Thursday, December 29, 2022

The Wolfman


The Wolfman, by Carl Dreadstone
August, 1977  Berkley Books

In the late ‘70s Berkley published a few novelizations of the Universal horror classics, all under the house name “Carl Dreadstone.” While I don’t think all the novels have been accounted for, it is known that this one was written by Ramsey Campbell, who also provides an intro under his own name. But to address the pink elephant in the room straightaway, the title is incorrect: the movie was actually titled “The Wolf Man,” ie two words. It’s incorrectly “The Wolfman” throughout this Berkley paperback, even in Campbell’s intro. I was of course outraged. 

Otherwise, Ramsey Campbell takes a story that encompassed slightly over an hour of screentime and turns it into an epic tragedy; in some ways his novel, more introspective, dark, and violent than the 1941 film it is based on, seems to have more in common with the 2010 Benecio Del Toro remake, which by the way was also titled “The Wolfman.” Curiously, in his intro Campbell enthuses over the acting of Lon Chaney Jr. in the film, and the way Chaney brought to life the plight of his doomed character, Larry Talbot, destined to become the Wolf Man. Chaney makes his Talbot an affable, good-natured lug; there is a lot of smiling in The Wolf Man. There is not much smiling in Campbell’s novelization. 

Instead of the affable lug of Chaney’s portrayal, the Larry Talbot of this novel is already a wolf before he even gets bitten. He is a driven, angry man, quick to lash out and quick to prove himself – even when the challenge only exists in his mind. It was not much fun spending 212 pages with this Larry Talbot. He is very much in the vein of the average Manning Lee Stokes protagonist, only even more aggressively macho. His background is similar to his film counterpart: born to wealth in Wales, but leaving home for America at some point and now returning, in his early 30s, due to the sudden death of his brother. There are some additions to this in Campbell’s novel: Talbot’s brother was his twin, and Talbot left home at 16 due to a fight. 

This Larry Talbot lacks however all of the affable nature that Chaney brought to the role. In his intro Campbell states that the novel makes use of material that was in Curt Siodmak’s original script but didn’t make it to film. One wonders if Siodmak’s version of Larry Talbot was this much of a prick. If so, the producers made a wise choice in making him more likable. Thus, the Larry of the film – and you can’t help but think of Chaney’s character as “Larry” and not “Talbot” – is more of a tragic hero, and one feels sorry for him when his life is thrown into chaos. But the “Talbot” of this novelization already has the nature of a wolf from the start. It isn’t so much a tragedy as it is inevitable that he will come to a bad end. 

This was to me the greatest difference betwween Campbell’s novelization and the film. The story follows mostly the same beats, only with the added resonance of a novel, with more characterization and more introspection. I don’t believe I have ever read a Ramsey Campbell novel before, but he does a great job of turning this old film into a sort of timeless thriller with Gothic touches; it seems we are reminded of the fog or the mist every other page. He also gets it right by setting the novel in the era of the movie’s release; the Universal horror movies are notorious for taking place in uncertain time periods, but it seems clear that The Wolf Man is contemporary. Campbell follows this, with an errant mention early in the book of “Hitler’s Germany.” 

Campbell opens the novel same as the film, with Larry Talbot being chaffeured to his childhood home in Wales. Actually that should be “childhood castle;” as mentioned, Larry comes from wealth. But whereas the Larry of the film is all smiles and warm handshakes, here in the novel the trepidation and anger is laid on thick; Talbot’s almost in physical pain at the thought of returning to this hell he once called home. Also here in the novel the town itself is named “Talbot.” The reunion with his father, Sir John, is also more tense than in the film; another addition to the saga here in the book is that Talbot’s mother died in childbirth. This is nice subtext from Campbell, that Talbot is so driven perhaps because he blames himself for his mother’s death. 

Even if so, this Larry Talbot is hard to root for. He is of course a ladykiller, but even more toxic about it than a Stokes protagonist. Like in the film, Talbot helps his father set up a powerful new telescope and then accidentaly spies pretty blonde-haired Gwen in her bedroom, down in the village. She’s left her curtains up and she’s putting on some earrings before heading downstairs to the antique store her father owns. In the movie, this is played as an innocent lark; a goofy variation on the “meet cute” scenario of contemporary screwball comedies. In the novel, as with everything else, it’s much darker. First of all there is the recurring line that Gwen is “just a girl.” Courting her is just another challenge to be surmounted. Talbot spies on her with the telescope, then goes into town and starts coyly referring to her bedroom and all this other stalker shit – same as in the film, and while the entire premise was a bit “off” even there, here it’s just downright creepy. 

Gwen has also changed a bit in the novel. Here she is presented as younger than the character Evelyn Ankers portrayed in the film; the way Gwen thinks and acts, she could still be in her teens. It’s also quite clear she is a virgin. Campbell tries his damnest to make the spark between Gwen and Talbot believable; again, in the film it’s kind of easier to buy, given the aw shucks demeanor Chaney gives the role. But the Talbot of the novel is a wolf and he aggressively goes after Gwen; the rapport between them is more along the lines of a battle, with Talbot ever trying to press his “advantage” and then Gwen scoring points with an acidic rejoinder. Particularly amusing from our wisened era is when Talbot insists Gwen go out with him at night, despite her firm “No.” His “I’ll pick you up at eight” is practically a threat here, whereas, again, it’s more of a good-natured joke in the film. 

The date of course is to the gypsy camp, that night, where Talbot’s life changes course. Again Campbell stretches the tension more than in the film; Gwen brings along her dowdy friend, Jenny (we learn that Gwen is thinking of setting her up with Talbot), who gets a reading from a gypsy named Bela (Lugosi himself!). Overall the characters in this novelization are just meaner than their film counterparts; whereas Bela sends off Jenny with concern in the film, here he snaps at her to the extent that she runs off in tears – only to be attacked by Bela in wolf form. A curious thing is that the Bela werewolf is basically just a wolf, on all fours, whereas Talbot becomes a wolf man after being bitten by it. Maybe there’s some hierarchy in the world of lycanthropy. If so, Campbell doesn’t dwell on it in his novelization. One thing he does a good job of is noting that the chest wound Talbot gets from the wolf quickly heals, to the point that it can barely be seen…though Talbot is certain it’s shaped like a pentagram. I only say this because we never see the pentagram wound in any of the films; Larry will just open his shirt and the other characters will gawk at what is apparently a pretty nasty wound. 

