Monday, October 31, 2011
Quickies, by Joe Goldberg
October, 1974 Dell Books
This is a gem of a novel, and it's a shame it's so obscure. I've had my copy for nearly a year now and only just read it, and I'm sorry I didn't sooner. It's a breeze of a read, not even 200 pages long, but it packs a wallop and it's a ton of fun. And it's very well written, literate and witty and laugh out loud funny at times. In fact it's right up there with William Hanley's equally-unsung classic Blue Dreams.
The two novels are also a bit similar; just as the protagonist of Blue Dreams was obsessed both with sex and with films (particularly classic cinema), the protagonist of Quickies, Arnie Walker, is too obsessed, only Arnie is actually involved with the business. Or as he refers to it, "the showbiz." Arnie is a NYC advertising director who comes to LA in 1970 (in a satirical preface Goldberg states that Quickies is a "historical novel," taking place in the "long-ago" era of 1970), looking to get his break into the biz by making porno flicks.
Don't be mislead, though; what this novel refers to as "porno" today would moreso be termed "softcore," where the nudity is real but the sex is simulated. Arnie gets a job directing for a Russ Meyer-type sleaze mogul named Von Peterson, a mountain of a man who lives in opulence, having raked in millions with his softcore films. Arnie applies his filmschool learnings to Von Peterson's dime-budget productions, his first picture a Western Von Peterson has named Box Canyon. The star is a self-proclaimed full-blooded American Indian dazzler named Ramona, a veteran of skin flicks, and a lady Arnie of course promptly lusts after.
Though Ramona soon becomes Arnie's lady, even helping him purchase a Von Peterson-financed mansion in LA, Arnie is obsessed with Bonnie, a statuesque blonde model he has worked with in New York. Arnie is determined to not only bring Bonnie to LA but to sleep with her. He convinces Von Peterson that Bonnie is the next big thing; after perusing some photos of her Von Peterson agrees.
Bonnie arrives and pretty much every man who sees her promptly falls in love. She even lives in the mansion with Arnie, but only because she's been hoodwinked; Bonnie, despite posing nude for photos, has no interest in acting in sex flicks and indeed is rather puritan about things. She's also wise to Arnie's intentions and reminds him often that she has been studying karate.
But she has been properly conned; she has no money and Von Peterson only purchased a one-way ticket for her. Bonnie has no choice but to star in the film Arnie has envisioned for her: Jungle of Desire, based on the Shee-Ra serials Arnie loved as a kid. Bonnie will play the jungle queen; her "costume" is so small it fits in the palm of her hand. When Ramona sees the looks Arnie is giving Bonnie, she realizes that she has competition for her man; Arnie takes advantage of this and casts Ramona as the villain, the movie climaxing in a lesbian brawl between the two women.
Between the filmmaking there are many entertaining scenes, such as when Arnie's parents come to visit (they leave with the certainty that their son is now a pimp, given all the gorgeous women who know him by name), and also a great scene where Arnie puts together a film comprised of cast-off scenes from previous Von Peterson films. Goldberg really shines here with inventive titles for these fictional skinflicks. (I think my favorite is the s&m feature Tame Me, Maim Me, Mamie!)
Arnie continues to obsess over Bonnie, who refuses to give him the time of day. At first I feared her character would become annoying, but she proved to be one of the best in the novel, constantly spatting with Arnie and the slackjawed gawkers she's always leaving in her wake. Gradually Arnie realizes his chances with Bonnie are nil. But meanwhile he has become obsessed with another girl, a short and slim blonde he meets early in the novel during a casting call. The girl refuses to appear nude in a film and storms off, but Arnie is consumed with fantasies about her for the rest of the book; he only knows her name is Sam.
Realizing Bonnie will never be his, Arnie concocts the idea to create his own star, just as Harry Cohn supposedly "created" Kim Novak when he couldn't cast Rita Hayworth in a picture (again, Quickies is filled with allusions to the film world). So Arnie decides to create his own star -- a woman that will be his both on the screen and in bed. After various casting calls (filled again with yet more witty dialog), Arnie finally discovers her -- you guessed it, Sam, who shows up at one of the calls. Arnie has found his star.
The novel climaxes in a cinema verite-type film, cashing in on the arty trend of then-current Hollywood, where six people confront one another with a sort of Truth or Dare game between the sexes, where the men will ask the women questions, and vice versa. The contestants are Arnie, Sam, Von Peterson, Bonnie, Ramona, and Olliphant (a famous TV writer who pops in and out of the narrative, he is the source of pretty much everyone's ire). Arnie has also deemed that this will be a film where the sex is not simulated. If a contestant fails to answer three questions, he or she is out of the game -- but first he or she must have sex with the person who beat them.
Not surprisingly for a novel consumed with sex and nudity, there isn't much heart in Quickies. But it slowly builds in the narrative, as Arnie realizes he's become so jaded that even during the casting call, where countless nude women parade before him, he's no longer even aroused. What he seeks is actual love, and he believes he has found it in Sam. It's to Goldberg's credit that this budding romance does not go down in the hackneyed fashion one might expect. Indeed Quickies ends on a mournful, sad note, very much at odds with the goofy tone of the rest of the novel.
As mentioned, this is a quick read, but certainly an enjoyable one. Goldberg writes in present tense and carries it off very well. Also the chapters are short, Richard Brautigan-type deals that are four pages max, further playing in on the novel's title, I would imagine. I did some research on Goldberg and it turns out he published a few other novels in the 1970s, as well as a nonfiction book titled Big Bunny: The Inside Story of Playboy, which details his years as a Playboy editor. He's definitely an author I'll enjoy reading more of one of these days.
