Thursday, July 28, 2011

Phoenix #3: Death Quest

Phoenix #3: Death Quest, by David Alexander
No month stated, 1988 Leisure Books

The post-nuke carnage continues in volume #3 of the Phoenix saga, the most action-packed installment yet. Which is really saying something, because they've all been action-packed. And in fact Death Quest, while occasionally as insane, graphic, and lurid as its predecessors, kind of wears thin after a while, being nothing more than one protracted action sequence after another.

When last we saw our hero Magnus "Phoenix" Trench in Ground Zero, he'd been captured by the mercenary forces of "Dark Messiah" Luther Enoch, aka the guy who caused the end of the world. Enoch's head honcho John Tallon trapped our hero, and that novel ended with Trench being escorted away -- Trench is an "Alpha Immune," possibly the only one in existence; he is completely immune to the radiation and biochemical-induced contaminations which plague the rest of mankind. Luther Enoch himself is one step away from becoming a full-on "Contam," kept human only by a biosurvival suit. Enoch wants Trench dead or alive, so he can create vaccines from his immune blood.

But little need to worry about our hero. When we meet Trench in Death Quest he's already got his hands wrapped around the throat of an orderly who is about to cut him up. Killing the man, Trench stumbles about in a "purple haze" of drugs that have been put into his system over the past few weeks of captivity.

Trench then makes his escape from this enemy base: he kills a few merc soldiers, takes the uniform of one of them, sneaks onto a departing cargo plane filled with mercs and weapons, gets discovered halfway through the flight, kills a ton of mercs in a firefight which results in a hole blasted into the plane, jumps out with an M-60, some Uzis, and no parachute, gets in an airborne fight with the one man who escaped the downed plane in a parachute, kills the guy and takes his 'chute, lands in the middle of a pockmarked expanse of Middle America, and is instantly attacked by a group of chopper-riding thugs whom he blasts apart with the M-60. It all goes on for about 40 pages, and it's the best running battle yet in the series, all of it of the caliber one would encounter in a ramped-up '80s action movie. The only problem is, nothing else in Death Quest can match it.

Finding himself in St Louis, Missouri, Trench wastes a few more motorcycle-riding punks before meeting up with an underground group of resistance fighters. Led by Mason Bragdon, a one-time politican whose bid for the presidency was crushed by Luther Enoch years before WWIII, these people are trying to free a technician named Reinhart from a government concentration camp which operates beneath St. Louis's fallen Gateway Arch. Enoch's new government is planning to kill off what remains of the rabble of the American populace, destroying the scum and freaks who live in the "Urban Containment Zones." Bombs, designed by Reinhart, will nuke all of the living organisms from these areas but leave the real estate intact. The operation is codenamed "Cocked Pistol."

Reinhart it develops became sickened with the idea and turned against Enoch. Now he's in this camp, subject to constant torture. The camp honcho is a sadist named Mekkannik, who is identical to Trench's archnemesis John Tallon from the previous two books. (Tallon for whatever reason sits this volume of the series out.) In exchange for his help in freeing Reinhart, Mason Bragdon promises to get Trench to NYC as quickly as possible. Bragdon claims to know underground channels which will make the trip easy for our hero; Trench, remember, is still red-hot to get to NYC to determine if his wife and son are still alive.

What follows is battle scene after battle scene, as Trench leads Bragdon's men on various assaults against Mekkannik and his forces. Death Quest is more of your "typical" post-nuke pulp, with more of a focus on action than the lurid insanity we got in the previous books. To be sure, Trench still kills a ton of people -- in fact he kills more people here than in any of the previous books -- but they're dashed off kills (for Alexander at least), with little of the "he shit his pants and died" schadenfreude of the first two novels.

But then, when Alexander does go to those previous lengths, he does so with relish:

The kill was beautiful in its perfect symmetry. The exploding hollownosed bullets struck in a tight cluster pattern which knocked the SCORF cowboy off his feet with his arms and legs spread and a gaping, bloody hole where his heart, lungs and pancreas used to be.

The corpse landed on the electrified perimeter fence surrounding the Cocked Pistol secure cordon. What had been a vicious killer named Bullock jerked spastically as the high-voltage current cooked the blood in its veins and jolted every muscle into convulsive fibrillations.

The eyes popped out of the sockets, followed by spouts of red vein juice from the flailing, gesticulating thing's ears. The bowels emptied, spurting from the snuffed merc's rectum. Then the body sagged to the ground and lay there smoking.

All of that, three paragraphs worth, for a character we only met one page before. A sick delight of the previous books was the occasional appearance of a Contam, ie mutants very much in the C.H.U.D. mold. Even these things don't appear much in Death Quest, save for one brief but grisly scene where Trench and his team must navigate through an abandoned subway station.

One new thing Alexander adds to the series is a sense of nihilism. Sure, the previous books were nihilistic -- this is a post-nuke pulp, after all -- but here the cynicism and weariness is much more apparent. The entire book is action sequence after action sequence; the only break we get is the occasional bit where Trench will mull over man's inhummanity and sickness. There is an air of futility to the whole novel. However during one of these mulling bits we get a priceless moment where Trench, holding his gun and fantasizing over the vengeance he will get, takes gun-porn to its logical conclusion:

Yes, Phoenix ached to spurt hot, cleansing fire from the muzzle of righteous vengeance held erect and potent at his thigh.

