Monday, December 11, 2017

Meet Nookie (Nookie #1)


Meet Nookie, by Ross Webb
No month stated, 1975  Manor Books

“Ross Webb” is none other than J.C. Conaway, who here serves up the first of what will be two volumes in the Nookie series, which is basically a prefigure of Conaway’s later Jana Blake series. Prefigure? Actually it’s the same exact thing, with only minor changes. 

Conaway has already proven himself to be a master recycler, as seen with Deadlier Than The Male, which was a straight-up rewrite of his earlier Lady From L.U.S.T. contribution. By the same token, it would appear that Jana Blake was just the Nookie series, moved from Manor to Belmont-Tower, with the heroine changed from a brunette to a blonde. Otherwise the two series are identical and are both low-thrills, high-sleaze.

To wit, Italian-American Indian beauty Nakomis “Nookie” Narducci is a “well-stacked female dick.” She has straight black hair that flows past her shoulders but no other body hair to speak of; her “hairless femininity” will often be mentioned in the copious sex scenes, but none of her male consorts seem much surprised by it, which is strange given that this was written in the shaggy-hairy ‘70s. Just like Jana Blake, Nookie has an office in Greenwich Village, on West 60th and 9th Ave – and just like Jana Blake she’s up on the third floor. Whereas there’s a gay-frequented gym on the second floor of Jana’s building, Nookie’s has a gay-frequented “beauty school” on the second floor. And while Jana’s best friend is a pudgy gay interior designer named Charlie, Nookie’s best friend is a pudgy gay window decorator named Sydney who steals clothing for her.

More paralells: Jana Blake has a sort-of boyfriend named Gianni, an Italian hunk who runs a fruit stand; Nookie has a sort-of boyfriend named Pompie, an Italian hunk who runs a bar. As with Jana and Gianni, Nookie’s night with Pompie serves up the first of several XXX scenes in the novel. And just as Jana has a doting aunt – her only living relative – who often comes into the city to bring Jana presents and take her out to expensive dinners, so too does Nookie. Jana and Nookie even both end up boffing the police lieutenants who handle their first cases; for just as Deadlier Than The Male depicted Jana Blake’s first-ever case, so too does Meet Nookie depict Nookie’s.

Speaking of which, the brunette on the cover of Deadlier Than The Male is a better representation of Nookie than it is of blonde Jana Blake, so there might be something there: I’ve never seen confirmation that Manor was owned by Belmont Tower (though Len Levinson has speculated to me that it was, perhaps as some sort of tax-evasion deal), but it could be that the cover art for Deadlier Than The Male was commissioned for a never-published third volume of Manor’s Nookie series. More evidence: the brunette on the cover of Deadlier Than The Male is wearing a raincoat, and while Jana Blake is never stated as wearing one, we are reminded throughout Meet Nookie that Nookie wears one. That is, when she’s wearing anything at all.

The only difference between Nookie and Jana Blake, other than hair color and heritage, is that Nookie doesn’t have the sexism of Jana; as we’ll recall, Jana Blake only takes jobs for women and deals with “women’s issues.” Also, Nookie doesn’t sleep in her office like Jana does; Nookie’s apartment is on 56th street. And the only real difference between the series themselves is that, at least judging from this first volume, Nookie is much more focused on the sleaze, with several hardcore sex scenes throughout. Otherwise the two series are the same in that they are more along the lines of slow-moving mysteries than action yarns (like Jana, Nookie doesn’t even own a gun). Not to mention the interesting fact that each series only lasted two volumes, so the idea wasn’t exactly a hit despite the publisher.

As with Jana’s first case, Nookie’s has her looking into what appears to be a serial killer, one operating in the downbeaten Chesterfield Hotel on West 58th Street, within walking distance of Nookie’s apartment. Nookie is hired by former silent film star Violet Valady, who lives in her twilight years in the Chesterfield with her sister, who gets murdered in the first pages of the book. Violet complains that the cops aren’t moving on the case and so hires Nookie; our heroine’s first client, given that Nookie is usually discarded by potential clients when they discover that “Nakomis Narducci” is really a woman. Why Nookie even wants to be a private eye is something Conaway never reveals.

Nookie goes out with “unattractive homosexual” GBF Sidney Pomeroy and ends up going back to her apartment with Pompie, thus leading us into our first taste of sleaze. Here we learn that “Nookie’s body had an unusual feature…it was completely hairless.” Nookie will have sex the very next day, as part of her “interview” for the job of “chambermaid” at the Chesterfield. Her plan is to get this job to scout out the big hotel and find the killer. Having no qualms with screwing someone to get something, Nookie eagerly bangs Ray Lawrence, studly manager (and secret owner) of the Chesterfield. But Nookie’s just getting started, as that very night she’ll be double-teamed by a pair of medical interns.

As is typical with Conaway, Meet Nookie is more of an ensemble affiar, with Nookie competing with a variety of characters for narrative spotlight. On her first day on the job she meets all the many characters who live in the Chesterfield, each of whom could be the murderer. There’s Mavis, the foul-mouthed, heavyset black lady who also works as a chambermaid (Conaway serves up a string of gross-out jokes concerning Mavis’s attempts at “self pleasure” throughout the novel); Lottie Hess, the butch former roller derby champion who now serves as staff manager; and Jablonski –Smythe, the simpering gay front desk clerk. There’s also a bunch of residents, from a shut-in married couple to a Greek father and son who sell diamonds but who might really be into something more nefarious.

As mentioned Nookie gets familiar with two such residents on her first night: Monty and Hans, who insist on taking Nookie out to Chinatown, where they first hang out in the restaurant of Ming Toy, a “Chinese-Jewish lesbian” with a mouth nearly as foul as Mavis’s. She also declares she’s an old rival of Lottie Hess in a subplot Conaway doesn’t do anything with. But Conaway does again indulge in his interest in the underground world of homosexual bars and clubs – and such material has repeated in enough of Conaway’s books for me to go, “hmmmm.” This time Ming Toy takes Nookie and the two studs to a gay club built in an old church; there Nookie gets smashed, goes back to Monty and Hans’s room, smokes dope, and has sex with them – the third such hardcore scene in the novel – this time even swinging out of their window on draperies, Tarzan style, with Monty’s “cock inside her.” 

Meanwhile the killer scores again, this time an old drunk of a lady who lives on a floor that Nookie doesn’t tend to. In another narrative miss, none of the murders occur on the floors Nookie is assigned, meaning Nookie is never the first person to discover any of the corpses. But it should be clear by now that Conaway isn’t interested in (or perhaps capable of) a standard mystery thriller with the standard developments. This second kill brings in Lt. Terry Ferguson, a handsome cop who learns Nookie is a private eye, but doesn’t instantly spurn her. Instead, he eagerly requests her help – and of course has sex with her that very night, though this sequence is bizarrely vague and almost included in hindsight.

Conaway tries, but there is no tension in the novel, even with a murderer operating in the hotel. There’s never a point where you fear for Nookie. This is likely because Conaway is so focused on other stuff, like the upcoming rodeo convention Ray Lawrence has booked in the Chesterfield, featuring famous rodeo star Pokey Barnes. This whole sequence, complete with the Chesterfield made up in Western décor, exists solely so Conaway can deliver a scene where Pokey gives Nookie a ride through Central Park on his horse – and screws her while they’re both sitting in the saddle.

When Violet Valady herself is killed, Nookie becomes even more determined to find the killer…this despite the fact that, you know, her source for payment has just been killed off. This doesn’t prevent her from more fantastic sex. While snooping in the apartment shared by the Allottas, Nookie is discovered by the father, who promptly begins feeling her up and screws her. Meanwhile Nookie’s discovered an unusual substance in the closet; we’re later informed it’s cocaine, and the father-son team have used their diamond business as a cover. Plus, Lottie Hess is arrested off-page for being their accomplice! This part is bizarrely underplayed, particularly given Lottie’s narrative importance prior to this. But she’s abruptly gone, and no longer a suspect so far as the murders go.

Conaway usually references old movies, in particular musicals and whatnot (“hmmmm” again), and Meet Nookie climaxes with a big “Hooray For Hollywood” costume party at the Chesterfield. With Sidney’s help, Nookie dresses up like silent film star Theda Bara in Cleopatra, practically revealing all in a scanty costume. But this is another narrative miss on Conaway’s part. Why not have her dress up like one of the characters played by silent film star Violet Valady, as a tribute to the dead lady who hired her? Not that much is done with the costume party; we’re only informed what a few of the characters are wearing, anyway, though Conaway does get more comedy mileage out of simpering gay Jablonski-Smythe, who shows up in drag.

The “mystery” is abruptly wrapped up in the last few pages. Skip this paragraph and the next if you don’t want to know. But when Nookie sees Jablonski-Smythe in drag, she instantly knows he’s the killer. Nookie makes the sudden deduction that J-S’s costuming ability allowed him to disguise himself as his victims; a vague subplot has it that some of the victims were seen after the M.E. had ruled they were dead, which of course puzzles the cops. The novel’s sole action scene occurs when Nookie knocks out Jablonski-Smythe with a karate chop, but then Nookie herself is almost strangled – by Ray Lawrence, who turns out to have been behind the entire scheme as part of a plot to sell the hotel for a big price.

Our author is so unconcerned with tension and payoff that he has Nookie unconscious while all the heavy lifting goes down. She wakes up, having been saved by Lt. Ferguson from Lawrence’s strangling hands; the lieutenant, who has been disguised in costume at the ball all along, followed after Nookie and got to her just in time. He casually reveals Ray Lawrence’s plot and has him and Jablonski-Smythe arrested. Meanwhile Nookie wants to go home and screw – and that’s it, folks. 

Messily plotted, with paper-thin characters that don’t go much beyond caricatures, Meet Nookie is more of a sleaze yarn, with a lame “murder mystery” plot forced on it. I can’t say I hated it, though. Conaway has an easy style and his material is so goofy you can’t help but keep reading. There’s some weird-o stuff throughout, like the bizarre off-hand revelation that Ray Lawrence’s ex-wife moved to some small town and started hitting on random guys in sleazy bars, taking them home and calling them “Ray.” Conaway also makes humorous attempts at investing a “literary” vibe to his prose, such as, “[Nookie’s voice] reminded him of burning leaves in a forest painted by autumn.” Mull on that one.

Nookie returned for one more adventure in that same year’s Get Nookie, which I’ll get to eventually.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Conan Of Cimmeria (Conan #2)


Conan Of Cimmeria, by Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp, and Lin Carter
December, 1985  Ace Books
(Original Lancer Books edition, 1969)

Everyone’s favorite barbarian returns in this second anthology, which once again sports an awesome Frank Frazetta cover. This Conan book in particular I recall reading as a kid, thirty-some years ago, however re-reading it again now I was surprised to discover that I didn’t remember the majority of the tales. But overall I enjoyed this one more than Conan #1.

