series hero Joe Maguire worked on the Apollo Program as an engineer, and Radford peppers the novel with a lot of aeronautical engineering details. What I mean to say is, he seems to know a lot about the subject, and also the setup for the series is that Maguire is out for blood ever since “The Great White Father” (ie Nixon) dropped NASA’s budget, leaving guys like Joe (as Radford refers to him in the narrative) unemployed. This is such an unusual setup that I wonder if Radford himself experienced Joe Maguire’s backstory. 

Radford also gives this installment an aeronautical setup. Joe, in France after making “heavy bread” in the first book’s caper, becomes interested in the nascent Concorde program, and soon devises a way to con his way into more money. The previous book had a setup where Joe and his two henchmen pretended to kidnap some kid, or some such shit, even though the kid was never in danger. So is the case here, with Joe coming up with the idea to make it seem like a bunch of Concorde jets have been hijacked – though it will just be trickery. 

This then is what makes Joe “The Illusionist.” In perhaps the only interesting part of the novel, we learn that Joe was a teen in the Depression and listened to a lot of radio shows and read a lot of pulp. He sees himself as the modern incarnation of his favorite character, The Shadow. He doesn’t go for a disguise or even use any weapons; instead, Joe concocts schemes and then acts as a guy who is merely carrying out a job for a mysterious mastermind. His two helpers, Bob Sidak and George Ross, are unaware that Joe is really the plotter of the cons they work on; Joe just calls them up and says he has a new gig he’s working on for a mysterious employer, and once again Bob and George help out. 

All this though is just window dressing. All Of Our Aircraft Are Missing, like its predecessor, is devoted to the sleaze. Endless pages of hardcore tomfoolery, and let’s not forget Joe is in his mid-40s and looks like Woody Allen. But he’s got a big dick, folks! We can’t forget that. But yes, he’s an ex-NASA engineer who looks like Sol Rosenberg or whatever and he picks up chicks left and right. He spends most of the novel banging June, an American girl here in Paris for stewardess school – specifically, a Concorde stew. June is also casually banging Pierre, an engineer on the Concorde program, and Radford uses the opportunity to saddle the book with lots and lots of exposition about aeronautical engineering. 

Exposition is in fact the name of the game here, and I swear I’ve never read a book where even the sex-dialog is exposition. I mean check it out: 

So it seems clear that John P. Radford is not taking any of this seriously (note the alliterative phrases), and in fact the sex scenes achieve this same vibe throughout the novel. Now last time Radford also tried – and succeeded – in grossing us out. I re-read my review of The Most Happy Con Man and regretted it, because I’d managed to forget the puke-inducing bit where Joe graphically screwed his “dirty whore” girlfriend…literally dirty, and literally a whore, and who never cleaned up after her johns. We don’t quite get to that disgusting level here, but the sex scenes are still so thoroughly unpleasant as to be nauseating. And Radford does try to make us sick – like when Joe finally gives it to June the one way he hasn’t yet (think “backdoor shenanigans”), and she, uh, lets one rip, and Joe “delights” in the “warm anal air.” 

Yeah, and there’s other stuff too, like when Joe visits yet another dirty whore, this one French, and Joe is so digusted with her poor hygiene and her copious body hair that he serves her up “the crowning insult to a French whore” and, uh, “He shit[s] in her bidet.” There’s also a random two-page anatomical lesson on female private parts, and speaking of bidets, there’s another grossout bit where June sits on a bidet after yet another boff with Joe, and Joe looks in the bidet and sees the spewage that has spilled out of her…well anyway, enough of that. 

Oh what the hell; here’s the random two-page anatomical lesson: 

Other than that, the book lacks thrills or excitement. We get lots of page-filling dialog in between the page-filling sex; later in the book it turns into a travelogue across France, with yet more screwing as Joe and June still avidly go at it while seeing the sights. What’s funny is that the novel practically reeks of a condescending attitude; nothing is good enough for Joe Maguire, and one can’t help but see it as a reflection of the author’s personality. And also it’s clear again that the author hates his readers, hates anyone who would even want to read sleaze like this, so he goes all-out to ridicule them by serving up the most unpleasant filth his perverted mind can conceive. 

As for the con, it takes forever to get underay, same as the previous book. And it’s lame; Joe and his two comrades manage to fool various airlines and airports into believing some Concordes have disappeared, but it’s all some trickery via radar. By novel’s end Joe’s once again into some “heavy bread,” and also June and Pierre get married – which is real weird because June spends almost the entire novel screwing Joe. But whatever, who cares. 

The craziest thing is that there were two more volumes of The Illusionist. I’ve only got the third one – the fourth one appears to be impossible to find – and I’m in absolutely no hurry to read it. It’s gonna take me another seven years to get over this one.

Thursday, September 1, 2022


Robocop, by Ed Naha
July, 1987  Dell Books

I did not see Robocop in the theater when it came out, even though I was an action movie junkie and saw the majority of the big ones in the theater (despite being well under the 17 years of age required for R-rated movies). I skipped Robocop because I’d heard it was ultra-violent and I was skittish about such things, even though I eagerly read the gore-soaked pages of Phoenix Force. But reading about exploding heads is a lot different than seeing exploding heads. 

