Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Random Record Reviews: Volume 8

Why Isn’t Dennis Linde A Household Name? 

As mentioned in a previous Random Record Review, I recently became aware of singer-songwriter Dennis Linde via the Elektra-Asylum Fall 1974 Releases compilation LP, which featured the title track from Linde’s album Trapped In The Suburbs. This song really caught my attention, and I immediately sought a copy of the album it was sourced from…and liked it so much that I got Linde’s other two solo albums soon after. Actually there were really three other Linde albums, but his first one, Linde Manor (Intrepid Records, 1970), is grossly overpriced on the records marketplace, no doubt because DJ Shadow sampled something off of it for his trendsetting 1996 LP Entroducing

Well anyway, Dennis Linde was a Nashville-based songwriter whose biggest claim to fame was that he wrote the song “Burning Love,” which of course Elvis Presley had a huge hit with. Linde wrote and produced very prolifically on the Nashville scene, so he’s often regarded as a country musician. But make no mistake, the three solo LPs reviewed here are very much in the rock camp. Indeed, Trapped In The Suburbs most reminds me of Gene Clarke’s No Other, from the same year and on the same label, but Linde’s record is leaner and less mired in country tonk. It’s also a helluva lot better than No Other, which makes it very strange that it hasn’t been discovered by the hipsters of today. 

I consulted my Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-ROM and saw that all three of these albums received favorable reviews at the time they were released, so there was at least a little contemporary acclaim for Linde’s work. But it would appear that none of the releases made a ripple. That’s the thing about being a record collector. You come across so many albums that were worthy of great success but went unnoticed, and you wonder why. Then you remember that all the stuff that plays monotonously on classic rock radio today was new then, and just being discovered, so that’s what people were listening to instead of Dennis Linde! 

Dennis Linde: Dennis Linde 
Elektra Records, 1973 

This one is my least favorite of the three here, but I only mean that when speaking comparatively. Otherwise Dennis Linde is a great album, if a little more on the country-esque singer-songwriter tip than the following two records. That said, it hits the ground running with what I consider Linde’s best-ever song, and a track that should have been blasting from transistor radios across this great land of ours in 1973: “Hello, I Am Your Heart:” 

How this incredible track didn’t become a hit is a mystery. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that Dennis Linde was similar to Todd Rundgren, Paul McCartney, and some others in that he not only wrote the songs but sang them, played all the instruments on them, and produced them. “Hello, I Am Your Heart” is a masterpiece in multi-tracking, and I love how that anthemic chorus just keeps building on itself with the fuzz bass and thundering drums. I mean when a guy produces something like this and it’s ignored you wonder why he didn’t just throw in the goddamn towel. 

This is not to say Dennis Linde is a one-good-song record. While most of the songs do play on Linde’s Nashville connection, with a country tinge (or instrumental blues, as is the case with “East St. Louis Nights”), there are some notable exceptions. Like the experimental “Dr-31,” comprised of textured synthscapes with a rock beat and telling the sci-fi tale of the building of a starship; the song is a prefigure of the funkier sci-fi outings on Linde’s later Under The Eye

And of course I have to mention that Dennis Linde’s most famous song is also here, though it’s arguable how many people even know it’s a Dennis Linde song; like me, they probably just assumed Elvis wrote it. But yes, this is “Burning Love,” which is another one where Linde builds on his own vocals and instrumentation, giving the track more of a groove than Elvis’s version: 

The contemporary Rolling Stone reviewer capped off his review with something to the effect that this album would be unjustly overlooked (obviously I’m too lazy to boot up my old PC – which is the only thing I can play that CD-ROM on – and see what exactly the reviewer stated, let alone who the reviewer was!). Of course history has proven him correct. While I wouldn’t rank this as my favorite Dennis Linde album, I still definitely recommend it – I have the original US pressing, which sounds great and comes with a little biographical insert on Linde, where it’s mentioned how busy he was while self-producing the album, including even becoming a father. I thought this was a cool note, as the child, apparently a daughter, is mentioned in a song off the following album. Also because I was born the year after this album was released, so it’s cool to think Dennis Linde’s kid is around my age – hopefully she appreciates her dad’s work! 

You should buy the record (if you have a turntable, that is; there’s no CD), but here’s the full album on Youtube. This upload at least sounds better than the uploads above, but as ever these Youtube uploads aren’t at all reflective of the true depth of the original vinyl’s sound: 

Dennis Linde: Trapped In The Suburbs 
Elektra, 1974 

All I can say is, this has already become one of my favorite albums of all time…and I just discovered it a few months ago! How Trapped In The Suburbs still hasn’t been discovered by the rock hipsters is yet another mystery. It’s basically the perfect rock album, Linde again writing all the songs, playing all the instruments, and producing himself. Have I mentioned yet he also uses a mellotron? There’s a mellotron present on this and the other two albums here, but these records are so obscure that they aren’t even mentioned on the otherwise-comprehensive Planet Mellotron site. 

While there’s nothing here that sounds as “immediate hit!” as “Hello, I Am Your Heart,” the thing about Trapped In The Suburbs is that it’s more of an album album, if you get my drift, not so much a collection of songs. It’s also a great headphone album; Linde wasn’t just talented in the music department but in the production department as well. There’s a progressive element at play here, with the country singer-songwriter vibe of the previous album only on a few selected tracks…and even then it’s done in a more progressive fashion. 

My favorite song is “He Likes To Hurt You,” which features a high-drama, almost histrionic chorus that will get stuck in your head. The progressive touch is definitely present on this one, as it is on the similar “Just To Think” on Side 2. In fact there’s almost an ELO touch to the latter, but with more grit than Jeff Lynne’s polish. “Hell Or High Water” could have been the single off the album, another progressive number in which Linde’s voice duels with itself from the right and left channels – as I say, the album is perfect for headphones. Good old rock and roll is also present, in particular in the heavy groover “My Guitar,” the aforementioned track where Linde mentions his child – whom he ignores because he’s too busy “playin’ my damn guitar.” This one’s also got some great production touches; I love how the drums kick in once the song is underway. 