He's talking about his MINIMI M249, of course! It's things like this that place Phoenix above and beyond others of its ilk, the obvious fact that Alexander is having just as much fun writing it as we are having reading it. And again this time out we're of course still treated to tons of gun fetishizing, goofy puns, and rock references -- beyond the "purple haze" bit there's also a Grace Jones-type Amazon who fights Trench to the death while she sings ? and the Mysterians's "96 Tears."

So even though Death Quest lacks a certain something that its predecessors had, it still opens with one hell of a protracted action sequence, and it still has that same gleeful sadism about it, just to a lesser extent.

Monday, July 25, 2011

John Eagle Expeditor #4: The Fist of Fatima

John Eagle Expeditor #4: The Fist of Fatima, by Paul Edwards
September, 1973 Pyramid Books

To cue the old cliche, "this time it's personal" for John Eagle, aka the Expeditor. In the previous three novels Eagle was sent on missions that had little to do with him personally, but this time out he himself instigates the job. A cadre of Islamic terrorists murder a pair of US ambassadors in Libya, and one of them turns out to be Eagle's college pal. After the President speaks at the funeral for these men, there follows a neat scene where Eagle himself corners the President and "requests" that he call Mr. Merlin, aka Eagle's boss, and "suggest" an assignment of retribution for the Expeditor.

Another thing different this time out is that Eagle is present from the opening; in the previous books we had to wade through half the novel before our protagonist even became involved in the story. This is good in that it gets the ball rolling, but what's unfortunate is that, as usual, this volume of the Expeditor is so incredibly padded. It's really just a bunch of page-filling until the inevitable finale, in which John Eagle once again dons his bullet-proof chameleon suit and stages a one-man raid on the enemy compound.

Around this time the men's adventure magazine market was drying up, with the majority of the magazines either folding or becoming nudie magazines in the vein of Playboy. But the spirit of the "sweat mags" lived on in the pages of John Eagle Expeditor. For here the "macho mystique" reigned supreme: this series is about nothing so much as man conquering...everything. The white man in particular. Eagle arrives in the Libyan desert and insinuates himself into a party of Touregs, desert warriors who themselves have a score to settle with the Islamic terrorists who murdered Eagle's friend.

And to become one of the Touregs Eagle proves his manhood in a variety of men's adventure magazine-type ways. He kills a few terrorists. He makes friends with the elderly leader of the Touregs, drinking tea with him and going to the trouble of sleeping with the man's daughters -- both women at the same time. (And this sex scene, as is mandatory for the series, is again presented as a struggle itself, between man and woman, with man victorious.) Next Eagle tames a wild camel, which in true Alexander the Great fashion has been too wild for any of the Touregs to tame. He practices and masters the Toureg fashion of firing a long rifle from the back of his camel. Finally he challenges a prick Toureg who has been antagonizing him to a bout of mortal combat, and Eagle of course slices the prick up.

So really, this entire middle half comes off like a sequence of men's adventure articles. Each section could easily be separated from the novel and plunked into one of those magazines, with an appropriately-lurid title: How I slept with a pair of desert wenches -- at the same time! But as expected it all fizzles out, having at length nothing to do with the finale; despite all of the work of ingratiating himself with the Touregs, preparing to fight with their growing army against the enemy stronghold, it ends up with Eagle the lone survivor, again trusting to his own devices to serve up some bloody payback.

The enemy boss is unimaginatively named "Leader," a hulking African who calls himself "The Black Death." He has assembled his terrorists under "The Fist of Fatima," which takes the familar Hand of Fatima and turns it into a symbol of war. From his mountain stronghold he sends out his men on missions of terror and murder. Armed with his high-tech bow, vials of explosives, and dart gun, Eagle infiltrates the place and kills everyone in a drawn-out and entertaining finale.

I've long suspected that Sylvester Stallone was/is a fan of men's adventure novels -- it was Stallone's film The Specialist that "outed" John Shirley as John Cutter, after all -- and The Fist of Fatima adds more proof. For one, the entire novel is quite similar to Stallone's unsung masterpiece of '80s action, Rambo III. Sure, in the film Rambo was saving an old friend, not avenging him, but otherwise it's all pretty much the same, with the protagonist becoming friends with desert warriors who do battle against a larger and better-equiped army. In fact, I'm betting John Eagle Expeditor itself played some part in Stallone's version of Rambo.

I know, David Morrell created the character, but Morrell's version of Rambo was a scrawny, bearded kid who had been trained to be a killing machine without a soul. As screenwriter for all of the films, it was Sylvester Stallone who created the Rambo character we all know, giving him more depth and humanity. Also, it was Stallone who, in First Blood Part 2, introduced the concept that Rambo was partly of American Indian heritage; further that he was fond of using fancy bows and arrows...explosive-tipped arrows at that!

And finally...there's even a scene in The Fist of Fatima where Eagle, who has just blown a pair of helicopters out of the sky (with those explosive-tipped arrows, just like Rambo), gets on the horn and growls a threat to the enemy leader, back in his base. All Eagle needed to say was "I'm your worst nightmare," and the picture would've been complete.

