Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mace #1: Manor Books Delves into the Kung-Fu Craze

Mace #1: The Year of the Tiger, by Lee Chang

Manor Books, 1973

The most thrilling, action-packed series ever published!

Hey, would Manor Books lie to you? You bet they wouldn't! (And besides, if you said they would lie to you, they'd probably send some guys over to have a little chat with you...) But here's one case where the hyperbolic cover blurb really does speak truth: the "Mace" series truly could make a claim for being the most action-packed series ever published.

But then, that's all it is. Action -- fight after fight after fight. Minutely-detailed scenes of lead character Victor Mace smashing apart mob scum, beating them senseless and killing them with single blows to various body parts.

Plot...what plot? Who needs a plot?

Here's the story. Mace, raised and trained in a Hong Kong Shaolin Temple, comes to San Francisco to visit his half-brother and his uncle. The local mob wants to use his uncle's boat; the Greeks are bringing in some heroin and the mob wants a "non-Syndicate" boat for the trade, to ward off suspicion. Mace's uncle refuses to comply. The mob puts on the pressure. Mace beats the shit out of them. Again and again and again.

That's it. That's the story.

Yes, we are in the hellish, sordid, and downright bizarre world of Joseph Rosenberger -- here posing as Lee Chang (you know, so this novel seems legitimate). Rosenberger is most "famous" as the sole writer of the Death Merchant series...80+ volumes spanning two decades, each book nothing but fight after fight after fight, with lead character Richard Camellion blowing apart his enemies.

Character...who needs character?

Mace is THE GOOD GUY. The mobsters are THE BAD GUYS. That's it.

Perfect in every way, trained since childhood to kill in a plethora of methods, Mace is more of an idealized he-man than anything else. On top of which he's so complacent as to come off like an arrogant ass; after a while I started to root for the mobsters, hoping they'd at least get a punch in. Or maybe a bullet or two. But no; Mace wades through this book as unstoppable as a Terminator. Nothing stops him, nothing fazes him. Therefore all dramatic impact is lost and the book becomes a tiresome slugfest, the literary equivalent of a Bruce Le movie. (Bruce Le, not Bruce Lee -- I'm referring to the lowest of the Bruceploitation clones, the guy who gave us such monstrosities as Enter the Game of Death.)

Year of the Tiger was the start of an 8-volume series. It appears in later volumes Mace becomes a CIA operative; here's hoping this opens up the stories a bit more. Because the story for Year of the Tiger is so narrow as to have tunnel-vision; you start to wonder why the mobsters don't just say "We fucking give up -- let's go get some other guy's boat for the trade!"

Later volumes branded "Mace" on the cover, but this first volume doesn't even feature his name. Instead, "Kung Fu" blazes across the cover -- capitalizing of course on the then-popular Kung-Fu TV series starring David Carradine. Manor Books never met a fad they didn't capitalize on.

Year of the Tiger is so based upon the Kung-Fu template as to be plagiaristic: Mace's name is similar to Carradine's Cane; Mace too was raised in a Shaolin Temple, only to leave it for San Francisco (same place Cane voyaged to); and just as the Kung-Fu show would feature flashbacks to Cane's training in the Temple, so too will Mace flash back to his own training...sometimes in the most odd of circumstances. (Though my favorite is when, after a massive fight with the mob, Mace flashes back to, guess what, another fight, one he fought during his childhood -- and it's just as endless as the fight scene we just endured.)

Beyond his usual bad writing, Rosenberger also specializes in poorly-researched "facts." Of them all my favorite is his explanation of the book's title. Mace speculates on the "violent" nature of the US, and decides that if there was a year for the US, it would be the "Year of the Tiger." However, Mace further speculates, "the last Year of the Tiger was in the 1800s." I guess Rosenberger didn't realize that the signs of the Chinese Zodiac revolve every several years; further, the next Year of the Tiger was 1974, the year after this novel was published!

But for all his banalities, Rosenberger pulls the most odd turns of phrase out of his head. Mobsters "so ugly Frankenstein would've pulled a double-take," narratives which take up the thoughts of the goon about to be killed: "He threw a punch. What the hell? Yeah -- why not!" Rosenberger also (unwittingly) takes the book into the metaphysical realm, often informing us how the mobsters go to hell upon dying beneath Mace's flailing limbs.

Every few pages there's another brain-wrecking Rosenbergerism, but this one's my favorite in Year of the Tiger, as Mace destroys yet another goon:

Instant death as the blood supply to the man's brain was cut off! The hood felt stupid when he woke up and found himself sitting in the middle of hell!

That line pretty much tells you all you need to know about Year of the Tiger...!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Exterminator 2, 1984

In 1980 Writer-Director James Glickenhaus delivered The Exterminator, a lurid piece of exploitation riding on the dying coat-tails of the grindhouse world; four years later this follow-up was released to maybe 13 theaters nationwide, however Glickenhaus had moved on. The sequel was directed by Mark Buntzman, who had produced the original film. But whereas Glickenhaus had made more of a horror/gore film with the slight trappings of an action movie, Buntzman instead delivered a full-on, OTT '80s action movie, which was the style of the time.

Actually, word has it that the true story is a bit more than that. Apparently Buntzman did create a lurid movie along the lines of The Exterminator, however since the sequel was being released by those fine purveyors of Stupid Action Movies, The Canon Group, the workprint Buntzman turned in was deemed unreleasable by Canon standards and so a wealth of new material was shot, all of it action scenes.

Leading man Robert Ginty returns as John "Exterminator" Eastland. As the movie poster claims: "In the Exterminator he made the streets of New York safe. All has been quiet -- until now!" Leaving aside the absurd second sentence -- when have the streets of New York ever been "quiet?" -- Eastman is a middling lead character at best. A 'Nam vet who got vengeance in the first film, here he's a cipher who stumbles about NYC with vacant eyes.

Or maybe that's just Ginty himself, never the most vibrant (or memorable) of actors:

Four years out from the horrific events of the first film he's kind of just wandering through life. Meanwhile, the streets of NYC are on fire, a gang of goofy street punks waging war against the unprotected masses. They're led by a man named "X," a self-styled messiah of the streets:

Yes, that's Mario Van Peebles.

What more needs be said about a movie when you realize that Mario Van Peebles is the best actor in it??

X's laughable army of "street punks," all of whom look like they just walked out of a cheap Italian knock-off of Escape from New York, are cutting a swathe of destruction through New York. Robbing licquor stores -- where they even kill the elderly owners! -- kidnapping young women, setting up deals with the Mob to bring in a new drug with which they plan to control Harlem...and then the city!

Enter the Exterminator, who fries a whole bunch of 'em:

In between punk-incenerating, Eastman romances a young lady who dances in a bar. This "romantic subplot" is ludicrous at best, as Eastman/Ginty exudes ZERO chemistry; it would be more believable if the young lady was a hooker, someone merely spending time with him in exchange for cash. The entire feel of this subplot is unrelated to the rest of the film. But I guess we're to believe that the baby-faced Eastman is really just a nice guy...that is, when he isn't wearing a welder's mask and torturing/burning street punks half his age.

Here I must mention the INCREDIBLY CHEAP SETS this movie is graced with, particularly the bar in which Eastman's girl dances:

Now check out this DOCTOR'S OFFICE:

And the bar again -- complete with a stage that looks like it was just used for some kindergarten show 'n' tell:

So as you can see, the budget was a bit limited for Exterminator 2. Even the soundtrack is laughable; to say that it sounds like a video game would be a complement. It's even more inept than that.

The direction too is plodding -- but then, that might not be all Buntzman's doing. From what I've read, Exterminator 2 was envisioned and produced as another sick little bit of exploitation, but, again, the Canon Group deemed otherwise. New footage was filmed, particularly for the end. What's crazy is the end is the best part of the movie -- Eastman turns his garbage truck into a city tank, dons his welder's mask, and wages a one-man war on X and his army.

Only, that's not Ginty behind the mask. Apparently, all of the stuff you see in Exterminator 2 with a masked Eastman is footage filmed after the main production wrapped; all of it is footage inserted at the behest of Canon to increase the action quotient.

Even without knowing this, the dichotomy is apparent. The fact that you don't see Ginty's face for the last 20 minutes or so is a pretty big giveaway; it's as if he's suddenly become Batman and must don his trusty mask before he can combat the foe. It just seems goofy, especially given the lurid nature of the first film.

That being said, the action, escpecialy in the finale, isn't bad. Lots of explosions, flame thrower action, and submachine guns blasting on full auto. It culminates of course with Eastman and X battling mano e mano, but this itself is goofy -- though what other movie could you name that features flame thrower versus Uzi?

All told, this is a forgettable movie done cheaply and quick -- and it disappeared shortly after bombing in theaters. Exterminator 2 has never been released on DVD; I got my copy from Craig over at European Trash Cinema. His DVDR is taken from the international release of the film, which features 4 scenes not in the US release. The picture's a bit blurry and washed out (as the screengrabs above attest), but it's the best we've got for now -- and I don't see a Blu Ray/Special Edition of Exterminator 2 coming out anytime soon.

