Monday, January 30, 2023

Thirst


Thirst, by Pyotyr Kurtinski
August, 1995  Leisure Books

Apparently twenty years passed before anyone noticed the name Pyotyr Kurtinski was Peter McCurtin gone Slavic. -- Lynn Munroe 

“I can see you have a great big hard-on. I don’t mind being fucked by a vampire. Lord knows I’ve been fucked by everyone but the Birdman of Alcatraz. Just don’t get too rough.” -- From the book 

If it were not for Lynn Munroe I wonder if anyone would have ever known that Thirst was the last published novel of Peter McCurtin, who died in January 1997 at the age of 68. McCurtin was very prolific, but if I’m not mistaken Thirst was his only horror novel…but then, I wonder if it could accurately be described as such. If I didn’t know any better I’d say this novel was intended as a spoof of horror novels; it makes the similarly-goofy The Vampire Tapes seem like a piece of serious horror literature. Of course the other possibility is that McCurtin was just totally out of his area in horror and turned in what he thought was a genuine horror novel. 

The reviews for this novel on Goodreads are almost comical in how savage they are. McCurtin – though of course the reviewers have no idea it is McCurtin, and assume “Kurtinski” is a real author – is raked over the coals, particularly for his frequent mistake of stating that a bat has a beak. This fallacy is repeated throughout the novel. But then, the novel is about a vampire who can turn himself into a giant bat, so it’s not like realism is much of a concern. Seriously though, things needed to be grounded in reality for the supernatural stuff to have any impact, so little details like “bats don’t have beaks” should have been a concern for McCurtin…which makes me suspect the book is a spoof. 

More evidence comes in how neurotic our 200+ year-old protagonist, William Van Diemen, turns out to be. The guy is like the Woody Allen of vampires, though we’re informed he’s a good-looking Dutch dude who is permanently 23 because that’s when he became a vampire. One would have to wonder how such a goof could have survived – and thrived – for over two centuries. In Thirst he’s constantly second-guessing himself, mulling over really stupid stuff, making frequent mistakes, and he even falls in love. What I found most interesting about this neurotic nature is that Len Levinson told me that, when he was writing his Sharpshooter novels in the ‘70s, Peter McCurtin himself (who was editor of the series) said that Len’s version of “Sharpshooter” Johnny Rock was “too neurotic,” and wouldn’t last long in his mob-busting war if he was constantly second-guessing himself. Len reigned this in and delivered a neurosis-free Rock in Headcrusher

So McCurtin failed to heed his own advice in this 1995 novel. And that’s another thing. If I’d started reading Thirst without knowing anything about it…I’d probably fire off an email to Len to ask him if he’d written it! Now I’m not saying Len Levinson would think bats have beaks, but Thirst is so “Len Levinson-esque” that I wonder if McCurtin was influenced by Len. Like a Len Levinson novel, there’s no “plot” per se and the characters all seem to exist outside the novel, often obsessing over things both mundane and spiritual. That said, Len would have written a better novel than Peter McCurtin did. Thirst, while it is Len Levinson-esque in the narrative style, lacks the trademark spark of a genuine Len Levinson novel. 

The most curious thing is how little Thirst is like the other McCurtin novels I’ve read. I guess the closest comparison would be his strange ‘70s attempt at a bestseller beach read-type book, the similiarly-goofy The Pleasure Principle. The difference is Thirst is longer, coming in at 346 pages. But per the Leisure Books norm those pages fly by thanks to some very big print…and also true to Leisure form the novel is riddled with typos. In many ways Thirst is exactly like the stuff McCurtin was writing (and editing) for the publisher back in the ‘70s, not to mention that the “main” plot (per se) features our villainous protagonist Van Diemen operating less like a vampire and more like a ‘90s Johnny Rock, fighting the Mafia…which is another source of ridicule in those Goodreads reviews, given that this vampire does his fighting with guns and grenades! 

So for 346 big-print pages Van Diemen, who has a castle in the Bronx, tries to stop a lawyer who wants to purchase his land, feeds nightly on unsuspecting prey, works on his autobiography, turns a hapless P.I. into a vampire, and also falls in friggin’ love with a jaded photographer who either has a “hard face” or is “attractive” (McCurtin can’t seem to make up his mind). She also has a “hip-flask voice,” one of my favorite random descriptions ever. Oh and there’s also a sort-of Vampira type who shows up in the novel for a handful of pages, but McCurtin does nothing at all with her. Actually, she’s more of a fake vampire than a horror hostess – calling herself “Draculina,” she has her face done up like a “ghoul” and dresses like a hag, but Van Diemen deduces that she has a “nice body” beneath the drab clothes. Van Diemen rapes her, along with another woman earlier in the novel; Van Diemen’s tendency for rape is another source of anger the Goodreads reviews. Yes, Van Diemen rapes (and kills) two women in the course of Thirst, but then again, he also figures that he has killed nearly eighty thousand people in the course of his vampire life – this a quick calculation he does based off his nightly feeds over the course of the past 200+ years. 

This I found was the only non-goofy stuff in the novel, because McCurtin clearly understands you can’t have a vampire hero. By nature vampires must drink blood to live. But then the seriousness is robbed by Van Diemen’s frequent bitchery over common misconceptions about vampires, not to mention that he also has a VHS library of every vampire movie ever made. There’s an “I can’t believe Peter McCurtin actually wrote this” part where Van Diemen says that he even has Interview With The Vampire on VHS, and the soon-to-be-a-vampire-himself private eye responds that this particular movie hasn’t even come out on VHS yet, so it would be impossible for Van Diemen to have a copy of it on video…and Van Diemen boasts that he has a pirated copy! It’s stuff like this that again makes me suspect Thirst is a spoof. Just too much of the novel is given over to Van Diemen’s obsessive compulsions about various mundane topics…and also, for an immortal vampire, the dude is constantly getting hassled: by the lawyer who wants to buy his land, by his own lawyer who is representing him in the case, by the sad-sack private eye Van Diemen turns into a vampire, and finally by the photographer with the “hip-flask voice.” All of these characters are constantly questioning Van Diemen, or putting him out of sorts, and he’ll go back to his Bronx castle to sulk. 

Those looking for a traditional vampire yarn will be quite diappointed with Thirst. Again, the Goodreads reviews are indication of this. Only in the extended excerpts from Van Diemen’s autobio – written in ugly italics – do we get the traditional stuff, with Van Diemen being turned into a vampire (by some vampire woman who bit him during sex, a recurring theme here) and then going about his “new vampire life” for the next few centuries. As mentioned he has a castle in the Bronx, the construction of which in the 1800s he recounts for us, and now he sticks to himself, only venturing out each night to feed. He turns himself into a giant bat to do this; McCurtin has it that the bat transformation is “an act of faith” and that each night when Van Diemen throws himself off the tower of the castle he could very well plunge to his death if he doesn’t transform. Oh and as a giant bat he can fly “300 miles per hour.” Seriously! Plus we’re informed of the various fallacies on how vampires can be killed, but McCurtin still sticks to the main ones: stakes to the heart and fire. 

Van Diemen’s a loser, though, there’s no other way to put it. So the book opens with him in his library working on his bio, and he treats himself to one glass of vodka, after which he’s drunk. Oh, and he also pops a few Ritalin. He flies out to feed, goes over a zoo…and there’s the “hard faced” female photographer out there taking photos who might really be pretty (again, McCurtin can’t figure this out), but she certainly has a nice body (maybe), but also a rough demeanor from being a famous world-traveling photographer and seeing it all. Van Diemen turns human and approaches her in the dark. Her name’s Maggie Connors, and Van Diemen has heard of her, but this night he goes to feed on her…and she takes his photo, and he stumbles in the flashlight and flies away in escape. Our tough bastard of a vampire, folks! And he goes back to his library to sulk over this, working up a rage to get revenge on this woman. Oh, and he obsesses with worry that she might get the photo printed in the papers…but will people even know who he is? Will anyone believe her story? Etc, etc. 

