Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The Butcher #13: Blood Vengeance

The Butcher #13: Blood Vengeance, by Stuart Jason
January, 1975  Pinnacle Books

At this point my enjoyment of The Butcher is relegated to spotting which previous installments James “Stuart Jason” Dockery rips off. In Blood Vengeance it seems to mainly be #4: Blood Debt that he’s rewriting, given that the book features characters from that earlier installment, but there are also elements lifted from #8: Fire Bomb

But then, Blood Vengeance is the same as every other Dockery installment since the first volume. The opening sequence with the deformed Syndicate thugs versus Bucher, the slackjawed cop who must let Bucher go, the briefing with the never-named White Hat director, the bustling about the globe on the “latest crazy caper” which becomes ever more convoluted as the narrative progresses. The very few action scenes, all of which are the same and feature Bucher’s fast-draw technique making our hero almost superhuman. The grand guignol finale in which all the characters get together for a sadistic send-off, with Bucher wandering off with “the bitter-sour taste of defeat strong in his mouth…” 

All of it is here, as it is in every other Butcher written by James Dockery. The only difference with Blood Vengeance is Dockery’s sudden obsession with castration. This theme runs through the entire novel, with four characters castrated during the course of events; the finale is especially over the top, with three of them being emasculated at the same time. And in true “sweat mag” style the guy turning them into eunuchs is a sadistic “dwarf” who is so skilled at this particular “treatment” that he can castrate his “patients” before they even realize he’s started the procedure. 

All of which is to say Dockery’s dark humor is even more prevalent than normal this time. Also it seems clear that Dockery realizes his readers are in on the joke – that they know he’s just rewriting the same book over and over again, and he’s not fooling anyone. His deformed Syndicate goons are even more deformed this time around: just a few of them would be Warts, who has “large, ugly, horny seed warts all over his face and hands;” Mole, a heroin addict who looks like the animal of his namesake; and especially Spastic Sniggers, a goon who makes an unfortunately too brief of an appearance but whose bio takes the cake: 

Spastic Sniggers was a depraved psychopath who derived delicious enjoyment from watching others die. At the moment of death, at that instant when the soul fled the body, something deep in his fetid mind switched over to a wrong relay and he would be seized by fits of sniggering, all the while starting and jerking convulsively in limbs and body in the manner of a hopeless spastic. 

That made me laugh out loud when I first read it; it still makes me laugh out loud. So clearly The Butcher is for a special type of reader, as this sort of super-dark comedy runs throughout. And also, when I read something like that I realize there’s no way at all that James Dockery is on the level. His tongue is definitely in his cheek…which makes it all the more frustrating that he keeps writing the same book over and over. This is one of the more puzzling things in the world of men’s adventure, how a writer as talented as Dockery couldn’t be bothered to write an original story and just kept ripping himself off, volume after volume. 

To be honest, at one point I thought of extending the joke and making every one of my Butcher reviews the same, only changing the occasional particular – or rearranging them – but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t just lazily churn out the same review over and over…and unlike James Dockery, I’m not even getting paid for this! 

Well anyway, for once we get some indication that time has passed in the series; early in the book, when Bucher is taken in by a cop per the template, it’s none other than Captain Handsome Staggers (what a name – up there with “Delano Stagg!”), a cop who apparently arrested Bucher in a previous volume, and knows from experience that Bucher will be let out – even though he carries a silencer “even God” would be arrested for. Checking my reviews, it looks like I failed to note the appearance of Handsome Staggers in that previous volume, which is surprising. His arrest of Bucher is stated as being “some months before” the events of Blood Vengeance, which by the way opens with a hapless stooge getting a phone call that Bucher’s here in Miami, and quickly getting out of town. 

From there to Bucher being stalked by the thugs Mole and Warts, with Bucher offing one of them – with the interesting development that the other will return to plague him, later in the novel. Usually these opening stalking thugs are one-offs, but this time Dockery integrates them into the overall storyline – which has nothing at all to do with the back cover. For the most part, at least. I’ll admit, I was fooled – the back cover notes that beautiful blonde Candy Merriman, one of the biggest stars on TV and the daughter of some bigwig, has been adbucted by a hippie terrorist-type group and held for ransom. I assumed we were going to get a take on the infamous Patty Hearst case. 

But as it turns out, Candy Merriman is a passing thought at best in the actual narrative; she isn’t mentioned until page 65, and even then only appears on a few pages. Rather, the villains of the piece are a left-wing Ethiopian radical group run by a guy named Egor Ginir, and comprised of Sudomics – a cult that is “the Thuggees of Ethiopia.” Working with another of Bucher’s old Syndicate colleagues, Sabroso, Ginir plans to kidnap children of wealth and hold them for upwards of fifteen million each, the money to be used to fund a revolution. But this isn’t enough for Dockery, and as per usual the plot becomes more and more convoluted until it ultimately involves atomic bombs and whatnot. 

Also as per usual Bucher almost immediately finds himself leaving the country, and as ever going someplace where Islam is the chief religion – Islamic culture is so frequently referenced in The Butcher that I assume James Dockery was either obsessed with it, or had worked in these areas and felt informed enough to refer to them. So it is that we get a lot of cultural stuff about Ethiopia, which is where Bucher immediately heads. And here we get more reference to a previous book, with Bucher shocked to discover his local contact is French-Arabic blonde beauty Barbe, who last appeared in the fourth volume, the events of which were “almost a year ago.” 

Checking my thorough review of Blood Debt, I see that Bucher and Barbe had a spatting relationship, and that Bucher referred to Barbe as “ugly.” Not so here, where she’s so gobsmackin’ hot that Bucher wonders why he never gave in to Barbe’s pleas in that earlier volume to get busy with her. But then, no one has yet gotten busy with Barbe; she’s a virgin, saving herself for the right guy. And guess who she’s decided it will be? Of course it is Bucher…leading to one of Dockery’s peculiar off-page sex-scenes. I’ve said it before and will say it again: it’s downright bizarre how Dockery will be so lurid and sleazy with his deformed villains and his focus on rape and torture…but will always cut away when Bucher’s about to have sex. Even the customary exploitation of the genre is curiously absent; there’s a part where Barbe and another hotstuff female agent get naked so as to distract someone, and Dockery can’t be bothered to give either girl even a cursory juicy description. 

That other hostuff agent babe is Eden Massawa, an Ethiopian woman who is related to the new prime minister. This volume is very heavy on the Ethiopian culture and whatnot – and this is where the castration angle comes in. Eden has a cousin who runs a slave trade or somesuch, and with just a call she’ll have someone over to castrate a guy into a new eunuch for such-and-such’s harem. This is actually the fate of two of the Syndicate goons who have tailed Bucher to Ethiopia…Dockery just giving us a taste of the sordid darkness to ensue when the guys are tied to a bed and then informed they are about to be castrated, and start screaming when “the doctor” comes in and lays out his tools. 

We’re often told how nauseated Bucher is by all the killing and torture, and frequently in the book he tries to stop it – but in every case he’s stopped by a woman. It’s an interesting subtext to the series, but otherwise Bucher is even more cipher-like than normal in Blood Vengeance, only getting in a few action scenes to boot. This has never been an action-heavy series, and the vibe is always more along the lines of a Western, with Bucher using his “kill-quick-or-die” fast-draw technique to blow away a handful of goons. And they’re always clean kills, too, with Dockery also curiously sparse with detail on the fountaining gore. That said, there is a humorous WTF? bit were Bucher calls one of the thugs “anus.” 

The other volume Blood Vengeance rips off is Fire Bomb; that one featured a letter Bucher was handed by another character, a letter Bucher put in his pocket and conveniently forgot about – only to read much later and discover that, if he’d read it sooner, he would’ve saved himself a lot of trouble. There’s a very similar bit here in Blood Vengeance where Barbe, who apropos of nothing has found out she has a degenerative eye disease that will leave her blind within a year(!), writes a letter for Bucher…and he puts it in his pocket and forgets about it until near the end of the book. 

