Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Bar Studs

The Bar Studs, by Leonard Jordan
March, 1976  Fawcett Crest Books

The second novel Len Levinson published under his “Leonard Jordan” pseudonym, The Bar Studs is an awesome trip back to the shaggy pre-disco New York City of 1974. As usual with one of Len’s novels it’s more about the characters than the plot, with the tale recounting the sleazy lives of six bartenders as they variously find fortune, love, heartbreak, and tragedy. 

First up is Adrian, owner of a Greenwich Village bar which bears his name. A total ‘70s dude, Adrian is a good-looking guy who smokes dope in his upstairs apartment/office and entertains various women. This latter point gets him in trouble with his girlfriend, the true owner of the bar; after she catches Adrian in bed with a cute young waitress named Julie, she kicks his ass out. But don’t feel bad for Adrian, as within just an hour or so of losing his bar and girlfriend he’s once again in bed with Julie and her roommate, a pretty young black lady who also works at the bar.

Then there’s Johnny Mash, coke-snorting bartender at Adrian’s. At first Johnny and Adrian seem a bit too similar, but as the narrative progresses you see that Johnny Mash is one son of a bitch; he “treats” a somewhat-attractive customer by going home with her, and after forcing her to give him a blowjob at knifepoint he sleeps with her, makes her blow him again in the morning, and then steals cash from her wallet and an expensive watch from her desk while she’s in the shower!

Next is Leo, who tends bar at a hot nightspot where he himself sticks out like a sore thumb; whereas the place is known as a haven for the beautiful people, Leo himself is bald, fat, and “old” at 42. Of all the characters Leo the most comes off like Frapkin in The Last Buffoon, eternally bemoaning his lot in life and jerking off to fantasies of women who wouldn’t be caught dead with him. But like Frapkin he brings most of the misery upon himself, like when Leo lets a gorgeous stewardess stay with him after she has a fight with her boyfriend…and the lady proceeds to use Leo for everything but sexual purposes.

Jake is a bartender in the Bowery, and his sequences come off like a Jerky Boys skit a few decades early, what with the vitriol he spews out upon his hapless “customers.” Bums the lot of them, Jake treats these men and women like such pieces of shit that you can’t help but feel sorry for them. For instance his nightly regimen of closing the bar, which entails him screaming “Get the fuck out, you bums!” and roughing them up as he tosses them out. But Len develops a soft side for Jake when he comes across a stray cat; this serves as Jake’s story in the novel, as through the cat, which he names Khrushchev, Jake begins to actually talk to one of his customers, a “floozie” who was once married to a vet but is now a homeless alcoholic.

Teddy is a bartender at a trendy gay bar, and his sections get the least development in the novel (though Len does serve up an explicit sex scene when Teddy takes an attractive man home with him from the bar). Teddy’s scenes though are the most lurid, as in a scene that could’ve come out of Len's Ryker installment Teddy is knocked unconscious by the attractive man once they’ve had sex…and then the man rams an eight-inch railroad spike up Teddy’s ass! Turns out this guy has done this to a few other gays, and now Teddy, recuperating in the hospital, is trying to help the cops find the sadist.

Finally there’s John Houlihan, who gets almost as little narrative time as Teddy. Older than the other bartenders in the novel, Houlihan tends bar at a super-upscale hotel, where he’s worked for the past few decades. Here he is treated like a friend by the millionaires who congregrate around him for drinks. Houlihan’s character is opened up a bit more when we learn that he has a live-in son who lost his legs in Vietnam.

The above character-rundowns really also serve as plot-rundowns, as there’s no unifying thread that connects everything, save for Adrian and Johnny Mash. Whereas the other bartenders go on with their own separate storylines, Adrian and Johnny are together affected by the sudden closing of Adrian’s bar. Adrian himself tries to repair the relationship with his girlfriend, Sandra, and thus get back the bar, while Johnny visits his Uncle Al, who happens to be a mafioso. After berating Johnny for never visiting his mother, Uncle Al asks Johnny if he’d make a hit for a few thousand bucks, so now Johnny’s gone from being a bartender to a Mafia hitman.

And what with the Mafia stuff and a character named “Johnny,” you can’t help but think of Len’s three contributions to the Sharpshooter series, particularly his first one, The Worst Way To Die, which like The Bar Studs featured a hit in a restaurant. But whereas in that earlier novel it was Johnny Rock blowing away a mobster while he ate his pasta, here it’s Johnny Mash waltzing into a Puerto Rican bar and firing several shots into his victim.

Throughout the novel Len’s usual strengths are in full effect; you get the feeling these characters actually exist, and their ways of speaking and interracting with one another come off as very true to life. For example how Johnny Mash idly flirts with a Puerto Rican girl in the bar as he waits for his target to arrive; you can tell the girl finds his sudden interest in her exciting, but Johnny could care less and is just killing time. Or the scenes with Houlihan’s handicapped son, Donald, which are played with zero sappiness, with Donald bullshitting over beer and football with another vet about “Vietnamese pussy” and how cheaply it could be had during the war.

The maudlin-free treatment Len gives this sensitive topic is refreshing, as in today’s world it would be played up for all its “emotional content.” Len instead has Houlihan and one of his wealthy patrons going out into the city to find Donald a hooker. This scene also sees a cameo from the protagonist/narrator of a later Len novel: Shumsky the taxi driver, who later appeared in Cabby, a 1980 Belmont-Tower novel also published under the Leonard Jordan pseudonym. Shumsky, though only appearing here for a few pages, turns out to be one of the more memorable charactres, as he drives Houlihan and his wealthy friend around lower Manhattan in search of a suitable whore.

If like me you’re fascinated by the sleazy ‘70s, then you’ll definitely dig The Bar Studs, as Len peppers the novel with all kinds of period details. And speaking of sleaze he also serves up lots of graphic sex scenes, leaving little to the imagination as Johnny Mash gets his rocks off (while holding a knife to the poor lady’s throat!) or as Adrian has sex in his loft apartment above the bar with Julie. Drug use is also rampant, with characters snorting coke and smoking dope with abandon – and, best of all, with none of the “moral implications” that would be forced upon such scenes in today’s world. These people just want to get stoned and fuck, and what’s wrong with that?

I did sort of wish that there was more of a unifying thread to the novel; other than the fact that they’re all bartenders, the protagonists have no interraction with one another. It’s also worth mentioning that the novel really isn’t about bartending at all. Other than a few parts in the opening of the novel, we rarely see the protagonists at work. The novel is moreso about their lives outside of the bar. This is fine, though, as reading a novel solely about bartending would get to be a drag after a while. At any rate the novel sparkles with Len’s customary wit and moments of philosophy, enriched with the occasional dash of utter sleaze, and that’s basically all I could ask of a novel.

Finally, The Bar Studs has recently been e-published, and comes with a few bonus articles: “My So-Called Literary Career,” which Len wrote last year for Justin Marriott’s Paperback Fanatic #23, and a great new piece titled “John Lennon & Me,” in which Len recounts in entertaining fashion how he met John and Yoko back in 1970. The ebook is available here – the only thing it’s missing is the great cover art from the original Fawcett Crest edition.

A couple months ago I asked Len if he’d share the background on a few of his novels, The Bar Studs among them. Here’s what he had to say:

I wrote The Bar Studs because I liked to go to bars when I lived in NYC. And I was drawn to bars not because I liked to drink, but because that's where the action was, where I could meet single women interested in romance, the female counterparts of myself. 

During my 42 years in New York City, I went to all kinds of New York bars, from the Oak Room at the Plaza, to singles bars on the East Side, to Village hangouts, to Bowery dives, to gay men's bars in the Village out of curiosity, and even one jaunt to a lesbian bar called The Duchess, where I was made to feel very uncomfortable. 

I guess I should amend what I wrote above, because ultimately I didn't go to bars just for romance, or to get laid, although those were my primary objectives. I also went because I met many interesting people of all types who were great storytellers. 

I especially enjoyed a Village bar called Bradley's that featured live jazz. I'd give almost anything for another musical night at Bradley's, but Bradley now is dead and the bar no longer exists, as far as I know (I no longer reside in NYC). 

Since my writer's mind was and is always tossing up stories, a novel about bars coalesced in my mind as I sat on those bar stools around 1972. I conceived it as the varieties of bar experience, about all the different kinds of New York bars I went to, and the different people I met there. 

Before arriving in NYC, I worked as a bartender at various joints in Lansing, Michigan, when I was a student at Michigan State University. So I knew what it was like on the other side, rushing back and forth on the floorboards, mixing, pouring, collecting money, making change, becoming embroiled in conversations, and learning that inebriated people often spill their secrets to bartenders, while certain women, after a few drinks, tend to flirt with the bartender. 

My working title was "The Bartenders", and the developing novel told the stories of six bartenders. Adrian and Johnny worked in a bar similar to Bradley's in the Village, Leo in an East Side singles bar similar to Maxwell's Plum, Teddy in a Village gay bar similar to Ty's on Christopher Street, Jake was a Bowery bartender, and Houlihan served martinis and other libations to the upscale crowd at the Oak Room at the Plaza. 

Actually, the novel was about more than bar life. Like all my novels, it also was about love, hate, violence, anger, crime, frustration, and the pornography of everyday life. 

Fawcett bought publication rights, changed the title to The Bar Studs, and gave it what I considered a great cover. It became my best-selling novel, around 95,000 copies bought by unsuspecting readers. I hope it gave them a good ride. It certainly was a great ride for me. I love that book and always will. It's about a New York City that's gone forever, but never forgotten by people who were there. 