“The Curse of the Monolith” (de Camp and Carter) – This one’s basically Conan versus The Blob. De Camp and Carter again kick off the proceedings with another of their pastiches, which ostensibly exist to “fill in the gaps” in Conan’s life, but really just come off like pointless, supernatural-tinged adventures. Conan when we meet back up with him is in a country called Kusan, leading a party of Turanian warriors; the events of last volume’s “The City of Skulls” are given as six months ago.

Conan is slightly more refined, this time; rather than the loincloth-sandal ensemble of the previous book, he now wears a coat of mail and a spired Turanian helmet. But these very things get him in trouble in this story. The purpose of this trip to Kusan is to foster an accord between Turan and Kusan, but treachery is afoot, courtesy the wiley Duke Feng, a Kusanian who is part of a group that doesn’t want peace with Turan. He fools Conan one night, telling him of riches in a nearby area, riches that he needs the help of a strong man to acquire.

Our hero doesn’t come off too bright in this story, so it’s really not the best introduction for him. But he heads on off with Feng and soon enough is ensnared by the titular monolith, which is a giant magnet – something no one in this Hyborian Age is familiar with. Worse yet, a massive blob (referred to as a “jellylike mass”) lurks on the top of the monolith, and its touch melts flesh; the place is littered with the corpses of its victims. But Conan is able to move himself around to a broken weapon, saw off the leather thongs that bind his jacket of mail, and free himself in time to deliver a fitting revenge to Feng. He then apparently burns up the blob. All told, a short and trifling story.

“The Bloodstained God” (Howard and de Camp) – Howard wrote this one in 1935 as a contemporary Middle Eastern adventure starring recurring character Kirby O’Donnell, titled “The Curse of the Crimson God,” but it was rejected everywhere. De Camp discovered it in the ‘50s among Howard’s papers and went about revising it, changing O’Donnell to Conan and adding a supernatural element to the story. I had a hard time connecting with this one. It seems very messy; Conan’s in Middle Eastern-esque Arenjun and comes upon some dude being tortured, but after hacking and slashing the tormentors, Conan’s knocked out. He wakes up and finds some other dude watching over him: Sassan, an “Iranistani,” who is an enemy of those tormentors.

Sassan is after some priceless valuables that are protected by a god or something, and Conan in a typical “why not?” moment decides to tag along. But Sassan is dead in like a few more pages and Conan is working with his enemies as they’re besieged by yet another enemy. Long story short, it ends with Conan alone in a castle of stone that houses the titular god, which is a statue that comes to life, per the de Camp norm. Guess who wins? Honestly the story was rushed, boring, and came off like the typical de Camp padding – he could’ve at least set up the next story, in which Conan is suddenly out of the Middle East and back up in the northern countries.

“The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” (Howard) – The first pure Howard yarn in the book is an immediate standout, not to mention the inspiration for Frank Frazetta’s incredible cover painting. Famously rejected by Weird Tales when it was written sometime in the early ‘30s, “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” was turned into an adventure starring some other one-off Howard creation, before surfacing again in the ‘50s when de Camp discovered it among Howard’s papers. He supposedly rewrote it extensively, and it’s that version that appears here in Conan Of Cimmeria, but I read the undiluted Howard original in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian (Del Rey, 2003).

This is one of the stories I still remembered all these years after first reading this book; it’s a dreamlike tale, very mythic, and wonderfully told. Humrously though – at least when taken into context of this “carefully constructed” timeline de Camp and Carter have created for the series – Conan is suddenly back in the northern climes, whereas just in the previous yarn he was down in the Middle East. You’d think the two pastiche authors could’ve come up with an interim story of how Conan got from there to here, but who cares, because this is a Howard original and he wasn’t bound to any constricting continuity. At any rate Conan is way up in the frozen wastes of Nordheim, not too far from his homeland of Cimmeria.

It’s not a long story, but it definitely makes an impression; Conan is part of a war-party from Aesir, battling against the Vanir. Howard constantly refers to the ice-covered mail of the warriors and it’s some effective word-painting. Conan’s the last survivor, and as he stumbles in a battle-spawned daze he hears a woman’s laughter. It’s a flame-haired beauty who wears nothing but a wisp of gossamer. She offers herself to Conan, who madly chases after her. But she’s leading him into a trap, hoping for her “brothers” to kill him so they can serve up his heart to their father: Ymir, the Frost-Giant, a god worshiped in this land.

Conan makes pretty short work of the frost giants, truth be told – though Frazetta certainly brings the moment to life on the cover. So too did young Barry Smith (before he was “Windsor”), in the early days of the Conan The Barbarian Marvel comic. Speaking of which, blacklight poster company Third Eye featured Smith’s “Frost-Giant’s Daughter” splash page in the lineup of Marvel Comic blacklight posters they produced in 1971. Several years ago I acquired this poster…only to find out I’d actually gotten a bootleg of it. Who knew they bootleged blacklight posters?? Anyway, it’s still sitting on the floor of my study room, framed and waiting to be put up on the wall, but here’s a quick photo I took of it, both in regular light and under a blacklight:



When Conan gets the better of the two giants and continues chasing after the half-nude girl, growing more and more insane with lust, the frost-giant’s daughter calls to her father, and Conan’s knocked out. When he comes to his Aesir comrades have found him, and it appears that it was all a dream – except for the fact that Conan’s still clutching the wisp of gossamer the girl was wearing. It’s a cool story and also inspired my man John Milius, who featured a tribute to the story in the first draft of his ill-fated Conan: Crown Of Iron script in 2001. This would have been the long-awaited sequel to his Conan The Barbarian, but got scrapped when Arnold became governor. My understanding is Milius removed the “Frost-Giant’s Daughter” bit in his second draft.

Actually, just to continue with this thread for a moment, because you don’t read about it much online, but Conan: Crown Of Iron just isn’t very good, and in a way I’m glad it was never made. It has really nothing at all in common with Milius’s masterful ’82 movie. Indeed, it comes off more like a movie about ancient Rome – no surprise, then, that a few years after this script was canned, Milius created the HBO series Rome. And as for the “Frost-Giant’s Daughter” sequence, it has none of the weirdness of Howard’s story, and the Daughter herself isn’t as cruel – rather, in the script she offers Conan a son if he gives her a kingdom. This is just the first of many such WTF? moments in Milius’s script, as we are to understand that the stoic, laconic hero of Conan The Barbarian suddenly wants not only a son but a kingdom. And mind you, this sequence was actually the best part of what was really a lackluster and, dare I say it, boring script.

“Lair Of The Ice Worm” (de Camp and Carter) – Okay, now our favorite pastiche authors decide to do a little continuity-patching; we’re informed that it’s shortly after the previous story, and also Conan’s getting sick of being up here in the frozen north and misses the hotspots down south. So he’s making his gradual way back down there. Who knows why he even went back up north in the first place; maybe he realized he’d left the oven on. Otherwise this one is another de C and C misfire: lots of buildup to another lame supernatural threat. Every one of them so far has either featured the undead, statues coming to life, or giant monsters.

Well folks, Conan runs across some apelike creatures that are attacking a lone woman. Why apelike creatures are even up in the snowbound Aesir region is anyone’s guess, but Conan hacks ‘em up and saves the babe. Her name is Ilga and she appears to be afraid of something, but regardless camps out with Conan in a cave that night. Well, Conan knows one sure cure for nervousness – “a bout of hot love.” Yes, friends, it’s the first sex scene yet in the Conan saga, but of course it happens off-page. Conan bangs the lass into a restful slumber…but she wakes up, these weird glaring eyes hypnotizing her and calling her away.

Conan wakes – and finds Ilga’s corpse lying in the cave, her head smashed to a pulp. Most of her flesh has been sucked off, and what’s left of her is covered in ice. So long, Ilga! First it was ape things, now it’s a giant friggin’ worm here in the icy wastes – as Conan, sporting a random access memory type of a brain, suddenly recalls legends of a “vampiric worm” that operates in the vicinity. Conan heats up an axe, hurls it into the monstrosity’s gaping maw, and high-tails it out of there as both the giant worm and the glacier itself explode, as if a friggin’ heated axe is the Hyborian equivalent of C4. But one most admit it’s an appropriately-moronic end to a moronic tale.

“Queen of the Black Coast” (Howard) – Justly regaled, this story is considered one of Howard’s pinnacle Conan yarns. Yet I always seem to remember it being longer than it actually is; upon this third (or fourth?) reading, it again seemed to me that “Queen of the Black Coast” was heading for its conclusion just as it was getting started. My assumption is the richness of Howard’s prose, which is in exceptional form throughout, makes the story seem longer. My only problem with it is the chapter that abruptly detours into a too-long history of the batlike creatures that show up toward the end; otherwise “Queen of the Black Coast” is great, and definitely my favorite tale yet.

Once again I read the Howard original, as collected in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian. Conan’s back down south, in Argos – well, “back down south” if you’re following the de Camp chronology. But obviously there’s no link with the previous tale because it didn’t exist for Howard. So anyway when we meet Conan he’s running from the Argos authorities for a crime he eventually exposits upon – once again, the exposition in Howard can get to be a little annoying. Also worth noting is that Conan’s in full armor, with a horned helmet, black hauberk, and silver chain mail covering his arms and legs. But then Conan usually sports armor in the Howard originals, at some points wearing full-on plate armor; it always annoyed me that Marvel Comics never depicted this, and about the most armor you would ever see Conan wearing was a mail vest. 

Conan forces his way onto a merchant vessel about to leave the Argos port; the captain is one of those “silver lining” types and instead of seeing Conan as a stowaway, figures he could provide some much-needed security for the ship! They’re headed down into Kush (aka Africa, I believe), which is the notorious stomping grounds of pirate queen Belit, a white beauty of Semite (ie Jewish, I believe) stock who commands a ship of “blacks” that look upon her as a goddess. And soon enough the ship is attacked by these very same reavers, hacked down to a man by Belit’s warriors – all save Conan, who fights heroically and impresses Belit.

So there’s only one thing for Belit to do – perform her “mating dance” and have sex with Conan right there on the deck of her ship with all her black warriors watching the hijinks. Of course, Howard doesn’t get too explicit, but I guess it’s spicy enough. And Belit herself is firmly in the spicy mold, wearing nothing but a “broad silken girdle.” Which I would imagine to mean that good ol’ Belit goes around topless and bottomless. No wonder Conan decides to become her mate!