Friday, June 25, 2010

TNT: The Movie

By now my obsession with the men's adventure series TNT should be quite obvious. So let's pursue that obsession even further...

One thing that's always struck me as strange is how few movies were ever made from the once-ubiquitous "men's adventure" novels which were all the rage in the '70s through the '80s. I mean, there was never a Mack Bolan movie, never a Death Merchant movie. Sure, in '85 we got Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, a lame film adaptation of the Destroyer series...and in '77 we had Black Samurai, starring Jim "Enter the Dragon" Kelley, but why weren't more of these books snatched up by quickie film producers? I can't imagine the rights would've cost all that much.

As I detailed in my review of TNT #1, the series was originally published in France before coming out in English translations here in the US, starting in 1985. So let's say someone decided to make a movie of these things...let's say production started around 1986, right at the pinnacle of the '80s action phenomenon. I'd imagine it would be the Canon Group, or some other direct-to-video production company; it would be easy to imagine some big-budget realization of the series but let's keep this fantasy based at least a little in reality.

So, who would play Tony Nicholas Twin -- aka the "TNT" of the series?

Twin is described in the novels as tall and very thin, with long hands and a feline grace. Apparently he's handsome enough to be popular with the ladies, but when he's pissed his features can instill terror in his enemies. But all told Twin is established as a mostly nondescript guy -- which, really, is the point character, as this air of unimportance masks his super-powers.

The anonymous cover artist at Charter Books said to hell with this description and gave us, basically, a faux Arnold Schwarzenegger. I mean, nondescript leading characters don't sell men's adventure novels, do they? TNT #1 was published in January, 1985. Who was at the top of the action-movie field in 1985? Arnold was, that's who. Charter Books knew what to do.

The cover of TNT #1 seems, to me at least, totally indebted to the famous promo shot of Arnold from the first Terminator. Just compare:

Seems pretty similar to me...but then again what do I know about crass marketing moves?

Like I said, if the TNT series had been adapted into film, I think it would've been more of a low-budget sorta thing, so Schwarzenegger's out. As low-budget as they look today, Arnold's films at the time were major features. Who then could play our title character?

Since I first saw these TNT covers in the mid-'80s, one other actor has come to mind besides Schwarzenegger -- Brian Thompson. One of those supporting-actors you might know when you see, even if you don't recognize the name; you might remember him best as the pantyhose-masked, axe-wielding cult leader "The Night Slasher" in Stallone's ultra-violent, men's-adventure-novel-esque Cobra.

Take a look and see for yourself, comparing a headshot of Thompson with the cover of TNT #6: Ritual of Blood:

Now there's a Tony Nicholas Twin. Same handsome yet fearsome looks, same square jaw, same haunting eyes. Even the same cadaver-like sunken cheeks!

I first became aware of the TNT series as they were being published in '85/'86, and when I saw Cobra (in the theater with my mom -- who walked out of the showing because Thompson and his fellow cultists scared the shit out of her, believe it or not), even then I thought this guy resembled the character depicted on the TNT covers. (Of course at the time I hadn't even read the series, but I was aware of it.)

And besides, given our '86 production date, Arnold was busy with Raw Deal, right?

Of course, Twin would have to be an American in the film version...can't have an Irish lead character in an '80s action film, can we? And despite the character's aversion to weapons he'd have guns blazing at all times.

So who'd direct? I'd recommend either James Glickenhaus (who gave us the very men's adventure-esque The Exterminator) or George Cosmatos, director of Cobra. Both of these guys knew how to deliver lurid, fast-moving tales with gunfire and blood squibs to spare. And the soundtrack would be the usual Radio Shack-sounding synthesizers heard in every mid-'80s action film.

Well, it's nice to dream, at least.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

TNT #2: The Beast

TNT #2: The Beast, by Doug Masters
March, 1985 Charter Books
(French publication, 1978)

Tony Nicholas Twin returns in The Beast, the second volume of Charter Books's TNT series. Even though it was #2 here in the US, this was actually published as volume #3 in the original French series (as Le Bete Du Goulag, aka "The Gulag Beast," cover below) . But this is immaterial, because like with most men's adventure novels, each volume of TNT is pretty much self-contained.

Once again Twin is forced against his will into some harebrained impossible mission; we meet him as he awakens from a drugged stupor to find himself strapped into a SR-71 Blackbird, flying at a few hundred thousand feet over USSR-controlled Kazakhstan. It appears he's been kidnapped, drugged, and deposited into this plane by Arnold Benedict, Twin's archenemy-cum employer from TNT #1. Benedict is as twisted as ever; contacted by Chinese operatives, Benedict accepts their request to spring the leader of a mysterious terrorist cell from an impregnable prison in Kazakhstan. One so super-guarded that escape from it is so impossible as to be laughable. Benedict's price for this mission? A few Ming-era vases. (This is only our first reminder that TNT is not your normal men's adventure series; Benedict could care less about politics or global security.)

Whereas TNT #1 operated like two novels in one, with the first half the origin of Twin's heightened abilities (seeing in the dark, sexual insatiability, etc) and the second half his navigating a death-maze in South Africa, The Beast is more of a unified piece. And it also moves faster; TNT #1's first half came off like a belabored game of cat and mouse, with Benedict hounding Twin on down through America and into Mexico. It was entertaining, to be sure, but filled with ultimately pointless bits like Twin meeting a Mexican beauty who staged live snuff plays in her home. The Beast opens with Twin strapped alone into a Blackbird flying on auto-pilot over Soviet airspace and it doesn't let up until the final page. The novel takes place over the course of a hectic few days and the narrative snaps along accordingly. And whereas TNT #1 spanned the globe, The Beast takes place in Kazahkstan and Iran (where we get confirmation that the events in the novel take place before the 1985 US publication date, as the Shah is mentioned as still being in control of Iran...meaning The Beast occurs before the 1979 Iranian revolution).

Twin's mission this time is to enter a secret base in Kazakhstan which serves as a high-security prison, one run by a blind KGB colonel who wears mirrored sunglasses and can "see" people via their aura-patterns. (Due to which the soldiers in the base have nicknamed him "The Bat.") He's also inhumanly cruel and enjoys the smell of freshly-gutted corpses. Benedict's employers want a Kazakhstan rebel freed from the prison; the CIA also approaches Benedict, asking him to free a man they want escaped from the prison, this one a Soviet scientist named Vilunskhas who has created a pink metal which is paper-thin but indestructable. He's also created a super-weapon named "The Beast," but no one knows what exactly it is.

Twin parachutes from the self-destructing SR-71 and, after escaping a few regiments of Soviet soldiers who just happen to be performing night-time wargames in the dropzone, meets up with his Kazakhstan contacts. One's an attractive Kazakhstanian who calls herself "Arkady" and who claims to be Twin's "Trump Card." The other's a massive Russkie named Valka who can deadlift nearly 700 pounds and who wears green curlers in his red beard. But as in TNT #1, Twin doesn't appreciate being forced to do things against his will and escapes; a well-done chase scene follows, one in which Twin ensconces himself in a tanker full of caviar, but, as in TNT #1, it's all rendered unecessary.

Finally Twin is sent into the Kazakhstan base/prison. Like TNT #1, this is really just a death-maze, one Twin must navigate to achieve his goal. If however The Beast is inferior in any way to its predecessor, it would be here -- for the death trap in this novel is nowhere as bizarre or horrifying as the one in TNT #1. But then again, how COULD it be?

TNT #1 had a death-maze called "The Seven Circles of Hell;" here Twin has to travel through a few thousand feet of underwater pipeline into the inner heart of the prison, where after a few detours he finds himself in a football field-sized space from which dangle the corpses of prisoners. It's here that Twin has his one sexual interlude of the tale (not with one of the corpses!); the sex scene is more detailed than those that occured in TNT #1. But still The Beast retains the almost clinical narrative of TNT #1; gore is minimal despite the occasional gunfire, and when people are killed it's dealt with in an almost perfunctory level. And here again Twin himself never handles a weapon; instead the few times he kills he does so with his hands, smashing men's heads into walls or "severing" their spinal columns with a karate chop.

Buried within the prison is "The Beast" itself: a massive, rolling construction of that indestructable pink metal, weighing several tons, floating on an air cushion, and powered by a nuclear engine. Twin and his comrades escape on it, rolling through several thousand miles of Soviet terrain, destroying everything in their wake and surviving all manner of attacks. For the metal truly is indestructable. After a while this wears a little thin -- drama is about struggle, and it's no fun when the hero can just roll away untouched from the mouth of hell. But Doug Masters is a better writer than that; the Soviets finally unleash their ultimate weapon on The Beast, and its occupants suffer the consequences in a horrible way. This is another facet of Masters's genius; when his characters do suffer or die, it always leaves a bitter taste of remorse in the reader's mouth. Strong characters make strong impressions.