Anyway, maybe it's all coincidence. And by the way I'm not claiming all of this just so I can whine that Stallone "ripped off" John Eagle Expeditor...hell, if it turned out to be true, I'd just think Stallone was all the cooler.

This was Robert Lory's second appearance as "Paul Edwards," and again he does a good job of keeping the story moving, despite the inordinate amount of padding. There isn't as much lurid stuff this time out (other than the scene involving Eagle and the perpetually-horny Toureg sisters, who despite it all become increasingly annoying as the novel progresses), but the action scenes are tautly done.

All told, The First of Fatima is more of the same for John Eagle Expeditor, but for whatever reason this is still one of my favorite series.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

MIA Hunter #2: Cambodian Hellhole

MIA Hunter #2: Cambodian Hellhole, by Jack Buchanan
April, 1985 Jove Books

This second entry in the MIA Hunter series is an exercise in patience more than anything else. Nothing much happens throughout, the whole thing a looong buildup to an attack on a VC compound filled with US POWs. Michael Newton also wrote this volume, and you can't really be too hard on the guy: I mean, he was handed a premise which was only good for one novel, and asked to write two. And back-to-back novels at that! For how many books can you write about a three-man team busting American POWs out of Vietnamese bases?

Well, the sarcastic response to that question would be "seventeen," which is how many novels there were in the MIA Hunter series, but luckily the scope of these stories expanded in later volumes. It's my understanding Stephen Mertz outlined each of these novels, so I'm guessing his plot for this one went something like: "Have protagonist Mark Stone get captured this time and then have his two teammates bust him out."

Because really, that's all that happens in Cambodian Hellhole. (A great title by the way; I'm surprised some '80s punk band didn't lift it for an album title.) The previous installment had a sort of grand scope which became dilluted with too many action scenes in the end; this volume is pretty much devoid of any action until the end. Stone is a screw-up this time out, too; he bungles a POW rescue operation in the opening pages, and then, after getting away from a CIA team sent to capture him in Bangkok, he goes out on another mission, this time to free Jess Lynch, a pal of his from back in the 'Nam...and promptly gets captured himself.

This happens not even halfway through and we're left with a wheel-spinning installment in which we have moments from Stone's perspective, where he undergoes torture and wonders how long he can hold out until his buddies arrive to save him; to sequences from Stone's teammates points of view as they scope out the area and plan their attack; to sequences from the VC commander's point of view, as he worries over an impending US strike. It just goes on and on and on, with many of the sequences exact repeats of one another; I lost track of the number of times Hog Wiley or Terrance Loughlin (Stone's partners) would give themselves pep talks that Stone was still alive.

Stone also takes some serious abuse this time, tortured by the VC with sticks to his knees and flames played across the bare soles of his feet, but he apparently walks it all off. Other than a few mentions of being "sore," he gets over it okay. The only colorful character here is Lon Ky, a Cambodian who hates the Vietnamese and wants to kill as many of them as he can. Unfortunately he's overshadowed by the boring stuff and Newton dispatches him much too quickly.

It all culminates in a massive attack on the VC base, with Stone of course getting his share of bloody payback. This time out he and his pals save twenty-some POWs from the clutches of the VC; you start to wonder how many more could be left out there. But it appears that the next handful of novels continue on with the "POW-rescue" theme; it isn't until later on that the series ranged a bit further afield. However this was it for Newton; the next novel was written by Joe R. Landsdale.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Phoenix #2: Ground Zero

Phoenix #2: Ground Zero, by David Alexander
No month stated, 1987 Leisure Books

I'm all about delayed gratification, but when it came to the second volume of David Alexander's post-nuke Phoenix saga, I couldn't wait. Dark Messiah, the first installment of this five-volume series, was the most OTT thing I've yet read, so it makes sense that the only thing that could top it would be this second installment. Yes, Ground Zero goes to the same insane lengths as its predecessor, sometimes even further.

The first thing we notice is this second volume is longer than the first. Alexander accordingly gives it a broader story; Dark Messiah, great as it was, went down with the mentality of a violent cartoon in many respects, with a simple storyline of action and vengeance. With Ground Zero the series takes on the nature of a picaresque; you'd figure protagonist Magnus "Phoenix" Trench would be heading straight from San Francisco to NYC to find his wife and son -- to ensure they survived the thermonuclear exchange which ravaged the US in Dark Messiah -- but here we pick up with him a few months after that previous volume, and he's only made his way into Nevada.

Trench might be in a hurry to find his loved ones, but Alexander isn't -- he wants to take his hero on a protracted journey across the blasted, sadistic, post-nuke USA. We learned last time out that the Russians dosed their nukes with biochemicals, which resulted in instant mutants nicknamed "Contams;" even those survivors who haven't contracted the full-blown Contam virus are still affected in some ways, usually with minor scarring or whatever. Only a handful of people are "Immunes," ie people completely unaffected by the biochemicals or the radiation. You guessed it: Trench is an Immune, and as such he's a wanted man.

