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).

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

The Spider #29: Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate

The Spider #29: Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate, by Grant Stockbridge
February, 1936  Popular Publications

Picking up two months after the previous volume, this 29th installment of The Spider again finds our hero, Richard “The Spider” Wentworth, struggling against a national threat pretty much all on his own. While last time Wentworth dropped his Spider guise, this time his entire existence as The Spider is called into question, with Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page instilling the yarn with more emotional depth than the previous volumes. 

That’s not to say Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate isn’t the typical Page onslaught of action, though. As with the previous installments, a lot of the good stuff is squandered by frequent detours into time-consuming action scenes. But there is a lot of good, character-driven stuff here, more so than any of the earlier books, or at least anything I can recall in them. In particular Wentworth’s relationship with Nita Van Sloan is really put into the spotlight, with Nita’s ever-staunch acceptance of Wentworth’s life as the Spider put to the ultimate test. 

Last we saw Wentworth he was on the run, outed in the papers as the Spider but still fighting crime as Corporal Death. Now, two months later, a near-penniless Wentworth (his vast assets frozen due to his being a wanted man and all) lives in the Underworld, disguised with a “face quite altered…by puckered scars…as if by a richocheting bullet.” His plight, as ever, is dire, and his best friend/worst enemy Commissioner Kirkpatrick still has the cops looking for him, despite the fact that last volume Wentworth helped Kirkpatrick defeat the (latest) supervillain who threatened to take over New York. Curiously the Corporal Death gimmick is completely dropped this time, at least so far as Wentworth goes; the guise is only mentioned in passing halfway through the novel, then very late in the game another character takes up the mantle. 

There isn’t much pickup from The Mayor Of Hell, though. The way things go, there’s already a new menace Wentworth must deal with; true to form this one opens with Wentworth just happening to witness some latest criminal act, as a carful of men ambush a lone girl and point a “queer gun” at her. This thing fires darts, and this will be the volume’s villain gimmick, or at least one of them – as the narrative tells us, “Almost always, these geniuses of crime invented some new weapon.” The darts make their victims go nuts, spastically dancing as they (presumably) shit themselves and die; Wentworth will soon be calling this weapon “the dancing death.” But that’s not enough for Page, and later in the book he has the criminals using a Dissolver bomb that, well, dissolves people. 

As for the villains, this time for the most part they are Indians, apparently of the Thuggee cult, though Page doesn’t do too much with this. Their boss is the lamely-named Chief, who just wears a hood…but then this supervillain’s gimmick is he never really appears in person, each hooded “Chief” Wentworth encounters turning out to be a decoy. After failing to save the girl in the opening scene, Wentworth gets in a running battle against the Chief and his Thuggee minions, with as ever the fate of the entire nation ultimately coming into play. But as if that weren’t enough, Wentworth also has to avoid the cops, who are really closing in on him – not to mention Nita Van Sloan, who sets Wentworth up for the trap! 

The stuff with Nita has kind of bored me in previous volumes because it’s too hard to believe; I much prefer the presentation of Nita in later volumes, like #75: Satan’s Murder Machines, where she’s getting in on the action instead of just being caught by the villains. The seeds of this later female ass-kickery are planted here in Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate, particularly in a climax that actually gave me the old chills due to the emotional content of the heroic sacrifice and whatnot. Indeed this Spider yarn reaches dramatic heights only hinted at in previous volumes. 

Nita’s betrayal of Wentworth, following him to his slum hideout and distracting him long enough until the cops can show up – that is, after she has, for the first time ever, seriously nagged at him to give up being the Spider – is one of the biggest dramatic surprises in the series yet. But I couldn’t help but chuckle like I was some gutter-minded high schooler (which at heart I guess I always will be), because some of Wentworth and Nita’s dialog here can be taken way out of context:

I mean, seriously! “Stiffly,” “It’s hard, “I want to make it so hard?” Dick lover?! What are these two really talking about?? (And FYI, later in the book Nita does actually say “Dick lover,” without the comma between the two words as in the excerpt above…) It’s been years since I read it, but in Robert Sampson’s 1987 study The Spider I’m pretty sure Sampson speculates that Wentworth and Nita Van Sloan, as a pair of healthy mature adults in love, had to have been engaging in some pre-marital sex off-page, and that Page craftily insinuated so in the text. Page certainly does here; late in Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate Wentworth and Nita take an unexpected trip to Florida (even though the country is literally about to be taken over by the Chief!), and spend a few weeks there, staying together in a beach house. I mean Page can’t get into Harold Robbins “full, upthrusting breasts” territory, it being 1936 and all, but it seems pretty evident that Nita is giving Wentworth the goods during this brief sabbatical from his crimefighting life. After all, by her own admission Nita is a “Dick lover!” Hell, I wish I could go spend a couple weeks in Florida with her. 

