Monday, March 27, 2023

Men's Adventure Quarterly #7 (plus She Devil OST)

Men's Adventure Quarterly #7, edited by Robert Deis and Bill Cunningham
January, 2023  Subtropic Productions

The seventh installment of Men’s Adventure Quarterly was perfectly timed for me; its focus on “Gang Girls” was in-line with a CD I purchased shortly before Xmas (more on which anon), so I dove right into this latest issue of the series. And it’s another great publication courtesy Bob Deis and Bill Cunningham, providing ample stories and art. We also get informative editorials from the two and co-editors Jules Burt and Andrew Nette; the latter gives a cool rundown on ‘50s juvenile delinquent pulp, particularly focused on the novel that kicked the genre off, The Amboy Dukes. But man, I was bummed he didn’t mention that Ted Nugent took the title of this novel for the name of his first band – and their mega-skewed Zappa-influenced prog-acid 1970 LP Marriage On The Rocks is one of my favorites. 

As ever Bob Deis provides an informative overview for the entire issue, and then separate intros for each story. I was impressed that he was able to find so many “juvenile delinquent girl” stories in the men’s mags; I had no idea there were enough to fill a book! I’ve said it before, but Bob could’ve made a good living coming up with themes for book publishers back in the day. It’s worth noting though that toward the end of MAQ #7 we get out of the j.d. girls theme and into a “biker chick” theme, but that’s fine by me – also worth noting that in one of the various artwork spotlights in the issue they show the poster for the biker-chick flick The Hellcats, the obscure novelization of which I reviewed here a few years ago. In fact I think “biker chick” would be a great theme for a future issue of Men’s Adventure Quarterly

“The Vicious Girl Gangs Of Boston,” by Henry S. Galus and from the August 1954 Man To Man, starts us off, about the “Violent, insane, brutal thuggery” of the titular girl gangs in Boston. “Female punks are causing a menace never equaled in our history,” Galus tells us in this exploitative expose that’s delivered more as a standard reporting piece than the typical men’s adventure yarn. 

“Tomboy Jungle” by Wenzell Brown, from the November 1957 For Men Only, is more along those yarns – it starts off as straight fiction, with a guy hitting on some jailbait girl in the city…and walking into a trap set up by the jailbait’s j.d. friends. The girl is a Pachuco, “the fastest growing crime cult in the country.” This is a vicious lot of gang-girls who use their beauty to lure men into allies for a little knife-in-the-back fun. Brown then goes into breathless rundowns of some Pachuco atrocities, surely with his tongue slightly in cheek, like when he tells us how a “young army private” in New York was once abducted by three Pachuco girls, who “compelled him to have sexual relations with each of them.” The horror!

“Zip-Gun Girl” is by Albert L. Quandt and from the September 1958 Man’s Illustrated. This is probably the longest story yet featured in an issue of Men’s Adventure Quarterly, running to nearly thirty pages (though admitedly I’m missing the sixth volume of MAQ, which might have had even longer stories). This is because “Zip Gun Girl” is a condensed version of a novel titled Zip-Gun Angels. Usually I skip abridged stories in men’s adventure magazines, figuring I’ll read the original novel someday. But I’m not planning on reading Quandt’s novel any day soon, so this condensed version sufficed. It’s not nearly as lurid as the title would imply. 

This one’s about Pebbles Jackson, a teen beauty (“the fullness of her sweater was heaving”) with an ex-con father who has just moved into the city. She finds herself in the middle of a gang-war between the Tigers and the Buccaneers. There’s also a cop named Grieg who takes an interest in Pebbles – who meanwhile befriends gang-girl Blackie (so named due to her hair color). The titular zip guns are used by the two gang members, and at one point Pebbles’s dad gets hold of the gun. It’s pretty involved and clearly a novel instead of a fast-moving piece of pulp. Quandt’s writing is good, but like I said I think this abridgement will do it for me and I won’t be seeking out the original novel. 

We’re back to the fast-moving pulp, plus our first first-person narrative in this MAQ, with “Street Queens Are Taking Over,” by Jack Smith and from the January 1962 Wildcat Adventures. This one’s more of a sweat yarn than the more polished men’s adventure stories of the Diamond Line (ie For Men Only, Male, etc); it’s the sort of short, fast-moving sleaze the mysterious Pep Pentageli collected in his own men’s adventure anthologies (ie Soft Brides For The Beast Of Blood). It also has my favorite art in this issue, with a hotstuff brunette gang-girl about to whip a blonde. We even get two versions of this illustration, the cover piece and the splashpage, both courtesy Charles Frace (again, Bob Deis’s intros are very informative). This whipping is the centerpiece of the story, given that “Street Queens” isn’t very long. It’s an exploitative piece in which the narrator tells us about Margie, the sadistic boss of the West Side Dragons, who per the illustration whips a blonde girl named Shirl, who slept with Margie’s man (whose nickname is Jack the Ripper!) – and, since this is a sweat, Margie whips Shirl to friggin’ death. This one was probably my favorite in this issue. 

The luridly-titled “Lust On Our Streets” is another sweats yarn, by Allan Hendrix and from the September 1963 Wildcat Adventures. As with the previous story it’s another that trades on exploitation; the entire story is the buildup to a teen girl getting raped by a gang of j.d.s, lured into an alley by her new “friends” in the city. This one’s in third person, though, and concerns two rich teens who move to New York, hanging out in the slums with some j.d.s because they seem cool; the delinquents bait them with talk of a new dance called “The Leash,” which turns out to be j.d. code for taking the two teens into an alley and whipping them, then raping the girl. As with most of these sweats the author’s tongue must be in his cheek, as the entire thing is just lurid exploitation, then abruptly morphs into a concerned polemic on this national problem in the final paragraphs. Features another “great pair” of cleavage-baring illustrations (note the clever pun) by Charles Frace. I can already see the sweat mag editors of yore enthusing over this guy’s work; in my mind they’re sweaty, heavyset lechers with cheap cigars in their mouths: “Get that Frace guy – he does jugs like nobody!” 

We come now to the biker girl era with “The Passion Angel Cycle Girls,” by Clinton Kayser and from the December 1967 Men. Illustrated with photos of bikers and their chicks acting crazy for the camera, this one purports to be first-hand accounts by the titular cycle girls, talking mostly about what drew them to the biking life and how they like to get it on with bikers. As Bob Deis notes in his intro, it’s likely all the product of “Kayser’s” imagination; in his intro Bob also mentions another men’s adventure mag story, one I’ve been interested in for a long time, which features one of the greatest “topless biker chick” illustrations you’ll ever see (courtesy Earl Norem, my favorite of all the men’s mag artists): “Sex Life Of A Motorcyle Mama.” Bob, please consider this story for a future MAQ

The last yarn in this very special “Gang-Girls” issue is “Latest Teen Terror Craze: Cycle Girls On Wheels,” by J.R. Wayne and from the June 1970 Man’s Conquest. Originally from 1965, this one goes back to the more “factual” vibe with a rundown on what draws certain young women to the motorcycle scene. 

After this we get some artwork spotlights on j.d. and biker movies – as ever, Bill Cunningham does a great job on the art in this MAQ. And Bill’s layouts are so much easier to read than the original men’s adventure magazines, which ran triple-column pages of blurry type, to the point that I’ve often wondered how their target audience of WWII and Korea vets could even read the damn things. But then, they were probably buying them for the cleavage-baring illustrations. And who could blame them? 