Of course, the novel includes examples here and there of my occasional awkward writing, and egregious bad taste. But I was a sleazy character myself in those days, and couldn't help myself. Now I'm trying to be a dignified elderly gentlemen, without much success, I'm sorry to say.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Fear Itself (Book Of The Undead #1)

Fear Itself, by Ric Meyers
June, 1991  Dell Books

About a decade after writing Ninja Master, Ric Meyers turned out this now-forgotten trilogy that seems very much inspired by Sam Raimi’s film Darkman. But whereas Raimi was sure to keep his story action-packed and darkly comedic, Meyers unfortunately delivers what is for the most part a padded, tepid, and uninvolving story – a definite shocker, given that this is the guy who wrote Mountain Of Fear!

In fact it seems throughout Fear Itself that Meyers was going for a “real novel” approach, rather than the lurid pulp he gave us in the Ninja Master books. So then the focus here is on character rather than action, which would be fine if it was doled out in moderation. But when you consider that Fear Itself is about a dude who returns to life as a zombie-esque force of vengeance, you kind of wonder why so many, many pages are devoted to documenting his widow’s depression and the plight of the homeless in New York City.

Anyway, the novel opens from the perspective of Melanie Merrick, a hotstuff blonde in her late 20s who’s married to Geoffrey Robert Merrick (the pretentious name being there for a purpose). If you recall that super-sappy opening in Commando, where Schwarzenegger and Alyssa Milano indulged in a montage of cutesy father-daughter stuff that veered straight into parody, you’ll be prepared for the opening of Fear Itself, as it’s along the same lines – Meyers is at pains to inform us of how much the Merricks are so very in love, to the point where you want to puke.

Of course all of this is what’s called “set up” in the biz, as you know from the back cover that Geoffrey will get wasted and be reborn as the undead avenger known as Grim. Unfortunately though it takes a hellaciously long time for this to happen. Instead we slog on as we read how Geoffrey is opposed -- damn opposed! – to his corporation, Dice-Corp, doing business with drug kingpins, even if it’s a legal, above-the-table sort of thing. Like many other novels of its era, Fear Itself is brimming with the “drug war” rhetoric of the early ‘90s, and in fact comes off like an interesting curio about the dawning of our current, sterilized world, with characters talking about their sudden decisions to stop smoking and etc.

Long story short. Geoffrey in his anti-drug agenda has run afoul of Sullivan, another executive at Dice-Corp, and Sullivan arranges a hit on Geoffrey. This is pulled off by a South American hitman who calls himself “the Student;” he puts a bomb in Geoffrey’s car and the poor bastard is blown up at the train station after having to go into the office on a Saturday! Here the horror portion of the novel finally comes to light, as Geoffrey sort of dies, but also sort of doesn’t.

Finding himself in some astral plane, with no knowledge of who he is or was, Geoffrey is accosted by The Imp, a demonic entity which tries to take him over. Instead Geoffrey escapes back to his burned and blackened human form, where he takes on the Student in one of the most plodding and unexciting fight scenes I’ve ever read – made even worse by the fact that the Student escapes alive!

Like Darkman, our hero is now a shambling, disfigured form who goes around in a black trenchcoat and hat. His name, Grim, is given to him by a bum who comes across him – the initials G.R.M. are sewn into what remains of the figure’s clothing (the pretentiousness of Geoffrey’s full name thus explained), and so “Grim” is born. But even here the novel doesn’t take off as expected, Meyers instead cutting away to poor old Melanie, who is trying to cope with sudden widowhood, as well as the advances of Geoffrey’s former colleague, Sullivan, ie Geoffrey’s murderer.

At great length it develops that Melanie shares a psychic bond with the being now known as Grim; meanwhile she’s determined to find out who killed her husband, and also if her husband’s even dead, his body missing from the wreckage of his bombed car. (The cop who assists Melanie is named Lt. Wade, perhaps an in-joke to Brett Wade of the Ninja Master series?) The bums of New York have also developed a bond with Grim, we learn, looking to him as their savior and whatnot.

In fact many pages are given over to the plight of the homeless when the next plot arises, courtesy a group of sick teens who go around dousing bums with fire. This section too is padded and overwritten, as first Meyers informs us how the group formed, initially getting together to make up twisted stories about bums raping and killing young women, until they felt compelled to go out and start killing bums themselves, in “retaliation” for these imaginary crimes. But as you’ve no doubt guessed, after too many pages have elapsed the group finally sets in on a batch of bums who are protecting Grim, who makes short but gory work of the teens.

The third and final plot concerns Jeremy Bancroft, who considers himself the king of all killers. As “Cryst” he abducts women and murders them in horrific ways; we meet him in a very unsettling scene where he kidnaps a poor girl as she’s getting off work and hooks her up to a bladed contraption. Bancroft becomes the star of the tale as the narrative solely focuses on his attempts to become famous via a vapid female anchor on the local news; Grim, not to mention his vengeance on those who destroyed his life, is just brushed aside.

At least it all builds up to a tense climax, as Grim takes on Bancroft on the subway, Bancroft having gone after Melanie in a stroke of luck/coincidence (Melanie goes to the downtown area after another psychic merging with Grim, determined to find out once and for all if the thing is really her husband, and runs right into Bancroft!). But even here it’s kind of boring, because it’s just Grim going up against one guy – you’d expect a lot more power and ferocity from an undead avenger, or whatever the hell Grim’s supposed to be.

Another thing I didn’t like about Fear Itself is how Meyers makes the Imp responsible for Bancroft’s murderous actions. The Imp we see gets off on feeding humans with evil desires, and sates himself on their eventual actions. This goes hand-in-hand with the occult belief that demons are responsible for most suicide murders, the demons taking possession of humans and satiating themselves. I’ve always found all this to be bullshit, and just another indication of how people refuse to acknowledge that each of us are responsible for our own actions (MK-Ultra subjects excluded).

Anyway, Fear Itself didn’t do much for me, and I found it to be a snoozefest for the most part. Worst of all, I was so uninterested in the protagonists and their story that I found myself hesistant to even continue on with the trilogy (Living Hell being the second installment and Worst Nightmare the third). But perhaps someday I will.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Executioner #124: Night Kill

The Executioner #124: Night Kill, by Michael Newton
April, 1989  Gold Eagle Books

Yet another novel I learned about via Michael Newton’s How To Write Action-Adventure Novels, Night Kill is actually by Newton himself; in the how-to book he showed us the outline he used to pitch the novel to Gold Eagle. And just like Psycho Squad #1, this is another men’s adventure novel clearly inspired by Maury Terry’s The Ultimate Evil, which is even namedropped on the first page.

In fact Night Kill is basically the men’s adventure version of Terry’s true crime masterpiece, doling out the same lurid “Satanic crime” details through a character who himself seems to be based on Maury Terry. This is Dr. Amos Carr (the last name itself a tip-off to The Ultimate Evil), a former cop who now is an investigative journalist, one who is known for exposing cult crimes. Bolan is put in contact with Carr via Hal Brognola, who has Bolan meet the man in Denver, where Carr is currently staying during his latest research.

The novel also comes off like a men’s adventure variant of Skipp and Spector’s The Scream (which I haven’t yet read), as Carr’s certain that the recent string of “Satanic cult murders” across the US is connected to the thrash metal group Apocalypse. Wherever Apocalypse tours, cultlike murders follow in their wake, and already two such killings have occurred here in Denver, even though the band has just arrived for their two-day concert engagement. After showing Bolan a slideshow of cult crimes and giving him a whole bunch of background on them (the majority of course taken from The Ultimate Evil), Carr succeeds in making Bolan agree that something rotten is going on.

Ironically, Bolan himself is practically a supporting character in Night Kill. He barely appears throughout the first hundred pages, and when he does he’s relegated to standing around and listening to other characters talk. Amos Carr comes off like the true protagonist, the one who does all of the research and legwork, the one who has all of the connections and makes things happen. Also ironic is that there’s hardly any action in the novel. Other than an unrelated battle scene against Irish terrorists in the opening pages, the “action” is relegated to cult murders and a quick climatic fight in the very final pages as Bolan takes on the Satanists.

Night Kill like other Gold Eagle publications of the era is too long for its own good. It runs to 253 pages, and that’s small print, baby. So many, many pages are superfluous, and clear indication that Newton was hard-pressed to fill the word quota. As is customary for Gold Eagle books, a lot of this material is given over to various characters who are introduced in leisurely fashion, and who are then either promptly killed or turn out to not have much to do with anything.

For example, we get several scenes from the viewpoints of various teen girls as they sneak out of the house to attend the Apocalypse concert. Corralled by the “hunters” who are part of the Satanic cult that has worked itself around the band, the girls are then lured to a “party” which turns out to be their place of death: sacrificial altars set up around cemeteries where the girls are drugged, tied up, and murdered. The hell of it is, though, all of these sequences are basically the same, despite being different girls each time.

Amos Carr also takes up a lot of the narrative, and humorously enough his contacts in the “occult world” know all about the Chingons and the Children of the Flame (supposedly the true force behind the Son of Sam murders) and etc, as if there’s an occult newspaper they all read. One thing I’ve always loved about Christian paranoia tales is that people in the occult are always “in the know,” like there’s this Satanic grapevine that keeps them all up-to-date on everything in the occult world.