Nita isn’t the only woman who wants Wentworth, though; this volume brings a female villainess back to the fold. There hasn’t been one of those in a Spider yarn for a few volumes now. This one’s named Tarsa, and she follows the template of the previous female Spider villains: sinuous, evilly “exotic,” and seemingly just as eager to kill Wentworth as to bed him. Page spends a good bit of the middle half detailing an overlong sequence where Tarsa, who mockingly refers to Wentworth as “Master,” tries to woo Wentworth to the side of the Chief (she of course knows that Wentworth is the Spider – not to mention that he was also Corporal Death), then gets in an extended chase with him through the death trap-laden headquarters of the villains. 

A cool thing about The Spider is that Page will have a bit of continuity in it, with recurring minor characters. This time it’s Bill Horace, a bumbling cop who was made a detective after the events of #20: Reign Of The Death Fiddler – thanks to the help Wentworth gave him. Horace starts off Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate as a dolt, with the joke being he was made detective too soon and is prone to stupid mistakes. Again Wentworth helps him, and gradually Horace turns into a stronger character; by novel’s end he is a crimefighter in his own right, having appropriated a mantle of his own. I am curious to see if he returns in this guise in future volumes. There’s also a laughable bit where Wentworth toys with Horace and others that he, Wentworth, isn’t really the Spider, and the real Spider might become upset that Wentworth is going around pretending to be him! Even Horace is confused by this…at first convinced Wentworth is the Spider, then by novel’s end – thanks to that thrilling climax – thinking he might not be, after all. 

Speaking of which, the Spider costume makes its return in Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate…though as ever the costume is just as quickly cast aside as it is donned. Wentworth per the norm spends the majority of the narrative as himself. But it was cool to finally get a few sequences of the hunchbacked, fanged Spider getup, even if it didn’t last very long. The recent volumes have certainly been lacking in the “costume” department; even the Corporal Death guise didn’t feature a mask or special suit or anything. And as mentioned the crime boss “The Chief” just wears a basic hood. The bigger gimmick is that Wentworth gradually deduces that the entire character is a ruse; there’s some fun un-PC stuff where Wentworth will blow away the Chief, only to take the hood off and see it’s “just a Hindu” who “can’t possibly be the real Chief.” Of course Wentworth is proven correct in novel’s end, but the revelation of who really leads the villains comes off as too arbitrary and as if Page were trying to connect two plot strands. That said, it’s at least better than the lame “villain reveals” of previous yarns, where some random character was outed as the boss. 

Another thorn in Wentworth’s side is Kirkpatrick’s sudden ferocious attack on him; the Spider is accused in the papers of murder and kidnapping and etc throughout the book, and Wentworth is certain Kirkpatrick is behind these false allegations. It’s a subplot Page doesn’t satisfactorily wrap up, but the explanation is this is just another method Kirkpatrick is employing to convince Wentworth to give up being the Spider. As I say, the genetic makeup of the Spider himself is called into question in Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate, with Wentworth not only assailed by the usual external forces but internal ones as well. The only friends not badgering him to give up are Jackson and Ram Singh, who are finally sprung from prison late in the novel – a sequence that features Wentworth’s return as the Spider, working with the new Corporal Death. 

There is of course frequent action throughout, like an attack on a cruise ship that Wentworth desperately tries to prevent. But a lot of the action is one-off sequences that sort of distract from the bigger picture, which is the one thing that always annoys me about The Spider. It does build up to a great climax, with Wentworth, Corporal Death, and the Spider coming to save Kirkpatrick and various politicians who have all been captured in Washington, DC. The nick-of-time appearance of the “other” Spider is the highlight of the novel; even Wentworth is shocked and has no idea who it could be. However, having read the later volume Satans Murder Machines, I had a pretty good hunch – and this didn’t take away from the thrilling nature of the scene at all. Otherwise this climax features characters dissolving and also being chomped apart in an elaborate death machine. 

Shockingly enough, Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate ends with Richard Wentworth declaring that the Spider is dead forever…and he and Nita make their long-delayed walk down the wedding aisle. But, of course, criminal genius The Fly, returning from #11: Prince Of The Red Looters, chooses this precise moment to attack New York…and only the Spider can stop him. In yet more good “character” stuff, it is Kirkpatrick and Nita – the two who spend the entirety of Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate trying to convince Wentworth to quit – who tell our hero that “only the Spider” can save the day. This must be why I was under the impression that The Mayor Of Hell, Slaves Of The Murder Syndicate, and next volume’s Green Globes Of Death formed a trilogy, as last we see Wentworth he is once again rushing into the fray.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Random Record Review: Bloodsong – “Initium Meets Earth AD”

More than likely I will get even more digressive than typical in this post, so I’ll start off with the capper: I’m here reviewing a self-released album, available for free download on Bandcamp, which imagines what the Samhain album Initium might have sounded like if it had been recorded by the Earth AD-era Misfits…and what Earth AD might have sounded like if it had been recorded by Initium-era Samhain. 