My brother, who is seven years older than me, came home on leave from the Air Force around the time Robocop was released on VHS; he rented it, and I tried watching some of it. Literally the first thing I saw was the mutated guy getting hit by the van and exploding. That was pretty much it for me. I’m not sure when I finally sat down and watched Robocop on my own, but I can say that several years ago I got the Blu Ray, which features the uncut version, and man I loved the hell out of it. It was brilliant in how it operated on two levels: as an ultra-gory action flick you could take straight and as an ultra-gory satire of an action flick. But then director Paul Verhoeven pulled the same trick a few years later in Total Recall

Once upon a time I knew a guy who had two minor roles in Robocop. Humorously, the film was shot in Dallas, despite being set in Detroit, and about twenty years ago I worked at a successful startup based in Carrollton, Texas (essentially a Dallas suburb), and there was a Hispanic guy in his 40s or so who worked there named Tomas who had done some extra work years before. He told me he’d been in Robocop, in two non-dialog bit parts: as a cop and as a gang member (he even re-enacted his scene for this part, to my amusement). Tomas didn’t seem like a guy who would make such stuff up…and, sure enough, when I watched my Blu Ray years ago, I spotted a younger Tomas as a cop.  I did not catch him as a gang member, though, so maybe his face is not on screen for this role or it was just a cut scene.  But I just rewatched the movie for the first time since I got the Blu Ray, and Tomas appears at the 52:46 mark, as the moustached cop who steps out of Robocop’s way in the precinct data room.  

Well anyway, so ends my personal connection with Robocop, as paltry a connection as could be. Now let’s talk about this novelization! Another one Robert Mann has kindly sent me, and once again I am very thankful for it. This is not a novelization I would’ve considered seeking out, but man I’m glad I read it, as author Ed Naha – who around this time was also writing Traveler – has done a great job of capturing the darkly comic vibe of the film. He’s also added a lot more humanity to Robocop than there is in the film. The only thing he does not convey is the gory ultra-violence of the film…but honestly an accomplishment like that would take someone like David Alexander in his Phoenix prime. 

The main thing Naha nails in this novelization is the satirical vibe of the film. I’d love to know whether this was accidental or by design. There is evidence here and there that Naha was at least familiar with who would be playing various roles: main villain Clarence Boddicker is described as having a “high forehead,” which would be an accurate description of future That ‘70s Show dad Kurtwood Smith, who played Boddicker – and I bet it would make for some serious head-fuckery to watch a couple episodes of That ‘70s Show right after Robocop. But anyway Naha really seems to understand that Robocop, at its core, is an over-the-top dark parody of action movies, and he clearly has a good time writing the book. 

First thing to note though is that Naha’s novelization is everything the Robocop rip-off series Steele should have been. It also seems evident that Cybernarc was inspired by Naha’s tie-in novel; some of the descriptions of how Robocop acts and thinks are very similar to those of Rod the robot in Cybernarc. We even get minor mentions that Robocop has a “combat mod” setting, same as Rod. So really Naha’s Robocop could be seen as an inspiration for those later series, and probably other similar ones that I haven’t yet read, like Horn

Another notable thing about the novelization is that it veers – if only slightly – from the finished film. The most notable difference is that Robocop, or “Robo” as Naha refers to him in the narrative, has a lot more personality in the novel, with more dialog and more emotional drive. There are also minor variances in some of the action scenes. Also the proto-meme that derived from the film, “I’d buy that for a dollar!,” is not present in this novelization. However, Naha does serve up a lot of pop culture spoofery, with a Benny Hill-esque show often mentioned, and most humorously there’s the TV show T.J. Lazer, a not-so-subtle spoof of T.J. Hooker, complete with a lead actor in “a badly-designed toupee.” Another random bit of piss-taking occurs late in the novel, when we’re informed by a TV broadcast that 97 year-old Sylvester Stallone has died, due to a failed brain transplant. We’re further informed that his last movie, Rambo 38: Old Blood, will be released posthumously. 

If we’re to take Stallone’s stated age literally, that would place Robocop around the year 2043. However the year is never outright stated in the novel. Even though the vibe is very much 1980s, what with the pop culture references and whatnot, we’re informed off-hand that there’s a moon colony and regular space flight. But otherwise this is a solely terrestial story, the entirety of it taking place in the hellish New Detroit. Otherwise this “future” is less tech-savy than our actual future, with people still watching regular televisions and of course no cell phones or internet mentioned. The cops in New Detroit do have dashboard GPS monitors on their “TurboCruisers,” which probably seemed pretty sci-fi in 1987. 