The title track also could’ve been a single, and indeed is how I discovered the album, given that an edited version of it was present on the Elektra-Asylum Fall 1974 Releases promo compilation. This one does have a bit of a Gene Clarke vibe, at least in how it merges country with a progressive funk edge; it’s cool but certainly not my favorite track here. But then I think every track is great, save for the sole misfire “Burn Away My Blues,” which is a lame (to me at least) blues number that closes out side 1. The country-esque tracks are even good, like “Country Steel Man,” a mournful number about musicians on the radio becoming your heroes, and augmented by a very David Gilmour-esque steel guitar (similar to what the actual Gilmour at the time was doing on steel guitar). 

This is another instance where you should just get the record for sure; I have the US pressing, and it sounds great. This release didn’t come with an insert, though, and it would prove to be Linde’s last with this label – indicating, of course, that his records weren’t selling. But like with Dennis Linde, the entire album has been uploaded to Youtube: 

Dennis Linde: Under The Eye 
Monument Records, 1978 

Dennis Linde’s last album sees him heading into a cosmic funk territory, but with a definite rock backbone. The country stuff is almost entirely absent. This is surprising, because this label was known for country, being based out of Nashville (at least partly, I think). Regardless, this is a sci-fi trip, sporting one helluva great cover – even the inner sleeve is cool, with a very “modern” looking silhouette shot of Linde sporting big headphones. I mean it could almost be an ad for Beats, or whatever those overpriced headphones of today are called. Album cover and inner photo all do a great job of summing up the headphone, sci-fi funk vibe of Under The Eye, which by the way is the rarest of the three LPs discussed here, though still not absurdly priced on the used records marketplace. My copy cost me ten bucks. 

Also unlike the other two albums discussed here, Under The Eye has not been uploaded in full to Youtube. So if you want to hear the full monty, you’ll need to get the vinyl, at least for now. Rolling Stone wasn’t as enthusiastic about this one, but the reviewer did acknowledge that Dennis Linde had been on a science fiction trip from the beginning, noting not only the track “Dr-103” on his self-titled album, but also the sci-fi liner notes on that release. That said, Rolling Stone was never shy about disliking anything experimental or envelope-pushing, so it’s not surprising they weren’t as fond of this one. 

Some of Under The Eye almost sounds like Daft Punk a few decades early. Nowhere is this more evident than on the album’s standout track – which happens to be the only song on a Dennis Linde album that was not written by Dennis Linde. This would be “Ghost Riders In The Sky,” here named “Ghost Riders.” Good grief does this thing sound like it’s from a few decades later or what? 

Once again Linde plays all the instruments and self-produces. You can hear he’s now added some vintage analog synths to his setup, giving the entire album an almost post-modern vibe. He hasn’t forgotten basic rock, though, as heard in “The Good Ship Rock And Roll,” a song which sounds like it could’ve been released in the ‘80s in how it bridges electronics and anthemic rock: 

Actually the track sounds to me like something that could’ve been on the soundtrack for Transformers: The Movie, ie the 1986 animated feature (with Orson Welles!!). But for the most part Linde sticks to a groove for the entire album; “Strange Groove” is the title of another such song. He does still indulge in a little country; “Funky Hoe-Down” is a country funk piece that reels back on the cosmic vibe. Speaking of which, the title track is another funk number that’s all about UFOs, a sort of novely number that still is a great song in its own right, similar to the same year’s “Flying Saucers,” by obscure British band Yellow Dog (which was fronted by American singer-songwriter Kenny Young, of Last Stage For Silver World). 

But this was it for Dennis Linde, at least so far as his solo releases went. Three albums released over a span of five years, all of them worthy of a greater audience. But they definitely went under the radar; according to Discogs, Under The Eye was only released in the US, whereas Dennis Linde and Trapped In The Suburbs had at least also been released in the UK. But clearly they made even less of an impression there than here. Linde went back into songwriting and producing, and passed away in 2006. 

So in closing, I heartily recommend these three records. I discovered Dennis Linde through a fluke – I literally picked up that Elektra-Asylum compilation because I wanted to hear the single edit of Gene Clarke’s “No Other” – but I would now rank him as one of my favorite music artists ever.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

The Proud Enemy (The Demu Trilogy #2)

The Proud Enemy, by F.M. Busby
June, 1975  Berkley Medallion

The Demu Trilogy continues with this second installment, which was published as a paperback original two years after Cage A Man.  Once again, though, I read the complete reprint of the novel as found in the 1980 Pocket Books paperback The Demu Trilogy.  Before The Proud Enemy, this anthology also features a mostly-forgettable short story titled “The Learning Of Eeshta,” focused on the young “female” Demu introduced in the first novel, and how she goes about learning of mankind; it originally appeared in If Magazine, and takes place in the final quarter of Cage A Man.

As for The Proud Enemy, it opens right at the ending of Cage A Man, thus giving the impression that this trilogy is indeed one long book.  As we’ll recall, that novel ended with hero Barton commanding the Demu starship he escaped from captivity, in, and now part of a fleet of 40 Earth starships that was about to set off on an assault upon the Demu homeworld.  However, more focus was placed in that novel on Barton's alien girlfriend, Limila, getting a bunch of plastic surgery to look human again, rather than this interstellar war plot.

Ultimately this will prove true for The Proud Enemy as well, but initially Busby does follow on with the space combat stuff. But it’s goofy and continues the juvenile tone of Cage A Man (ie, where Barton took over a Demu spacecraft and managed to fly it back to Earth and land unscathed). For, moments after the fleet launches into space, they all sort of hover there for a bit and Barton and Space Agency rep Tarleton get on the viewscreen and brief the other 39 ships on the objectives of the mission, complete with a rundown of Barton’s captivity and who the Demu are – and also the fact that there are a few aliens with Barton on his ship. 