Thursday, October 27, 2011
The Love Thing, by Hugh Barron
June, 1970 Pyramid Books
I can't believe I let summer pass me by without reading a Burt Hirschfeld novel; the guy's books are perfect summer reading. I realized this around mid-October and so proceeded to read The Love Thing, one of Hirschfeld's last novels to be published under his "Hugh Barron" psuedonym. Given that it was still 90 degrees here in Dallas, my "home" of the past several years, it was like summer hadn't ended anyway. (But then, "summer" really isn't an appropriate term for the season here; "hell on earth" would be more fitting.)
Once again the cover compares Hirschfeld's novel to Jacqueline Susann, and The Love Thing does focus on the Hollywood life, only it's not as trashy or campy as you'd wish. In fact the novel was kind of boring; once again Hirschfeld has stuffed too many characters into a novel too thin on plot or action. "The Love Thing" is Maggie Love, a 40 year-old screen superstar who has gone to seed, drinking heavily and gaining weight, her star fading fast. (In other words, Elizabeth Taylor circa 1970.) She's just starred in a big studio picture titled The Big Ones, and the gist of the novel is the studio's attempts to publicize the new film.
Maggie really isn't the protagonist here; again, there are many characters, but the foremost two are Roger Hare, a wily PR man who will do anything to get into a position of power, and Tony Parker, one of Roger's PR men, but a guy with a bit more class and heart. A big portion of The Love Thing is devoted to Tony's failing marriage with his wife Serena (feel free to make up your own Bewitched joke). In fact, too damn much of the novel is given over to this middling storyline.
Events are spread over several weeks as various characters attend meetings and go to the occasional party; here Hirschfeld shines, with his usual dopesmoking groovy psychedelic-era sequences of hotpants-wearing girls swinging it to pounding mod freakbeat while older guys watch the action from behind beaded curtains, smoking Chesterfields and wondering how they can get in on the action. But unfortunately such scenes are few and far between. The novel misses that flair for trash Hirschfeld displays in his other novels, and comes off as the fulfilment of a contract with Pyramid Books.
Like many Hollywood novels of the era, The Love Thing is concerned with the "death" of the Hollywood studio system and the emergence of the "New Hollywood" (which didn't last nearly as long); many characters spend pages discussing cinema verite and the work of artsy French directors.
And "The Love Thing" herself is lost in the shuffle; Maggie Love is of course the most interesting thing here, a fallen star given to drink and excess, preparing for her death trip. There could've been a great novel here about the lady, in fact a novel that would've justified the Jacqueline Susann comparisons, but instead we have tiresome sequences of various characters discussing PR events and Tony Parker wondering how he can win back his wife.
The best thing about The Love Thing is the cover for the New English Library edition, which was published in 1971. This was actually the cover that got me obsessed with finding all of the Hugh Barron novels a few years ago:
And you've gotta love the mirror image on the back cover:
Like the majority of the Hugh Barron novels, The Love Thing was reprinted by Dell Books in 1984 under Hirschfeld's own name. The cover for this edition is pretty cool, too:
Monday, October 24, 2011
Eve, by Angela Taylor Ames
July, 1979 Pocket Books
The Razzle Dazzle Novel of a Jazz Age Jezebel!
Once again I've been fortunate enough to discover trash gold; well, trash bronze at least. I was in a used bookstore several months ago and came upon this title; as soon as I saw the cover blurb as well as the copy on the back, which described a wanton showgirl in mid-1920s New York who liked to entertain men in her "deco boudoir," I knew I had a winner.
But as usual the fun began when I tried to research the novel and its author. Simply put, there's hardly any info about either on the web, not even cover scans. Three novels were published under this author's name, all of them Pocket paperback originals, released between 1979 and 1981. I discovered that the second novel, Joy, was about an actress in the 1940s, and given my predilection for that era of showbiz I ordered the book (these three novels are exceedingly obscure, it would appear)...only to discover that Joy was actually a sequel to Eve, Joy being Eve's daughter. So then, one can only assume that the third novel, Diane, is the third volume of this loose trilogy about three generations of women.
And then there's the mystery of Angela Taylor Ames. The novels are copyright Book Creations -- aka the domain of Lyle K. Engel, aka the publishing company that released a host of novels under a variety of psuedonyms, including the Baroness series. A series, by the way, which was also published by Pocket Books and which also concerned the sexual adventures of a female protagonist; in very fact, the writing in Eve is quite similar at times to that of "Paul Kenyon," the author of the Baroness books. Now that we know Donald Moffitt was "Kenyon," as well as that he wrote several other novels for Book Creations under various psuedonyms...could Eve and its sequels too be part of his output? I have no idea, and I can't find anything online.
Anyway, how about the novel itself? Well, I realized as I read it that Eve, more or less, could be considered a Romance. I mean, it also works as straight-up trash fiction, and it certainly has a few lurid touches, but otherwise it is pretty much like what I imagine the majority of Romance fiction is like, just a steady stream of glamorous and wealthy men coming into Eve's life, with a long-simmer "true love" storyline brewing in the background.
At the outset Eve is a small-town girl of ravishing beauty who comes to NYC when she turns 18. She happens to meet up with a girl trying out for Ziegfeld's Follies, and the two go together, both of them being offered jobs as showgirls. Eve also meets Kitty, Ziegfeld's number one showgirl, and the two become friends. All three of them share a lush apartment in Manhattan, and Kitty meanwhile gives Eve pointers on how to use her beauty and fame to get more and more money and gifts from rich gentlemen.