But it’s here that the story suddenly heads into the climax, just as it’s getting started. We’re informed that Conan and Belit’s reavers become a fearsome force, and Conan and Belit a hot item, but the focus of the story instead becomes Belit’s obsession with the fabled riches of an ancient ruin near the poisonous waters of the river Zarkheba. Immediately upon discovering the haunted ruins, Conan sees some weird stuff, in particular these batlike ape-things. But Belit finds the riches she’s been seeking and seems unconcerned that the creatures might be sabotaging her ship.

Conan leads a party of warriors into the jungle, to get water, and here we have that extended flashback to the origin of the bat-apes and the other creatures who now live in this haunted place. It’s all very Weird Tales but to tell the truth I’d rather read more about Belit and Conan’s reaving adventures. No wonder Roy Thomas and John Buscema extended the Belit saga into a year’s worth of comics for Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian. Because, for me at least, the story pretty much comes to a dead stop for an entire chapter. When Conan comes to and finds all the warriors slaughtered, he rushes back to the ruins and finds poor Belit hanging from her own ship.

Another moment that made it into the ’82 Conan film, existing also in Oliver Stone’s original 1978 screenplay – which Stone apparently wrote under the influence of heavy drugs, with a pile of Howard books and Conan comics at his side (not a criticism, mind you) – Belit has sworn to Conan that, even if she dies, she will come back to fight by his side. And true to her promise, she does indeed briefly come back to save him, however I feel it was much more effectively handled in the movie (in which it was Valeria who came back, not Belit, of course). It’s almost an afterthought in Howard’s story, but it has the same outcome – Belit saves Conan’s skin at a pivotal moment, then vanishes. 

Otherwise the finale is almost a prefigure to another Arnold Schwarzenegger movie: Predator. For a vengeance-minded Conan gets together his weapons, stakes out a spot on a pyramidal structure in the ruins, and waits for night to fall – and for the bat-things and its subservient creatures to come meet death by his various bladed weapons. It’s a great ending to a pretty great story, and it’s a shame de Camp and Carter were incapable of delivering equally great pastiches. No wonder de Camp later bemoaned that he’d hired Carter instead of Leigh Brackett, when it came to writing these Conan stories…now Leigh Brackett sure as hell could’ve written a Conan yarn at least as good (and likely even better) than “Queen of the Black Coast.”

An Australian outfit did a 7-part, full-cast audio adaptation of “Queen of the Black Coast” a few years back, but were legally restrained from doing anymore such projects; even though the story “Queen of the Black Coast” is now public domain, the character of Conan is not. However, the adaptation is up for free download on the The Internet Archive.  I haven’t been able to get through the whole thing myself; it’s done so over the top that it’s borderline parody. The dude doing Conan’s voice in particular sounds like he’s straining with a serious case of constipation.

Finally, If you’ve ever wondered what it might’ve been like had Frazetta done a painting of this story instead of “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” for the cover of Conan Of Cimmeria, then check this out – a Frazetta-inspired painting of “Queen of the Black Coast” by modern artist Brom:


“The Vale of Lost Women” (Howard) – We get another Howard original straight after, but this one was not printed in Howard’s lifetime, and perhaps was never even submitted for publication. The original can be found in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian, which is where I read it. In many ways this one’s more along the lines of a Tarzan story, and doesn’t much feel like a Conan tale. It also triggers the sensitive types of today with its outrageous racial elements; what few reviews you’ll find of the story all complain about the racism. You won’t find such snowflake bullshit here, folks – for one, I prefer (nay, demand) my pulp to be outrageous, and two, I think there are a helluva lot more things to get upset about than an 80 year-old pulp story that wasn’t even published during the author’s lifetime.

And Conan isn’t even the main character; it’s Livia, a stacked blonde (who spends the final quarter of the tale naked) who has been captured, deep in the jungles of Kush, by a black tribe. Her brother was also captured but was killed earlier that day. When Conan makes an unexpected visit, leading his own tribe of jungle warriors – following the de Camp chronology I guess we’re to assume he gathered them up while he was in the area, after the death of Belit – Livia sees her chance for escape. She gets away long enough to make her plea to Conan. And boy, it’s a helluva plea, insisting that Conan is obligated to help her as a “fellow white.” Humorously, our hero doesn’t seem much interested in helping Livia out, though her promise to screw him silly in repayment does interest him at least a little.

Rather than the race angle, what I personally found unfortunate about “The Vale of Lost Women” is that the climax consists of Conan slaughtering the other tribe – apparently down to every man, woman, and child. This occurs during what is initially a friendship feast between Conan’s tribe and the other, but our “hero” gives the signal and his boys set to a-slaughterin’. Livia flees the melee and ends up in the titular vale, which is supposedly haunted and avoided by the supersitituous natives. This part’s like some weird Japanese horror film as female zombie-spirit things come to life out of the woodwork and creep up on her.

There’s also a bat-creature, which of course brings to mind the similar bat-creatures of the previous story, and sure enough Conan shows up just in time to feed it some steel. Livia, now twice rescued, figures it’s time for that promised screwing, which apparently also implied that she’d marry Conan, or give herself to him, or something, but Conan has deemed that if he were indeed to screw Livia, it would prove him the “barbarian” she thinks him to be. So forget about it; he’ll just get her back to civilization.

Overall I can see why this one was never sold, or perhaps never even submitted, who knows. It just feels more like the average “jungle pulp” story of the day, and little like a Conan story. Given its locale it’s easy to place it here in the chronology, though, and one could further theorize that Conan seems a little off – and a little more savage than normal – due to his heartbreak over Belit’s loss. Otherwise what you basically have here is a too-long story featuring a self-involved blonde babe of a protagonist, with Conan in what’s really just a walk-on role.

“The Castle of Terror” (de Camp and Carter) – Our pals return with another middling tale that’s probably courtesy Lin Carter alone, as it turns out that this story originally featured Carter’s recurring character Thongor of Lemuria before being rewritten as a Conan tale. Same as the previous book’s “The Thing In The Crypt” – and, just like that story, this one also opens with Conan on the run from a pack of animals. In “The Thing In The Crypt” it was wolves, this time it’s lions. Conan, who we learn late in the game has lost the hauberk and mail he wore during his time with Belit, is reduced to his usual low-frills getup, so doesn’t have much to defend or protect himself with.

Perhaps de Camp’s contribution comes with the material that refers back to “The Vale of Lost Women;” we’re informed Conan has run afoul of his old tribe and ended up killing the shaman-type before beating a hasty retreat. He’s still in the jungles of Kush, looking for a way out, but there are these damn lions chasing him now. He comes to a broken-down black castle that seems to have been built off-kilter, leaning upon itself and looking like it’s about to fall apart. A storm is coming so Conan decides to camp out in the abandoned place.

We have a pure Lin Carter part with this random, almost psychedelic sequence where a dreaming Conan’s spirit, or “ka,” exits his body and astrally voyages around the haunted castle! I say “pure Lin Carter” because it’s all exposition and coincidence; somehow Conan’s spirit “just knows” all there is to know about the castle and the vampiric spirits that now inhabit it. They hunger for Conan but are too weak to manifest themselves.

Meanwhile, in an unrelated subplot, a war-party of Stygians (ie Egyptians, I believe) are headed through this area, having been looking for slave material. They decide to camp out in the castle to avoid the storm. So the “climax” is composed of Conan hiding up on a balcony and watching these Stygians down below; they get drunk and pass out and then the dark spirits of the castle pull up old corpses and carcasses and whatnot and form themselves into this grotesque, multi-limbed, mult-headed creature, which begins to rip apart the Stygians in full gore detail.

And Conan’s still up there watching. He finally sneaks out, kills a crazed Stygian who himself tries to escape the castle, and takes the dude’s armor and sword. And then Conan leaves, folks! Nope, he doesn’t fight the gruesome monster, doesn’t even try to! So I guess in that regard at least this tale is a bit different than the repetive de C and C pastiche norm. Bear in mind though that the majority of the tale either features Conan running from something or dreaming.

“The Snout in the Dark” (Howard, de Camp and Carter) – Here we have yet another unfinished “fragment” started by Howard sometime in the ‘30s but never completed; along came de Camp and Carter, decades later, to finish the job. This one’s similar to “The Vale of Lost Women” in that it has a lot of racial stuff and also in that Conan doesn’t appear for the first quarter of the story. We’re now in Meroe, which is like the capital of Kush or something; interestingly, it is run by non-blacks; “brown” is how they are specifically referred to. I believe they’re supposed to be descendants of Stygians or something? At any rate, we are often reminded of the “black dogs” who live outside Meroe and serve all the slave functions.

The title “snout” belongs to a phantasmic creature that sprouts a piglike snout and kills some one-off character in an overlong opening chapter. Turns out this monster is at the behest of a black wizard named Mulu, who himself works for despotic nobleman Tuthmes. The villain is using the creature to kill off various notables and blame the deaths on Queen Tanada, who you won’t be surprised to know is a “brown”-skinned beauty who wears “metal plates” that just barely cover her “full breasts.” Sounds like prime Conan bait, doesn’t it? Our hero makes his eventual appearance when Tanada is almost killed by a Kushite mob, one that has been fooled into thinking she was behind the death of the dude killed in the first chapter.

The crowd attacks Tanada and rips all her clothes off, and Conan rides into the fray and saves the nude babe. This one has a bit of the spicy vibe of “The Vale of Lost Women,” too, as Tananda makes Conan the captain of her guard, but more so uses him as her latest stud. We don’t get any full-on smut, but we are informed that Conan pleases the cruel queen more than any other man ever has, to the point that she herself has become a slave to his, eh, maleness. Unfortunately this stuff is given short narratorial shrift and instead the authors focus on Tuthmes and his latest plot against the queen – sending her a stacked blonde from Nemedia named Diana who will act as his spy, whether she likes it or not.

Conan is again lost in the background, appearing only occasionally; we’re told though that he has successfully put down a riot or two “of the blacks.” (Howard’s original fragment, included in The Coming Of Conan The Cimmerian, implies that this would have taken greater precedence in the story). We do though get good spicy stuff like Tananda whipping a nude Diana; Conan shows up, tells her to stop, and incurs the queen’s wrath – but she cries because she’s so addicted to that good Cimmerian lovin’ that she won’t do anything about it.

The story – which I actually enjoyed quite a bit because it’s so bonkers – wraps up humorously fast; Conan goes back to his place on a whim, finds the titular demon manifesting there, and fights it, while Diana looks on in horror. The rulers of Meroe are rapidly disposed of in a quick revolution – so long, Tananda – and Conan high-tails it out of there, with a happy Diana riding off with him. Needless to say, she’ll be out of the picture, and not even mentioned, in “Haws Over Shem,” the first story of the next collection, Conan The Freebooter.

