Thursday, March 30, 2023

The Ms. Squad #2: On The Brink

The Ms. Squad #2: On The Brink, by Mercedes Endfield
September, 1975  Bantam Books

We have here the second (and final!) installment of The Ms. Squad, one of the more curious representations of the “men’s adventure” genre you’ll ever encounter. This is because it is in fact a caper with a light comedy tone and features a trio of women who are determined to do everything better than men – especially heisting places. But as it turns out, the best thing about On The Brink is the cover art; it isn’t credited, but it looks so similar to the work of EC Comics alum Jack Davis that I’ll go ahead and assume it’s by him. The same artist did the cover for the first volume of the series, Lucky Pierre (which I don’t have). 

Also the background of the book is more interesting than the actual plot; it’s copyright “Ruth Harris Books, Inc,” which appears to have been an outfit similar to Lyle Kenyon Engel’s “Book Creations Inc.” Only much less successful; I can hardly find anything credited to “Ruth Harris Books.” On The Brink is itself credited to Bela Von Block in the Catalog Of Copyright Entries. Block was a prolific writer of the era, writing under a host of pseudonyms, though this is the first book of his I’ve reveiewed here. He had most success writing as “Johnathan Black” in the ‘70s and ‘80s, turning out big, Harold Robbins-style blockbusters like The World Rapers and The Carnage Merchants. Around a decade ago a reader from Manhattan sent me a few packages of books, with a handful by Black, enthusing over their sordid plots (not to mention the strange frequency in which the word “smega” appeared in them), but folks I still haven’t read those books, and I feel bad about that. But damn, they’re long; The Carnage Merchants for example is over 900 pages! 

Well anyway, if Bela Von Block did indeed write On The Brink, one can only hope his “Jonathan Black” material was better – that is, if Block was really Black. That too seems to be a mystery, but I was fairly confident of this at one point. These days I’m not confident about anything. Wait, I’m confident that most of you won’t dig this book. Because I’m sad to report it isn’t very good. And despite being under 160 pages it moves really slowly. This is because Block doesn’t seem to know how to write a fast-moving book. So much of On the Brink is given over to telling rather than showing…with the double kick to the crotch that we’re often told about stuff we already saw happen! Indeed, the second half of the book concerns a new character trying to figure out what happened in the first half of the book…events which we readers were privy to from the start. 

That said, On The Brink is a fun ‘70s time capsule, which I always enjoy; that new character I just mentioned is a famous black private eye named John Shift; Block doesn’t go all the way with the goofy in-jokery and tell us there’s also a famous song about him. Otherwise he’s clearly based on John Shaft, even down to his hatred of the mob. But there’s also an interesting modern vibe to the novel. For we learn that the three members of Ms. Squad have banded together over feminist ideals, in particular the lack of pay equality. The leader of the team, Jackie Cristal (who barely factors in this installment), in particular rails against pay inequality; she’s the Vice President of a cosmetics company, their chief chemist who designs new perfumes and other inventions, but she doesn’t get paid very well. 

Apparently Lucky Pierre detailed the formation of the Ms. Squad. There’s also Deanna Royce, a black soul singer who too is sick of being treated second-hand just because she’s a woman in a man’s industry. Finally there’s Pammy Porter, whose name cracked me up because I work with someone named Tammy Porter; Pammy’s a blonde-haired gold medal gymnast who rails against the fact that she doesn’t get half the lucrative sponsorships the male Olympic athletes do. Apparently in the first Ms. Squad installment these three met at a women’s lib conference or somesuch and, the way these things go, decided to band together to heist places(!?). That first volume detailed their heisting of a luxury hotel; in other words, a retread of The Anderson Tapes

But there are two quirks with the Ms. Squad. For one, they hit places after they’ve already been hit; in Lucky Pierre, they apparently robbed that hotel shortly after it had already been robbed. And in On The Brink, they decide to heist the Brinks vault on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the famous Brinks robbery. The other weird quirk is that the Ms. Squad does these heists to prove that women can do the job better than the original male robbers did…but folks, this entire setup is ruined because the three Ms. Squad girls disguise themselves as men on the heists! WTF! So who exactly are they proving these feminist victories to?? 

Anyway as mentioned, the series is basically a comedy. The Ms. Squad has sworn that no one will be killed on their heists; Jackie, the chemist, comes up with all the harmless weapons, like “Perma-zonk,” which is hidden in an “atomizer” in their purses and can knock someone out for hours with just one spray. She also creates various explosives and fake skin that they can wear on their hands that will disguise their fingerprints. Pammy brings the muscle to the team, using her athletic ability to hop around and fight as necessary – but the action scenes, as shown below, are minimal at best. As for Deena…well, she brings her experience as a black woman to the table: she’s familiar with the crime world and how criminals think because she’s black. I’m not making that up, either. 