This all made me laugh out loud. I mean folks, don’t you think such a briefing should’ve taken place before the armada took off from Earth? I mean clearly it’s all here for the readers who bought The Proud Enemy but hadn’t read the previous book; catchup material that just comes off as doubly ridiculous when collected here in The Demu Trilogy. But man it really is ridiculous, complete with Barton calling little Eeshta over to the viewscreen and having her pull up her robe so he can show the viewers her lobster-like exterior shell and talk about the sexual apparati of the Demu race! 

Actually, around this point something occurred to me about The Demu Trilogy. This juvenile tone, where a “regular” guy can escape alien captivity, steal one of their ships, hook up with another alien babe, and then fly back to Earth where he ultimately becomes the boss of a space armada – all this, really, could be seen as coming from Barton’s own imagination. In Cage A Man Busby stressed that Barton was able to survive his eight years of captivity via his skills with “hallucination,” where Barton would create a reality in his mind and escape there. So who’s to say the events of the trilogy itself aren’t just the product of Barton’s imagination, still trapped there in his Demu cell? But then again, as Alan Moore once said (no doubt while stroking his beard in deep thought): “Aren’t all stories imaginary?” 

I could press my theory without much effort. I mean, even though Barton et al are on a spaceship headed off into another galaxy to kick some alien ass, the plot soon becomes focused on…who sleeps in what bed. Barton’s ship, Tarleton explains, is special because it’s equally made up of men and women…so Barton can sleep with Limila and the other men and women can sleep with each other. Seriously, a whole bunch of narrative space is focused on this, and little details like description of the ship’s interior and etc are pushed to the side. And once again F.M. Busby is a “cut to black” author when any of the sexual material arises; there is absolutely nothing in the way of explicit material. 

Since the voyage lasts a long time, we also get material on how the bedmates are free to, uh, swap, though Barton doesn’t partake because as we’ll recall he’s in love with Limila, she of the 60 teeth, six fingers and toes, half-bald head, and boobs that hang low on her rib cage. Busby goes to great pains to show Barton’s complaceny with Limila’s alien nature, totally devoted to her and all, and it just seems strange to me because I must’ve missed the part where he fell in love with her in the first place. As stated in my review of Cage A Man, Barton and Limila’s star-crossed romance was forced into the narrative with little setup or explanation. 

Not that this stops Barton from some action on the side. Limila’s people, the Tilarans, are kind of reserved and overly formal, yet casual sex is the rule. Male and female Tilarans will openly fondle a person, moments after meeting them, if they find them attractive. Kids, don’t try this at home! My impression was Busby was taking the ‘70s swinger vibe into a sci-fi setting, and Limila takes off with an old boyfriend to spend the night with him the night they land on Tilara, and Barton meanwhile scores (off-page, naturally) with some Tilaran gal who starts fondling him. 

Busby’s powers of description are pretty weak throughout. Tilara is hardly described, and again, what we do learn is filtered through the rudimentary prism that is Barton’s mind – he can’t make “much sense” out of Tilaran traffic and architecture and whatnot, so Busby just leaves it at that. Again, one can easily argue that such topical details are limited because Barton’s imagination is limited, and he’s the one creating this entire scenario in his mind. But it is really lame; like a part where Barton goes to a Tilaran hospital and Busby notes that a Tilaran is sitting there, “reading,” and you’re left wondering, “Reading what?” I mean, do they have lurid-cover paperbacks on Tilara? Is the guy reading a notepad? Have they advanced to display screens? It’s just all so vague as to be maddening. 

Oh but I forgot: that bedswapping scenario on the ship leads to some confrontations. A young hothead named app Fenn, son of a Space Agency bigshot, bullies his way from one gal to the next, wanting to get all the sex possible. This frustrates the woman who was previously rooming with app Fenn, and Barton goes to soothe the guy, instead getting in a fight with him – Barton smashing app Fenn in the face with a chair. Later Limila goes to app Fenn to offer herself to him, explaining to Barton later that this is a time-honored Tilaran custom in which women call off the blood feud between two men. But when app Fenn sees that Limila does not have breasts (which we’ll recall were lopped off by the Demu in the previous book), he sends her back to Barton with the message that Barton can keep his “plastic woman.” 

Whereas this would lead to a violent confrontation in a typical novel, Barton instead seethes for a bit…and then Busby drops the ball entirely, with app Fenn getting in some other trouble when the crew lands on Tilara. Barton and app Fenn never even have a proper squaring off. As for Limila’s boobs, we get a repeat of the plastic surgery onslaught of the previous book, as Tilaran doctors graft on a new pair for her and put in teeth buds to regrow her second set of teeth, and yada yada yada. So much of this stuff is just retread of Cage A Man, I mean two volumes of this “trilogy” are devoted to Limila being turned into a Demu, then into a human, then finally back into a Tilaran. 

Things pick up when Hishtoo, the surly Demu captive, steals a ship, along with a few Tilaran hostages. Here Hishtoo gets his revenge, messaging back that he, too, will eat his captives, same as Barton did in Cage A Man. Barton gives chase in his own ship – and here we learn that space travel doesn’t make for the most thrilling action. Like when they spot Hishtoo’s ship, eventually, and to decelerate so they can come abreast him will take…approximately thirty-some days. It’s sort of like that throughout; Busby spends more time on characters sitting around in undescribed rooms on the ship, drinking stale coffee and eating various alien cuisines. 

Even crazier, The Proud Enemy doesn’t even lead to a thrilling conclusion. Instead, it sees Barton and comrades disguised as Demu and walking around on the Demu homeworld of Sisshain, where they come upon a massive spaceship that clearly was not made by the Demu. Instead, some ancient race preceded them and the Demu stole their tech from them; something that was alluded to by Tarleton in the previous book, but apparently a secret so devastating that the Demu are willing to sue for peace to keep it all a secret. 