At 187 pages of small-ish print, Naha’s Robocop does a good job of capturing the vibe of the movie and adding a bit more emotional depth. One gets a better glimpse here of the plight of Robo himself, who of course starts life as a cop named Murphy. Naha I felt did a better job than the film of capturing the horror Murphy undergoes when he is killed in action, and then brought back to life by science, his memory erased. Naha has a recurring stylistic trick of “Good. Very good.” which runs through the narrative, conveying Robo’s gradual regaining of his memory. But as mentioned the one thing Naha does not convey is the nutjob violence of the film; while the novel is certainly violent, Naha does not dwell on the gore, usually going more for the emotions of the people shooting at each other than the sprays of arterial blood. 

There is prescience both here and in the movie that New Detroit has fallen into ruin, overcome by crime, and the cops are powerless to stop it. But rather than a “Defund the Police” movement, the cops aren’t around – and eventually go on strike – because they’re just outnumbered by the violent criminals. “Super predators,” as they were referred to at the time, even by left-leaning politicians who were unafraid of being called racist. Thus corporations have stepped in to take control of some police precincts, in particular megacorp OCP, which runs the New Detroit precinct. Cops wear OCP patches on their uniforms and are treated like just another product in the corporation’s portfolio. One wonders if this will become a reality someday, but again a dfference here, same as in Colony, is that these fictional future corporations are devoted solely to profit. 

So only in the “bloodthirsty corporate executive” aspect does Robocop seem dated. Hell, even the ‘80s-esque TV shows in this mid-21st Century setting are believable, given the endless spate of remakes, reboots, and recyclings Hollywood gives us these days. I mean hell, even Robocop itself has already been remade, though I never saw it – and don’t know anyone who did. And I don’t know what the point would be, as surely the Hollywood of today couldn’t give us something as skewed as Verhoeven’s original. But as for the future setting, Naha doesn’t beat us over the head with it, and in fact doesn’t go for much set-up or world-building. It’s the future, crime is rampant, and the cops are owned by a corporation, and that’s pretty much it. 

Also, cops are still seen as the good guys in this future; there’s absolutely none of the stigma of today, and further the cops aren’t hamstrung by politicians. If anything the impression Naha gives is that it’s that the criminals are just too populous and too heavily-equipped, and the cops aren’t a match for them. He presents New Detroit as a bombed-out hellhole, one that you’d have to be insane to be a cop in. But when we meet him Officer Murphy has just been assigned to the precinct, and Naha puts more focus on Murphy’s home life than the film did. To the extent that you really feel bad for Murphy and his loss. In fact, we learn that Murphy and his wife, Jan, are fighting on his first day at work – which as we know will be his last day at work. As Murphy, at least. 

The plot of Naha’s Robocop so follows the film that I’ll save you all the misery of my usual rundown. It only diverges in the little details, and, mainly, the fact that Robo has more personality here. But the elements of the film are all here, like Murphy being partnered with a tough female cop named Anne Lewis, though it’s the ‘80s now and Naha refers to her as “Lewis” in the narrative. In other words she isn’t “Anne,” as she would’ve been if the book had been written a decade or so earlier. But all this stuff is basically the same as the film, including the brutal murder of Murphy by Boddicker’s men – brutal, but not as brutal as the film itself, particularly the uncut version. But then, Murphy does get his hand shotgunned off in the book, too. 

Some of the action scenes are different, in particular an early one in which Robo stops a convenience store robbery. Robo also has occasional one-liners, like when a perp shoots at him and Robo responds, “Now it’s my turn!” Again, he’s more of a standard tough cop action hero than the robot of the film. Other minor but notable changes: Boddicker’s awesome line “Bitches leave” is instead here, “Okay, sluts. Take a hike.” Not nearly as impactful, I’d say. Also, there’s a different ending. Whereas the movie ends with Robo proudly announcing his name is “Murphy!,” the novel continues after this scene with an epilogue in which Robo picks up a stray dog, to be his new companion, and gets back in his TurboCruiser to kick ass. 

Naha’s writing in Robocop is strong and he moves the story along with good imagery. However he is a terrible POV-hopper. We’ll be in one character’s perspective, then a paragraph later we’re in someone else’s, and then someone else’s after that, and there’s nary a line break to warn us. As ever this makes for a bumpy read. Naha wrote for Creem, I believe, and his snarky rock attitude is in effect throughout; for example, we learn some recurring cop characters in the New Detroit precinct are named “Manson” “Ramirez,” and “Starkweather,” ie the last names of some of the more infamous serial killers. Wait, I just checked Google and these characters are in the film, too, so it wasn’t Naha’s doing. But I’m sure a guy who could come up with a spoof of T.J. Hooker would’ve appreciated that. 

Overall I really enjoyed Robocop, to the extent that I intend to watch the movie again sometime. I’m also inspired to check out Naha’s novelization of Robocop 2, which Robert also sent me. I’ve seen that movie exactly once: when it came out in the theater and I was 15 years old. I can’t recall if I liked it…I remember being annoyed with the punk kid in it. But at least I saw it in the theater, even though I was still underage; I recall my dad bought tickets for me and my friend. I also saw Predator 2 with the same kid a few months later, and that one I loved; in fact I’m sure I’m one of the very few who prefers Predator 2 to the first Predator. And I’m not ashamed to admit it.