But anyway, one of Carr’s contacts turns out to be a very attractive witch named Cassandra “Cass” Poole who, as we learn in the many sequences from her viewpoint, soon develops certain thoughts about Bolan. These thoughts are actualized in a Wiccan ritual Bolan attends with her (for absolutely no reason); Cass asks Bolan if he will “assist” her in the last part of the ritual, which entails the two of them bumping uglies beneath a tree. The sex scene here is more explicit than I expected it to be – nothing outrageous or anything, but more than I figured Gold Eagle would allow. At any rate it was nice to know Bolan can still get lucky every once in a while.

Many pages are also given over to the cult of Satanists who have infiltrated Apocalypse’s camp; the group’s “spiritual adviser,” a longhaired occultist named Lucian Slate, is a full-on Satanist, and has ties with one of the more violent cults. Made up of a group of “hunters” who work for a leader who calls himself Scratch, the cult is clearly based on the Children of the Flame. And Scratch himself is clearly based on Manson II, Maury Terry’s name for a “superstar of the occult world” who was a professional hitman who pulled off at least one of the Son of Sam murders (per David Berkowitz). Manson II by the way was still a mystery when Night Kill was published, but when the paperback edition of The Ultimate Evil came out later in 1989, he was outed as William Mentzer…who apparently lived right down the road from me at the time, in Cumberland, Maryland!!

Newton to his credit doesn’t just rake the Satanists over the coals; he also pokes fun at the televangelist movement that was so popular at the time. This is courtesy Reverend Jordan Braithwaite, whose growing ministry is based on longwinded rants against Satan, heavy metal, and Apocalypse in particular. We get way too many pages with Braithwaite, in particular the sermons he delivers, one for example which Bolan watches on TV, as if Newton’s desperate to fill up the pages. Braithwaite we gradually learn has ulterior motives, and many more pages are devoted to his own squabblings with the cult.

Really, Night Kill is an exercise in patience. It’s comprised of too much inessential detail and too many inessential characters, and it just sort of drifts along. Even a lurid bit midway through, where Bolan takes out a kiddie porn producer with ties to the cult, lacks much punch. And the finale is anticlimactic, with Cass abducted by Scratch, who plans to make her the last sacrifice before Apocalypse splits Denver. Bolan, clad in blacksuit, races to save the day, taking on his outclassed opponents in one of the more perfunctory action scenes I’ve ever read.

So long story short, whereas this novel could’ve been a lurid, sensationlistic blitz of twisted action, like Able Team #8 but with Satanists instead of drug-zombified gangbangers, Newton has instead gone for a true crime approach, keeping it all realistic.

But as far as I’m concerned, if you’re writing the 124th installment of a series titled The Executioner, “realistic” shouldn’t even be a consideration.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Jason Striker #3: The Bamboo Bloodbath

Jason Striker #3: The Bamboo Bloodbath, by Piers Anthony and Roberto Fuentes
December, 1974  Berkley Medallion Books

For once sticking to just one plot (for the most part at least), this third volume of the Jason Striker series is another fun and lurid blast of bell-bottom fury. As expected though it jumps all over the place, featuring a hyena-masked villain, kung-fu fights apleny, an arbitrary trip to a drug-rehab center, and even a cameo by Fidel Castro!!

Picking up a month or two after the previous volume, The Bamboo Bloodbath (the title has nothing to do with the story, by the way) sees our lunkheaded hero Jason Striker slowly moving on after the death of his fiance, who was murdered by the Kill-13 addicted Kali cult in the final pages of Mistress Of Death. At any rate Striker’s main focus right now is preparing his team for a judo competition that’s coming up in Cuba, and per tradition the novel opens with Striker “running the line” as he takes on his entire class in a demonstration bout.

This series is very soap-operatic in feel, and this element soon rears its head with the reappearance of gorgeous blonde Thera Drummond, last seen in #1: Kiai!. Thera’s in a panic, as her father, famous millionaire Johnson Drummond, is in danger – turns out a kung-fu vandal known as “The Hyena” is going around threatening millionaires to give him their money, or else he kills them! And the Hyena’s record is pretty impressive, as he’s never been caught or even seen, and he always holds true on his word, killing his prey no matter how hard they try to hide or protect themselves. And if they go to the police or etc, it’s instant death.

Thera, now 18 and even more ravishing, as our narrator Striker often reminds us, is convinced that Striker is her father’s only hope against the Hyena. So off they go to the Drummond mansion, where Striker goes about fortifying the place, as today is the last day of the allotted time the Hyena gave Drummond to pay – if Drummond doesn’t deliver the cash to the designated dropoff point, the Hyena will show up after midnight and kill him.

I’ve mentioned before how stupid Jason Striker is when it comes to anything except the martial arts, and The Bamboo Bloodbath features one of the best indications of this yet; when barricading the mansion doors, Striker realizes he should have a weapon and thus sends Thera back to his dojo to get his pair of nunchucks(!). Striker then continues to make the mansion into a fortress, and not until hours later does he realize that not only should Thera be back by now, but also that he’s blocked off all the mansion’s doors and thus she can’t even get in!

Before this though the soap opera sparks really fly, with Thera again coming on strong to Striker and Striker finally giving it to her – that is, after Ilunga, the black kung-fu mistress of Mistress Of Death, shows up to ask a favor of Striker. Here the authors give us some soapy melodrama, with the two women getting in an actual kung-fu fight due to their jealousy over Striker (Ilunga lusting after him even though he’s white). Ilunga, who finds herself attracted to the “blonde goddess” Thera, actually grabs hold of Thera’s crotch in a submission/pleasure hold, and Striker stands watching oblviously, having no idea what special technique Ilunga’s using! Like I said, he’s a dolt.

Also funny is how Striker (and therefore the authors themselves) go to pains to explain every little detail about inconsequential things…like if Striker needs a match for something, the authors will inform us why Striker has a matchbook in his pocket, when of course goody two-shoes Striker doesn’t smoke. It’s this over-explaining that makes Striker’s idiotic moves all the more apparent, and thus lends the series an unintentionally humorous vein; Striker comes off like a pompous halfwit.

Ilunga goes her way, leaving Striker and Thera to continue with their plans for shagging. But as usual the authors provide an immediate fade to black when the sex scene occurs. Luckily they don’t shy from describing the violence. When the Hyena’s minions attack in the night, Anthony and Fuentes deliver a very good action sequence, one that retains the violent nature of other fights in this series, with the goons employing clawed weapons and the like. The fight with the Hyena himself is even better, mostly because the guy appears to have walked out of an issue of Deadly Hands Of Kung Fu; short and muscular, the man wears a rubber hyena mask, and also keeps an actual hyena with him, to aid in his attacks.

Striker actually repels the Hyena, who escapes into the night, and we’re informed that, once defeated, the Hyena backs down and never again threatens the person who has foiled him. Pretty convenient! Striker still wants to kill the bastard, though, and swears vengeance…but wait, he’s gotta keep training his team for that upcoming judo tournament in Cuba! Meanwhile the authors break over to a third-person section with Ilunga, where we not only learn that she’s hot and heavy over Striker, but also that she’s also been trying various means to kick her Kill-13 addiction.

The favor she asked of Striker, it turns out, was for Striker to look after Ilunga’s kid brother Danny. Caught up in the black power movement, Danny’s now run afoul of a very violent faction calling itself Blakrev (Coincidence Alert: Blakrev turns out to work for the Hyena, who is white!) and needs a place to stay. Striker, too busy with the upcoming tournament to babysit, tells Ilunga to take the kid to Mustapha, the Muhammad Ali-esque boxer last seen in the Martial Open tournament back in the first volume. But Mustapha turns out to be a member of Blakrev, and he sends the boy right back to the Hyena, who proceeds to brainwash him!

The free-flowing plotlines of earlier books returns as first we get a superfluous scene in which Striker visits a shady rehab center for teens, to see how they work, and then we move on to Cuba, where the authors document the tournament matches in what comes off as a miniature retread of the Martial Open event in Kiai!. Things pick up once Striker’s team is defeated and he’s on his way back to the States; attacked by drug runners who turn out to be working for the Hyena, Striker is reunited with Ilunga, who has come here under the Hyena’s orders – the secret Blakrev leader thinking he has her under his power, using her Kill-13 addiction against her.

The authors take us on a journey across Cuba as the pair try to escape the Cuban soldiers who are now chasing them. Striker’s a regular Alex Jason when it comes to “ki,” and he uses the mystic martial power to help Ilunga kick her habit – that, and they screw a whole lot. In a sequence reminiscent of John Eagle Expeditor #8, Striker informs us how he and Ilunga take every chance they can to have sex in the countryside as they attempt to elude their pursuers. But again these scenes are relegated to, “We made love again,” or etc. Come to think of it, Anthony and Fuentes are the only men’s adventure authors I know of who don’t objectify their female characters; we will be informed that Striker’s women have beauty and grace, but never do the authors dwell on their breasts or whatnot.

But Striker and Ilunga are captured nonetheless, and Fidel friggin’ Castro shows up, treating the pair to a private audience. Castro, due to reasons of his own, wants the Hyena’s drug-smuggling business destroyed, but he doesn’t want to get involved. So he offers Striker and Ilunga a boat, tells them where he thinks the Hyena’s secret headquarters are in the Florida Everglades, and sends them on their way. The authors make Castro a rather genial sort of fellow, by the way, even offering Striker a Cuban cigar – and Striker takes it, though of course he has to remind us ad naseum how filthy a habit smoking is and etc.