So begins a three-hundred-and-some-page odyssey in which Eve will meet some new dude who will shower her with praise and gifts, then finally decide to sleep with him, then go off on some adventures with him, and then ultimately lose him either through her own choice, something the guy has done, or merely the cold hand of Fate itself. There are millionaire bankers, heirs to great fortunes, dashing aviators, even an Attorney General just getting a start on his career -- one of his first jobs using Eve as an informant on the George Raft-style gangster she happens to be dating that week.
It all gets to be boring after a while, but occasionally something nice and lurid occurs, like when Eve lets herself be picked up by an uber-wealthy effete who takes her back to his Long Island mansion; a party ensues, complete with the effete's butch sister, who comes on rather friendly to Eve, and a host of miscreants who proceed to get roaringly drunk, including a pair of women. Gradually Eve realizes that these "women" are transvestites and that the effete was really just a cover for his sister, who is the true one who has deigns on Eve; the sister gets Eve drunk, takes her up to her room, and proceeds to strap on a "rubber penis," putting Eve through two pages of torment (torment for Eve, that is -- gold for the reader, and if only there were more of it!).
The novel spans from 1925 to around 1931 or so; along the way Eve gets pregnant (by the Attorney General character); she keeps the child, whom she names Lilith (aka the "Joy" of the sequel), and raises her on her own, not telling the father, who has gone on to his post in Washington. Also Kitty resigns her title as Ziegfeld's number one girl, thus bestowing the title upon Eve. Accordingly Eve is given even greater status and we must read again and again and again how beautiful and famous and wanted she is.
Those looking for a historical view of 1920s New York will be unsatisfied. Eve does not work as historical fiction and indeed I didn't get much feel for the era. It was more a flurry of men coming into and then leaving Eve's life. Also one won't get much of a feel for the life of a Ziegfeld Showgirl; other than a few vague mentions of Eve's various costumes and the dwindling audience during the Depression, there really isn't much to do with Ziegfeld the man or the entertainment world itself.
What's worse is the novel wraps up in anticlimatic fashion; after finally getting up the nerve to visit the father of her child, Eve confronts the man in Washington, hoping he loves her like she loves him, only to be spurned. So Eve heads back to NYC and marries some wealthy dude she just met a few pages ago. The end.
Joy was published around a year later; I checked the first pages and it doesn't appear to be much of a sequel to Eve (in fact we learn on page two of Joy that Eve died in a plane crash later in the 1930s!!...which proves that no matter how many millionaires you sleep with, when your number's up your number's up), so Eve then is the start of a "loose trilogy" -- well, a loose trilogy about loose women, I guess.
Thursday, October 20, 2011
Throwback, by Mark Manley
November, 1987 Popular Library
Proving yet again that '80s horror fiction knew no boundaries, Mark Manley's Throwback is a creepy and twisted tale about a middle-aged woman who discovers one day that a monster is growing on her back. It's also further proof that just about anything could get published in the wacky world of horror paperback originals; not that the novel is bad or anything, but it's obviously a short story disguising itself as a full-length novel.
The lady is named Arleen, and her mother too was a "throwback," which we learn is redneck terminology for other women in the past who, in middle age, grew a mutant product of some failed, offshoot race upon their backs. The novel opens with a prologue in 1939 in which Arleen's mother is killed by the local sheriff; Arleen herself is just a child, and is sent off to an adoption agency.
Too young to remember those horrible events, Arleen grows up to be a famous painter who knows nothing about her mother's monstrous nature. Then one evening she notices a bump along her neck, one that won't go away. Lots of meetings with confused doctors ensue. Arleen's twenty year-old daughter, Sharon, becomes concerned about her mother, mostly because she can feel her mom's panic. The mother and daughter share a psychic bond, something everyone else shrugs off but Manley has employed it so he can keep us up to date with what's going on with Arleen when she becomes full-on monster.
It also gives him another way to fill pages. Throwback is filled with incidental detail and time-wasting sequences, in an effort to reach the page count. Manley's favorite trick is the single-sentence paragraph. And the first half is a bit of a bore, as we the readers know what is going to happen to Arleen, but obviously the characters don't, so we have lots of scenes with doctors discussing her problem, going in to surgically remove the "tumor" (which is grapefruit-sized in a day). Meanwhile Arleen feels her mind regressing to some pre-human state, concerned only with survival.
After the bump is removed and grows back regardless, the doctors know something for sure is up. But it's too late, as we finally see the "throwback," which sprouts from Arleen's back. Manley doesn't really describe it, which is unfortunate. He only says it is rodent-like; not a human-sized rat, but of the rat family. Something like that. It grows to such a size that Arleen soon appears as the bump on its back. The monster even controls her legs, which are now twice the size and hairy, stampeding over the fallen bodies of doctors and nurses as it rips through them and escapes the hospital.
This third quarter of the novel comes right out of an '80s straight-to-video horror movie, as schlocky and campy and creepy as you can get, as Arleen-the-monster proceeds to eat cats, kill gangbangers, and generally sow hell in a small town in the middle of the night. Meanwhile Sharon follows after her, using her handy psychic rapport to guide the police.
The climax again is from an '80s movie, as the monster holes up in a mall and the police go in after it. But what's unfortunate is that Manley really obscures the action. Since by this point we are solely within Sharon's perspective, we never get to read what happens during the monster's battle with the cops; it's all relayed by radio reports or cops coming over to tell Sharon what's going on. In a way this is bizarre, because you'd figure given that since this is the part we've all been waiting for, Manley would at least focus on it. Now that he actually has something to write about, you'd think he'd actually write about it. But he doesn't, and it's very unsatisfying.