Back to the CD I mentioned at the start; while reading Fuel-Injected Dreams I was on a momentary ‘50s rock kick, and went looking for something “new” to listen to. Last year I picked up a CD titled Terror From The Universe, released in 2020 by UK label Righteous, produced in “Glorious Crampovision.” What this meant was that dialog from ‘50s sci-fi movies was sprinkled between (and sometimes over) exotica and rock music of the era, and each track was a long sequence of several songs blended together, like a DJ set. While it wasn’t the type of music I’d generally listen to, I liked the concept of the CD. So this past November I saw that Righteous, in 2018, had released a similar compilation, titled She Devil OST, the “soundtrack” to a nonexistent 1950s juvenile delinquent movie. Here’s the cover: 

Following the same setup as Terror Beyond The Universe, She Devil features dialog samples from ‘50s j.d. films – with a focus on “gun girls.” And the music featured is much better – none of the exotica of that later Righteous release, but more on the rock spectrum. Well, I played it and I liked it…and meanwhile my six-year-old son loved it. One of the coolest things about being a parent is seeing the stuff your kid gets into. When I ordered She Devil OST, I had no idea that it would soon become my son’s favorite album. Man, he plays this thing all the time – I converted it to MP3 so he could blast it on a Bluetooth speaker. On weekends or when he’s off from school, he demands we play his “full album” (his name for the CD), so I’ve heard She Devil OST multiple times now. 

And I have to say, it makes for the perfect aural accompaniment to Men’s Adventure Quarterly #7. Like the stories Bob and Bill have collected here, the songs on She Devil OST aren’t just relegated to the 1950s, but go into the (early) ‘60s as well. They’re for the most part raw and wild, with none of the saccharine schmaltz you might expect of ‘50s or early ‘60s rock. Best of all, I hadn’t heard any of these songs before – Righteous, which seems to have a focus on releasing CDs with themes centered around the punk band The Cramps, generally sticks to under-the-radar releases. My favorite song on the CD is “Tongue Tied,” by a singer named Betty McQuade; apparently it was the B-side of a 1962 single only released in Australia. Like I said, under the radar sort of stuff. But man, this track is almost proto-punk, at least in how Betty McQuade snarls out the vocals. 

Meanwhile my son’s favorite song is “Motorcycle Millie,” by Garrett Williams; he surely must be the only 6-year-old kid who goes around singing, “Motorcycle Millie – she’s my girl.” And also he’s real big on the goofy 1960 oddity “You Been Torturing Me,” by The Four Young Men, which goes on about all the ways the singer is going to get violent revenge on the girl who broke his heart – “I’m gonna stomp you on the top of your foot/And hang you from a big long fishing hook/And drop you plumb to the bottom of the sea,” and etc. To tell the truth I’m half afraid my kid’s gonna start singing this one in his kindergarten class, and next thing you know the school counselor will be giving us a call… 

Anyway, wrapping up – this is another highly-recommended issue of Mens Adventure Quarterly, and I hope Bob Deis and Bill Cunningham keep publishing this series for many years to come!

Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Lone Wolf #5: Havana Hit

The Lone Wolf #5: Havana Hit, by Mike Barry
March, 1974  Berkley Medallion Books

Barry “Mike Barry” Malzberg ventures even further into stream-of-conscious territory with this fifth volume of The Lone Wolf, which per series template begins immediately after the events of the previous volume. As we’ll recall, Martin (or Burt, we haven’t figured it out yet) Wulff has just gotten on a plane bound for New York, a valise with “a million dollars worth of shit” (aka uncut heroin) with him. 

As Havana Hit opens, the plane has redirected as the result of a hijacking. While initially I thought this was a coincidence, at length Wulff realizes that the hijacking has occurred because of him. Or, rather, because of the valise. Like the previous valise of heroin Wulff toted around in the earliest volumes, this one is a MaGuffin in the true sense; it moves the plot along because everyone wants it, but otherwise it has no real bearing on anything. And as mentioned it’s interchangeable with the prevoius valise of heroin, which Wulff tossed in a lake in Boston

I do like The Lone Wolf, but I’m finding myself more interested in what is going on in Barry Malzberg’s head than I am in what’s atually happening in the books. And there’s no question what’s going on in Malzberg’s head, as this time he retreats even further into his own headspace, doling out incessant observations on society, crime, Cuba, trust between colleagues, and what have you. I mean in no way whatsoever could you ever confuse this series with The Executioner. There is a strange, surreal texture to Lone Wolf that is similar to The Butcher in how it all comes off like the events of a dream. Wulff is our guide through the dream, making things happen, as ever his mere presence somehow affecting reality – nowhere more apparent than in this opening, where a plane filled with people is hijacked merely so the Syndicate can get their clutches on Wulff. 

This is the least action-centric installment yet. Not that the previous ones were action blockbusters, but Havana Hit is so confined to Wulff’s mental musings that the action comes off as a distraction. Adding to the weird vibe of the series is the fixation on death. There might be gore in other men’s adventure novels of the day, but generally the victim is forgotten about after we’ve been told how his head’s exploded and his brains have burst out. Not so here. When Wulff or someone else shoots a guy Malzberg will keep going back to him, focusing on the corpse, how it changes appearance in its postortem state, the killer thinking again of how easily life is stamped out and how death equals us all out, etc. In a way it’s so overdone that it made me think of the MST3K episode Night Of The Blood Beast, where the characters kept obsessing over the corpse of an astronaut and Mike Nelson quipped, “I’ve never seen a man so dead!” 

Well anyway, Malzberg’s clearly winging it this time. This has been apparent in previous volumes but this time it’s especially pronounced. It is clear that Malzberg just sits down at his typewriter and writes, and what comes out is what gets printed. There is no editing to take out any chaff; Malzberg-via-Wulff will wax morbidly about mundane things for pages and pages at times. The observant reader can even detect Malzberg pushing himself at times to get back to the plot – there are parts where Malzberg literally commands himself to get back on-track so far as the story goes. But as mentioned I kind of enjoy this aspect because I like to see the feverish mind of a writer at work. 

All of which is to say the plot of Havana Hit is pretty thin. In a nutshell, Wulff’s plane is hijacked, the hijackers take it to Cuba, and the passengers are anticlimactically let go (off page) and Wulff finds out the entire thing was orchestrated just to get hold of him. Meanwhile Delgado, a sadistic Cuban military official whose sadism is a gauze for the cowardice he displayed back in the ‘50s as one of Castro’s flunkies in the mountains, brutally kills off the hijackers for bringing this problem to them. As mentioned though Malzberg has no grand plan when he starts writing, thus as the novel progresses Delgado is retconned into being a Syndicate man himself, even though in his intro he hates the hijackers for being so stupid as to believe they would have friends here in Cuba. It’s all very hazy because it’s so underdeveloped. 

As for Wulff, he manages to free himself in one of the novel’s few action scenes. Taken off in a helicopter, supposedly to freedom, Wulff realizes it’s really a hit and as ever takes matters into his own hands. In this way he meets Stevens, an American expat currently working for the Cubans as a helicopter pilot. Stevens factors heavily in the second half of the novel, serving as a meek counterpoint to Wulff; whereas Wulff takes life by the reigns and makes things happen, Stevens has spent his life running from responsibility. But even in this characterization Barry Malzberg can’t stay consistent; Stevens will periodically change from resigned to inspired, whichever benefits the current whims of the plot. 

What it really comes down to is a lot of mordant commentary on Cuba. Havana Hit offers interesting period commentary in that the Castro regime is fairly new to power and, in Wulff’s eyes, Cuba had almost become an American annex during the previous regime – every native he meets speaks English and acts like an American. There’s also a lot of musing on Stevens’s lack of resolve and how it “bleeds” into Wulff, making him in danger of losing his killer drive or somesuch. To tell the truth it’s all very weird and as ever things just play out as if it’s all a dream. I mean Stevens, despite spending his life not wanting to get involved, decides to go confront Delgado with Wulff, and even though the two of them only have old revolvers the ensuing firefight is so apocalyptic that the second floor of a building explodes. 