But it’s Blood Debt that is most ripped off; that one also featured a famous TV personality who happened to be a hotstuff babe, Twiti Andovin, who ultimately turned out to be the main villain. Blood Vengeance rips all of this off in the form of Candy Merriman, who is first seen being executed – in an eerie foreshadowing of real-life Isis videos – on a tape the Muslim terrorists send to a US tv station. There we see (broadcast uncut on television!) a screaming Candy being forced to her knees and then her head chopped off by the High Priestess of the Sudomac cult – but Bucher suspects something fishy about the whole thing. 

Dockery is also pretty bad with pacing. Bucher hopscotches around the globe, from Miami to Ethiopia, back to Miami and then up to Yellowknife, Canada, but nothing much really happens. The final quarter is especially slow, with Bucher and Eden hooking up with a Canadian mountie and flying over an island Bucher suspects Egor might be hiding his atomic warheads on. But it just goes on and on and it’s clear Dockery is trying to meet his word count; the book would’ve been a lot more brisk without the convoluted plotting and a little more on the action front. 

That said, the sudden focus on castration is also puzzling. In a standard trope of the series, one of Bucher’s female conquests is brutally murdered – Bucher, as ever, almost casually sending the girl off to her grisly fate, completely mindless to her predicament per series template – and Bucher is all fired up to get vengeance on the sadist who “sodomized and garrotted” her. This entails one castration, but late in the novel Dockery introduces yet another go-nowhere subplot, one in which Ginir has also kidnapped a bunch of preteen girls to sell them as sex slaves, and Bucher rescues a fifteen year old who has been repeatedly raped by Ginir; she is insane with the desire to see Ginir castrated. 

The finale is especially dark, with Bucher and a few comrades assaulting Ginir’s island base, which of course has a dungeon where the villains can be strung up to be castrated; I mean James Dockery himself has gone castration crazy this time, with Blood Vengeance ending on the image of three men screaming as they are castrated, a group of people gleefully watching the spectacle. Not Bucher, though – he’s already walking away with that damn “bitter-sour taste of defeat” in his mouth. 

Overall, the castration angle really is the only thing unique about Blood Vengeance. Otherwise it is, like the volume before it (and the volume before that, and etc, etc), just a lazy rewrite of the first volume of the series. Here’s hoping that eventually Dockery will write something new, but I’m not holding my breath.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Traveler #10: Hell On Earth

Traveler #10: Hell On Earth, by D.B. Drumm
October, 1986  Dell Books

Ed “D.B. Drumm” Naha takes a page from the Doomsday Warrior series with this tenth installment of Traveler, which turns out to be a literal take on the title: In this one, Traveler actually finds hell on Earth, and ventures down into it like some post-nuke Orpheus to rescue his beloved, Jan. While Hell On Earth starts off with some actual “emotional content” (to quote Bruce Lee), it even gradually takes on the same “R-rated Saturday morning cartoon” vibe as Doomsday Warrior

This is unfortunate, as I was ready to declare Hell On Earth as one of the greatest volumes of Traveler ever (or any post-nuke pulp in general)…for the first twenty or so pages. But as the narrative went on it became clear that Naha was up to his usual tricks, spoofing his own content with lots of bantering and humorous asides – and really the entire setup is straight out of Ryder Stacy, with the titular hell being modelled after a 1980s shopping mall, complete with an escalator that takes one down the nine levels. I kept expecting Ted “Doomsday Warrior” Rockson and team to show up and lend Traveler a hand. 

Of course we know this would be impossible, given that Doomsday Warrior takes place a century after 1989 – one of the few things consistent about that series was the “hundred years after” setting. But friends there’s still a disconnect between Ed Naha and the guys in the office at Dell Books. Because they’ve yet to get their stories straight on when the hell Traveler takes place. The back cover threw me for a loop with its mention that it’s “nearly thirty years after doomsday,” and as we’ll recall the previous volume had back cover copy stating it was twenty-plus years after. 

And when the novel opens, we meet Traveler with a gray beard, living alone outside a pueblo in “the Southwest” and his traveling days apparently long behind him – the indication is clear that it’s a helluva long time since the previous volume. So I was like wow, this really is 30 years after the nuclear war, and Traveler’s basically retired from the, uh, “Traveler” business…but almost immediately after this evocative setup Naha informs us that Traveler is not old, despite looking old, and is only “in his midforties.” And also guess what…it’s only six months since the previous volume, and only three years since the events of #6: Border War! Also we are told, later in the novel, that without question the nuclear war was “two decades ago,” meaning that the novel takes place in 2009. Not 2019, as implied by the back cover. 

This sort of thing irritates me. 

But man, that opening. I’m going to go out on a limb and guess Naha was inspired by Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, which came out in 1985, ie right around when Naha was likely writing Hell On Earth. As with that film, Traveler when we meet him is alone and bitter and it seems much time has passed. And like Mad Max, Traveler here becomes a protector of children…for those first few pages, at least. Frustratingly, Naha has a perfectly fine setup at the start of the novel, but ditches it for the “hell on Earth” scenario…which is ultimately undone by Naha’s penchant for spoofing and mocking his own material. I mean I get it that he feels this sort of shit is beneath him, but still – couldn’t he have kept it to himself and not let his derision spill into the narrative? 

Traveler when we meet him isn’t even “Traveler” anymore (and, we’ll recall, his real name is Kiel Paxton, anyway): he’s now “The Storyteller,” and he’s living here in a shack or something outside of a pueblo that was untouched by the nukes. Naha pulls a double “background story” thing here: first we’re told that “Storyteller” got his name because each morning he tells stories to the mutant children that live in the pueblo. Then shortly after that we have yet another background story, detailing how Traveler got here in the first place: he came across a caravan of youth while he was headed South, six months ago, and sort of lost his mind after witnessing their grim fate – a grim fate Traveler himself unwittingly sent them off to. 

I was more moved than I thought I’d be by the opening of the book, which features “Storyteller” reading a book of nursery rhymes he has recently discovered in the post-nuke rubble; he can’t even get passed “once upon a time” without being hammered with questions by the mutant children, none of whom can grasp a “once upon a time” in which their weren’t mutant children like themselves. Naha pulls a double “rip the reader’s heart out” bang for his buck with the next chapter, in which he flashes back six months to when Traveler met that caravan of youth on their way out of the South; in this nuke-blasted world, they had “chosen to remain kids” instead of becoming the hard-edged survivors required in this new world, and Traveler mindlessly avoided the opportunity to provide them with some much-needed security. 

So the potential was there…Traveler, blaming himself for the death of one group of kids, now a sort of guardian for another group of kids; all kinds of potential for a redemptive storyline here, with roadrats or other post-nuke brigands descending on the pueblo and Traveler fighting to save the kids. But Naha skips this and instead sends Traveler to hell – literally. The surprise return of Link, Traveler’s companion last seen in Border War, sets the narrative wheel in motion. Traveler has assumed Link dead all these years, but here he is, ravaged and near death (for real this time), with a crazy story about having escaped from hell – where he’s been these past three years, along with Jan. 

As we’ll recall, Jan was the American Indian beauty who featured in the installments written by series co-author John Shirley; she and Traveler went off into a post-nuke Happily Ever After in the denoument of Border War, only for Naha to buzzkill that in the opening of #7: The Road Ghost, where we were bluntly informed that Jan had been killed almost immediately after heading off into that Happily Ever After! Naha has seldom referred to Jan since – naturally, given that Jan wasn’t one of the characters he created – but now we are reminded of how Traveler “loved her once.” So, if she’s still out there, off he’ll go, getting the Meat Wagon geared up and heading out. 

Naha has a knack for mystically-attuned guides for Traveler, and Hell On Earth has not one but two of them. First there’s Willy, who acts as the sort of shaman for Traveler/Storyteller, and in one of those typically-inexplicable events of the series was the one who prevented Traveler from killing himself six months ago: after discovering the grim fate of those kids, Traveler attempted to blow his brains out, only for the gun to be knocked out of his hand just as he pulled the trigger – knocked out of his hand by a friggin’ tomahawk! A tomahawk thrown by a punk-haired mystic by the name of Willy, who appeared just at that moment to tell Traveler it “wasn’t his time” to die…and as if that weren’t mystical enough, this dude even called Traveler by his real name, Kiel Paxton. 

