Monday, October 24, 2022

The Penetrator #41: Hell’s Hostages

The Penetrator #41: Hells Hostages, by Lionel Derrick
March, 1981  Pinnacle Books

The only notable thing about this volume of The Penetrator is that it seems to be an installment of an entirely different series. In fact it’s almost as if Mark Roberts has used Hell’s Hostages as a trial run for his later series The Liberty Corps. Like the books in that series, this volume of The Penetrator is more a piece of military fiction, with Mark Hardin acting in the role of a field commander instead of a lone wolf crime-buster. 

There are some other changes to the series. For one, we have a slightly revamped cover design, which would last until the series end a few years later. Cover art is credited to George Wilson. The customary “Prologue” which has appeared in the previous volumes, detailing the origins of Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin, is gone. In fact, there are none of the typical Penetrator trappings this time: no opening in the Stronghold, no appearances of Professor Haskins or David Red Eagle. When we meet Mark he’s already on the field in Persis, an “independent sheikhdom” in the Middle East, commanding an assault squad. 

Roberts does tie back to previous volumes with some of the men in Mark’s outfit being returning characters: there’s Jim Jaffe, a “black mercenary” who appeared in #33: Satellite Slaughter, and also Uchi Takayama, who helped Mark fight Preacher Mann in #38: Hawaiian Trackdown. Curiously, that installment was by Chet Cunningham, meaning that Roberts was at least familiar with the books written by the other “Lionel Derrick.” These guys are all part of a larger force put together by a ‘Nam Special Forces badass named Toro Baldwin; in a flashback we learn that Toro (a nickname he got in the war, naturally) recently called together various men who served under him in ‘Nam to see if they’d be willing to take part in a mercenary operation and free some captured Americans in Persis. 

Very clearly rankled over the contemporary Iranian hostage crisis, Mark Roberts condems US foreign policy in the opening section, as expected raking the “weak-hearted liberals” over the coals. Toro gives evidence of how the only way to deal with hostage-takers, either foreign or domestic, is to go in with guns blazing. This he intends to do for the latest batch of Americans taken on Middle Eastern soil, employees of a corporation Baldwin now handles security for. Mark, we’re informed, was never in Special Forces, but did handle a job or two on the side for Toro in ‘Nam, hence Mark too has been summoned – Toro’s meeting with his potential soldiers rendered in a flashback sequence which occurs after the opening action scene. 

I forgot to mention! Roberts dedicates Hell’s Hostages to none other than Joseph Rosenberger

So in addition to William Crawford, that’s another Pinnacle writer we now know Mark Roberts was friends with. And also I love that “patriot” description of Rosenberger (“extremist” in modern parlance, btw), because from the get-go I realized that not only was Hell’s Hostages dedicated to Rosenberger, but it was also written like Rosenberger. In short, this could just as easily be an installment of Death Merchant, with Camellion on foreign soil and in charge of the latest group of redshirts. There’s even a “pig farmer” presence (though Roberts doesn’t use that phrase), with the Soviets funding the Islamic radicals who have taken the Americans hostage. The only difference is that Mark bangs the Soviet babe in charge. Otherwise even the action scenes are the same, with Mark even busting out martial arts moves while blasting away with a machine gun in total Richard Camellion fashion: 

The only problem is, it’s not The Penetrator, and it’s even more indication of how bored Roberts was with the series at this point. Nothing that gave this series its quirks is present in Hell’s Hostages. Mark’s entire point for being here is also brushed over….Toro Baldwin intimates that he suspects Mark might be the Penetrator, and also that Mark being on his force was a suggestion made by none other than Dan Griggs (ie the Fed that’s supposed to be tracking down the Penetrator but instead secretly assists him). But as we all know, the Penetrator generally operates in the US, yet here he is in the Middle East commanding various fire teams in attacks on enemy compounds. And the helluva it is, it’s boring – there’s none of the immediacy of typical men’s adventure action, going for that same pseudo-“military fiction” vibe of The Liberty Corps

Things are only salvaged by the presence of two women: Rosalyn Kramer, a “blonde, sloe-eyed beauty” who acts as Mark’s CIA contact in Persis, and Major Katrina Something-Or-Other (I was too lazy to write down her long Russian name), a hotstuff but “masculine” KGB babe in charge of the Persis guerrillas. Roberts gets kinda creepy-crawly pervy for the latter, serving up an arbitrary and explicit flashback detailing Katrina’s rape…at age 11. But on the more fun side of sleaze, Mark and Rosalyn get it on posthaste, in the first explicit sex scene in a Penetrator novel in forever: 

Like The Liberty Corps, a lot of the narrative is comprised of padding. Mark gets his own personal team together, part of the larger group Toro Baldwin runs, and trains them. There are periodic action scenes but for the most part Hell’s Hostages is a slow churn. Even more like that later series, there are even periodic cutovers to the various characters under Mark’s command, like this is suddenly a “team” series and not the lone wolf setup we’ve become accustomed to over the past 40 volumes. As I say, it’s as if we’re reading another series entirely. Things only pick up, again, when the female characters are concerned, as Mark is blindsided by a goofy reveal and soon finds himself a captive. This serves up a fun part where Major Katrina shows off Mark and the other captives for the world media – the US reporters of course left-wingers who clearly seem to be on Katrina’s side! 

But the finale just continues with that war fiction angle, with Mark and soldiers freeing the hostages at novel’s end – I mean literally, the entire 180 pages is just buildup to this one event. The only promising thing is that Major Katrina survives the tale and vows revenge on Mark. With only several volumes left in the series, we’ll see if she gets her chance. But anyway, Hell’s Hostages wasn’t very good, and one of my least favorite installments yet.

Thursday, October 20, 2022


Midnight, by Dean Koontz
November, 1989  Berkley Books

Dean Koontz was one of those ubiquitous horror authors in the ‘80s; I’d see his name everywhere, but I never read any of his books. Of course at the time his image was that he was a second-rate Stephen King, or some other dismissive impression, and I didn’t know any kids in school who read his books. Of course, they lapped up VC Andrews and stuff like that, but that’s another story. All I mean to say is, you’d always see Stephen King books in my middle school and high school in the mid-‘80s to early ‘90s, but you’d never see a Dean Koontz book. In fact the only place I ever saw one was my mom’s copy of Twilight Eyes, which I never read. 