The climax of The Bamboo Bloodbath plays out in the Everglades, with Striker and Ilunga plying their way by boat to the Hyena’s secret stronghold…and only once here in the swamps does Striker realize that they don’t know where in fact the stronghold even is! I’ve said it a hundred times, Jason Striker is a dolt. But thanks to the sudden appearance of inside man Musapha, who turns out to be a regular Lando Calrisian, the trio are able to infiltrate the Hyena’s stronghold – though here once again Striker nearly blows it, brushing his leg against the sensor-rigged wall as he tries to jump over it.

The final battle is suitably climatic, but not nearly as thrilling or bloody as the one in the previous volume. Striker and the Hyena face off again, and here we learn that the Hyena is in reality some well-known senator or government person of some sort…in truth the whole “Hyena” bit is too contrived as we’re to believe he’s an extortionist, a superb martial artist, a seasoned brainwasher, a wealthy drug smuggler, a Black Power leader (despite being white), and a famous government dignitary!

Still though, the Jason Striker series is such a wallop of bell-bottom fury that you can’t really complain. And it looks like in the next volume the ninjas last seen back in the first volume will return.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Midnight Hour

The Midnight Hour, by Donald Bacon
November, 1988  Pinnacle/Zebra Books

I’d never heard of this obscure horror paperback original until I saw a post on its spectacular cover art on Will Erickson’s Too Much Horror Fiction. And the cover really is something else – a cool foil mask, with the inner cover showing a busty but terrified blonde standing in front of some severed heads! Will didn’t review the novel, but Mark Louis Baumgart did, over on Amazon, and he enjoyed it – he also uploaded scans of the inner and outer covers, which I’ve stolen for this post.

The Midnight Hour bears the Pinnacle imprint, but technically it’s a publication of Zebra and thus should be considered among that publisher’s notorious horror novels, Zebra having bought Pinnacle shortly after it went bankrupt. In fact The Midnight Hour is graced with ads for other Zebra publications, among them William W. Johnstone’s jawdropping The Nursery. And true to Zebra form The Midnight Hour is much too long, running to almost 400 pages. It’s got fairly large print, but as usual with Zebra publications a lot of needless material could’ve easily been cut.

This isn’t the crazed and pulpy horror novel I prefer, instead playing things straight, sort of like Frank Lambirth’s Behind The Door. Unlike that novel though this one’s squarely in the “supernatural horror” genre, and it’s about an ancient Celtic menace called “the messenger” that was awakened in 1946 and is slowly trying to take over the world. One thing that annoys me about horror novels is when the author takes forever to get the ball rolling, with the gradual dawning upon the characters that they’re dealing with the supernatural or whatever, and though Bacon (like most other horror authors) is somewhat guilty of this, at least he gets things moving early on with the sadistic butchery of a stern old librarian in New York City.

Our hero is 23 year-old Caroline Enders, a pretty blonde who lives in NYC and is moving out of the apartment she shares with a friend named Beth and LA transplant Harry Hawkins, a 30 year-old lab scientist who also happens to be good-looking and popular with the ladies. Caroline gets word that an apartment in a ritzy area has just went on the market, and she jumps on it, despite the fact that the previous owner, an old guy named Mondrian de Kuyperdahl, killed himself there, hanging himself from a beam in the living room.

Shown around by lecherous old janitor Jesse, Caroline is introduced to “The Relic,” a Hieronymus Bosch-esque painting on stone hidden behind a panel in the bedroom; it graphically depicts a hellish landscape of people with terrified expressions interlocked in various sexual positions. Beside this painting is another, one of beauty, a portrait of an auburn-haired lady, who we eventually learn is Audrey, the wife of Mondrian. Caroline, despite her revulsion, is drawn to the horrifying painting. Eventually we learn that the Relic is a talisman which keeps at bay the ancient menace that is the messenger.

Bacon spends a goodly portion of the opening narrative getting to know Caroline and her few friends, in particular Harry, who of course will become her eventual love interest – glaringly telegraphed in their first scene together with Caroline simpering over how Harry goes out with a different woman every night and etc, though they don’t become a couple until the final page of the novel. Harry takes up a good bit of the novel himself, as after Caroline comes upon Mondrian’s effects Harry begins to read the guy’s journals from 1946.

This serves up the novel’s embedded text, with Mondrian’s (rather too comprehensive) journal providing the details on how the messenger was loosed into our world. Bacon capably adopts the tone of a British adventurer here – strange though when you consider that Mondrian is a transplant from Holland, having moved to England after WWII. But anyway in these 1946 sections we learn how Mondrian and his wife Audrey were part of an archeological dig in Sussex, one in which a Druid burial ground was uncovered. Little did they realize that this ground had been magically sealed off by Druid priests, who were attempting to imprison the messenger.

Ironically, Mondrian’s journal is so in-depth – providing his verbose thoughts on the countryside and the people he meets – that it also features the novel’s only sex scenes! Humorously enough Bacon provides somewhat explicit detail on the times Mondrian and Audrey bump uglies…even more humorously, Bacon never once breaks back to Harry, who is reading this stuff in 1988, chuckling to himself over the unexpectedly-hardcore stuff in the old diary. Anyway things in ‘46 go bad once the messenger’s out, of course, presaged by the apperance of a creep named Evone Dragosi, who turns out to be the earthly harbinger/representative of the messenger – and is also the guy who hacked up that poor librarian in the opening pages.

Mondrian’s journal ends shortly before the man hangs himself in New York, in 1988; apparently he hasn’t aged physically despite the decades, but spiritually he’s ravaged, tortured every night in his sleep by the demonic visions of the messenger. For Dragosi also killed Audrey back in the ‘40s, and now she’s stuck in the messenger’s hell. Cut to the present, and Dragosi is still around…and since the Relic is the only thing which prevents the messenger from taking over the world, he now sets his sights upon its new owner: Caroline. (According to the murky backstory neither the messenger nor its representative can enter the home of whoever owns the Relic, or something like that.)

The book has many problems, mostly due to how Bacon has chosen to tell his tale. For example near the midway point Caroline is sucked into the hellish landscape of the Relic. Bacon ends the chapter there, and when next we see Caroline she wakes up on her bed, naked and lacerated from multiple cuts. Her father just happens to arrive, concerned about her – turns out Caroline has been missing for 11 days. We gradually learn that Caroline spent these 11 days in the world of the Relic, where Mondrian helped her flee from the messenger and etc. So the big question is, why the hell didn’t Bacon write this sequence?? It’s not only central to the plot, but also it’s here in this hell that Caroline falls in love with Mondrian and learns that they are together against the messenger, etc, etc, but Bacon doesn’t even bother to write what exactly happened there.

Another big problem is the whole “Journal of Mondrian de Kuyperdahl” business. Guess what? Harry never once mentions to Caroline that he’s reading it! There’s never a single point where Harry thinks to himself, “Holy shit, maybe all this stuff’s real! I’d better warn Caroline!” I mean, it’s such a HUGE MISS…Harry just happens to read the journal and doesn’t discuss it with anyone or really even reflect on its contents. In short, the whole “Harry reads the journal” bit is just a narrative cheat, because Bacon wants to serve up the story of how the messenger got out, so he just has some random character read about it. But the hugest miss of all? Why didn’t Bacon have CAROLINE read the journal??? Not only would this have given more background to the “Caroline suddenly loves Mondrian” element, but it would’ve rendered the journal sections more integral to the plot.

The last half of the novel ramps things up with Caroline, a few weeks after she’s recovered from her trip into hell (and also humorously, Bacon doesn’t explain what’s happened to her job plans or why her parents are no longer concerned about her after, you know, disappearing for 11 days and showing up with cuts all over her), deciding that she must capture Dragosi to get his knowledge on how to stop the messenger and free the souls trapped in its hell. Again, Caroline here is relying on all of the knowledge she received from Mondrian during her 11 days in hell, and the reader feels left out because we have no idea what happened there. 

But the Caroline/Dragosi confrontation is unintentionally funny, mostly because it just keeps going and going. Stalking her prey in the New York City library, Caroline follows after Dragosi, thinking he doesn’t know she’s there. Dragosi just keeps walking and walking, all finally leading to a confrontation in his apartment, which itself goes on and on, Caroline shooting the murderer with a .22 magnum but still managing to get herself captured. Here the cover art comes into play, as in a creepy sequence Caroline discovers a cabinet filled with severed heads in Dragosi’s bedroom, heads which still seem to be alive. Also there is a grisly mask which seems to be guarding them. Anyway Caroline grabs Mondrian’s head and escapes, Dragosi crushed beneath the falling cabinet.

After this though Bacon just decides to, I don’t know, take a break or something, because he jumps ahead a few months and now Caroline’s living in a shack by a lighthouse on Long Island, and, uh, she’s real concerned with painting her new house! Seriously it all just stalls out as we learn about Caroline’s “cute” relationship with an annoying 11 year-old local named Marcie and etc. Harry, Beth, the whole friggin’ plot, all of it just sort of disappears for a while.

The finale at least is pretty over the top, with Dragosi, who of course tracks Caroline down, practically punching the shit out of little Marcie and kicking her around and stuff (though of course not killing her; nothing so extreme here) and, despite the last-second heroic appearance of Harry, still managing to get the Relic and unleash the messenger…before Caroline saves the day with a last-second message from Mondrian’s head (or something), shoving that damn mask (whatever it is) over Dragosi’s head…after which the messenger is apparently defeated…and then Dragosi, head embedded in the mask, falls out of the lighthouse tower and is impaled on the fence below, and Caroline, who has been beaten and stalked by this insane murderer, starts to feel sorry for him….!!!!!