The battered US government, now under the control of Luther Enoch, the "dark messiah" psychopath who orchestrated the war, has offered bounty on any and all Immunes. The idea is to cut them up and see what it is that makes them Immune, so an antidote can be created. Enoch himself has been infected by the virus; only a robotic suit keeps him from becoming a full-blown Contam, and he now commands his forces from his underground survival bunker (which we're now told is in Virginia; the previous novel implied that it was the more-unexpected West Virginia...but I guess this is incidental in the post-nuke US). Long story short, roving bands of bounty hunters scour the country, seeking out Immunes. Dead or alive.

Having dropped off the 15 year-old prostitute September Song in California, Trench now travels alone, armed as always with a variety of submachine guns and his trusty MINIMI M249. He stops in Trinity, Nevada, for provisions, fuel, and ammo; despite only being six months out from the nuclear war, the city has already become a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome sort of wasteland, a shantytown of mohawked punks and armored car-riding warriors. Bounty hunters detect Trench's immune status via handy but hidden scanners, and soon enough the whole town's after him, leading to an endless and gory chase sequence.

After killing pretty much everyone, Trench himself nearly becomes a meal for a pack of Contams. He's saved by the appearance of a flamethrower-wielding midget named Big Wally; Trench laughs at the spectacle, much to the midget's chagrin. But then, a self-mocking vibe runs throughout Ground Zero. For here is a novel that isn't afraid to poke fun at itself, or even its protagonist:

"You know where I can score some weapons and ammo?" Phoenix asked Big Wally.

The midget said he did. "But you want a beer first, right? Then you want to get fucked, I bet. Well, pardnuh, I know this woman, she's got such a fine --"

"Wrong," Trench said cutting Big Wally off. "Iron first, beer later, pussy last."

"Can I quote you on that, big guy?" Big Wally asked, shaking his head. "I mean, no shit, people must tell you all the time you're a regular fount of wisdom, right?"

Big Wally takes Trench into Vegas, which operates much the same, even in the post-apocalypse: people come to the neon-lit streets to wager bets and make "n-bucks," however now they bet on various life-or-death contests. The city is controlled feudal-style by "The Sheik of Las Vegas," a former con who now rules the roost from his penthouse suite in the battered Caesar's Palace. The biggest event the Sheik runs is the Murder Marathon, patterned after the chariot races of Imperial Rome, only with armed and armored muscle cars replacing the chariots. This race goes on between Vegas and the outlying cities, a veritable joust that determines which city reigns supreme. Losing his best racer in a barfight, the Sheik catches wind that the already-legendary Phoenix is in town, and determines to draft him as his new racer in the Murder Marathon.

Meanwhile, John Tallon, the sadist in command of Luther Enoch's mercenary army, has assembled a special team of mercs to hunt down Trench. The best of the best, these men have been put through instense trials over the past months, to ensure their ferocity; Tallon was bested by Trench in the closing pages of the previous novel, and is now fanatical to get revenge. Soon enough he gets wind that Trench is in Vegas, and has been there for a while -- having set the man up, the Sheik of Vegas has succeeded in making Trench his new Murder Marathon racer. Tallon works with the Sheik to get Trench once the race has been run.

The Murder Marathon sequence goes down like an '80s take on the climactic scene from Ben-Hur, with cheering crowds and competitors dying in spectacles of gore. Trench of course emerges victorious, only to discover that Tallon's forces are coming for him; after a chase through the desert, Trench crashes and blacks out, figuring this is the end. What follows is a bizarre sequence which has nothing to do with the rest of the novel: Trench awakens in an underground "paradise" of New Age-spouting hippies, living in an abandoned nuclear silo beneath the Nevada desert. And to add to the cliche; Trench finds himself suffering from amnesia.

The whole sequence comes off like the opening half of Logan's Run meets Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The hippies are led by a gorgeous lady named Elektra-Yang who of course instantly makes Trench her own; lots of sex scenes ensue. Meanwhile we discover that Contams lurk in the hidden bowls of the silo...there is lots of talk about "Blast-Off and Re-Entry," in which pregnant hippies will return to the surface world to preach their lesson of peace to the nuked masses. It all culminates in one of the most tasteless, sick sequences I've ever read, made all the more sick in that it's so incidental to the novel itself. It's as if Alexander was just trying to out-gross himself, and he succeeded; this is some gut-churning stuff for sure.

With the deus ex machina reappearance of Big Wally, Trench -- who has now regained his memory -- is able to escape back up to the surface world. Only to find himself waltzing right into the hornet's nest, as Tallon and his men have lain here in wait, realizing the only place Trench could've escaped to was that nuclear silo. Ground Zero ends with another of those huge action sequences, with Trench and Big Wally taking on Tallon's elite mercenary squad in the abandoned streets of a nearby ghost town (this series is all about cliche piled atop cliche, but somehow it works!).

Everything I loved in Dark Messiah is here: the gun-porn, the ultra-gore, the purple-prosed sex, the dark comedy. The action is spectacular and violent, even though it's really all simple: some guy usually just shoots at Trench, who "somersaults" out of the way and then fires back. But in Alexander's hands it becomes a sort of hyperkinetic poetry:

Crimson spouted from the shattered base of the skull as a longburst of 185-grain HV steel-jacketed wadcutters screaming from a Steyr MPi69 SMG outfitted with a SIONICS silencer struck the target's skull, buzzsawing it into a thousand jagged fragments.