It ends basically the same as the 1939 prologue, and the readers and the characters are left with the mystery -- will the same thing happen to Sharon in twenty years or so? Anyway, not the most entertaining horror novel, but definitely interesting in a way, with a creepy plot. The descriptions of Arleen's twisted and deflated body dangling from the monster's shoulders are particularly memorable and unsettling. If there had been more stuff like that, and less time-killer about Sharon and her husband trying to conceive a child, then perhaps Throwback would be less obscure today.
Monday, October 17, 2011
MIA Hunter #3: Hanoi Deathgrip, by Jack Buchanan
July, 1985 Jove Books
Joe R. Landsdale emerges as "Jack Buchanan," and I don't want to say anything negative about Mike Newton's previous two installments, as I think Newton is a fine writer, but Landsdale takes the MIA Hunter series to a whole new level. But then, this might not be so much Landsdale's talent as just more confirmation of my theory that the only way to keep the stale concept of this series fresh is to bring in a new writer every few volumes. Because, despite the novel touches, the genre-spoofery and fun dialog, Hanoi Deathgrip basically retreads the plots of those previous two volumes.
Our hero Mark Stone is hired by attractive combat reporter Jackie Winslow, who has gotten confirmation that her father, a medic in 'Nam, has been spotted in a POW camp. Major Winslow's name has been clouded in the past decades; the US Government claimed he turned sides in the final days of the war. Hence Jackie goes to Stone as the last man who can help her.
In a scene out of a hardboiled novel, the gorgeous blonde pleads her case to Stone, the private eye (his day job), and the sparks fly. However Stone has a steady fling, who later proves her worth in a car chase as government stooges chase after them. This sequence has definite ramifications on the series as a whole, as by the end Stone must give up his private eye cover and his girlfriend must go into hiding, for now the CIA will certainly be after them.
But all that has to wait, as Stone and his MIA-hunting comrades Terrance Loughlin and Hog Wiley go to Laos to meet up with their native fighters and from there sneak into 'Nam. Landsdale really shines when it comes to Wiley; Landsale, like the character, is a Texan, and so references several East Texan locales throughout the novel. And with Hog Landsale spoofs the gung-ho characters of the series; we learn that Hog wears a Mickey Mouse watch and has a rubber ducky in his bathtub back home. Landsale even manages to bring to life the cipher that is Loughlin, but has a hard time of it; later he even has Jackie mention something along the lines that Loughlin is too distant. It makes one wonder why they just don't kill the character off.
Another highpoint in the novel is Thene Khan, a Laotian fighter who works with Stone and team. Determined to kill as many commies as he can, Thene is a sprite little bastard who speaks in a patois of curses and '50s slang: "We're gonna kill them Commie sum'bitches, by golly." And Jackie Winslow is an interesting character; as expected, she shows up in Laos, having orchestrated her own journey into the jungle, and demands that she go along with Stone and his team. And she proves herself well in battle, having covered combat stories around the globe and picking up battle skills along the way. But Landsdale manages to keep it all grounded; it's not like she's doing flips in the air while firing two pistols at once or anything.
Like the previous novels, we have the occasional chapters that hop over to the POW's point of view, and for once these scenes are entertaining. Major Winslow, due to his smart mouth, has found himself in the camp of one sadistic bastard. This guy likes to call in his equally-sadistic brother, a Bolo Yeung-type who likes to kill cowardly soldiers for sport. Landsdale piles on the horrific imagery in these sections, with the gruesome treatment of a few US prisoners, including one sequence where a man's stomach is sliced open and a snake is placed inside him before he's sewn back up. (Later it gets even more OTT when Winslow must rip open the corpse and pull out the metal wire that was used to slice up the man's guts.)
Again, it all follows the same template: Stone and team arrive in the jungle, meet their assistants, get into a few running battles with Pathet Lao and etc, finally find the camp, free the prisoners and then unleash hell on the Vietnamese, then endure more running battles as they make their way to safety. And like the previous novels the latter half degenerates into a nonstop battle, but Landsdale excels throughout, particularly in an endless but enjoyable scene where Hog faces off against the camp commandant's hulking brother.
Throughout Landsale writes with flair, both paying tribute to and spoofing the genre. It's a fine balance and it reminds me of the style of another men's adventure writer who went on to mainstream success (and another "Joe" to boot): Joe Haldeman, in his Attar #2.
Thursday, October 13, 2011
The Vampire Tapes, by Arabella Randolphe
April, 1977 Berkley Medallion Books
This is one goofy vampire novel. The fun starts already when you check the copyright page, and find that "Arabella Randolphe" is really Jack Younger. But then, after a bit of research online, I found that "Younger" itself is a psuedonym! It appears then that this novel was actually written by Russ Jones, a guy who churned out many horror paperback originals under the "Younger" psuedonym. It's also easily apparent that this novel is "in the tradition of" Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire, even down to the (fake) female author -- even the name of the fake female author being similar: Anne Rice/Arabella Randolphe.
I'd also wager good money that The Vampire Tapes isn't just "in the tradition of" Rice's 1976 bestseller, it's also a spoof of it. It covers the same era of history, recounting the lurid tale of an English maiden who becomes one of the undead and then proceeds to hop about Europe for a few centuries, hobknobbing with various notables, before finally ending up in the US. And there's the same homoerotic overtones, but instead of male on male we have here my friends a genuine tale of lesbian vampires. Actually our undead protagonist, Angela (later to be named Viola and then Violet), is moreso bi, as she starts off the tale fully in love with a young Frenchman, so it's obvious our author wanted to cover all of the gender-seek bases.