Because beyond the good writing, surreal plots, and outrageous developments, one thing that sets "Doug Masters" apart from the men's adventure lot is his characters. To a one, each is memorable. Only Twin himself comes off as boring, but I'm certain this is just another of Masters's tricks. For unlike other men's adventure leads like Mack Bolan or The Butcher, men who are driven to madness to perform their duties, Twin takes part in his missions against his will, and indeed goes about things with an almost blase lack of care. At one point he even appears to fall asleep while Arkady's relating how dangerous the prison is he's about to be sent into. A recurring joke is that everyone assumes he's American, no matter how many times he insists he's Irish.

But the supporting characters shine. Valka is especially memorable: bigger than life in more ways than one, getting all the best one-liners despite his broken English. Arkady (aka Marina -- not to go into detail but there's a "surprise" over the Trump Card's real name, one which I felt was uneccessary) is quiet, determined, and despite her youth and inexperience has caused a few nations to nearly come to war. Vilunskhas the scientist has an ego which more than makes up for his small stature, barrelling through the prison once Twin's arrived and bossing everyone around as he gets his vengeance on his captors. There's Dawlish, a Royal Navy operative who works for Benedict, a sterling Brit who cultivates his moustache and reads Rudyard Kipling in between killing countless Iranian and Russian soldiers (though it's taken him a few decades to make it through 90 pages). Benedict himself doesn't appear nearly as much as he did in TNT #1, but when he does appear he's always entertaining. And Twin's mentally-retarded daughter October barely appears at all, only mentioned in passing and then showing up for the happy (for now) ending on Twin's estate in Ireland.

And yet no matter how outrageous the characters are, Masters always finds a way to reign them in on a human level: Valka, despite his bravado, lives in shame that he was banned from the Olympics due to thievery. Marina matter-of-factly relates one of the most horrifying torture sequences I've ever read, one which she endured at the hands of The Bat, and it is her one desire to experience pleasure at least once in her life before dying. All of the characters spring to life, even those who appear for a handful of sentences.

It's hard to convey in words how much I love this series.

As promised, here is the original French cover of this novel -- again, it was published third in the series in France, with the title Le Bete Du Goulag (aka The Gulag Beast):

Mondo #1: Sony Chiba meets Mack Bolan...

Mondo Volume 1, by Anthony De Stefano
Manor Books, 1975

Thanks to Justin Marriott of The Paperback Fanatic for recommending this -- a perfect slice of the exploitative goodness Manor Books specialized in churning out in the '70s. Manor was known for being a bit more hardcore than most other men's adventure publishers; the series they published excelled in blood, gore, and sex, and most all of them were as lurid as the average grindhouse flick.

In fact, it's a surprise Mondo was never picked up by some production company and turned into a grindhouse flick. It's got everything 42nd Street connosseurs demanded: ultraviolence, crime, whores, torture, and sex.

Tapping into the kung-fu craze much as the earlier Manor series Mace had, Mondo combines martial arts carnage with Mack Bolan/Executioner-style gun-porn. The book comes off like the grindhouse classic Rolling Thunder meets Sonny Chiba's Streetfighter.

John Mondo is the lead character, and like most leads in a men's adventure novel he's a cipher: though we occasionally get into his head we never see what makes him tick, we never learn who he was before he became the blank slate of death who stars in this first installment of a three-volume series. We meet him here as an alcoholic bum, a burnt-out shadow of his former self. Once a happily married father, Mondo's son was killed in an accident caused by mobsters. Estranged from his wife, he's lived the past few years on the streets. And he's one mean motherfucker; the opening few pages detail a joyriding group of yuppies who come afoul of Mondo. He beats the shit out of the lot of them, women included.

Once a high-ranking thief, Mondo quit the life to raise his family, performing "one last job." This is the one which went wrong and left him a shell of his former self, his son dead, and his wife gone. For whatever reason the mob decides that, even though some time has passed, Mondo's still a liability, so now they're looking for him.

Mondo #1 is all about Mondo's return to who he once was and his vengeance upon those who ruined his life. Why he waited so long to do so goes unanswered. But once he's spurned back into action Mondo is as unstoppable as a force of nature. He plows through everyone: pimps, insurance-frauding nuns (in one memorable moment he face-punches a crooked nun), prostitutes, mobsters, even kung-fu masters. He employs his fists most of the time, however the martial arts scenes aren't as detailed as those in Mace. Like Sonny Chiba, Mondo fights loose and dirty; no fancy spinning back kicks for him. Instead, he goes for the fatal points. In one grueling sequence he kills a pimp by delivering a savage palm-strike to the man's balls.

Which makes it all the stranger that, midway through the book, Mondo hooks up with an elderly Japanese teacher so he can learn...martial arts. I say strange because previous to this we've already seen Mondo kick the shit out of innumerable people, so what exactly is there left for him to learn? But at any rate this sequence serves its likely purpose: filling up pages. Mondo learns to control his rage (to a point) and also learns more deadly tricks of the trade. And all of it of course is delivered in the usual lack of research one would expect from Manor: for example, Mondo calls the old man "sensi," which, we're told, is Japanese for "teacher." There are some other laughable gaffes as well, but this one was my favorite.

As the novel rushes toward its conclusion we realize that Anthony De Stefano might have more up his sleeve than just delivering another action-packed piece of Manor exploitation. For it gradually becomes clear to all the characters that, no matter how much vengeance he achieves, John Mondo will never find redemption or peace. He kills and kills in his single-minded determination to find justice for his dead son, but with each death he only becomes more grim. Even his friends soon turn away from him. And finally Mondo himself accepts what he becomes, realizes that no matter what he does, he has stared too long into the abyss. This in itself is enough to send Mondo #1 into more literary realms than the average men's adventure novel; The Death Merchant, safe to say, never once even considered the implications of his wanton "pig farmer"-killing.

But this is a lurid novel. Everything is rendered in brutal tones; the action scenes are gory as a splatter-movie, everything taken to an extreme level -- my favorite being when Mondo "divorces" someone's face into two halves with his pistol and De Stefano writes, "The left side was awarded custody of the nose." There's also a gruesome scene, lovingly detailed, in which Mondo discovers the raped and mutilated corpse of his estranged wife. I think I was more upset with this than Mondo himself was! Even the sex scenes are brutal and deeply unerotic. But despite all of the exploitative content everything occurs on a "realistic" level; there are no albino dwarfs or Nazi torture-maidens or any other bizarre villains one might usually find lurking in these sorts of novels. The villains are just cut-rate mobsters, not even memorable, save for a Chinese kung-fu master they employ as a last recourse against Mondo's swathe of destruction.

The novel builds to an ending which, again, takes it out of the ordinary standard of men's adventure novels. But it's the only ending possible for Mondo -- and one wonders how De Stefano was able to deliver two more installments in the series, given what exactly happens in the ending. I guess I'll just have to read these final two installments to find out.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Protector: OTT '80s Action...how it might have happened

Possible conversation between director James Glickenhaus and anonymous financial backer, early 1985:

"So James, let's hear what you've got."

"Uh, well, [name deleted], it's an idea I had for a cop flick. Two rogue officers, play by their own rules. Plus I've got some shit set in Hong Kong, like you asked."

"Good. Golden Harvest wants this to be a total US-Hong Kong venture. I hear the studio head, some guy named Chow, has had his greedy eyes on the US market for a while. Jackie Chan's his top attraction, I mean the guy's like a god over there. Chow wants to break him in the US market. This could be an opportunity for you, James. This guy could be the next Bruce Lee."

"Yeah, but that's Hong Kong, [name deleted]. If this Ching guy thinks he can go from being a superstar over there to cock of the block in Hollywood, I'm sorry, but he's fuckin nuts, you know?"

"I know where you're coming from, James. But this is still a great opportunity. And his name is Chan. So let's hear about the movie."

"Okay, so it opens with midgets. Midgets and dudes straight out of The Road Warrior. Mohawks, facepaint, armor."

"So this is a post-Apocalypse type thing?"

"No. No, they're just your average New York punks."


"So they rob a truck, right? And that's the intro for our boy. He shows up with his partner, right on the scene of the crime."

"He gets in a fight with the Road Warrior guys? I like that."

"No, no, those guys are gone. We only see em in the opening. Uh, Jack shows up after it's all over. But you know, we gotta set it up that New York's one dangerous place, right?"

"So Jackie and his partner go after the mohawk guys, then?"

"No, no, they go to a bar."

"A bar?"

"Right. Just to let off some steam, whatever."

"So you mean we don't even see these Road Warrior guys anymore? Or the midgets?"

"No, [name deleted], they got nothing to do with anything, okay? I just wanted to show some bizarre shit to get the ball rolling, you know?"

"Well, okay."

"All right. Let's say we've got these guys, I want em real hardcore, Vietnam vets lookin for the latest score. They're gonna rob a bar, right? In the middle of the day."

"Would the place even have any money?"

"Look, that doesn't matter. These guys are hardwired, right? I'm talkin Mac-10s, Uzis, M-16s. They go in, and get this, it's the same bar Jake and his partner just went into!"

"I like it!"

"Yeah. I mean, these guys are so hot to rob and kill, they just kinda charge on into the place. I mean, if one of em happens to bump into the door on the way in, we'll keep it in the print, you know?"