I mean honestly, the book is a spoof. It has to have been intended as a spoof. Because soon after this, Van Diemen’s getting hassled by his loser lawyer, Bradford Wilcox, who keeps pestering Van Diemen that another lawyer, Landau (who likely represents a mobster), is trying to get Van Diemen’s castle. But now they’re leaning hard on Wilcox himself…with the threat that Wilcox’s mistress, Tracy, is going to come out with photos and a fake claim that Wilcox had her get an abortion…and Van Diemen is winging off to burn down the lawyer’s house and then rape and murder Tracy. Here we get a bit of that old ‘70s-style sleazy sadism: 


Actually the sleaze is goofy, too. The quoted dialog at the top of the review is courtesy Maggie Connors, the photographer who snaps Van Diemen’s photo before he can kill her. He obsesses over her, finally locates her…and when he gets the spring on her (staying in a “special guest house” in the zoo…under heavy guard, even though she hasn’t told anyone she was attacked by a vampire?), she promptly offers herself to him:


Even Live Girls didn’t feature the line “I’m being screwed by a vampire.” Van Diemen, ever second-guessing and doubting himself, wants to bite Maggie’s neck and kill her, but doesn’t…then flies back to his castle and keeps thinking about her! There are even parts where he calls her on the phone to chat! I kid you not, friends! McCurtin tries to go somewhere with this; Van Diemen’s property soon becomes the target of the mob, with guys tossing trash and stuff on the grounds and later assassins sent onto the property, and Van Diemen will kill them off and call Maggie so she’s in such and such a place to take a photo of it. But the plotting is just so random that McCurtin, if he was serious about the whole thing, had no idea what he was doing. 

Like the shady private eye, Victor Mara, who is apparently hired by Landau to get the goods on Van Diemen. For reasons never satisfactorily explained, Van Diemen turns Mara into a vampire, perhaps to use him as his inside agent. But man, this develops into yet another goofy subplot, where Mara keeps trying to convince Van Diemen to let him move into Van Diemen’s castle! I mean complete with Mara, now a vampire, worried about the rent at his place and just persistently nagging Van Diemen about letting him have “just a little corner” of the castle to call his own! And this just keeps going on, perhaps further evidence that Thirst is a parody of serious horror fiction. It’s hard to believe Peter McCurtin could have intended this novel to be on the level. 

More Sharpshooter or Marksman (which McCurtin also edited and wrote for in the ‘70s) similarities are evident in the finale; anyone who has read those books, particularly ones actually written by McCurtin, will know that a favored “climax” featured all the villains conveniently assembling in one place so Rock or Magellan could blow them all to hell at once. Well guess how Thirst climaxes! Van Diemen even handles the job with some un-vampiric dynamite. We even get banal details like the note that he lodges the dynamite sticks on the roof (carrying them up there in his giant bat beak, naturally), so the wind won’t blow them away. I mean folks that is how Thirst climaxes – our vampire protagonist turns into a giant bat and carries dynamite in his “beak” and places it on a roof, ensuring that the friggin’ wind won’t blow the dynamite away. It’s not exactly Bram Stoker, is it? 

Speaking of whom, the last lines of the novel should be the final proof that Peter McCurtin was laughing to himself throughout Thirst; Van Diemen decides that maybe he does love Maggie Connors, and wonders what “Prince Dracul” (aka Dracula) would think! And Maggie wants Van Diemen to take a bubble bath with her...and this will be his first bath since the 18th Century! The end! Oh and another goofy thing, Van Diemen is always coming up with stupid inversions of the usual oaths, ie “by the Antichrist” and “only Satan knows” and other dumbass stuff. 

So all of which is to say, Thirst is a complete and total failure as a horror novel. But as a goofy-toned horror novel parody, it is a roaring success. It’s also fun to see that McCurtin was able to publish a quick and dirty (and sleazy) ‘70s-style novel in the mid-1990s. But still it was a sad way for such a prolific author to go out; as mentioned, this was Peter McCurtin’s final novel.

Monday, January 23, 2023

Endworld #2: Thief River Falls Run


Endworld #2: Thief River Falls Run, by David Robbins
No month stated, 1986  Leisure Books

Man it’s been years since I read the first volume of Endworld – it was before my kid was even born, and he’s halfway through kindergarten already! Well anyway, I have many books in this series, as well as sister volume Blade, so it’s about time I get back to it. The only thing I could remember from my reading of the first volume back in 2016 was that the series seemed like a ripoff of Doomsday Warrior, only for the Young Adult market, and also that I didn’t like it very much. 

And this second volume just confirmed my feelings; Thief River Falls Run comes off like an edited-for-TV version of Doomsday Warrior, lacking the gore and purple-prosed sex of that superior series. Otherwise it has the same setup: one hundred years after a nuclear hell, and a cast of colorfully-named asskickers. But whereas Ted “The Ultimate American” Rockson and his pals act like true men’s adventure heroes, Blade and his fellow “warriors” are like innocent children. Part of the schtick of this series is how Blade and his “family” venture out of their safe space in Minnesota and encounter other people, and they’re just so innocent and unaware of everything. 

And whereas Doomsday Warrior had its cake and ate it, too, with Rockson and friends talking about 20th Century trivia (thanks to that “library” of videos and books in Century City, of course), Blade and his friends are confused about such mundane things as a car horn. Yes, friends, there is actually a part in Thief River Falls Run where Blade accidentally leans on the horn of their post-nuke all-terain vehicle, the SEAL, and they all wonder what that strange loud noise they just heard was. Did the vehicle make the noise?? So there is none of the winking-to-the-reader nutjob stuff like in Doomsday Warrior, and that even includes the sex material…Blade and his fellow warriors, you see, only get busy when they are married! WTF!! The whole damn thing is like a post-nuke Little House On The Prairie

This series is also starting to remind me of another Leisure post-nuke pulp series: Roadblaster. Not that it’s that bad, it’s just that, as with Roadblaster, our heroes takeforever to get anywhere. Last volume they wanted to go to Twin Cities, apparently the post-nuke Minneapolis. They didn’t make it. This volume they try to go to Twin Cities again. They don’t make it! Compare to Rockson and team, who would go to space and back in a single volume. 

Another annoyance is that we can’t just have a team of post-nuke shit-kickers. Instead, Robbins gussies up the plot with the unwanted presence of Joshua, a long-haired pacifist who is so na├»ve he seems to have walked out of a book written by Ned Flanders. And Plato, the leader of “Home,” insists that Joshua go with Blade and the Warriors on the Twin Cities run! You almost wonder if the guy’s an inside agent, setting Blade and the others up. 

Speaking of inside agents, David Robbins sets up several dangling subplots for future volumes. There is the threat of enemy agents within Home who plot to wrest control from Plato, and also the development that Blade’s father, the former leader of Home, was murdered years ago as part of a plot. Blade stumbles upon this info during events in Thief River Falls, mostly due to the presence of mutant “Brutes.” He learns via happenstance that Brutes, which are kept on leashes by Watchers, might have been used to kill his father. 

As for Blade, he’s still sick from infection as this one opens; it’s some unspecified time later. Robbins spends the initial pages introducing two new characters who will presumably factor into later novels: a young woman named Rainbow (who is comatose the entire time) and her precocious, twelve year-old daughter Star. They have escaped from somewhere, “hunters” after them, and Blade’s colleagues Hickock and Rikki-Tikki-Tavi save them. After this nothing more is said about the two, but the way they are introduced, Star asking tons of questions about Home, might indicate they will have bigger roles in future. This part furthers the Doomsday Warrior vibe, with the Warriors fighting a giant mutant spider. 

So anyway, once Blade is better old Plato tells him to try to get to Twin Cities again – but this time he’s taking along Joshua. Robbins uses this as a way to fill up the book’s unwieldy 256 pages: Joshua spends pages and pages defending his pacifism to Hickock. Now it would be one thing if Joshua were constantly being pressured by the Warriors, but instead it's Joshua who is constantly judging them and their “violent” ways. And folks it’s just no fun reading a post-nuke action thriller with a main character who keeps judging everyone for being “too violent.” 