And that’s it…I have to say, writing these reviews is a bit exhausting. And also, the series has yet to get very good. The Howard originals are fun, but even they aren’t as good as I remember them…I’m looking forward to re-reading The Hour Of The Dragon eventually. I loved that one when I read it, but I was 18 at the time, so we’ll see. Anyway, on to Conan The Freebooter, which is one I did not have as a kid; it features “A Witch Shall Be Born,” which I’m really looking forward to, as a lot of it was used by Oliver Stone in his Conan script, and thus made it into the Milius film.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Men Who Die Twice (Mind Brothers #3)


Men Who Die Twice, by Peter Heath
No month stated, 1968  Lancer Books

Okay, consider me officially confused. Supposedly the third and final volume of The Mind Brothers, Men Who Die Twice instead comes off like a standalone spy thriller, one that’s only connected to the previous two books in that it features the same protagonist, Jason Starr. Otherwise it’s as if Peter Heath (aka Peter Heath Fine, who actually died in 1995 and not 1975, as mistakenly reported in my review of the first volume) has distanced himself from the series concept.

As we’ll recall, the first volume was mostly sci-fi, about Jason Starr dying in ‘Nam and being reborn via his “mind brother” identical twin Adam Cyber, who came from 50,000 years in the future to see what the world was once like (and to also help fight the Commies, let’s not forget!). Then the second volume sort of jettisoned all that; Jason Starr was more of a regular ‘60s spy type, complete with all kinds of fancy gadgets and gear, and Cyber was relegated to supporting status, off-page for the majority of the narrative. The “Mind Brothers” concept was barely even discussed. A new character, teenager Mark Brown, was introduced – but in the climax of the book, we learned that Mark had been sent into the future by that volume’s villains, and also that Cyber had been sent to the Earth’s core “five minutes ago.” And the book ended on this dual cliffhanger.

Given this, the reader of the third volume would understandably want to know what happens next. Well folks, you can forget the hell about all that. All of it!! There is zero, zilch, nada pickup from the previous volume, or even the first volume. Neither Adam Cyber nor Mark Brown appear, and they aren’t even mentioned. The phrase “Mind Brothers” appears nowhere in the text. Again, the only tie-in to those earlier books is the appearance of Jason Starr, who here appears to be retconned into a “self-employed mathemetician,” one who has lots of Intelligence-world background.

So what the hell?? My assumption is Heath turned in the first book and got the request to turn it into a series, which he fumblingly did with the second volume. But maybe he had a hard time of it, or lost his interest. All the sci-fi wankery of the previous two books is gone in this one – honestly, it’s just your typical ‘60s spy-pulp, and not a particularly good one at that. It’s beyond frustrating for the reader of those first two novels, though. I guess we’re to assume Adam Cyber really did die in the climax of the previous book (an off-page death at that?). So much for his much-ballyhooed voyage across the millennia to come help Jason Starr.

Anyway when Men Who Die Twice opens, Jason is in a stopover in London, on his way to a vacation in Greece(!?). He’s stopped by a phone call in which some dude named Harry Brentwood pleads with Jason to come see him at some hospital. This guy somehow knows Jason and claims it’s a life or death sort of thing, etc, but when Jason gets to the place, they claim there’s no Harry Brentwood there. Plus there’s a stooge who throws Jason out on his ass. The whole place seems mysterious, and Jason tries to figure out the puzzle.

Meanwhile Heath hopscotches all over the place with random incidents and events. For example there’s a doctor named Derby in an underground research lab somewhere in the Midwest, a place where hallucinogenics and germs are being studied for warfare; Derby contaminates the area, massacring everyone, before he escapes – and we get an overlong sequence in which the military wonders if they need to nuke the area to prevent outspread of the contamination. There’s also a nuclear sub commanded by a dude who reports to Derby – who in reality turns out to be a former Nazi spy named Rudi Vreelander.

Jason, still in London, meets pretty young Moira, who claims to be Harry Brentwood’s fiance. At great length we’ll learn that Harry was a scientist at this very same underground lab we just saw – an eerie subplot has it that the scientists, upon their eventual release to the world, have their minds swapped, so that they have no memories of their research beneath the ground. Jason goes around London and over to Scotland in his research, getting in the occasional action scene, and also at one point briefly captured by a bumbling pair of CIA agents, one of whom Jason knows from his (apparent) past life with the agency.

Our hero does get to use at least one gadget this time around; captured again, midway through, Jason’s on a private plane, when he pushes his way free and jumps right out into the night sky. Turns out he’s wearing an experimental “balloon” on his back and thus makes his leisurely descent to the ground. But otherwise Jason is in pure investigative mode this time around, with none of the action-pulp of the previous two books. The majority of the novel is given over to one-off characters; even the President features in an endless subplot in which he wonders if his military commanders are trying to pressure him into what could be an unjust war against Russia – the USSR being set up by Vreelander, who hopes to spark WWIII.

The action eventually climaxes aboard that nuclear sub, which has gone rogue under the command of Vreelander’s henchman. It’s off the coast of Sardinia – where Vreelander himself has been anticlimactically dispensed with – and about to fire off a salvo of nukes. Jason alone storms the ship and tries to stop its insane commander, but here the novel does veer into sci-fi: DC gets nuked! Vreelander’s dude manages to fire off one rocket, and Heath ends the tale with DC a radioactive ruins. Jason, finally setting off for Greece, hopes that mankind “learns something” from the catastrophic event, but figures it won’t.

And that’s it – for the book and the series. Really, this novel was so unconnected to the previous two that you might as well just figure this “Jason Starr” is not the same guy who appeared in those other books. Sort of like how Daniel Craig isn’t playing James Bond, but another character of the same name. I enjoyed the first two books to some extent, but Men Who Die Twice left me cold – and confused.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Guns Of Terra 10


The Guns Of Terra 10, by Don Pendleton
No month stated, 1970  Pinnacle Books

Just when he was getting started on The ExecutionerDon Pendleton turned in this standalone sci-fi paperback that attains to be more than its action-centric cover painting might imply. While it does indeed have uniformed men and women taking on robots and battling on ships in outer space, The Guns Of Terra 10 is actually more concerned with what it means to be a human in a homogenized future era.

Actually – make that what it takes to be a man. In what would no doubt be mocked and derided in the “advanced” modern era, Pendleton’s characters in this unstanted far future still talk about concepts of manliness; the women are still in subordinate roles, very seldom taking part in any decision-making. In a way it’s odd that Pendleton failed to see this encroaching equality of the sexes; his future world has been “homogenized” via genetic programming so that humans are now “homans,” ie “homogenized humans,” the various ethnicities wiped out so that all people are of equal skin color (a tan sort of brown), height (around 4 feet), and weight (about 90 pounds). This has been done so there can be true equality. Also, women’s busts have been so drastically reduced that “only the faintest swelling just behind the nipples [marks] the vestigial female breast.”

This is the future of The Guns Of Terra 10, in which the Solan Corporation rules the solar system and Earth has been abandoned, save for a few humans; it is now solely used for mass production of food for the star-flung peoples of Solan. Peace reigns, and “taking human life is a high crime.” Homans have been so roboticized that speech is now “image based” rather than “language based,” meaning that everyone speaks in this annoying, rushed style, ie “Right, is like same.” Also, proving that he’s read Stranger In A Strange Land, Pendleton gives us the irritatingly-overused word “Skronk,” which basically means the same thing as “Grok.”

Not all humans are homogenized; in particular our protagonist, Zach Whaleman, is a hulking, redheaded 25 year-old who is much brawnier than his fellows. This is because Zach too has been genetically programmed, born and bred specifically to man the guns on Terra 10, a “deepspace super-dreadnaught” developed for the possible invasion of an alien fleet – not that any aliens have ever been encountered, but still. There are also the Reevers, aka “reverts;” those freaks who have either never been genetically programmed or who rejected their “GPC” programming and so grew larger than the homan average, got bigger boobs, etc.

It’s all a bit overwhelming at first, what with all the acronyms and stilted speech, and Pendleton does a good job of showing instead of telling. Yet at the same time it’s not very compelling, at least not to me – it’s hard to care about any of the characters in this bland future. And Whaleman is a bit too naïve to root for, though of course that’s not his fault. The crux of the story is his awakening to his humanity – actually to the fact that he’s a man.

Terra 10 has just been completed and when we meet him Whaleman’s firing its AGRAD (“anti-gravity diffusioner”) guns and whatnot in trial combat; he’s on Board Island, somewhere on Earth, his first time here since he was a child. In this future, children only spend a couple years with their parents before being sent off to be indoctrinated into whatever field it is that’s been chosen for them. There is no free will and each person is literally created to fill a function. It is all frighteningly progressive – all races gone, all people literally the same, all imaginative thought curtailed, all independence eradicated. Everyone the same, serving the same goal.

But Whaleman is abducted by Tom Cole, a towering giant with “spaceblack hair;” the “King of the Reevers,” Cole lords over a small commune here on Earth that is composed of reverts. Forbidden to travel in space, the Reevers are segregated here on Mother Earth; there are around 80 of them, but only a few pop up in the narrative: in addition to Cole, there’s big blond Hedge; a little Homan named Blue, and most importantly (so far as Whaleman will be concerned), a stacked blonde named Stel, who goes around in a “black crotchguard” and nothing else, showing off her “exquisitely formed mammalia.” These reverts are, of course, what humans once were, and they seem positively bizarre to Whaleman. (Humorously, whoever wrote the back cover copy of the book got pretty much all of this wrong.)

The Reever commune is straight-up Haus-Rucker Co.; people sit around on “plastic bubblechairs,” live in plastic domes, and wear “transparent vests” and those ever-present “black crotchguards.” Cole and the others try to get through to Whaleman that he’s a man like them, that he needs to break free of those Solan Corp controls. The Reevers want the Terra 10, we’ll learn, as a bartering tool – they’ll take it, with Whaleman’s help, and only return it if they are granted certain freedoms. Whaleman’s mind is mostly blown by Stel’s big boobs, though. He just can’t stop gandering at them, and Pendleton serves up a few riotous descriptions of those glorious orbs for the reader’s enjoyment. 

Interesting to note, The Guns Of Terra 10 is copyright Bee-Line Books, Inc, with the specification that “Pinnacle Books are published by Bee-Line Books, Inc.” As sleaze readers know, Bee-Line was a smut peddler, eventually supplanted by Pinnacle (which per Pendleton was specifically created for the Executioner series), however be aware that there is zero sleaze, sex, or general tomfoolishness in The Guns Of Terra 10. Just a couple descriptions of Stel’s boobs, which Whaleman usually appreciates from “an engineer’s point of view,” don’t ya know. Long story short, he’s never seen such big ones, and his interest is piqued. Even Whaleman’s subordinate on Terra 10, a raven-haired beauty with the typical small Homan bust, can’t stop staring at Stel’s rack.