So this second installment of the trilogy was pretty lame. Not much in it really happened, and what did happen mostly came off as a replay of stuff in Cage A Man. The trilogy concluded with End Of The Line, which appeared five years later in The Demu Trilogy. Since I’ve gotten this far I’ll be reviewing that one soon, too.

Monday, September 18, 2023

The Aquanauts #11: Operation Mermaid

The Aquanauts #11: Operation Mermaid, by Ken Stanton
December, 1974  Manor Books

Well, friends, it’s my sad duty to report that The Aquanauts does not conclude on a high note; this final volume is the most tepid and uninteresting of the entire series. But then Manning Lee Stokes (aka “Ken Stanton”) has struggled with this series from the start; in each of the eleven volumes he’s taken a series that’s supposedly about a kick-ass underwater force and turned it into a sloooow-moving suspense thriller that’s more concerned with esponiage and crime. But at the very least Stokes has seen his vision through to the end; he clearly wrote every volume, as ever peppering the novels with his goofy, self-referential in-jokes. Operation Mermaid for example features a minor character named “Lt. Stokes” who reports to temporary Secret Underwater Service honcho Captain Greene. 

I still chuckle to myself when I imagine series “producer” Lyle Kenyon Engel receiving Stokes’s latest manuscript; it’s just a guess, but I’m betting that Engel came up with the plot for each volume of The Aquanauts, or at least the gist of a plot, and for this one Engel clearly wanted a mermaid. As I’ve mentioned before, Engel must have had a particular interest in this subject, given that mermaids were also mentioned in the earlier Engel-produced series Nick Carter: Killmaster, in the installment Moscow, not to mention the later Engel series Attar The Merman. So the title is “Operation Mermaid” and a mermaid actually appears in the first few pages of the novel, so Engel must’ve been happy…but after that Manning Lee Stokes turns in a snooze fest that comes off like an installment from a completely different series, featuring a new-to-the-series protagonist for the majority of the tale. I mean hell, “series protagonist” Tiger Shark doesn’t even show up until page 114! And the book’s only 192 pages! 

Rather, our hero for the majority of Operation Mermaid is a guy named Matt Baker, a black Navy intelligence officer who has just been assigned to the newly-formed Intelligence wing of the SUS, or SUSI (Secret Underwater Service Intelligence). This, we’re informed, is one of SUS boss Admiral Coffin’s projects, creating an intelligence wing for the SUS, and Baker is apparently the first guy. Oh and by the way, Admiral Coffin never actually appears in Operation Mermaid, other than talking over the phone and such; we are informed he’s still recuperating from his heart attack a few volumes ago, and Greene is still serving as SUS boss in his stead. So at the very least Operation Mermaid dispenses with that “Admiral Coffin and the head of the Navy meeting in mufti” scenario that was repeated throughout the majority of the series. 

So Baker is our star for most of the novel, which makes Operation Mermaid not even seem like an installment of The Aquanauts. Captain Greene doesn’t even show up until page 64. Instead it’s all about Matt Baker, a junior intelligence guy stationed in Hong Kong. We do see the titular mermaid at novel’s start, though; it opens beneath the waters outside Hong Kong, and a crusty old yank diver is up to no good, trying to get hold of some gold he’s learned about via the underworld. Then a nude mermaid – a Chinese mermaid, by the way – swims up, wearing nothing but her fishlike tail, and mouths the words, “Do you want fucky?” Oh plus she has gills that run beneath the breasts to her back. The old diver is all for it, even though it doesn’t seem real…then he wonders how indeed you would screw a mermaid, only to happily discover that the tail is just a costume the girl is wearing, and she’s nude beneath that, too. But then a Chinese “merman” stabs the diver in the back…and that’s all we’ll see of the mermaids until toward the end. 

Instead, that “lost gold” stuff will be the driving plot of Operation Mermaid. A particular Tong wants it, and a British spy named Ian Phillips wants it, plus there are also the Russians who want the mermaid, and the British government, which also wants the mermaid. Humans who can breathe underwater could change the global power structure! Or so we’re told. But none of it really goes anywhere. Instead it’s more focused on Phillips, an openly gay dude, and how he wants to screw Matt Baker, bluntly propositioning him and whatnot. Stokes has also kept the lurid vibe strong throughout The Aquanauts, at least, but there really isn’t much hanky-panky in this one. Hell, even Tiger Shark (when he finally shows up) goes without any action – even turning down an attractive young woman who practically begs him for the goods! 

But man as mentioned, Matt Baker is the star of the show for most of the duration of Operation Mermaid. And he makes for one helluva lame star. The dude is junior level, in way over his head, and spends the entire narrative either worrying over stuff or trying to figure out what’s going on. I wonder if Stokes planned to make this guy a new recurring character. Stokes has focused on other one-off characters in past installments, but Baker truly is the protagonist for a lot of the book; even when Tiger Shark finally appears, in the last quarter of the novel, his entrance is initially viewed through Baker’s perspective. So hell in a way I guess you could say this installment was Stokes’s version of The Spy Who Loved Me

Speaking of which, gay Brit Ian Phillips tries to put the moves on poor Baker incessantly in the novel, and an increasingly-annoyed Baker keeps telling him no. As for Phillips, he’s the British intelligence op in Hong Kong and he serves for the most part as the novel’s villain. He’s the one who puts Baker onto the mermaid business, and Baker goes to the funeral of the man who was killed by the mermaids, and soon enough Baker’s being made to drink by the victim’s loutish friends. Baker is such a loser that he becomes violently ill after being forced to drink some whiskey, because he’s never been much of a drinker – and speaking of which, there’s a lot of vomit-exploitation in the first half of the book, with Baker puking his guts out in the toilet and later having to step in the toilet when making his way into a crawlspace that’s hidden in the ceiling above it. 