Honestly, this book is a hot mess! Bacon just shuffles characters around, forgets about them, and then remembers them at the last second, thrusting them back into the narrative. Another huge miss is the lack of explanation. I mean, what exactly was so important about the Relic? Where did the messenger come from? Why did the heads in Dragosi’s cabinet only sometimes appear to be alive? Why had Dragosi seemingly not aged in the past 40 years? (Something the reader only infers; Bacon never describes him as looking old.) Was Dragosi also superhuman? (Despite being shot a few times by a .22 mag, he seemingly just walks it off…!) What was the purpose of the mask? How was Mondrian able to elude eternal confinement in the messenger’s hell? And on and on…

You know, given its many problems I suspect that The Midnight Hour was maybe a trunk novel the author couldn’t get published…at least until the horror boom of the late ‘80s, when all sorts of stuff was being published to satiate the insatiable horror audience. Not that there’s any particular detail that makes me suspect the novel was written well before 1988, but it does include references to shows like Fantasy Island and the records of Stevie Wonder, all of which had fallen out of the pop culture mainstream by 1988. (But then, I myself have several Stevie Wonder LPs that I occasionally play.) Not that this means those references couldn’t be made in 1988, it’s just that both of them (and other references in the book) were part of the pop culture mainstream in, say, the late ‘70s or early ‘80s.

I also wonder if Bacon was British. The writing in the journal section comes off as very British, and also the protagonists in the main ‘80s plotline, despite all being Americans, say things like “bloody hell” and “rubbish,” and like to use the words “rather” and “quite” a lot. They also talk much too politely for New York inhabitants; Caroline and Beth both sound like they just got out of finishing school. In fact a sort of “safe” air envelopes everything, nothing too crazy or drastic; even Dragosi hardly curses, save for some weird, seemingly tacked-on stuff in the climax where he starts calling Caroline and Marcie all sorts of names.

Anyway, summing up, it’s the same story with The Midnight Hour as it is with most other Zebra horror novels: Great cover, lousy book.

And speaking of which, here’s that nifty inner cover:

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Hard Corps #1

The Hard Corps #1, by Chuck Bainbridge
December, 1986  Jove Books

I was only marginally aware of the 8-volume Hard Corps series; I knew it was your typical team-oriented ‘80s men’s adventure series about a group of former ‘Nam soldiers who moved on into mercenary work. But then I read Zwolf’s great review of this first volume on The Mighty Blowhole (where he also kindly provided a scan of the unintentionally-funny inner cover) and knew I’d have to track the books down.

And just like Zwolf, I couldn’t believe how much I actually enjoyed The Hard Corps #1. Also like him I had zero expectations for the book, figuring it was going to be a Gold Eagle-styled troll of gun-porn and endless action scenes with cardboard characters. And while that’s somewhat true at times, the overall impact is pretty great – I mean, the book is pulpier and just plain more fun than those dour damn Gold Eagle novels. Also, it’s cartoonishly violent, with the gore level of say David Alexander or GH Frost, and that’s always a good thing!

As Zwolf noted, the series is pretty much identical to Phoenix Force; we’ve got five hardened warriors with various specialities and enough quirkiness to make them slightly more than cardboard cutouts. I’m guessing Jove Books must’ve seen how well Gold Eagle was doing with Phoenix Force and figured they should jump on the bandwagon. And if that’s true, they made a very wise decision by hiring William Fieldhouse to serve as their author, ie Gar Wilson himself.

“Chuck Bainbridge” was the house name for The Hard Corps, but it looks like Fieldhouse wrote the majority of the novels, with a British author named Chris Lowder coming in for the final few installments. This concerns me, as according to Justin Marriott Chris Lowder was the “Jack Adrian” who wrote the first half of Deathlands #1 before Laurence James came onboard as “James Axler” to finish it (and continue on with the series), and Deathlands #1 was so bad that I never even bothered writing a review of it. (But then, I think the Deathlands series in general sucks, each volume coming off like a lame ripoff of Stephen King’s The Gunslinger with an added layer of Gold Eagle-mandated gun-porn.)

Anyway, the Hard Corps is made up of five dudes who are basically psychotics; I mean, we’re informed that they loved warfare so much that after ‘Nam they basically suffered withdrawal symptoms and thus decided to go it as mercenaries. Now, several years after officially forming in 1975, they charge one million dollars per job and live on a sprawling complex deep in the forests of Washington state, where they are both self-sustaining and also have a massive arsenal with a few helicopters.

The Hard Corps is comprised of:

William O’Neal – Leader of the group, a Green Beret captain who climbed the ladder in ‘Nam due to battlefield commissions until he was in charge of the special forces unit called “the Hard Corps.” He joined the army despite the left-leaning beliefs of his parents and never looked back.

Joe Fanelli – A demolitions whiz from Chicago who constantly bucks against authority. Thrown in the brig and kicked out of the army multiple times, he eventually found his way into O’Neal’s outfit and proved himself as a courageous warrior.

James Wentworth – The second in command, a balding scion of several generations of military bigshots. Wentworth has Fieldhouse’s stamp all over him, as he’s enamored of Japanese culture and enjoys going into combat armed with a samurai sword.

Steve Caine – Basically, the Rambo of the group; that is, David Morrell’s original interpretation of the character, as seen in First Blood. Caine even has the “unkempt beard” Morrell’s Rambo sported in First Blood, and like Rambo he sort of “went over” during ‘Nam and lived with the Katu montagnard tribe, learning their jungle warfare tactics and how to kill silently and etc. In short, Caine is the most interesting character of the group, basically a ninja type who moves like a shadow and prefers bladed weaponry, despite being the best marksman on the team. Like Rambo he goes for a wicked survival knife, which he uses to cut up people real good. He gets the best scenes in the novel, in particular a bit where he sets up a plethora of fatal traps.

John McShayne – In his 50s and thus a few decades older than the rest of the team, McShayne is a veteran of Korea and serves as “mother hen” for the Corps, taking care of the base, munitions, supplies, and etc while the team is off on missions. A funny recurring joke has it that McShayne keeps all of the storage sheds locked due to his fear of bears getting into them.

This first volume basically plays out like Invasion U.S.A. meets your average ‘80s ‘Nam movie. Reversing the customary story of American soldiers in Vietnam, Fieldhouse turns it around and has Vietnamese soldiers invading the US! They’ve snuck over the US/Mexico border to kill Trang Nih, a well-known Vietnamese refugee who goes about the free world as a crusader against Communism. In charge of this Vietnamese strike force is the KGB-trained Captain Vinh, an infamous assassin known for his warfare skills.  Trang Nih has come to the Hard Corps for help, and just as he arrives in their secluded forest compound Vinh’s men attack.

The Hard Corps #1 is basically comprised of the ensuing battle between Vinh’s endless supply of Vietnamese soldiers and the members of the Hard Corps. Yet the book, the reader will notice, is 325 fat pages – of very small print! No doubt due to the editor or publisher’s request, the novel is rendered as an epic, when it would be much better served at under 200 pages. Instead Fieldhouse delivers long backstories for each member of the Hard Corps…even for Vinh and some of his underlings! It’s this stuff in particular that comes off like Vietnam fiction, given that so much of it is set during the war. And speaking of which, the ‘Nam sections with the Corps almost comes off like an installment of the Black Eagles – another Fieldhouse series, by the way.

But other than these elaborate (and usually arbitrary) flashbacks the novel sticks to its only plot: the Hard Corps versus Captain Vinh. The unit comes off like Phoenix Force meets Able Team, with the multi-skills of the former and the goofy chatter of the latter. One difference though is a lingering military protocol, with the lesser-ranked members of the Corps referring to O’Neal and Wentworth as “sir.” But at no point does the novel come off like military fiction, even though characters not once but twice poke fun at Rambo and the fantasy aspect of action cinema. Yet for all that the novel’s about as “realistic” as a Cannon film of the ‘80s…I mean, it’s all about an army of Vietnamese commandos launching an assault on a compound deep in the Washington forests!

And the gore level is through the roof – every time someone’s shot we read about their “steaming organs” blowing out or their brains wetly slapping against the nearest wall. Guys are blown up, gutted, decapitated, chopped apart, strangled, sliced and diced, impaled, and just plain shot, and each and every death is rendered in super-gory detail. In other words, it’s awesome! Almost as exploitative is the gun-porn, with reams of egregious detail doled out anytime someone whips out a gun, even if it’s some nameless gunman who just showed up long enough to get blown away.

As mentioned, the book runs 325 pages, and roughly 90% of it is comprised of various battles, with members of the Hard Corps taking out Vinh’s soldiers on their own or together. Somehow Fieldhouse manages to drop some comedy (mostly via banter) and even suspense into the tale, but for the most part it’s just an endless aciton fest. Stephen Mertz mentioned once that Fieldhouse was part of a “Rosenberger Circle” of writers, and that’s very apparent here – while the writing style is vastly superior to Rosenberger’s own, the action scenes do tend to go on and on, with a special focus on hand-to-hand combat.

But again, given the almost cartoonish level of gore, one can hardly complain…the book was almost like a writing exercise on how many ways a writer could describe a character getting killed. I’ve picked up most of the rest of the series, and happily it looks like future volumes are much shorter – meaning they can focus more on the carnage and less on the arbitrary and needless backstories.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Traveler #3: The Stalkers

Traveler #3: The Stalkers, by D.B. Drumm
September, 1984  Dell Books

Sort of picking up from the events of the previous volume, this installment of the Traveler series, once again courtesy John Shirley, sees our titular protagonist movin’ on down the road, where he’s promptly ambushed by mutant horrors called “Bloats” which string him up with another captive and then line up for dinner.