One of the biggest differences in the novel is a scene, supposedly filmed though no material exists of it any longer, in which Larry Talbot fights a bear. This happens at the gypsy fair, another scene that Campbell brings more to life than in the film. Talbot’s just killed what he claims is a wolf, but all the cops can find is the body of a man (Bela the gypsy), and this has only served to make him seem more of a bad seed; Campbell also has a recurring subplot about an old biddy, who was responsible for Talbot leaving town years ago, still gossiping that he’s nothing but trouble. The bear fight is another display of Talbot’s uber macho drive; the bear is old, pushed into fights by its greedy owner, but a driven Talbot beats the shit out of the poor animal anyway. At this point the werewolf in him is driving him to be even more aggressive, especially toward other animals – another cool part is where Gwen’s fiance Frank comes in with a dog, and Talbot rushes out. In the film, again, it comes off like Larry is just nervous and awkward. In the book, he leaves because he has the sudden desire to tear the dog apart. 

Ramsey Campbell’s The Wolfman is really a slow burn affair when compared to the fast-moving film. Talbot doesn’t even turn into the titular monster until page 126. Curiously, he leaves some of the Wolf Man material off-page, rendering the action from the point of view of the victims. For example, Talbot’s first kill is a gravedigger (who happens to be digging Jenny’s grave), and the attack is more about the mounting terror the poor guy experiences before he is killed. While the novel is not violent, Campbell does bring more gore to the post-attack scenes: we learn that Jenny’s head has almost been severed from her body, to the point that Sir John pukes at the sight. 

As The Wolfman progresses, it seems clear that Campbell is more interested in Larry Talbot than the Wolf Man. While the monster continues to appear “in the shadows,” as it were, we get even more probing of Talbot’s confused thoughts; he is certain he has become a werewolf, though no one believes him. The way this dawns on him is clever, but involves more of that slow-burn vibe, like another scene (unsure if it was filmed or a product of Campbell’s imagination) where Talbot tries to go to church but gives in to a sudden impulse to run out of the place. Otherwise the novel goes on to follow the film faithfully, only with more character depth…and basically different characterization for Larry Talbot. The part at the end where Gwen is willing to leave town with him is especially hard to buy, given how this version of Talbot is such an unlikable, hate-filled prick. But then maybe that’s Gwen’s type. 

The conclusion of the novel is the same as the film, too, but again Campbell does a good job of making Sir John more of an empathetic character than the self-involved Sir John of the movie, who almost came off as maliciously indifferent to his son’s plight. Here one feels Sir John’s horror as he realizes the “creature” he just brained with his son’s silver-headed cane happens to be his son. As with the film, here the novel ends…though of course Larry Talbot would return for a handful of sequels. Unfortunately none of them were novelized as part of this Berkley series. 

Indeed, the Berkley editors chose some oddball titles; in addition to The Wolfman, there were novelizations of expected classics like The Bride Of Frankenstein (also apparently by Ramsey Campbell)…as well as unexpected ones like The Werewolf Of London. One would think they would’ve gone for more obvious choices, like maybe a novelization of 1943’s Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. It would’ve been a lot of fun to read Campbell’s take on that; perhaps we would’ve gotten the cut material of the Monster actually speaking. At any rate these Berkley Universal tie-ins are woefully scarce and overpriced on the collector’s market; I was lucky to get this one, and happy to read it. I’d love to read some of the others someday.

On a related note, check out my Neca Glow-In-The-Dark Frankenstein Monster!  All the Monster Kids on my block are jealous!  I saw it in a Target and couldn’t resist:

Monday, December 26, 2022

SOBs #7: River Of Flesh


SOBs #7: River Of Flesh, by Jack Hild
July, 1985  Gold Eagle

The seventh SOBs is by Robin Hardy, who previously wrote #4: Show No Mercy. In my review of that one I opined that Robin Hardy might have been…a woman! However all I needed to do was check the damn copyright page, which credits “Robin Hardy for his contribution to this work.” (Italics mine.) I obviously don’t know anything about Hardy, but his prose style seemed somewhat similar to me this time…so either I was flashing back to his style on the fourth volume or he’s ghostwritten something else I’ve read and reviewed on here. 

Now I know you all are wondering – what about Billy Two? As we recall, the previous volume featured Billy, who had been captured in the climax of #5: Gulag War, fighting his way to freedom. Billy is seldom mentioned in River of Flesh, and there’s absolutely no indication he went through anything horrific in the past few volumes. The implication is clear that Robin Hardy was not the writer of those volumes, and likely was writing his own installment concurrently. I get the impression that the stable of SOBs authors had a few characters that were “theirs,” if you know what I mean, and thus I’m guessing that Billy Two was “owned” by  Alan Philipson. 

As for Robin Hardy, his character is Geoff Bishop, a mercenary pilot who last appeared in, wouldja believe, the fourth volume, which as mentioned was also by Hardy. And hey not only that, but Bishop is also banging the sole female Soldier of Barrabas, Lee Hatton. In fact we meet Bishop just after he’s gotten out of bed with Lee; true to Gold Eagle form, it’s not like there’s actually any sex in the novel. Same goes for Barrabas, who has a steady girlfriend named Erika, based out of Amsterdam. In the ‘80s, men’s adventure heroes rarely would meet some exotic floozy while on a mission, as they would have in the ‘70s…but the authors would be sure to inform us the heroes had a steady girlfriend “back some,” so we wouldn’t think they were gay or anything. 

This one opens with a 17-page prologue set during the Vietnam War, with Barrabas determined to kill a “Cambodian murderer” named Kon. A warlord known for massacring entire villages, Kon has been an enternal thorn in Barrabas’s side, and Barrabas goes out with some Special Forces guys to punch his ticket. But it turns out to be an ambush and in the melee a fellow soldier named Scott is taken captive; Barrabas is certain he will be tortured to death, same as the other American captives Kon has taken prisoner. 