The headless corpse pitched crazily forward. Its weapon, an UZI .45 ACP Micro, clattered from lifeless fingers. Brain-matter cocktail slopped from the open chalice of the skull, spattering the dirty boots. The corpse lurched onto its knees, then keeled over on its side. Firing nerve ends jerked the legs and arms of the torso, giving it the appearance of some gigantic earthworm as it crawled forward leaving a trail of bloody slime.

I mean, the whole thing reads like it comes from the pen of a sex and violence-obsessed teenager with no conscience. Take for example this bit from a later scene, where Trench sits in a stadium full of people in Vegas and watches two women, Mad Maxine and Piltdown Annie, fight one another to the death:

Maxine's urogenital system geysered from the spectacular exit wound in her upper back as the three-round burst of .45 ACP slugs ripped from the muzzle of the steel phallus jutting obscenely from Piltdown's belt.

I should mention that all of this occurs after Piltdown has strapped on said .45-firing "phallus" and first inserted it into various of Maxine's orifices before finally jamming it into her "rectum," awaiting the audience's decision on whether she should fire or not. As stated, she does. But what makes this entire pages-long sequence so funny -- and serves as more proof as to the self-mocking vibe of the series -- is that it ends with this deadpan punchline:

Magnus Trench was sickened.

Yes, it's only after we have read endlessly graphic material, about urogenital systems geysering from spectacular exit wounds and heads shattering like cantaloupes as they blow into a thousand fragments, that we are informed our hero is "sickened" by the events.

David Alexander plays this game throughout Ground Zero and it's a joy to behold. For a long time I've searched for a men's adventure series that could equal the over-the-top vibe of TNT -- and let me tell you, Phoenix doesn't just equal it, it surpasses it. And we're only two volumes in!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mondo #2: Cocaine Kill

Mondo #2: Cocaine Kill, by Anthony DeStefano
No month stated, 1977 Manor Books

Anthony DeStefano's Mondo was one of the best novels I read last year, a grim and gritty blast of what I like to call "bell-bottom fury." So it's with much dismay that I report that this follow-up, published two years later, just can't compare with that earlier volume. In fact, Cocaine Kill, despite having a great title, is mostly a tepid bore.

As I mentioned in my review of Mondo, that novel easily worked as a standalone, which it apparently was -- I mean, not to spoil it for anyone, but Mondo died in the last sentence of that novel. So it's quite strange that DeStefano and/or Manor Books decided to bring him back. And though DeStefano opens Cocaine Kill with Mondo on the same hospital bed upon which he died, he glosses over the man's actual death and just has him recuperating from the massive (ie fatal) wounds he suffered in the climax of Mondo.

Otherwise this is a straight-up sequel, with DeStefano determined in the opening chapters to tie up every loose end leftover from the first volume. To wit, Mondo gets out of the hospital, reconnects with his Japanese martial arts teacher, Kikasa, and then goes to find his lady from the earlier book -- the lady he pushed away. This is in reality a fluff scene, with no bearing on Cocaine Kill; indeed, someone who had never read that first volume might wonder what the hell's going on. Because the lady's moved on, and tells Mondo so. And unless he or she is reading Cocaine Kill immediately after Mondo, the reader too has moved on, so this whole sequence is pointless. The unfortunate part is this pointlessness only serves as a precursor to the pointless padding we will endure through the remainder of the novel.

Another of those loose ends is the Chinese martial arts master hired in Mondo to kill our protagonist. Mondo swears vengeance and the two arrange a fight to the death -- a veritable Mortal Kombat, if you will. But then we get lots and lots of background story on the Chinese thug himself. This happens often in the novel; every time a new character is introduced, DeStefano spends several pages recapping his or her life, with tons of incidental and needless detail. The fight occurs and though Mondo is outmatched we must remember that he fights dirty, packing heat and using it despite the "hands and fists" nature of the battle.

The outcome is, the Chinese thug was the head enforcer for a Triad, and as a sign of respect for the deceased, Mondo promises to carry out an important hit for the Triad, acting as their temporary enforcer. The hit is a black American named Jacque Ku Khan, who is moving into Triad territory. Khan's own enforcer is Turk, a hulking Puerto Rican who is fond of using a straight razor on his victims. So begins a cat and mouse game between Mondo and Khan, with Mondo posing as a drug dealer in the ghetto and Khan instantly knowing who he is.

The only sequence in the entire novel that matches the first volume is when Khan's men forcibly hook Mondo on heroin during interrogation. After escaping, Mondo finds an old friend, a former junkie who helps others get clean. But when the man isn't home, Mondo handcuffs himself to a tree to tough it out until the man gets back.

What's missing here is the brutality of that first novel. As I wrote in my review, Mondo was very much like a grindhouse film on paper. It was a no-holds-barred blast of lurid entertainment. And though Cocaine Kill has similar bits every so often, it just fails to match up. Too much of it is given over to background data on various minor characters, and Mondo himself is lost in the clutter. He's still a bad-ass to be sure, more villain than hero, but he too is a pale reflection here of his former self. For example, in this one he's easily fooled by Khan's moll, a gorgeous black lady who gives herself to Mondo but then sets him up. This would not have happened in Mondo. But then, he did die in that novel, so I guess we should cut him some slack.