So at this point you are already either in or out. If the above paragraph makes sense to you – if you are already familiar with those bands and those albums – then surely you are in. Because once this music’s in your blood you can’t shake it. And you also know that the discographies of those two bands are pathetically small…because of course you only consider the Glenn Danzig era to be The Misfits. Anything without Danzig isn’t the Misfits. And there were only two Samhain LPs, one EP, and one half-finished LP. So then you already know there’s sparse material to listen to from either group, so if you’re like me you’re excited to hear something new in that vein. 

But if you aren’t familiar with any of this…let me try to encapsulate it, and also explain why this concept album, Initium Meets Earth AD, is so goddamn perfect, and one of the best new albums I have heard in years. Seriously just stop reading and go download the album at Bandcamp – available in a variety of formats, but of course FLAC is probably the highest quality – and tell me if Bloodsong (aka someone named “Chris” who also goes by the handle “I, Misanthrope” – and yes the entire thing was done by just one guy!) hasn’t delivered a perfect replication of Earth AD-era Misfits and Initium-era Samhain. 

Okay, here is where the overly-digressive navel-gazing stuff will begin, so feel free to skip ahead thirteen paragraphs(!), to where I will actually share my thoughts on Bloodsong’s Initium Meets Earth AD (which again you should just download and listen to instead of reading the following thirteen paragraphs…) 

I first got into the Misfits in the fall of 1989, when I had just turned 15. I decided I wanted to learn more about heavy metal, given that for years I’d been seeing all the long-haired kids at school wearing Metallica and Megadeth shirts and whatnot. The Metallica “Crash Course In Brain Surgery” shirt, with art by the ubiquitous Pushead, was a particular favorite – I remember seeing that one starting around 1987. I had a friend a few years older than me, a guy named Billy Sampson, and in high school he became my go-to person for music info, given that he had a ton of tapes and records and CDs and was really into the metal scene. He was like the prototypical slacker; he didn’t really apply himself in school and didn’t seem to have any grand aims in life, but I thought he was smart, and he definitely had a great sense of humor. He was tall, always wore a Metallica shirt, and I thought he sort of resembled Bill Murray, but that was probably just me. But anyway I remember telling him one day that I was thinking about getting into heavy metal, and Billy gave me this look and was like, “Are you sure, Joe?” Like I was about to get into witchcraft or something. I persisted, and Billy loaned me a pile of heavy metal tapes and records (no CDs, as I didn’t have a player yet). 

It was all kinds of stuff: Metallica, Anthrax, Ozzy-era Black Sabbath, Megadeth, Grim Reaper, etc. No Slayer – I specifically recall that group was too much for me so I told Billy I didn’t want any of their albums. No doubt the tapes and vinyl Billy loaned me would be valuable today; I recall he even loaned me a Metallica 12” single that had “Creeping Death” on it, which is probably a hot collector item today. Anyway, I played all this shit…and when I reported back to Billy I told him my favorite material on all of it was “Last Caress” and “Green Hell,” a medley of songs on Metallica’s 1987 cover version EP Garage Days Re-Revisted

Billy nodded knowingly and was like, “Oh yeah, those two songs were originally done by The Misfits.” To which I said, “Who?” Then he was like, “Yeah, that’s Glenn Danzig’s old band.” Again: “Who?” Billy didn’t have any Misfits tapes, but he said it was an old punk band that a guy named Glenn Danzig had been in, and those two songs were originally Misfits songs. Little did I know that I was about to embark on a lifetime of Danzig fandom. I went to the local music store, Camelot Music in the Valley View Mall in nearby LaVale, Maryland, and scanned the “M” tape racks. The only Misfits tape they had was Earth AD. I bought it, excited to see “Green Hell” was on the tracklist. I could hear the original version now! 

One thing I couldn’t see was how long the tape was. When I got home and opened it up, I was shocked to see that there was hardly any tape at all in the plastic cassette window. Had I paid full album price for an EP?? Then I put the tape in. What the fuck was this? The goddamn thing sounded like it had been recorded at the bottom of a well in a single take. Songs blurred into each other, you could barely hear the instruments let alone Glenn Danzig’s voice, and the tape was over before I knew it. And I wasn’t even aware at the time that the tape I’d bought, despite how short it was, was actually longer than the original 1983 vinyl release; the cassette release contained three additional songs not on the vinyl: “Mommy, Can I Go Out and Kill Tonight?,” “Die, Die My Darling,” and “We Bite.” But this was pre-internet Fort Ashby, West Virginia, friends – we didn’t know anything about anything back then, especially out there in the sticks. 