Now, all these years later, Barrabas will finally get his chance to settle the score. He’s called in by Jessup, the obese Fed who acts as the contact for the Soldiers of Barrabas, and briefed on the apparent presence of chemical agents in the jungles of Cambodia. The Feds want Barrabas and team to go in and find out what is behind this chemical nefariousness. Little does Barrabas know it is his old nemesis Kon, who now rules his own village in Cambodia, an army of Khmer Rogue under his command. But Hardy gussies up the simple plot by making the reader sympathize with Kon, at least in some regard; despite his sadism and penchant for massacring countless innocents, Kon has populated his village with those who were victims of Agent Orange. Vietnamese, Cambodians, even Americans, all of whom have suffered in some fashion (cancer, deformities, etc) from the chemical agent used by the US during the war. 

Even Kon’s little daughter suffers from a horrific facial deformity; we are informed that the children born to those who came into contact with Agent Orange also suffer from defects. So this makes the reader at least sympathize somewhat with Kon. However as mentioned he’s sadistic, and crazy to boot. And hell, even his little daughter shares his sadism, gleefully laughing as her daddy kills off entire villages of innocents while testing out his new chemical warfare. For Kon’s plan is to strike back at the US – he has put his people to work to develop a chemical agent even more devastating than Agent Orange, and he plans to pollute the waters of an American city with it. 

Barrabas is unaware of any of this, however, and for the most part River Of Flesh is more of a suspense thriller than an action onslaught. This seems to be the schtick of SOBs; each volume even follows the same setup, with Barrabas briefed on the mission, then putting his team together, training them, and then the volume climaxes with the actual mission being carried out. We even have the recurring motif of the “core” SOBs going about their normal lives before receiving the call to assemble; Liam O’Toole, the warrior-poet, will be getting into some humorous situation (this time responding to a “swinger’s magazine ad” and about to have sex with a suprisingly-hotstuff woman), and Nanos, the muscular lunkheaded one, will be getting drunk, or getting over being drunk. 

Hardy introduces what promises to be a developing subplot here with the guys, apropos of nothing, trying to knock Nanos out of his latest stupor by telling him to think of Lee Hatton – and how attractive she is. While we readers are reminded each volume that Lee Hatton is one smokin’ hot babe, apparently the actual members of the team have never actually noticed it! They think of her as just “one of the guys” and such. But after this errant comment Nanos becomes hooked on Lee, making insinuating comments to her throughout the rest of the novel. Meanwhile, Lee and Bishop are keeping their relationship secret, thus Hardy introduces the potential for a love triangle: Nanos now has the burnin’ yearnin’ for Lee, but Lee is developing feelings for Bishop. 

Speaking of feelings, Barrabas’s girlfriend Erika has a bigger role in River Of Flesh. Hardy must have been hard-pressed to fill these particular 200+ pages, as a lot of the book’s narrative concerns Erika trying to buy artifacts from mythical Angkor Wat. In fact Hardy baldly ties the two plot threads together; Barrabas gives Erika a kiss goodbye in Amsterdam and heads to Thailand for his latest mission…and runs into Erika at the hotel, as she too has come here to acquire those artifacts. Her contact is a sleazy Frenchman named Raul, who knows how to slip over the border into Cambodia. Raul also happens to be working for the warlord Kon. Only gradually does all this come out into the open, with lots of scenes of Barrabs dithering with Raul for information. 

Action is scant. There’s a part where Erika and Raul are attacked by commandos in black masks, but this turns out to be a Mission: Impossible-type ruse. In fact it occurs to me that SOBs is essentially a men’s adventure version of Mission: Impossible. I mean hell it actually just occurred to me as I was typing this sentence – Nile Barrabas even has white hair, same as the IMF team’s Jim Phelps! The difference though is that the plot builds to climactic action instead of a carefully-staged con. The finale of River Of Flesh isn’t too focused on action, though; there’s more character drama than typical of the genre, with the revelation that a core of American prisoners from ‘Nam live in Kon’s village…and might not want to leave. 

That said, there is some cool stuff, like the SOBs appropriating some of Kon’s vintage American muscle cars and augmenting them with weapons – like an M-60 affixed to the roof. But we aren’t talking a super violent thrill ride here: “gore lines were drawn across his chest” and such is about the extent of the violent carnage Hardy delivers. I also wasn’t fond of the finale. Barrabas has been determined to kill Kon for decades, but Hardy has our white-haired hero held captive by Kon’s gun while another SOB sneaks up behind the Cambodian warlord…and shoots him in the back. But at least the story ends with someone getting eaten by lions…even though this too happens off-page. 

Overall River Of Flesh was passable, however there was a bit more characterization than typical for the genre. Mostly I just wanted to find out what happened to Billy Two, after the crazy previous volume. Hopefully he will return in the next installment.

Monday, December 12, 2022

Cryptozoology Anthology


Cryptozoology Anthology, edited by Robert Deis, David Coleman, and Wyatt Doyle
June, 2015  New Texture

It’s a shame Bob Deis wasn’t around back when men’s adventure magazines were still being published; he could’ve made a living coming up with themed anthologies for the publishers. And while there were a handful of men’s mag anthologies back in the day – ie Our Secret War Against Red ChinaWomen Without Morals, etc – none of them were as inspired as the themes Bob and his co-editors Wyatt Doyle and Bill Cunningham have come up with for their modern-day anthologies. I mean who would’ve thought there were enough men’s adventure mag stories to fill up a 300+ page book on Bigfoot, the Yeti, and sea creatures? But thankfully Bob Deis is around now, and Cryptozoology Anthology is another must-buy offering from his “Men’s Adventure Library” line. 

Let’s talk about the actual book for a minute. This hardcover edition of Cryptozoology is incredibly impressive, featuring full-color and black-and-white art throughout. The binding is a sturdy blue, and the pages – folks, the pages are on actual pulp paper! If you are looking for a Christmas present for that men’s adventure reader in your life, Cryptozoology is just what you are seeking. It’s too big to stuff in a stocking, though; as mentioned this baby is a big 300 pages. While it isn’t the same size of an actual magazine, it’s still pretty big, and also one thing I really appreciated was that Deis and Doyle (sounds like a songwriting team!) reproduced the splash page(s) for each story, followed by the story itself laid out in a more readable style. In other words, not the dense columns of text as in the vintage magazines themselves…though you can see what the original format looked like in the spashpage for each story. 