But, as has been documented in recent reviews, I’ve been on a random horror kick lately…and I was looking for a “creature feature” read…and I stumbled upon this Koontz novel, which seems to be the epitome of a creature feature. Indeed the contemporary Kirkus states this bluntly. So I decided to make Midnight my next horror read, even though it was pretty long – which seems to be typical of horror novels in general – coming in at an unwieldy 470 pages of small, dense print in this Berkley paperback edition. Long story short, Midnight served up the creature-featuring I wanted, with the caveat that the abundant description and character introspection ultimately ruined the impact, turning the novel into a chore of a read. Also, most curiously of all, the abundant description did not extend to the creatures. Lots of description of the fog and the mist and the forest, sure, but when it came to the werewolves, monsters, and even cyborgs who populated the tale, for the most part – at least for the first 300 or so pages – Koontz would only provide slight description of them. This I guess is akin to a monster movie where the monster stays in the shadows for the majority of the film. 

First off, this is the horror novel Burt Hirschfeld never wrote. Koontz’s prose style, with the heavy atmospherics and introspection, is uncannily reminiscent of Hirschfeld’s, at least in this novel. But then it occurred to me that Koontz was the guy who, the decade before, published Writing Popular Fiction, a book which gave specific directions on how to write like Burt Hirschfeld. However I mean this solely in the way the narrative unfolds, not in the content; unlike a genuine Hirschfeld novel, Midnight is not overly concerned with the sex lives of its characters. In fact the novel is relatively anemic in the sexual arena. What a bummer, man! But in the constant probing of its characters’ thoughts and emotions it is very reminiscent of something by Burt Hirschfeld. 

But whereas this constant probing of emotions works in a Hirschfeld novel, where the emotions of the characters compel them in their sexual urges and whatnot, it unfortunately becomes a drag in a horror novel. I mean when you have werewolves, cyborgs, and a creature that’s literally stated as looking like the titular monster from Alien, the last thing you want is to incessantly be informed about how people feel, or what they think, or what incident in the past caused them to think and feel the way they do now, and etc. I mean the plot Koontz delivers requires a fat-free delivery to really work. Instead it becomes a ponderous bloat with way too much extranneous detail and stalling. The monsters are lost amid the rampant navel-gazing. 

That said, the writing is very good…it’s just too much of a good thing. I did enjoy the atmospheric word-painting, with Koontz very much bringing to life the coastal Californian town in which Midnight occurs. I also dug the glimpse into the inner views of the cast of characters. But around page 150 I felt like I’d hit a brick wall. Even crazier was that Koontz wouldn’t let up on it; I mean the novel is split into three parts, the entire thing taking place over a day or two, and part one gradually (very gradually) builds up the creature feature you’ve been wanting. Then part two takes three steps back with immediate and obtrusive flashbacks for the main characters – even an egregious dream sequence that goes on for several pages. I could only imagine what a more streamlined author could’ve done with the plot setup. 

For make no mistake, Midnight is straight-up pulp horror in its conceit: it’s literally about a mad scientist who conducts Island Of Dr. Moreau style experiments on the populace of a small town. But Koontz clouds the pulp fun with way too much introspection and discussion, explaining everything away to the point that it’s not nearly as fun as it should be. I mean even late in the game, when the few heroes have finally found one another, the sole humans in this monster-plagued town, and decide to do something about it…even here we get long-winded discussions on the “nature of man” and how “not all scientists” are like the crazy bastard here in town who has patterned himself after Dr. Moreau. I mean who gives a shit? Go kill a friggin’ werewolf or something! 

But man those first hundred pages or so I was really into Midnight. Koontz sets the scene with an evocative opening in which a young woman goes running at night through Moonlight Cove, a closeknit community on the coast of California. Soon she is chased by creatures, and here Koontz’s “keep them off the page” motif actually works, because they’re just shadows with luminescent eyes. The poor young woman soon meets her fate, which starts the story proper. Hers is not the first murder in town; Sam Booker, the character who comes closest to being the main protagonist, arrives in Moonlight Cove shortly thereafter to figure out what’s going on. Sam is an FBI agent, and the Bureau has taken stock of the untoward amount of “random deaths” in the small town. 

Another new person in town is Tessa Lockland, “cute” blonde thirty-something documentary filmmaker who happens to have been the sister of the young woman killed in the opening scene. She too will soon learn that there are monsters about. Also there’s Chrissie Foster, an 11 year-old who has experienced first-hand the weirdness that has taken over Moonlight Cove, given that her parents have turned into monsters(!). Along with a disabled ‘Nam vet named Harry Talbot (and his service assistant dog Moose), these four people will be Moonlight Cove’s only hope. 

Meanwhile there’s the villain of the piece: Thomas Shaddack, a Bill Gates type who is mega-wealthy due to his work in the tech field and lives in a mansion in an exclusive area of town. I thought this book was right up my alley when Shaddack was introduced in what could’ve been a scene out of Altered States, floating in a sensory deprivation tank and literally getting off on the thoughts of his own grandeur. But Shaddack too is undone by the dense onslaught of introspection and narratorial padding; he starts the novel like a pure villain but ends it as a whimpering narcissist. On the villain side there’s also Loman Watkins, police chief of Moonlight Cove and one of the prime movers of the “accidental death” lies which have brought Sam Booker to town. 

Long story short, Shaddack has devised methodology for advancing the human body, turning them into “New People” via injections which shoot various technology into the system, making people undergo “The Change” before they are reborn as supermen and superwomen with all kinds of augmentations. But one doesn’t get much choice when it comes to “the jab.” First Shaddack forced the change on Loman and the rest of the cops, then injections were given to the public in random groupings. The title of the novel has to do with Sam’s discovery that Shaddack plans to have injected the entirety of Moonlight Cove by “midnight” of the night after Sam’s arrived in town. Personally I felt the title was not suitable for the novel; “Midnight” implies almost a Gothic sort of vibe and doesn’t convey the glut of monsters one will encounter in the book. 