As I mentioned in the previous review, the post-nuke setting allows Shirley to indulge in his horror fiction interests, and the Bloats are straight out of a creature feature. Radiation-spawned monsters with a fondness for human flesh, the things are downright gruesome (each of them with multiple holes in their heads – holes with little tongues), not to mention the “Mother Bloat” who oversees the litter. Traveler manages to free himself, but not before he’s hit in the head so hard he gets a concussion, and luckily a batch of survivalists from the Lake Tahoe region show up to blow away the Bloats – Traveler taking on the Mother by himself.

The survivalists, lead by a rightwinger named Kettering, offer Traveler a job in exchange for fuel and ammo. But just as Traveler’s being introduced to their compound someone breaks in and steals his Meat Wagon van. Once again the narrative becomes one long chase, as Traveler and a few of the inbred yokels who make up this compound take off in a sheet metal-lined station wagon in hot pursuit. Traveler not only wants his van back, but more importantly his antitoxin is stored in there, and the neurotoxin effects are really kicking in.

After a highway confrontation with roadrats that could come straight out of The Road Warrior, Traveler, once again solo, finally comes face to face with the person who stole the Meat Wagon. Shirley opens up the narratve here by revealing that it’s a young (and of course gorgeous) Cheyenne Indian girl named Jan. However Shirley fails to mention how exactly Jan’s tribe came to know that the Meat Wagon was going to be in the Tahoe compound, or for that matter even what their master plan was for its theft – she just mentions later that it was all in retalliation for a pillaging Kettering’s people had perpetrated upon her own camp.

But Traveler’s sick from that concussion and the old medicine woman with Jan cures him. Now he’s in yet another camp, this one populated by Cheyenes who are ruled by an old guy who used to work in the medical field before society collapsed. These guys too propose a job for Traveler – to escort Jan into a place called Drift outside of Vegas, where Jan’s brother Martin is held captive by the remnants of the US government. Turns out Major Vallone, Traveler’s nemesis, has found more containers of Neurotoxin 77, the toxin Traveler was dosed with back in ’89 before the war, and Jan’s tribe has found the other cache – Vallone wants to trade Martin for the whereabouts of this other cache of NT 77.

The narrative slowly comes together as Traveler figures he can do the job and get his vengeance on Vallone, while also destroying all of the NT 77 (which we learn Vallone is planning to spray on Kansas City, probably in retaliation to the events in #2: Kingdom Come). But meanwhile the Black Rider, that black-skinned, black-garbed biker mutant with mental powers, is busy sending assassins after Traveler. First up is a lanky black guy named Orwell who goes after Traveler and Jan in a rig, chasing after the Meat Wagon in an entertaining sequence.

Orwell turns out to be one of Traveler’s old special forces pals, and also one of the guys who was also dosed with NT 77 on that mission in El Hiagura. After crashing his rig and breaking the Rider’s hold, Orwell ends up riding along with Jan and Traveler to Drift. Here we have more action as Traveler asserts his authority over the rabble-rousing populace and dodges another Black Rider-sent assassin: The Tall Man, a nightvision goggle-wearing hitman who chases after Traveler in the darkness of the shantytown.

Of course Traveler and Jan become an item, but Shirley believe it or not doesn’t go into the details of the expected sex scene, which makes me suspect that Jan will return at some point, as she’s developed as basically the female version of Traveler and they’re an ideal match for one another. It seems to me that only casual flings are given the explicit treatment in pulp fiction, but more “serious” relationships are treated more prudishly. But then this makes sense, I guess. Anyway Jan now considers Traveler “her man,” and even saves his life a few times.

The Black Rider himself doesn’t do much this time out, and there’s no appearance from senile President Frayling. In fact The Stalkers sort of just barrels along, picking up and casting aside plots. It all culminates in Drift, where a Vallone flunky named Wentworth oversees the brutal control of army-corralled slaves; men and women who will be used for NT 77 testing. The Cheyenne tribe has already destroyed the NT 77 they came across, but obviously they’re keeping that from Wentworth – the plan is to get Martin out and then a pack of Cheyenne commandos will descend upon Drift and take out Wentworth and the Glory Boys (ie the leather-clad elite soldiers of the “US Army”).

Here we have a face-to-face confrontation between Traveler and Vallone, as the latter gets the drop on our hero as he comes into Wentworth’s headquarters in Drift. But Shirley doesn’t make much of it, just having Vallone throw Traveler in jail! Of course he and Orwell are able to free themselves, leading to a climatic shootout in which the Cheyennes come in with guns blazing and Jan nearly manages to kill Vallone, who escapes nonetheless. This finale isn’t as entertaining as the one in the previous volume, mostly because Traveler is relegated to freeing himself and then commandeering a heavy machine gun, which he uses to take out a few snipers.

As mentioned the Traveler/Jan relationship definitely seems to be building toward something, but Traveler just takes off in the end, in one of the most arbitrary endings I’ve ever read in a novel. It’s almost like Shirley was like, “Oh, right – this is a series!” Because otherwise Jan’s reunited with her brother, the NT 77 is destroyed, Jan and Traveler are together, Jan has proven to Traveler that he’s actually cured of the NT 77 effects and has only needed the antitoxin because he’d grown addicted to it, and even Orwell has hooked up with Junie, the “horse faced” daughter of Kettering (who we learn was killed in yet another ambush shortly after Traveler left his camp).

But instead of sticking around and being happy (one of the subplots of the novel in fact is Traveler’s fear that he’s starting to fall in love with Jan), Traveler gets up the next morning, tells everyone “so long,” and hits the road, ostensibly so he can gain vengeance on Vallone, but really so the series can continue on.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Nursery

The Nursery, by William W. Johnstone
No month stated, 1983  Zebra Books

As a men's adventure-reading kid, I was familiar with William W. Johnstone’s post-nuke pulp Ashes series, but there seemed to be like a hundred volumes and I could never find the first one, and once when I tried to start reading anyway with the earliest volume I could find, I was like, “Man, this writer sucks!", and mind you I was around 11 years old at the time.

But Johnstone was one prolific writer and turned out way too many novels before his death in 2004. His earliest ones (starting in 1980, with his first published novel The Devil’s Kiss), were mostly horror, published by the always-entertaining Zebra Books. After seeing Will Erickson’s post on some Johnstone paperbacks on Too Much Horror Fiction, I looked into the man’s work…only to discover that this guy put the “glorious” in “trash” (or vice versa). For here was an author who enjoyed going as far out as possible. The only unfortunate thing is that Johnstone’s horror novels are incredibly overpriced on the used books market.

In particular I saw some good things about The Nursery, how despite being a retread of practically ever other Johnstone horror novel (basically, Satan takes over some hamlet in the midwest and it’s up to some Right Wing former soldier to kill ‘em all in Jesus’s name) it was also brimming with all of the salacious stuff the man’s earliest novels were notorious for. Make no mistake, this is one profane novel, so lurid and exploitative as to be hilarious, filled with terms and phrases straight out of Penthouse Letters. There’s no way in hell a novel like this could be published in today’s Twilight world.

Anyway 43 year-old Mike Folsom is returning to the tiny town of Butler, Lousiana when we meet him; Mike has just retired from over 20 years in the army, where he kicked ass in 'Nam and later all over the world. He’s one of those types who could kill you with a newspaper or something. He hasn’t been home for a decade, coming here ten years before to handle his parents’s estate, as they’d both died rather suddenly. Mike is also wealthy, thanks to his dad’s various business efforts, and he’s pretty damn right-leaning in his views. However, as Johnstone reminds us again and again, Mike isn’t a redneck (or a Cajun) and also isn’t a hardcore Christian, rarely if ever going to church.

But something’s up in Butler, as Mike soon discovers. All of the main roads are closed off and people in town are just acting plain different. A few of them still seem normal, though, in particular Rana Drew, a super-hot 33 year-old blonde with a “sensational derriere” and “great breasts;” Rana has been in love with Mike since she was a little girl, and just happens to run into him shortly after he’s returned to Butler. She makes her interests immediately known, inviting Mike over for dinner. Meanwhile Rana’s daughter, 15 year-old Lisa (Rana’s ex-husband long out of the picture), is a wild child, as are all of the teens in Butler, and most of Rana and Mike’s initial conversations are given over to Rana explaining why she lets Lisa get away with how she acts and etc.

Johnstone is not the most competent of authors, and in fact you could even say he’s a lousy writer. He POV-hops, his characters are walking cliches, and at hardly any point does he show instead of tell. Indeed the majority of the novel is relayed through dialog, with Mike almost like some TV reporter as he goes around asking question after question. But then, when the dialog in this book contains lines like, “What is this preoccupation with anal sex?” the reader can hardly complain. But the Mike/Rana conversation goes on throughout the entire novel, with Mike barraging her with questions and Rana doling out huge blocks of expository background.

But anyway it develops that ol’ Satan himself has taken over Butler, in the personage of the reclusive and wealthy Becker, whose power and minions have firmly shut off the hamlet from the rest of the world. Through the front of a supposed church (run by the depraved satanic Reverend Ron Egan) Becker has taken over the children as well, with kids Lisa’s age and younger going there to engage in group sex and the like. The titular nursery, also known as “the womb room,” is where fetuses are kept in like storage containers in which they are fed 24/7 diatribes about Satan and etc; this element is really underdeveloped and in fact the nursery has hardly anything to do with the novel, maybe taking up 5% of the narrative.