And there are a lot of stories here. Deis and Doyle (who could forget their top ten hit “Weasels Ate Me Alive?”) cover the gamut, from stories that follow the traditional men’s mag template to ones that come off like straight-up reporting. In addition to Deis and Doyle there is also David Coleman, who per the credits is a modern day cryptozoologist. Coleman provides an intro for all the stories; to be honest, while Coleman’s writing is fine, I missed Bob Deis’s typical intros. With Bob, you get more info on the publication or the artist, or how the story in question was comparable to other stories of the day. Coleman instead focuses on the critters discussed in the yarn, and what is known about them today. In a way, it epitomizes the difference between our day and the day of the men’s mags. Whereas the stories themselves are pulpy conceits that trade off on lurid mysteries, Coleman’s intros are more along the lines of “this is clearly made up.” But to me that’s part of the charm of the original stories. And to clarify, Coleman seems to like the stories a lot himself, and seems knowledgeable about the men’s mag publications. I just missed Deis’s usual intros, like for example the ones you’ll see in each volume of Men’s Adventure Quarterly

The monster covered the most frequently in Cryptozoology is the Yeti, aka the Abominable Snowman. I was surprised at this, figuring there would be more yarns about Bigfoot. But I guess the Yeti’s popularity coincided more with the era of the men’s mags. Also, his habitat, in the cold forbidden reaches of the Himalayas, was more in-line with the adventure fiction vibe of the mags. In addition we do have a few stories about Bigfoot, two about sea monsters, and other assorted yarns about a variety of monsters. One thing to note though is that the monsters, especially the Yeti, are rarely seen by any of the narrators. In almost each case it’s some other character in the story who sees the creature, while the narrator is off in the distance and uncertain of what he has seen. My assumption is this way the editors of the men’s mags could retain the “true” conceit of the stories they published, while still capitalizing on the Yeti/etc fads of the day. I mean if they had a yarn where a narrator straight-up claimed to have fought the Abominable Snowman or Bigfoot or whatever, it would clearly be seen as fiction. That said, one of the stories here – one of the better ones, in fact – is clearly fiction, but it’s taken from Argosy, a magazine that featured fiction in addition to the usual nonfiction. 

Another note is that the majority of the stories are in first-person. They are also short, running to just a few pages each, though two of them are quite a bit longer. Another note is that most of the stories do not follow the usual men’s adventure yarn template, ie the cold open on some moment of tension, followed by the inevitable flashback which gradually sets up that opening incident – followed by a hasty wrapup. Only those two long stories follow this format; the others are more “reporting” than what one might expect. In other words, not all the stories here have the narrative drive of the average men’s adventure story. Again this is likely due to the editors trying to maintain the fa├žade of “realism,” while still indulging in stories about monsters. Humorously, some of the stories feature introductory blurbs from the original men’s mag editors, basically disavowing any belief in the stories about to be told! 

“Wild Giants of British Columbia” by J.W. Burns is the first yarn, from the September 1948 issue of Sir!. This is our first indication that the stories here will be slightly different than the men’s mag norm, as instead of narrative it is comprised of stories told by Indians of a mysterious creature spotted here over the centuries – “[stories the Indians] have never confided to a white man before!” 

“Fish With Human Hands Attacked Me!” is by Arthur A. Dunn and from the November 1955 True Weird. I’m not familiar with this magazine but, judging from this story at least, it too was more along the lines of pseudo-reporting instead of the adventure yarns of the average men’s magazines. This one is about the many sightings of a humanoid fish off the coast of Nicaragua, one with a penchant for stealing off women – we even get a reference to The Creature From The Black Lagoon

Franz Kale’s “I Stalked The Yeti!,” from the February 1953 issue of Man’s Magazine, is the first to have more of a men’s mag adventure story vibe. The narrator tells us of a trip to the Himalayas and how he spotted obvious Yeti tracks. The beast then killed the “cowardly” native guides who ran away that night. But this story also introduces the concept that the white narrators themselves will rarely see the Yeti; in most every story it will be the natives who see it, with the white narrators off in the distance and their vision obscured. 

Up next is “Incredible Monster-Man Sightings In The US,” by John Keel and from the August 1970 Male. Okay, this one has to be a spoof, or at least a snarky joke from an author trying to pull a fast one on the editors. I mean how could we think otherwise when we come upon lines like, “We shall call [this monster] the Abominable Swamp Slob, or ASS for short?” Or better yet: “There’s hardly a respectable swamp in the Deep South that does not boast at least one ASS.” And try to get this image out of your mind: “The slime-covered ASS got away.” Otherwise this one’s just an overview of various “ASS” sightings, including Bigfoot; the author attempts to work in UFOs at one point, but drops the point with no resolution. 

No less than Arthur C. Clarke appears next, with “The Reckless Ones,” from the October 1956 Adventure. This is another strange one, not to mention one of the most awkwardly constructed short stories I’ve ever read. I mean it starts off with Clarke’s reminscing about some group of scientists he belonged to, then it turns into the ponderings of a Professor Hinckelberg (“He could talk like an LP record on a 78 turntable”), and then Hinckelberg tells a yarn about another guy named Jackson, who might’ve gotten some photos of an undersea creature. This story gave me a headache due to the awkward construction. 

Much better is the following story, “Hunt For The Half-Man, Half-Ape Of North America,” by Tom Christopher and from the November 1969 Men. This one’s the sort of rugged yarn we expect from the men’s mags: the author tells us of a hunting trip he took to British Columbia, in which a friend of his named Joe swears he saw a Yeti-type creature. Again, the narrator himself did not see the monster, a recurring motif of these stories. A year later Joe disappears and the narrator deduces that he’s gone back to BC by himself to gather evidence. The narrator heads there, finding that Joe has recently been in their hunting cabin, though Joe himself is gone. From there the story turns into Joe’s diary, which the narrator discovers – a tale of mounting horror, as Joe recounts his discovery that there is a Yeti type thing out there…and what’s more, there are a few of them and they seem to want to kill Joe. The diary ends with Joe practically being attacked in the cabin one night…and then the narrator, reading all this in that very same cabin at night, puts down the diary and goes to bed! This was so goofy I laughed out loud. Otherwise this story was really along the lines of what I expected from this anthology. 