It takes quite a while for Sam, Tessa, and Chrissie to learn all this, though. The first hundred-some pages concern the three of them trying to make their way across a strange and dangerous Moonlight Cove. The stuff with Chrissie definitely has a Stephen King vibe to it, first with her parents – who are apparently werewolves – chasing her out of her house, and the plucky little girl making her laborious way through the woods, hiding underground, hitching rides, and etc as she tries to get to safety. One might say Chrissie is a bit too plucky for an 11 year-old, though Koontz has it that she’s an avid reader (one who dreams of being a writer one day), but I was an avid 11 year-old reader (not too many years before this book was published, in fact), and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to handle myself as well as Chrissie does. 

Koontz really goes for a slow burn in this opening part, with Sam and Tessa slowly realizing something very disturbing is amiss. But the suspense angle is blown for us readers due to the sequences that focus on Thomas Shaddack and Loman Watkins, as we immediately know what’s going on in town. Thus there’s a feeling of “figure it out already!” when we get back to Sam and Tessa trying to deduce why everyone’s acting so weird. Oh and also there’s Harry Talbot, confined to a wheelchair, who snoops Rear Window style on the community with a telescope; he too knows something is going on, and in fact it was his letter which brought the FBI onto the scene. I have to say, though, I had a hard time understanding how a crippled ‘Nam vet was able to afford a three-story structure on a hill that provided a view of the entire town. 

Only gradually do the monsters come out of the shadows. For the most part they’re werewolves, and we do get a nice horror sequence where Loman and his fellow cops take on a local who has “regressed” to werewolf state and can’t turn back into a human. Here too though we get that onslaught of explanation; even though this werewolf is snarling at them and ready to pounce, we have a lot of dithering on what caused him to turn into a werewolf in the first place. Here too we learn that Koontz is basically taking monsters from contemporary films and putting them in the novel; the werewolf’s hand reminds one character specifically of the werewolf in The Howling, and soon after Chrissie encounters a character who mutates into a monster specifically compared to the titular Alien

But man, the forward momentum is just constantly lost. Like that part with the werewolf. After Loman handles things, Shaddack shows up to appraise the situation…and he and Loman get in a practically endless conversation about the nature of “the change,” just right overtop the werewolf’s corpse, and it’s just…dumb. And like I said, Part 1 builds up momentum, taking place over the span of a few hours, and when Part 2 opens the next morning Koontz gets back into the introspective stuff instead of continuing on with the momentum he painstakingly built up. Even here, with all the heroes congregating in Harry’s house, we don’t get to any action…Koontz clearly had a movie in mind, as he has all this “movie moment” stuff in here, like Chrissie singing pop songs the morning after she was nearly killed by monsters as she prepares a hearty breakfast. It just comes off as contrived, like “I could see Goldie Hawn playing this part!” And made even worse because Goldie Hawn is constantly referenced in the book itself. 

At least we get more real monster stuff here, but it’s repetitive. We have back-to-back sequences in which two different characters meet two different cyborgs, both of whom (both of which?) are literally connected to their computers. But on that point Koontz is really ahead of the curve; he writes about computers and technology way beyond what I expected from a late ‘80s novel. The only thing that sets Midnight in its era is that Moonlight Cove has been shut off from the rest of the world by Shaddack’s closing down of the phone lines. This entire subplot would be undone in our modern cell phone era. Oh I forgot to mention Koontz also throws The Blob into the mix, with a weirdo bit where three of the monster-people regress even further, into a protoplasmic ooze which hungers, of course, for human flesh. 

That said, the book seems like it wants to end somewhere in the 300s, but it continues on for another 100-plus pages. Like for example one character vows to personally kill Shaddack…and this subplot just churns. Meanwhile Shaddack becomes increasingly dumb an ineffectual to suit the demands of the plot; there’s a ridiculous part where he says he doesn’t know who “Dr. Moreau” is. It just goes on and on, losing the power and mystique it had in the opening section, to the point that it’s a relief when things finally wrap up. There’s also a Maguffin about Shaddack’s heart being tapped into all those who underwent the change, or somesuch, a dead man’s switch sort of thing that would kill everyone in town if Shaddack himself were to be killed. But again, as buffoonish as this guy acts in the finale you wonder how he ever even thought of any of this stuff. 

Special note must be made of the end, though. It’s so reactionary it’s hilarious. So Sam has a teenaged son who listens to “heavy metal rock” and he and Sam don’t get along much. Sam worries about the kid, hinging all his concerns on that damn heavy metal. Meanwhile, we learn in one of those incessant flashback/introspection deals that Sam’s wife – ie the kid’s mom – died of cancer a few years ago. Gee, do you think the kid might just be dealing with his mother’s death in his own way? Regardless, Midnight ends with Sam stomping on his son’s heavy metal CDs and then forcing him into a bear hug. I mean even the producers of the ABC After School Special would’ve thought that was too much. But then maybe Koontz had his tongue in his cheek. 

Otherwise, I found Midnight too bloated to recommend. But Koontz was/is incredibly prolific, so I don’t think it would be fair to judge the guy on just this one book. And hell, others might enjoy it more than I did. I just wanted more creatures and less atmospheric word painting about the fog, mist, and buried emotions.

Monday, October 17, 2022

The Protector #3: Hit Parade

The Protector #3: Hit Parade, by Rich Rainey
December, 1983  Pinnacle Books

It’s the ICE squad versus the Commies in this third volume of The Protector, Rich Rainey turning in what is basically a Cold War thriller with only a few action scenes. The best part about Hit Parade is its wholly unexpected detour into rock novel territory, as one of the Commies poses as the member of a popular music group. Otherwise the novel wasn’t my cup of tea, and seemed overlong and sluggish at 200+ pages. 

One new thing this time is that cipher-like series protagonist, Alex Dartanian, gets lucky; curiously he didn’t in the previous volume, even though he spent the narrative hanging out with a porn queen. Rainey is not one to exploit violence or sex, though, meaning that Dartanian’s bedroom shenanigans occur off-page. Same too goes for the musician-slash-KGB-assassin mentioned above, Mikhail Dragovia, who at one point in the novel satiates himself with a pair of young groupies. Speaking of which, Dragovia’s fame in the rock world is what I’m assuming inspired the title of the book, a play on the then-popular music magazine Hit Parader

Well anyway, the story is pretty simple. A KGB official in Vienna named Esenkov is in danger of losing his position and, to curry favor with Moscow, decides to wipe out all the CIA agents and undercover agents in the city. To this end he employs top assassin Mikhail Dragovia, who plays “synthesizer strings” for famous “electronic/classical quartet” Exechequer. Known as “The Monk,” Dragovia is a sadist who enjoys wiping out the agents – cue several scenes in the novel in which one-off characters are killed off by the Monk and his hit teams. 