Another recurring schtick of The Lone Wolf is that a secondary “main villain” is revealed in the final pages. The same holds true here, with Delgado, built up as the main villain in the first third of the book, unceremoniously replaced by a new guy who works in the Intelligence division of the Cuban military. But it all comes down to that damn valise of heroin, which everyone wants, but no one more so than Wulff himself. So we have yet another recurring schtick of a finale where Wulff takes on everyone – including supposed comrades – to retain possession of “his property.” 

While enjoyable just for the second-hand buzz of the whole surreal aspect, Havana Hit is really a sort of stumble in the series; I suspect you could just skip it altogether and not even miss anything. For by novel’s end Wulff is once again airborne, headed back for the US with his valise of heroin, which is exactly how the previous volume ended. But judging from the title of the next installment, it looks like Wulff ends up in Chicago instead of his desired destination of New York.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Mark Of The Werewolf

Mark Of The Werewolf, by Jeffrey Sackett
February, 1990  Bantam Books

Jeffrey Sackett published a handful of horror paperbacks in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; I have a few of them but Mark Of The Werewolf is the first I’ve read. I was looking for a good werewolf yarn and that’s what this one promised – that, and a cool-sounding plot about a group of neo-Nazis who hope to figure out how to create werewolves of their own and use them as a sort of super-army. 

Sounds like a great B movie-esque plot, but unfortunately it’s all squandered. What Mark Of The Werewolf is really about is immortality…and this too is squandered because the immortal can’t remember anything about his life. The reader must be prepared for some long-haul tedium as the majority of the novel turns into episodic flashbacks about this man’s life through the ages, almost coming off like short stories that have nothing to do with the novel itself. Werewolf action is scant, and when it does occur it too is squandered by some rather lifeless prose – in the action and horror stuff, at least. Otherwise Sackett is a good writer insofar as the character introspection goes; there’s just nothing whatsoever visceral about the horror sequences, and the violence is rendered in such blasé prose that it lacks any impact. 

Things start off okay, though, with enough in-jokey references that there’s no question Sackett is a fan of the classic Universal Monster franchise. For one we have character names like “William Henry Pratt,” which happens to have been the birth name of Boris Karloff. We also have the name “Hull,” as in Henry Hull of Werwolf Of London. The opening of the novel seems to pick up a few decades after The Wolfman; a group of Gypsies, including an old woman who is 100% based on Old Magda from that film (and its sequel), are rounded up in North Dakota, and among them is a haggard man all the other Gypsies seem to be afraid of. Of course he turns out to be a werewolf…not to mention the immortal mentioned above. His name is Janos Kaldy, and in a detour from the Universal classics he’s nothing like Larry Talbot…indeed, he will turn out to be someone else entirely, but by the time we learn this the novel has spiralled very far from this setup. 

And dammit, the setup is kind of cool. Sackett presents a sort of collapsed society; no year is mentioned, but it seems that Mark Of The Werewolf takes place in some “near future” in which an army of neo-Nazi thugs patrol the country, snatching non-whites and taking them back to a secret facility in North Dakota for imprisonment, torture, and death. Kaldy and the Gypsies are captured in the opening – but only after an effective scene in which Kaldy turns into a werewolf and makes quick work of the “whips,” ie the Nazi thugs. Yes, just like those hokey Universal classics, stuff always seems to be happening during a full moon, and that’s the case here. But Kaldy and his Gypsy minder Blasko are taken anyway…and they will spend the rest of the novel stuck within the Hulltech Center for Genetic Research. 

Here's where the tedium sets in. Janos Kaldy isn’t even our protagonist. That duty is sort of shared by a trio of characters: Bracher, the sadist in charge of the genetic experimentation and who hopes to ultimately create a werewolf army to conquer the planet for whites; Louisa, Bracher’s cousin and the voice of reason in the novel; and finally Neville, Louisa’s simpering loser of a husband, who happens to be a preacher…and a doctor capable of performing autopsies…and a psychiatrist capable of performing hypnosis-induced regression therapy. The novel flits between these three characters for the majority of its 300-page runtime; eventually we have another Hulltech doctor, Petra, a hotstuff brunette who has a burning yearning to kill werewolves, given that her parents were killed by a werewolf

But man, I italicized “cousin” above because I just couldn’t get over how flat-out lame the setup was; I mean Bracher’s this shitkicking sadist who was in the military and various black ops and CIA and other shit, and now he’s heading up this secret genetic research facility which has the ultimate aim of killing off all the non-white races…and the dude goes out looking for his friggin’ cousin who he used to argue with all the time when they were kids(!). Why? Uh, because her husband can do autopsies or something like that. It was just such a disconnect for me. And of course Bracher’s a total control obsessive in true Nazi fashion, and lords over everyone with an iron fist…yet he puts up with his cousin’s browbeating and arguing for the entire novel. 

That’s just the start of it, though. Around page 100 Neville, in the hopes of figuring out what makes Janos Kaldy tick, starts putting him under hypnosis. Now as mentioned, Kaldy lives among the Gypsies, but it soon becomes clear he’s only been with them a few decades…and his minder Blasko, now an old man, was a young father when Kaldy first appeared. (Oh, and Kaldy the werewolf killed Blasko’s wife and child, but Blasko’s forgiven him…) So Janos Kaldy cannot die. Absolutely nothing can kill him. This has been established in other werewolf yarns, but Jeffrey Sackett takes it into new dimensions: Janos Kaldy is immortal, if not eternal. But the helluva it is, folks, he’s lived so long that he can’t remember anything about his past

Imagine, if you can, the frustration of reading a novel about someone who has lived thousands of years but can’t even remember what his real name is – nor even how he became a werewolf! Mark Of The Werewolf is in some ways like a continuous kick to the crotch. You keep wanting a werewolf novel, but intsead it becomes a slog of episodic flashbacks to the ancient past. And a lot of these flashbacks are underwhelming. Like for example, it turns out that Kaldy at one point had a traveling companion named Claudia, who traveled with Kaldy for centuries. She too is a werewolf, cursed with immortality, and accuses Kaldy of making her a werewolf…though neither Claudia nor Kaldy are really sure, because even Claudia can’t friggin’ remember anything about her past. Well anyway, at one point in a flashback they’re in Hungary and tracking down none other than Dracula himself, and the whole scene is so damn stupid…Dracula talks like a pompous oaf, taunting the werewolves, then apropos of nothing turns himself into a werewolf when they themselves transform (per tradition, Kaldy and Claudia have come to see Dracula on the night of a full moon, dontcha know), and then Dracula flies off and is never mentioned again. 

We get flashbacks to ancient Rome, to the Biblical era (complete with walk-ons by such personages as Pontius Pilate – just the type of character you’d expect in a werewolf novel, right??), and further back to the origins of prehistory. Each sequence is yet another clue in how Janos Kaldy – or the man known now as Janos Kaldy – became a werewolf. Sackett ties in an apostasy angle here that also plays on the title of the novel. I felt it was a bit too much and really detracted from the mythos of lycanthropy, gussying it up way too much. The helluva it is, the non-flashback material is pretty cool; Bracher is a true sadist, using prisoners as unwilling test subjects for various serums Petra creates in order to turn people into werewolves. There are a lot of brutal parts here of poor people being pulled into an exam room by Whips and Petra jabbing them with a syringe and then everyone waiting expectantly for the results as the prisoner goes into paroxysms of unbearable pain. 

Other than the belabored “flashback to prehistory” setup, what really hampers Mark Of The Werewolf is that the writing lacks much bite, if you’ll pardon the lame pun. There is nothing visceral in any of the scenes that are supposed to be tense or scary; Sackett writes in an almost “blah” prose style that robs everything of impact. For example: 

If you didn’t pick it up, the above sequence detailed a werewolf chasing after a car full of people. And still being behind them even after they’ve been driving for “hours” (though supposedly all this takes place in a small town?). Yet it’s written in such blasé terms that Sackett just as well might be documenting something as mundane as a person crossing the street. 