"Make it look real-to-life."

"You got it. And let's say they're holding the place up, and one of em --­ I kinda picture him as a big dumb guy who likes plush toys -- goes back to the john, and there's, uh, Jack back there, pissing. At least, that's how it looks. But then the little fucker turns around, right, and real quick we see he's got his .45 in his hands, instead of his cock. BLAM! Robber's guts all over the wall."

"I love it!"

"Maybe he could say something like, 'Can't a fuckin guy take a fuckin piss any-fuckin-more?' or somethin like that."

"Lot of 'fuckins,' there."

"He's a cop, right? 'Fuck' is his favorite word. I want this guy, this, uh -- ­"


"I want him to use 'fuck' as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, all that shit. Fuck, I want im to use it as a pronoun."

"I don't see where he'd have a problem with that."

"But anyway, John's partner gets wasted during the gunfight in the bar. And speaking of which, this gunfight's gonna be the best ever. Slow-motion, guys screaming while they empty clips on full-auto. I got this image in mind where Jake shoots this one dude, and I'm gonna get this super-slow motion shot of the guy just getting tossed like a ragdoll through a window."

"Jackie's partner gets killed?"

"Yeah, so that way we can work in a revenge angle. But anyway, he gets a new partner. Preferably white. Can't have two ethnicities in the lead roles, right?"

"That's box office poison. That's death."

"Gotta be someone good lookin. For the ladies. I doubt this Charlie guy's got drop-dead good looks."

"It's 'Jackie.' So who're you thinking?"

"Two words: Danny Aiello."


"I got Danny's character in mind as a Vietnam vet, just as crazy as Jake's character is. Two supercops, right? Plus Danny's always lookin for a fight, plus he don't cotton to superiors, if you know what I mean. Hates authority. And everywhere he goes, he takes his Uzi. Got in mind lots of scenes of him screamin while he just lets loose a clip on full auto."

"That's great stuff. Maybe you can have it so that his clothing gets torn often. So he can show off his physique for the ladies."

"You got it. Okay, so halfway through the flick, Jeff and Danny are gonna go to Hong Kong. Let's say they're over there cause they're supposed to be protectin some chick, maybe the daughter of some American criminal. I have it in mind that they're at some fancy fashion show ­"

"With a catwalk and all that?"

"Nah, I was thinkin it could be more of a deal with models dancing, maybe a couple lights, you know. Then these crooks in ski masks just bust in the place and make off with her. And then Chen and Danny find out the next morning that she's been taken to Hong Kong."

"The crooks get her to Hong Kong overnight? That's impossible! I'm telling you, that's just impossible!"

"Say, I like that. I think I might give that line to Jake and Danny's chief. I've got a real good, original idea for the chief, by the way. He's always gonna be pissed off at the two of em, callin em 'supercops,' and shit. You know, just something totally different than what you'd normally see in a cop picture."


"We'll have it so, uh, our star, he knows through reputation of the Chinese dude who runs all the crime in Hong Kong. He's behind the kidnapping of the chick our boy was protecting. I have him in mind kinda thin, reedy, slicked back hair."

"We gonna get a local to play the part?"

"Fuck that. What're we gonna have him do, speak whatever language they talk over there?"


"Forget it. They're all gonna speak English. When our boy's talkin to the bad guy, I don't care if both of em were born and raised in Hong Kong, they're gonna speak in English."

"Well, there's a problem there, James. I just got word that Jackie's English isn't very good."

"How bad is it?"

"Let's just say he'll need to learn his lines phonetically."

"I don't understand what that means."

"It means we'll have to hire someone to teach him how to say all of his lines: pronunciation, delivery, everything."

"FUCK! Now you tell me this shit! I thought you told me he's made a coupla movies over here already?"

"The Cannonball Run pics and something that Enter the Dragon guy, Bob Clouse, directed. All of it shit."

"Oh, yeah. I loved Cannoball Run 2. He was in that?"

"He was the Japanese guy in the high-tech car."

"So he's Japanese?"

"No, he just played one."

"Same difference. Now let's talk boat chases."


"I want at least five of them."


"I want this guy, this whatsisname, Johnnie?"

"It's Jackie, James. You know, like Gleason."

"I want this little fucker to live on a boat. Someone steals a woman's purse, I want the bastard on a boat, chasing his ass. Fuck, he's in the desert, I want a boat chase. Oh, shit."

"What's wrong? People love boat chases, right?"

"It's not that. I mean, this guy's from China, right? He's probably never even seen a boat before. You know how that place is. Lots of shantytowns and villages full of VC and shit, fish heads and rice for dinner. We'll probably have to stunt-double him for the boat chases."

"I'm figuring we're gonna have to stunt-double him throughout."

"No shit. I mean, all those people make are chop-sockies, right? Nickel and dime budget, lots of punching and kicking."

"No boat chases!"

"Exactly. No boat chases! Shit, there goes my idea for havin him dangling from a helicopter. The little bastard would probably run away as soon as the blades got going."

"But about these boat chases, James, ­you'll have to make sure people know where they're taking place. I mean, we spend the money to shoot in Hong Kong harbor, we'd better get plenty of shots of the place."

"[name deleted], you know me. I have a reputation in this industry as a master of establishing shots. You wanna make sure people know we're in Hong Kong? I'm gonna make parts of this movie into a fuckin travelogue! Shit, even for the New York boat chase I'm gonna have at least twenty shots of the Empire State Building, the Twin Towers, and the Statue of Liberty jammed in there."

"So how's it all going to end?"

"Well, Danny and our boy basically take on all of Hong Kong's underworld. I got some great shit in my head, can't wait to get it on film. Like the main bad guy, he's got this drug lab that only employs ladies. But the thing is, they're all naked!"

"Oh, have them wearing white tennis shoes, and that's it."


"I've always had a thing for naked women in white tennis shoes. I don't know why."

"Hey, you're puttin up the money. Whatever you want. I'll even try to work in a totally-gratuitous close-up of some jugs while one of em's bagging up some dope."

"Make em saggy ones."


"Saggy tits in the close-up. The saggier the better."

"Uh, okay. Yeah, sure."

"Do you have some fireworks in mind for the finale?"

"That's the best part. The final battle, right? The main Hong Kong villain's got Jackson stuck in some sort of construction rig."

"How'd he get there?"

"Who cares? Audiences'll only be paying attention to the action scenes, anyway. I'll just make up the story shit as I go along. So the villain's circling around in a helicopter, shooting at our boy, let's say with a Mac-10 or something."

"From a helicopter? Would a Mac-10 even be an accurate weapon from so far away?"

"Who cares? But anyway, Chang will somehow lure the helicopter closer, and get hold of the rig's controls. And then BLAM! He drops a couple tons of some shit right on the helicopter!"

"Just blowing the villain out of the sky."

"You got it! And I have it all in my head, right? I mean, we'll keep the camera on Johnnie there in the rig, and we'll see the helicopter explode outside, but here's the genius part: we'll hear the villain scream after the helicopter's exploded!"

"It defies all laws of reality! I love it! You have any ideas for the soundtrack?"

"Don't worry about that. They've got those demo keyboards you can play for free, over at Radio Shack. I'll just get one of the assistants to go over there on his lunch break and come up with some stuff."

"Okay, let's go with it. I'll call Jackie's people, get him over here. I just have one minor concern, James."

"What's that?"

"Well, let's say Chan isn't happy with the final product. What if he takes the finished movie and re-cuts it, makes it more like his usual-type flick, and releases his version in Hong Kong?"

"That's preposterous! Asians can't make movies!"

Friday, June 11, 2010

Shards of God, by Ed Sanders -- A Burroughsian look at the Yippies

Shards of God, by Ed Sanders

Grove Press, 1970

Ed Sanders' Shards Of God is not an easy novel to review by any means. Totally of its time, it's redolent with views and sentiments which were probably outdated the day it was published; no wonder it's long, long out of print. In some ways the novel is the funhouse mirror reflection of Anita Hoffman's psuedo-autobiography Trashing (published by Rolling Stone's imprint Straight Arrow in 1970 under the psuedonym "Ann Fettamen"). Like that novel, Shards Of God features actual Yippies in main roles, particularly Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, and Paul Krassner. But whereas Trashing mostly stuck to real-life escapades, Shards Of God is a modern myth, a fantastical fable of drugged-out depravity.

Sanders relates the shenanigans of himself and his fellow hippies in a "living myth" fashion, with Egyptian gods even taking part. Sanders, Hoffman, Krassner et al are larger-than-life characters, more demigods than actual mortals, and each act is blossomed into some mytho-poetic fantasy of absurd degree. One need look no further than "Shards Of God" to see where modern-day analogues like Mark Leyner got 98% of their schtick.

The novel proceeds in episodic fashion; each chapter works as a self-contained short story. Real-life characters like Hoffman and Rubin interract with characters like Quick Kill Merle, Aunt No No, and She-Who-Sucks-in-a-Skirt-of-Snakes. We are treated to phantasmorphic recreations of real-life incidents such as the "Pentagon Exorcism," as well as inside looks into how one was "initiated" into the Yippies (a charnel-house sequence which most likely had William Burroughs either red with envy or red with outrage over such gross missappropriation of his writing style).