Just the typical freaky Manning Lee Stokes stuff. Like later in the novel, Baker has been instructed to play on Phillips’ advances…up to the point of allowing the guy to give him a blowjob. Complete with a nude Baker stroking himself “absently” so as to get Phillips’s attention, and then Phillips going about it, and then Baker using the distraction to knock him out… Each volume of The Aquanauts has been pretty sleazy, but it must be noted that there’s no straight sex this time – except for when Phillips does the mermaid: “She giggled as he entered her from the rear,” and that’s all there is to it. Indeed, Phillips is actually bored as he fucks a mermaid, which should give you an idea of how bored Stokes himself was with this whole series. 

Well, what else? As mentioned a lot of the plot is concerned with planning and subterfuge and Phillips trying to get a coup with both the mermaids and the lost gold, while meanwhile the Russians and the Tongs are closing in. Stokes also works in his trademark crime-sleaze vibe when Baker discovers the corpse of his girlfriend…and we’re informed she’s been raped and strangled, a Manning Lee Stokes staple if ever there was one. For this Baker is wanted by the cops, someone having set him up, but this turns out to be a red herring of a subplot – and also Baker seems to have an easy enough time getting around Hong Kong as “a black man,” despite his concerns. But as usual it’s just Stokes grinding his gears as he pads out the pages. 

As ever, what makes all this so frustrating is that Stokes can still fire on all cylinders when he wants to: there are not one but two underwater combat sequences in Operation Mermaid, both instances featuring Tiger up against Russian frogmen. These are very tense, taut sequences, with Tiger again outnumbered and using his superior skills and resillience to survive. But both scenes are relatively quick, given how much space Stokes has devoted to Matt Baker and Ian Phillips. Hell, Stokes doesn’t even waste the usual time on Admiral Coffin or Captain Greene; the former as mentioned doesn’t actually appear in the book, and the latter only has a few scenes where he talks on the phone or meets with other bigwigs. That said, Greene does get in a shootout toward the end of the novel, the first action I believe he’s ever seen in The Aquanauts

But even this is an indication of how messy Stokes’s writing is. So, the novel climaxes with Baker trying to get the better of Phillips with the aforementioned bj, and then a victorious Baker hears someone coming up the stairs – all this is in Phillips’s house out by the docks or somesuch. Then we have Greene, with some Hong Kong cops, in a shootout with Russians and Tongs, outside the house…and then Greene discovers a beaten and half-dead Baker, and we only learn what happened to the poor guy via dialog. What I mean to say is, Stokes makes Baker practically the star of the show, then just unceremoniously drops him at the end. 

When Tiger Shark, the actual star of the show, finally appears, he too seems to have been changed. As stated in previous reviews, in the past couple volumes Stokes has developed this bit that “Tiger Shark” is only a title to be used when Bill Martin is on duty. Whereas in earliest volumes he was “Tiger” all the time in the narrative, now he’s “Bill,” until he’s in KRAB and on the job and is referred to as “Tiger.” It’s just goofy, and my hunch is it was an editorial request from Lyle Kenyon Engel, who was probably concerned prospective readers would flip through the books and see a bunch of references to “Tiger” in the narrative and conclude the series was for juvenile readers. 

But as we know, this is certainly an adult series – though as mentioned “Bill” himself goes without action for once. This time he’s also been retconned into a secret agent or something, and he shows up in Hong Kong with this hotstuff babe who is an undercover Navy Intelligence officer who is posing as his wife, and she basically begs him for sex behind closed doors, wanting to go all the way with the cover story, but our usually-virile hero turns her down because he doesn’t want to mix business with pleasure. WTF? This is another subplot that goes nowhere; the lady is not mentioned again after she storms off when Tiger turns her down. 

The mermaids, you won’t be surprised to learn if you’ve ever read a single Manning Lee Stokes novel, are pretty much forgotten. Actually, they’re just window dressing. They are introduced in the opening – a mermaid and a merman – and then disappear until toward the end, when they’re just bluntly brought back into the tale without much pizzaz. Stokes does try to go into the science of how the Chinese perfected this technology, of implanting gills in humans, but again there’s really not much to it. I also can’t believe Stokes didn’t have Tiger Shark screw the mermaid; I mean you’d figure that would be a given. Instead, Tiger only meets the girl at the very end of the book, and she does mouth the words “You want fucky?” to him beneath the waves, but Stokes only hints at what she’s said – because it’s all she says, all the time, and by novel’s end Stokes himself has gotten so tired of the joke that he doesn’t even write the phrase, and instead has Tiger Shark wondering if he read the girl’s lips correctly. 

The frogmen battles are cool, though, and fairly bloody: Tiger blows up two guys with his Sea Pistol, and another one he dispenses by jamming a shark baton with a charged end into the dude’s “rear” and it blows him in half. But these fights are over quick. We also get some underwater KRAB action, in fact a humorous part where Tiger shadows a Russian sub and then starts showing off when he realizes the sub can’t hit him, doing fancy maneuvers as he flings his ship around the sub. We also get new technology here that would have certainly played into future volumes: an underwater phone line, upon which Tiger can talk to Greene while Tiger is on missions in KRAB. 

But this was it for The Aquanauts. I would guess low sales killed the series, and it’s not surprising the sales were low. I can only imagine there were quite a few dissatisfied readers out there. But as I speculated before, I have a suspicion that Stokes’s last John Eagle Expeditor novels The Green Goddess and Silverskull started life as manuscripts for The Aquanauts. Not only were both volumes different from Stokes’s earlier Expeditor novels, but Silverskull in particular featured a subplot about a villain with a submarine, which would be in-line with The Aquanauts. But I guess we’ll never know. 