Johnstone throws in so many characters and subplots that eventually he loses track of many of them. Central though is Mike and Rana, and Johnstone doesn’t hold back when it comes to their eventual sex scene – I’m talking full-on porn, here. But in addition we have Becker, who is apparently using Butler as the new resting place for The Old One, an ancient sort of demon which needs a few decades or so of sleep every once in a while, or something like that. To achieve this Becker has turned the town into Satansville, USA, and in addition to the brainwashed satanists we’ve got vampires and zombies running around.

There are also roving packs of teenagers, and here Johnstone really gets to unleash on the generation gap, serving up the greatest fears of the conservative middle class by making the teens literally soulless automatons of sadism and death. “Something to do, man,” is Johnstone’s hilarious recurring phrase to sum up the aimless yet merciless whims of these kids, who as the narrative ramps up go off on rape and killing sprees. In fact there’s so much rape in The Nursery that the reader soon becomes desensitized to it. But we get it in spades, complete with even fathers raping their daughters and sons raping their mothers – this last bit in an unforgettable scene where Mike, armed with a shotgun, watches in horror as his next door neighbors go at one another…Mike in shock, but Johnstone doling out the details, of course.

Mike, you see, gradually learns that he is “God’s Warrior,” divinely chosen to carry out the battle against Satan. One of the funniest things about The Nursery and most other “Christian paranoia” tales about the devil and the occult is that God rarely if ever speaks directly to his followers – and yet the followers of Satan are always directly in communion with their master. There are scenes where Becker will call up Ol’ Scratch, and other parts where Satan will send out telepathic messages to his servants. Yet God remains perennially silent. And on top of that, Satanism as presented here basically involves lots of sex and power…whereas the Christians are reduced to ramshackle packs. But then, this has been part and parcel of Christian fiction since the era of the Roman Empire – my own personal belief (as evidenced by the success of Left Behind et al) is that some Christians sort of get off on being persecuted.

But anyway, Mike has to discover for himself that he’s been chosen – and Johnstone really kills time until he goes into kill mode for God. The Nursery, like every other Zebra publication, is too long for its own good, coming in at nearly 400 pages. But it’s big print, and Johnstone’s writing is so simple yet fluid that you barrel right along…plus there’s all the dirty stuff. And Johnstone doesn’t shirk on the violence, either, with Mike either blowing mind-washed satanists away with his .41 mag revolver, a shotgun, or an AK-47, given to him by a mysterious and possibly divine intermediary who calls himself Ted Bernard.

The novel takes place over one harried weekend, and is jam-packed with lurid shenanigans. For one there’s teenager Lisa, who comes on to Mike with a mouth that would embarras a truck driver. One of the novel’s many highlights is when Mike pulls Lisa out of the satanic church and attempts to whip the devil out of the girl, only to find that Lisa royally gets off on it (easily the most outrageous scene in the entire novel). But God wins out and soon Lisa is renouncing her evil ways, though this doesn’t stop her from talking dirty or telling Mike that he’ll have to “fuck” her if Satan comes for her again, as that will be the only way to save her soul – though this is one of many subplots Johnstone completely forgets about.

There are so many jawdropping scenes that one doesn’t know where to start. From the corny to the depraved, Johnstone covers all the bases. I mean, how about when the Christians in Mike’s home feel the “thought-pushings” of Satan, which sounds as some unspecified music in their minds (I imagined it as something cool like Slayer’s “Hell Awaits”), calling them back to “The Master,” and Mike gets everyone to hold hands and sing Christian sermons to fight back? Or…how about when Mike feels a “dark presence,” and he reaches out for the Bible, and as soon as he touches it the presence fades away? There are many such scenes which, to me at least, are just plain laughable, but what’s awesome is you can tell Johnstone’s a True Believer…which makes his lurid stuff all the more impressive.

Everything finally builds to a thrilling climax, with Mike blitzing the town of Butler in a commandeered truck, blowing away teenagers and satanists with his AK-47. But Johnstone wraps up the Old One storyline very anticlimatically, with Satan realizing that God, acting through Mike, has won again, and thus pulls his forces out of Butler. You know how in most horror movies the credits roll after the villain has been killed? Johnstone proves why this is a smart idea, as for whatever reason he wastes our time with several pages of aftermath, where Mike, finally able to communicate with the outside world now that Becker’s forces have been defeated, calls in his old Army friends and they look over the destruction and try to make sense of it.

Back in my Phoenix reviews I wrote that the main thing I loved about David Alexander's style was how he came off like a sex and violence-obsessed 15 year-old with no conscience; well, Johnstone is in the same league, my friends. In fact, one could argue that he goes even further. This is a case where only quotes will give a full idea of what the reader is in for. From the bizarre to the just plain dirty, here are a few excerpts from The Nursery. Brace yourself!

Lisa put her head back and curled her toes, jerking in climax. Her sleek tanned legs were spread wide, trembling as the good doctor pulled out of her and reached for a towel. He cleaned himself and tossed another towel to Lisa, pointing toward the small bathroom.

“Go wipe your pussy,” he told her. “Get the smell of cum off you. And don’t forget your birth control pills.” -- pg. 31

“Lisa –” Mike managed to say, lips on hers.

“If she did come in – which she won’t – she’d probably ask you for some.”

Mike pulled back, shocked. “That’s a terrible thing to say about your daughter!”

“But true. Want to see the vibrator and King Dong dildo she thinks she keeps hidden from me?”

“Not particularly.”

“Good. Then shut up and make love to me.”

Mike could not imagine his own daughter shoving a rubber cock up in her. He hoped she didn’t, at least. -- pg. 74

Ava screamed hoarsely as pain lanced through her slender body. The crowd of men and women, all naked or clad in the barest of clothing, laughed at the girl’s wailings.

“Hurry up, Al,” a woman urged. “This has got me all sexed up. Let’s go to the barracks and fuck. I want you to fuck my ass.” -- pg. 87

"What is this preoccupation with anal sex?” Mike asked.

“Tight,” Lisa answered bluntly. She looked up at him. “I mean,” she shrugged, “so they tell me.”

Mike had grown accustomed to the teenager’s frankness. Familiarized to it, but not comfortable with it.

She said, “You mean, Mike, as worldly as you are, you’ve never gone in the back door of a woman?”

Her mother sighed and shook her head.

“No,” Mike replied, his face red.

“That’s really wild, man.” -- pg. 222

Nickie stood in confusion in the moonlight. She could not understand what had happened. Had she been screwed or was it all a dream? Yes, she thought, dipping her fingers into the fur between her legs, she had been well-screwed. But where did the men go?

So she had not been dreaming. Her asshole was sticky. No dream there, either. -- pg. 275

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Last Ranger #1

The Last Ranger #1, by Craig Sargent
May, 1986  Popular Library

I had a blast re-reading this first volume of The Last Ranger. The first time I read it I was 11 years old, it was 1986, and I’d eagerly grabbed a copy of the book from the shelf at WaldenBooks. In fact over the years scenes from this novel have remained with me, so it was sort of strange to read the book again these decades later, almost like déjà vu.

The series ran for 10 volumes and is one of the best examples of the post-nuke pulp subgenre. I bought and read the first five volumes as they were published, after which my interest in the genre petered out and I moved on to sci-fi; I do know though that The Last Ranger is a rare men’s adventure series that offers a very definite conclusion in its final volume (spoiler alert: the entire planet explodes!).

But man, I was really into this series, like in a big way. I’ve written about how crazy I was about Phoenix Force, but I was just as crazy about The Last Ranger. I remember eagerly checking the shelves every time I went to WaldenBooks to see if the latest volume had come out.   And it’s easy to see why I loved it so much, as the series is obviously catered to the interests of a young boy – it’s all about a studly dude in his early twenties who, while trying to both escape from and live up to his father’s shadow, goes out to kick mutant ass and take names in a post-apocalyptic USA, armed to the teeth and riding around on a customized Harley chopper. Plus he has a pet pit bull!

As a kid I took the “Craig Sargent” by-line at face value, but in recent years as I’ve learned about house names I’ve begun to suspect it was a pseudonym. And it turns out it was, as according to this site Craig Sargent was in reality Jan Stacy – aka one half of the duo that was Ryder Stacy. This is obvious upon reading The Last Ranger, which comes off very much like Doomsday Warrior, only slightly less cartoonish. Also there’s a strange bit of irony with the Last Ranger series, which ended in 1989, the same year Stacy himself passed away, dying of AIDS…makes one wonder what thoughts went behind that whole “destruction of Earth” series conclusion.

This first volume is much more concerned with characterization than the genre norm, and indeed for the first half doesn’t much come off like a men’s adventure at all. (No fear, though, because in the second half that patented Ryder Stacy insanity kicks into full gear.) We are treated to a very long backstory about our protagonist’s father before we even get to the actual hero of the tale. Major Clayton R. Stone is that father (we'll just go ahead and assume he's related to Mark Stone), and we read about how as a teenager he was able to bluff his way into the army during WWII, becoming such a great soldier that he continued to fight in Korea and Vietnam, despite raking in a fortune in his civilian life as a munitions developer.