Despite how much I regretted my purchase upon first listen, I vowed to “get my money’s worth” and listened to Earth AD again. And again. And again. Pretty soon I was loving the goddamn thing. Everything I complained about in the previous paragraph was now something I loved. You can’t hear Danzig’s voice and have no idea what he’s singing? So what, come up with your own interpretation of the lyrics. The songs are too sloppy and fast? So what, that’s hardcore punk (apparently). I was now a confirmed Misfits fan. Soon enough I got more Misfits tapes: Legacy Of Brutality and Walk Among Us. The latter quickly became my favorite, and I believe it’s universally agreed as the “best” Misfits album, but these things are so subjective…to tell the truth I like the one I’m currently playing the best, whichever it might be. Unfortunately none of the in-print Misfits albums at the time featured “Last Caress;” it wouldn’t be until 1995’s Collection II (more on which anon) that I finally got to hear the original Misfits version. Which of course blew away the Metallica cover. 

To correct myself…I didn’t have the actual Walk Among Us tape. I had a cassette dub of it…given to me by Billy Sampson, of course, who got into the Misfits due to my own enthusiasm for them. (It’s funny the things you remember as you get older…I can recall all of this vividly but I literally can’t remember a single thing my wife just said to me.) Billy bought the Walk Among Us CD and made a tape of it for me, filling up the rest of side 1 and all of side 2 with Metallica’s Master Of Puppets. I still have the tape! In fact I probably played this one most of all. At the time I was living with my dad, and he and I have never had much in common: he literally grew up on a farm and he’s into hunting and fishing and all that stuff that doesn’t interest me. But I lived with him when I was getting into the Misfits, and sometimes he’d get me to go along with him when he’d drive around in the woods at night in his Ford Bronco, chasing after deer with a spotlight. (People do this sort of thing in places like Fort Ashby, WV.) So of course I’d bring along my Walk Among Us tape and play it. My dad, who listens to country music if he listens to anything at all, would eventually start singing along to these songs about devil’s whorehouses and Vampira and eating brains for breakfast, brains for brunch. 

Because that is the key ingredient that made the Misfits so special: Glenn Danzig. The guy was/is a natural songwriter, with a gift for hooks that just get under your skin and stay there permanently. You could even slow down some of those super-fast hardcore Earth AD songs and give them big production and you’d have bona fide pop hits. And particularly in the Misfits era Danzig turned out lyrics – that is, when you could understand them – that stick with you forever. “Ripped up like shredded wheat,” “The maggots in the eye of love won’t copulate,” “When I sin, I sin real good,” and on and on. And hell, half the time you probably didn’t even have the lyrics correct; for years I thought Danzig was singing “The jaded eyes of peaches” in the song “Where Eagles Dare,” only for the often-wrong internet to one day inform me he was supposedly singing “With jaded eyes and features.” I like my version better; it’s almost William Burroughs-esque. For that matter, the above-mentioned “The maggots in the eye of love,” from “Some Kinda Hate,” might actually be “The maggots in the iron lung.” 

The cool thing was that I didn’t know anything about the Misfits, other than that Glenn Danzig, who now fronted his own titular band, had been the singer and wrote all the songs. Those tapes, at least the ones on Danzig’s own Plan 9 label, didn’t tell you anything – you just got the cover and the cassette itself; the cover was just one-sided, with the cover art on one side and the other side blank. If you wanted to know about the band or the song lyrics or anything else, you were shit out of luck. In a way though this just added to the mystique of the band. It wasn’t until 1995, when I discovered the Misfits Central site and became active on its forum, that I actually learned the history of the Misfits, and who was in the band besides Danzig. At the time fans who’d seen the group perform before its 1983 split were there on the Misfits Central forum, telling stories, and also former members like Bobby Steele and Jerry Only would share comments. Of course, I’d never heard of either of them, even though I’d played Misfits music for the past few years – having also heard the self-titled 1988 compilation, now referred to as Collection I, by then. I’d also gotten into Danzig’s titular band over the past few years, with 1994’s 4p being my favorite. 

I was a senior in college at this time and the Misfits Central site was a huge help because it made me aware of stuff that was about to come out; due to legal wranglings there had been no new Misfits releases since Collection I, but I read that Collection II was about to be released. So I pre-ordered it, the first thing I ever pre-ordered online. Fortunately, I decided on the clear vinyl pressing. I’d recently gotten into vinyl, so I thought this particular pressing sounded cool, given that supposedly there would only be a limited run. I believe it cost me fifteen dollars. According to, this clear vinyl pressing of Collection II currently goes for $700. I’m glad I kept my copy! But then, I also still have my original cassette of Earth AD, which according to Discogs now goes for over $30. I mean $30 for a cassette tape? More evidence the world has gone nuts. But I still have mine, even though I haven’t played it since the ‘90s; I mean you never get rid of your first Misfits album… (I also l pre-ordered the Misfits Box Set after reading about it on Misfits Central, in the fancy coffin box, and I still have that, too.) 