DeStefano wrote one more volume in the trilogy, which I have; let's see if it takes me another year to get to it.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Gannon #2: Blood Fix

Gannon #2: Blood Fix, by Dean Ballenger
January, 1974 Manor Books

It took me nearly a year to recuperate from the sadistic, brutal, and incredible first volume of the Gannon trilogy. Actually I've been meaning to read this second volume for quite a while, but I kept putting it off for other books. But this may have been for the best, as Ballenger's distinctive syntax and diction is probably best enjoyed infrequently -- reading these novels back-to-back would no doubt dillute their impact.

Hero Mike Gannon has now become a "Robin Hood" for the working-class stiff; this is exactly how Manor refers to him, which is funny because it's hard to imagine Robin Hood lopping off ears with spiked knuckles. But due to his ransacking of the corrupt upper-class in the first volume, Gannon is now seen as the go-to guy for blue-collar types who get screwed by the man. Such is the case with a guy in Kansas City who is set up by a millionaire named Thorpe; Thorpe wants to own the man's property so he can make a few more million off of its sale. Hence Thorpe sets the guy up on a phony rape charge, and further hires a stooge to kill the girl so it will appear that the man is both murderer and rapist. But Gannon arrives to save the day, and "the little tiger" wages war against Thorpe and his gang of thugs.

Gannon doesn't even appear on the scene until about 40 pages in -- but trust me, those initial 40 pages are as graphic and insane as anything in the first volume. In my review of Gannon #1 I mentioned the "Chandler goonspeak" every character employed; the same holds true here, with even the narration written the same way. If anything Ballenger has perfected the form with this second volume. It's odd in a way, as Ballenger commits every writing sin: he POV-hops with abandon, every character speaks exactly the same, and he even repeats many of the same phrases throughout. But hell, when the writing is this unusual, you don't really care. And it's addictive, too; pretty soon I found myself wanting to talk like these hoodlums: "Listen up, shit-shooter. Stop fritzing around and rip off, before you get scragged."

If Blood Fix was published today (that is, if it could find a publisher), it would either be heralded as the work of a genius or derided as the rantings of a sociopath. It is in every way as twisted as its predecessor. "Only" a few people die here, as compared to the mass deaths one may encounter in the average men's adventure novel, but each murder packs a wallop, again complete with mutilations via spiked knuckles or eviscerations/decapitations via Thompson submachine guns.

And once more Ballenger doesn't shirk on violence against women -- there are many uncomfortable scenes in which female characters are "stomped" by thugs, complete with graphic detail on the damage they incur before their horrifying deaths. What's worse is that these women -- blue-collar working girls the lot of them -- always scream stuff like "Don't kill me! Fuck me instead!" before getting killed. It's all like the literary equivalent of those ultra-creepy cover photos on the "men's detective" magazines of the '70s, which always showed a gorgeous woman in the process of being murdered. (Not only were those magazines very successful -- and plentiful -- but not-so-surprisingly they were found to be favored reading material of many serial killers, Ted Bundy among them.)

But here's the weird thing: Blood Fix is funny. I mean, really funny. Despite what I wrote in the paragraph above -- content that would turn off the average reader -- there is a definite tongue-in-cheek vibe here, one that isn't in the least subtle. This goes beyond the over-the-top nature of the book and its characters, but also includes recurring jokes and situations. For one, there's easy stuff like a running gag where hoods keep taking handfuls of expensive cigars from the humidor on Thorpe's desk, but there's also more elaborate stuff like when a pair of thugs, while laying in ambush, argue over if they can steal Gannon's wallet after killing him.

So I think it's safe to say that this is another of those instances of a writer just going as far out as he can in order to amuse both himself and his readers. And he succeeds on pretty much every level: the lurid stuff will offend the easily-offended and the outrageous stuff will tickle the most jaded of hearts. None of it is to be taken seriously. More evidence? One of the main villains, after being mauled and mutilated by Gannon, wants to die, and so goes for a gun. Gannon shoots him. "Goodbye, cocksuckers," the man says, and then dies.

I mean, I have no idea how Ballenger did it. As I say, he breaks pretty much every writing rule, but still comes out on top. Just like his "hero" Gannon does -- once again he "rolls" a few gorgeous gals who just throw themselves at him; in another funny bit Gannon realizes that one of them wants to become "Mrs. Gannon," and so clears town asap.

Anyway, Blood Fix is a blast from the first page to the last -- and that's the ding-dong truth!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Phoenix #1: Dark Messiah

Phoenix #1: Dark Messiah, by David Alexander
No month stated, 1987 Leisure Books

Here's another of those action novels I bought as a kid but never read. Actually, I did try to read it, but as I recall I found it boring at the time, and only made it through the first few chapters. That I found this book "boring" now makes me laugh, as Dark Messiah is the most ultra-violent, graphic, lurid, nutzoid novel I've ever read. Yes, it's even more extreme than any of the previous novels I've reviewed on this blog. I loved it and place it in the highest echelon of men's adventure trash. It goes over the top in many and spectacular ways, over and over again.