But this will be yet more interesting material Naha will cast aside; Willy is soon gone from the text, having givenTraveler some arrows for his crossbow, the blades of which have been treated with Willy’s magical “herb.” Traveler accidentally knicks himself on one of the blades, immediately seeing LSD-style flashes of color; this will be Ed Naha’s way of having his cake and eating it too, with the overhanging possibility that the rest of the novel could be nothing more than the herb-caused hallucinations of Traveler. However Willy’s gone…to almost immediately be replaced by another “mystic guide” type, this one an older gentleman in a robe who insists he is Saint Michael, ie the actual angel himself. 

As we’ll also recall, Naha has no problems with taking Traveler outside of the already-wide boundaries of its internal post-nuke logic: previous installment The Stalking Time featured an alien, complete with spaceship, assisting Traveler. So the actual Saint Michael of the actual Bible appearing here doesn’t seem to out of place. What I found most interesting was reading this from a post-modern perspective; today belief in religion isn’t nearly as commonplace as it was in 1986 (it’s actually no longer the majority religion in England, with the US surely soon to follow), so I wonder how many modern readers would respond to the Biblical and religious overtones Naha sprinkles through Hell On Earth

The problem with this is that these spiritual and mystic guides only serve to lessen Traveler himself. Naha will build up a nice rapport between Saint Michael and Travel, with the “angel” often questioning Traveler’s lack of belief and sort of taunting him that he’s wrong, but at the same time it’s all so frustratingly similar to modern-day drek in which the male protagonist is constantly questioned, criticized, and belittled by a “strong empowered woman” who once upon a time would’ve been nothing more than a damsel in distress. But seriously, I’m not joking – not only does Saint Michael constantly question and criticize Traveler, but he’s always saving him! Indeed, Traveler hardly does anything in Hell On Earth; his bullets will have no affect on the demons and hell-beasts he and Saint Michael go up against. 

Otherwise Saint Michael isn’t that bad of a character; he claims without question he is the angel of myth, and what’s more has two big scars on his back, right where ripped-off wings would’ve gone. But then, he remembers nothing from before the war, so there is the possibility he’s just some guy who had a psychotic break after the collapse of society. Again, Naha wants his cake and to eat it too (and really, who doesn’t??), so throughout the novel he dangles the idea that all this could just be a big trip for Traveler. Regardless, Saint Michael is learned on mythology and the general outline of hell, and for the rest of the narrative will explain this or that to the constantly-befuddled Traveler. 

Again, this is a far cry from the confident and capable ass-kicker of the John Shirley installments. Naha’s Traveler is more prone to self-doubt and, most unforgivably, can’t even save himself, at least this time. Throughout Hell On Earth he totes an HK-91 or Uzi, blasting away, but his bullets don’t do anything, and Saint Michael will show up with a wand or even a bag of holy water to save Traveler’s ass. This is because the stuff Traveler fights this time is straight outta hell, with actual demons and the like walking on the Earth. But even here, Traveler will tell himself they might just be a type of mutant he’s never seen before, or perhaps “hell” was a top-secret genetics research lab before the war, and what’s been unleashed is a man-made hell. 

The caveat here is that these action scenes are more along the lines of a fantasy novel, and nothing like the post-nuke carnage of previous installments. There’s little in the gun-blazing gore one might reasonably expect, with instead Traveler getting his ass handed to him by a pterodactyl-type creature from hell and the like. Even the finale sees Traveler fighting a massive demon. And that’s another thing – Link tells Traveler that “Lucifer” reigns in this hell Link has just escaped, and for no reason Traveler immediately assumes that “Lucifer” is really President Frayling, ie Traveler’s arch-enemy of earlier volumes. The only problem here is that Traveler killed Frayling in Border War…which, again, was written by John Shirley, and for all intents and purposes was a volume that could have easily served as the final isntallment of Traveler

But we aren’t even reminded here that Traveler himself killed Frayling (perhaps Naha forgot, given that Shirley is the one who told us of this incident), and as Hell On Earth proceeds he becomes more and more confident that Lucifer is Frayling. Yes, cue more taunting from Saint Michael, who insists that Lucifer is really Lucifer, ie the devil himself, and that is who they will face in the center of hell. But still, it’s just another indication of how lessened Traveler is, given his muleheaded insistence, apropos of nothing whatsoever, that Frayling is the ruler of this hell, which has sprouted like a radioactive mountain out of the desert. 

The Doomsday Warrior parallels are strong as Traveler and Saint Michael take the escalator down into the shopping mall that is hell, with each level themed along the lines of Dante’s Inferno – the film version of which plays on TV screens on one of the first levels. Another level is given over to red light districts and cathouses (the horror!), and another level has victims lined up to be ground into bloody paste. Also I forgot, there’s a lake at the entrance complete with a Charon at the boat, which gave me bad flashbacks to Clash Of The Titans (truly not a movie that has aged well, but damn I loved it as a seven year old – I even had the toys!  And I recall shooting the Charon figure in the face with a BB gun when I was older for some mysterious reason!). 

You can skip this paragraph due to spoilers, but for those who don’t want to bother with reading the novel, Traveler does indeed find Jan, on the sixth level, but this too is a lessened Jan – she is zombielike, and barely has any dialog. Oh and I forgot, along the way Traveler and Saint Michael also pick up some other young woman, this one named Diana, who claims to be escaping from hell – but like everyone else here, she has no memory of how she even got here. Our heroes even meet a former lawyer turned “samurai for hire” named Patrick Goldsteen – “An Anglo samurai?” thinks a shocked Traveler, but this is just even more indication of Naha’s contempt for his own material. It’s all just spoofed throughout. But anyway, we can see where this is going – Jan, Goldsteen, the other “zombies” Traveler meets…hell even Link in the opening…all of them are dead, and this really is hell, folks, and it’s not President Frayling but the devil himself – a twenty-foot demon in a lake of fire – who runs the place. And once again Saint Michael saves the day while Traveler just stands there. 

Well, end spoilers. Hell On Earth even has a Doomsday Warrior-esque “reset” finale, with Traveler on his way back to the pueblo, wondering if all this has just been a dream courtesy that “herb” Willy spiked his arrows with. Here’s hoping that the next volume will pick up the thread Hell On Earth started off with, instead of detouring into satire and spoofery. 

Oh, and last note on the lameness – Traveler doesn’t even get laid this time. Now if that’s not a shocker I don’t know what is!

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Angel Dust

Angel Dust, by Lindsay Maracotta
January, 1979  Jove Books

Well friends, somehow I’ve managed to discover yet another obscure paperback original rock novel from the ‘70s. This one promised much, too, following the trash template of the era: a roman a clef about the famous personages of the era, opening in 1974 and then flashing back to 1964, detailing the torid year-by-year events of the age of rock. I mean I was in trash heaven when I saw that the back cover was like so many of the trashy bestseller paperbacks of the era, listing off the characters and noting their kinky proclivities.

But man, first of all, let’s take a look at this uncredited photo cover…and try to figure out what the hell is going on. So I get the guy with the guitar and microphone is supposed to be a rock star up on the stage, but what are the women doing below him? Are they in rock rapture, or are they bending their heads back in cultlike supplication? I guess both things are the same, but still. Then if you look at the back cover, you’ll note the cover is a wraparound, with more “bent back in supplication” heads below the rocker – but the perspective just seems off. Are these “bent heads” people standing or lying on the ground? 

This however isn’t even the big question. TAKE A LOOK AT THE ROCK STAR’S FACE. Here’s a closeup – don’t look if you don’t want nightmares! 

I think I speak for us all when I ask, “What the fuck??” I’ve spent altogether too much time trying to puzzle out what exactly this guy’s expression represents…this insane leering sneer. What is this, “Tim Curry as Mick Jagger?” I mean has the cover photographer ever seen a rock star? Or perhaps the goal here was to mimic (or mock) a shock rocker of the day, like Alice Cooper or something. The only problem is, there’s no shock rocker in Angel Dust, so perhaps this bizarre and lame (but for those very same reasons, friggin’ great) cover is why the book is so obscure. 