Meanwhile Dartanian, when we meet him, is taking a page from a concurrent (but vastly superior) Pinnacle offering: The Hitman. Posing as a drunk in New York, Dartanian has been trailing a guy who managed to beat the rap on a few murders. Our hero dispenses his own personal law and order via his customary Skorpion submachine gun, shooting the guy down in cold blood. This will prove to be Dartanian’s most memorable moment in the novel. Otherwise there’s nothing that really sticks about him and he’s one of the more forgettable men’s adventure protagonists. 

That said, we’re informed that Dartanian quit the CIA and started up ICE because he intended it to have the “heart and soul” that the Agency itself didn’t. Uh, okay. Last time I theorized that Rich Rainey might’ve been another pseudonym of David Alexander, and I still detect at least a little Alexander-esque vibe in Hit Parade. I mean the title alone might be a giveaway; wasn’t “hit parader” one of the descriptive phrases Alexander would use for random gun-toting thugs in Phoenix? Not only that, but the plot of Hit Parade is similar to the second installment of Alexander’s later Nomad series (which I started reading months ago but never finished for some reason), with random CIA agents being gunned down. 

Dartanian takes the job from a former CIA colleague who is desperate to stave off the assassinations in Prague. He puts the army of ICE on the job, but as ever it comes down to Dartanian’s two erstwhile sidekicks: Sin Simara (the Asian one) and Mick Porter (the muscular one). This time we also meet the Smurfette of the group, Val Wagner, “the sole female ICE operative.” Dartanian and Val are a former item, but romance hasn’t fully bloomed ‘cause they could each get killed at any moment, yadda yadda. Regardless, Dartanian puts the moves on her when he arrives in Vienna, but the extent of the sex scene is a lame, “The naked clash of their fine-tuned bodies was long and gentle.” 

So yeah, this probably isn’t David Alexander under a pseudonym. Even the violence is minimal, with simple declarative sentences like, “He shot him in the head,” with no ensuing description of the fountaining gore. But then, Alexander showed the same restraint in Nomad, so who knows. I haven’t spent much time researching Rainey, and just know his name was attributed to the last two volumes of The Warlord, which he wrote as “Jason Frost.” 

The novel soon becomes repetitive, with Dragovia and his squads wiping out one-off CIA agents, and then Dartanian and team sending out retaliatory hit squads. More focus is placed on the Cold War thriller angle, with lots of dithering among various agents and information peddlers as Dartanian tries to figure out who is behind the sudden attack on the CIA in Vienna. Meanwhile we readers know who it is, and also that Dragovia the Monk is the key assassin. Midway through the novel things really pick up when Rainey focuses on Dragovia’s day job in Exechequer, and we learn the group is like an ‘80s take on the prog pomposity of Emerson, Lake and Palmer: 

Stuff like this isn’t enough to bring the novel out of its lethargy, though. The action scenes just fail to be spectacular, mostly because they lack much momentum: 

The suspense angle continues to take precedence even into the homestretch, with plotting between Dragovia and KGB boss Esenkov, mostly centered around Esenkov’s mistress, whom Dragovia wants for himself. In fact this plotting takes away the promise of a big action finale, with the Monk’s comeuppance dealt with in what I considered an altogether anticlimactic fashion. 

Who knows if ensuing volumes picked up the pace, as The Porn Tapes and Hit Parade are currently the only two volumes of The Protector that I have.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Sabat #3: Cannibal Cult

Sabat #3: Cannibal Cult
November, 1982  New English Library

This third volume of Sabat is easily my least favorite yet; Guy N. Smith seems determined to make us hate his (anti)hero Mark Sabat – but then, is it Mark Sabat for the majority of Cannibal Cult? As we’ll recall the schtick of this series is that Sabat, an ex-SAS commando turned roving occult-themed action hero, is half-possessed by the soul of his evil brother Quentin, and Quentin is always trying to completely take over Mark Sabat. This actually seems to happen in the third volume, meaning the “Sabat” who features in the narrative isn’t Mark but Quentin. 

Or is it? Smith plays some trickery by, as usual, referring to Sabat as “Sabat” in the narrative…but occasionally will even have Sabat himself wonder who he is, Mark or Quentin. It’s kind of annoying, and another indication of how Smith really wants to play up the “anti” in antihero. Because Mark Sabat himself is a creep, so it isn’t like he’s a white hat hero. Actually he’s a creep on the level of Justin Perry, with that same obsessiveness over sex and violence, particularly the mixing of the two. Forever Sabat is suffering from an “erection” at the worst of times, like even when sitting on a stakeout to kill someone who is stalking his latest female acquaintance. The dude is constantly thinking of the women he’s screwed, or just has sex in general in mind – especially sado-sex – or about the women he's screwed who have died. I mean this dude and Justin Perry could have a beer together. 

Another schtick of the series is not showing Sabat in the best light. I tag Sabat as men’s adventure, and Brad Mengel includes the series in Serial Vigilantes, but really it isn’t men’s adventure, because Sabat displays none of the qualities one would expect of a hero in this genre. He only acts when pushed, and even then it’s never in much of a heroic light. He carries around a .38 revolver (which of course just screams “ex-SAS commando”) but he seldom uses it, and the narrative is filled with asides where Sabat pep-talks himself into springing into action. Humorously, he often reminds himself of how he’s “killed before,” so I mean this guy isn’t the most action-prone of heroes. He’s even less action-prone in Cannibal Cult, getting in one fight in the middle of the book and then walking around the astral plane for the big climax. 

But back to Sabat not being shown in a good light; Sabat is introduced, in what is another schtick of the series, while masturbating in his bed. I mean seriously, this dude has jerked off in every volume. And of course he’s thinking about past lays, particularly with women who are now dead…oh, and er, there was that time when he was young and another guy took advantage of him, but let’s just pass that bit by. Oh and I forgot the real opening is about how Louis Nevillon, the “Beast of France,” has been guillotined in France, a serial killer with cannibalistic proclivities. Well anyway, Sabat’s worried that this guy might not really be dead, so of course Sabat starts jacking off…then he feels dark forces assail him…then he passes out…and he wakes up several days later in the hospital, having collapsed from a sudden and magically-transmitted bout of the flu. Does this dude know how to play with himself or what?! 