At this time I also got other Misfits vinyl: the 1988 repress of Walk Among Us and the second pressing on Danzig’s Plan 9 of Legacy Of Brutality, and it was decades until I realized this thing was on transluscent black vinyl. I just thought it was a regular piece of vinyl, but if you hold it up to light you can see through it. My first pressing copy of Collection I is the same. These records cost me a whopping ten dollars each in 1995! Actually I bought Collection I fairly recently, in late 2016, and it only cost me twenty bucks, in mint condition. One of the things I regret is I didn’t buy more Misfits records at the time…and that I didn’t buy any Samhain vinyl, ever. The prices of these records, particularly the Samhain releases, have gone through the stratosphere in recent years. 

Which finally brings me to Samhain. Somehow in the pre-internet late ‘80s I learned that Danzig was briefly in a group called Samhain before he started the Danzig band…but for reasons of pure wimpiness I never got any of the Samhain releases. I vividly recall seeing the Samhain tapes and CDs at Camelot Music…I even recall when the post-dissolution final album Final Descent was released in 1990. For some reason I was very put off by this section of Danzig’s musical career and never even considered looking into it, and I want to say it was the cover of the first album, 1984’s Initium, that put me off: Danzig and his fellow bandmates staring at the camera and covered in blood. For some reason I guess this was too much for me? I honestly can’t recall. Maybe I assumed it was “satanic thrash metal” a la Slayer, or maybe my metal guru Billy Sampson implied as much about the group and I just never looked into them. 

This of course was my mistake, as Initium is very much in the vein of a genuine Misfits album, perhaps even more so than Earth AD was. It wasn’t until 2000 that I finally heard it, when Danzig re-released all the Samhain material on CD (which themselves are now out of print and very pricey…it seems that virtually anything Danzig releases, in any format, eventually becomes quite valuable). I got all three of the re-released Samhain CDs and played them and realized Initium was the missing transitional link between the Misfits and the later Samhain material. Previous to this my only exposure to Samhain was their 1986 album November Coming Fire, which a classmate in college loaned me in 1995 – he had the tape and let me have it for a bit and I was blown away by the sound of this album…this quirky punk-metal that had almost a Stooges vibe at times and clearly laid the groundwork for Danzig’s later material in his titular band. It certainly didn’t sound like the Misfits, but that’s not a knock; it had its own special sound. Also this guy was the only person I’ve ever met who preferred Samhain to the Misfits; when I asked him why he shrugged and said, “I just think they were a better group.” 

As it turns out, the Misfits albums were my gateway drug into heavy metal. Soon after getting those Earth AD and Legacy Of Brutality tapes I was listening to Metallica, Overkill, Celtic Frost, Manowar, Anthrax, and I remember really being into a thrash metal band called Nuclear Assault. (Still no Slayer, though!) Iron Maiden was also a favorite. But there was nothing like the Misfits, which was frustrating. I’d look into other punk or hardcore bands…but none of them “scratched that itch,” as I, Misanthrope of Bloodsong says in the video I’ll hopefully get around to discussing soon. Again it comes down to that key ingredient of Danzig; none of the other punk or hardcore groups were turning out such hooks and melodies. The hardcore groups in particular were just blurs of noise – even when the Misfits went hardcore, in Earth AD, Danzig managed to make the tracks melodic, or at least hook-laden. And speaking of Danzig, when I was getting into Misfits and metal in early 1990 his titular group had so far only released their first, self-titled album…someone (not Billy) loaned me the tape, and I liked it, particularly “Mother” and “Twist Of Cain” (the latter probably being my favorite Danzig song of all now), but it just didn’t have that Misfits vibe and it wasn’t the thrash metal I wanted at the time. Today, of course, I’d rather listen to Danzig or any of the ensuing Danzig albums than thrash metal; by going for a timeless “heavy rock” style with a bit of bluesy groove, Danzig was able to transcend the era and deliver albums (at least the first four albums) that now sound timeless, as if they could’ve been recorded at any time in the past fifty years. I mean Danzig II – Lucifuge sounds like it could’ve been recorded in 1975 or its actual release date of 1990. 

Okay so now all that’s finally out of the way, and hopefully all of you have skipped ahead and ignored my banal reminiscing. I’m going to finally write about Bloodsong! I just discovered Initium Meets Earth AD a few days ago, but I have played it obsessively since…and as you can see, it has inspired me to write this endless screed. So creator I, Misanthrope (apparently someone named Chris) has struck a chord with me for sure. One night I was on Youtube after a long day; I must’ve been playing a Danzig video or something the last time I was on there, as recently I’ve gotten into his music again (I’ve discovered his post-2010 material is some of his best stuff ever – 2015’s Skeletons in particular is awesome and at times does indeed have a Misfits vibe), because Youtube was recommending I watch some video by a guy called Frumess which was about Initium meets Earth AD. Now, no disrespect to Frumess, but this isn’t the sort of thing I would generally watch…one of those vlogs, or video blogs, or whatever people are into today, with a guy talking into the camera for a few hours and people commenting in the sidebar. But it appears Frumess’ show centers on the Misifts, hence the Youtube recommendation, and in this particular video he was talking to a guy who had created an album that imagined if Initium sounded like Earth AD, and vice versa. 