There’s also a bit of a Guardians vibe with our heroes driving around in their customized vehicle. There’s only periodic action, like when a biker takes a shot at them and Hickock blows him away – cue more bitching from Joshua. Fortunately, Joshua goes through some character growth in Thief River Falls Run; a subplot concerns him being forced to kill to save his comrades, and Robbins seems to use Joshua as a stand-in for those who complain about the use of excessive force…you know, like brain-addled puppet politicians who wonder why cops can’t shoot violent perps in the shoulder or something. When it’s kill or be killed, you kill, and this is the lesson Joshua learns. 

And sadly this subplot turns out to be the “meat” of Thief River Falls Run. Because action-wise, again we aren’t talking Doomsday Warrior. The vibe’s actually more like a Western, with Blade et al coming across a saloon in the titular town and engaging with some redneck gunslingers. There is a lot of promise for Twin Cities here; we learn the place is overrun by rats and roving crime gangs. This info is courtesy Big Bertha, a pretty young black woman Blade and team rescue from the gunslingers; they were keeping her as a sex slave. 

One thing we learn is that there are no black people in Home; Blade muses that there was “one black family,” but they died long ago. Hence Big Bertha is the first black girl any of them have seen, and Bertha herself takes a shine to Hickock, whom she calls “White Meat.” As for “Big Bertha,” she informs us she got this name on account of her “boobs.” She also calls Hickock “honky,” and Robbins clearly wants us to understand that these two will become an item…which works out for Hickock, as his chosen mate was killed last volume. Which I admit I’d entirely forgotten about, but Robbins frequently reminds us. 

I also forget the gore quotient of The Fox Run, but it’s only minimal in Thief Falls Run. The Warriors shoot several people, but the violence is mostly PG-13 at best. There’s also a lot of hand-to-hand fighting, with Blade taking on a male-female pair of Brutes. We’ve been told in these first two volumes that “only animals” were mutated by the nukes, with the insistence that there are no human mutants, but the Brutes seem to disprove this. Joshua and Bertha take on one in the climax, and there’s also a cool part where an injured Blade is separated from his friends as hunters, Watchers, and a revenge-minded Brute come after him. 

But humorously it’s back to square one at the end of the novel; Blade decides to call off the “Twin Cities run” yet again, and the team gets in the SEAL and heads back for Home. Maybe next volume they’ll actually get there!

Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Aquanauts #10: Operation Sea Monster


The Aquanauts #10: Operation Sea Monster, by Ken Stanton
No month stated, 1974

The penultimate volume of The Aquanauts finds Manning Lee Stokes taking the series into more of an undersea adventure sort of realm, dropping the lurid crime vibe of the previous volumes. Believe it or not, there’s no sick sexual sadism in this one! Indeed, there isn’t any kinky stuff at all, a far cry from the sleaze of the previous volume. More importantly, the title of this one is not misleading: hero Tiger Shark does go up against a literal sea monster. 

But man…it’s like only now, ten volumes in, Manning Lee Stokes has finally realized he’s writing a series titled “The Aquanauts.” The previous books have mostly been crime novels, only occasionally spruced up with some undersea frogman action. With Operation Sea Monster Stokes goes full-bore with the nautical angle, with all kinds of detail on Navy subs and sealabs and looking at charts and etc. To the point, honestly, that I actually missed the sick sexual sadism of the previous books. The sad truth is that Operation Sea Monster is kind of boring – and the previous ten books haven’t exactly been rip-roaring thrill rides. (Except for the seventh volume, though, certainly the highlight of the series…though admitedly I haven’t read the last volume yet!) 

While the title isn’t misdirection, the actual sea monster – a gargantuan beast which is apparently the result of a giant sea snake mating with a giant octopus – only appears sporadically. The vast majority of Operation Sea Monster is focused on the attempt to find an experimental sea lab and save its inhabitants. And, following the template of the previous books, Stokes does find the opportunity to have Tiger Shark get in combat with a few Soviet frogmen. And as with the previous books this sequence is the highlight of the book. Manning Lee Stokes has a specialty for putting his protagonists through the wringer, and he does so to Tiger Shark in this sequence, adrift in the sea with dwindling tanks and an unknown number of enemy frogmen coming for him. 

There’s a strange change, though; Tiger Shark’s real name is Bill Martin, one of the more unimaginative action-hero names (down there with, uh, Ben Martin), and this time Stokes suddenly insists on referring to him as “Bill” when he’s not on assignment. Only when he is activated for Secret Underwater Service duty does he become “Tiger Shark.” To the point that even Tiger’s boss, Tom Greene, has to remind himself that it’s “Bill Martin” when Tiger isn’t on duty. It just seems rather strange after nine previous volumes where it was “Tiger” all the time, on a mission or not. It’s just another indication of how Stokes has suddenly decided to focus on the red tape of Navy administration and whatnot; much of Operation Sea Monster is concerned with Navy protocol and the like, to the point that the book’s a bit of a slog. 

Another problem is that Tiger Shark’s seldom in the novel. This too isn’t unprecedented; previous volumes, like for example #5: Stalkers Of The Sea, put the focus more on Greene, and also Admiral Coffin, crusty boss of SUS, has featured in his share of the narrative. But as I’ve theorized before, Stokes must have seen this is as “team” series, meaning the “Aquanauts” were really Coffin, Greene, and Tiger Shark, with the latter being the one who featured in the action stuff. This time though, it isn’t even Greene or Coffin who take the brunt of the narrative; it’s a few one-off characters who are trapped on the lost sea lab. Stokes spends much of the novel detailing their plight, to the extent that you feel you’re reading a standalone novel. It seemed clear to me that Stokes was perhaps getting burned out with writing the series and just did something completely different this time. 

I did appreciate the continuity, though; we pick up some indeterminate time after the previous volume, but we are informed that Admiral Coffin, who suffered a heart attack last time, has just returned as head of SUS. Last time much was made of Greene’s shaky assumption of control in the old man’s absence, but Stokes doesn’t spend too much time with Greene in Operation Sea Monster. There’s an interesting-in-hindsight part where Coffin speculates that if he doesn’t take it easy at work he won’t “be around in 1978,” and as it turned out this was true for Stokes himself; he died in 1976. You can almost wonder if Coffin’s various asides on his age and the strain he puts on himself is Stokes musing on himself and his own prolific writing pace. 

One thing Stokes has whittled down on in the past few volumes is Tiger Shark getting lucky while on a mission. Instead, we meet up with him as he’s on leave in the English countryside, getting busy with a thirty year-old hotstuff reporter named Susan: “Thrusting deeper into the deep red channel that you could never chart absolutely.” Here we also get to see Tiger the pickup artist, as he orchestrates a fender-bender to get the beautiful woman’s attention. This will be it for Tiger’s extracurricular fun; he spends the rest of the text either in his submersible KRAB or on a Navy destroyer as it searches for the lost sea lab. 

The titular sea monster, described as “whale big…blobby and diffuse,” appears in the extended opening sequence, attacking the sea lab and its adjoining submarine near the Mariana Trench, which we are informed is the deepest stretch of ocean in the world. It rips the sub apart with its massive tentacles (which have glowing eyes on them) and sends the sea lab off into the depths of the sea; the Navy receives one message from the lost crew: “It’s following us.” Also, a frogman is torn to pieces by the creature, and we're told that part of the monster’s flesh was discovered on his knife, so a lot of the story has to do with Coffin and the Navy admin trying to determine whether there really is a sea monster or if the crew has gone nuts from oxygen contamination. 

Actually, it isn’t just the sea lab much of the narrative is concerned with; Tiger spends almost just as much time trying to locate the torn-apart submarine that was attending the lab. It’s in this section that the fight with the Russians occurs; a Soviet sub has converged on the area where the downed US sub might be, and it’s clear the Russians will pretend to “help” the stricken ship as a ruse to get in there and take photos or whatever. When Tiger Shark is inspecting the wreck he is ambushed by a frogman, and in a later underwater sequence he is ambushed yet again by two more frogmen from the same Soviet sub. Stokes really excels at fierce combat scenes and here we have Tiger blowing apart one guy’s head with his Sea Pistol and knifing the other. 

That’s really it for the action in Operation Sea Monster. The climax does have Tiger up against the titular monster, though. It’s only for a few pages, but we have Tiger chasing after the fleeing behemoth in KRAB and hammering it with torpedos. But yes, Tiger Shark does witness the monster, so he is a believer by the end of the book; the speculation is the beast lives six+ miles down and only comes up every few “generations.” It looks like Stokes continues with the sci-fi element for the series, as the next (and final) volume of The Aquanauts apparently concerns a mermaid.