And speaking of which, the title of the book, “Angel Dust,” has nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of the novel. Perhaps it is a play on the underworld name for PCP, but if so that is not made clear in the narrative itself. While several characters do get hooked on drugs, it’s the same heroin and speed that is common in rock novels. Also, there’s a bit of a morality tale at play, as the drugs are part and parcel of the various downward spirals the large cast of characters go through as the sixties become the seventies. But then, another theme here is that essentially everyone involved in the rock biz is a self-involved narcissist hell-bent on destroying themselves. Well…so what if they are? I mean the last thing I want is a self-respecting and well-behaved rock star… 

No, the main issue with Angel Dust is that Lindsay Maracotta, to borrow a phrase Kirkus used in their review of contemporary rock novel Rising Higher, “hasn’t even bothered to be inventive” with her story. Basically Angel Dust takes all the topical points of ‘60s rock and filters them through a bland prism of characters who are analogs of real rockers. Bob Dylan going electric, Altamont, the Rolling Stones becoming increasingly “evil” and decadent, Yoko Ono and John Lennon breaking up The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix dying young…hell, even the Redlands bust: all of these and more are here in Angel Dust, only the, uh, names have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent. 

Not only that, but like so many of these contemporary rock novels – ie Triple Platinum, Rock & Roll Retreat Blues, or the aforementioned Rising Higheractual rock stuff is scant at best. Indeed, the entire “rock” theme could be replaced by any other theme, and the essence of the novel would be the same. By which I mean, this could just as easily have been a novel about movie stars, or hell even opera singers or something. Angel Dust is more of a tepid soap opera than a “rock novel,” having even less to do with the business than those previously-mentioned books. Maracotta spends hardly any time at all on the creative process of the music, or the recording of the albums; other than a handful of too-brief scenes, we rarely see these famous rockers creating or performing. Rather, the focus is on their mundane soap operatic lives, with the caveat that the novel rarely attains the trashy level one might hope for. 

Not surprisingly, given that the author is a woman, the main characters are women, all of them analogs of real women in the rock scene. The male characters – ie the famous rock stars – mostly exist on the periphery, and come off as callous pricks. There’s even a Paul McCartney analog who is a self-involved cad who demands his women to be subservient. The Hendrix analog is a heroin junkie who constantly needs to be told how great he is and walks over women with scorn; a far cry from what the real Jimi Hendrix appeared to be like. To make things easier, I’ll just follow that back cover format and tell you who the characters of Angel Dust are clearly intended to be: 

Jim Destry: The “smouldering eyes” line on the back cover had me hoping Destry was going to be a Jim Morrison analog, as in the 1970 rock novel Cold Iron. But unfortunately, Destry is in fact…Bob Dylan. (Dylan, by the way, was the inspiration for a surprisingly sleazy paperback original in 1970, The Golden Groove.) 

Meredith Fairchild: This is the closest we get to a main character in Angel Dust. A beautiful American gal from a wealthy family who becomes a rock photographer and ultimately marries a member of the most famous rock group of the day, The Shades. Meredith Fairchild is, of course, Linda Eastman. 

Bryan Revere: The guy Meredith marries, the best-looking member of The Shades who all the girls go crazy for – Paul McCartney. 

Morgan Meeker: Lead singer of “the second best band in England,” the Marked Cards, Morgan is the stand-in for Mick Jagger. 

Christina de la Inglesia: This is the Bianca Perez-Mora Macias to Morgan Meeker’s Mick Jagger. 

Averill Sloane: This is the only original character in the novel, a manipulative mastermind in the mold of Jango Beck, from the contemporary rock novel Passing Through The Flame

Humorously, the back cover doesn’t even mention some of the more important characters in the novel. Here they are, as well as less-important characters who are based on famous rockers: 

Tom Sampling: This is the John Lennon analog, the lead singer of The Shades, who becomes increasingly gaunt and politically aware as the sixties progress. 

Monica Choy: The Yoko Ono to Tom Sampling’s John Lennon…only she’s Chinese! Otherwise this is Yoko in all but name, or at least the Yoko of the tabloids of the day – a self-involved social-climber with delusions of her own importance, who latches onto famous men. 

Lazarus “Laz” Allen: The Hendrix analog, but a far cry from the real thing; he barely appears in the novel. 

Bill McHale: Aka Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone; upstart publisher of rock magazine Tumbling Dice, though accused by his subordinates of being domineering and not possessing any writing talent of his own; he started the mag to be around rock royalty. 

Sabina: Foul-mouthed and fat-bottomed lead singer of The Psychedelic Invention, “the high priests of acid rock.” Aka Janis Joplin, who was the basis for a much superior rock novel also published in 1979, The Rose

Josie James: One of the more curious misses on the back cover, as Josie is a fairly important character, a Joni Mitchell-style folk singer who must sell her soul to become famous – and, this being a trash novel, can only find true happiness in the sack with other women. Her parts reminded me very much of another contemporary rock novel, The Scene

Sonny Lanahan: A hot-tempered businessman who fights Averill Sloane for control of various groups – no doubt supposed to be Allan Klein. 

So there are a lot of characters afoot, but Maracotta does a fairly good job juggling them. The only problem is Angel Dust is constructed a little strangely. It runs to 395 pages of small print, but Tom Sampling and Bryan Revere – ie the John and Paul analogs – aren’t introduced until page 295…and practically the rest of the novel revolves around them! What makes it worse is that the majority of this is just John-Paul rivalry stuff (the two aren’t introduced until 1969, long after their group, The Shades, has been a tight unit), with slightly more soapy recreations of the real-life fights between the two. Also, Angel Dust opens in 1974, giving the impression that all the “rock world” stuff was long in the past…but as the novel progresses, Maracotta takes us from 1964 to 1970, before finally returning to that opening 1974 sequence…meaning that the opening is really just four years later! 

The “1974” opening has Jim Destry about to make his long-awaited return concert in Madison Square Garden, and Meredith Fairchild has come here to relive “the old times” or whatever. We learn here she’s married to a “Bryan,” a guy who has a rivalry with a “Tom,” but it won’t be for like 290 pages until we even find out who these guys are. Meredith also runs into old friend Josie James, there to open for Destry and now an angry, hard-edged bitchy type, a far cry from the willowy and idealistic girl Meredith once knew… 

From there we flash back to 1964, and Maracotta actually spends most of the narrative here in the early days of the age of rock. But despite her Cliff’s Notes take on rock, Maracotta still pulls some anachronistic blunders…most particularly with Tumbling Dice magazine. A newspaper-style underground rag devoted to rock and the youth movement and what not, running out of San Francisco…four years before Rolling Stone. And hell, eight years before the Rolling Stones would even release the song “Tumbling Dice!” I mean this Bill McHale guy might’ve been a hack, but he sure did have a knack for seeing the future. 

One unique thing Maracotta brings to the tale is that this group of characters is essentially the main movers of rock; hardly any other musicians are mentioned, though in true roman a clef style we will have super-brief references to real groups, like the Beatles or the Stones or Dylan…or at one point even Rolling Stone is mentioned as a competitor magazine. But clearly this is an alternate reality where those groups are not nearly as famous as The Shades, Jim Destry, or the Marked Cards. Otherwise what Maracotta adds is they all have shared history, beginning in 1964: Jim Destry is in love with Josie James, two folkies in New York, and Chinese-American artist Monica Choy makes her way through basically all of the guys here, until finally scoring her biggest coup in Tom Sampling. But man, if you’ve ever wanted to read some Yoko Ono-Bob Dylan slash fiction, you’ll find it here in Angel Dust

Well, sort of. It’s my sad duty to report that the novel is incredibly timid in the sleaze and trash fronts. Most all of the sex occurs off-page and what we do get is tepid stuff along the lines of, “His strokes were quick and hard.” I mean, is this dude screwing or swimming? Also, what with Lindsay Maracotta being a woman and all, there’s zero in the way of the customary female exploitation one might demand from their trashy paperback cash-in fiction. But that’s another curious thing. A not-so-subtle theme at play here is that none of these studly rock gods can satisfy their women in bed! Not only that, but they’re all closet homosexuals; multiple times Bryan is accused of being in love with Tom, and vice versa. On the female front, all the women are latent lesbians; Meredith’s first time is with Morgan Meeker, the Jagger analog, and she finds herself unsatisfied afterward. Despite which, we get the unforgettable line, “Meredith felt a sharp pain as [Morgan] thrust deeper in her body, which increased as the full length of his cock penetrated her.” The Marked Cards, baby! Meredith with also be unsatisfied with Bryan Revere…her only true orgasm in the novel occurs in a lesbian fling in 1969 with Josie James. Hell, even Laz Allen can’t keep her happy – though as mentioned the Laz here is a cad. Jimi clearly made his way through a ton of women, but per the bios of him I’ve read he didn’t go out of his way to brag and boast about it, or flaunt it in the faces of other women. 