I say it's a spoof though because the novel is so over the top bad that it has to be a spoof. Don't get me wrong, it really excels in the lurid quotient, and it's fun as hell throughout, but dialog, pacing, narrative, the works, all of it is so juvenile that it has to be intentional. The novel in fact comes off like the literary equivalent of a 1950s E.C. horror comic, right down to the exclamatory tone of the narrative:
With a strength that could have been born only of mortal fear, or supernatural power, Soma wrenched one of the swords loose. In a continuous motion he whirled around! The full force of the blade caught Thompson at the intersection of his shoulder and neck. The radio announcer's head lifted slowly into the air at a slight angle from the pudgy body that ran forward a few more steps before it fell. Gushes of blood pumped from the severed neck!
You can almost see the artwork of Johnny Craig (or even "Ghastly" Graham Ingels) illustrating the scene. The construction of the tale is pretty convoluted: it's a tale within a tale within a tale, one of the tales being recounted via audio tape, hence the title. However it's all written in third person, with Angela (aka Viola, aka Violet) occasionally breaking into the narrative in italicized first person. So then the reader is treated to three interlocked storylines, with Angela's backstory providing the meat of the tale.
In the first storyline, a grizzled Long Island sheriff investigates a mass-murder in the mansion of a wealthy recluse who has recently passed away (Violet); the bodies of several people have been found there in various states of mutilation, causing even hardbitten cops to stagger away puking. One survivor emerges from the horror, a young woman so shocked that she is basically in a trance. Since she is the only witness, the sheriff orders that the girl be dosed with sodium pentathol. This takes us into our second storyline, in which the young girl is called to Violet's mansion, a place she worked several years ago, before hauling off to NYC to pursue an acting career. A host of people have also been called here, to listen to Violet's will, however none of them know each other or even why Violet asked for them. Violet's will has been recorded on audio tape, and the lawyer plays it when all are ready; this takes us to our third storyline, which is the story of Angela, a young English maiden in the time of Shakespeare who eventually became Viola, star of the 19th century stage, and finally Violet, wealthy Long Island recluse.
But again it's Angela's storyline that takes center stage. Escaping England due to the religious persecution, she shelters with fellow Catholics in France and falls in love with a young man. However trouble follows them; bounty hunters, usually English, hunt down escaped Catholics and return them to England for summary punishment and execution. Angela and her beau go on the run again, on into rural France and into Germany, where this guy calls on the forces of the night to belay their attackers. It turns out he is the member of an occult sect who congregate in the castle of a German baron who is otherwise noted for his friendly relations with the local Catholic overseers.
Here we have a great sequence of pagan worship (it appears to be Celtic derived) with lots of nude revelers and sacrifice and of course the mandatory orgy. Here also Angela encounters the female love of her life, an Amazonian beauty, nude and painted head to toe in green, who presides over the ceremony. We eventually learn her name is Odessa, and she soon falls in love with Angela. This culminates in an enjoyable sequence in which the two make love while Odessa turns Angela into a vampire. But trouble soon darkens the lesbian bliss, as the sadist who has tracked down Angela finds her (male) lover, kills him, and informs the Catholics that a group of cultists lurk in the baron's castle.
Everyone scatters, including Odessa, and Angela is captured by the sadist. She goes along meekly, allowing him to have his way with her; he eventually falls in love with her. Only then does Angela carry off her cruel revenge, torturing the bastard for weeks until he begs for death. Now begins Angela's centuries-long odyssey through Europe. Randolphe glosses over most of European history, skipping forward a hundred years or so with a single sentence. Eventually Angela becomes Viola, "French" star of the stage, who finally returns to her homeland of England. There she attempts to collect her share of her family's fortune, posing as a long-lost descendant, when in fact she is truly the daughter of the man who started the business empire centuries before.
After making friends with Bram Stoker -- and giving him pointers on how to write Dracula -- Viola tires of England and makes her way to the US, where she again rules the stage. But weary of her immortal life, she decides to take a break for a while, and, now named "Violet Court," buys a rolling estate in Long Island in which to retire. (She solves the issue of her ageless beauty by applying make-up to make herself look elderly.) Here the storylines finally converge, as the various people called to hear Violet's will finally discover why exactly she has called them together.
Since the reader already knows the fate of these people, the reason why Violet has called them is the true mystery, and it turns out to be a goofy one. But as stated, the entire novel is goofy, and it's all the better for it. It's hard to be critical of a novel that tries so hard to be so dumb. And to tell the truth, I'd rather read this again than ever read Anne Rice's better-known original.
Monday, October 10, 2011
The Mind Masters #2: Shamballah, by John Rossmann
April, 1975 Signet Books
Prepare yourself for a sanity-shattering orgy of Satanic sex and hellish mind-violence as you descend with Britt to the ultimate depths of evil.
With back cover copy like that, how can a book fail?? (I especially like how they didn't even finish the sentence with the expected exclamation point.) And I'm happy to say that for the most part Shamballah lives up to that lurid back cover promise. While it still has its problems, it's much better than the exposition-laden banality that was Mind Masters #1.
It's a mere two weeks after that previous novel and our hero, Britt St. Vincent, is now in Germay. As you'll recall, Britt is a famous race car driver who competes all over the world, but his real job is as a sort of psi-detective for the mysterious Mero Group. Mero is dedicated to battling against the threat of the psychic enslavement of mankind, and one of their methods is attempting to contact the dead to gain their aid in the battle. Hence, Britt uses his cover as a famous racer to hop about Europe so he can investigate haunted locales -- fortuitously, it appears that most of Europe's racing centers happen to be in the same areas as places that are supposedly haunted.
The latest race is through a Hitler-designed course than runs through the Black Forest; the course passes by a castle which the locals claim is haunted. What's strange is that wrecks are notorious on this course, particularly on the circuit that passes directly beneath the castle. Britt takes his fancy ghostbusting equipment (which of course is explained to death) and sneaks into the castle to take a reading -- that is, after he's had sex with his Satan-worshiping German girlfriend.