Monday, January 16, 2023

Fuel-Injected Dreams


Fuel-Injected Dreams, by James Robert Baker
April, 1986  Plume Books

I still rank Boy Wonder as my favorite novel ever, so it’s a “wonder” it’s taken me so long to read this, James Robert Baker’s first novel. I think I put it off because I was under the impression Fuel-Injected Dreams was focused on early ‘60s rock, an era which only occasionally interests me. But in one of those rare instances, I recently became interested in this era of music, so I decided it was finally time to read Fuel-Injected Dreams. Yes, it’s another great novel, if flawed. But no, it’s no Boy Wonder. But then how could it be? 

While Boy Wonder was James Robert Baker’s take on the Hollywood novel, this was his rock novel. Sort of. Fuel-Injected Dreams is not a rock novel about a musician or group going through all the usual tropes of the rock story, like say for example The Rose (which actually gets a mention in Fuel-Injected Dreams). It’s not even about “the rock life,” like for example Triple Platinum. As it turns out, the “rock” conceit is just a framework Baker uses to set up a noir story that comes off like a combo of Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity, mixed with a roman a clef about Phil Spector. That’s the setup, at least. But just as in Boy Wonder the plot often takes unexpected turns. It’s also a darker novel than Boy Wonder, with a subplot concerning a missing girl – a girl presumably gang-raped and killed in the early ‘60s – as well as another subplot in which the Spector analog keeps his wife literally under lock and key. 

At 323 pages, Fuel-Injected Dreams is also shorter than Boy Wonder, but it has that same manic drive. And often it is just as darkly hilarious. Some of the dialog here is incredible. Baker’s brief bio notes that was a Hollywood screenwriter when this was published, something I was not aware of – I’ve honestly never looked much into the guy’s life – which would doubtless be why his dialog is so good. But there’s often too much of a good thing in Fuel-Injected Dreams. In an email to me some years ago, John Nail noted that Fuel-Injected Dreams was “a wild ride well worth taking,” if “a little overwritten in spots,” and within the first twenty pages of the book I knew exactly what he meant. There are a few instances in which the narrative just sort of stops while Baker’s characters toss one-liners and sarcastic rejoinders at one another. Don’t get me wrong, the dialog is great, it’s just that it distracts from the mounting suspense Baker has created via those increasingly-manic plot twists. 

Another similarity to Boy Wonder is the lunatic protagonist. Actually, it’s a bit different in Fuel-Injected Dreams. Here the Shark Trager nutjob of Boy Wonder is split in two: there’s Scott Cochran, the self-obsessed lunatic who narrates the novel and appears to be Baker’s attempt at a hero, and there’s Dennis Contrelle, the self-obsessed lunatic who produced a string of hits in the early 1960s and serves as the novel’s villain. But unlike Shark Trager these two men are alive and present throughout the novel, and we aren’t just reading other characters’ thoughts on them. Dennis Contrelle, the Phil Spector analog, is as mentioned the villain, but Baker provides enough evidence that Contrelle and Cochran are just two sides of the same coin; in one of the many “ponder this!” unsolved mysteries in the novel, at one point Scott Cochran comes upon a room that is a replica of the one Dennis Contrelle grew up in, and Scott cannot get over how much it looks like his own boyhood room. 

Scott is our narrator, and like I say he is Baker’s attempt at the hero of the piece, but as usual James Robert Baker has a lot going on beneath the surface. One quibble I have is that Scott is a radio deejay, but Baker doesn’t do much with it. We only see Scott on the air once, at the very beginning of the novel, where he gives off a rapid-fire patter that seems the sort of thing Mark Leyner would’ve doled out in My Cousin, My Gastrointerologist. It’s very surreal, stream-of-conscious stuff, and Scott has a very progressive freeform show in which he can play whatever he wants. The explanation for this is that he is on around 4AM, thus he’s also free to talk about stuff daytime deejays can’t. The opening might be hard-going for some, what with its italicized print and random digressions, but I found it pretty damn funny – especially the part where Scott fantasizes that he got a “thank-you” card from one of the Manson girls in prison, requesting “anything except something from the White Album.” 

But otherwise Scott’s job as radio DJ has no bearing on the plot. Indeed, the big subplot of Fuel-Injected Dreams concerns a girl Scott was in love with twenty years before, in 1963, and all this is relayed to us as a fantasy movie in Scott’s mind. Complete with “reels” for the major events. This cinema framework is at odds with Scott’s radio personality job, and would seem more at home in Boy Wonder. Also, we never get much of an idea that Scott likes rock and roll, but at least unlike the guy in The Armageddon Rag he actually listens to it for fun, and has a prized collection of rare 7” singles. Actually I take that back. I think it’s more that rock is part of Scott’s genetic fabric, just a part of him, and he lives the rock lifestyle; in his mid 30s but still living in a hotel in Los Angeles and disregarding most societal norms. While the plot hinges on early ‘60s rock, Baker does reference a lot of stuff from the ‘70s and ‘80s, with even obscure punk group The Angry Samoans getting referenced. And Pat Boone is the butt of jokes throughout the novel. So it isn’t just that Scott likes rock – it’s part of who he is. 

That said, it’s a helluva long time until we get to much “rock novel” stuff. Very late in the novel we have a rundown of the discography of Dennis Contrelle’s most famous group, and here Baker shows that he can actually describe the (fictional) music, unlike so many other rock novelists who tell us nothing. It’s a cool fantasy discography – again, similar to Boy Wonder, with its fictional Shark Trager filmography – and I wish there was more like it in Fuel-Injected Dreams. But instead the majority of the plot hinges on the mind-fuckery of Dennis Contrelle, his prisoner-slash-wife Cheryl, and Scott’s confusion over what happened to his one-time beloved, Sharlene, back in 1963. 

One of the last similarities I want to call out between this and Boy Wonder is the subplot in that novel concerning Kathy Pietro, the blonde beauty Shark Trager was obsessed with. Anyone who has read Boy Wonder will recall the string of pseudo-Kathy Pietros Shark finds (or creates) in the course of the novel. That theme, of doubles and lookalikes, has its start here in Fuel-Injected Dreams. For we are informed posthaste that Cheryl Contrelle, ie the beautiful singer with the beehived hairdo who went from a member of Dennis Contrelle’s band to being Dennis Contrelle’s wife, is a dead ringer for Scott’s vanished girlfriend Sharlene. Note even the similar names, Cheryl and Sharlene. And Cheryl Contrelle appeared on the scene shortly after Sharlene went missing. She even wears an ankle bracelet, same as the one Scott gave Sharlene back in 1963 – an ankle bracelet neither he nor Sharlene could unclasp, as Scott accidentally clamped it permanently shut when trying to remove it with his teeth. So is Cheryl really Sharlene? This is just one of the mysteries Baker spins out through the novel. 

So the long and short of it, as relayed by that fantasy “movie” in Scott’s mind, is that Sharlene was a new girl in Scott’s high school, back in ’63, and he was instantly smitten. The other guys joked that she was a notorious whore, but Scott didn’t listen to them. Scott lucked out one day, spotting Sharlene looking for a ride, and soon enough they were back at his home smoking dope and having lots of sex. This turned into true love, though all the guys kept joking with Scott that it was “just sex.” But when Sharlene got pregnant, Scott freaked out – only sixteen, with no way to support a kid – and Sharlene stormed off. The last time Scott saw her she was hanging out with one of those guys who claimed Sharlene was a whore, and it looked like the two were about to become friendly. Scott never saw her again; indeed, no one ever saw Sharlene again, as it seemed she walked off the beach that night and into legend. 