This was the start of a five-volume series, and it's funny that the cover presents the book as just another action novel, when in reality this is the kind of book your parents would ban you from reading if they knew what lurked inside. You name it, it happens in Dark Messiah. It's like David Alexander made a checklist of what was hot in the current action-novel marketplace, and ensured to include all of it in his novel. Gun-porn? Graphic violence? Purple-prose sex? Horrific acts of mutant rape and defilement? It's all here, and it's all taken to the 10th degree. (And speaking of that cover, don't you love how the artist so blatantly based the character on Bruce Willis -- only with blond hair?)

Picking up in 1989, a fated year if there ever was one in the world of Post-Nuke Pulps, Dark Messiah introduces our protagonist, the impressively-named Magnus Trench (!), a former 'Nam special forces type who now lives a plushy corporate-executive life. Back in the 'Nam Trench was nicknamed Phung Hoang by a native, who remarked over Trench's similarity to that mythical resurrecting bird. Camping in Golden Gate national park, Trench survives the thermonuclear blast which levels nearby San Francisco. He emerges from the destruction as the veritable "Phoenix" he was once nicknamed.

The war this time out was actually started by Luther Enoch, the "Dark Messiah" of the title: a world-famous Christian preacher who believes mankind is soiled and must be destroyed so that it can start over. Enoch as you can see is incredibly twisted, and indeed it is only his people who must take over this newborn world. Somehow he's managed to employ a vast army of mercenaries, all of them outfitted in survival gear and living in underground facilities to survive the blast.

Enoch's even managed to ensnare the acting President -- the novel opens with the actual President getting killed by Muslim fanatics, in another of Enoch's ploys -- and thus launches nuclear war on the USSR. The Russians retaliate, detroying vast stretches of the US, but the reality of it is, the Commies for once aren't the villains of this particular Post-Nuke Pulp. True, they launched the thermonuclear attack, but they did so only after they themselves were attacked by the US -- and again, all of it was the maneuverings of Luther Enoch.

But all this is just the framework for Alexander to enthrall us with countless over-the-top action scenes. SanFran is now a Road Warrior-esque ruin, with leather-clad gangs holding sway over the battered populace. I should mention that Dark Messiah runs at a breathless pace; within a few pages of the initial nuclear blasts we already have roving gangs, pitched urban warfare, and even "Contams," ie mutated creatures who were once human but now only live to rape and kill (or vice versa). The Russians you see also launched biochemical warfare with their nukes, thus explaining the instant mutants.

This accelerated pace is a bit funny at times; Trench has a wife and a prepubescent son back in New York City, and after the nuke blast is rabid to somehow cross the country and find out if they're still alive. But then the next page he's hunkering down with an ATF agent he just met and re-learning how to use various firearms! If anything is missing from Dark Messiah, it would be characterization, but then, how much characterization was in the average '80s action movie? Alexander's priority here is to thrill, and boy does he succeed.

After several pitched battles, Trench eventually learns the score: Luther Enoch and his army of mercenaries have caused this vast destruction. Trench declares himself the Phoenix reborn and vows to destroy them. After saving a pretty blue-eyed Asian girl named September Song -- a 15-year-old prostitue, no less -- from the clutches of a gang of street punks named the Pagans, Trench meets up with the Genesis conclave in SanFran. This is a batch of still-human survivors who are working to preserve the memories of the human race and are retrofitting various trucks and cars into a rolling armada, so they can escape to a patch of the US they've heard was unaffacted by the nuclear blasts. Again, all of this is happening like two weeks out from the nuclear war.

There follows many protracted scenes of gun battles, kung-fu fights, scenes of Trench and September Song getting friendly in graphic depiction, Luther Enoch acting crazy from his below-ground fortress (in West Virginia!), and various twisted bits including PCP-riddled Contams who only want to rape and kill.

What's funny is that every few pages Trench will sermonize to himself over the barbarity of mankind, how this nuclear war was a long time coming, given man's inhummanity to man, and etc. He even finds time to blame heavy metal as more evidence of mankind's self-destructive impulses. And then, just a handful of pages after each of these mini-sermons, we'll be treated to incredibly detailed and graphic depictions of Trench blasting off the faces of various gang members or mercenaries.

It goes without saying then that it's all very tongue-in-cheek. You can tell Alexander is having a blast as he writes this -- let alone the never-ending batch of military acronyms and fetishistic gun detail, but also the various puns and nicknames he devises for the antagonists and the firearms. He even manages to sneak in a Beatles reference during another ultragore sequence ("yellow matter custard").

I could ramble on as usual, but this is clearly an instance where providing examples will do a much better job.

Gun-porn (masked as dialog, no less):

Rawlings took the MINIMI from Phoenix. "This baby's another story entirely. It's capable of firing seventy rounds a second, takes SS 109 caliber 5.56mm FN ammo. That's NATO standard-issue, state-of-the-art, high tech and full auto. In short, the best."