Oh, I forgot to mention her? Shamballah is without a doubt the most "Eurocult" novel I've ever read. I'm surprised some European director didn't buy the rights (or just steal the concept) and make a psychedelic softcore porn flick out of it. Britt's German galpal, Gretchen, is a local who, like all the other girls around here, are members of a Satanic coven. They're all also dropdead gorgeous, and like to congregrate inside the castle, nude save for animal masks, and conduct orgies with local men. Britt and a fellow racer are invited.
Britt ditches Gretchen while the orgy is in progress, sneaking away to set up his ghost equipment, but he returns in time for the Satanic mass. The Eurocult goodness goes full tilt here, with a sequence that culminates in the ritual deflowering of a local girl via a flame-heated gold phallus! After paying respects to the castle's "ghost," the Satanists resume their orgy, but Britt again buzzkills the fun; he wants to check on his equipment.
After a brief psi-battle with a mysterious figure, Britt returns to his hotel and goes about preparing for the race. He notices something strange about Gretchen, however -- when they have sex (which is often -- and graphically-depicted!), Britt starts to feel a sort of panic descend upon him as he reaches orgasm. When during the latest humping he sees a horned demon start to materialize in the corner, Britt knows for sure something's up. It turns out Gretchen has some sort of crystal implanted in her back; Britt snaps it, the horned demon disappears, and a tranced Gretchen gets up, dresses, and staggers for the castle. Britt follows.
Turns out there's a hidden complex beneath the castle. Britt, sneaking in behind Gretchen, is instantly caught by the master of the place -- Heinrich Weissmann, SS bastard who has commanded the castle since WWII. The complex is named "Shamballah," and it is run by a bevy of brainwashed and nude women. Weissmann certainly knows how to live, it seems, and he glories in showing off his handiwork to Britt. Weissman too is a psi-warrior (he was of course the msyterious figure who fought Britt the night before), and with his HAL-type computer he plans to mentally enslave the world and bring back the Nazi reich.
You know those cliched scenes in the James Bond movies where the villain captures Bond and then proceeds to tell him all of his plans instead of killing him? Well, Rossmann takes the cliche to a laughable extreme -- the ensuing conversation between Britt and Weissmann runs for 80 pages! And these are exposition-heavy pages, with actual articles and books referenced. It's all nearly as bad as the exposition in Mind Masters #1, but I must admit that a lot of it is pretty interesting. For Rossmann lays down some Heavy Stuff here, from how to get rid of ghosts, to the occult origins of the Nazis, to even theories about ancient astronauts and the true functions of the Egyptian pyramids!
Sadly, the climax isn't all it could've been, with Britt for once using his race driver pose to save the day, literally racing to save the life of a visiting German official. For a men's adventure series, there isn't much action in the Mind Masters novels; Britt doesn't shoot or even punch anyone, and mostly spends his time firing "psychic blasts" or running away from villains. Or, best of all, having sex with his Satanic girlfriend.
Again Rossmann writes in present-tense and, what with the Nazis and the occult talk, it makes the novel read like Gravity's Rainbow Lite. But still he has shaky command of the tense, using too many passive verbs (ie "Britt is thinking," etc) when active ones would be much better suited. And while the exposition is toned down a bit, characters still enjoy spouting off for endless blocks of paragraphs about gadgets, beliefs, or what have you. Rossmann also has a strange habit of referring to parts of Britt's anatomy (particularly his brain) as if they were separate from him, but I think he has esoteric reasons for this.
And the sleaze level is through the roof -- in the Shamballah sequence, Weissmann has one of his nude women pour Britt some coffee, and when Britt asks for cream, the woman squeezes her breasts and voila, cream is served! Since the woman is not described as pregnant, or having been pregnant, I'm pretty certain this is a biological impossibility. But what the hell, it was still pretty cool in its sleaziness. And as mentioned, the sex scenes between Britt and Gretchen are quite thorough in explaining everything that happens, as it happens.
So, a much better installment in the series, with somewhat tighter writing and a great Eurocult vibe. But even still Rossmann delivers some unintentional howlers, a few of which I'd like to share with you:
Britt hands the amazing man a screwdriver. (Pg. 23)
His heart gives a sudden thump, and Britt feels a tightness high up between his hungry thighs: Damn! I haven't had a woman for nearly a week! (Pg. 48)
Mummies! exclaims Britt's mind. "Mummies?" he repeats aloud. (Pg. 59)
Thud! Bam! "Hilf!" (Pg. 204)
And no -- there's no character in the novel named "Hilf!" I mean, wtf?
Thursday, October 6, 2011
Wetbones, by John Shirley
June, 1999 Leisure Books
(Original publication, 1993)
I think I can see now why John Shirley has apparently disowned his Specialist men's adventure series -- it gives little indication of the man's true writing talent. Wetbones was published about 9 years after that series and it suffers from none of the slow pace or inordinate padding. It's a straight-up horror novel, however, very much in a "Lovecraft for the '90s" sort of vein, so it might not be to everyone's taste. And also it's overly gory, something all of the critics were sure to mention, but I didn't find it too outrageous -- but then, having read David Alexander's magnum opus Phoenix, I'm pretty much desensitized to violence in fiction.
In many ways this novel is almost like a horror take on trash fiction. It's set in Hollywood, involves movie biz characters, and even refers back to past periods of Tinseltown excess with sequences that could have come out of Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon -- in fact Shirley even mentions that book a few times. And in a way Wetbones is sort of grisly satire of Hollywood itself, of how people will do anything to become someone, and how those who are someone will do anything to take advantage of them.