So, this ends my time with The Aquanauts. I still remember the day I excitedly came across a few volumes of this series at an antique store in Haltom City, Texas; I think it was in December 2013. This discovery inspired me to pick up the entire series (for a pittance, as it turned out), and a few months after is when I reviewed the first volume. And while I really enjoy the writing of Manning Lee Stokes, it must be said that The Aquanauts was not his strongest work, and I say again it clearly seems that he struggled with it. Other than the seventh volume, pretty much every volume was a little padded and dull. But also Stokes was truly invested in the writing, same as ever, and for that I’ve always ranked the guy as one of my favorites. He might have padded out the pages, but by God he did it with gusto!

Thursday, September 14, 2023

Cage A Man (The Demu Trilogy #1)

Cage A Man, by F.M. Busby
May, 1974  Signet Books
(Original hardcover edition 1973)

First off, an admission: I didn’t read this actual paperback, but the reprint included in full in the 1980 Pocket Books collection The Demu Trilogy. On a recent visit to the nearby Half Price Books this thick paperback grabbed my attention, and they only wanted two bucks for it. I’d been in the mood for some late ‘60s/early ‘70s sci-fi, so I figured what the hell. 

This first volume of the trilogy was initially published in hardcover, but the next two novels were paperback only. Actually, the last volume of the trilogy can only be found in The Demu Trilogy. Cage A Man was the first novel published by F.M. Busby, and it’s my understanding he was 50 or so when he started writing; before that he ran a well-regarded sci-fi fanzine or somesuch. So he was clearly a sci-fi fan, and he went on to be a pretty prolific author, passing away in 2005. He’s certainly got a handle on pulp sci-fi; Cage A Man is a fast-moving 144-page novel that features a macho hero fighting (and eating!) lobster-like aliens. 

But then, Busby throws a helluva curveball with this book, as Cage A Man starts off in one direction and ultimately veers in another. It very much reads like the first half of a story, so you have to figure there were some frustrated readers back in the day; the story wouldn’t continue until 1975’s The Proud Enemy (which came out in paperback only, and courtesy a different publisher to boot), and then the final volume, End Of The Line, didn’t show up until 1980’s The Demu Trilogy (itself courtesy a different publisher!). I wonder though if Busby wrote the whole thing at once…whether or not, he clearly knows this is just the start of a bigger story, as he doesn’t even finish anything by this novel’s end, despite the fact that the novel keeps building and building…to a resolution that never comes! 

I mentioned “macho” above, but an interesting thing about the hero of Cage A Man, the thirty-something Barton (no other name provided), is that he’s kind of a dick. Indeed, F.M. Busby almost goes out of his way to make Barton unlikable at times. Initially though I thought we had a hero in the mold of Leigh Brackett: a resourceful individualist willing to get savage when necessary. And this is the Barton we get for the first half of the novel. After that, though…actually to tell the truth, the books I kept flashing back to when reading Cage A Man were the spy-fy novels John Quirk wrote a decade earlier: Busby has a very similar narrative style, and the similarity of a self-centered “masculine” hero flying around on his own private spaceship while dealing with humdrum “business stuff” was very reminiscent of that earlier series’ self-centered “masculine” hero flying around on his own private jet fighter while dealing with humdrum “business stuff.” 

When I picked up The Demu Trilogy I checked out some reviews online, and I have to say that most of the reviews out there are very misleading in that there’s a ton of sex and whatnot in Cage A Man. Maybe it you read nothing but Star Trek tie-ins or Harry Potter or whatever the hell, this book might seem to have a bit more of a focus on sex. But folks, all the sex happens off-page! All of it!! And the exploitation is minimal at best. Even the violence is minimal, and pretty sparse. 

Indeed, another parallel to those John Q. books is that not much really happens in Cage A Man. A lot of the novel is given over to the preparation to do stuff. But the first half of the novel is a different story, because it’s all about the mystery and the buildup. It starts cold, with Barton waking up to find himself naked and stuck in a room with a bunch of other naked men and women. Gradually he will discover that some of them are aliens. Busby gives no background or setup, so that the mystery is just as puzzling to as as it is to Barton: how did he get here, and who has taken him? 

So yes, it’s an alien abduction story, but it sure isn’t Whitley Streiber. Busby will dole out little details, like that Barton is a ‘Nam vet and is 32 years old at the time of abduction, which happens in the early 1980s. So it’s a “near future” sort of thing, given that the novel was published a decade before. There’s no real futuristic stuff in the first half, though…just a lot of stuff about Barton pissing and shitting. Seriously, there is a focus on feces here that’s on the level of your average William Crawford novel. Barton, in this room with others and later alone in his own cell, will find that he must piss or defecate directly onto the floor and the waste, even the “solid waste,” will slowly just slip through the floor, even though Barton himself can’t go through the floor. 

So yeah, there’s more scat-sleaze than real sleaze in this one, so if you’ve ever hankered to read about a guy who is kept nude in a cage for eight years and must always piss and shit on the floor, you’re definitelly gonna want to run out and get a copy of Cage A Man. And yeah, late spoiler alert, but Barton’s here for years and years…but the years are almost casually dispensed in the narrative. Barton’s caught, confused in his cell, then a page or so later we’re told that he figures, by the length of his beard and hair and such, that he’s been here for a few years. 

But first we do have some of that hanky-panky; soon after awakening at the beginning of the novel, Barton encounters fellow captive Limila, a nude alien beauty who looks like an Earth girl, save for having only six fingers and toes, and double rows sharklike rows of teeth…and also her breasts are lower on her ribcage. She wants some sex with Barton posthaste – she has limited English because she’s been a captive for longer and has met more Earthlings – and Barton gives her the goods, though as mentioned it’s off page. And that’s it for Limila until later in the novel, which makes it quite odd that Busby will ultimately spend so much time developing this soap opera romance between she and Barton. In fact the entire second half of Cage A Man concerns Barton’s realization that he’s in love with Limila. 