Shortly after that Dennis Contrelle unveiled his new group, fronted by a young woman named Cheryl who not only looked identical to Sharlene but sported the same beehive hairdo. But the group eventually broke up, Cheryl becoming Dennis’s shut-in of a wife, and Dennis Contrelle himself went into seclusion, after the wild recording of his gotterdammerung single “Tidal Wave” (ie “River Deep, Mountain High,” complete with a fictional analog of Tina Turner). Now, twenty years later, Scott happens to play “Angel of the Highway” on his late-night show; a clear reference to “Leader Of The Pack,” this fictional song finds James Robert Baker mixing his early ‘60s schlock, as “Leader of The Pack” was not a Phil Spector production. (Scott’s description of the song leaves no doubt of its real-world inspiration.) After playing the song, none other than reclusive Dennis Contrelle calls into the station, setting off the twisted plot. 

Baker’s dialog throughout this first half of the novel almost brought tears to my eyes. It’s not right that this guy was so gifted…and so neglected. I mean the dialog in the second half of the novel is great, too, but after a while it’s too much of a good thing – again, John Nail’s comment on “overwritten” was very on-point. But I mean take for example Dennis Contrelle’s first words to Scott when Scott answers the phone at the station: “You vomitous fuck.” It just made me laugh out loud. Same goes for a later bit where Dennis Contrelle, ranting in his oceanside mansion, tells Scott that people in Hollywood will cut out your heart and try to serve it to you for lunch. “That’s why I usually brown-bag it,” Scott responds. Almost the entire novel is made up of such flippant, acidic remarks and rejoinders, to the point that Scott Cochran comes off more like an ironic commentary on the novel itself. What I mean to say is, he’s such a self-obsessed sarcastic prick that it’s hard to believe he feels anything at all. Of course people probably say the same thing about me. 

Dennis Contrelle nearly steals the novel; he’s more cruel and deranged than Shark Trager, a onetime boy genius now in his 40s and suffering from unstated mental problems along with a few decades of drug abuse. Baker really brings the character to life, sometimes ranting and raving, other times contrite and eager to please. And in true roman a clef fashion, the real-world Phil Spector is also mentioned…so of course we won’t get the impression that Dennis Contrelle is supposed to be Phil Spector! Contrelle also has a bit of a Brian Wilson vibe (who is also mentioned), but Spector is the clear inspiration, even down to how Contrelle married the lead singer of one of his groups. And now keeps her a veritable shut-in here in his mansion, which he calls Scott to the next day. 

The first half of the novel follows the Sunset Boulevard setup; Scott is pulled into Dennis’s orbit, the whackjob recluse claiming that he’s spent all these years developing a “new kind of music.” But really Scott finds himself going back to Dennis’s mansion for another glimpse of Cheryl, still as beautiful as the day she went out of the public eye – and still sporting the same beehive hairdo. She also still has the same singing voice. But Scott cannot understand why Contrelle is so evil to her, so mocking of her “lost talents,” and Baker delivers a somewhat believable growing bond between Scott and Cheryl, which goes in the expected direction. All this part is masterfully done, complete with Dennis going into periodic drug-fueled fits and the ever-present menace of Dennis’s heavyset black bodyguard (who in another random and unexplored bit we learn was once a “Little Stevie Wonder”-type musician in Dennis’s stable). 

But around the halfway point things get crazy, which is to be expected of the guy who wrote Boy Wonder. Suddenly a main character has been gunned down in cold blood and Scott and Cheryl are on the run in a stolen sportscar. It gets even more manic, complete with Scott shooting an old rival at his high school reunion. The relationship between Scott and Cheryl also becomes fractuous, with the recurring conceit that Cheryl will rush back to Dennis, even though he treats her so horribly – or is Cheryl just doing this to protect Scott? Baker throws the reader into a constant whorl of uncertainty, particularly with the Sharlene-Cheryl mystery. I found myself so caught up in this that I was gutted, as the British say, to find out what really happened that night in 1963 – and Baker rubbed me the wrong way, here, with Scott telling us that he himself has accepted whatever Sharlene’s fate was (I won’t spoil it – but you certainly find out in the novel), given that it all happened twenty years ago. Well it didn’t happen twenty years ago for us readers!! The main problem with Fuel-Injected Dreams is that Scott’s relationship with Sharlene has more emotional foundation than the one with Cheryl. 

Regardless, I was truly caught up in Fuel-Injected Dreams, to the point that I found myself putting off other things to keep reading it. Baker has a gift for maddened narrative and it is in effect throughout the novel, which builds and builds in craziness. The finale is appropriately apocalyptic, taking place at Dennis’s oceanside mansion during a hurricane…apocalyptic, but repetitive, given that we read a similar sequence at Dennis’s mansion in which wildfires were raging out of control. In both sequences Scott must rush in to the fray to rescue Cheryl, and thus the climax comes off like a repeat of a scene we read about a hundred pages before. That said, the big reveal at the end, so far as the Sharlene-Cheryl mystery goes, is pretty gruesome and twisted, more so than anything I can recall in Boy Wonder. As I said, Fuel-Injected Dreams is just overall a darker story. 

This and Boy Wonder were the only two “mainstream” novels James Robert Baker wrote; after which he turned to gay fiction. Honestly, reading this novel I never would’ve guessed that Baker was gay. There was no “secret gay subtext” I could divine, unless you wanted to make an argument around the Dennis Contrelle-Scott Cochran relationship. But this would prove fruitless…and besides, you could probably make up a “hidden gay subtext” for any piece of fiction, so long as you had an agenda to push. There are no gay characters in the novel, other than minor ones who don’t even appear in the actual narrative: Contrelle claims that one of his early groups, a surf-rock combo, was made up of all gay members, and they’d spend their time either surfing or “screwing each other.” He also refers to them as “homos.” So yes, the only gay characters are mocked for being gay. Otherwise, Baker writes about women like…well, like a horny straight author. In his narration Scott is constantly mentioning Cheryl’s breasts, or Sharlene’s breasts, and it all comes off like genuine lust for the female form…basically, what you’d expect from a horny straight male author. Now the sex scenes don’t get very explicit; in most of them Baker often goes off into a poetic tangent, like one particular instance in which Scott sees himself as a miner while copulating with Sharlene, going for “gold dust.” There’s also a big focus on oral sex; the word “muff” wonderfully appears throughout. That’s a word you just don’t see very often. So Baker either had real-world inspiration to draw from (maybe he started off in hetero relationships before realizing he was gay), or he really just nailed the tone (so to speak). 

Another huge thanks to John Nail for casually mentioning in a more recent email that James Robert Baker wrote and directed a VHS movie in 1984. I’d never even heard of it! Titled Blonde Death, it’s available for free viewing at The Internet Archive.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Gold Eagle sunglasses, 1986


Yes, friends, that epitome of rugged masculinity in the photo above is none other than the 11-year-old me, in August of 1986 (according to the date on the back of the photo). The can of Slice in the background is just the icing on the ‘80s cake. 

I just discovered this photo in the Glorious Trash archives and thought I’d post it, because the sunglasses I’m wearing happen to be the sunglasses you received when you joined the Gold Eagle reader service. I have no idea what happened to mine or even how long they lasted; I remember them being pretty flimsy, and also I think they folded in half to be stored in a faux-leather pouch. 

This was the height of my Gold Eagle obsession – as the photo was taken I was probably daydreaming about the latest volume of Phoenix Force.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

The Butcher #11: Valley Of Death


The Butcher #11: Valley Of Death, by Stuart Jason
April, 1974  Pinnacle Books

I was under the impression I didn’t have this volume of The Butcher, but I was looking in the box where I store the other volumes of the series I have, and lo and behold…well, you can probably figure out where I’m going with this. There it was in the box! So anyway Valley Of Death was the second of two installments written by Lee Floren, who previously wrote #10: Deadly Doctor

It’s been a long time since I read Deadly Doctor, so I went back to check my review. I found it humorous that I referenced Russell Smith in it, because as I was reading Valley Of Death I kept thinking to myself how much it read like a Russell Smith novel. The same surreal vibe, the same writing style; only Smith’s patented exclamation marks were missing. But this one was written by Lee Floren, as it’s clearly a sequel to Deadly Doctor, the events of which are referenced throughout. I only have one other novel by Floren, an early ‘60s sub-sleaze PBO titled Las Vegas Madam (written as “Matt Harding”), but I’ve yet to read it. I’m curious if it too is as surreal and rough as his work on The Butcher

Because this is one rough novel. Again, it is almost identical to something by Russell Smith in that it’s clear the author is winging it from the first page to the last, and not taking anything seriously. Random events happen and only gradually does a plot come together. Like the previous Floren yarn, there is a definite attempt at mimicking the style of main “Stuart Jason” James Dockery. As James Reasoner and I discussed in the comments section of my review for Deadly Doctor, Dockery and Floren both lived in Mexico, so it’s likely they were friends and this is how Floren came to write for The Butcher, not to mention why he strived to capture the style of Dockery for his two contributions. 