Up next is a yarn that could’ve been a drive-in sci-fi flick of the era: “The ‘Thing’ At Dutchman’s Rig,” by Joseph Mavitty and from the November 1958 Showdown. Another first-person yarn, and another “Joe” to boot, but this one’s unique among the stories here in that narrator Joe himself sees the titular “thing.” Working on an oil dig in the jungle, Joe and team come across a friggin’ dinosaur, which keeps attacking the party. But the true monster here is Joe himself, who keeps pushing his men to work on the oil…despite the friggin’ dinosaur that keeps attacking them. This is another one where the original editors disavow any actual belief in the story being told. I also enjoyed the narrator’s hasty explanation that the dinosaur, a 20 foot T-Rex, might have been spawned by “radioactive fallout.” I could almost see the Ray Harryhausen stop-motion creature for this one. 

Mike Flint’s “A Man From Another Age,” from the November 1959 Man’s Illustrated, is the longest story in Cryptozoology. Or at least I think it is. Labelled a “book bonus” by the original editors, this is another first-person story in which “Mike,” a “big game hunter,” tangles with the Yeti. But this story is the closest to the typical men’s mag yarn; our hero even has sex with a lusty native gal per the men’s mag template. Actually not once but twice, first with one of the “four naked Nepalese girls” he randomly comes across during his trek, then later with another hotstuff native gal who sneaks around his campsite while he’s hunting the Yeti. We even get the customary cold open before the inevitable flashback; Mike opens the tale with his finding the mauled corpse of a dog while on a mountain trek in the Himalayas, then the flashback to how Mike was hired on for an expedition to gain proof of the Yeti. But again even here it's another character who gets all the evidence: a Brit who suffered by his own admission of cowardice in WWII, and who is looking to reclaim his dignity by finding the Yeti. Meanwhile, once again, our narrator is way far away when that confrontation finally occurs, with snow obscuring his vision and whatnot, so he never really sees anything. Otherwise this one was a lot of fun, mostly because it really was a men’s mag-type adventure story…and quite long, too! 

“Monster Bird That Carries Off Human Beings!,” by Jack Pearl and from the May 1969 Saga, gets back to the “just the [pseudo] facts” vibe. This tells of the “thunderbirds,” big-ass birds of myth who attack people and carry them away. The story randomly references the internment camps Japanese-Americans were kept in during WWII; some of those unfortunate prisoners plumb disappeared, so more than likely it was those damn thunderbirds carrying them off. I mean what other explanation could there be? 

The second longest story in Cryptozoology follows: “MacDonald’s Nightmare Safari,” by Jim MacDonald and from the August 1959 Man’s Conquest. Jim MacDonald is a familiar men’s mag by-line; he even wrote the famous “Wild Raid Of The Lace Panty Commandos.” But this tale too is in first-person, MacDonald telling us of a safari in the Matto Grosso of Brazil where he was attempting to find a diamond lode. This one’s more of an adventure yarn, similar to Valley Of The Assassins, plus it works in a boiling suspense angle with a married native couple that goes along with MacDonald – and the husband wants to kill him while the wife wants to do him. This is another one where the narrator gets some native booty, though of course it’s all off-page. In fact it isn’t until the very end that you realize why this story was even included in the anthology: it turns out the diamond lode is “guarded” by a massive reptile. 

“I Encountered The Abominable Snowman” is by Richard Platt and from the September 1960 Rage. This one is ostensibly told by a mountain sherpa from the Himalayas; he recounts the tale of how the young sister of a fellow sherpa was stolen by the Yeti once, and the men gave chase. Interesting to note that in this one the narrator – who is not white – does see the titular monster…but also he does not save the girl. Unintentional commentary from 1960. 

Up next is a “hidden” story: in the intro, Robert Deis notes that a story has cleverly been hidden in the book, to play along with the theme of “hidden” creatures. He also promises “you’ll know it when you see it.” And sure enough, the pages for this story have a yellow border. Titled “What-Is-Its-Of-The-Sea,” this short tale is from the December 1948 True and is by Ivan Sanderson. This one gets away from the Yeti and, uh, the ASS, and focuses on sea monsters. But again it’s mostly pseudo-reporting, Sanderson recounting various sea monster sightings…and assuming that eventually these creatures will be discovered by science. 

Next is my favorite story in the book: “The Stone Monster,” by A.M. Lightner and from the November 1963 Argosy. This is the one I mentioned way above: it’s clearly fiction, and no attempt is made at passing it off as anything but. David Coleman notes in his intro that “Lightner” was the pseudonym of an actual cryptozoologist named Alice Hopf, and that here she delivered a monster tale with a smattering of incidents taken from true-life encounters. The story is also in third person, one of the few tales in this anthology in that perspective. Humorously, in this one the Yeti is basically a cuddly four-foot creature who helps the main character, the two trapped after an avalanche and sparking a somewhat touching friendship – a friendship geared around chocolate. Yes, folks, the sole female author in the book turns in a “kinder, gentler” monster yarn. Despite which I really enjoyed this one and I have to say the relationship with the Yeti was cute…a word I never thought I’d use to describe a men’s adventure yarn. 

“Face To Face With The Ape-Man Monster Of Tennessee” is by Ted Gross and from the October 1973 Man’s World. This one is also in third person and features protagonists who witness the titular monster. It’s about a married couple who go camping in the woods but who are stranded due to flooding. They come across evidence of Bigfoot-type tracks, then later the beast starts stalking them. Features a great Gil Cohen illustration where the husband tosses a flaming stick at the monster, but otherwise the creature is similar to the one in the previous story in that it doesn’t seem to intend much harm…it even breaks into the couple’s cabin and cuts itself while tearing open cans of food. I liked this story, too. Plus it has a funny finale in which the husband has the creature’s blood analyzed, and the results come back: “Not human or animal!” 