Even in a sci-fi setting Pendleton is still Pendleton; there are copious scenes of characters talking and arguing and punching each other when they want to press a particular point. Speechifying runs rampant. We’ll have a few action scenes, and then chapters in which other characters stand around and recap the stuff we just read. This is just Pendleton’s style, and it must be said that, despite being an inordinate 180+ pages, the novel moves at a snappy pace. The action though lacks the gunplay of The Executioner; mostly it involves the Reevers running afoul of “the Boob,” a massive insectoid robot that fires ultrasonic beams which scramble Reever brains. Whaleman can’t believe the unjustness of this, and it is one of the things that makes him rally for the Reever cause.

Eventually Whaleman is discovered by a passing government patrol, and when he pleas for the Reevers, his words falling on the deaf ears of the Solan Corp Chairman – who is never seen and speaks through an “automat” – Whaleman is sent to a Lunar rehab joint where he’s to have a bunch of rest and sex and whatnot. But another thing Pendleton fails to foresee is the 24/7, Big Brother surveillance of the actual future; security is laughably lax in this fictional future, with Whaleman almost casually escaping his Lunar pen and able to get around on Earth without much fuss. He finds that the government has attacked the Reever commune, but meanwhile Cole, Stel, and the others have made their way to Board Island, hoping to commandeer the Terra 10.

But a “Solan Emergency” changes everything; as deus ex machina as can be, an alien invasion fleet just happens to enter our star quadrant at this very moment. And only the Terra 10 can stop it. So there ensues this chaotic part where Whaleman and the Reevers separately converge on the space-dreadnaught, which has gone into a glitch “runaway mode” and headed for Venus – only Whaleman, who was literally bred for such things, can successfully stop the ship. He then quickly instructs the Reevers on how to man the various guns – even finding the time to explain warp drive to them(!) – and together they stave off this alien invasion.

But man is all this so arbitrary. Pendleton doles out the alien stuff almost in passing; we’re informed at the last moment that this invasion fleet, which is “two full flotillas,” is “fully automated,” meaning there isn’t a single alien onboard – much to Stel’s relief, as she frets that the aliens on the opposing ships “might have wives at home worrying about them.” This is her sole contribution to the climactic battle scene. To tell the truth, though, it was a nice change of pace from the commonplace gender-bending of the action epics of today, where kick-ass women call all the shots. 

The climactic battle lacks much spark because most of it is relayed via jargon-filled dialog, ie “It won’t take Scale Max!” At any rate Whaleman successfully commands his Reever troops and the Terra 10 wipes out the entire alien fleet; after which Whaleman is seen as a hero. He uses this status to argue his case at a tribunal in which the Solan Corp Chairperson once again appears via automat; the Chairman turns dictator, demanding that the Reevers be destroyed and Whaleman jailed. Then it’s discovered that the Chairperson is now “99% machine,” and has been for perhaps centuries; the Solan board of directors decide at that moment to change their ways, and the Reevers are brought back into the fold – for, as Whaleman declares, “Reevers are highest expression of human spirit.”

And that’s that – as for the aliens, Pendleton briefly explains that the invasion was an accident(!?) and no more flotillas are forthcoming. Meanwhile the human race will get around to finding what it has lost – and Whaleman can get back to oggling those “impressive mammalia” on Stel, whom he plans to marry (another forgotten custom, and one that immediately appeals to Whaleman).

Overall I enjoyed The Guns Of Terra 10, which is just one of a few sci-fi paperbacks Pendleton wrote at this time, but to tell the truth I enjoyed The Godmakers a lot more.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Don't Bet On Living, Alice! (Hitman #6)


Don’t Bet On Living, Alice!, by Kirby Carr
No month stated, 1975  Major Books

The penultimate volume of Hitman* sees the sleaze quotient continuing to ramp up; there’s no full-bore hardcore material as in say The Illusionist, but boy is it filled with some grimy smut, Kin “Kirby Carr” Platt mostly relaying the sleaze via dialog or digressive background material. To the extent that Mike “Hitman” Ross is almost lost in the shuffle – but then, the dude is such a friggin’ superman that he barely registers on the reader’s conscious anyway. And yet for all that I appreciate this series because it clearly strives to be a Spider for the ‘70s, even operating on that same sort of pseudo-reality as Norvell Page’s earlier pulp work.

To wit, Ross is called onto his latest case by none other than Lt. Martin of the LAPD, who wants Ross to look into something concerning a judge named Gavin. But when Ross gets to Gavin’s house, he finds the judge’s throat slit. Then Ross is shot at by a passing car, guns it down with his trusty Mauser and P-38, and calls up Martin to tell him what’s gone down. It’s like that throughout Don’t Bet On Living, Alice!, with Ross existing in this alternate reality in which his guise as “Hitman” is an open secret with the cops, who look over the carnage he constantly leaves in his wake.

The case with dead Judge Gavin and the would-be hitpeople, one of whom turns out to be the busty secretary of a record industry bigwig, soon puts Ross on the trail of the mysterious “Mom” who is behind it all. There have been a rash of mysterious deaths and suicidides, all of which turn out to be Mom affairs – like for example when Alice Cooper-esque transvestite rock singer Mabel Babble has an “acid freakout” and jumps out of “her” car on the LA Express, being run over and killed. Ross reads about this stuff in the paper and suspects something’s up, and this deal with Judge Gavin having his throat slit seems to be connected.

Mom turns out to be a lady named Mabel Oretha Mack – ie “M.O.M.” – a “svelte” 40-year-old blonde with “no tits to speak of.” Given the lack of attention men gave her, due to her boyish build, Mabel grew to hate all men. She began plotting against men in general, and put her plan in action several years ago; working as a secretary in various fields, she gathered enough dirt on various high-level men to bring them down via blackmail. She even built up a network of spies, all of them women – other secretaries, hookers, etc. Now she has endless reams of data on various infidelities carried out by men, to such an extent that she can get her blackmail victims to do her bidding, no matter how criminous the action she demands of them might be.

And of course, the dirt Mom has on her various victims is all sleazy in nature. As mentioned Platt gets pretty scuzzy in this one, with the majority of it relayed via backstory of this or that sexual excursion. This goes from the blowjobs given by that above-referenced secretary (complete with grossout descriptions of “hot loads,” folks) to even more pervy, unsettling areas, like the “child buggery” enjoyed by a dirty cop. But it’s mostly done via dialog; I can’t recall that there’s an actual sex scene in the novel. Even when Mike Ross has sex with Alice Britton, a senator’s wife turned whore due to her gambling addiction, it sort of happens off page.

As for action, there’s actually a bit more than I expected there would be – I didn’t think a plot about a blackmail-scheming woman would serve up too much in the way of gun-blazing action. But Mom has various stooges at her disposal, from victims-turned-assassins to Mafia torpedoes she hires for her personal security. Platt serves up several action scenes, and while they’re all nicely gory – lots of exploding heads and guts – they’re a bit neutered because Ross is so superhuman. Indeed his enemies even think he’s “not human,” which I guess gives the series even more of a Spider vibe. But seriously, the closest Ross comes to harm is when one guy shoots at him and Ross feels the bullet pass over his head(!). Most of the time his opponents don’t even get to shoot at him, Ross is so fast on the draw.

Some action highlights would be when Ross is attacked by hitmen while having sex with Alice – he kills them without any fuss and goes back to Alice: “Now, where were we?” Another bizarrely-underexploited part has Mabel putting together, with much setup, an army squad of rejects, gathered together by a war department dude Mabel has dirt on, and sending them after Ross, to ambush him in the hills outside LA. Instead, Ross finds out about the plot and guns them down while they’re still sitting in their cars, negating the chance for a big firefight that seemed to be promised. It does have a nice capoff, though, where Ross mutters under his breath to Mabel, “Better luck next time, bitch!” 

We also get lots of backstory about various one-off victims of Mabel’s blackmailing, with Alice Britton getting the most space. A senator’s wife, Alice is forced into whoredom when her gambling debts get too unwieldy. We’re given lots of info about how she started to screw various men for her bookie’s benefit – and enjoying it. So again there’s a heaping helping of sleaze throughout Don’t Bet On Living, Alice!, including Alice’s training in whoredom from said bookie. But eventually Mabel gets hold of Alice and siccs her on Ross, though Alice instead blabs to Ross that it’s all a setup and she has no idea who this “Mom” is, etc.

Alice serves to take the narrative into the homestretch, and to give Ross a clear lead on Mabel and where she can be found. They use Alice’s husband, Senator Britton, as bait, Mabel calling him to make him her latest blackmail victim, using of course her knowledge of Alice’s wrongdoings. As a clincher she even plays the senator an audio recording of Alice blowing some guy. But when Ross confronts the senator, pleading with him to make an arrangement for payment dropoff and etc, Alice too comes clean about her dirty extracurricular activities. As if proving the goofy (but gory) vibe of the Hitman series, Senator Britton is totally forgiving of his wife’s adultery – “Just give my cock the same treatment you gave his!” being his only caveat, referring to the lucky blowjob-recipient on that tape Mom played for him.

Ross still wears his Hitman guise: the “black paratrooper suit and slitted mask” that he’s worn throughout the series, as depicted on the cover of the first volume. He carries around an arsenal in his “war wagon,” which is a modified “Chevyvan.” He does his kiling in the finale with an M-16, and Platt delivers copious gun-porn throughout, with technical detail on firing rate and velocity and whatnot. But the finale again sees Ross being a regular superman, gunning down an entire houseful of Mafia torpedoes without so much as breaking a sweat. As for Mabel, she is rendered her comeuppance, but unsatisfyingly not by Ross’s hands – and our hero is all fired up to kill her. In the end, though, there’s “Nothing left to kill but the bottle.” 

Platt delivers pretty much just what you’d want from sleazy ‘70s men’s adventure pulp; the prose is rough but economical, coming to life with the gore and the grime. But there’s something that keeps Hitman from true men’s adventure greatness…not just that Ross is too superheroic, too unfazed and untouchable; there’s just this rushed, messy feeling to the books.

*As mentioned in my review of the first volume, the series was really only seven volumes; The Impossible Spy, a 1975 Major Books paperback credited to Kirby Carr, is sometimes listed as the eigth volume. However the book is really a standalone spy novel, with no connection to Hitman.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Ardor On Aros


Ardor On Aros, by Andrew J. Offutt
May, 1973  Dell Books

Reading this novel was a personal milestone – I first became aware of Andrew Offutt back in 1993, when I spent the fall semester of my sophomore year at a college in Maastricht, Holland. There in a used bookstore I found some paperbacks in English, among them two Cormac Mac Art pastiches by Offutt. I knew the character but not the author. How those old Ace paperbacks made it to a bookstore in Holland no one knows, but I’ll tell you one thing – I bought ‘em both and brought ‘em back to the god-blessed USA.