So we have the “bitter-sour taste of defeat,” the “koosh!” for Bucher’s silencered Walther P-38, and the recurring character of the director of White Hat (his title, curiously, is never capitalized). Also the repeating Dockery motif of Bucher being arrested by a smalltown sheriff and then being let go after a call to White Hat. But Floren toys with Dockery’s ever-recurring themes. Also, he skips some stuff: there’s no opening moment, for example, where Bucher is stalked by two superdeformed Syndicate thugs he soon blows away. And Floren expands the smalltown sheriff character from the one-off of the Dockery installments into more of a presence in the narrative. A weird presence, it must be stated. 

For that is the main thing Floren captures in his Dockery-isms: the weird, perverted nature of Dockery’s average Butcher story. There is, as in the Dockery books, the feeling that none of this is real, that it is all taking place in some alternate reality; Bucher himself muses at the end of Valley Of Death that this latest caper has been “like a bad dream.” I’ve gone on way too much in previous reviews that the idea is almost like Bucher himself is dead and cast in some purgatory where he relives the same nightmarish scenario, again and again into eternity. Like the entire series is based on the final chapter of Jim Thompson’s The Getaway, where the criminal protagonists are trapped in hell. Lee Floren captures that vibe in this novel, more so than he did in Deadly Doctor

Like a Dockery installment, the “plot” only gradually comes together. But basically White Hat tasks Bucher with figuring out why elections are not going the way the “experts” predicted they would, both in the US and abroad. Yes, folks, we have another vintage men’s adventure novel with a plot that is relevant today. I mean check this out – the only thing missing is the name “Dominion” for the voting machines: 



But what I love is that, even in this surreal, fictional world, there is still enough rationality that everyone acknowledges that the election results are suspect. Floren keeps his politics to himself but does go the expected route and make “the Conservatives” the bad guys in both the US and Poland; we learn there is a new right-wing party, with fascist ties (because of course), that is gaining ground around the world due to those voting machines. But folks there are a lot of parts in this one where Bucher sits around watching TV or listening to the radio as election results come in. In the US it’s the Democrats versus the Republicans, with new party “The Conservatives” faring well in cities but not in rural areas…a curious reversal of today, but then again this book was published in 1974. And in Poland the right-wing Conservative party, dubbed the Sons of something or other over there (I was too lazy to jot it down), have beaten the Communist-backed party, and Russia isn’t happy about that. 

Oh, and there’s also something about the ridiculously-monikered “World King,” this volume’s main villain who is behind the nefariousness. This turns out to be the lamest bit in the novel because Floren does nothing with it. Anyway Bucher’s sure, as ever, that the Syndicate is behind the plot, whatever the plot is. So, the way these things go, he flies a Cessna to the Mojave Desert. That’s another reminder of Deadly Doctor, where Bucher suddenly became a pilot. The “flying fiction” isn’t as egregious in Valley Of Death, but in addition to the Cessna Bucher also flies a helicopter and an F4 Phantom jet. This latter factors into an aerial sequence that seems to be inspired by Chuck Yeager’s near-fatal accident in the NF-104 (which Tom Wolfe later brought to life in The Right Stuff) – an incident Floren was likely familiar with, given that he also names a minor Syndicate thug Zeager. 

The Dockery inversions are most apparent with the slackjawed yokel sheriff, generally a one-off character in Dockery, but here expanded into a supporting character: Sheriff Julia Whitcomb. That’s right, folks: a woman!! Indeed, one with “high breasts…a healthy young female animal.” We’re also told she’s so hot that even usually-unperturbed Bucher is taken aback. But spoiler alert – and we learn this pretty quickly in the novel – but, uh, she is really a he. That’s right again, folks: a transvestite! Boy, Lee Floren was batting two for two in the “relevance for today” department, wasn’t he? This gender-bending switcharoo is revealed when “Julia” is in bed with a Syndicate flunky named Mario Niccoli. 

The villain of the piece, Niccoli is the brother of the two other Niccolis Bucher killed in The Deadly Doctor. Again, Valley Of Death is a straight sequel to that one, with the sole surviving Niccoli burning up to get revenge for the death of his brothers. But Floren further tells us this about Mario Niccoli: “A fag himself, his two brothers had in fact been his wives, for they too had lusted after men, not women.” This tidbit is casually dropped in the opening; again, just very Russell Smith in vibe. Later Niccoli is in bed with “Julia,” and it’s revealed that “no female breasts” are beneath “her” padded bra. 

But it gets even weirder. Adding to the surreal texture is that Bucher is constantly getting “updates” from White Hat which inform him of practically everything going on in the plot, and the backgrounds of the various characters he encounters. Actually it’s the director who gives Bucher these updates, giving the impression that the old man is omniscient – and now that I think of it, furthering the whole “purgatory” conceit of The Butcher, with the White Hat director serving as god to Bucher’s doomed soul. But Bucher is constantly being informed off-page about this or that, so that he is caught up with what’s going on, to the extent that his presence seems unnecessary. White Hat knows all, so why can’t it do all? 

Well anyway, in one of those updates Bucher is informed by the director that Julia Whitcomb is really a guy – curiously, Bucher is informed of this right after we readers learn of it via the scene with Julia and Niccoli, which again gives the idea that all this is a “bad dream” with info gathered and incorporated into the story in real time. So Bucher starts hitting on Julia, asking her out to dinner and making insinuating comments about getting her into bed, and Julia becoming increasingly excited at the prospect. Just weird, wild stuff. But again it’s like Floren is just winging it, or the booze has run dry as he’s been typing, because he drops all of it with Julia leaving Bucher’s room in a huff and the incident never being mentioned again. 

Bucher does get laid, though – by a woman (not that I’m a biologist, you understand, but Floren tells us she is). This too is on the strange “dreamlike” tip: her name is Sandra Stone, and she claims she is a reporter when she boldly approaches Bucher in Poland. (He’s come here, for no real reason, to get more evidence on those voting machines.) Bucher immediately knows Sandra is a Syndicate spy, but soon enough the two end in bed. This actually happens between chapters, so Floren gives us absolutely zero in the way of sleaze. Which, again, is reminiscent of the Dockery books. So too is the weird misogyny on display throughout – Bucher treats Sandra like shit, telling her to take off and leave him alone, even though he knows the Syndicate intends to kill her. Her (expected) fate is still shocking given how casually Floren treats it in the narrative – surely the most blackly humorous moment in a blackly humorous novel. 

Action-wise there’s a bit more going on than in the Dockery books, with Bucher often getting in shootouts. The gore is not as pronounced, though. And also Bucher is slightly more human; Floren’s Bucher still experiences fear, and reacts close to panic at times. He is not the “Iceman” of the James Dockery books, and he’s more prone to displaying his emotions. He does a bit of deducting in the novel but it’s very lame because it’s based on coincidence. Like when in the small town in the Mojave, he just happens to see some “scientist types” go into a building, after which a balloon rises from the building. Gradually Floren will tie this together with the voting machines, but it’s all so hamfisted that it’s just more indication that he was winging it from first page to last. 

This is further demonstrated by the non-event that is the so-called World King. As with a Dockery novel, it all ultimately comes down to the same characters Bucher has been dealing with since the beginning of the book, characters who are suddenly revealed as being more important to the Syndicate plot than we readers were led to believe. Bucher sees more action here – but I forgot to mention! Suddenly Bucher has become a field tester for various White Hat gadgets. In Valley Of Death, he has these pellets he fires from his P-38 which knock a man into a deathlike state that lasts for twelve hours. There are so many scenes of Bucher shooting someone with these – usually firing the pellets straight down their throat – and then watching TV later on as the news reports on the “dead men” found in such and such a place, who later wake up with absolutely no memory, and the doctors trying to figure out what’s wrong with them. 