Sanders writes with a flair and verve which quickens the reader's pulse. Coupled with his obvious familiarity with ancient myth, this makes for a one-of-a-kind reading experience. The only question is, who today would want to read this? Sanders opens the novel with a preface which states that the Yippie revolution will be successful, changing the entire world. I don't need to tell you that this never happened. Like Trashing, I have a feeling Shards Of God was already behind the times upon its publication in 1970. That Sanders is so beligerent throughout that he is a harbinger of a future reality only heightens its charm and obscurity; I checked the book out from the library, and, according to its checkout slip, the last time someone else had done so was March, 1982.

So, if you are looking for a fantastical view of the 1960s complete with walk-ons from Isis, Pharoah Akhnaton, the spirit of Che, a sexually-augmented Abbie Hoffman, and Penthouse Letters-type porn aplenty, then look no further than Ed Sanders' long out-of-print Shards Of God. It's so William Burroughs you'll think it's Naked Lunch, Part 2. And it's so of its time that Rolling Stone Magazine even gave it a glowing review in an early issue; these days, if Rolling Stone even bothered to mention it, it would of course be in an unflattering light.

Voyager In Bondage: Final Volume of the "Voyager" Trilogy

Voyager in Bondage, by Simon Finch

Souveneir Press, 1981

The final book of Simon Finch's Vesuvio trilogy, Voyager In Bondage was published in 1981. Whereas the second book, Pagan Voyager, had come out just one short year after 1978's Golden Voyager, it took Finch two years to write this final volume. Voyager In Bondage is also very short. Golden Voyager was over 400 pages, with Pagan Voyager coming in at almost 300. Bondage is just over 200 pages long. But still, you can't blame Finch for struggling to come up with material. I mean, early second century CE in pagan Europe, with its manifold religions and larger-than-life characters and scheming Roman aristocrats; what writer could come up with an interesting novel from such meager material?

Coincidentally, Voyager in Bondage, unlike the previous two novels, was not published in the US. Either Finch's agent couldn't secure a deal or no US publisher wanted it. Strange, because according to the UK publisher, Souvenir Press, the Voyager trilogy was "best-selling." Perhaps it's moreso that US readers didn't cotton to the near homoerotic content of Golden Voyager and Pagan Voyager, and preferred historical fiction which didn't feature every character discussing the size of the hero's "phallus."

Bondage takes place twelve years after the previous book in the trilogy, the dire Pagan Voyager (published in the US as The Pagan). Hadrian's now emperor of Rome, and Vesuvio has spent the past decade living in peace on his estate in Campania, raising his son (Aurelius, now 14 years old), and living in contentment with his wife Miranda. In fact, so content is Vesuvio that his son doesn't even realize the brutal travails Vesuvio endured before Aurelius was born; the kid actually looks up to one of Vesuvio's slaves - the wily Orphic Christian Lexor - as a man of adventure.

In the previous two novels Finch proved he was capable of plagiarizing from himself: Pagan Voyager was in many ways just a reworking of Golden Voyager. To whit: in Pagan Voyager Vesuvio was cast into slavery, flung from one new owner to the next, competed in a high-stakes chariot race in an arena, befriended a kindly old Jew who eventually helped him, and finally regained freedom thanks to the help of Roman aristocrats. All just like in Golden Voyager. Bondage continues this trend, ripping off Pagan Voyager. In that novel, Vesuvio's wife was abducted. Here it's his son who's abducted. In that novel, the villains were an evil man and woman who propagated a strange new god named Bendis. Here the villains are an evil man and woman who propagate a strange new god named Christ. In Pagan Voyager Vesuvio allowed himself to be passed around from one master to another, losing all sense of urgency in finding his kidnapped fiancé. Here Vesuvio, despite his son being kidnapped, finds time to visit the Games in Rome, plans to visit Trajan's Bath, and goes on impromptu sight-seeing tours. The parallels continue, and add further proof that Finch was running out of ideas.

Bondage follows the same twisted path as the preceding two books. It's infuriating in a way. Finch sets the groundwork: Vesuvio's happy life shattered by a unappreciative slave who steals Vesuvio's son and demands a massive ransom. Vesuvio and twenty year-old Antony, son of Vesuvio's head slave (and hence a slave himself), set off in pursuit. The reader expects a vengeance-driven romp through Hadrian-era Rome. The reader is disappointed. Because, just as in past novels, Finch chooses instead to indulge in go-nowhere digressions and pointless, page-consuming dialogs between immaterial characters. Not only that, but Vesuvio himself is relegated to a nonentity. I mean, if YOUR son was kidnapped, would YOU find time to visit the bordello of a prostitute friend and plan to relax in the Trajan Baths? That's what Vesuvio does. It would be fine if he was a deadbeat dad, but Finch wants us to believe that Vesuvio's going nuts with rage, trying to get young Aurelius back. It's laughable.

But here's the best part: during the course of this book, Vesuvio is again captured and thrown into the miserable life of a slave. Just like in the previous two novels. Granted, this happens toward the end of the book, but it happens all the same. Arriving in Alexandria at the climax of his lame "search" for Aurelius (which basically constitutes talking to remote-area Roman aristocracy and visiting bordellos), Vesuvio is thrown in prison for half-baked reasons and sent to the arena as a gladiator. You'd think the guy would get the idea and never again leave his estate in Campania.

The finale of Bondage (and the trilogy) sees Finch at last writing what the series has been leading to: outright s&m with a heavy gay subtext. Basically, the Gor novels set in ancient Rome: all leather armor and chain mail and edged weapons and strapping young lads. The penultimate section of this novel is even titled "Leather and Chain," for all those who don't get it. Vesuvio finds himself about to become a retiarri, fighting with net and trident against lions. But then Finch pulls the carpet out from under us once again, denying readers the scene he's spent so many pages setting up. It was at this point I realized something: not once in this entire trilogy did Vesuvio fight anyone. How strange for an epic of historical fiction! No sword fights, no mortal combat, not even a fisticuff or two...no, Vesuvio, over the course of this trilogy, instead spends his time rushing a la Don Quixote from one poorly-plotted and poorly-conceived situation to the next, flung about like a frisbee on a windy beach.

Bondage is the first of the Vesuvio novels to deal with Christianity in any depth. I assume Finch had read the recently-published Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels, which was an international bestseller in 1980, around the time Finch was writing this book. Because the Christianity Vesuvio encounters is of the Gnostic bent, with Orphic rituals overlaid. Unfortunately Finch didn't do much research: characters actually refer to their Christianity as "Gnostic" (whereas the designation wasn't coined until the 1800s), and several Christians refer to their "scripture," which as any Robert Price/Earl Doherty reader would know is a misnomer; despite the best efforts of Josh McDowell et al, there is no evidence of extant Christian scripture until well into the second century. But this is a minor problem; luckily, Bondage features no scenes of characters experiencing "salvation" through Christ on the arena floor or other ilk expected of religious-themed historical fiction. Indeed, the Christians come off rather badly in this novel, so I give Finch credit for that.

A strange thing about Bondage is that Finch backs off on the homoerotic context so prevalent in the previous volumes. That's not to say it's entirely gone. This time young Antony gets most of the attention, with prostitutes and young boys trying to get some quality time with his "manhood," which, Antony is sure to remind them, isn't as big as his master Vesuvio's. I'm not making this up. Adding to the strangeness, in Bondage Finch seems to finally realize that ancient Romans cursed fluently, and so spices up the textbook blandness which had bogged down the sex scenes in the first two novels. This does not make these scenes any sexier, unfortunately. Instead it all comes off as Finch's last-ditch attempt to finally make his books steamy and shocking. Failure all around.

As far as the writing itself goes, Finch actually got worse with each volume of the trilogy; the first, Golden Voyager, was easily the best written. Bondage is riddled with bizarre grammar, lackluster scenes, flat characters, and outright mistakes: at one point, Antony tells some friends that he and Vesuvio saw a woman get stoned to death upon their arrival in Alexandria, whereas Antony and Vesuvio saw no such thing in the narrative itself; instead, they learned about the stoning through a conversation, a conversation that didn't even take place in Alexandria. Mistakes like this mar the entire book, little things Finch should have caught with even a cursory edit. In addition, Finch apparently discovered semicolons shortly before writing this novel. He uses them to break up just about every other sentence, even sentences that don't need them.

Finch seems to have published only one more novel: 1985's Slave Island. After this I'm not sure what happened to him. He has no Web presence; an online search yields only sellers with copies of his extant novels, which no one seems to have taken the time to review. It's sad in a way. A casualty of the information age, maybe? Because I imagine this Vesuvio trilogy, trashy and poorly-written as it sometimes is, had its fan in the day. In fact it certainly did, otherwise Souvenir Press wouldn't have reprinted the lot in 1985. So where is Finch today? My bet is he burned out in the novel-writing world. Or, as I opined in my Pagan Voyager review, he took on a pseudonym and delved into a whole `nother sort of male-centric fiction...