But I could never get through either of them. I remember trying to read them a few times there in Maastricht, but just couldn’t get into them. Many years later I got more Offutt novels – some of his historical sleaze Crusader series, written as “John Cleve,” some of his sci-fi sleaze Spaceways series, also written as John Cleve. Even a sci-fi paperback under his own name with an awesome psychedelic Vincent Di Fate cover titled Genetic Bomb. But I couldn’t get past the first few chapters of any of them.

Well this time I swore by all the trash gods I wouldn’t fail. I’ve been on a sword and planets kick of late, and given that Ardor On Aros proclaims itself as a satire of the subgenre (indeed, a “satiric masterpiece,” per the cover – though every time I see it I think it says “satanic masterpiece,” which would of course be even cooler), I figured it would finally be an Offutt novel I started and finished. And I did! And the book wasn’t that bad, though not that great…and really the whole thing appeared to be building up toward something for the majority of the text, only to come to a rushed end.

If anything Ardor On Aros reminds me of fuzzy-freaky ‘70s sci-fi like Venus On The Half-Shell, by “Kilgore Trout” (aka Philip Jose Farmer). Not in content but in spirit. But this one’s very much indebted to the sword and planet of past authors; Edgar Rice Burroughs, Otis Albert Kline, even John Norman are referenced throughout – and part of me suspects that Ardor On Aros was more of a satire of Norman’s Gor novels, for reasons I will soon elucidate. It just takes this subgenre satire and mixes it with that special ‘70s sci-fi freakiness.

In keeping with the trappings of sword and planet, Ardor On Aros is written in first-person, a schtick begun by Burroughs in his 1911 novel A Princess Of Mars. I’m not crazy about first-person narration in my escapist fiction – I think it’s better suited to literary-type novels – but I guess you have to accept it, so far as this subgenre goes. But for other reasons this first-person narrative is one of the things I disliked about Offutt’s novel, in particular due to the snarky tone of the narrator, Hank Ardor.

A regular guy with nothing but a college degree to his name, Ardor takes a job with a “scientist who was not mad.” In keeping with the subgenre template, Ardor is relaying all this to us “many years” after the story’s events, by the way, and he tells us all about this strange new job. But as mentioned his snarky tone, which runs throughout, quickly begins to grate. While this sort of thing might’ve seemed novel in 1973, in our current era of snark overload, in which even supposed news articles are written in a smarmy, arrogant tone, it was more annoying than anything. But throughout Ardor (and thus Offutt) takes pleasure in constantly playing against our expectations, throwing it in our face that he’s not the typical sword and planet hero, and also making off-the-cuff, arbitrary condemnations of our modern era.

Ardor hits on Eveyln, sexy but all-business co-scientist on the mysterious transporter project Ardor’s boss is working on. Here the in-jokes begin, as the two engage in a conversation about sword and planet novels, of all things; Eveyln is actually writing her own(!), and Ardor offers to help her, given that he himself likes to write. The two argue over how unbelievable Burroughs’s Barsoom was, with Eveyln arguing for it and Ardor against; in particular, he dislikes how women are treated so chivalrously in the Mars of Burroughs, which is supposedly a barbarian planet, arguing that “you either kill ‘em or rape ‘em” when it comes to how women are treated in a barbaric culture. He also feels that the Burroughs books were overly stuffy and tame, apparently not realizing that the characters in those books were nude.

In a way Ardor On Aros is like a spoofy take on the Richard Blade books, even down to how Ardor is sent to the planet Aros; as Richard Blade is strapped onto a table and sent to the latest dimension via a computer, Hank Ardor clumsily slips into the transporter device and comes to, nude and confused, on a strange new planet – same as in the Barsoom books. This “arriving on a new planet in the nude” seems to be a sword and planet motif, I suppose the idea being the character is reborn.

Not that Hank Ardor is much reborn. He goes about the planet Aros with his twentieth-century attitudes and opinions unchanged. He’s also not shy about letting us know how much of a coward he is. Again, the spoofing of the subgenre template is strong throughout, but at the same time you almost wish Offutt had just played it straight and delivered a real sword and planet novel – something he appears to have done a few years later, with Chieftan Of Andor (Dell, 1976; published as Clansman Of Andor in the UK). But then this is a “satiric masterpiece and all.

But all the staples fall in place right on cue; I haven’t read too many books in this subgenre, and even I could see them coming. Posthaste Ardor runs into a dying native, Kro Kodres, who teaches Ardor all about this strange world as the two hide in a cavern in this vast desert. The people of Ardor can speak via telepathy, and Ardor, being human and all, somehow is able to pick up broadcasts better than the natives, even though he’s unable to send communications. In this way he quickly learns the language, and also that Kro Kodres is on the search for “the Jadiriyah,” who was apparently captured by someone called the Vardors. Kro dies and Ardor takes up his quest, also purloining the guy’s simple leather harness and sword. As in Barsoom, fashions and armor are a bit on the low-tech side, as is the weaponry – however there are no ray guns as on Barsoom.

But the real differences begin to show when Ardor finds the Jadiriyah, a good-looking brunette babe who, Ardor gradually realizes, looks like a “pre-Cleopatra Elizabeth Taylor.” She’s broadcasting telepathically for help, being closed in on by a pair of Vardors – blue-skinned, hulking apelike creatures – who proceed to rape her. Ardor, for his part, hides, knowing he’s no match for these monsters – and since he feels everything the woman feels via that telepathy, he’s soon “draining” himself into the sand(!). For you see, despite being raped (at one point even double penetrated), the Jadiriyah is, believe it or not, getting off royally – “her prime though was to gain all possible clitoral stimulation.” Because, folks, women actually enjoy being raped on Aros.

Friends, I don’t see Ardor On Aros being reprinted anytime soon. Good grief, we live in an era in which victim culture is so prevalent that people get upset about cereal boxes; could you imagine how triggered they’d be by a novel in which female characters enjoy being raped??

This is the concept of Julan, in which an Aros woman is obligated to offer herself to the man who saves her life – and a man better except, or at least turn her down gently following the formal wordings. But Hank Ardor doesn’t know anything about this, so he politely turns down Jadiriyah’s strange offering of sex, once he’s killed off the two Vardors who were, you know, just raping her…at the same time. She doesn’t seem to appreciate this. Then she takes the ring Ardor took from Kro Kodres’s corpse, slips it on her finger, and vanishes. Eventually our hero will learn that “Jadiriyah” is actually a title, meaning “the Ringbearer,” and the lady’s name is really Sorah – and she’s not one to offend by bluntly turning down an offer of Julan.

The book gets more dreamlike as Ardor runs into Pope Borgia, the lab parrot which preceded him through the astral portal to Aros. But here Pope Borgia speaks fluent English – and rules an army of labcoated humans who go around with parrots on their heads. Maybe this is the part that had me thinking of Venus On The Half-Shell, as it’s all just so weird in that funky ‘70s way. But Pope Borgia is sick of this boring rule and goes along with his old buddy Hank – more dreamlike stuff as Ardor notices the jungle they just left seems to disappear when he looks behind them, but when Pope Borgia’s also looking back, the jungle is there again.

The thing about Ardor On Aros is that it sort of drifts along, with no real quest or mission for Hank Ardor. The whole book seems to be building up toward something…only it’s not. Ardor just sort of bumbles along with the parrot, taking up a pair of horse-like creatures called “slooks” (he names one ERB and the other Kline). He runs into another Vardor attack, and this time manages to save a lady from being raped – a gorgeous hotstuff who looks like Sophia Loren, and is the most beautiful woman Ardor’s ever seen.

Her name is Dejah Thoris, and at this point the Barsoomisms are getting egregious. But then, there is a Wizard of Oz vibe to the whole book (ie the film), with all the people Ardor meets resembling people he knows back on Earth. Soon he begins to question where in hell he really is – could he somehow have teleported into the book his old coworker Evelyn was writing? Things get more surreal when they arrive in Bythna, home of Deja Thoris as well as Sorah, the Ringbearer, who teleported here via the ring.

Having proven himself as a warrior – and by the way, Ardor can jump super-high on this lower-gravity planet, just like John Carter could on Mars – Ardor becomes a member of the Guild, a warrior class which is run by Sorah’s father. Meanwhile Ardor tries to court Dejah Thoris, first explaining to her upset father, a silversmith, why he didn’t accept her offering of Julan when he saved her! Throughout Ardor argues to the reader that this world cannot be of his own creation – ie Aros really being some sort of weird dream he is experiencing – because he wouldn’t have created anything like this place or its strange customs.

Eventually Ardor does take Julan from the lovely Dejah (of course, she’s been sulking because he didn’t take her, earlier), and Offutt fades to black just as it’s getting to the graphic stuff, Ardor snarkily telling the reader he won’t get “a free ride” out of an explicit description of his sex with her. But next day Ardor finds that Dejah and her dad have been taken prisoner, on orders of the Guildmaster himself – who himself takes orders from his daughter, the spoiled sorceress Sorah, who is affronted that Ardor didn’t accept her offer of Julan, but did accept it from the daughter of a lowly silversmith.

Here I was, assuming Ardor On Aros would lead up to this big action finale, with Earthman Hank Ardor marshalling the forces of Bythna against a Vardor assault, or something along those lines, but as Ardor gratingly keeps reminding us throughout the book: “I’m no John Carter.” And Andrew J. Offutt is now Edgar Rice Burroughs. Instead, the novel features a bizarrely underwhelming finale in which Ardor engages Sorah in a “sorcerer vs sorceress” battle; if Ardor can “magically” best Sorah, Dejah and her dad will go free.

But like a regular Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Ardor’s “magic” is mostly due to his knowledge of science and his pocket watch, the sole item he brought with him from Earth. After being bested – unable to gauge when an hour will begin, like Ardor can, thanks to his watch – Sorah first asks our hero to marry her, and upon his refusal, zaps herself back to her castle, where she goes into a mad rage. The climax features more of this low-key stuff, with our hero basically hiding out while Bythna suffers her wrath, and finally it’s up to Sorah’s dad to deliver some long-delayed discipline.

I’m not sure if Offutt planned to write more books about Ardor’s adventures on Aros; there’s no indication that this wasn’t intended as a standalone novel. It ends with Ardor relaying that all this was “long ago,” and that he is now old and married to Dejah Thoris, with several children by her, and he has become very wealthy thanks to his many business ventures on Aros. He also worries what will happen when Evelyn, back on Earth, eventually dies, having come to the theory that Aros is a creation of his, Pope Borgia’s, and Eveyln’s minds.