After this boffery Barton is placed in his own special cell, which is nothing but an empty room with a floor that you can relieve yourself through, and he’ll stay there for years and years. Oh and also occasionally food – a sort of mush – will pour through the also-pourable walls, and Barton will have to put his face up to it to eat. There is quite an off-putting vibe about Cage A Man, what with this nude and dirty guy crapping and pissing in a cell and lapping mush-like food off the wall. In a way the novel practically captures the entire gross, burned-out bummer vibe of the post-Altamont early ‘70s era, or maybe that’s just me. 

This goes on for a long time and Barton develops “hallucination” skills, in which he sits in a corner and visualizes things in his mind, thus making the years pass by quickly. The never-seen aliens keep screwing with him, though, like at one point sending a Tilaran woman into his cage – not Limila, but of the same alien species, with the low-hanging jugs and six fingers and whatnot. This whole bit is weird with the two engaging prompty in (mostly undescribed) sex and eventually the alien gal becomes…pregnant! And Barton, unable to deliver the ensuing baby, has to break the girl’s neck to end her misery and pain! After which she vanishes, the aliens clearly having watched all this from their hidden place but never interfering to help. 

It goes on…like eventually the aliens start trying to teach Barton their language, via some sort of projection on the wall. He also gets a glimpse of them: humanoid lobsters, basically. And their whole schtick is, they consider themselves the only true thinking creatures, and all other aliens they encounter are “animals.” But, if these lobster creatures, ie the Demu, find an “animal” that can learn their language, then that alien becomes Demu – complete with forced surgery to remove/add various bodyparts so that they look like Demu. Now that’s some freaky and weird stuff, which basically sums up the whole vibe of Cage A Man

The Leigh Brackett similarities are in how Barton is a hero who refuses to bend his knee; he fights the Demu relentlessly. The similarities become even more pronounced when Barton manages to escape and runs roughshod over the planet – plus even more Brackett similarities here, as there’s no real concern over “science” in this part, ie how Barton can even breathe on this alien planet. But Barton gets hold of a few of the Demu, learning to his satisfaction that their hard exterior shells are very breakable, and he starts breaking arms and limbs and – most memorably – eating some of the “lobster meat” within. 

But this hard edge is lost when Barton gets in a Demu spaceship, and it all just becomes rather juvenile in tone; Barton’s able to take off and fly this thing with rudimentary instructions, and also manages to free Limila and two of Barton’s fellow Earthling captives. But all three of them have been surgically changed by the Demu, so there’s a lot of body horror stuff afoot. Barton also makes off with the apparent leader of this research facility, and the leader’s “egg child,” a little Demu that Barton eventually takes a liking to – despite breaking “her” arm on first meeting and later threatening to eat her. 

At this point the second half of Cage A Man gets underway, and we’re grounded on Earth – and grounded in very humdrum, mundane things. All the tension and payoff of the first half is lost. It’s also very juvenile in tone; Barton flies his spaceship to Earth, figures out how to use the radio to communicate with the (undescribed) Earth space vessels that try to shoot him down, and manages to land the craft unscathed. I mean it’s all on the level of Tom Swift. It gets even goofier, with Barton lording it over the “Space Agency” rep, Tarleton, who serves as the official government contact for Barton for the remainder of the book. 

And meanwhile Barton’s brought along his alien prizes: Histhtoo, the leader; Eeshta, the little girl; Limila, the lobsertized Tilaran. And also there are the two humans who have been Demu-ized. And also meanwhile F.M. Busby decides to turn the whole thing into a melodrama, with Barton slowly realizing he’s in love with Limila, but he can’t bring himself to touch her, because she’s a friggin’ lobster and all, with all her bodyparts hacked off. So off she’s sent to a plastic surgeon to try to get some semblance of human form back; I mean folks seriously, this takes up a huge chunk of the plot. Talks with the surgeon, Limila’s refusal to get human breasts (ie higher up on the chest than the low-hangin’ Tilaran ones), and also lots of talk on how fake ears will be necessary because real ears would be impossible. And also how Limila won’t be able to have her sixty sharkteeth. 

And through it all Barton hops on his commandeered Demu spaceship and flies around, helping Tarleton create a fleet of similar ships to launch an attack on the Demu planet – an attack of vengeance, given that those damn Demu have been abducting humans right and left these past eight years Barton’s been gone. And speaking of which, Busby’s powers of description are minimal at best, so there’s no attempt at bringing this “future” Earth to life…only mentions that there’s a lunar colony now, and also three-dimensional TV, or Tri-V. More focus is placed on the “slop” Barton eats via ready-made packets, complete with Barton bitching over the constant commercials for said slop on Tri-V. 

It was with a crushing sensation that I realized Cage A Man wasn’t building up to anything – the entire second half of the novel is nothing more than the preparation for the next volume. Barton and Tarleton putting a fleet together, comprised of forty ships of various nationalities, to attack the Demu home planet. And Eeshta learning to speak in English while Limila tries to become human again so Barton will screw her. And in that regard we get a lot of stuff about how she insists on only wearing a padded bra, plus she wants a wig made up to look like her real Tilaran hair – an “Elizabethan” style in which her forehead is bald and the hair, which runs down her back, starts in the middle of her forehead, which sounds real friggin’ lovely – and when it finally gets down to the long-awaited conjugation between the two, Busby again leaves the act entirely off-page. Vey curious, then, how so many reviews of Cage A Man go on about the rampant sex. 

Things limp to a close on the act that should’ve happened like a hundred pages before: the Earth fleet launches into space for the voyage to the Demu planet. But before that Busby must grind more gears: we have this super lame, nonsensical subplot in which Barton keeps avoiding this government psychiatrist who is trying to figure out if Barton’s mind has been scrambled by his eight-year abduction. Well, duh! So he keeps “hallucinating” in the tests to throw them off, and finally the “climax” of the novel features Barton being ordered into a last test before they’ll let him fly on one of the spaceships, and he goes berserk when they replicate the cell he was imprisoned in…but it was all a test, you see! Just a test! 