I show the original NEL covers in my reviews, but I’m actually reading the Sabat novels in the Dead Meat anthology, published in the US by Creation Books in 1996. This trade paperback is littered with so many typos, misprints, and errors that even a Leisure or Belmont-Tower copyeditor in the ‘70s would’ve been embarrassed. Cannibal Cult suffers from the worst yet, with a chunk of the story missing – not sure how much, but Sabat insists he leave the hospital, starts walking in France or something, and next thing we know he’s talking to a young lady named Madeleine who claims to recognize Sabat from the stories about him in the paper. How much of the novel is missing here I don’t know, but Madeleine’s intro is certainly missing. It’s like a missing frame in a film. 

One thing Dead Meat does have going for it is it includes two Sabat short stories by Guy N. Smith; one of them, titled “Vampire Village,” is referenced here in Cannibal Cult (and the story is placed before this volume in the anthology). Not sure if the story is also mentioned in the original NEL edition, but here in my book Madeleine has read about Sabat fighting a “village of vampires” in France and now she wants Sabat to help her, she being a super-hot beauty with “small breasts” who is “fresh out of a convent.” 

Of course this doesn’t prevent Madeleine from throwing herself at Sabat in the hotel; she makes a big deal out of his being circumcised, but surely that couldn’t have been such a big deal in Europe in the early 1980s. But hell who knows. The important thing is that, once again, Guy N. Smith delivers a sex scene that focuses more on Sabat than it does the girl, again (perhaps intentionally) lending the series a homoerotic tenor, what with the frequent jack-offery and the dwelling on death which leads to “erections.” Pretty much like Justin Perry: The Assassin. I mean Sabat and Justin Perry were pretty much made for each other. Anyway, again the sex scene isn’t too explicit, with stuff like, “suddenly [Sabat] was exploding violently.” Damn, sounds like he might end up in the hospital again! 

Here's where Sabat makes his sole kill; Madeleine claims that a bad man is following her, and Sabat sits out in the cold night waiting for this dude. Thinking about his recent tussles with Madeleine and getting “erections,” of course. Then when the stalker shows up in the shadowy forest, Sabat strikes and kills the guy…only thinking later that he might’ve been hoodwinked. Then Madeleine takes him to a place in the French countryside that’s filled, to Sabat’s dismay, with “hippies.” 

Only, as Sabat will soon learns – these aren’t just hippies, they’re hippie cannibals, man. Smith really piles on the lurid bullshit here with the cult basically insisting that Sabat join the fold…by serving him a special “meat” his first night here, and Sabat trying his damnest to place the unusual flavor of it. Of course, it turns out to be the flesh of a child, recently killed in a car crash, and now that Sabat has eaten human flesh he is “one” of the cult…and will do absolutely nothing but serve them for the remainder of the novel. For the cannibal stuff has unleashed Quentin, or something, and now “Sabat” is really Quentin Sabat. 

But like I mentioned this isn’t a men’s adventure series, not really. For yet another child is soon cooked up and eaten by the cult, this one a “mongol” who is abucted in the countryside. Sabat, seeing the frightened boy, consoles himself that “nothing can be done” to help, given that the kid is mentally retarded and doesn’t even realize the danger he’s in…indeed, killing him off and eating him will be “for the best!” That’s our hero, folks! But this time not only does Sabat again have to eat the cooked flesh, he’s also given the honors of slicing up the victim and serving the cult! 

But Smith isn’t done debasing his protagonist. Madeleine, who is revealed to be the consort of the Beast of France, now relishes Sabat’s lust, forcing him to “dine at the Y” until she’s satiated…and only giving herself to him once he’s at the bursting point. It’s all just so weird and unseemly, especially given the clinical “British” pulp style Guy N. Smith employs. Throughout Sabat does nothing heroic, and is sent around France like an errand boy for the cannibal cult, even at one point guarding the corpse of Nevillon, the Beast of France. The cult you see hopes to bring Nevillon back to life – by eating his flesh, so that his spirit will be reborn in all of them. 

Sabat’s so lame, it isn’t even him who stops the cult. First a French cop shows up, one who has been hunting the cult, but Sabat – whom the cult members believe now to be Quentin – has been ordered to kill him. Our hero struggles with whether he should help or harm this French cop, who happens to be an old acquaintance. And then in the finale, Sabat is possessed – for the second friggin’ time in the novel – by the spirit of an ancient “Witchfinder,” one who took down this cannibal cult in ancient times. Smith further amps up the supernatural horror element with Nevillon’s severed head magically rejoining the body, so the Beast of France truly walks the earth again. 

Really though, Cannibal Cult wasn’t much fun. The cannibal stuff was a bit too much, as was Smith’s insistence on making Sabat seem a fool. I mean this guy isn’t good for anything except playing with himself. Fortunately there was only one more volume. Actually I should’ve also read that “Vampire Village” story and reviewed it here, but I was so annoyed with Cannibal Cult that I couldn’t even be bothered with it, even though the story was only about 5 pages long.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Live Large bumper sticker

From the Glorious Trash archives comes this vintage 1988 Gold Eagle bumper sticker, sporting the “Live Large” slogan the publisher used for Mack Bolan. This bumper sticker was included with the February 1988 letter I received from Gold Eagle – the one which led to another letter, from Phoenix Force author Gar Wilson

I thought some of you might appreciate seeing this; I meant to include it with the upload of the letter itself I posted a few years ago. Otherwise there’s no getting around that this is a filler post – things have gotten busy lately so I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to finally put up this photo of the bumper sticker…which is still in pristine condition, having been stored in that envelope for the past 34 years. 

 Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Ebay… Just kidding.

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Brute Force (Jericho Quinn #6)

Brute Force, by Marc Cameron
January, 2016  Pinnacle Books

They were having a book sale at my local library the other month and I took a look at the paperback section. I was surprised to see the Pinnacle logo on the spine of this particular book. I pulled it off the shelf, to of course see that it was the typical too-long “suspense thriller” of today, complete with mandatorily bland Photoshopped cover. But when I got to the back cover it was a different story; I had to check the copyright, given how topical the back cover copy was. I knew without question that I was going to hand over the fifty cents they were asking for the book. 