Even more grandscale sequences lack any drive, like when two “good” werewolves take on the “bad” werewolves that have finally been created by Hulltech: 

Violence and tension are relayed in an almost offhand, casual fashion, almost giving the impression that you’re reading the outline of a more gripping novel. That really is what took me out of Mark Of The Werwolf. That, and the fact that the actual werewolf stuff was scant. Sackett is more concerned with the unending turmoil one experiences as an immortal than he is in writing a werewolf story; in this book the titular mark of the werewolf casts you into a millennia of suffering, longing for a death that you can never have. To the point that even fun pulp stuff is taken from us; Kaldy and Claudia, having lived so long, don’t even have libidos anymore. And Kaldy makes for a lame werewolf protagonist; he’s so clueless about his past that he comes off as a moron, which was surely unintentional on Sackett’s part. 

One thing Jeffrey Sackett is guilty of is one of the lamest “surprise reveals” I’ve yet read in a novel. No spoilers, but late in Mark Of The Werewolf we learn that a certain character is really someone else. But what makes it so stupid is that another of the characters knew this all along, yet never said anything. And when confronted with this he basically shrugs and says, “I had no reason to tell you that I knew.” Like I said, I won’t give anything away, but it’s just super, super lame. Also you might notice from the above two excerpts that Sackett has a tendency to render everything in summary. Endless sentences that spin out into forever – hey, sort of like Janos Kaldy’s life! While it might work with Sackett’s theme, it doesn’t work in horror fiction, at least horror fiction with the B-movie plot of neo-Nazis who want to create an army of werewolves. 

On the plus side, I did read the whole thing, if only to learn Kaldy’s origins. But as mentioned, I found the apostasy angle underwhelming. Actually I found the entire novel underwhelming. Bantam Books was fully onboard the Jeffrey Sackett train, though; Mark Of The Werewolf features a few pages of Sackett’s Blood Of The Impaler at the end, a Dracula riff that Will at Too Much Horror Fiction seemed to like about as much as I liked Mark Of The Werewolf. Not only that, but it even features a few pages from an untitled novel Sackett hadn’t even yet finished; looking online, it seems to be the novel that would be published in 1991 as The Demon.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Stakeout Squad: Miami Heat (Stakeout Squad #2)

Stakeout Squad: Miami Heat, by D. A. Hodgman
June, 1995

The second volume of Stakeout Squad is about the same as the first, heavy on the firearms detail and cop-world vibe, but bogged down by a flabby storytelling structure and totally lacking the pulp charm the plot would’ve had in a men’s adventure novel of two decades before. Because in this one, friends, the Stakeout Squad goes up against – Satanists! But sadly as it turns out, these aren’t the fun pulpy Satanists you’d want, filled with hotshit socialite babes looking for some devil-worshipping kicks…instead, they are a freakish lot who get off on mutilating and murdering children. 

So already we see that damned “realism” is again invading our men’s adventure in the 1990s, aka The Decade That Killed Men’s Adventure. Author D.A. Hodgman, aka Dorothy Ayoob, is once again damned determined to buzzkill any pulp thrills, despite having a Satanic cult as the villains. She’s also already lost the plot of the series itself; the setup of Stakeout Squad is that the squad of cops, uh, stakes out places that are getting frequently robbed. But this volume the’re turned into security guards, their task to protect the families of preachers and anti-cult academics from the vile clutches of the Satanists. Only the very beginning of the novel, where super-hot Melinda Hoffritz, aka the Smurfette of the Stakeout Squad, takes out a pair of would-be ATM robbers, retains the vibe of the first volume. 

Ayoob shamelessly rides the Satanic panic bandwagon of the day, her book likely inspired by Maury Terry’s The Ultimate Evil…which also inspired Night Kill and the Psycho Squad series. Actually I just realized this book’s from 1995 (even though it seems more ‘80s), so the Satanic Panic fad was over already. It’s curious though that Ayoob already drops the series template with this second volume. When one thinks of a series grounded in realism (perhaps a bit too grounded) and concerned with a squad of cops who stake out high-crime areas, the last thing one would think of would be Satanist villains. But Ayoob does work in the mandatory Gold Eagle gun-p0rn, as these Satanists turn out to be heavily armed, their various firearms and assault weapons dutifully namedropped for us. Ayoob slightly reigns in on the overbearing gun detail of the first volume, but not much. 

However she doesn’t reign in on the awkward storytelling structure that hampered Line Of Fire. Here too forward momentum is constantly stalled by egregious flashbacks to this or that incident one of the cop protagonists previously experienced in the line of duty, or flashbacks to guns they once carried. I kid you not. There’s a part toward the end where the tension has finally ramped up, and oblivious to her own narrative Ayoob goes off on a tangent in which one of the main cops flashes back to a gun he used to carry…for like pages and pages. And plus this guy isn’t even on the scene with the Stakeout Squad members who are about to get in a firefight! I mean Miami Heat just comes off like someone who wants to write about guns and ammo and the life of a cop, but doesn’t know how to deliver it in the form of a gripping novel. 

Another curious thing is that the cover for this volume and the first volume shows white cops, however Stakeout Squad is more concerned with the black characters. There are three main figures in the group who are black, and Ayoob spends a lot of the narrative with each of them; one of them, Tom West, is a new member who grew up in the projects, giving Ayoob ample opportunity to waste thirty pages on backstory about his days as a child gang member. Presumably the blond dude on the cover is Bob Carmody, who only gradually emerges as the protagonist, or at least the protagonist who sees the most action in the finale…same as the previous volume. Not sure who the black-haired guy is supposed to be. Otherwise the other “main” character is, again, Melinda Hoffritz, who features with Carmody in the finale. And also again Ayoob dangles the idea that these two are attracted to each other, but Hoffritz constantly gives Carmody the brush-off, not wanting to get involved with a fellow cop. Remember folks, it’s Gold Eage…no sleazy tomfoolery here

Well anyway, we already know we’re in for a grim ride when the plot proper opens with a 12-year-old girl and her aunt getting in a fender bender with a man…who turns out to be a Satanist who has orchestrated the wreck so he can abduct the girl and murder her in horrendous fashion (off-page, at least). Later on we will see the autopsy of the poor girl and learn all the nightmarish stuff that was done to her, most of it of a sexual nature. As I’ve said before, there’s fun pulp and there’s no-fun pulp, and Miami Heat is certainly the latter. However, Ayoob’s intent here is to make the reader hate these Satanists – the reader and the Stakeout Squad both. For when they hear of these atrocities being performed – the 12-year-old is just one of a few child victims of the cult – they are all-in for taking down the satanists, even if it’s outside their normal purview. 

The cult, led by a Manson-type named Lawrence Franklin, has set its sights on religious figureheads and academics who have spoken out against Satanism. In particular, on the children of those figureheads. Stakeout Squad acts as bodyguards for the families. So in a way I guess it sticks to the series setup, with the caveat that the Squad is staking out homes, not frequently-robbed businesses. This leads to unexpected places – like stout Squad member Frank Cross getting laid. This is courtesy Dr. Jessica Wollman, one of those anti-cult academics, a brunette described as “a knockout…with a body you’d expect to see on a Penthouse cover.” Wollman, who delivers to the Squad an unmerciful fifteen-page expository info-dump on Satanism, later throws herself at Cross for some off-page lovin’, and the fool almost gets wasted when the cult attacks. A recurring series subplot is that another Squad member, Dan Harrington, is a coward, and that is proved out here with Harrington hiding while Cross is nearly killed – and, as with the previous book, none of the cops are the wiser to Harrington’s cowardice. 