Pagan Voyager: Book Two of the "Voyager" Trilogy

Pagan Voyager

Souveneir Press, 1979

Published in the UK in 1979 as Pagan Voyager and in the US as The Pagan (as seen to the left), this is book two of Simon Finch's Vesuvio trilogy, the epic struggles and sexual adventures of one man in the Roman Empire of the early second century CE. We pick up with Vesuvio six years after the first novel, 1978's Golden Voyager (and again we're informed that the year is "110 AD by the Christian calculation" - whereas this form of dating wasn't invented for a few more centuries). Vesuvio's now an established and wealthy member of Roman society, the owner of the land in Campania which was stolen from his family in the previous novel. Vesuvio also owns many slaves (despite his thought at the end of Golden Voyager that he would never own any), giving them easy means of freedom, and treating everyone with respect and kindness. Not yet thirty years old, Vesuvio is still unmarried, though he plans to free the beautiful slave Miranda, with whom he's recently fathered a baby boy. The novel opens with Vesuvio in Rome, arranging to free her - so he can legally marry her.

Of course, this being Vesuvio, things go to Hades quick. Miranda is taken captive by slave traders (much as Vesuvio himself was in Golden Voyager) and our hero plunges into a quest to get her back. Only problem is, Vesuvio proves to be one underwhelming hero (or maybe it's just that Finch is an underwhelming author). Because, well, he doesn't get very far in his quest. Instead, Vesuvio is quickly captured and then sold into slavery, and this novel, just like Golden Voyager, details his plight in servitude. And just as Finch focused on episodic tales of Vesuvio in slavery in Golden Voyager rather than on Vesuvio's betrayal and eventual vengeance, here too he denies readers the epic quest of revenge and reunion which is promised in the opening pages.

One of the major frustrations in Golden Voyager was its lack of a strong villain. Even though Vesuvio was sold into slavery and his family killed, his eventual revenge was given short shrift by Finch, with the humdrum villain appearing for a scant few pages. Pagan Voyager is no different. We meet the villains in the early chapters, and a loathsome pair they are; the reader truly wants to see them get their comeuppance. But Finch drops the ball and mostly forgets about them, instead getting sidetracked with the background stories of the various slaves Vesuvio meets. In other ways too Pagan Voyager is a rewrite of its predecessor; just like that novel, this one features a major and deadly chariot race in which Vesuvio proves his mettle against all competitors.

But the thing is, whereas Golden Voyager was at least fun in its addle-headed way, Pagan Voyager just comes off as dire and pointless. We've already seen Vesuvio cast about the ancient world in various modes of slavery; why do we need to see it again? And here, just like in Golden Voyager, the villains - the ones who ordered Miranda to be kidnapped and who cast Vesuvio into slavery - are dealt with in a perfunctory manner. Indeed, as the climax approaches, with the villains on their way to Vesuvio's present location, Finch instead obliviously wastes time with pages and pages of Vesuvio being groomed and dressed for a party, where he is to serve as a pleasure slave. Imagine if in the film Ransom Mel Gibson's character spent the last ten minutes trying on a few different pairs of clothes and you'll get the idea. Worse yet is that Vesuvio doesn't even play a part in the villains' eventual comeuppance, thereby rendering the whole thing moot.

What's really unfortunate is that Vesuvio goes through his ordeals without question. This was understandable in Golden Voyager. There he was just a kid, snatched from a wealthy family and thrust into the world of slavery. But he suffered through a three-year ordeal in that novel, emerging as a triumphant Roman citizen. So it's really strange that Vesuvio so readily accepts his return to slavery in this novel. He goes from one owner to the next, taking to his chores and scoping out the lay of the land. This man is a high-born Roman with his own villa in southern Italy, whose wife-to-be has been kidnapped! It's all very frustrating, and there's no way such a thing could be depicted onscreen; audiences would be throwing refuse at the ineffectual "hero" of the film.

In my review of Golden Voyager I mentioned - a bit too thoroughly - the homoerotic subtext so apparent in Finch's prose. Pages and pages about Vesuvio's good looks, his superb physique, his large "phallus." Here Finch goes even further. In Golden Voyager Vesuvio made it through the book without engaging in "unnatural sex," ie sex with another man - even though this seemingly was Vesuvio's greatest fear/obsession. But he does not fare so well in Pagan Voyager. Because, not even a few days out into his quest, Vesuvio is captured by pirates who proceed to use and abuse him. I've never seen a main character so debased in a novel. Vesuvio is used as a sexual toy by the decrepit men on the boat, so brutally and thoroughly that he's eventually cast aside as useless. Finch of course goes into hyper-description mode, recounting what the pirates do to Vesuvio.

But here's the thing: Vesuvio never once fights back. He just gives in to his fate, and accepts the men's abuse. It's all very, very disturbing. And when one takes into consideration the amount of detail Finch gives the male characters as compared to the women (he'll spend pages on the various males Vesuvio encounters, each with "rippling muscles" and "deep chests," etc, whereas the women characters are only minimally described), you know for sure something's up. But like in Golden Voyager, despite Vesuvio's constant fear of being taken advantage of by another man (reading Finch, one gets the impression that men had only two worries in the ancient world: 1.) being sold as a slave, and 2.) being sold as a slave and then sodomized), despite the minutiae of detail Finch gives the "burly" and "handsome" men Vesuvio meets, Finch still wants to tell us that gay sex is "unnatural." There's even a lesbian in this book, with another female character unsuccessfully struggling to think of her in "that way" in order to use her for her own ends. So one can easily see Finch was having some issues which he tried to work out in the narrative. Finch's last novel appears to have been 1985's Slave Island, something about 17th Century pirates, but I imagine he eventually began writing gay fiction under a pseudonym. Because let me tell you, folks, he was already pretty much there in Pagan Voyager.

Otherwise Finch is up to his usual tricks: the book is moreso softcore porn than historical fiction. Finch follows the same method throughout: he'll set up a scene with some details gleaned from his knowledge of the ancient world, and then proceed into several pages of minutely-detailed sex scenes. But not a single one of these scenes is arousing. I read stuff in Penthouse Letters as a kid (one of the benefits of having an older brother) that was more scintillating. Also, the s&m elements in Golden Voyager are even stronger in this sequel. For example, within the first three pages Finch gives us a harrowing scene of a brutal whipping, providing the details of each wicked snap of the whip, complete with characters soiling themselves in agony. Characters who, by the way, have absolutely zilch to do with the rest of the novel; indeed, the scene itself has nothing to do with the rest of the novel. But this is just one of the many sadomasochistic pleasures Finch indulges in throughout; Colleen McCullough this ain't.

I'm not sure about the UK edition, but the US version of the novel, The Pagan, is filled with bizarre grammatical errors and misspellings. I'll go ahead and give Finch the benefit of doubt and assume the publisher was at fault. But beyond that, the book really is poorly written, filled with gross coincidences (everyone Vesuvio meets either knows Miranda or the people he's searching for), muddled plotlines, and go-nowhere digressions. Worse yet is that in this novel Finch tries to impress us with his modicum knowledge of Latin, peppering the narrative with occasional words and phrases. Only problem is - and this is a problem I have with much historical fiction - these characters are already speaking Latin. So why must Finch (and other historical fiction authors) give us a few words in that language? The book's already historically-inaccurate in that characters are speaking English; a few "actual" words here and there won't change things.

Pagan Voyager came out one exact year after Golden Voyager, but it wasn't until 1981 that Finch published the final volume of the trilogy, Voyager In Bondage. That one wasn't even published in the US, but thanks to the fantabulous Internet I've gained my copy from an overseas seller, and am now duty-bound to read it. Jupiter give me strength.

Golden Voyager: Book 1 of the strange "Voyager" trilogy...

Golden Voyager, by Simon Finch

Souveneir Press, 1978

Published in 1978, Golden Voyager was Simon Finch's first novel, and also the first in a trilogy concerning main character Vesuvio and his adventures around the Roman Empire during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian. The novel is of course an epic, with Vesuvio cast about into a variety of locales and environments that would even have Ben-Hur envious. According to the "About the Author" page, Finch was 32 when he published the novel, and in his spare time travelled the globe giving lectures on ancient slavery. It's a living, I guess. But truth to tell, Finch's knowledge on this subject is put to good use in Golden Voyager, lending a grim note of reality to what is otherwise your typical pulp-fiction male fantasy of purple prose.

The novel opens in 101 CE (strangely, we learn this through Vesuvio's thoughts - that the year is "101 AD according to the Christian calculation," when meanwhile this form of dating wasn't created for several more centuries), with our hero Vesuvio a strapping young lad 18 years of age, a walking mass of muscle, a young man wise beyond his years, his hair a thick mop of blonde (super-rare in Vesuvio's homeland of southern Italy, Finch often reminds us; in fact, Vesuvio's "golden" tresses are what give the novel its title). In other words, the typical lead male character in the typical historical fantasy - super-strong and super-smart, a demigod amongst lesser men. To ram this home even more, we are treated to several scenes where other characters have nothing better to do than sit around and talk about how great Vesuvio is, particularly the size of his "phallus" (more about that later).