I am completely out of touch with the modern publishing world and so was unfamiliar with the Jericho Quinn series by Marc Cameron. This is the sixth volume, and I believe there have been a few more since. They are all Pinnacle PBOs, but as mentioned they’re clearly more “upmarket” than Pinnacle PBOs of yore. I mean there are even industry blurbs on the back cover! But really Brute Force, while entertaining, is of a piece with modern suspense thrillers, with that same sort of “PG” mainstream vibe. Interestingly, it’s a lot like a Gold Eagle publication, like a Stony Man or SuperBolan joint, only with less action, violence, and gun p0rn, with a bit more focus on suspense and characterization. 

That said, hero Jericho Quinn is such a cipher I had a hard time picturing him. We’re not given much description or setup for him, which is understandable given that this is the sixth book he’s appeared in. But basically he’s your typical ex-military badass who, at least in Brute Force, acts almost in the capacity of a vintage men’s adventure protagonist in that he’s a one-man enforcer for a rogue intelligence director. Quinn is in his late 30s, sports a beard for most of this novel, and has a seven year-old daughter who is currently hiding in Europe for unexplained reasons (again, likely in a previous book). He also has a fondness for motorcycles. 

He also, par for the course of our miserable modern age, has absolutely no libido. Brute Force is kind of unintentionally humorous in that it has the setup of a vintage men’s adventure novel (only bloated to 423 pages, compared to the 200 pages max of the old days), with Quinn spending most of the novel running around the world with a sexy Chinese secret agent. At least I assume she’s sexy, as Cameron, again par for the miserable modern course, doesn’t exploit her in the least. I think the most we get is an offhand comment by a character that she’s “pretty,” and there’s also a part where she’s riding behind Quinn on a motorcycle and wearing a short skirt and a bunch of guys catcall her. And even though she and Quinn get as close as two people can get, even sleeping in the same bed at times, even pretending to be married at one point, there is zero in the way of any sex. 

I mean folks it’s sad and depressing how emasculated male protagonists have become in today’s mainstream thriller fiction. Now Cameron seems to imply that Quinn’s heart belongs to another gal, a spunky fellow operative named Veronica “Ronnie” Garcia, but the two aren’t even on the same page together until the end of the novel. Before that Quinn spends days flying around the world with the Chinese babe, Song – and for all they know they could be killed at any moment. They see each other shower, Song cares for Quinn when he’s injured (which is often), and they clearly seem to have chemistry, so you’d think a friendly roll in the hay might not be too out of the question, especially given that the world might end if they fail in their mission…but nope, it’s a more progressive age, folks, and we can’t be having any of the sordid thrills that were once part and parcel of escapist fiction for men. 

Even the plot is fairly generic, and could have been lifted from any of those Gold Eagle books: terrorists, a Maguffin weapon of mass destruction, lots of globetrotting, a couple shootouts and car chases. Basically a sadistic pair of Chinese brothers break out of a hellish prison in Pakistan in the opening pages, make their way to China, and from there intend to sow havoc in the US with a secret weapon they’ll get from a Chinese accomplice. Jericho Quinn and Song, a Chinese agent who wants to prevent her country being framed for an attack on the US with the WOD, travel from country to country, trying to stop the threat. Along the way we have colorful sequence like a car chase in Croatia and a contest with horses that Quinn takes part in which seems inspired by a scene in Rambo III

The helluva it is, this “terrorist of the week” main plot line detracts from the much more interesting subplot, which has to do with the rogue administration that Quinn is trying to stop. I forgot to mention, but the President and Vice President are in league with the terrorists, and are behind the plot to attack America, so as to start a war with China. And Quinn and his accomplices are on their Most Wanted list. Quinn works with a former intelligence guy who gives him his orders, sending him around the globe on this task and that. But nowhere do we get an idea what makes Quinn tick; I mean there’s no personal impetus we’re told of that causes him to act in this capacity. There’s nothing overly “heroic” about him, and he doesn’t even display much patriotism. In addition to Quinn there’s Thibodeaux, Quinn’s eyepatched sidekick, a mountain of muscle Marine who calls Quinn “chair force,” mocking Quinn’s Air Force background. There’s also Miyagi, a Japanese woman who trains Quinn in fighting techniques and carries a sword into battle…and yes, the book actually has a female ninja in it, which is as pulp as you can get, but Cameron stays on the level. 

Actually the book has two female ninjas in it, the other being Ran, a cruel Japanese woman who serves as the bodyguard for the despotic Vice President; she has tattoos all over her body and also casually sleeps with the VP, but again there’s nothing sordid in the novel. That is save for one bit where Ran and the VP are taking a shower together, but this scene – like many in the novel – doesn’t do much to move the plot along. There are many such “filler” scenes in Brute Force, where Cameron will drop in on his large cast of characters as if to check in on them, but nothing happens. It’s clearly just a way for Cameron to meet his big word count. 

But as mentioned it’s the subplot that made me drop my hard-earned, uh, quarters on this book. When I read that back cover I had to go to the copyright page to confirm the book hadn’t just been published. I mean check this out: 

So how prescient is this back cover? Let me count the ways. Well first you’ve got the “biological attack,” which should be pretty self-explanatory; we don’t hear much about it in the actual novel, but I can only assume it was created in a Chinese lab. But the super-interesting stuff concerns the rogue administration that stole power through a coup. Presumably the previous volume gave the background on how this happened, but in Brute Force the seditious administration is in full power. And folks you’d have to be living in a deep, dark pit of denial to not see the similarities to today. I mean for one we learn the new administration is less interested in governing the country than it is in criminalizing its rivals. We also learn the President is a corrupt and mornic figurehead whose staff constantly walks back his statements. Not only that, but the corrupt and moronic President also has a fondness for young women – okay, maybe not that young, but still. We even learn that a certain federal bureau has become fully politicized, sending out sadistic agents to capture and interrogate anyone who dares to oppose the junta; yep, that tracks, too. All of this is so uncomfortably close to the US of 2022…not bad for a book published in January of 2016. 