In addition to the above there are other odds and ends, like art from other Bigfoot-type men’s mag stories, as well as a puzzing piece of vintage reportage on how the Russians have created ape-man soldiers in the Bakony Forest. Also, David Coleman’s intros are all a few pages long each, and in them he gives overviews on what cryptozoologists today think about the topics about to be covered, or what has been found. And to tell the truth, friends, it doesn’t look like much has been discovered – I resorted to Google to see if anyone’s actually gotten a photo of that damned Yeti or Bigfoot or whatever, only to find that the area is as shrouded in uncertainty as it was back in the days of the men’s mags. So in that regard at least the world hasn’t changed much. 

So wrapping up, I highly recommend Cryptozoology Anthology, and look forward to reading more entries in the Men’s Adventure Library.

Addendum: The blog will be on hiatus until the week of the 26th.  Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 8, 2022

Bloodletter


Bloodletter, by Warren Newton Beath
June, 1996  Tor Books

Mining the same territory as Shade, Bloodletter concerns the author of a string of wildly popular vampire novels who might be a vampire himself. But while the plot is similar, the two novels are very different. For one, Bloodletter initially came out in hardcover, in 1994 (also published by Tor, and apparently with the same cover as this paperback). And another, author Warren Newton Beath is shall we say a much better writer than Ron “David Darke” Dee – but then, the higher-caliber writing is one of the missteps of Bloodletter. Whereas Dee turned in a grungy, sordid tale filled with lurid situations, Beath seems to want to write more of a literary novel with horror trappings. 

But then, for much of its narrative Bloodletter really isn’t a horror novel, at least not in the classic sense. It’s more of a dark psycho-sexual thriller that features a twisted serial killer as well as a famous writer who seems to be batshit crazy. This latter would be Stephen Albright, the “king of the paperbacks,” whose series about a vampire named Bloodletter have turned him into a celebrity. I find it humorous that Beath named his fictional bestselling horror author “Stephen,” but regardless, this particular Stephen is himself a much more cerebral author than one would expect. Indeed the Bloodletter books don’t sound fun at all, judging from what little we are told about them, going for more of a quasi-historical gnostic bent than one would expect for a lurid paperback. 

We don’t learn much about the books, but we do learn there are thirteen in the series, all paperback originals, and all trading on the arcane lore of the vampire. While Beath never uses the term “gnostic,” that does seem to be the vibe of the series, in particular that there is a recurring trio dynamic of the titular Bloodletter, his troll-like familiar, and Thanata, a female immortal who serves as Bloodletter’s nemesis through the ages. It just all sounds a lot more cerebral than the popular fiction Beath tries to convey it as; indeed, it sounds a lot like Beath’s actual novel, which itself did not achieve any mega popularity, thus proving out that a “cerebral-literary” vibe does not lead to a popular horror paperback. 

The Bloodletter’s schtick is that he is some sort of immortal force of evil who manifests on Earth via the work of an artist or writer or whatever. Albright, who believes the Bloodletter really exists, fears that he has unleashed the vampire on Earth via his novels. And also that the vampire is responsible for a particularly twisted serial killer who calls himself Diver Dan. One disturbed individual, Dan – who apparently suffers from a condition that his turning him into a woman – has a penchant for abducting young women with hummingbird tattoos, torturing them to death, and then having lots of sex with their corpses. There are many scenes from Diver Dan’s perspective, and we know he is the current vassal of the Bloodletter – not only does Dan have the entire 13-volume Albright series of novels, but Dan also believes he had an audience with the actual vampire, and now kills for him. 

Beath plays all of this on more of a psycho-suspense angle, particularly given how the main character is a psychiatrist named Eva LaPorte. A hotstuff babe in her 40s who hit it big on the pop-psych scene with feminist interpretations of myth, Eva has been hired by DeMarco, Albright’s boisterous agent – and also, bizarrely enough, owner of a chain of fitness centers(?!) – to see if she can help Albright with his delusions. The true problem so far as DeMarco is concerned is that Albright is about to squander the chance for big bucks: truly given over to the “delusion” that the Bloodletter exists, Albright is about to put the kibosh on the long-awaited big-budget film adaptation of his series. DeMarco wants Eva to get in Albright’s head and figure out how she can get him to stop thinking there are really vampires. 

Oh and I forgot to mention, but Albright just tried to kill himself…with a .357 Magnum! How someone could fail to kill themselves with a .357 Magnum is something Beath doesn’t elaborate on; we get the humorous assertion that the bullet “traveled too fast” or somesuch. But then it occurred to me that this was likely another dangling mystery Beath was trying to provide – another clue that Albright himself might be the Bloodletter. The novel is filled with such mystery, with Albright – young, with dark hair and the good looks expected of a vampire – acting increasingly deranged…up to and including having the photos of Diver Dan’s victims hidden away in his apartment. Not to mention a severed heart in his fridge, something Eva discovers late in the novel. 

As mentioned Eva is our main protagonist, and it must have seemed a good idea to Beath to view the vampire story through the prism of an intellectual. Unfortunately the result for readers is that the novel is too slow-going and suffers too much from characters, particularly Eva, denying that there are any such thing as vampires. Beath really pulls this one to the stretching point; the entirety of Bloodletter is an extended “do vampires really exist?” riff. The impact of the story is also lessened by the “literary” vibe. The fact that the book is populated by narcissistic Hollywood types doesn’t help matters; Eva in particular is known as a sort of celebrity psychiatrist. 

With its “serious” approach to horror and its literary vibe, Bloodletter reminded me of another novel I reviewed here many years ago: The Late Great Creature. There is even the callback to the sordid underbelly of Golden Age Hollywood, with mentions of Bela Lugosi and the actress Peg Entwistle, whose sole claim to fame is that she jumped to her death off the Hollywoodland sign. Another point of reference is clued on the cover, with a blurb from horror historian David J. Skaal, author of The Monster Show and Hollywood Gothic. One imagines that Beath leaned very heavily into these particular tomes, with all sorts of sordid detail on silent horror film director FW Murnau – like that he died in a car crash while getting a blowjob from his boytoy. 