The unwieldy construction runs through the book; Meredith is mostly the main character, using her father’s connections to get a gig as a photographer for Tumbling Dice. She’s there for when Jim Destry is still unknown, getting some of his first pictures, and also some of the Marked Cards’s first show in the US. From there we hopscotch through the sixties, with Morgan and the Marked Cards becoming increasingly brutish and decadent, the drugs becoming increasingly commonplace, and an eventual spreading of malaise and boredom through the rock elite. Curiously, Woodstock is the one real-life incident Maracotta doesn’t rip off, though we do have a pseudo-Altamont in 1969…complete with Jim Destry appearing on stage with the Marked Cards. This, confusingly, will be the first of Destry’s two “return concerts,” this one being after a motorcycle crash he got into a few years before (humorously, right after being heckled onstage for coming out with an electric guitar, Maracotta getting double-bang for her real-life-ripoff buck); Destry’s second “return concert” is the opening one in 1974. 

I’m also sad to report that Lindsay Maracotta is another of those rock novelists who makes the curious decision to hardly ever describe the music. This is such a recurring failing of these novels that it almost makes me wonder if there was an unspoken agreement among all rock novelists in the ‘70s. Indeed, the characters here are rarely if ever shown on stage or in the studio; if they are, Maracotta will hurry through the proceedings and then get back to lots of soap opera-esque dialog. One gets the impression from Angel Dust that being “a famous rock star” entails nothing more than looking the part and doing the right drug; there’s no feeling that any of these characters are musicians capable of selling albums – other, that is, than the occasional bit of expositional dialog where characters will tell Meredith about recording or performing. 

Also, like Passing Through The Flame, midway through the novel becomes focused on the mercenary practices of the businessmen who plundered the rock world, “soiling” the art and whatnot…but again, none of these characters seem very artistic, not even Monica Choy, who is an artist. Otherwise the focus is on the increasing torpor and decadence of the rock world, with Morgan Meeker treating Meredith like shit and Meredith gradually becoming a “groupie” who sleeps her way through sundry rockers (all off page), before ending up with Bryan Revere in 1969. Her fling with Laz Allen is barely mentioned, other than a random bit where Laz screws Meredith in a New York City porno theater – one of the few scenes in the novel that does get fairly explicit. As for Morgan, his descent into sexual sadism is hard to understand, given that he starts the novel as a relatively cheery and thoughtful individual, but my assumption is Maracotta’s intent is that the mysterious death of a friend of his, midway through the novel, pushes him into the path – him and Christina, who also gets off on being beaten around during sex, thus becomes a perfect match for Morgan. Also special mention must be made of the arbitrary bit where Morgan breaks the neck of a pigeon before that Altamont analog concert. 

It's funny though how when the John and Paul stand-ins Tom and Bryan make their belated appearance, it’s like Angel Dust has been about nothing but them since the beginning. What I mean to say is, Destry, Morgan, Josie – all of these characters who were important for the past 290 pages are mostly brushed aside, and the stars of the show are now Bryan and Tom as they bicker and banter. It’s almost embarrassing how Maracotta just lifts real-life incidents without bothering to change them up at all, complete even with Monica bringing a mattress into the studio during the recording of a Shades album so she can be with Tom all the time – and also pushing him into more of a radical political direction. 

Monica is also of course duplicitous and vindictive; above I said that Bill McHale could see the future with Tumbling Dice. The same could be said of Lindsay Maracotta herself. In the 1969 section, Monica is getting her hooks in Tom, and has made herself a rival of Meredith, just as Tom is a rival of Bryan. To get revenge on Bryan and Meredith for the latest bantering session, Monica calls in an anonymous tip to the cops that they’ll find a lot of marijuana at a certain residence – the same residence Bryan and Meredith happen to be renting here in England. In the ensuing bust Bryan is arrested and spends time in jail. Angel Dust was published in January 1979…and exactly one year later Yoko Ono, according to Albert Goldman and Frederic Seaman, called in a tip to some friends in Japan to bust Paul and Linda as they arrived in Tokyo, all because the two threatened to ruin John and Yoko’s “hotel karma” by staying at their favorite Tokyo hotel. Now, who knows if this is what really happened; what’s incredible is that Lindsay Maracotta has here predicted something that mirrors what would become a real-life incident. I mean, imagine if John and Yoko got the “let’s get Paul busted” idea from this very novel! 

The narrative gets more interesting, and more sordid, as the sixties progress. The Redlands bust analog is one of the first instances of this sordid nature, with Maracotta again mixing and matching her Rock Babylon material; whereas it was just the Stones in the Redlands caper, here it’s the Stones analogs the Marked Cards, along with Josie James (the Joni Mitchell analog) and Sabina (the Janis Joplin analog). But we even get the infamous “candy bar” bit, but here it’s an acid-soaring Josie who has a candy bar inserted into her nether regions and the Marked Cards take turns taking bites from it – humorous stuff here with one of the Cards being a closeted gay and disgusted by the whole thing, but going along with it. Curiously, a character Maracotta doesn’t even return to in the novel; only her penchant for perspective-hopping even lets us know who this guy is. 

The Altamont analog isn’t a match for its real-world counterpart, though Maracotta tries to amp it up by having one of the characters shot while on stage…sort of a prefigure of The Armageddon Rag. From there we are thrust back into the opening 1974 section, where we learn that Morgan is truly into his decadent trip, having a three-way with wife Christina and a “glitter rock” star clearly modelled on David Bowie. But curiously even this framework section doesn’t work, because Angel Dust opens and closes on a section titled “1974,” yet a few pages toward the end we’re told it’s 1975! Oh and also, this novel features an insane finale that’s reminiscent of Once Is Not Enough in how it seems to come from a different novel. Since Angel Dust is so obscure and scarce, I’ll describe it, but skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know. Basically, Meredith accuses Bryan of wanting to fuck Tom and Bryan storms off in a rage. Meredith, losing her mind, takes a ton of drugs and gives her toddler daughter a sleeping pill (Maracotta intentionally leaves the child’s fate vague). Then Meredith, totally insane now, gets in her car and roars off into the night on what is clearly a death trip – truly a WTF? type of bitch-slap finale. 

But man, if only the entire novel matched the sheer bitch-slappery of that finale. Instead, Angel Dust is strangely dull and lifeless, despite being a sort of “greatest hits” of various ‘60s rock-world hijinks. The characters don’t seem real and are pale reflections of their real-world inspirations. And there is zero feeling for the time and the place; essentially Angel Dust is a “rock novel” for people who are only vaguely aware of rock music. As I said above, the characters here could just as easily have been actors or models or whatever, and the story wouldn’t have been much changed – the focus is on soap opera dynamics between the various characters, nothing more. Still, I was super happy to discover the book – I’m always excited when I discover a new rock novel paperback original – so I can’t complain too much.

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Lone Wolf #6: Chicago Slaughter

The Lone Wolf #6: Chicago Slaughter, by Mike Barry
May, 1974  Berkley Medallion

The Lone Wolf series continues to impress, if for no other reason than the strange vibe Barry “Mike Barry” Malzberg brings to the tale. Not to mention the clear fact that he’s winging his way through the narrative. In a way this brings the reader into the creative process, as it’s almost as if you and Malzberg are fguring out where the story is going at the same time. 

As I was reading Chicago Slaughter it occurred to me why I rate The Lone Wolf so highly: I have no idea what’s going to happen next. With one of Don Pendleton’s Executioner novels, for example, you pretty much know exactly what’s going to happen; each installment follows the same overall pattern, and only in the particulars might there be any surprises. Or more pointedly, in one of James Dockery’s The Butcher novels, there’s no surprise whatsoever, as each volume is essentially a rewrite of the one that came before: if you’ve read one Dockery Butcher, you’ve read them all. 