Perhaps the only difference here is that in Brute Force those who oppose President Drake and VP McKeon truly must live underground, carrying guns and getting in shootouts with the FBI agents who come after them. The irony of course being that Quinn and comrades are the heroes who are looking to save the country, despite being villified by a rogue administration and hunted by its jackbooted thugs. Again, as prescient as you can friggin’ get! I mean I wanted to know more about this country Cameron gives us. Does it too suffer from a Brandon-style economy? (Which by the way is totally the fault of Russia! And Covid! A-and unicorns!) Has the voice of anyone who opposes the rogue administration also been cut off? Has the White House been surrounded by barbed wire to “preserve and protect our precious democracy?” Does the administration decry fascism while espousing fascism? 

Unfortunately that damned “terrorist of the week” main plot gets in the way of all this. I was so much more interested in the rogue administration element, with Ronnie Garcia and Win Palmer, Quinn’s boss, staying in a safehouse in Virginia and trying to find members of congress who will believe their story that the President and Vice President are traitors who are literally in league with terrorists. This entails another nice action scene with FBI agents getting mowed down by Miyagi’s blade, but after which more time is spent on Ronnie Garcia’s unfortunate plight as an FBI captive. This though entails another cool bit where Thibodeaux and Miyagi go to her rescue. This sequence to me was the highlight of the book and could’ve easily been expanded. Instead it’s that damn A plot that takes up more time, complete with an anticlimactic (to me at least) chase across Seattle as Quinn tries to prevent the Chinese Maguffin WOMD from being unleashed – while at the same time somehow unmasking the President and Vice President as traitors. 

Cameron’s writing is good, and he really has that Gold Eagle vibe to his prose. I mean this book could easily be a volume of Stony Man. He POV-hops a lot (ie changing perspectives with no warning), and he confusingly refers to characters by multiple names in the narrative. Initially I thought “Ronnie,” “Veronica,” and “Garcia” were three different people, but they’re all the same gal. Also he cheats on some of the payoffs. Like most notably with the VP. This is the guy behind it all – remember, the President is a corrupt and moronic figurehead (if you take nothing else from my review, be sure to take that!) – but Cameron denies us the expected confrontation with Quinn and instead focuses on the VP’s relationship with Ran. (That said, there’s yet another subplot here involving Ran and Miyagi, but it’s not resolved this volume.) Worst of all, Quinn’s confrontation with the Feng brothers – the terrorists he has been chasing for the entire damn novel – is almost perfunctorily handled, with Quinn instead chasing down some newly-introduced villain in the final pages. 

It occurred to me toward the end of Brute Force that it’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t jumped on the Jericho Quinn series, particularly this volume. Because – and in another divergence from vintage men’s adventure – this book is stuffed to the gills with the “empowered women of color” that are mandatory today. There’s ass-kicking Hispanic (sorry, Latinx) beauty Ronnie Garcia, and not one but three ass-kicking Asian women: Miyagi, Quinn’s ninja-type sensei; Ran, the bodyguard of the evil Vice President; and Song, the Chinese agent. Again, I presume the three of them are pretty as well; Cameron doesn’t tell us, probably due to editorial mandate. (“For God’s sake, do not exploit the female characters – the two or three women who might read this book could get offended!!”) 

Anyway, Brute Force kept me interested for most of its runtime, but it seemed clear that Cameron was struggling to fill the pages at times. He does a good job of it, though, and he’s certainly got his readers: just look how many reviews this and the other installments of Jericho Quinn have garnered on Amazon and Goodreads. But in a way it was just like all the other modern suspense thrillers I’ve passed by in bookstores over the past few decades, only livened up by the unwitting prescience in regards to our modern day. The only question of course is where Jericho Quinn is in the real world. We need him now more than ever.

Monday, October 3, 2022


Aftershock, by Robert W. Walker
November, 1987  St. Martin’s Press

Another horror PBO from the imprint that brought you The Nightmares On Elm Street, Aftershock was by Robert W. Walker, who later did the four-voume Pinnacle Books series Decoy as Stephen Robertson. I’ve had the first volume of that series for years but still haven’t read it, and a few months ago I contacted Mr. Walker via his website to see if the Kindle editions of Decoy were revised from the original paperback editions. He replied that they were not, and also shared the cool tidbit that “Stephen Robertson” was a play on the fact that his son is named Stephen, “so Stephen Robert-son, get it?” 

At the time I was on a big cop novel kick so thought I’d finally read Decoy, but the way these things go I’ve now moved on to a horror novel kick. And I was surprised to discover that I also had a horror novel by Walker (and another that’s now a Kindle edition, btw). As I always mention, I go through horror kicks every five or six years, where I just want to read or buy every horror PBO I can get my hands on. Then abruptly the kick will fade and I will have absolutely no interest in horror fiction…until the next kick. So maybe it’s like a really lame literary version of lycanthropy or some other affliction. Anyway, Aftershock is apparently one I bought six or so years ago, when I was on my last horror PBO kick – and it’s one I seem to recall wanting to read asap, but just never got around to. 

One thing I’ve learned is that I’m more of a creature feature-type horror fan; I’m not much into the cerebral or gothic horrors. I like the monsters, and that’s what the cover of Aftershock promises. And a note on that uncredited cover art: whoever did it really got some good art direction, as the creature here is depicted almost exactly as it is described in the book. The metal hands, the glowing red eyes, all of it. But then Walker seems to be describing the titular creature from Alien in the book, particularly when it comes to is methods of procreation. Another note on the cover: It took me quite a while to realize that those symbols in the background are actually the collapsed letters of the Hollywood sign. 

This is because Aftershock takes place in Los Angeles, and the collapsed Hollywood sign is indicative of the massive earthquake that rocks the city at novel’s start. For as it turns out Walker has a bunch of stuff going on in Aftershock: it isn’t so much a horror novel as it is a disaster novel. While it does have a healthy dose of creature feature gore, it does take up a lot of its 248 pages focusing on the post-quake carnage of Los Angeles. All I’m trying to say is that we don’t have here a fast-moving piece of horror-pulp a la The Slime Beast, which is probably still my favorite creature feature horror novel yet. Not that Aftershock isn’t cool, too; it just aspires to be more than pulp. 