Oh, and Bucher also has this pole with a choker on it, or some such contraption, which he uses to ensnare various bigwigs. So there’s a lot of stuff where he’ll capture people with this, then shoot them with the deathlike-amnesia pill…it’s just super weird, folks. I mean the whole novel is like a lost installment of The Sharpshooter or The Marksman, we’re talking that same weird, surreal, “booze-fueled first draft” vibe throughout. All of which is to say that Valley Of Death was kind of fun, in a deranged sort of way. Floren’s imagination is so off-kilter that I would’ve enjoyed more installments by him…the book might not be great, or hell even good, but at least it isn’t the same story over and over like James Dockery was doing for the series.

Thursday, January 5, 2023

Nightblood


Nightblood, by T. Chris Martindale
January, 1990  Warner Books

I’ve wanted to read this one for a long time. First of all, I think I am legally obligated to note that Nightblood is First Blood meets Salem’s Lot. You will see this claim in practically every review of the book. Hell, the novel is compared to Morrell on the first page, in a blurb from novelist J.N. Williamson. And as it turns out, there is truth to this claim…as Nightblood is really just First Blood meets Salem’s Lot

It’s been over thirty years since I read Salem’s Lot; as a teen in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s I went through the expected Stephen King phase…hell, I even subscribed to the Stephen King Book Club. I read Salem’s Lot at this time and I recall loving it, and I think it was even my favorite King novel for some time. To this day I’ve never seen the ‘70s movie based on it, and also my memory of the novel is now dim. Literally the only part I remember is where a guy tries to use a cross to stop a vampire and King builds up the tension – only for it to turn out the cross doesn’t work because the guy is faking his belief. And hey guess what, a scene just like that is here in Nightblood! 

So yeah, the story is pretty much identical: vampires, led by a powerful king vampire, take over a small town in the US. The First Blood comparison comes in the form of the novel’s protagonist, Chris Stiles, a ‘Nam shit-kicker who now goes around the country in a van at the behest of his brother (who is a ghost!), fighting “Evil” with Uzis and a katana and pipe bombs and etc. It’s a great idea…and I seem to recall at one point it was rumored that Sylvester Stallone was considering taking his Rambo franchise into supernatural territory…wasn’t one of the rumored Rambo V plots about him taking on vampires or something along those lines? 

The only problem is, Chris Stiles is no John J. Rambo. In fact, the dude comes off poorly in his first – and only – book. He makes one mistake after another, gets knocked out and captured a bunch. Hell, it turns out he has a penchant for reading Romance novels. What the fuck kind of vampire-kicking hero is that?? Plus the guy’s name sucks, I mean “Chris Stiles” sounds more like an insurance agent, or even worse a Hollywood actor…the name has none of the impact of a “Rambo” or even a “Bolan.” I mean maybe if his name was Johnny Stiles, or heck even Connor Stiles…but I digress. It’s also kind of funny that author T. Chris Martindale named his vampire-busting hero “Chris.” 

At 322 pages of small, dense print, Nightblood is more concerned with characterization and suspense than I would have suspected about a novel featuring an Uzi-bearing vampire hunter. One thing I appreciated was that Martindale didn’t waste our time with background; we meet Stiles while he’s already been in the game for some time, and there’s no setup with him in Vietnam and etc. In fact the back cover gives us more detail on this than the novel itself does, at least at first. But the long and short of it is that Stiles and his brother Alex were both in ‘Nam, and Alex was killed by something over there, and now Alex’s ghost occasionally comes to chat with Stiles, telling him that “Evil” is manifesting in such and such a place. It’s up to Stiles to load up his Uzis and go kick Evil’s ass. 

Driving around in his van, it’s hard not to see Stiles as a horror paperback equivalent of Traveler…again with the caveat that Stiles goofs up a whole bunch for someone who has been doing this so long. He poses as a handyman, or occasionally as a writer, and when we meet him Alex’s ghost has appeared and told Stiles to hie the hell hence to Isherwood, Indiana, a small town in which Evil is coming up. Alex even has the name “Danner” for Stiles to look into. Speaking of equivalents, Danner will be the equivalent of the king vampire in Salem’s Lot

And friends Martindale is very on the level that he’s been inspired by King; there’s a part where we are informed that Stiles dealt with “heavy vampire activity” in Maine…which happens to also be the setting of Salem’s Lot. The King comparisons also come in the form of the hardscrabble smalltown yokels Stiles hobknobs with. Just kidding – I grew up in a town smaller than Isherwood so I am quite familiar with hardscrabble smalltown yokels. (Here is evidence to support that claim.) Speaking of my Stephen King-reading teen days, I still recall this older guy at the time who always got drunk with my uncle Jim…can’t remember the guy’s name but I remember him once sneering at me, “Are you still readin’ them Stephen King books?" I mean the way he asked it, it was like he was asking if I was still mainlining heroin. 

It's also to Martindale’s credit that he gets to the action quick. Stiles heads into Isherwood, makes friendly eyes at busty waitress Billie at the local diner, and that night he’s out on Danner’s property and shooting up the vampire himself. Now meanwhile Billie’s kids, teen Bart and 11 year-old Delbert, have snuck onto Danner’s property…and end up running into the vampire. These two kids seem to have come out of The Monster Squad in how they are little Monster Kids quite aware of vampires and whatnot – so at least for those two there’s none of the “vampires don’t exist!” schtick that will take up the brunt of the ensuing novel. 

But here’s the thing. Stiles gets Danner dead bang, just blitzting the shit out of him with a laserscoped machine gun…and then lets the mutilated, cut-down vampire run off into the darkened woods. Del and Bart plead with him to go finish off the vampire, but Stiles is like, nah, it’s all good. Of course, this will turn out to be incorrect, and perhaps Martindale was hoping to show how even an experienced vampire hunter could be surprised by a true king vampire, but the truth of it is, this makes Stiles come off like a buffoon. I mean if you’ve chopped the vampire down to pieces, finish the job there and then, don’t be cocky about it and assume the daylight will finish the job. 

So this sets in motion the Salem’s Lot stuff. I was not prepared for the “small town minds” ethic that Nightblood would appropriate (that phrase, by the way, is the title of a book my mom always wanted to write about the town I grew up in…I’ll steal it someday). I mean what I’m saying is, there’s a ton of stuff about the various hardscrabble smalltown yokels, and for lots of sequences Chris Stiles disappears. Or he’s sleeping. Seriously. I was hoping there’d be some actual Monster Squad fun, with Martindale at least focusing on Del and Bart, but they too don’t do much. I did appreciate the bit where their mother Billie considers reading their copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland for research. 

It's these sorts of fun touches that are for the most part missing in Nightblood, making the novel a bit too listless for the action onslaught I expected. The book is also repetitive. The entire middle and final half is comprised of various scenarios in which Stiles corners Danner, or Danner corners Stiles, but one or the other will escape. I mean Stiles gets the drop on Danner several times, even blowing him up at one point, but the vampire keeps getting away – and coming back stronger than ever. And hell now that I think of it, Danner also comes off like a dolt in the book. He too makes several mistakes, underestimating Stiles…there’s even a part where the mega horrible king vampire is afraid of running into Stiles. 

There is at least action…and also Stiles takes a lot of damage, but again it’s due to his own shortsightedness. Like the part where Danner totally captures him, breaking a few of Stiles’s fingers and even about to make Stiles suck him off, but our hero is saved by…a ghost. I mean this is literally the only time in a novel where I’ve encountered “ghost vs vampire;” I don’t think Bewitched even ventured into that territory. And again, main baddie Danner runs away from the ghost. It’s all very puzzling because it’s like Martindale keeps belittling his own protagonist and antagonist. 

The finale takes a page from William W. Johnstone, with the town cut off from the world and overrun by Satan’s minions, save for a few plucky survivors. More First Blood stuff here with Stiles teaching people how to set traps and make bombs and whatnot. There’s also a cool part where Stiles has to dash for safety past several vampires, armed with a katana, and starts lopping them apart. Mainly though he does his fighting with his guns. There’s also a fun part where Del tries to pass himself off as a vampire with fake blood and fake vampire teeth. But again the novel is undone by the repetitious confrontations between Danner and Stiles…made even worse that Danner’s ultimate defeat is made possible by a newly-introduced character. 