Graphic violence, as Phoenix blasts apart one of the Pagan streetgang:

The large intestine spilled from the jagged hole in the Pagan's side like a coil of pink sausages in a sauce of blood garnished with skeletal fragments. The heart fell out of the ripped open chest cavity, pumping furiously as it hung from the blood-spurting coronary artery. The gun arm was blown completely off, as arterial tubes dangled from the ragged shoulder stump squirting death seltzer.

And the ultra-violence isn't limited to gunplay; witness the devestation Phoenix renders to another of the unfortunate Pagans, with a single kick:

Phoenix sidestepped the swing as its momentum jerked the Pagan around, and roundhouse kicked into the lower back area on the follow through, shattering the punk's spinal cord and shooting fragments of lumbar vertebrae through his kidneys like small bore bullets. His bladder exploded, spraying his lungs with hot urine. The Pagan vomited up chunks of his stomach and flopped over backward, kicking his legs in the air as he shit his pants and died.

Mutant madness:

The Contam who was on top of her scrambled to his feet and rushed across the narrow pit. He towered over the tiny woman, and with one pawlike hand slammed her against the wall, splitting open her head. Brains and cerebrospinal fluid spurted from the jagged wound.

Tallon excitedly watched as the Contam, his huge erection glistening red with blood, leaped on the woman, entered her, and pounded violently.

Yes, this is certainly brain-rotting stuff. It's trash of the most glorious kind, and I can't wait to continue on with the series. Expect to see more of David Alexander's work reviewed here, including the various action novels he wrote under psuedonyms. For here is a guy who knew how to deliver the lurid goods, and in spades.

Bonus note: All five volumes of the Phoenix series have been released as single e-book, titled Phoenix Rising, for those of you who are into that sort of thing.

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Penetrator #8: Northwest Contract

The Penetrator #8: Northwest Contract, by Lionel Derrick
February, 1975 Pinnacle Books

Did Edward James Olmos pose for the cover painting or what?? Anyway, this installment of The Penetrator is a big improvement over the last one. It's another breezy, action and violence-filled offering from Chet Cunningham, who if it isn't clear by now has become my favorite of the two "Lionel Derricks."

It also has become clear that Cunningham and Mark Roberts (aka the other Derrick) were only collaborating to a certain point on the series; I'm betting they were writing their respective volumes at the same time, as each of them only peripherally refer to the other's installments. This almost makes Mark Hardin come off like he suffers from multiple personalities. I can see how two authors switch-hitting on a title could keep it from getting stale (it's my understanding that Don Pendleton's original Executioner series eventually suffered from repetitive storylines), but in a way it hurts the continuity.

Hardin decides to pay a visit to an old 'Nam buddy in Seattle, a guy who has now become a cop. Our hero is so out of touch that he doesn't even know his friend has been dead for six months, killed while on duty. But Hardin sticks around because he suspects foul play; quickly he determines that there is a dirty subset in the Seattle Police Department. A group of cops who extort, murder, and even run whorehouses on the side. Hardin decides it's killing time.

There's not much of a plot here, or even any sort of suspense. But at the same time it's fun in its empty-headed way, because it's just a series of action bits in which Mark Hardin kills a bunch of cops. In his bloody quest he drafts another former 'Nam pal, a black guy named Zip who is now confined to a wheelchair thanks to a VC landmine. Zip runs a leather goods store in Seattle and gathers intel for Hardin, but we don't see much of him in action; rather, the narrative is given over to Hardin beating the shit out of various cops for information, taping their confessions, and then raiding their storehouses. Along the way he leaves his mandatory arrowhead calling cards, dropping dimes to a newspaper reporter to ensure the story gets out.

What I enjoy about Cunningham's entries in the series is the unexpected twists and turns he sometimes takes. In a way his books are like the grindhouse/drive-in exploitative fare that was popular at the time -- grim and gritty sensationalistic stuff that didn't cater to the expected form. For example, Hardin gains another ally here, an Asian prostitute he saves from one of those cop-run whorehouses. The girl has a vivacious personality and is ready to help Hardin take on the crooked cops, and just when the reader expects to see her play a bigger role in the story, Cunningham throws a curveball and destroys your assumptions.

There's the usual in-jokery afoot in Northwest Contract, as has now become de rigueur in the series. For one Hardin uses the cover name Mack Colan, but in a funnier instance -- and another sign of how the times have changed -- he pretends to be a gay interior designer. And I mean gay of the flaming variety. He "swishes" through the lobby of an upper-class apartment and announces himself as "the Pierre," all while wearing a shoulder-length wig.

The action scenes in this one aren't as spectacular as previous volumes, but then Hardin is only fighting a few guys at a time. He again takes a substantial amount of damage, getting shot in the shoulder and going into another of his deliriums. He also manages to pick up a lady, the widow of his old 'Nam buddy, and a somewhat explicit sex scene ensues.

But once again Cunningham delivers a Penetrator more cruel than the average men's adventure hero; the finale of Northwest Contract features our "hero" announcing himself as "judge and jury" and then fatally shooting a naked and unarmed woman -- right "between the breasts," even. And as if that wasn't enough he immediately thereafter blows away another woman. Safe to say this scene wouldn't have made it into the film version.