This is honestly a great idea, as anyone who is into the Misfits or Samhain will immediately realize. I won’t go into the Misfits history here, as I’ve gone on long enough, but the entire story is recounted at Misfits Central. (And also for a great overview on Danzig’s entire musical legacy, I’d highly recommend the informative Danzig posts at The Nostalgia Spot.) But long story short, in 1983 the Misfits had gone in a hardcore direction – super-fast and short songs, with an aggro almost-metal vibe – and released what would be their final album, Earth AD. Per contemporary interviews, Danzig himself hated Earth AD and considered it “the worst Misfits album.” Apparently he didn’t like the too-fast songs and also he definitely did not like the shitty sub-production. As a minor aside, there never will be a “remastered” edition of this album…I read somewhere that Danzig stored the Earth AD master tapes in the basement of his parents’s home in Lodi, New Jersey, and the tapes were destroyed in a flood. The “alternate” mixes/versions of the Earth AD tracks on Collection I and Collection II are the same as the album versions, just with boosted EQ levels. 

Due to Danzig’s displeasure with how the album turned out, not to mention internal frustrations, the Misfits soon broke up. Danzig had already been considering a side project with local musicians Eerie Von (who was the official Misfits photographer – and a few years ago released a book about it) and Steve Zing (who was in the local group Mourning Noise…and their self-titled compilation, comprised of a 1982 single and an unreleased 1984 album, has recently been released on Cleopatra Records…and sounds at times like a lost Misfits album). This group, Samhain, now became the band for Danzig, not just a side project. He’d already used some “intended for Samhain” tracks to fill out Earth AD: “Bloodfeast” and “Death Comes Ripping.” With Initium Danzig intentionally scaled back on the hardcore aggression of Earth AD, going for more of an experimental punk-metal vibe – very thunderous, tribal drums throughout the album, and lots of reverb. There was also a weird sonic tapestry of “monster noises” running beneath most of the tracks. Danzig also dropped the comic-booky tone of the average Misfits song and went for more of a “real evil” approach in the lyrics instead of a “B-movie evil” approach, which may be one of the reasons Samhain never achieved the pop cultural fame that the Misfits later did. 

So that’s the history. Apparently what this guy Frumess discussed in one of his earlier Youtube videos was the similarity between Earth AD and Initium; I would imagine that one of the main draws here is that, as mentioned, two of the Earth AD songs were intended for Initium, so it would be interesting to imagine what they might’ve sounded like had they actually been on that album instead of Earth AD. There was also Glenn Danzig’s repeated statements in contemporary interviews of his dissatisfaction with Earth AD. So Chris, aka I, Misanthrope, watched this Frumess video and decided to do his own recreation: Initium done Earth AD style and Earth AD done Initium style. 

To say he nailed it would be an understatement. From the first moment of Initium Meets Earth AD you realize what a labor of love this is. Now in the Frumess video with the interview, ie this video, the only part I’ve watched is the actual interview with Chris aka I, Misanthrope. He talks about the “critical listening” he employed to recreate the production of the albums, using modern software to break up the vocals and instruments of the original Misfits and Samhain tracks into separate channels so he could study them individually. He also talks about the difference in the recording styles – the reverb-free Earth AD and the reverb-heavy Initium. I mean it’s clear as hell that this guy gets it, and not just that but he’s able to do the music himself, which is incredible. I mean I wish I had a gift for music, it’s the one thing I’ve always wished for. But I’m happy to just listen. Especially to something as fun as this. 

And man I had a smile on my face the whole way through this album on my first listen. I still smile when I play it, even though I’ve played it about twenty times now in the past few days; there’s always something new I’m noticing. Running to 47 minutes and 11 seconds, Initium Meets Earth AD features 22 tracks and is essentially two albums in one: tracks 1 to 10 are Initium songs done in the aggro hardcore style of Earth AD, and tracks 11 to 22 are Earth AD songs done in the experimental-tribal-punk style of Initium. And happily Bloodsong (ie I, Misanthrope, ie Chris) has done the “extended” version of Earth AD, which is to say the same release I had on cassette as a teen, with the extra three songs not on the original vinyl release. This is especially fortunate, as his version of “We Bite” is one of the highlights of the album – a much-too-fast track on Earth AD that is finally given room to breathe in this Initium treatment, revealing the melody only briefly glimpsed in the original version. 