This stuff in particular reminded me of The Late Great Creature, as well as another horror film-focused novel I reviewed some years ago, Flicker. There’s a lot of stuff about how Bela Lugosi too might have known the Bloodletter, and how he wanted to do this vampire flick with Peg Entwistle, and also how Murnau envisioned this crazy flick about the apocalypse and vampires taking over the world. All this bleeds into the modern day, with Albright living in Lugosi’s Hollywood apartment and such. But again the subtext is heavy that it’s all in Albright’s mind, and that serial killer Diver Dan is just a plain nutjob, inspired by a fictional character and not by a real vampire. 

Beath shows some dark humor in the sequences with Dan, in particular a disturbing bit late in the book from the perspective of one of his victims. Never even given a name – at this point she merely thinks of herself as the latest victim of the notorious killer – this poor girl tries her hardest to make friends with Dan to convince him not to kill her. After all, this is what they said to try on all the true crime shows. The vampire stuff is mostly relegated to lore and Hollywood stories, and also the detail that Eva’s ex-husband, also an academic, penned a tome on vampire history…with the unusual tidbit that vampires were claimed to have double-headed dicks. Well that was a new one to me. 

Beath continues to want to have his cake and eat it, too, when a blindfolded Eva is apparently bitten on the neck…by a vampire or by Albright (or Albright the vampire) she does not know…and then starts to imagine all sorts of pangs for blood, or strange sentiments like wanting to tear a child apart. But is it all in her mind, and Albright’s insanity just spreading to her? It just goes on and on…made all the more annoying in the rushed climax. I mean I couldn’t believe it, but Beath, after leisurely telling his tale for 300-some pages, blows right through the finale, with the reveal and dispatch of the titular Bloodletter in just a few harried pages. This annoyed me. 

Overall, Bloodletter was definitely written better than Shade, but lacked that novel’s fun drive – not to mention the lurid spirit. While Shade was lovably explicit, Bloodletter also goes for more of a highbrow vibe in the naughty parts. This too reminded me of The Late Great Creature and Flicker. But then, if you enjoyed either of those novels, you’ll certainly enjoy Bloodletter.

Annoying note: For some inexplicable reason, Blogger was flagging this review for content.  I can only assume it was the cover, which as you can see does not even feature any nudity.  I decided to just obscure it completely in the cover scan above to hopefully circumvent the issue.

Monday, December 5, 2022

The Spider #28: The Mayor Of Hell


The Spider #28: The Mayor Of Hell, by Grant Stockbridge
January, 1936  Popular Publications

Even though it doesn’t feature the typical supervillain of the series, or much in the way of supernatural thrills, or even an appearance of the titular Spider himself, this 28th volume of The Spider is one of my favorites yet in the series, Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page turning in a novel that has more emotional resonance than typical for a pulp yarn. He also manages to hit on some relevance with our modern day, which is incredible considering this pulp yarn was published 86 years ago. 

In fact I found myself downright moved by a few sequences in The Mayor Of Hell, and midway through was prepared to declare it the best Spider I’d yet read. But unfortunately the story kept going, and as was his wont Page began to stuff the plot with too many disconnected action scenes. I agree with Zwolf that Joseph Rosenberger must have been a Spider fan, as there are a lot of similarities here. At one point in the book, during a firefight no less, Richard “The Spider” Wentworth starts boasting about how he kills, and his words could be put directly into the mouth of Richard Camellion. And hell I just realized, both characters have the first name “Richard.” (Which happens to be my middle name! But that has nothing to do with anything whatsoever.) 

This one starts off a sort of trilogy, too. Long story short, in this one Wentworth, who is (once again?) publicly exposed as the Spider, drops his guise and becomes “Corporal Death,” vowing to take down the so-called “Mayor of Hell,” who has, wouldja believe, united all the criminals of New York into one faction. Indeed, the worst villain Wentworth has ever faced! One thing to note, though: there’s no Corporal Death costume. Wentworth basically just takes up this new crimefighting name, arms himself with a special knife, but otherwise goes about in his regular clothes, without even a mask. So the costume factor is totally absent in The Mayor Of Hell; even the titular villain doesn’t wear a costume. He appears in one sequence and his schtick is he hides behind a bunch of mirrored lights. 

But like I said, whereas you’d think the loss of the typical Spider trappings would result in a misfire of an installment, it’s as if Page set the bar higher for himself with this one. There are some moments where Wentworth displays the sterling courage (stirring courage?) that Page has only hinted at in the past. And as usual Page puts his hero through the wringer; I mean The Mayor Of Hell opens with Wentworth getting machine-gunned in the back, chest, etc. But like a Terminator he essentially walks it off, recuperating for a few months in bed and wholly recovering. 

That’s another thing that differentiates The Mayor Of Hell: it takes place over a broader section of time, encompassing about three months. We learn at the outset that it’s been “six months” since the Spider has seen any action – meaning sixth months after #27: Emperor Of The Yellow Death? However Page drops the ball on this; the guy was typing so fast that it was only expected he’d make the occasional goof. Late in the novel Wentworth, as ever going undercover, appropriates the name of a hood he killed in Chicago “two months ago.” This does not jibe with the six month timeline of no action established in the opening…and for that matter, Wentworth spends two months in bed after the opening action scene. 

Well anyway, who cares about such trivialities. It’s still all about the action, which ultimately undoes the novel. At least in my opinion. This is unfortunate because Page really amps up the manly drama in the opening half. He already puts the screws to his character in the opening pages; Wentworth is relaxing in his lush penthouse and playing his Stradivarius when he’s suddenly attacked by a veritable army of subgun-toting thugs. There’s even a guy across the street hammering away with a heavy gun and a plane dropping bombs. The place is destroyed, Wentworth smashes his precious Stradivarius in an act of self-defense, and as mentioned our hero is shot more times than Fifty Cent. (“Why, good God, he was being killed!”) 