But man, this does not hold true for Barry Malzberg’s The Lone Wolf. There is no telling where the plot will go or what the characters will do. While you’d expect this would bring more “realism” to the tale, it only serves to make the series even more surreal, at least when compared to other men’s adventure novels. Malzberg, clearly unaware of any “rules” for this genre, will do what he pleases – for example, if some new tough professional assassin is introduced to the tale, don’t make the assumption that this guy will eventually tangle with “hero” Burt Wulff, as would happen if such a character were to be introduced in an Executioner novel. Instead, some other random element or character might interfere with this typical format, meaning there might not even be a confrontation with Wulff at all. In a way of course it’s anticlimatic, but at the same time it’s cool because it makes the series so unpredictable. 

For once there’s no direct pickup from the previous volume, but this is still a continuity-heavy series. Last we saw Wulff he was headed out of Cuba; when we meet up with him in Chicago Slaughter he’s just come into New York, and it’s a few days or so after the climax of the previous book. His goal is to shove the suitcase of heroin he’s been toting around “in the face” of Williams, Wulff’s former partner on the NYPD. Malzberg has introduced this conceit that Williams, to Wulff, represents “the System,” and Wulff’s goal is to show Williams how corrupt and unworkable the system is. But this theme really only exists in Wulff’s own deranged mind, as we learn from the frequent sequences from Williams’s perspective that Williams too questions the system, and spends the entirety of Chicago Slaughter recuperating in the hospital from a stabbing he endured (courtesy a black drug dealer) in the opening pages of the book. 

Wulff too does some serious pondering throughout Chicago Slaughter. A recurring sentiment in the series has been Wulff’s “I’m aleady dead” line, but in this one he starts to wonder whether he really is ready to die. He also becomes “sick” of his one-man war on the syndicate, due to the “ugliness” of the death he leaves in his wake everywhere he goes. Once again Malzberg truly brings a morbid tonality to the series, with that same ghoulish focus on recently-dead victims of Wulff:

The manner of that way in which a man gave up life was some comment on how he had held onto it during his time, and Versallo had wanted very much to live.  Now, lying still in the posture of death the mouth had fallen open, rigidified into a pained bark of dismay and horror as if Versallo had caught some glimpse of the actual form of death during his passage and had screamed out against it, was maintaining that scream evey now.  A mystery, Wulff though, a mystery -- life, death, the intertwining of the two, none of it ever to be understood; and yet men attempted to control death in the way that they did, inflicting it, holding it off because only that gave them a feeling of immortality.

Or an earlier part, where Wulff shoots a guy and we are informed that “He died as if he had been practicing it alone in bed a long time.” It probably says more about me than Malzberg when I admit that stuff like this has me laughing out loud as I read it. Really this series is either a darkly comic masterpiece or just a depraved tale for depraved minds. Speaking of which Wulff – and I guess Malzberg – crosses a line this time that isn’t too commonly crossed in the world of men’s adventure: Wulff kills a few members of law enforcement. Not dirty ones, either (or at least if they are, we aren’t told so); just guys who are attempting to bring him in. Generally these lone wolf heroes refrain from killing cops, but Wulff flat-out murders these guys, gunning them down in cold blood. Later on he realizes he could’ve let them live, but essentially shrugs it off. Still, these murders gradually make Wulff question himself and his vendetta, but more importantly these murders have the reader questioning what kind of a hero Burt Wulff really is. (Spoiler alert: He isn’t a hero at all, but that’s been clear since the start of the series.) 

The metaphysical vibe I love so much about The Lone Wolf is still here; another conceit is that bigwigs in the criminal underworld will throw themselves at Wulff, arrogantly assuming they’ll be able to break him…but of course they end up themselves broken. This happens a few tines in Chicago Slaughter, the first with a Mafia executive who tries and fails to defeat Wulff’s will, and then toward the end with an even higher-level executive who think he has defeated Wulff’s will – but only manages to have him escorted out of the country. This conceit adds to the dreamlike quality of the series; the impression is almost that Wulff is a supernatural presence. 

Mel Crair’s typically-great cover is misleading, as once again there’s no female character in this volume…for Wulff, at least. The sleaze quotient is filled by a random busty secretary in the employ of one of the Syndicate executives Wulff goes up against. The sex scene between these two is pretty bonkers:

He locked the door and checking his watch decided that he could give her ten minutes.  Ten minutes was more than enough for what he needed; he banged the shit out of her, working her up and down, and demanded that she finish him off with her mouth.  She balked, one timid peep of resistance, but he gave her the look and repeated the demand and she went at it without another word.  Drained him dry.  Drained him fucking dry.  He came in her mouth gasping, groaning, beating on the slick surfaces of the couch like a butterfly, forgetting for the moment that he was fifty-three years old, that he was hooked up to his neck, that most of the time he had trouble coming, that he had kicked horse five years ago and there had truly never been a period of more than an hour since then when he had not been in agony for it...forgot all of this beating and screaming against the couch, coming into her mouth and she held it there when he had finished, her cheeks bloated until at a look from him she swallowed all of it with a gasp.  Thought she she would be able to ditch his seed in some toilet but no one was going to get away with that.  

The construction of the plot is also “spur of the moment;” as mentioned Wulff when we meet him is in New York, even though “Chicago” is in the book’s title. And in fact the first chapter implies that the book will be set in New York, featuring an evocative opening of Williams, undercover in Harlem, being stabbed. But when Wulff hears of a Federal prosecutor who is taking on the drug world in Chicago, he decides to just go there and take this guy the valise with a million dollars worth of “shit.” Though just as often it’s referred to as “two million dollars worth of shit.” Again, the series is pretty loosy-goosy with facts and elements of realism; despite getting hold of a revolver late in the book, Wulff still hunts for “clips” for it. Oh and the action scenes, despite being relatively smallscale – ie, Wulff just shooting a couple people – are still apocalyptic. In this one Wulff manages to burn down a building, unaware that he’s even done so until after the fact; even he is awed by his supernatural qualities. 

But the Federal prosecutor thing isn’t much dwelt upon; instead, Wulff gets caught (another recurring conceit of the series) and taken into the presence of one of those Mafia bigwigs. After this Wulff is caught again, but this part is super random, seeing as it does Wulff getting into some road rage on the parkway with another motorist, one who runs Wulff off the road(!). After this Wulff turns himself over to the Chicago cops – lots of stuff here about how brutal and simple-minded Chicago cops are – and later on he’s taken into the presence of yet another Mafia bigwig. Indeed, Malzberg has spun so many wheels that by novel’s end he just barely remembers the entire “Federal prosecutor” subplot, and quickly brushes it off with some dialog. 

As for that second Mafia bigwig, his name is Calabrese and Wulff senses that he’s the most senior underworld boss Wulff has yet encountered. Such a boss that Calabrese, an old man, essentially tells Wulff that he, Wulff, is really nothing more than something “interesting to think about,” and decides to let him live…for reasons that have more to do with how Wulff brings excitement to an old man’s life. Or something. At any rate Chicago Slaughter ends with Wulff about to be escorted by Calabrese’s men to someplace outside the United States, where I suppose Calabrese intends Wulff to stew for a while until the old man calls for him – I’m really not sure, but the entire thing, not to mention Wulff’s blasé reaction to it all, just makes the entire scenario seem all the more surreal. 

Like I’ve said many times before, it’s totally unlike typical genre entries like The Executioner or The Penetrator, but The Lone Wolf really is one of my favorite series, and I’m having a great time reading it.

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

The Family

The Family, by Ed Sanders
No month stated, 1971  E.P. Dutton

Years ago I went on a short-lived Charles Manson kick and picked up this first edition of The Family, courtesy author-poet Ed Sanders, founding member of the group The Fugs and also the author of the surreal Shards Of God, which I keep meaning to re-read some day. Given how much I enjoyed that novel I decided I’d read Sanders’ nonfiction study of the Manson cult, and specifically this first edition, as it contains material that was expurgated in all subsequent editions. 

At 400+ pages, The Family is certainly comprehensive, perhaps too much so, as it almost pedantically details the day-by-day events of the Manson “family” (Sanders never capitalizes the term, by the way, and nor will I), to the extent that the reader gets exhausted. And Manson and cohorts aren’t the most enjoyable people to spend over 400 pages with. Sanders’ unusual prose style is a huge help in making the mundane stuff entertaining; he routinely doles out memorable, oddball phrases, and he writes the book in a sort of New Journalism style that isn’t too far off from what Tom Wolfe was doing at the time. With the caveat that Sanders, unlike Wolfe, is deadly serious throughout, and indeed his hatred for Manson and his ilk is palpable. 