Overall I didn’t dislike Ardor On Aros, but I didn’t much like it, either. Despite such a salacious setup, the book itself is pretty theadbare in the exploitation aspect, and it’s almost as if Offutt wanted to write a straight-up sword and planet yarn, but figured it would be laughed at, so decided to angle it more as a “satire.” But as mentioned it appears he did write a genuine sword and planet novel a few years later: Chieftan Of Andor If I ever manage to read another Offutt novel, it will probably be that one.

And the Frazetta cover, by the way, is surprisingly subpar…I mean the giant snake looks great, but what’s up with the dude’s lack of a face? According to the 2003 documentary Frazetta: Painting With Fire, at one point publishers were begging Frazetta for paintings to use as covers, even if the painting had nothing to do with anything in the book. I’m assuming this is what happened with Ardor On Aros, as there’s no scene like this anywhere in the novel – hell, there isn’t even a snake in the book. Or maybe the snake is a metaphor, representing of course man’s inhumanity to man, and the dude’s lack of a face is representative of the dehumanizing, emasculating effects of the modern era? Yeah, that sounds good, let’s go with that.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Traveler #5: Road War


Traveler #5: Road War, by D.B. Drumm
February, 1985  Dell Books

Probably the best way I could describe this fifth volume of Traveler, which is once again courtesy John Shirley, would be “a post-nuke Cannonball Run.” Seriously, Road War is all about a diverse group of cutthroats who engage in a race to discover a perhaps-mythical cache of gold. And, as with Shirley’s past Traveler output, it’s basically an extended action scene, one that doesn’t let up from first page to last.

It’s still 15 years after 1989, when WWIII went down, so time hasn’t really moved on much in the past few volumes, even though we learn the third volume was “months before.” It must be some short time after the previous volume, as Traveler is still hanging out with Link, the muscle-bound black guy he met in the climax of that installment, a former Green Beret so big that an M-16 looks like a “toy” in his hands. To tell the truth I kept confusing Link with Orwell, Traveler’s black buddy back in the third volume – not to sound racist or anything. The characters are just very familiar, and are basically just ciphers for Traveler to talk to, so it isn’t just him driving around alone in his “Meat Wagon” armored van. And another character in the book also confuses Link and Orwell, so there.

But anyway Traveler and Link are hanging out in a bar in the Drift, in the desert ruins of Nevada; a radiation-poisoned prospector known as the Old Man in the Hole gets in front of everyone, throws out some platters of beaten gold with maps scrawled on them, and claims he found a huge stash of gold out in them thar hills. The old man is a notorious bastard, prone to lying and deceit. He claims he’s telling everyone this because he himself will have no use for the gold, as he’s dying of stomach cancer – and also because he hopes everyone kills each other while hunting for it. For gold can still buy a passage to peace here in the post-apocalypse; supposedly there are areas relatively unscathed by radiation, but it costs a pretty penny to get there.

Then the Old Man starts off a gunfight which results in him getting killed – the tumor blown out of his stomach via shotgun and splattering on the wall. As ever Shirley provides his tale with customary ultra-gore, which is how I demand it. But be warned, friends, Road War is the first Shirley offering yet that does not offer any of his weird creature feature radiation-spawn mutants or any of his just-as-outrageous sex scenes! I mean for once poor old Traveler doesn’t even get laid, folks. As for the monsters, perhaps Shirley felt he’d gone overboard with them in the previous volume, which was stuffed to the mutated gills with various disgusting monsters. This time the only monsters are the human survivors of WWIII.

Chief among them is The Spike, leader of a gang of roadrats called The Wasps. The roadrats have appeared throughout the series, and are basically the mohawked, heavy metal-wearing barbarians of Road Warrior. The Spike is suitably horrific, with teeth filed to fangs and the usual screwed-up punk aesthetic; she even claims she wants to cut her “tits” off and cauterize the wound, because they just get in the way. Traveler runs into The Spike and her obedient roadrats in the bar, sparking a rivalry that will last throughout the novel. For of course, she is one of the people who sets off on the gold-hunt, as do Traveler and Link.

Traveler for his part could care little about the gold, but Link’s all fired up about it, so what the hell? “Let’s go get killed,” Traveler says; our hero is in an especially cynical mood this time around, but that only serves to make the usually-dark humor of the series all the more humorous. But man he’s like a post-nuke Philip Magellan in this one; there’s a total Marksman moment where Traveler ties a bunch of freshly-killed corpses to the back of the Meat Wagon and barrels past the Wasps, cutting the cord so that the corpses sprawl in the van’s wake as a warning.

The book really is just an extended chase scene, but it’s delivered incredibly well. Traveler and Link get in one battle after another; even “quiet” interludes, like when they pull off for a rest or to save apparently-stranded motorists, turn into full-bore action scenes. So really it has much in common with the action movies of the day; Shirley even provides a sort of soundtrack, with Traveler at one point hauling out a boom box to blare out the window as a distraction, blasting “Raw Power” by Iggy & the Stooges: “Early punk-metal rock. The raw stuff.” Link even gets in on it in a later, entertaining part where he gets behind the wheel of the Meat Wagon and comes to Traveler’s rescue, the Stooges scaring the shit out of the latest enemy they’ve encountered.

There’s even a bit of action-comedy banter between Traveler and Link, usually delivered while the bullets are flying, like when Link blows away a dude who tries to crawl into the Meat Wagon and his blood and brains splash inside – “Don’t mess up my car, bro,” complains Traveler. A bit more comedy comes via Jamaica Jack, a Drift resident captured by the Wasps and freed by Traveler and Link, at the latter’s request – Traveler as ever doesn’t go out of his way to help people, trusting no one. But Jamaica Jack doesn’t make as much impact in the narrative as I thought he might. Nor does Rosalita, a sexy Hispanic gal used as a sex-slave by The Spike(!); she rides along in the Meat Wagon with Traveler and Link, but does not engage in what I figured would be the obligatory sex scene with Traveler. Instead, she becomes Link’s woman, mostly because he’s the only one who can speak to her in Spanish.

Action is constant and energetically-delivered throughout; you never get the sense that Shirley’s just going through the motions like you would in the work of a lesser writer – like say Joseph Rosenberger. He writes every action scene as if it’s his first, with copious gore and gunplay and deadpan dialog. Some highlights would be an encounter with the Glory Boys – aka what remains of the US Army – in a ghost town, as well as a pitched battle with the “digmen” who live beneath the earth and try to catch Traveler and Link with their sticky, gladiator-style nets. And of course there are countless fights with the Wasps, The Spike increasingly desperate to kill Traveler, and vice versa.

Throughout the race our heroes keep encountering a dragster, which sometimes shoots at them as it flies by. At length – and the book occurs over two or three days – we discover that the dragster is occupied by Hill and Margolin, the two remaining members of Traveler’s old CIA Special Forces squad (Orwell, from the third volume, being the third). This is the first Traveler’s seen them since 1989, and they are ruined versions of their former selves, their minds warped by the neurotoxins Traveler himself was dosed with, back in ’89. But unlike Traveler, they were never cured of the effects, to the point that Margolin in particular has become like a machine gun-carrying Cassandra, prone to visions, just one step away from full-blown insanity.

The four manage to locate the hidden gold, which is buried in a ravine surrounded by a colony of hostile digmen. But The Spike and her sole remaining follower get the jump on our heroes, with the Spike using Traveler as a decoy for any traps the Old Man might’ve left behind (of which there are a few). The gold does indeed exist, but Traveler’s heightened senses detect something unusual about it. Not that it matters, as The Spike gets locked inside the vault due to one of those traps – and suffers one grisly fate, as we learn the Old Man really was a bastard, as the gold is radioactive and whoever finds it will die from it, just as the Old Man himself did. Plus he’s even left some food behind for whoever gets locked in the vault so they’ll live longer – to suffer longer!

There are so many pitched battles throughout Road War that the last one with the digmen doesn’t make much of an impression, but Margolin does suffer in the skirmish, offing himself via heroic sacrifice. As if proving how pointless everything is in this hellish post-nuke USA, Traveler, after going through hell to find it, basically shrugs off the lost cache of gold, and he and Hill give Link their gold maps so Link and Rosalita can go find happiness. Meanwhile Traveler’s decided to head on south to hook up with Indian galpal Jan again, last seen in the third volume. Hill says he’ll go along, which means Traveler will have a new co-riding buddy next time around.

I’ve enjoyed every volume yet of Shirley’s Traveler. He doesn’t waste the reader’s time with padding or digressive nonsense, and instead delivers a thrill-a-minute action story with plenty of gore. Not to mention a heaping helping of dark comedy. You can tell he was having fun as he wrote it, and that fun carries over to the reader.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

The Coming Of The Terrans


The Coming Of The Terrans, by Leigh Brackett
No month stated, 1967  Ace Books

A few years after Ace published The Secret Of Sinharat/People Of The Talisman and The Sword Of Rhiannon, they published this fine collection of Leigh Brackett stories that had originally appeared in various pulp sci-fi mags. This book collects both early and later Brackett, the tales spanning from 1948 to 1963 – in fact the sole two sci-fi stories Brackett wrote in the ‘60s are collected here, and I wonder if writing them is what inspired her to go back and revise “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” and “Black Amazon of Mars” for their Ace Double expansions.

All of the stories collected in The Coming Of The Terrans have an anti-Earthman, anti-colonialism vibe, more so than any other Brackett tales I’ve yet read. The “Terrans” are either foolish interlopers, well-meaning incompetents, or rugged individualists out to help the Martians. All of them, that is, save for the hero of the first yarn, Captain Burk Winters; but then, “Beast-Jewel of Mars” has a different vibe than the other stories collected here, and is more along the lines of the sci-fi action tales of Eric John Stark. Winters is even reminiscent of Stark (who actually hadn’t been created by Brackett yet, so maybe it should be vice versa), with sun-darkened skin; however he has sun-bleached, almost white hair. This one’s my favorite tale here, mixing sci-fi, action, and even nightmarish body-horror straight out of Island Of Lost Souls.

“Beast-Jewel of Mars” is from the Winter, 1948 issue of Planet Stories (I’ll link to the Internet Archive where scans of the magazines are available for free download). This is a great opening to the anthology, and it’s prime Brackett. One thing added to this Ace anthology is a date for each story, something unstated in the original pulp versions – we’re informed that “Beast-Jewel of Mars” takes place in 1998. Good grief, in the real 1998 I was barely making a living, driving a beaten-up Volkswagen Rabbit, but damn if I don’t look back on those pre-marriage/pre-responsibility days with nostalgia. Anyway, in the 1998 of Leigh Brackett – and I wonder if the dates for each story were arbitrarily determined by Ace, and not Brackett herself – space exploration is rampant and humans have ingratiated themselved onto all the already-populated planets.