Shirley juggles a fairly large cast, and he does so with such flair that you easily keep track of everyone. He also does not POV-hop a single time, which is always a cause to celebrate with the adding of chocolate to milk. Two "main" characters emerge: Tom Prentice, a struggling screenwriter looking for his big break, and Garner, a former drug addict who is now a reverend, counseling addicts and kids on the street. Prentice and Garner have their own plots throughout the novel, ones that gradually weave together until they meet at the very end. For though they don't know it, Garner and Prentice are united by the central threat here: the Akishra, nebulous, worm-like entitites from the astral realm that feed on the pleasure centers of the human brain.
Prentice has just identified the emaciated and mutilated body of his ex-wife, Amy. She plays heavily in his thoughts as he goes about the business of trying to get money for a script, all while hanging out and driking with his friend Jeff, a successful action screenwriter who I'm betting is based on Shane Black. Garner meanwhile has more immediate problems: his teenaged daughter Constance has gone missing. Garner knows she has been kidnapped and so goes on a quest for her, intuiting that she was most likely taken up to LA. We the readers know that Constance is going through much, much worse than the lurid, horrifying things Garner imagines she must be going through.
For Constance has been kidnapped by Ephram Pixie, surely one of the most despicable characters ever to grace a novel. Ephram has complete control of Constance's mind, using her as a puppet. He gets off on having her pick up strangers and then taking them back to their hotel while she has sex with him (or her), all the while Ephram watching, until finally Ephram forces -- through his mind -- Constance to murder the person. So this leads to all sorts of lurid stuff as Constance will be astride some guy, slicing him apart, hating herself for it but unable to control herself. And indeed getting of on it. Constance's story might be the most twisted one in Wetbones, as she realizes she must become like Ephram to survive.
Prentice and Jeff meanwhile go off searching for Jeff's missing younger brother, Mitch -- who happens to have been the last person Prentice's ex wife was seen with. And just as with Constance, Mitch's reality is far worse than anyone could imagine. He's trapped in the Doublekey Ranch outside Hollywood, the rolling mansion of a once-famous husband and wife. These people are even more twisted than Ephram; the house is an endless horror in which kidnapped victims go through endless misery for the satisfaction of the owners. Like Ephram these people control the mind; like Ephram they are "pleasure vampires," vassals of the Akishira, who, to retain their own pleasure centers (which we are told eventually burn out), put victims through endless torment to gain satisfaction via proxy. Any sort of satisfaction -- and since pleasure has finite potential but pain is limitless, they mostly put their victims through gruesome hell.
The Doublekey Ranch material is not for the squeamish. Shirley packs in the gory detail, particularly toward the end, where we have such Clive Barker-esque material as a bedsheet which has been made out of the skin of one of the victims, complete with the hollowed face gaping up from the center. All of it capped off with the girl who is being raped on the bed looking down and seeing that the face in the bedsheet is her brother's. I mean, it's all pretty outrageous and definitely leaves an impression on the reader.
Prentice and Garner go through their own personal hells through the novel, Garner in particular. In his trawl through the underbelly of LA he falls back into his addiction, and here Shirley fully brings to life the nihilistic world of the addict. Wetbones should be required reading in rehab clinics; after reading it you will never look at addiction the same way again. Long story short, the Akishra feed off of the sick, self-destructing pleasures of addiction, and after latching into an addict they push him or her on and on until they at last kill themselves.
It isn't all horror, though. Shirley works some humor in, and as mentioned there's a definite trash fiction vibe here, like when Prentice is seduced by a fast-talking Hollywood beauty named Lissa, who takes him upstairs during a party and proceeds to have her way with him. This scene isn't just for show, as Prentice is taken on a sort of astral trip during it, and realizes he and Lissa are being watched by someone in another room -- being watched remotely, that is. Again, the creepy connotations of the real meanings behind pleasure and fame and etc.
The novel is such an engrossing and well-crafted tale that I really don't want to say too much about it for fear of ruining it for others. Shirley proves himself a master of juggling his large cast and putting them together at just the right time. Even the finale is well done, something I've found is usually rare in horror fiction. In fact the finale could come right out of the Specialist, with an armed group of heroes infiltrating the Doublekey Ranch and blowing bastards away.
I'm not sure of the original printing, but this 1999 Leisure edition is fraught with grammatical errors. I mean, to an absurd degree. Also, it's apparently been taken from a British typescript, as British spellings prevail: "tire" is "tyre," "flavor" is "flavour," and so on. I see that Shirley published a revised edition in 2005, however it also appears that he rewrote the book to a certain degree. It might be worth tracking down one of these days.
Monday, October 3, 2011
Go, Mutants!, by Larry Doyle
June, 2010 Ecco Books
I was in a bookstore a few weeks ago and came across this novel, which for some reason was placed in the "General Fiction" section. I assume this is because author Larry Doyle's previous novel, I Love You Beth Cooper, was mainstream fiction. This followup however is as sci-fi as you can get. Actually it's more extreme than that: it's niche sci-fi, both tribute and spoof of Atom Age sci-fi and monster movies. The copy I saw was the recent trade paperback edition, which has New! and Improved! sluglined on the bottom of the cover; I think this is just spoofy hyperbole, as the copyright doesn't indicate that the softcover edition is revised. At any rate the edition I'm reviewing is the original hardcover from Ecco Books, which I found at my local library.
Doyle, his publisher and critics constantly remind us, was a producer and writer for The Simpsons. And anyone who has seen the spoofs of 1950s safety or educational films on that show will get the gist of Go, Mutants. Or, better yet, anyone who has watched a minute or two of Futurama. Go, Mutants is just like that...only a whole lot less funny. This is in fact one of the most annoying and frustrating novels I've read in many a year.