Born to a wealthy, aristocratic family, Vesuvio is the firstborn of two sons and thus being groomed for military greatness. In another "huh?" moment, we learn Vesuvio was named thusly after the "recent" eruption of nearby volcano Vesuvius (which covered Pompeii in 79 CE, four years before our hero was born). This would be like naming your daughter "Katrina," in honor of the hurricane which killed so many and destroyed so much. Regardless, Vesuvio is soon to marry his beloved, and has often found himself thinking of her, even when lying with the attractive women amongst the 4,000 slaves his family owns (and trust me, Vesuvio lays with a LOT of women in this book).

Political machinations result in Vesuvio being taken captive by slave traders. Not backing down to the traders on the slave galley, he's thrashed for disobedience and then taken to the captain's quarters (where, even though he's bound and chained and bleeding, Vesuvio still has time to enjoy the oral arts of a female slave...male fantasy at work, people!). Here the reader get a look into the mind of an ancient slave trader, and you realize once again how little life was worth in ancient times. Eventually sold to a pirate captain, Vesuvio spends the next three years working the oars, escaping the Romans and stealing bounty. Here Finch indulges his inner Robert E. Howard, with Vesuvio becoming entangled (so to speak) with the Red Sonja-esque Athana, a beautiful, Hispanic piratess/former gladiatrix who employs Vesuvio as her right-hand man and who discovers that he (of course) is the only man who can satiate her womanly needs.

After a few hundred pages of digressions, with Vesuvio sent from one new master to the next, the plot finally comes together and our hero gains vengeance in Rome. This is a stirring scene, cut whole-cloth from Ben Hur, as Vesuvio challenges his nemesis Gaius Lucretius to a chariot race in the Flavian Ampitheater (rather than the Circus Maximus, where most chariot races were held). The only problem is, despite his being the cause of all of Vesuvio's suffering, Lucretius only appears for about five pages of the novel. Therefore Vesuvio's vengeance comes off as perfunctory; having just met Lucretius (and rather quickly learning that he was responsible for Vesuvio being sold into slavery and having his family being killed), we just as quickly see him get his comeuppance. Imagine if Emperor Commodus only appeared in the final five minutes of the film Gladiator and you'll get the picture. The revenge scene is overshadowed by what comes next: showered with praise after his victory in the Flavian, Vesuvio attends a Fellini-esque party in which Finch heaps on vividly surrealistic, X-rated description; no doubt the best-written sequence of the book.

Unusually for the typical historical novel, Golden Voyager features scenes of characters getting high. Drugs were in fact used in the ancient world, particularly marijuana - see Chris Bennett's Green Gold: The Tree Of Life. Vesuvio's fellow pirate slaves in the second half of the book chew cannabis before their plunderings, and our hero joins in. This is a nice touch, only Finch ruins it. You see, the cannabis turns the pirates into slavering beasts who only want to rape and pillage. It's all straight out of Reefer Madness. Anyone who's anyone knows that dope mellows the senses; despite the terror-mongering of the Christian Right, it does NOT turn you into a maniac. I'd assumed that sort of mentality had disappeared long before 1978, and it's even stranger when you consider Finch was in his 20s in the Psychedelic Sixties! So I assume he was one of those horn-rimmed glasses/buzzcut hair types, one of those guys you'll see in the Let It Be documentary, asking the cops to shut down the Beatles' impromptu rooftop performance.

The reader catches a glimpse of life in the Roman Empire, with mentions of the manifold gods and goddesses, even the di rigueur mention of "the Nazarene." But the tale is more focused on Vesuvio's adventures, resulting in something more akin to Conan or any other pulp fiction set in ancient times. What I'm saying is, this is just a straight-up revenge tale with action, intrigue, and sex to spare, which just happens to be set in the era of Trajan's rule. In many ways it's no different than the average Conan or King Kull novel, save for the fact that it's set in an actual, historical era, and also due to the copious and detailed sex scenes. But even these are reserved; Finch writes pages and pages of descriptive sex, but uses mostly medical-textbook terms for the bodyparts involved, and not a single profanity is uttered in the book (strange, when one realizes how absolutely profane Latin could be). So even though it attempts to be a "raw blockbuster of sensual adventure," as the cover blurb declares, the novel could easily have been published a few decades earlier and not have caused much of a stir.

Which brings us to the heart of the issue. A fun thing about pulp fiction is how much can be read into it - for example, see Norman Spinrad (under the guise "Homer Whipple") giving himself a Freudian reading in the superb The Iron Dream. You see, Finch goes on at great length about Vesuvio's good looks, his superhuman physique, and - especially - his "phallus." Get used to that word; you'll be seeing it a lot in Golden Voyager. Vesuvio's equipment is the focus of conversation for a panoply of characters, both men and women - the men envious, the women enraptured. Yet, as Finch constantly reminds us (or himself?), Vesuvio does not engage in "unnatural sex," ie relations with other men. Even though his fellow male slaves do so (and Finch of course gives us a few scenes graphically attesting to this), Vesuvio stays off to the side, mulling over man's seeming desire for self-punishment. It's all very funny and even an untrained reader could divine layers of subtext in the prose.

A third of the way into the book Finch tosses the subtext out the window. Sold as a "pleasure slave" to a Mesopotamian king, Vesuvio is taken by caravan to the palace. Along the way he is informed he will have to pleasure the king himself, and so must force himself to think of another man in "that way." With his new master demanding that he "practice" on a fellow male slave, guards posted outside ready to kill him if he disobeys, and Vesuvio forcing himself to realize that if he doesn't do it he will die (also telling himself that "Good men have practiced sodomy"), you just want to open that closet door for Finch and let him out. But the King dies, and Vesuvio never has to go through with it; though this scene gives us more priceless dialog concerning his "manhood." I want to say Vesuvio's endowment acts as a symbol of something, or that Finch is poking fun at the purple prose typical of the historical revenge epic. But I can't; the novel itself just doesn't justify it.

Golden Voyager was followed by Pagan Voyager in 1979 (published in the US under the title The Pagan), and the trilogy concluded with 1981's Voyager In Bondage. There are several editions of Golden Voyager. My copy is the US paperback, complete with a lurid, airbrushed cover of golden-haired Vesuvio surrounded by a bevy of nude women. The artist read the book, at least. The UK Pan Books edition sports a detail from Frank Frazetta's painting The Rogue Roman, which itself was the cover for Lance Horner's 1965 novel of the same title - a novel, by the way, with many similarities to Golden Voyager.

The Last Nights of Pompeii, by Martin Saul

The Last Nights of Pompeii, by Martin Saul
Signet Books, 1966

Published in 1966 as a Signet mass market paperback and never reprinted, Martin Saul's Last Nights of Pompeii is more novella than novel - it's a mere 125 pages of tiny type with a poorly-constructed plot and barely-developed characters. It jumps from one illogical extreme to another, and, all told, not much happens. So what's to recommend? Simply put, it's a great example of the historical trash fiction genre of the sixties and seventies, a genre which gave us such gems as Jack Oleck's Messalina and Lance Horner's Rogue Roman.

It's 79 CE and Marcius Longinus is a tribune in Pompeii. Vesuvius, of course, is about to erupt, but Marcius and his fellow townsfolk are blissfully unaware. Marcius fought in Jerusalem with Emperor Vespasian's son Titus - Titus, who himself is soon to become Emperor, as Vespasian is near death. While in Jerusalem Marcius and Titus rescued a young girl from the carnage outside the great Temple; Marcius went on to raise her, thinking of her as a younger sister. This is Selene, and she is neither Jewish nor Roman - indeed, no one is certain who or what she is, as when rescued she had no memory of where she was from or even who her parents were. Selene is now a beautiful young woman, one of Marcius's many slaves, though he's sure to point out she's only a slave by way of warfare. And Selene has become fixated on Marcius, in love with him; Marcius gradually realizes he too is in love with her. Yet problems loom: turns out Titus's Jewish lover Berenice has prophesized that Selene, if she fulfills her love with Marcius, will cause much devastation. (Read: If Marcius and Selene get it on, Vesuvius will erupt.) Intrigue ensues as Berenice attempts to foil Marcius and Selene's blossoming love.

The above could easily fill a much longer book, but as mentioned Last Nights of Pompeii is only 125 pages long. The novel comes off more like a synopsis, Saul rushing through his story. Beyond that, he has difficulty lending credibility to the Marcius/Selene romance; Selene doesn't even appear until 60 pages in, and we're supposed to believe that she's suddenly fallen in love with this older man who took her captive after butchering countless Jews. (Even more disturbing: the whole "I raised her but now I love her like a woman" deal reminds me of the whole Woody Allen/Soon Yi situation.) So this isn't a love story written by the stars, and Saul doesn't help himself by rushing through it: in just a few chapters Marcius has convinced himself that he does in fact love Selene and plans to marry her.