While doing Earth AD in the style of Initium would’ve made sense to me, prior to discovering this album, I have to admit I never would’ve thought about doing it the other way around. And to be honest when I first played this Bloodsong album it was the second half, ie the Earth AD tracks slowed down and given the goth-punk vibe of Initium, that I thought was the best. But now that I’ve played the album so many times I love the first ten tracks just as much. Bloodsong has flat-out nailed the sound of the genuine Earth AD release, from the production to the way the songs themselves are performed. Distorted guitars complete with occasional squeals, the crazy drum fills, the “recorded in the bottom of a well” sub-production. No Misfits-inspired band I am aware of, from Japan’s Balzac to the aforementioned group Mourning Noise, have come so close to replicating the sound of the Misfits. It’s almost uncanny. 

Now one thing to point out is that the vocals don’t always sound exactly like Glenn Danzig…but then that would be asking for a bit much, wouldn’t it? Danzig has one of the most distinctive baritones in rock music. All things considered, Mr. I, Misanthrope actually does an admirable job of mimicking Danzig, particularly in the Initium tracks that are given the Earth AD treatment; Danzig’s vocals were barely audible in the actual Earth AD release, anyway, given the shitty, sub-par production, and Bloodsong perfectly replicates that here. He also nails Danzig’s intonation; the way he screams “Now is the pain!” on opening spoken-word track “Initium,” you could almost think it was Danzig himself. In particular I love the random unhinged screams of “Go!” in the backing vocals of the Earth AD-style Initium tracks – identical to the way they’d pop up so frequently on the genuine Earth AD album. Actually the intonation and vocal delivery are spot-on for the Initium tracks – “My mirrors are black” being another great example, on the Earth AD-style “Horror Biz,” ie the song that inspired the name of everyone’s favorite horror novel blog (or maybe it was the Misfits original that inspired Mr. Will Errickson). The more I play Initium Meets Earth AD the more I realize how perfectly the style of the actual Earth AD was recreated by Bloodsong: “The Shift” in particular is a masterpiece, so perfectly transformed that it comes off like a bona fide Earth AD track. I also appreciate how some of the Bloodsong recreations nod to other Misfits songs: the Earth AD-style “The Howl” starts off a little similarly to “All Hell Breaks Loose,” from Walk Among Us…a double nod, at that, given that Samhain did its own version of this song, retitled “All Hell,” on the 1985 Unholy Passion EP. “The Howl” is another masterpiece; you could fool someone into thinking it’s a legitimate Earth AD song. 

But as mentioned it was the second half of the album, the Earth AD songs done Initium style, that initially threw me for a loop. Good grief this stuff’s even more uncanny in how perfectly it’s done. I mean Initium sounds like the work of a songwriter who had advanced in his craft and had to start a new group to get the sound he wanted, but honestly – and per Danzig himself in contemporary interviews – Samhain could have been the Misfits. And if so, maybe this is what they might’ve sounded like. Those hardcore thrash Earth AD numbers are slowed down, played less sloppily and given a heavy reverb and tom-tom treatment, somehow becoming heavier and more menacing in the process (the latter likely due to the “monster noise sound tapestry” Bloodsong has faithfully reproduced in the background of most tracks). “Earth AD,” “Queen Wasp,” “Death Comes Ripping,” and “Hellhound” are reborn as riff-heavy punk-metal monsters…and hell, if you poked me with sharp punji sticks I might even say some of Bloodsong’s interpretations are better than the original versions (“Devilock” and “Wolf’s Blood” being two such examples). Another thing that brought a big smile to my face was that Bloodsong also brought in the synthesized chimes of Initium, which to tell the truth have always sounded to me like the “gong” noise they always play at the end of Taco Bell commercials. These chimes frequently punctuate the songs, totally mimicking the genuine Initium release…and making me think of Taco Bell. 

Another track to call out is “Bloodfeast,” which as mentioned was originally intended for Samhain, anyway. But even though Danzig did the song with the Misfits it still sort of sounds out of place on Earth AD, lacking the aggro hardcore vibe and coming off more like…well, like a cut from Initium. What Bloodsong does here is given an indication of what the song might’ve sounded like if it really had been on Initium, adding those chimes and monster noises to wonderful effect. In the Frumess video linked above, Chris of Bloodsong/I, Misanthrope only appears for a few minutes, telling how he recorded the album. After this Frumess plays the album with his reactions. I haven’t watched all this – again, not a fan of those “reaction” videos people seem to love these days – but I was happy to see that Frumess was appropriately enthusiastic about the material, telling Chris what a great job he had done. I do disagree with Frumess that “Mommy, Can I Go Out And Kill Tonight?” doesn’t work; maybe the first time I played the album I would’ve agreed, but after several more listens I think Bloodsong’s recreation works just fine. The entire album works damn fine, and I love the little touches…the extended snarling that caps off some tracks being another thing that brought a big smile to my face, as it’s just so Misfits/Samhain-style Danzig. 