I didn’t much enjoy Cage A Man. But since the novel ends on a cliffhanger I’m already halfway through the next volume, The Proud Enemy, and will be reviewing it anon. Finally, special mention on the cover (credited to someone by the handle FMA, per the signature), which is great, and almost looks like it could be on a prog or krautrock LP.  Or the cover of a direct-to-VHS sci-fi flick: “Starring Lance Henriksen!”

Monday, September 11, 2023


Hawkshaw, by Ron Goulart
No month stated, 1974  Award Books
(Original hardcover edition 1972)

Around twenty years ago I picked up a handful of Ron Goulart sci-fi paperbacks from the ‘60s and ‘70s and eagerly looked forward to reading them, given that they seemed to be along the lines of the funky freaky post-psychedelic sci-fi I have always loved. Then I tried reading one! I think it was Gadget Man. And I realized that Goulart’s schtick is more of sci-fi satire comedy, and that just wasn’t what I was after at the time. 

Flash forward twenty years and I figured I’d give it another go. Hawkshaw was one of the paperbacks I got back then (of course I kept them all, even though I had no plans to read them!), so for no particular reason it became the one I’d try to read. And it seems to be along the same lines as Gadget Man, perhaps even set in the same world – a dissolved United States of (what was then) the near future. In this case it’s 1997, but it’s essentially the 1970s taken to absurd proportions…sort of what Lawrence Sanders did in The Tomorrow File, but much more “comedic” in nature. 

At 156 pages of big print, Hawkshaw is essentially a fast-moving spoof that doesn’t have the time for any elaborate world building. It’s mostly formatted like a mystery, with cipher-like hero Noah Kraft, a reporter, venturing to the “colony” of Connecticut to investigate some supposed werewolf sightings. The werewolf stuff turns out to just be a distraction, as ultimately the plot revolves around Noah chasing a Maguffin: a document with the locations of concentration camps a right-wing group called The Robin Hood Foundation is supposedly running on the east coast. 

If I’m not mistaken this “Fragmented America” was the setting for several Ron Goulart novels; in fact I think most of the ones I have are set in this world. He doesn’t much explore the setting here in Hawkshaw, it must be said – the novel is basically a fast-moving slice of pulp with a definite comedy vibe. And spoiler alert, but there’s hardly anything in the way of sex or violence. All such risque material occurs entirely off-page, and for that matter Goulart isn’t much for the exploitation of the female characters: Noah hooks up with a sort-of agent named Donna, and about the most we get is that she’s “slim” and “pretty.” 

But for that matter, Noah Kraft is himself a cipher. He’s a reporter of the old school, looking to track leads and get the scoop. There isn’t much in the way of technology in his line of work, other than a “pix phone” he uses to call his boss. I also loved the tidbit that he sits on an “air-cushioned seat” while talking on the pix phone with his boss; very 1960s Haus-Rucker Co. space age. Otherwise Ron Goulart is not one for word-painting, and the reader must do some heavy lifting throughout, because Goulart doesn’t much describe anything. He doesn’t even really provide much backdrop for this fractured America, other than errant notes like the fact that the country split up in 1989. 

Instead, Hawkshaw essentially exists so Goulart can lampoon the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. This extends to even underground comix, with the appearance of Bud Tubb, a heavyset “comix” artist known for drawing risque material. I got the impression he was inspired by Vaughn Bode. Upon arrival in Westport to look into the supposed werewolf, Noah soon meets Bud Tubb, who tells Noah of both the mysterious Hawkshaw, leader of the liberal movement, and also the equally-mysterious Robin Hood Foundation, which is based here in Westport and is right-wing in its composition. It’s also led by a colorfully-named mystery man: George Washington II. 

The werewolf is just window dressing, and is quickly found and explained: some guy who was the victim of some Robin Hood Foundation chemicals. More time is spent on oddball shit like a practicing group of cannibals who capture Noah and Donna while they are out driving around. Goulart tries to get a lot of comedy mileage out of this group who come off ultra polite but proud of their newfound taste for human flesh, courtesy a popular TV show: “I might not have turned to cannibalism if the United States had held together,” explains one of them. 

There’s also weird nonsense like Uncle Kidnapper, a guy who employs clowns and works as a contractor for the government; his speciality is saving kidnapped people for a fee. Then there’s the part where Noah goes to New Jersey, which is entirely run by the mob, with more “funny” stuff like the border patrol guards – Mafia wiseguys – handing out “The Mafia does not exist” pamphlets to tourists entering the former state. My favorite of all the random crap though is the actor who goes around in a one-man show as Norman Mailer, reading from Mailer’s work and getting in fistfights with a planted audience member he’s paid to call him a “liberal son of a bitch.” 

All the comedy of course takes away from any tension or suspense; there are a few times where Noah’s in danger, or Donna has been adbucted, but none of it has any bite. Nor does the revelation of who Hawkshaw is; indeed, more time is spent figuring out who the mysterious George Washington II is. At no point does Noah Kraft fight or shoot anyone or do any other sort of action-hero stuff. In fact, the fate of a somewhat important character is left unexplained by novel’s end, which sees Noah returning back to his home base for another story. I’m too lazy to see if this character appeared in any other Goulart novels. 

Well, as mentioned it’s taken me a long time to get around to Ron Goulart. In fact, I’ve put off reading William Shatner’s Tekwar series precisely due to the reason that it was ghostwritten by Ron Goulart, even down to the “funny androids” Goulart was known to populate his own novels with. And I have to say, now that I’ve finally read one of Ron Goulart’s novels, it will likely be quite some time until I read another.