Consider my surprise, then, when I accessed my Rolling Stone Cover To Cover CD-Rom and pulled up the review of Sanders’s book, from the November 25, 1971 issue. Reviewer Ed McClanahan spends three columns of small print bashing the book, mostly due to Ed Sanders’s “aggressively moralizing” tone. For some reason the Rolling Stone reviewer is surprised that Sanders comes out against sacrifice, muder, and blood-drinking; in particular McClanahan is shocked that Sanders ends the book with the plea that California must be purged of freaks like Manson. Also, McClanahan disparages the “bad writing” of The Family, noting Sanders’s frequent subpar phrases and outright mistakes, though he theorizes that such things might be “intentional…[as if] Sanders had cunningly planted them throughout the book as a kind of peculiar comic relief.” (Somehow though McClanahan, when giving examples of Sanders’s “bad writing,” fails to note the most egregious example – both of bad writing and an indication that it was intentional for comedic effect – when at one point Sanders actually writes the phrase “allegedly alleged.” You don’t write a phrase like that accidentally.) 

Indeed, McClanahan caps off his Rolling Stone review with “The Family…is the very best bad book I’ve ever read,” as if this were the book equivalent of cinema turkeys like The Valley Of The Dolls…which, of course, featured Manson victim Sharon Tate. Personally I enjoyed Sanders’s writing here; he has a definite gift for those aforementioned oddball phrases and description, though it must be acknowledged that sometimes his narrative becomes rather flat in its wearying documentation of every single day’s events. He also often undercuts his own tension with asides that quickly become grating, like narratorial versions of eye-rolling (ie, mocking certain Manson banalities with the phrase “ooo-eee-ooo”). I also got annoyed with Sanders’ apparent obsession with the word “oozing,” which is used so frequently that one could make a drinking game out of it. 

Now, as to this first edition from E.P. Dutton. It features an entire chapter removed from all ensuing editions, focusing as it does on ‘60s subcult The Process. In addition to this chapter, it appears that all references to The Process throughout the book have been removed from later editions of The Family. This must make for a bumpy read, as Sanders refers to The Process a helluva lot in this first edition of the book, and he makes a grand case that Charles Manson was heavily influenced by them. (Later editions of the book lacked all this material because The Process successfully sued E.P. Dutton and Ed Sanders, but it appears the UK editions remained unscathed.) Several years ago I read Maury Terry’s phenomenal ‘80s True Crime classic The Ultimate Evil, which is where I learned of Ed Sanders’ book in the first place; Terry refers often to Sanders’ Process connection, building up an argument that Manson was actually part of a sort of Satanic crime syndicate. 

Ed Sanders doesn’t go to such theories in The Family; for the most part he sticks to the narrative prosecuting attorney Vincent Bugliosi used to get Manson and his assassins on Death Row – and speaking of which, I so enjoyed The Family that immediately after finishing it I ordered myself a copy of Bugliosi’s bestseller Helter Skelter. The title of Bugliosi’s book refers to Manson’s supposed doctrine: that a race war would take over America and Manson and his followers would hide out in a magical city beneath Death Valley (one with friggin’ chocolate fountains), to eventually come out and be accepted as the leaders of the victorious blacks – who, per Manson’s warped ideology, would be unable to govern themselves. 

The Process was just one of the “sleazo inputs” Sanders says Manson was inspired by; there was also a Satanic cult that drank dog blood that was running around in Southern California at the time, and also Manson was really into the biker cults of the day, particularly the Straight Satans. Not to mention the Esalen Institute. And of course there was Manson’s years and years in prison, where he learned about Scientology, another belief system that Manson pillaged from to make his own. Sanders relegates the book to the years 1955 through 1969, opening with Manson getting married and having a child but regularly – almost addictively – getting in trouble with the law and going to jail, until ultimately he spends the majority of the early to mid ‘60s in Federal prison…which he reportedly begged to stay in, because he didn’t understand straight society. 

What makes this curious is the multiple times Manson will manage to escape custody once he’s out; Sanders, clearly in disbelief himself, documents time and again how Manson escapes prison, even after commiting rape, murder, theft, possession, and a host of other infractions. Regardless, Charles Manson certainly picked up on the vibe of the times, going around like a sleazier version of Ken Kesey and putting together his own not-so-Merry Pranksters. Sanders documents all of this; there are a host of characters in The Family, and it becomes difficult at times for the reader to remember who is who, particularly given that so many of the family members have several names. Sanders keeps it all straight, yet at the same time one can’t help but wonder how accurate a lot of this is – even down to random mistakes that cast doubt on the entirety. By this I mean Sanders’s statemement, midway through the book, that Manson shoots a drug dealer in the stomach on July 1…and then notes later that the guy gets out of the hospital on June 14. And this is all the same year, 1969. (A mistake McClanahan also notes in his review.) 

Otherwise The Family was very informative, as I must admit I only knew the general story of Manson and his followers. Having read the book I can’t say my perceptions were greatly changed; it just added more detail to the chaos and suffering they caused. As mentioned I got exhausted at times; the family was nothing if not peripatetic, constantly traveling around California until ultimately holing up at the infamous Spahn Ranch and later in Death Valley. It must’ve been a serious amount of work to keep track of all this, not to mention trying to make sense of what happened. But then, the argument is made, even today, that Sanders’ narrative – which appears to have had its genesis with Vincent Bugliosi – might not be the whole story. In other words, the tale of the hippie killer cult might be more a product of the prosecuting attorney than what really happened. 

What’s curious is that I figured there would be no mysteries left…but I frequently found myself going down rabbit holes during my reading of The Family, only to find that, 50+ years later, there are still no answers to many of the questions posed by Sanders. For example, throughout the later half Sanders recounts random murders that occurred in California when family members were in the vicinity, implicating of course that this could be their work. I looked up the unfortunate victims, only to find that the cases were still cold. Sanders also wonders how in the hell William Garretson, the young long-haired caretaker on Sharon Tate’s property, could have “slept through” the murders that were occuring mere yards away from his cottage, complete with screams in the night that would have echoed through the valley. It seems that there never was a sufficient answer for this (Garretson himself died in 2016, and in the late ‘80s he gave one interview where he said he did see two women chasing each other that night), and Sanders speculates that Garretson might have been “hypnotized” by the family. My guess is that the dude was probably high on acid or whatever (hey, it was L.A. in 1969) and didn’t want to tell the cops that when they interrogated him. 

Another rabbit hole is the missing videotape Sanders almost obsessively refers to in the book. In another of those random flukes that seemed to bless the early family, Manson et al were able to get hold of an NBC camera and proceeded to make videotapes of themselves. According to Sanders, some of these depicted the drugged-out family doing dances that recounted the Tate murders, or another tape showing them drinking blood, or another one depicting a Satanic orgy, and on and on – but, according to Sanders, the tapes have disappeared. Doesn’t look like they’ve been found yet, that is if they ever existed. Some years ago I recall watching a program on the Fox network titled Manson: The Lost Tapes, or something like that, but as I recall the “newly-discovered footage” was innocuous stuff like the family members at the Spahn Ranch talking about how great Charlie was. Another mythical film Sanders notes is the one the LAPD supposedly found in the Tate residence, depicting big-name Hollywood elite indulging in an orgy and other kinky affairs; none of this has ever come to light, over 50 years later. 

The biggest question of course is why the Tate residence? Or, more importantly, why the LaBianca residence? Another mystery still unsolved all these years later. Manson never elaborated, plus years later he claimed the killings weren’t even his idea, they were Tex Watson’s (who indeed did the majority of the killing for the family). Thus we are left with all these weird coincidences that are unexplained. Like speaking of Tex Watson, Sanders notes when Watson is introduced to the text that Watson had a successful wig shop in Laurel Canyon…and, many pages later, we will see that one of Watson’s victims is Jay Sebring, a famous hairstylist who worked in Laurel Canyon at the same time that Watson had his wig shop. How could these two not have known of each other? And yet it would appear they didn’t, as one of the main stories recounted by all the family members in the Tate home that night was that Sebring asked Watson who he was, leading to the infamous “I’m the devil” response from Watson. 