Things finally pick up in the final quarter, which sees Bob Carmody and Melinda Hoffritz go undercover as Satanists. Ayoob only slightly delivers on the sleaze angle a similar plot would’ve received in a men’s adventure novel of the 1970s; the two must go “skyclad,” aka nude, and we are informed that “Melinda Hoffritz ha(s) breasts like few other women.” Indeed, to the point that her jugs make even the female Satanists gasp. Oh and I forgot – we’re also told none of the cultists are attractive, men or women. Again, it’s the buzzkilling “realism” of the ‘90s in full effect. And on that same note, Carmody and Hoffritz spend the entirety of the finale naked…and Carmody realizes at the end that he hasn’t even looked at Melinda’s hot bod this whole time! I mean so much for exploitative stuff like notes of Melinda’s “heaving, full breasts” as she runs around in the firefight, or other egregious mentions of her nude splendor. Such material has well and fully been gutted from the genre at this point in time. 

The gun stuff hasn’t been gutted, though; true to Gold Eagle form, the Satanists have taken over an old farmhouse in the woods…and it’s stuffed to the gills with assault weapons, of course. But it’s not full-on auto hellfire action, with Carmody and Hoffritz appropriating an M-14 and an M-16 and blasting away at the cultists, Carmody eventually setting off a fire with drums of gasoline. Ayoob doesn’t play up the violence much at all. In fact, she doesn’t play up much of anything at all; there is a sterile, drained feeling to Miami Heat, which again just brings to mind the vibe of the entire men’s adventure genre in 1995. 

Interestingly, the final page of the book contains an ad for The Color Of Blood, which is announced as “the final volume of Stakeout Squad.” So it would appear that this series was conceived as a limited one from the start.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Black Magic Today

Black Magic Today, by June Johns
April, 1971  NEL Books

NEL Books sure came up with some covers, didn’t they? Hopefully Blogger won’t flag this one for “adult content” like they did the cover for Bloodletter. I picked this one up years ago, fortunately for a nice price, with the hope that it would focus on that late ‘60s/early ‘70s shaggy-haired occult revival scene I’ve always been interested in. As it turns out, Black Magic Today only occasionally captures this vibe. 

Instead, author June Johns, of whom I know nothing, turns in a digressive polemic on the dark arts; she sums up that only the “deviant” are ultimately drawn to black magic. “I am neither a witch nor a black magician,” she tells us in the intro, and then goes into chapters with titles like “What Is Magic?” We get the history of magic, from primitive superstition to “the astronaut of today who carries a rabbit foot as a mascot.” 

As mentioned, the book is pretty digressive throughout its 127 pages. We have “Magic Versus Religion,” with detours into Egyptian and Aztec beliefs, as well as a study of Druids. There’s also a feature on the Salem witch trials – many of the accused witches who claimed to have had sex with the devil. (“His member cold and painful…”) Johns notes the modern belief that these Medieval women were tricked by rascally warlocks who penetrated them with metal dildos or somesuch, fooling the women into thinking it was Satan’s, uh, “cold and painful member.” 

There’s an overview on how the Catholic Church created the devil, Johns noting that the Bible has no real figure one could compare to the concept of Satan. She further claims that black magic and devil worship were an outcome of the Inquisition, with the persecuted pushed into further realms of devilry. Of course soon enough we’re on the topic of Aleistar Crowley, which goes on for several pages. Only here, toward the end of the book, does Johns get into the “groovy era” stuff I was looking for, with overviews of news stories about this or that black magic atrocity in England or elsewhere. 

Black Magic Today is really more of a digressive overview on magic belief in general than the expose on post-Altamont depravity that I was hoping for. Since I don’t have much to say about the book, I’ll just pad out the review with some arbitrary excerpts:

Monday, February 27, 2023

Lion’s Fire (The Year Of The Ninja Master #2)

Lions Fire, by Wade Barker
April, 1985  Warner Books

If you’re looking for an ‘80s ninja fest with guys in black costumes jumping through the air and slashing at each other with swords, then you’ll likely be disappointed in this second installment of The Year Of The Ninja Master. But if you’re looking for a quasi-mystical excursion into unfathomable prose, plus a lot of travelogue about Isreal, then chances are you’re gonna love it! 

But man, it’s becoming increasingly hard to believe that this is the same Ric Meyers who wrote the awesome Ninja Master #2: Mountain Of Fear. (On the other hand, it is easy to believe it’s the same Ric Meyers who wrote Book Of The Undead #1: Fear Itself.)  With this four-volume sequel series, it’s as if Meyers wanted to drop the pulp action of Ninja Master and go for more of an Eric Lustbader vibe. And as I think even my six-year-old kid could tell you, that was a mistake. I mean I can appreciate that Meyers wanted to do more than just a sleazy cash-in on ‘80s ninja action, but at the same time that’s exactly what I want this series to be. Instead he’s gone for a strange, almost surreal vibe, a very dark one, and in the process has dropped the entire “ninja vigilante” setup of Ninja Master

Anyway, it takes us quite a bit of time to learn this, but Lion’s Fire takes place two years after first volume Dragon Fire. The setup for The Year Of The Ninja Master appears to concern the former Brett Wallace, the hero of the previous series, now calling himself “Daremo” and on the run from his former friends while waging war on some shadowy ninja overlord sort of group that is behind world events. Or something. But Ric Meyers is one of those men’s adventure authors who wants to write about everyone except for the series protagonist; in truth, Daremo only appears on a handful of pages. The true protagonist, as with Dragon Fire, is Jeff Archer, now sometimes arbitrarily referred to as “Yasuru” (Japanese for “archer”). This series could more accurately be titled The Year of the Ninja Master’s Student

Meyers took poor Archer through the wringer last time, hitting him with a crippling nerve disease (that caused him to shit himself repeatedly!) and then having him beaten up throughout the book. So in the climactic events of Dragon Fire, a South American shaman-type localized Archer’s nerve disease in his left arm, so now Archer goes around with a limp left arm and must fight one-handed. It soon becomes evident that Meyers is inspired by the various “one-armed swordsman” movies in ‘70s kung-fu cinema; despite only having one arm, Archer is of course more deadly than most everyone he meets, and there are lots of parts where he takes on several opponents who understimate this one-armed guy. 

The action picks up in Isreal, and will stay there for the entire narrative. Archer doesn’t even appear until about a hundred pages in – as with the previous book, this one’s a too-long 287 pages – and the protagonist of the first hundred pages isn’t even anyone we’ve met before, but a sexy Israeli female cop by the name of Rachel. Meyers introduces sleaze to the series with an opening in which Rachel picks up some dude on the road – not knowing or caring that he happens to be a Muslim terrorist – and takes him back to a cabin for some sexual tomfoolery. After which a crying Rachel cuts her own thigh. The lady has some mental turmoils, and we learn that this “pick up a guy, screw him, then cut her thigh” thing is a recurring schtick for Ms. Rachel. 

The reader can’t help but wonder what any of this has to do with ninjas. It gets even more involved with Rachel getting in a firefight with some terrorist-types and her colleagues getting wiped out. There’s also the revelation of a plot involving nuclear armageddon. It’s all like a different series. Occasionally we will have murky cutovers to Daremo, who himself is in Israel, surrounded by an “army of dead” who exist in his mind – the ghosts of everyone he has killed. There is an attempt at pseudo-Revelations imagery with talk of a “Hooded Man” and metaphysical confrontations of the Lion taking on the Dragon and etc, etc. I mean it’s all very weird, and on a different level than the previous series. 

Oh and adding to that Biblical vibe, we get a lot of stuff about the Biblical Rachel. I mean a lot of it. And a lot of incessant travelogue about Isreal. We also get that Meyers staple of a female character being depredated; Rachel is captured and tortured by terrorists who grill her for info. And yes of course this part features the recurring Meyers motif of the female character being gagged. However she’s saved by the “cloaked one,” Daremo himself, who somehow is drawn to Rachel and has been shadowing her…if I understood all the metaphysics correctly, it’s because Rachel’s estranged husband is like a nuclear scientist or something, who might be part of that nuclear attack subplot. Also, there’s a wildly unbelievable reveal toward the end of the novel of who has been posing for the past several months as Rachel’s husband. 