So again, one last time, here is the Bandcamp link where you can download Bloodsong’s Initium Meets Earth AD for free. If you’ve managed to make it through this neverending post without doing so…well I mean, why the hell haven’t you? Seriously the only thing we need is for this album to be pressed on vinyl…colored vinyl of course, in pure “Plan 9 Records” style. The question is whether the entire thing should be put on one LP, with the Initium tracks on one side and the Earth AD tracks on the other, or if it should be split up into separate releases. But this is just cloud talk; by making the album free – Bloodsong even specifcally asks that you not pay for the download – the messy issue of royalties and whatnot doesn’t come up. Which of course brings me to Glenn Danzig himself. You have to wonder what he’d think of Initium Meets Earth AD. If I know anything about Danzig, he probably wouldn’t give a shit. But then, maybe he might. You’d have to think that somehow somewhere the guy would at least be a little moved that his music can inspire people in such a way. And besides, Danzig recently did his own fan letter to an artist who has inspired him: the 2020 release Danzig Sings Elvis (which I got on “pink haze” vinyl). 

Bloodsong also has an original track on Bandcamp, “I Want Your Blood,” from 2018. It’s very much in the Samhain/Misfits mold and also highly recommended. I’d say we need more original material from Bloodsong, and soon! And release it on colored vinyl!! 

So finally, thanks to Frumess for doing a video on this and bringing it to peoples’s attention – and thanks to the nameless Youtube Bot that put the video up as a suggestion for me! The biggest thanks of course goes to Bloodsong; I would’ve “lost my shit” (as the kids say today) if I’d heard this in 1990. With this album Bloodsong makes me feel like I’m a long-haired 15 year-old punk again…quite an accomplishment when you’re a 48 year-old father who only wishes you could still grow long hair. I could just imagine jamming out to this on my Sony Walkman and excitedly talking about it to Billy Sampson the next day in Phys Ed; the two of us opted out of “actual sports stuff” in gym class and instead would walk in endless circles around the basketball court as part of the ”physical fitness” regimen we were required to take as high school students. Of course, we spent the entire time talking about heavy metal. And somehow I’ve gone this long without mentioning the “band” we started together, which was just Billy on his out of tune electric guitar and me shouting Celtic Frost-style vocals into a boombox; random noisefests, not “songs” per se, that we’d give titles like “Tears For The Decayed King.” We called ourselves “Subjugator,” and in true heavy metal fashion we also had a skull-faced mascot, cleverly named “The Subjugator,” who totally wasn’t a ripoff of Iron Maiden’s Eddie. 

Billy was three years older than me, but he graduated two years before me, in 1990 (the reason he was only two grades ahead of me was because my mom – who was the teacher – put me in kindergarten when I was only 4, so I was always the youngest kid in my class). I think the last time I saw Billy was probably the summer of 1991 or so. He’d had a kid with the girl he was dating and so he was busy with life, and also around this time I was losing the long-haired heavy metal-listener look and going for more of a clean-cut image (because I’d discovered this was how you actually got girls to like you, at least in Fort Ashby in 1991). So in the typical fickleness of a teenager I was likely trying to distance myself from Billy. But then again he wasn’t even in school anymore, so it’s not like I could still hang out with him in Phys Ed. Probably the last time I heard from Billy was a letter I received from him out of the blue in 1993, when I was in college. This was a particularly memorable letter because Billy actually put a photo of his face on the envelope. I hung onto this letter for years, because in all my life no one had ever sent me a letter with a picture of their face on the envelope, but apparently I lost the letter at some point in the dim past; I just searched for it, to put it up on the post, but couldn’t find it. I did find Billy’s 1990 senior class photo, though: 

Note the “stay subjugated” on the back! Unfortunately I have no recollection of Billy’s other “band,” the so-called “Plastic Jesus.” A few months ago I made one of my rare forays onto Facebook and checked out the “Growing Up In Fort Ashby” page…and happened to see the note that William “Billy” Sampson, Jr had passed away, at only 50 years old, this past July. There was a picture of him there, the same Billy I knew back in high school, just a bit older; apparently he had still been living in Fort Ashby even after all these years. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in thirty years, but knowing he was no longer around really upset me, and again took me back to my high school metal days. Now that I think of it, this is no doubt the reason why I’ve suddenly gotten into Danzig’s music again…but then I go into mini-obsessions with Danzig every few years, so that’s nothing new. I guess this time it just has more emotional background to it. I’ve mentioned Billy a lot in this review, because he was the key to all of this; if Billy had not loaned me his heavy metal tapes in the Fall of 1989, I might never have discovered the Misfits. Not to sound too cliched, but I will always be grateful to him for that. 

As a final note, here’s a photo of the 15-year-old yours truly in early 1990, right at the height of my Misfits/Metal faze – it has to have been around that time, given that this was when I sported my lamentable long hair. I’m even wearing a camo shirt, for cryin’ out loud…you can’t get more “Fort Ashby, West Virginia” than that: 

The beer was my dad’s; he had a ton of it in the fridge and it was years old because my dad has never been much of a drinker. I stacked it on the kitchen table for this stupid photo. A photo that was taken by…you guessed it: Billy Sampson.