Page was too harried to worry over niceties like convenient plotting or coincidences, so an escaping Wentworth just happens to fall into the graces of a kindly old house robber named O’Brien who takes him in and nurses him to health. How you’d nurse a guy who has been machine gunned is beyond me. But months pass and Wentworth discovers he has been exposed as the Spider in the papers; what’s more, his erstwhile companions have been tossed in prison for abetting a criminal and Nita Van Sloan has only escaped jail after a lawsuit for the “crime” of defending herself against a crook. 

Again, folks, the connotations with today are just off the charts. For Page soon reveals that The Mayor Of Hell takes place in a surreal world in which every cop is a criminal and all the sinners are saints. Wentworth learns about this via a newspaper – an outdated paper from a month before, when he was comatose, because now all the papers are run by the bad guys and “the news” is nothing but propaganda for the corrupt ruling party(!!): 


Now friends I am going to try hard to restrain myself and not venture into my world-famous political musings, because I know some of you don’t like it. (“I deride your truth-handling abilities!” – Sideshow Bob) I promised I would stop, and I intend to uphold that promise.  Of course I made the promise like seven years ago, but better late than never.  And hell, I could even be wrong in my sentiments...I mean, those starving people in the crime-ridden dystopia of Solyent Green seemed happy...  But if you will indulge me one (perhaps) final time...just take a look at that excerpt. Change “new United States Senator” to “new President” and “Governor of the State” to “former President” and you basically have the gist of the political spectrum in modern-day America. Hell, Page somehow even manages to use the word “trump!” 

Page develops gripping drama here with Wentworth committing himself to the fight; despite being branded as a criminal by the papers and all his followers thrown in prison by a corrupt government, Wentworth will not relent. (That sound you hear is me clearing my throat in a meaningful fashion.) Apropos of nothing Wentworth dubs himself “Corporal Death” and he unites O’Brien, O’Brien’s pretty young daughter, and the last good cop on the New York force (the fiance of O’Brien’s daughter) as “the Long Knives.” This is a great scene where Wentworth hands over each of the men a long knife and announces, “We must become killers.” Then the girl, Kathleen, demands her own knife, much to the surprise of her dad and fiance – and of course Wentworth has a knife for her, too! Sure, it’s “smaller” than the knives he gave the men, but still – a cool scene of these hounded innocents making the solemn decision to take on an enemy that vastly outnumbers them. One might even venture to say that they are determined to make the city great again. Of course I wouldn’t say that, as I’m trying hard not to offend any sensitive readers out there. 

But the helluva it is, Page does absolutely nothing with “Corporal Death and the Long Knives.” They don’t even share an action scene together, and as ever Page just focuses on his hero throughout. Wentworth, despite having his own team this time, still operates in a solo capacity. I was a let little down by this, as Page does not build on the gripping drama he establishes with the formation of the Long Knives. However that’s not to say that Page doesn’t deliver more emotional content – anyone who reads The Spider knows how we are often told of the love Wentworth and Nita have for one another, how Nita will sacrifice anything for the man she loves and vice versa, but this time Page actually shows it. 

Wentworth, as ever beleaguered and incognito, poses at one point as a street performer, playing a cheap violin. Nita just happens to pass him by in a taxi and rushes out to watch. Though she gives no outward indication – as a former acquaintance of Wentworth she is of course being shadowed by the gestapo that works for the corrupt new government – it is clear she knows this bum is really Wentworth in disguise, if only due to his playing. This is probably the most dramatic scene yet in The Spider. But the only problem is Page again undoes his own effort, with Wentworth and Nita rounded up and taken away, with our hero gaining a brief audience with the Mayor of Hell. After yet another action scene, Nita is again removed from the narrative. 

In fact The Mayor Of Hell becomes increasingly fractured as Page hops from one action setpiece to another. However Page doesn’t waste our time with the usual “secret identity mystery” of the titular villain. From the get-go Wentworth learns that a corrupt politican named Hoey has taken over New York, and he’s clearly “in league” with the Mayor Of Hell. If you work for Hoey, you work for the Mayor, and that includes all the city’s cops, who as mentioned now exist merely to protect the interests of the rulers. This leads to an awesome speech Wentworth gives to some New Yorkers on the street – the words just as relevant in 2022 as in this fictional 1936: 


What concerns me is that Page doesn’t just hit on relevance with our modern day, he also manages to predict where we may be headed. There is a part where Wentworth is walking around Times Square, all this taking place before Christmas day, and he muses to himself: 


Also, note the cross on the guy’s face in the illustration. Whereas the Spider’s schtick was branding an image of his namesake on the forehead of his victims, Corporal Death is a bit more sadistic – he carves a cross on the faces of his enemies. While he never uses the term, Page basically turns our hero into a terrorist in The Mayor Of Hell, or perhaps rabble-rouser would be as good a term. For Wentworth really acts in this capacity, going around the city and stirring up the masses against Hoey and his corrupt ruling party. Wentworth knows that elections cannot save them: “They would never succeed against [Hoey] in the crooked ballotings.” In a novel filled with relevance, this sole comment has the greatest relevance of all

But like I keep repeating, Page just squanders all this gravitas with incessant action and plot digressions. He also works in more coincidence; while in yet another disguise, Wentworth just happens to come across none other than Stanley Kirkpatrick, who is about to perpetrate his own terrorist action against Hoey. It’s all very much in the vein of other Spider yarns, with copious action taking precedence over any plotting, but this time it irritated me because the setup was so well done. I mean I really wanted to read about Corporal Death leading his Long Knives in commando assaults on the Mayor’s army. Instead, the Long Knives stay off-page for the duration of the novel, and it’s Wentworth going about in various disguises as he gets in one-off firefights. 

As mentioned, The Mayor Of Hell kicks off a trilogy. While the book climaxes with the expected outing of the main villain’s identity, and security finally being returned to the city (until next time), there’s a cliffhanger that Wentworth is still a wanted man and must continue to hide. Also he has not reunited with his erstwhile companions by novel’s end. Overall though, The Mayor Of Hell, at least for the first half, was one of my favorite volumes yet…who knows how great it could have been if Norvell Page had been able to focus solely on it instead of all the other yarns he had to write that month.