On page 87 the actual protagonist of the series shows up: Jeff Archer, standing there along the road in Israel with his limp left arm and getting a ride from Rachel. Somehow he’s become fluent in Hebrew since the last volume. Meyers really goes to some odd places with these two characters. Essentially, they fall in love over the span of a few days – but it’s a cosmic sort of love…one that actually entails them being able to speak to each other telepathically. Yes, read that again. A little past midway through the book the two are sending each other their thoughts and communicating mentally and it’s…well, it’s just lame. While the sex is mostly off-page, there is infrequent action, with Archer displaying his one-armed skills against various opponents. A memorable action scene occurs in a “harlot” encampment. 

But where is Daremo, aka the protagonist once known as Brett Wallace? He’s here and there. He mostly appears for a few pages intermittently, getting in weird pseudo-apocalyptic battles with the Chinese ninja who was posing as Brett Wallace in the previous volume. This villain even has his own quasi-Biblical name: The Figure In Black, and as described he sounds like the second-wave version of Snake-Eyes, from the mid-‘80s: the one in the black costume with the visor over his eyes. This is exactly how the Figure In Black is described. He almost kicks Daremo’s ass in a desert battle, and the intimation is that he is the representative of the ninja world order that wants Brett Wallace/Daremo dead. 

Speaking of which, on page 225 Rhea and Hama show up, aka Brett’s former girlfriend and colleague, respectively. As we’ll recall, in Dragon Rising Hama was retconned into being this guy who hated the hell out of Brett Wallace and Jeff Archer, resenting these white guys from infringing on Japanese-only ninjutsu. He continues acting in the role of villain here, blindly following the whims of ninja tradition, which demands that Daremo be killed for disrespecting the clan. Meanwhile Rhea just stands around blinking away the tears and not doing anything else – a far cry from the tough ninja-babe she was in Ninja Master. These two get in a quick fight with Archer – who is again fighting in place of Daremo – and here Archer shows off some surprise skills with his limp left arm. Regardless, it’s annoying because this entire Hama-Rhea subplot just comes off as a nuissance. 

But then, the entire plot of Lion’s Fire is a nuissance. Meyers really goes hard for the metaphysical stuff with Archer and Rachel suffering some sort of mind-explosion that cancels out their short-lived telepathic abilities, there’s that lame and unbelievable reveal of who’s been posing as Rachel’s husband, and the book ends with everyone in the exact same place they were in at the start: Daremo is still off in the shadows, hiding from everyone, Archer is obediently pursuing him – and fighting for him, and Rhea and Hama are duty-bound to kill them both. 

Surprisingly, there was another four-volume series after The Year Of The Ninja Master, this one titled War Of The Ninja Master. Hopefully these later volumes drop the pseudo-mysticism and get back to the vibe of the original series. Even Vengeance Is His was better than this!

Thursday, February 16, 2023

The Penetrator #42: Inca Gold Hijack

The Penetrator #42: Inca Gold Hijack, by Lionel Derrick
June, 1981  Pinnacle Books

Chet Cunningham changes up The Penetrator with a series that might cause repercussions in future volumes, but probably won’t. I mean I’m sure series co-writer Mark Roberts won’t bother playing out on any of the developments. But long story short, Inca Gold Hijack features Mark “The Penetrator” Hardin suffering his greatest loss yet in the series – his greatest loss since his girlfriend’s murder, which happened before the first volume even took place. 

After so many, many lackluster volumes, Cunningham slightly gets back to the lurid vibe of the earliest volumes; this “Mark” (as both authors refer to their hero) is still not the same unhinged lunatic who would torture and kill hapless thugs in the earliest (and best!) volumes of the series, but at least he does blow a few bad guys away this time instead of just knocking them out and handcuffing them. (But then, he does that here, too.) Otherwise Inca Gold Hijack, with its trucking plotline, recalls a previous Cunningham joint, #20: The Radiation Hit (and goofily enough Mark uses this very name, “The Radiation Hit,” when recalling the events). 

The novel opens with what seems to be the promise of earlier, more action-focused installments: Mark is already on the job, hovering in a helicopter near Chicago and waging an assault on some trucking hijackers. Mark kills a few, even blowing one of them up with a grenade; Cunningham notes the “gore” in the cabin, which is probably the most violent instance in this series in I don’t know how long. But after that Inca Gold Hijack settles down into the PG vibe of the past twenty or thirty volumes, with Mark Hardin acting more like a TV protagonist of the day, chasing leads and going out of his way not to kill anyone unless absolutely necessary. 

The nice cover is a bit misleading; while there is an attractive “dusky-skinned” brunette in the novel, she and Mark never actually meet face to face. (Or, uh, face to cheek, as per the cover.) Instead, it is Joanna Tabler, that platinum blonde dish of a Federal agent who has appeared in several previous installments (the majority of them Cunningham’s) who factors into the novel’s steamy situations. And yes, Cunningham does finally sleaze things up just a little; when Mark and Joanna rendevous in Chicago, Joanna being in the city on assignment and calling up Mark’s Stronghold HQ just in case Mark too happens to be in Chicago(!?), things get a bit saucy as Cunningham doles out sleaze unseen since those earliest volumes: “Mark kissed her marvelous mounds,” and the like. Of course, when the actual tomfoolery begins, Cunningham cuts the scene. 

Mark and Joanna have not seen each other in “sixteen months;” this phrase is used so often when Joanna first appears that it gets to be humorous. This would be a reference to the previous Cunningam yarn #34: Death Ray Terror, which is also called by that name by the characters themselves. But whereas the two had a casual affair in those earlier volumes, spending vacation together and whatnot, this time Cunningham lays it on thick. Or, rather, Joanna does; within moments of their first boink Joanna’s getting misty-eyed and talking about her “silly, womanish, 1940s dream” of marrying Mark, living in some cottage somewhere, and raising a bunch of kids. Through the rest of the novel Joanna will stay safely in a hotel room, waiting for Mark to come home that night, so they can hit the sack again and she can start crying with worry over him and dreaming the impossible dream of them being together happily ever after, etc, etc. 

Folks, you don’t need a master’s degree in men’s adventure to guess that something might happen to Joanna Tabler in this installment. 

This “Joanna” subplot turns out to be the most memorable thing about Inca Gold Hijack. The main plot itself is threadbare; some Incan gold, you might guess from the title, has been hijacked…by truckers! So Mark Hardin follows leads and suspects that a trucker by the name of Big Red, who runs his own operation, was probably behind the heist, working with the Mafia. It’s very heavy on the early ‘80s redneck tip with Mark going undercover and getting a job as a trucker in Big Red’s operation and hanging around the pool hall and stuff. Meanwhile Joanna, also undercover, gets a job on the clerical staff. 

Action is sporadic and bloodless. There’s some fun stuff which, again, recalls the unbridled fun of the earliest volumes. Like when Mark gets a lead on someone who was involved with the heist, and it turns out to be a gay guy who was blackmailed into it – thanks to “homosexual intercourse pictures” (as Mark refers to them) which were secretly taken of the guy in action and used as leverage to get him in on the heist. An interesting note here is that Mark shows absolutely no judgment of the guy being gay, which must have seemed been pretty novel in 1981. That said, Mark does push the poor guy’s face into a puddle of his own vomit, but that’s just to put some fear into him so he’ll talk, not because he’s gay or anything. 