In addition to the main plot you have the usual requirements for fiction set in Rome: a graphically-detailed arena scene complete with battling gladiators and helpless victims being mauled by lions, chariot races, priests of forgotten religions muttering mumbo-jumbo as they wave their wands, walk-ons from historical personages (Titus, Berenice, even Jewish historian Josephus), and, of course, a mention or two of "the Nazarenes." Thankfully these Christians aren't the main focus of the novel; they only appear in a few places, yet Saul gives them loathsome dialog, baiting Marcius and his fellow "sinners" and promising that Pompeii will soon suffer for its "sinfulness." Makes me want to go back in time and HELP the Romans shove them into a lion-packed arena. But luckily neither Marcius nor any of the other characters are swayed by their preaching, which makes me wonder if perhaps Saul is taking a swing at the Christians. (Though I couldn't help but notice more than a little anti-Semitism in the vitriol Titus spews about his former adversaries in the Jewish war.)

The novel is very much of its time: the women are either virginal innocents (like Selene) or manipulative schemers (like Berenice). There's a huge dose of misogyny in a too-long subplot in which Marcius's pal Claudius gains a new slave: a beautiful patrician woman who's been cast into slavery for having an affair with her husband's slave. Claudius gains control of her and, despite his lust for her beauty, proceeds to treat her like garbage, threatening her with whippings, assigning her humiliating chores, and refusing to so much as even look at her. And guess what? She eventually falls in love with him. Take THAT, Women's Lib!

And yes, Vesuvius's eruption is the climax of the book. We all knew it was heading there, anyway. Saul rushes through the disaster, getting some details wrong - he has the city covered in lava moments after the eruption, but archeologists now know that the townspeople had a long time to escape the city between the first blast and the eventual destruction. In fact, it now seems that the majority of the citizens safely escaped; those who did die in the catastrophe only did so because they stayed behind, thinking it was safe. (Saul makes another mistake when he has Marcius mention stirrups, something which wasn't invented for another 500 years.)

So, at times poorly written, with a plot based on a ridiculous prophecy, and with characters who are a bit too wooden, The Last Nights of Pompeii isn't a great novel, but it's at least some good and trashy fun.

Rogue Roman, by Lance Horner

Rogue Roman, by Lance Horner
Fawcett Books, 1965

Published in 1965 and in print for several years thereafter, Lance Horner's Rogue Roman is now long out of circulation and mostly forgotten. It is worth seeking out - a sterling example of the exploitative historical fiction churned out for the popular market in the sixties and seventies. Books that tread the line between pulp fiction and genuine literature, filled with sex and carnage, but which also took the time to plumb the depths of their characters' psychology.

The novel spans the years 55 - 62 CE, during the reign of Nero. Cleon is our hero, a blonde-haired youth who has grown up in Syria, surrounded by a ragamuffin family of mixed races; seems his actual parentage is questionable, and he certainly does not consider his Syrian father to be his true parent. (Later it turns out Cleon is right.) Cleon escapes his miserly roots to become a mime for a travelling group of artists from Antioch; here he is introduced to the slave Mannax, a gay youth who once served men as a temple slave in the Grove of Daphne in Antioch. Cleon grows accustomed to his more exciting life, entertaining audiences in Antioch, when disaster strikes and he and Mannax become slaves. The pair are trained as gladiators, both growing more solid and well-built during their years of training. Eventually Cleon, Mannax, and the rest of their new friends in the gladiator school are taken to Rome, where Cleon's spotted by the Chief Vestal Julia Livilla, who happens to be the sister of Agrippina the Younger - the mother of Nero.

Cleon turns out to be a dead ringer for a man both Julia and Agrippina loved, long ago; in fact, they are certain he is the man's son. This seems true to Cleon; his mother often mentioned to him that his true father was a Roman dignitary. But there's more to it: Agrippina reveals that this same blonde-haired Roman dignitary was the true father of Nero. This means that Cleon and Nero are half-brothers. And the two look so similar that Cleon could easily pass for Nero, using his mime skills to complete the picture.

Nero has gone mad with power, and Agrippina and Julia conspire to oust him. Their plan: Cleon will step in and "become" Nero, and no one will be the wiser. This intrigue guides the final half of the novel, with many double-crosses and reversals and surprises - the most significant being for Cleon that he falls in love with Nero's ignored and virginal wife Octavia.

So that's the plot. Horner complements it by bringing the ancient world into full Technicolor life. There are set pieces aplenty here, especially a fantastic scene set in the Grove of Daphne where Cleon attempts to satiate his rampaging desires. The prerequisite gladiator material isn't as prevalent as one would inspect; indeed, Cleon is mostly kept from harm due to Julia's protection. Cleon is, at least: there is a long setpiece in the arena in which Horner piles on the graphic descriptions of death, rape, and torture which took place before the eager eyes of onlookers, all of it straight out of Daniel Mannix's Those About To Die. Horner also plays up the opulent decadence of the Roman court, with appearances from Nero, Petronius (author of the Satyricon, which goes unmentioned), and Nero's mistress Poppaea Sabina. There's a great discussion between Nero and Petronius on if it would be wise for an emperor to kiss his wife in public.

Again, this is an enjoyable novel, but it does have a pulp fiction undercurrent. The first half of the novel comes off like a series of short stories connected arbitrarily; Horner spends time developing characters and plots (the young actress Cleon falls in love with while he's a mime, the older pair who have hired him on and who own Mannax), only to cast them aside without warning. The dialog also comes off a bit too "Hollywood historical film," with characters talking like they've just stepped out of a Shakespeare play. There's also a puzzling homoerotic tenor; Mannax falls in love with Cleon, and often insists that he prefers boys, yet once he becomes a gladiator Mannax is forced to sleep with a woman. Calling Dr. Freud! There's also a very disturbing scene involving a group of guys sitting in a circle, a clump of dirt before them, and, well, their "anointing" of it for the goddess Fortune. A scene I'd prefer to forget.

Horner wrote several novels with Kyle Onstott, but here he works solo; Onstott provides an introduction to Rogue Roman, where he says he hopes the book will one day become a movie. Unfortunately that never happened. Onstott and Horner returned to the ancient world on their own, however; in 1966 they collaborated on Child of the Sun, about the "depraved" 3rd Century CE emperor Elagabalus.

Rogue Roman had the same cover throughout all its printings: a superb Frank Frazetta painting of a muscled blonde man reclining in opulence as a Nubian slave presents to him a busty and nude redhead. Ah yes, that old Frazetta misogyny in full effect; there are even two more semi-nude slave girls who sit obediently at the blonde man's feet. It doesn't have much to do with the novel, but it's effective.

The Gladiators, by Martin Saul

The Gladiators, by Martin Saul
Signet, 1967

In 1966 Martin Saul published The Last Nights of Pompeii, which I reviewed here, a slim book set in the post-Nero era of ancient Rome. In 1967 he followed that up with this novel, just as slim, a tale about a Roman citizen turned gladiator during the era of Nero's rule. I'm guessing Saul was Australian, as the book is copyrighted by some publishing house based in Australia - this Signet paperback was the first and only US edition.

Much like the previous novel, The Gladiators is basically a love story. Scaurius is the main character and narrator, Scandinavian-born but raised Roman. Just returned from warring with Vespasian in the East, Scaurius notes how decadent Rome has become under Nero. Already feeling like an outsider, he gets in more trouble when he comes across a beautiful young woman who happens to be Christian. She's on the run from the Emperor's men; Scaurius of course falls in love with her, and after various mishaps he ends up in prison with a bunch of Christians, awaiting execution in the arena.

Scaurius convinces his captors - including Nero - that he is not a Christian. At length they concede he might be telling the truth, but they keep him locked up. Only now, rather than just becoming lion-bait, he will battle as a gladiator. The second half of the novel is a series of repetitive gladiatorial matches, Scaurius usually up against a lion or three, until the last event, in which he faces off against professional gladiators. It's all very underwhelming, despite the setup.

And again much like the previous novel, The Gladiators is just underdeveloped. Scenes aren't played out to their full potential, and the narrative rushes to the conclusion. Characters as well are underdeveloped; I had a hard time buying Scaurius's sudden love for the Christian girl. And speaking of which, whereas The Last Nights of Pompeii at least strayed clear of the Christian glurge which permeates most historical fiction set in this era, The Gladiators at times revels in it, with Christians blathering ad naseum about the wonders of their faith and the sinfulness of the Romans. Saul tries to skirt this, with Scaurius not wholly buying into it all, instead coming to a New Age understanding of "one god" who stands behind all religions. I did appreciate how despite all of that, Scaurius still has no qualms with butchering his opponents in the arena and ridicules the Christians for their pacifism.

What's funny is that the novel wraps up with a three page denouement, told in summary, in which Scaurius leaves Rome and ends up in his homeland of Scandinavia, where he eventually founds a royal line. It turns out he's the son of a king, of course, and he names his son Beowulf - the idea being that he is the Beowulf of the saga. This three page denouement is more interesting than the story told in the novel itself! Yet Saul brushes over it as an afterthought; further proof that this novel was underdeveloped.