Curiously, a few reviews on imply that Walker intended this novel to be satirical, spoofing B-movie horror flicks with cipher-like characters and other OTT nonsense. I didn’t get that impression at all. I mean I definitely got that impression with William Schoell’s The Dragon, but here it seemed to me that Walker was genuinely trying to write a novel that encompassed horror, disaster, and even burgeoning romance. What I mean to say is that I didn’t get the impression that his tongue was in his cheek. The sequences from the creature’s perspective, for example, strive to bring the monster to life in a way that is at odds with a “it’s all a spoof of B-movies” impression. Indeed the creature is downright creepy, what with its predilection for eating brains and spinal cords and then hanging its victims upside down to turn into incubation pods for its eggs. 

Actually there’s more than just horror and disaster going on: Walker also works in a runaway virus angle. This is what starts the proceedings, as we meet a husband and wife team of scientists who are several stories underground, working in a sealed-off vault beneath a medical research facility in Los Angeles (called the CCDC, which is humorous in a post-ironic fashion). This weaponized virus can literally eat people, and the stubborn wife – whom we’re told is younger than her husband and likely only married him for status – ignores her husband’s pleas to call off her latest experiment when some minor quakes rock the building. Oh and there’s also a friggin’ cyborg down here, one with flesh arms and legs but steel claws for hands and a monitor for a face. Then a 9.5 quake hits and the virus gets loose, and the scientists suffer a horrible fate. 

This takes us into the brunt of the novel, which concerns the impact of the eartquake and its aftermath. At times Walker’s description of the chaos eerily predicts 9/11, with crashing skyscrapers and panicked people rushing through the smoke and dust-filled streets. At this point we’ve met the character who will for the most part act as the protagonist: Dr. Mike McCain. An AIDs researcher, McCain has come to CCDC to start up a new division or somesuch. We meet him, shortly before the quake hits, as he’s interviewing another doctor who might join: Dr. Casey Stern. 

There’s some fun pre-PC stuff here in that Dr. Stern turns out to be a “stunning honey blonde,” and initially Mike thinks this gorgeous gal is actually “Dr. Stern’s assistant!” After getting his foot out of his mouth Mike begins treating Casey like a colleague; the mistake was borne of innocence and not sexism. That said, Mike does start thinking about the beautiful Casey as more than just a fellow doctor; Walker also adds in a romance element to Aftershock that’s somewhat hard to buy, with these two doctors falling for each other amid the destruction. Oh and I forgot to mention, but Mike himself is a ruggedly handsome type with “wide shoulders” and all that jazz…so maybe the book really is a spoofy take on the typical B-movie cast. 

The horror element only gradually develops, Walker really playing out the creepy creature which is born of the mutated virus that’s unleashed in the rubble of the CCDC. It’s definitely the stuff of nightmares, given to living in the sewer, slipping out at night to steal a human victim, and feeding on the brains and spinal cords – the only things that can blot out its pain. As the days go on it also starts developing the urge to procreate, and next thing you know it’s squatting over some corpses its stashed away and dropping “egg sacs” on them to cultivate into miniature replicas of itself. As I say, it’s all very Alien, save for the bit with the metal claws. Actually that’s one thing the cover artist got wrong, as the creature has claws, not hands, and this turns out to be some clever misdirection on Walker’s part, as it isn’t until the very end of the novel that we discover the creature’s origins. 

Walker also conveys the horrors of the post-quake city, with thousands upon thousands dead, and Dodgers Stadium used as a holding area for mountains of body bags. Mike and Casey work round-the-clock triage units, only just barely able to get to some long-delayed hanky-panky…which mostly occurs off-page. “He matched her lovemaking measure for measure, kiss for kiss,” is about the extent of it. Curiously Walker is almost as conservative when it comes to the gore. While it’s certainly a violent novel with messy kills, the creature sections are mostly relayed from the creature’s point of view, so there’s no dwelling on the gore. 

What I mean to say is, the creature is so oblivious to humans and their nature that it thinks of humans as “creatures,” and doesn’t even know it’s the brain and spinal columns it’s gorging on. We only learn this due to the later coroner reports on the mutilated bodies popping up around the city; soon the media has it that a “Brain Snatcher” serial killer is afoot. That’s another thing; the back cover has it that Mike and Casey are the stars of the show, but a Mexican-Japanese reporter named Tony Quinn could just as easily take the protagonist mantle. Quinn factors into much of Aftershock, and it’s through him that we learn how blasted the city now is. 

It's also Quinn who first figures out there’s a monster on the loose. Going over video of some diggers beneath the CCDC, Quinn not only catches sight of some weird creature but also later on notices the patchy, flaky skin that shows up on workers who soon thereafter go nuts. As mentioned there’s also a “runaway virus” plot here, and we get a lot of scientific jargon as viral weaponry is explained and discussed. Walker seems to have done his research on all this, to the point that the info the various scientists convey at least sounds plausible, even if it’s all a bunch of bullshit. 

In fact, Mike and Casey obliviously work on, trying to save lives, as Quinn handles the “horror novel” stuff. Quinn’s even the one who figures out there’s not only a creature, but one with a hobby of hiding corpses around and dripping “goo” all over them; “larvae” as Quinn soon realizes. Quinn’s discovery actually makes the creature more dangerous: Quinn is responsible for the torching of the creature’s first breeding ground, flame-roasting all its “children,” after which the creature doesn’t just want to eat humans but also to terrify them. Soon it’s preying on people and relishing the fear on their faces before it rips out their brains and spinal cords. 

The final quarter really ups the horror ante, as well as the Alien similarities. Walker also develops a memorably creepy finale in which Mike and Casey find themselves alone against the creature in Dodgers Stadium, surrounded by piles of body bags. This includes the gross bit where the creature, taunting Mike, jams a claw into a bag and starts chewing on the bodyparts it rips off the corpse. Maybe those GoodReads reviewers are onto something after all, as the finale does seem to come out of a classic sci-fi horror flick, with Mike swinging a rod at the creature and calling it such hoary old cliches as “You son of Satan!” We also get the mandatory “is it really the end?” shock twist ending. 

Overall I did enjoy Aftershock, though be aware a lot of it comes off more like disaster fiction than horror fiction. Walker’s writing is good, though he is a little too fond of the phrase “as if” in his descriptions, and it’s clear he is having fun writing the book. Now maybe I’ll finally check out his Decoy series.