Martin Stone is the series protagonist, and we learn that he was born in 1972, Clayton Stone finally having met a woman and settled down (in between heading off to whatever war was currently going on). Humorously enough, Clayton Stone’s wife doesn’t get any dialog or hardly any narrative space. But we learn how Clayton Stone would try to raise young Martin in the ways of the military, but how Martin was very disinterested. Meanwhile, another child was born: April, a pretty blonde who is given even less narrative time than her mother. This leads to some unintentional comedy when later in the novel April is abducted and Martin Stone must save her; the reader is moreso like, “Stone has a sister?

Also it must be mentioned that Stacy confuses us by referring to both father and son as “Stone.” For the purposes of the review though “Stone” will refer only to Martin, who again is the true hero of the series, which isn’t very apparent throughout the first half of The Last Ranger #1. Instead we read how Clayton Stone becomes certain after the Vietnam era that a nuclear war is imminent, and thus uses his millions to buld a massive bomb shelter complex deep in the Rocky Mountains, “about 150 miles north of Denver.” This by the way is around the same location as Century City in Doomsday Warrior, so either this was an in-joke from Jan Stacy or he and Ryder Syvertsen were just crazy about that particular region.

Everyone believes the old Major is insane, but Clayton Stone becomes more and more certain that civilization is doomed. And so it is that before dawn on February 13, 1990 Clayton Stone awakes and knows in his bones that today is the fated day. He forces his family into their cars and they hightail it through the mountains, arriving at their bomb shelter complex just as the Russian-fired nuclear missiles begin to hit US soil. A double irony with that 1990 date is for one of course the fact that Jan Stacy himself didn’t live to see it, but also that this is one of the few post-nuke pulps in which WWIII doesn’t occur in 1989 – for whatever reason, ’89 was like the go-to year for writers of post-nuke pulps.

Stuck in the sprawling complex, which features all the comforts of home and more, the family goes about their life, though Stacy really doesn’t elaborate, and there are no scenes with all four of them together. Again, one could even forget there’s a Mrs. Stone and teenager April, as Stacy solely focuses upon Major Stone and son. Now that the world has ended, Stone finally heeds his father’s pleas, and thus begins to train with him, the Major bestowing all of the skills and knowledge he has learned from his many years of being a Ranger. This goes on for a period of five years, after which we’re to believe that Stone is as tough and skilled as his father, even a better shot than him (a gun range and massive arsenal being in the complex, naturally). Personally I had a very hard time believing this, given that battlefield skills are borne out of experience, not lessons from dad.

But, conveniently enough after training is complete, Major Stone dies, suffering a massive heart attack at the dinner table. (This was one of those scenes I’ve remembered over the years.) Over the past five years (the date now 1995, and Stone now 23 years old) the Major has told the family that radiation has scarred the nation and that not only is it unsafe out there, but no one survived. This by the way is another big miss on the Major’s part: his stated goal for building the complex was that the Stones would possibly have to repopulate the Earth…but meanwhile it’s just him, his wife, and their two kids! The least the Major could’ve done was bring along a mate for Stone and April, but whatever… But now that the Major’s dead Stone is able to get into his father’s previously-barred radio room, and there Stone discovers that not only is there barely any radiation out there, but also that mass pockets of hummanity have in fact survived.

Stone, who has always fought against his dad, gets really pissed at the old man, believing the family has been lied to for five years. So they all hop in a Winnebago (the complex of course well stocked with vehicles as well) and head out…where they are immediately attacked by Road Warrior-esque bikers, Stone beaten nearly to death, and both his mom and April raped and killed (though Stone later learns that April wasn’t killed and was indeed abducted by the bikers).

Pulled half-dead from the scene of the massacre, Stone is saved by a group of American Indians, of the Ute tribe. Humorously, despite civilization having ended a mere five years ago, the Utes act like it was all long in the past, talking about how “the white man” destroyed the world and etc. They also hate whites, something often drilled into Stone, but due to the obligatory “Indian honor” of pulp they are duty-bound to help the young man heal. This sequence goes on for quite a while, as Stone lives with the Utes, taking part in their ceremonies and getting closer to Chamma, an of course beautiful young Indian girl who is the only one who will really talk to Stone.

My theory is that Jan Stacy was the writer behind the psychedelic/metaphysical stuff in Doomsday Warrior, a theory which seems to be proven here with a long “magic mushroom” trip Stone goes on with the Ute shaman and several others. This is a pretty interesting sequence, with Stone et al hanging above the ground from hooks that are embedded in their chest muscles; Stone hallucinates his mother and father coming for him as zombies. And just as Doomsday Warrior was always sure to include a sex scene, so too does The Last Ranger #1, Stone and Chamma getting it on in pretty explicit detail.

Finally Stone has recovered and he leaves the Utes, trekking back to the complex. Along the way he makes his first kill, offing a pair of bikers. (Bikers come off really badly in this novel!) Stone’s return to his bunker-complex home is another of those scenes I’ve somehow always remembered, but strangely Stacy does little to play up on the feelings that arise in Stone as he comes back to the now-ghostly complex in which he shared the previous five years of his life with his now dead or missing family members. Not that this sort of soul-plumbing is typically expected from a men’s adventure novel, but as mentioned The Last Ranger #1 is a bit more focused on characterization than most others in the genre.

Another memorable sequence is Stone’s discovery of a previously-locked room in which his father kept various computers; on one of them the Major recorded all of his thoughts on warfare in encyclopedia form, for the express purpose that Stone could refer to it – and also in one of those narratively-convenient deals, the Major has also left behind an “if you’re reading this it means I’m dead” message in which he explains to Stone that he lied to the family because he knew the world would be a dangerous place, so he wanted them to stay in the bunker for at least 15 years. Of course, Stone now knows his father was right.

But now it’s payback time, and in the final quarter the novel really kicks into gear. Chamma is the one who informed Stone that April was still alive; she told him that when the Utes arrived they saw the girl hauled off, and she figures the bikers took her to Denver. She further informed him that Denver is the domain of the Guardians of Hell, an army of bikers lead by Rommel. This time Stone will be prepared for the outside world, and thus he breaks out the weaponry; the novel features the gun-porn that was mandatory in the ‘80s, which itself marks it from Doomsday Warrior, which was more fantasy-based in its weaponry, what with its “9mm assault rifles” and other imaginary guns. Stone also breaks out a customized Harley Electroglide 1200, which has a friggin’ machine gun strapped along it!

Stone now fully becomes “The Last Ranger,” using his dad’s data storehouse of warfare strategy and the bunker arsenal to kill biker scum real good. Stacy doles out the gory violence expected from “Ryder Stacy,” with lots of descriptions of brains blowing out and sliding across the floor and etc. Stacy also serves up the unexpected and quirky characters Doomsday Warrior was known for, especially in the form of Guardians of Hell boss and Denver ruler Rommel, a 400-pound mass of muscle who snorts ether and practices “Zen nihilistic hedonism.”

Insinuating himself into the Denver underworld as a biker looking for his break, Stone wastes one of Rommel’s goons in that tried-and-true method of gaining a boss’s trust by showing him how weak his underlings are. Stacy delivers a bunch of oddball characters here, from Queenie, the beautiful but sadistic leader of the Slits (ie the female branch of the Guardians of Hell) who literally emasculates any man she has sex with (and of course she immediately has her eyes on Stone), to Poet, an armless and legless radiation-scarred dwarf who goes around on a customized electric wheelchair, spouting “poetic” prophecies and warnings.

Stacy gets wild here, from an orgy sequence (in which an armless and legless whore is even brought out for Poet!) to a part where Stone has to eat the heart of the Guardian he killed as part of his initiation into the biker army. Meanwhile he searches for April, eventually figuring that she’s being safeguarded with several other pretty young women as part of the “rewards” that will be given out for the Guardian Olympics, a biker event of various matches. Stone signs up for the marksman contest, scoring the best shots due to his expert sharpshooting skills (and the target of course is a fresh corpse!).

Unfortunately it all ends too quickly; strange given the elaborate and leisurely build of the first three quarters of the novel. But upon winning the match and heading for where the girls are stashed, Stone is ambushed by the Slits, and wakes up bound and surrounded by the biker women, Queenie informing him that they’re all going to screw Stone, after which she’s going to hack off his dick and kill him! After freeing himself and taking out Queenie (also hurling Poet up against a wall, the freakish dwarf having showed up to watch the festivities), Stone heads back to Denver and sets the place to blow, leading to a quick but final confrontation with Rommel.

However April is still a captive by novel’s end, having been spirited away by one of the Guardians while Stone was being held by the Slits. This as I recall is a recurring storyline with the series; I think Stone searches for April for like the first three or four volumes. Also as I recall the Poet returns, though I do remember Stone gets vengeance on him at some point, once again throwing him somewhere – in fact, I remember standing in WaldenBooks one day in 1987 or so and discussing the series with some other kid who happened to be there, as we were both standing in the men’s adventure section (which was nestled between the Westerns and Sci-Fi sections) and started talking about how much we both loved The Last Ranger, and further how happy we were that Poet finally got his comeuppance.

One thing Stone does however rescue by novel’s end is a pit bull, part of a menagerie of various animals Rommel kept imprisoned in one of his bars. The dog refuses to leave Stone, even chasing after him when he drives away from Denver. So Stone decides to keep the dog, but hasn’t named it yet, and in fact I can’t recall the dog’s name. However it too becomes a mainstay of the series.

Anyway as the unwieldy length of this review will attest, I am very fond of this series, and having re-read the first volume I can happily report it’s not just from nostalgia. The Last Ranger #1 offers up pretty much all you could want from an ‘80s slice of post-nuke pulp, and if my memory serves me the ensuing volumes only get better and better.