Ed Sanders doesn’t even speculate on this; as McClanahan notes in his Rolling Stone review, The Family is filled with “red herrings” and “unfinished subplots” that Sanders never explains. One also suspects that Sanders basically put into the book everything he was fed about Manson, which ultimately does make Manson seem more myth than man, which certainly wasn’t Sanders’ intention. What else are we to make of the random story recounted by some nameless family member that once upon a time Charlie was getting a b.j. from a nervous female new to the family, who accidentally bit Manson’s dick “in twain,” yet with the power of his own will Charlie was able to make himself whole again? 

Or, in another howler that McClanahan also notes, what are we to make of the story that, months after the Tate-LaBianca murders, the cops infiltrated Manson’s desert hideout, wanting to bring him in on charges of dune buggy theft (it took months for the killings to be pinned on the family), and Charlie motioned into the darkened hills and told the cops he had family members out there with guns trained on them…and the cops ran away? I mean, Manson’s followers were acid-fried teens who thought Charlie was Jesus Christ, and otherwise Manson’s compatriots were bikers and other social outcasts, so perhaps all this is testament to the type of informant Ed Sanders came across: they were willing to believe anything. 

Speaking of which, Sanders provides an entertaining intro where he notes the type of sicko freaks he encountered while reseaching The Family, even stating how he went undercover at one point. All of this would have made for fine material, but Sanders doesn’t go much into it, for the most part keeping himself out of the narrative. But what really bummed me was that Sanders also noted the “thousands” of photos he took in the course of his investigation…yet there is not a single photo reproduced in The Family. Indeed, one gets the impression it was rushed straight from the galleys to the printing press, so as to be the first “major” book on Charles Manson. This would also explain the occasional gaffe in Sanders’ reporting…and also why the trial material is completely skipped over, Sanders ending his book with Manson finally being arrested. 

The murders are documented clinically, but obviously Sanders has relied on those trials for this material, as all of what happened at the Tate and LaBianca homes was only known to the killers. For some reason I was under the impression that the victims at the Tate home were mutilated, but so far as Sanders has it, they were just killed – I realize of course I’m getting into a “Hamas didn’t behead any babies, they just murdered them!” argument, but still. Sanders does allude to this when he notes that someone in the coroner’s office gave out misleading info that made the murders sound even more horrific. More interestingly is Sanders’s argument that Manson and someone else (Sanders speculates that it might’ve been family member Clem) came back to the Tate home after the killings and moved the bodies around, as none of them were found in the positions the murderers left them in. It’s my understanding Manson admitted to this in a book published decades later, but still never divulged who went with him to the murder house. 

I’ve kind of jumped around in the review, but my assumption is practically everyone is familiar with this subject. It’s curious though that, in our modern age of mass shooters and other atrocities, the Manson family still holds such interest. In that regard I’d say the old saw that the Manson families tarnished the Woodstock era might be accurate. Anyway, Sanders spends the first quarter of The Family on Manson’s early days in various jails and then getting out in the late ‘60s and basically collecting runaway, easily-molded girls and driving around Southern California in a school bus that was painted black. Around late 1968 the rot sets in; another mystery is what exactly pushed the Manson family into death and killing in 1969. This could be another indication of later editions of The Family being a bumpy read, what with all those Process mentions removed; here in the first edition, Sanders notes the “coincidence” that the Process moved into death and swastikas right before Manson did. 

The last quarter-plus is devoted to the killings, with the most “famous” of the lot, the Tate murders, getting the most spotlight. Again, the question is how this particular residence was chosen, but of course Sanders notes the connection with producer Terry Melcher, whom Manson had been chasing for months for a movie and album deal. A curious thing here is Sanders keeps using the phrase “genuine Roebucks” when describing the black jeans the killers wear on the killing missions…the same garb worn the following night, on the LaBianca murders. “Genuine Roebucks,” over and over. I mean were those jeans really that special? I mean they just bought them at Sears, right?? “Look out, everyone, I’ve got on my genuine Penneys tonight!” (I used to work at the J.C. Penney corporate office, btw – only the old-timers still called the place “Penneys.”) 

Sanders does his best to make sense out of insanity. Like for example the LaBianca kill. It starts with Charlie wanting to show his “kids” how it’s done, riding around in a car with them and then “randomly” picking out a house…which, again “coincidentally,” happens to be across from a house familiar to the family. Then he “creepy-crawls” into the house, gets the spring on the middle-aged man and woman inside, ties them up, and sends in his killers to off them. This, Sanders and Bugliosi claim, was Manson’s way to start up “helter skelter,” his race war idea that was gleaned from one of the best Beatles songs – though, as Sanders notes, it’s regrettable that Manson was unaware that a “helter skelter” was an amusement park ride in England. But if a race war, why Manson’s direction for the girls to put something “witchy” on the walls after the murders? 

Maury Terry picked up this ball in The Ultimate Evil, and now it’s pretty much a given that I’ll re-read that book. In fact I think Sanders might’ve even been one of Terry’s sources; it was from Terry’s book that I learned the first edition of The Family had the cut Process material. Terry in particular took note of a claim made by Dennis Hopper, which first appeared here in Ed Sanders’s book, that the occupents of Ciello Drive (ie the Sharon Tate residence) were into kinky freak scenes and had filmed the ritual whipping of someone who had “burned” them in a drug deal. Sanders does focus a little on the “drug burn” angle, but if anything his behind-the-scenes intimation is that Manson was perhaps working for some other cult in the killings. Maury Terry sort of extrapolates on that, picking up on the Process connection and brining in a sort of Satanic Mafia angle. 

One thing I can say though is that this is one of those books where I wished I could magically transport myself into the text so I could kick hippie ass. Surely this was some of the impetus behind Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (the novelization of which I’ll probably now get around to reading). I mean Pitt and DiCaprio – the actors themselves, not just the characters they played – could’ve probably taken out Manson and his followers without breaking a sweat. I mean Manson was like a hundred pounds soaking wet, as the saying goes – and also surely I can’t be the only one who sees the resemblance between him and The Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin? Yet for some reason Manson was able to scare people. Well, he did have a gun on the LaBiancas, and I read elsewhere that Tex Watson also creepy-crawled into the house with him, something I don’t think Sanders notes here. 

Speaking of creepy-crawling, I wonder also if Manson, or maybe even this book, was an influence on Joseph DiAngelo, the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker/Golden State Killer. “Creepy-crawling” was Manson’s term for breaking into homes at night and slipping around inside while the owners were asleep, stealing minor things or even messing with the owners in some psychological way. DiAngelo started his crime career around this time, also in Southern California, as the Visalia Cat Burglar, and given the time and place I wonder if he wasn’t somehow inspired by reading this book. Who knows – another mystery. If The Family makes anything clear it’s that a ton of weird shit was going on in Southern California in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. 

Overall I was certainly entertained by The Family, even though it probably wasn’t the best book to be reading during the Christmas season. It also had me hitting Google for searches that likely put me on various FBI watch lists. But I must mention that at times I found myself a little bored with the sometimes flat and clinical reportage; again, the impression I got was that the book was rushed to meet a deadline. I did learn a lot from it, though; I had no idea that it wasn’t for a few months that the August 1969 murders were pinned on the Manson family. Nor did I know about the dune buggy army thing Manson had in mind, a “Rommeloid” vision of him and his family ripping through Death Valley and pillaging towns. Sanders’ writing, when not going for the clinical angle, is inventive and really gives a feeling for the era. But if anything I found The Family to be like an appetizer for Bugliosi’s Helter Skelter, which was published a few years later and would go on to become the bestselling True Crime book ever. 

Speaking of which, I’ve added a “True Crime” tag here on the blog, so will be reviewing Helter Skelter here once I’ve read it, along with other true crime paperbacks (not just Manson-related) I’ve picked up over the years. But sticking to the Manson topic, if interested you can also check out my review from a few years back for the obscure Manson cash-in novel The Cult Of Killers

Oh and speaking of the Xmas break, apologies for the two-week delay in posts. I might have to go to a single review per week schedule for the time being, as I’m reading pretty long books at the moment (one of them a literal doorstep at 1200 pages!), so I need to actually finish the books before I can review them!