Cunningham also ties in to some earlier novels and subplots. A few past capers – ones with Joanna – are mentioned, and also there’s a goofy part where Yolanda, the dusky-skinned babe who is in charge of the Incan gold, requests The Penetrator’s help in the paper, at the behest of reporters. When Mark responds to the note in the newspaper, he has to pass a “screening” test from a long-time “Penetrator fan” who asks Mark all kinds of questions that only the real Penetrator would know. That said, the stuff with Yolanda is really just framework to set the action in motion; I just remembered that she does indeed meet Mark, soon after this, but it’s only to talk – and besides soon leads into an action scene. But after that Yolanda slips out of the narrative. 

There’s also the recurring Cunningham penchant for a torture death-trap; midway through Mark is caught in the bad guys’s headquarters and finds himself in a special room from which there’s no escape, where the place literally turns into an oven. Mark uses C4, handily hidden on his ankle, to bust his way out, rendering himself deaf for twenty-four hours(!?) in the process. This is another recurring Penetrator schtick, with Mark getting badly injured. And guess who nurses him to health (while crying) before heading off to her undercover job at Big Red’s outfit “just one last time?” And who of friggin’ course is captured in the process? 

Cunningham again gets lurid with all this; poor Joanna is raped (off-page) by Big Red and four of his men, and then the real torture begins (off-page as well). But the finale is slow-going and it seems evident Cunningham was spinning his wheels (lame trucker-plot pun alert). First Mark captures Big Red, then the two drive around with Big Red running his mouth, taking Mark to different places where he says he’s stashed Joanna, then finally they get to the real place where Joanna is hidden…and only then does Big Red try to run away so he and Mark can get in an extended chase and fight scene. It’s all muddled and lame, but the impact of what happens to Joanna isn’t lessened – the only thing that does lessen it is the likelihood that it will never be mentioned again, except perhaps in passing. And only in a Chet Cunningham installment. 

The justice dealt to Big Red is also suitable and again a reminder of the hard-hearted Penetrator of the earliest volumes…except that this time he keeps reminding himself to shut out his thoughts while Big Red screams for it all to stop. Last we see Mark Hardin, he’s bereft and just wanting to take a cab ride to nowhere, as “nothing will ever be the same” for him now. But then, in eleven volumes Mark himself will be in for the big finale.

Monday, February 13, 2023


Vampire$, by John Steakley
May, 1992  ROC Books

This is a novel I’ve always remembered, because I bought it fresh off the racks when it was first published; it came out during my sudden interest in horror fiction in my teen years. I am not sure what attracted me to Vampire$; maybe it was the back cover, which promised a sort of men’s adventure take on horror fiction, with bounty hunters taking on vampires. At the time, mixing horror with action wasn’t nearly as commonplace an idea as it is now, so likely this appealed to me. Also, I’m sure I recognized the name of the author; John Steakley’s previous novel, Armor, was always displayed in the sci-fi paperback section of my local WaldenBooks, and I thought it looked super cool with its cover art of an armored space guy taking on a bug-eyed space monster, but for some reason I never actually purchased the book. 

But the reason I remember Vampire$ is because it’s one of the very few books I’ve ever given away. I’ll admit, I am stingy with my books; I don’t hoard them, because I do actually read them (even if it takes me decades to get to them). But I don’t give them away! And yet I did give this one away; I tried reading it shortly after buying it, but just couldn’t get into the novel. I had a friend, with the odd name of “Jamec” (or, “James with a ‘C,” as he always explained it), and if I recall correctly he was interested in the book so I gave it to him. I probably traded him for something. I also seem to recall that he did read Vampire$ and liked it a lot. 

The curious thing is, even though I only read the first several pages of the novel, it still stuck with me – I vividly recalled a weird pseudo-Western opening in which a group of vampire hunters were staking zombie-like “goons” before finally taking on the “Master Vampire,” and they were using crossbows and stakes and whatnot. Also, the bit with the Master Vampire calling the leader of the bounty hunters, Jack Crow, by name also stuck with me. But I stopped reading the book! Then some years later I realized that John Carpenter’s new film Vampires was a film adaptation of this novel, even though they changed the dollar sign to an “s.” 

Steakley certainly wasn’t prolific. This and Armor were his only two published novels. Vampire$ did well enough to warrant a film version, though, so it’s surprising Steakley (who died in 2010) didn’t write more books. Initially Vampire$ seems to be in the vein of the horror paperbacks that were proliferating on bookstore shelves at the time, but one quickly sees it’s of a slightly higher literary caliber; indeed, this novel answers the unasked question: “What if Tom Wolfe wrote a horror-action novel?” Parts of Vampire$ seem to have been taken directly from The Right Stuff or The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, both in tone, narrative style, and even in the simultaneous mocking and worshiping of macho heroism. Particularly in the action scenes; like Wolfe, Steakley eschews the terse, punchy short sentences normally associated with pulp action scenes and instead goes for endless run-on sentences: 

It’s like this throughout the novel; anytime something exciting or tense or dramatic happens,the sentences start getting more and more breathless, just going on and on. I found the style to be grating, at least in a novel about bounty hunters who go after vampires. I wanted a more direct approach to the action; John Shirley could’ve turned this concept into a nail-biter of a novel. Instead, Steakley turns in a book that I found tedious for the most part, mostly due to the glib nature of his protagonists. We are to understand that Jack Crow and his team are burnt out and hide their eternal fear behind macho bravura, but Steakley can’t decide which of the two he wants to show us more. To the point that if the protagonists aren’t trying to one-up each other in drinking contests or whatever, they’re running off into the shadows to cry alone. 

The ”scenery description” bits are even more Tom Wolfe-esque; the below could come straight out of the part in The Right Stuff where the Mercury Seven astronauts move to Houston, Texas (doubly so, as this excerpt takes place in Dallas): 

I still haven’t watched John Carpenter’s Vampires, but judging from the trailer it seems that Carpenter really went for that Western vibe. As it turns out, the novel itself doesn’t have that style at all, save for the opening – with Team Crow in a small dusty town taking out vampires and dealing with a Mayor who doesn’t want to pay the bounty hunters. But after that the novel ranges from Rome to Los Angeles to Dallas, with a long detour in Cleburne, Texas, and this latter part is actually more so “small town, USA” than pseudo-Western. For that matter, Team Crow go about their vampire-busting duties in a very un-Western manner: they wear chain mail of “high-tech plastic” that covers them from head to toe (with cross-shaped halogen lamps on their chests), and they kill vampires with crossbows, pikes, and stakes. But the Western stuff does enter the fray with the Team acquiring the services of a “Gunman.” Despite doing this for a few years, Jack Crow in this novel has the sudden revelation that they could use guns to blow away vampires, instead of cumbersome crossbows and whatnot. 

The only problem is, neither Jack Crow nor any of his Team members are “shooters.” So they need a guy who can use a gun. And yes, a guy; this is not an equal opportunity gig, as Jack Crow insists that only men be on his team…and fit ones, at that. The only women in the orbit are Annabelle, the middle-aged matron-type who oversees the group (widow of the man who originally funded them), and new gal Davette, who is constantly described as “beautiful,” and that’s it. Steakley is incredibly reserved in the sleaze and sin department; Vampire$ is anemic (if you’ll pardon the lame vampire-esque pun) in the sex department, with zero in the way of titillation or exploitation or anything. Hell for that matter, even the violence is pretty tame. 

Also on the team is new priest Father Adam – the Catholic Church is secretly behind the vampire killing, you see, so Team Crow always needs a priest. And Father Adam instructs, for reasons not elaborated on, that it must be single single bullets used to shoot vampires. Ie, no machine-gun auto hellfire, so there goes any expectations that this might be a more entertaining Nightblood. In the opening sequence we see Team Crow in action: basically they find the resting places of vampires during the day, and Crow and a few others will go into the dark confines to peg the vamps with crossbows – crossbows which are attached to a rig on a truck, which pulls the vampires out into the sunlight to burn them up. But in this opening scene Crow inadvertently learns that silver also can harm vampires, to the point that vampires can’t heal these wounds, like they can others. 