No surprise, Go, Mutants apparently started life as a movie pitch. Doyle then decided to write a novel around the idea. Only he didn't actually write a full novel. Instead, the book is like a constant scheme on how to fill pages. Huge, bolded font in the dripping manner of '50s sci-fi titles break up every other page. Some pages go black with "We'll be right back, folks!" emblazoned in white. All this would be fine if the storyline and characters could keep up with the (forced) comedy of those spoof titles.
The idea is this: The sci-fi movies of the '50s really happened, and now it's around twenty years later and the descendants of aliens and monsters run rampant upon the earth. And yet even this is poorly thought out: even though the novel must take place in the '60s (or perhaps the early '70s; it isn't very clear), it's still as "1950s" as you can get. Doyle references various '50s and early '60s personalities, coming up with "funny" new versions of their hits (ie Brian Wilson)...but then he also references songs from much later, like Eric Clapton's "Layla."
The reason Doyle has done this -- vapor-locked the styles and fashions in the '50s even though the novel takes place a decade or two later -- is so he can have a story about teenagers living in a '50s-type world. Yes, just like everything else in our PG-13/let's-make-everything-for-the-kids world, Go, Mutants is yet another story about teenagers and their drama-ridden, uninspiring lives. And, as some reviewers have noted, it's basically just a retread of I Love You Beth Cooper.
Our hero is J!m (known as "Jim" to his friends and the way I'll refer to him for ease of typing), the sullen teenaged son of the alien who started it all. Jim attends Manhattan High with a host of alien kids intermingled with real humans; a loner (of course), Jim has few friends, among them the Son of the Blob and the son of a radioactive sort of King Kong. Jim is usually picked on by the humans, and he has a tough go of it, as he truly is a freak: his skin is grayish, he has a huge mottled brain jutting from his head instead of hair, and he occasionly sheds his skin. In fact he's kind of a monster; if parts of him come off (like for example his hand), they continue to operate under their own volition, while Jim meanwhile just grows a new one.
So you're probably thinking this setup has all sorts of potential. And maybe it does, but not here. Because it's as if Doyle merely came up with the premise -- "What if I did a '50s teen story but the teen was an alien instead of a human?" -- and left it at that. Other than the alien technology, the weird mutations and etc, the novel is exactly like any other '50s story: there's the girl Jim secretly loves, visits to the drive-in, problems with teachers, parents to bicker with at the dinner table, bullies to fight, dances to attend. There was a lot of potential here, but most of it was wasted, probably in an attempt to keep the ensuing movie easily understandable for the target preteen audience.
But then, even here Go, Mutants fails. If the target audience is kids, what kid of today is familiar with Atom Age monster movies?? Do you think they're watching Creature from the Black Lagoon on their iPads? I highly doubt it. Doyle's various in-jokes to these old films would go over their heads -- and while we older fans might get them, we're also underwhelmed by the predictable, juvenile storyline.
Jim is problemmatic too. His self-pity gets on your nerves quick, mostly because Jim's so unlikeable. I mean, it would all be well and good and even understandable that the kid was upset over his unfortunate lot in life if he wasn't such an egotistical prick. But he is, and he constantly flaps his blue lips at teachers, parents, and bullies. Along the way he manages to piss off everyone, including the reader. We're supposed to understand that Jim's central problem is that his father ushered in the current state of the world with his foiled attempt to take over the world -- and since daddy's now gone (various "official" reports have it that he's either dead or escaped), Jim is consumed with an extra layer of misery. Yes, this is another novel about a character with daddy issues!
However the biggest fail with Go, Mutants is that it just isn't funny. This is mostly due to the way Doyle writes. Rather than work things into dialog or action, Doyle's method is to info-dump mounds of "funny" detail into blocks of narrative. This has the unfortunate effect that the majority of the novel is rendered in summary. For example:
Dodie did the best she could to raise Johnny alone, through a series of exotic illnesses, including dental tumors and cancer of the perinoos, a theretofore undiscovered organ thought to regulate love, religion and other gullibilities. She kept getting sick and being miraculously cured; doctors theorized that gestating a radioactive ape had caused the malignancies, which were subsequently treated by Johnny's sleeping beside her every night. He was killing her and keeping her alive.
The crapulous goo had eaten a dozen beloved family pets, seven less-liked pets, a hobo, a bunch of nuns, a sassy waitress and a blowhard who said he wasn't afraid of any grape jelly, all in the eight hours since it had first appeared on the MU campus, another harebrained experiment, folks thought, of those mad scientists working at that Army lab.
Generations of teenagers had come to Crater Cove the night before Halloween for "Fire Night" or "Night of Fire," to writhe before the man on Fire, or Fire Man, in an orgy of community-approved paganism. In the very old days the entire town came out, and the Man on Fire was an actual man, but this tradition was phased out as the area became less agrarian and the locals were less concerned about the harvest and more interested in a spectacular fire. This year's Man, it was widely noted, had an unreasonably large head, but that was a happy coincidence.
This sort of thing might be okay every once in a while, but Doyle does it throughout the novel. I've actually seen Doyle compared to Thomas Pynchon, and I'm guessing the stuff above is what those lazy reviewers had in mind when they made that incorrect comparison -- I figure people who have never actually read Pynchon assume this is how he writes. But Pynchon is funnier, smarter (despite Doyle's penchant for dishing out ten-dollar words in another failed attempt at humor), and a better writer.
Go, Mutants could've been something, but it's just like everything else in the world of entertainment today: uninspired, predictable, and uninvolving. Which means of course that the ensuing film will be a huge hit. So if you want to read it, do what I did -- get it at your library. Don't spend any money on it.