Deena does all the heavy lifting in this one; the dialog indicates that Pammy might have featured the most in Lucky Pierre. But then again, it appears that the two books follow identical setups; the Ms. Squad carries out a heist, then some private eye gets on the case and tries to prove these three harmless women were really the heisters. In Lucky Pierre it was a handsome Irish P.I. who got on the case and ultimately banged Pammy. In On The Brink it’s handsome black P.I. John Shift who gets on the case and ultimately bangs Deena. But folks even the banging’s off-page. There is absolutely zero in the way of sleaze or filth in On The Brink, I’m sorry to report…which again makes me wonder if this really was by Bela Von Block, given that his “Jonathan Black” books are fairly risque. 

But then, maybe this “G rating” was the request of Bantam Books, or even the mysterious “Ruth Harris Books, Inc.” I just find it curious, because you have here a series about three hotstuff swinging babes in the ‘70s who like to heist places, so you’d figure it would be at least a little explicit in the sexual tomfoolery. But it isn’t! It’s curiously deflated, as if Block doesn’t know how to write the book. This again makes me suspect he was writing to spec, as Bela Von Block also wrote some “nonfiction” sex books as “W.D. Sprague,” so you’d figure the guy would have no problem sleazing things up. Damn you, Ruth Harris! 

Another strange thing is the novel is so awkwardly constructed. So it starts post-heist, with the Ms. Squad having hit a “black restaurant” in Boston which is on the sight that the Brinks vault was back in the ‘50s. Again, their schtick is they hit places a second time, thus they wanted to heist the exact location that the Brinks armory once was, even if it’s now a place called “Chick ‘n’ Treat.” Yes, a big black-owned chicken diner. But the girls discover that they’ve heisted a lot more than the two hundred thousand haul they expected to get; the place was filled with money bags, and after all night counting they discover it’s just shy of two million dollars. 

But all this is told in summary, to the point that I assumed we were being recapped on what happened in the first volume. Not so. The majority of the novel is told in this summary fashion. Then we flash back like a year or something to the aftermath of the previous book, and learn how the girls came up with this “Brinks anniversary” heist. It’s all heavy on the plotting and planning, with little in the way of action. Jackie is the only one we get to see in her normal life as VP at the cosmetics firm; Deena and Pammy only factor into the heist planning scenes. The team comes up with an idea to hit the Brinks place, flying to Boston and scoping it out – and finding a chicken diner there. So Deena goes undercover as a waittress to scope the place out, and Pammy comes up with an idea to steal a Brinks truck, just like the original Brinks crooks did 25 years before. 

Of course, we already know from page one that they are successful in the heist, so there’s zero tension here. As I say, Bela Von Bock has a rather interesting approach to how he writes what’s supposed to be a suspenseful novel. At page 70 we catch up with the opening, and now it’s all about John Shift being hired by the heisted chicken diner owner – whose diner was really a front for a numbers racket – and putting together the pieces of how the heist went down. That’s right folks, the entire first 70 pages are the setup of the heist, and the remainder of the novel is devoted to a secondary character figuring out how the heist was planned and carried out! To say On The Brink is a study in repetition would be, uh, redundant. 

The goofy ‘70s touches are okay, like a black crook who retains a seven-foot henchman basketball player named Abdullah Eleven, clearly a spoof on Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who uses his basketball to torture Deena – slamming her in the stomach with the ball. Shift shows up with his .357 Magnum to save the day, not that anyone is killed. Block also tries to develop suspense with Shift suspecting Deena of the heist while also developing feelings for her, and Deena trying to hold him off with lies while developing feelings for him, etc. Shift also factors into the climactic action scene, which also features Pammy, apropos of nothing, showing off sudden obscure kung-fu skills: 

The girls kill no one, though we’re told the cops kill a bunch of the bad guys off-page. That’s another thing. For a trio of heisters, the Ms. Squad is saved twice by the police in the final pages, first in New York and then in Boston. Just super lame all around. Block apparently planned a third volume, as On The Brink ends with the hint that the Ms. Squad, having pulled off the biggest heist on American soil, will now try to do the same thing in a foreign country, namely Brazil. But readers of the day clearly disliked The Ms. Squad as much as I did, thus this second volume turned out to be the final volume. No tears were shed, I’m sure.

Monday, March 27, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Lone Wolf #5: Havana Hit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2023

Mark Of The Werewolf

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Stakeout Squad: Miami Heat (Stakeout Squad #2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 6, 2023

Black Magic Today

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

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

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

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

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

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