Another thing to note is that vampires in Steakley’s novel are basically gods; in fact one of them refers to himself as such. Steakley does not spend much time at all on vampire lore, or the hierarchy of vampires, but it seems to go like this: there are “Master Vampires,” ie the godlike ones who move quicker than the eye can follow, can jump incredible distances, and who are impervious to most weapons. But to become a Master Vampire, first you must be bitten by one…and die…and then you come back as a zombie-like “goon.” These are mindless creatures that just shuffle around, looking for blood, and Team Crow spends most of its time taking these lower-level creatures out. Even though they are lower-level, they’re still hard to kill. If a goon lasts long enough, apparently, it regains its senses and becomes a Master Vampire, and Master Vampires are almost impossible to kill; Crow has only killed a few of them in his two-year career. But now it appears that the vampires know Crow, even referencing him by name, and the opening sequence further features the majority of Crow’s team getting wiped out by a vengeance-minded Master Vampire. The rest of Vampire$ concerns Crow hiring a “gunman” and continuing with his vampire-killing job. 

The novel is very sloppily constructed. There is a lot of showing and telling; there are so many times where characters will talk about doing something…then they’ll do it…then they’ll go talk about what they just did. Sometimes it’s pretty egregious, too, particularly when Steakley will have characters discuss something we just saw happen. A lot of this is given over to the “boys” in Team Crow telling “the girls” what happened during the job, and it’s all just so repetitious. A lot of the book could’ve been cut. Also there are bizarre narrative choices. The first 100 pages get tedious in how nothing really happens but lots of talk and Team Crow getting drunk and talking about it. Then there follows a bravura hundred-page sequence where they take on vampires in smalltown Cleburne, Texas. Then after this stellar sequence we have a super-random backstory that goes on for nearly seventy pages and concerns a previously minor character. Who is suddenly revealed to be tin the thrall of the vampire Team Crow just killed, which renders all this moot. I mean this out-of-sequence stuff might work in a Tarantino movie, but here it just comes off as super random…particularly given that the character with the long story being recounted was a minor character at best in the preceding 200 pages. 

There’s also a helluva lot of POV-hopping, by which I mean that gear-grinding manner in which we jump willy-nilly from the thoughts and perspectives of one character into the thoughts and perspectives of another character, with no white space or other sort of warning that, “hey, we’re about to switch to another character’s perspective!” This goes on throughout the damn book and it just drove me nuts. There’s also way too much explaining of what happened…characters will dole out glib comments (pretty much the only kind of comments they make), there will be a lot of macho posturing in return…and then someone will explain to a new character (most often a female) what the boys were really just trying to say to each other. It’s very insulting to the reader’s intelligence. 

Perhaps the biggest misstep in the construction of the novel is that the first hundred pages seem to feature Jack Crow as the protagonist…then a hundred pages in Steakley introduces a new character, Walter Felix, and he becomes the main character! And the annoyance is Crow is still there, just a supporting character now, and Felix spends the next 250-plus pages questioning Crow’s leadership and butting heads with him and mocking his “samurai bullshit.” The problem here is that there’s nothing wrong with Crow’s leadership; we know from page 1 that he’s been handed a thankless, sure-to-get-him-killed job, and besides he seems to have walked out of any action movie of the era. We’re told he’s a giant of a man, six-feet-plus of pure muscle; Steakley clearly had a Stallone or a Schwarzenegger in mind, which makes it humorous that James Woods got the role in John Carpenter’s 1998 film adaptation.  Another thing to note is that Steakley fails to really describe any of the other characters; the reader’s imagination must do some heavy lifting throughout the novel. 

But see that’s another thing about Vampire$: I didn’t like any of the characters. They’re all so glib and spend so much time butting heads, particularly with Felix’s introduction, that you never really feel anything for them. This was Steakley’s biggest stumble, because the novel starts off with Crow losing his team after what seemed to be a successful mission; one of the horror highlights of the novel is when the revenge-seeking vampire attacks the drunken partiers in their hotel. After this we have a bit with Crow getting drunk and then crying in the lap of none other than the Pope (his team is sanctioned by the Catholic Church, but Steakley doesn’t do much with this, either)…then we have that excellent midway action sequence which caps off with the big reveal that one of the vampires knows Crow by name. But all the drama and tension Steakley tries to instill here is squandered because these characters seem so distant; we aren’t told enough about them, nor why they even got into the vampire-hunting game to begin with. This is another miss, as with “new guy” Felix the author had the opportunity to show how a new team would develop, but instead he has Felix and Crow arguing the entire time, and Felix constantly threatening to quit. 

John Carpenter must have had the same issue with Steakley’s plotting, as it appears that the character of Felix didn’t even make it into the film. It also appears that Carpenter added a new subplot concerning a vampire; one of the frustrations of Vampire$ is that the vampires themselves are not very exploited. They’re evil and nearly impossible to kill, but Team Crow shows no interest in them whatsoever. Even the dangling subplot of the vampires banding together to take out Crow himself is not much exploited. Instead, so much of the novel is given over to the glib back-and-forths of Team Crow, plus the increasingly fractional relationship between Crow and Felix. By far the highlight of the novel is the hundred-page stretch where they go to Cleburne and bust up a nest of vampires; this sequence is stellar, playing out almost in real time, as Crow and his best buddy Cherry Cat go into the town courthouse (where the vampires have holed up) and lure out “goons” before facing off against a Master Vampire. 

Compared to this, the finale is underwhelming. And it’s messy again. We go into a freefall here, Steakley jettisoning all the headwind he’d achieved in the Cleburne sequence with an overlong flashback concerning a minor character…then we have the almost-casual offing of several major characters…then the sudden revelation that a Dallas bigwig is actually a Master Vampire…then the harried confrontation with said vampire. None of this stuff matches the tension and sheer fun of the Cleburne sequence. The epilogue in particular is annoying because a main character suddenly returns as a vampire – a development you can see coming from miles away – and Steakley writes the sequence with such opaque prose that you have no frigging clue whatsoever what exactly happens to him. The finale’s dumb too, as we see Felix starting up his own team of vampire busters…with nothing to make his way of leading the team seem different from the “Samurai bullshit” he accused Crow of. 

It seems to me that John Steakley was trying to both spoof and pay hommage to manly masculine action entertainment, but unfortunately this ironic detachment schtick works fine when it’s Tom Wolfe studying the early Space Race but falls flat when it’s about a bunch of crossbow-armed vampire killers. Steakley seems to be trying to question the masculine heroic sacrifice of Jack Crow through the constant badgering of Felix…but Felix offers nothing different. Felix is even more violent than Crow, for that matter, gunning down scads of vampires in the course of the novel. Maybe one of the (very few) female characters in the novel might have offered a different, less “Samurai bullshit” take, but the female characters are literally escorted off to safety before any of the action scenes. 

I mean, Vampire$ is entertaining, and Steakley can certainly write, but it’s just kind of a mess…and gets to be a bit of a beating at 357 pages. Maybe Steakley struggled with writing, hence why Vampire$ and Armor were his only two novels. And speaking of which, he had something weird in mind, as apparently “Jack Crow” and “Felix” were the names of the two main protagonists in Armor; a cryptic Author’s Note in Vampire$ informs us that “This Crow is no other Crow” and “This Felix is no other Felix.” Another thing to note is that this 1992 edition is the stated “first mass market printing,” but the book is copyright 1990. 

Steakley by the way lived right next door to me, in McKinney, Texas (though I was unaware of this at the time), and as I mentioned in an earlier post he appeared in an episode of the 1980s Dallas-area show The Texas 27 Film Vault, which you can see here (link cued to Steakley’s appearance).