Martindale also gets props for working in a subtle First Blood allusion. Those who have read Morrell’s novel will recall that Rambo and his trainer Trautman begin to share a psychic bond, knowing what one another think. Stiles and Danner begin to experience the same situation. I thought that was cool, but I didn’t think it was cool that there was no naughty stuff in the book. Stiles and Billie develop feelings for one another, but there’s no gratuitous part where they consumate their burning yearnings. I mean Stiles does goes to bed several times in the novel, but it’s just to sleep. The poor guy’s tuckered out from searching the town all day for Danner’s resting place. 

Overall though, Nightblood does sort of capture the First Blood meets Salem’s Lot vibe, with the caveat that it’s not as good as either of those novels, coming off as too similar to the latter and with a hero who compares poorly to the hero of the former.

Monday, January 2, 2023

Black Samurai #3: Killer Warrior


Black Samurai #3: Killer Warrior, by Marc Olden
July, 1974  Signet Books

Within the first few pages of this third volume of Black Samurai we see it’s going to be a slightly more pulpy installment than the previous two; Marc Olden opens the tale in France, where an Apache Indian warrior, armed with an axe and wearing facepaint, brutally kills two Muslim terrorists who tried to burn the Apache’s boss in a weapons deal. 

Around this time Olden also wrote Narc #2, which also featured an Apache villain; here though the character has more precedence in the plot, and also I’m happy to report that for once Olden doesn’t short-change us in the climax. Both in Black Samurai and Narc Marc Olden had a tendency to pile on too many villains and then brush them aside in the harried finale; Narc in particular suffered from too many climaxes in which the villains got away, never to be heard from again. This is what happened with the Narc Apache warrior, in fact. But in Killer Warrior Olden delivers on the climactic confrontation between his hero, Black Samurai Robert Sand, and the Apache villain, the wonderfully-named Mangas Salt. 

The plot of this one is similar to the previous volume: Sand tries to prevent the destruction of a city in America. And once again he doesn’t know which city. This time the main villain, sort of, is a Japanese guy who wants revenge for Hiroshima. But as Marty McKee noted in his review, this villain, Saraga, is “something of an afterthought” in the novel. Really it’s Mangas Salt and his employer, arms dealer Valbonne, who serve as the main villains of Killer Warrior. Saraga only appears in the finale, though several of his Japanese stooges frequently appear so Robert Sand can have a few redshirts to bump off. 

It's only now occurred to me that Black Samurai is everything I’ve always wanted The Destroyer to be. I mean it features a character who is almost superhuman due to his martial arts skills, and it features memorable villains, but it’s all played on the level, without any of the satire of the Sapir/Murphy series. I like my pulp straight, no chaser! And Olden certainly plays it straight; the narrative is almost as humorless as Sand himself is. Everything is deathly serious – not to mention realisitc, at least insofar as the action scenes go. Sand only ever goes up against a few people at a time, and Olden strives to not make the Black Samurai come off like a superhero…even though that’s exactly what he is. 

As evidence of this, Killer Warrior opens with Sand training in Japan with an elderly sensei who was friends with Sand’s original sensei, Master Konuma, murdered in the first volume. Part of the regimen includes Sand wrapping a chain around himself and doing leaping exercises. Sand actually breaks the friggin’ chain with the force of his jumps, causing even the old Japanese dude to gape in astonishment. And utter, “Samurai!”, which is like the ultimate compliment from old Japanese senseis. Marc Olden excels at such subtle but touching moments; one can tell his heart was really in this series. 

A recurring schtick of Black Samurai seems to be that the narrative will go from Japan to France, then to the US; this happens in Killer Warrior as well. One thing I like is that you see the series title “Black Samurai” and assume it will be a bunch of “Oriental” adventures, but for the most part Robert Sand spends his time in Europe. But then in Marc Olden’s world you’ll also find facepainted Apache Indian warriors in Europe. And by the way, Olden doesn’t play perspective hopscotch as much as usual this time; most of his adventure novels feature a lot of stream-of-conscious ruminations from the various one-off villains, but these sequences are few and far between in Killer Warrior

What I mean to say is, this is the most focused installment yet. Olden keeps the plot moving from beginning to end, and even indulges in a bit of ‘70s-mandatory sleaze, a first in the series. This doesn’t feature Robert Sand, though – however, as with the last volume, he manages to score again. Even if it happens off-page. But there’s a part where a one-off character, a scientist who is helping Valbonne create an atom bomb for Saraga, meets with a hooker, and Sand has given the hooker a secret message to convey to the scientist. A message she is to write in lipstick on a bathroom mirror…and the lipstick tube has been hidden in her, uh, ladyparts. Olden gets enjoyable sleazy here, with the gal getting naked and showing off for the guy, then plucking out the tube from her inner recesses. However when the actual deed is transpiring Olden fades to black, as is his wont. 

Action isn’t as frequent this time. Sand only gets in a few fights, and probably the action highlight of the novel occurs midway through when he dresses all in black and takes on a few of Valbonne’s men at an airport. There’s also a cool part at a zoo outside Paris where Sand first tangles with Salt. And speaking of which, I did find having both a “Sand” and a “Salt” in the same novel to be confusing, but I assume Olden was trying to demonstrate how they were two sides of the same coin – something very much reinforced as the novel winds to a close. Also there’s a “Saraga” in the book; too many characters whose names begin with “Sa!” Instead of all-out action, Olden goes for more of a suspense angle, like for example a bit seemingly lifted from Doctor No where Sand encounters a rattlesnake in his hotel room, one left there for him by Salt. 

But then Olden undercuts the suspense with a bit of lameness. For example, in that zoo battle in which Sand and Salt have their first face-to-face, Sand has Salt dead bang…but just has him lie down while Sand escapes. And keep in mind, we readers already know Salt is a merciless killer, and Sand knows this as well, having been thoroughly briefed by his boss William Clarke on how brutal Salt is. (Like Salt’s penchant for hanging victims upside down over a fire until their heads cook and their brains explode – something we see happen in the course of the novel.) I mean it’s understandable in a way; Salt is a warrior (whether Sand or Salt is the “killer warrior” of the title is up to the reader to decide – though again it’s probably more of that “two sides of the same coin” schtick), and Sand would not want to kill an unarmed warrior. Okay, that’s fine. But even worse is the later bit where Salt leaves the rattlesnake in Sand’s hotel room…and Sand is bitten by it…and Salt comes in to fight Sand, amazed that the Black Samurai gets to his feet and screams out a “Kiya!” despite suffering a bite that would kill a lesser man. And then Sand…passes out, and the chapter ends. 

And when Sand wakes up next chapter, he’s in the hospital and Clarke is there, Sand having been rescued at the last moment…and Salt, it turns out, ran off after Sand passed out, presumably assuming Sand was dead. It’s just lame. At first I thought Olden was going to go in an unexpected direction with Salt, due to his sudden respect for Sand, helping his former enemy escape, but that was not the case. That said, Olden works up an effective finale in which Salt, who this time is the one who is injured, decides to go out as a warrior, challenging his “brother” Robert Sand to one final fight. It’s cool and all, but at the same time kind of hard to buy given how merciless Mangas Salt has been shown to be earlier in the novel. 

Robert Sand shows even less personality this time than in previous books. He has none of the sass of other volumes, for the most part remaining terse. He still manages to score, though, with a pretty lady named Moraida who serves as a courier for Saraga. Sand saves her in another tense scene in which a few of Saraga’s goons accost Moraida in her hotel room and attempt to kill her. Olden also excels at depicting mortal combat in enclosed spaces; there’s also a cool part in that Salt-Sand confrontation in Sand’s hotel room where Sand uses the narrow space of his bathroom to his advantage. It’s little touches like this that convey how Marc Olden himself was familiar with martial arts technique. 

Overall I really enjoyed Killer Warrior, and it was another great installment of Black Samurai. And if I hadn’t already read The Warlock, I’d say it was my favorite yet.