When we meet him Burk Winters is landing in the spaceport of Kahora, one of the few places on Mars where Terrans are allowed. It’s a domed city straight out of Logan’s Run, with all the comforts of home. As the tales in the collection progress, we will see how Kahora grows and prospers, but in this earliest-set tale it’s more of a waystation. Winters has come here on a mission, one for which he’s apparently given up his commission. His fiance, Jill, supposedly died in a “flier” crash in the Martian desert, but Winters suspects there was foul play, as Jill had become involved with the Martian drug Shanga – so memorably featured in “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” with a bit more detail about it in The Secret Of Sinharat. In fact, “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” featured a reference to this very story, though the reference was edited out in the Ace Double expansion.

Shanga, known as “the going-back,” is a drug that makes its user regress down through the phases of evolution. Sounds horrific, but apparently it evokes feelings of euphoria in the user. Speaking of drugs, Winters enjoys calming his nerves with “Venusian cigarettes,” which we’re informed have a sedative effect. (Part of me believes – wants to believe – that noted sci-fi geek Jimi Hendrix had this paperback in his collection.) He contacts a Martian named Kor Hal who runs the local Shanga operation, but learns that the Shanga of Kahora, used only by visiting Earthmen, is a pale reflection of the real thing, which Kor Hal says was created by the people of Caer Dhu, 500,000 years ago. Readers of The Sword of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings of Mars will recall Caer Dhu was the domain of the Serpent Men, the Dhuvians, but that was a million years before…so one suspects regular ol’ Martians must’ve moved in afterwards.

Winters plunks down heavy cash and is taken by flier to Valkis, Low Canal city that’s been in other Brackett tales. Here he sees real Shanga, which the Martians don’t touch – it wiped out the people of Caer Dhu in a single generation. It’s run via giant prisms that harness celestial light or somesuch, and Winters is taken up in the “magnificent, unholy sensation” of Shanga. He regresses to beast, and then is challenged by a regal, bare-breasted woman (the Martian and Venusian women are always bare-breasted in Brackett, by the way – it’s like the eternal style on these planets). Still in beast form, “Burk,” as Brackett refers to our hero when a beast, is chased through the streets of Valkis, the angry Martians herding him up to the ruins of Old Valkis, which once loomed over the now-vanished sea. 

The Terran-hatred is strongest in this story, and thus it could use a more proactive Earthman hero. Winters though, back in normal form, is locked in an arena with other Shanga sufferers, some of them so regressed that they’re so hideous they can’t bear description. And here Winters discovers Jill, still alive, but regressed almost permanently into an almost missing link sort of thing. The Martian lady who challenged Winters is the Lady Fand, who rules Old Valkis, bringing the Terran Shanga-sufferers out each night for the amusement of the locals. Using his wiles – not to mention the unbelievable lack of security – Winters is able to sneak out, catch Fand, and put her under the Shanga lights, that night – and we see why the Martians forever swore off Shanga. Features a rushed but bloody ending in which the Shanga freaks wreak vengeance on the Martians, and Winters escapes with Jill, to alert Terran authorities – per the sidenote in “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” he was successful, and Lady Fand’s Shanga ring was crushed.

“Mars Minus Bisha” follows, and immediately we detect a different vibe. This one’s a heartbreaker, folks – who’d expect such an emotional tale from an old sci-fi pulp mag? Originally appearing in the January, 1954 issue of Planet Stories, this one lacks the action and violence of “Beast-Jewel of Mars” but makes up for it with characters you grow to care about. In earlier yarns Brackett’s protagonists were almost ciphers, but here we have Fraser, a doctor who has come here to Mars to study viruses. He’s sequestered in a Quonset hut in the desert, almost forbidden from contact with the locals. The year given in this Ace edition – but not the original story – is 2016.

One day a Martian desert woman storms up to the hut on one of those “lizardlike mounts” the Martians are always riding, and dumps off her daughter, whom she says is sick. Then the mother takes off. The child is named Bisha and she’s around seven. Gradually Fraser will learn that Bisha has affected her tribe with a sleeping sickness, reminiscent of the one in Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years Of Solitude, to the point that the entire tribe was in such jeopardy that the child was ordered to be put to death – the Martians having none of the “humanity” of Terrans in such matters.

But the mother instead snuck Bisha off to Fraser, hoping this strange Terran doctor might cure her…and apparently raise her, as the mom isn’t coming back. Thus begins a compelling drama between Fraser and his new charge, with Brackett subtly hitting all the right notes, like when Fraser realizes belatedly that he’s just gotten a family. Soon he’s talking to the brooding young Bisha about Earth and the home they’ll share when he takes her back with him. But then Fraser begins blacking out, going into minor comas for several hours at stretch. When he tells a local about it, the local instantly knows Bisha is with him, thus setting off a tense finale in which the two attempt to escape across the desert via “trac-car” before Bisha’s former tribesmen can stop them. Be prepared to have your heart ripped out and stomped on.

Next up is “The Last Days of Shandakor,” from the January, 1952 issue of Startling Stories.  The book gives the date as 2024. This one’s unique, at least so far as the other Brackett stories I’ve read, in that it’s in first-person. Our narrator is John Ross, a “planetary anthropologist” who knows more about Mars than most Martians do. Then one day in a Barrakesh tavern he sees a strange native in a billowing cloak with coal-black eyes – eyes like no Martian Ross has ever seen – and realizes he’s looking at a “new” Martian race. The fact that the other Martians give this dude wide berth, almost pretending he’s not there, only adds to the mystery.

The strange Martian’s name is Corin (Brackett did love her Celtic names), and he claims to be from the lost city of Shandakor, which is dying. Ross talks Corin into letting him tag along on the journey back, knowing that Corin plans to kill him – which he does, though Ross defends himself. Afterwards Corin kills himself, refusing to take a Terran into Shandakor. Ross looks for the first time at Corin’s uncovered face, and it is almost reptillian. Ross, thirsty and alone, is jumped by a pair of hulking barbarians; turns out a barbarian army has surrounded Shandakor, refusing to go inside, even though the ciy appears to be unguarded. They take Ross’s money and push him into the city, telling him the people of Shandakor are rich, with water to spare.

Ross finds a literal ghost town, populated with the usual human-type Martians and other Martians such as he’s never seen, walking around, doing business, etc. But there is absolutely no sound, and no one sees him. Brackett mentions that some of these beings have wings, and others have the snakelike features of Corin; she doesn’t elaborate, only stating these are “the lost races of Mars.” My suspicion is we are to assume the people of Shandakor are the descendants of the “Halflings” which proliferated in the time of The Sword Of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings Of Mars, and this is where they segregated themselves from the human-stock Martians who gradually took control of the planet. 

Eventually Ross learns that these “ghosts” are recordings pulled from the very stones of Shandakor, a sort of bizarre security device to keep away the superstitious barbarians. In truth Shandakor is peopled by a few thousand survivors, all of them with similar features as Corin. One of them is a “girl-child” named Duani who wants to keep Ross almost as a pet, claiming she’s never seen a real Terran before. Ross is enslaved, his job to clean the gears of the strange machine that runs the holograms. He learns about Shandakor and falls in love with Duani; this is the second tale in which a Terran protagonist plans to take a Martian girl back to Earth with him, though here it’s a different sort of love, Ross belatedly realizing how damn hot Duani is (plus her being topless all the time doesn’t hurt).

But prepare to be gutted, once again – Brackett it appears went more for emotional, poignant finales in her later yarns, and this one’s no exception. The people of Shandakor know their time is limited, and thus willingly go to the Place of Sleep, which is like a euthenasia center or something. When it’s Duani’s turn, Ross freaks and smashes the hologram machinery, so that the barbarians can come in – and a devastated Duani is glad Ross is only a human, so he will never know how horrible his actions were. Brackett’s husband Edmond Hamilton deemed this “the last and best” of Brackett’s Martian tales, but I disagree – it’s great and all, but I prefer the more action-centric tales.

“Purple Priestess of Mars” follows, and it really is the last of Brackett’s Martian tales, the last story she published to occur on the Red Planet. It’s from the October, 1964 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and it’s the shortest tale collected here, not to mention the most Lovecraftian. It also has a different vibe, in that the Terran “hero” is a liberal academic Brackett clearly dislikes. I read somewhere that Leigh Brackett hated liberalism (I also read somewhere online that her mid-‘70s The Book of Skaith trilogy was like an anti-liberalism diatribe), and that’s very apparent here.

For, like the typical uber-liberal, our “hero,” a government social worker named Harvey Seldon, is a sanctimonious know-nothing know-it-all, the kind of guy who thinks he knows what the Martians need more than the Martians themselves do, even though he’s never even been to Mars. This is his first time, coming into the Kahora spaceport, which we learn is now a city of eight vast domes. Also, humans have more so integrated with the Martians, the date for this story being given as 2031. Seldon even looks down on the crewmember of the transport ship that’s brought him here to Mars, but accepts the man’s offer to hang out with some real, live Martians that night. Seldon practices some positive reinforcement antics to groove himself up; Brackett really had the nascent liberal movement figured out.

That night Seldon goes out of his way to apologize for the previous Terran “exploitation” of Mars (you could even say it’s the first stop of his Martian Apology Tour), even correcting the natives that there was never any “human sacrifice” in the “mad moon” religion of yore. Despite the fact that the locals insist there was. But as we’ll recall, Seldon knows better than everyone, and insists that the legends that there was once a cult that worshipped a supposedly-lost race on Mars’s moon Phobos, referred to as Denedron by the Martians (Deimos is called “Vashna,” by the way), is all make believe courtesy the first Terrans who came to Mars, lying “adventurers” all of them.

Then he’s drugged and these Martians sneak Seldon through the streets and the desert to Jekkara, the anything-goes Low Canal city from previous Brackett joints which is still forbidden to Terrans even at this late date. Here he is thrust into a religious ceremony, given a drink that is possibly drugged, and sees a lovely native gal named Lella, wearing a silver mask like the gal on the cover painting, leading a group of worshippers. Then a demonic “eye” opens, and Seldon loses his marbles – could this “mad moon” demon really exist, and demand a regular sacrifice? The Martians take Seldon back to Kahora, claiming that this was “the only way” they could get him to see the reality of this bloodthirsty religion, which can only be found in the hills outside Jekkara; they plead with him to tell his superiors about it, so it can be stamped out and the demon destroyed. No one else has believed their story, but they figured if an actual government employee saw it for himself, something could be done.

Instead, Seldon flees back to Earth and convinces himself it was all a drug trip. As if her wit couldn’t get any more acidic, Brackett delivers a finale in which a psychoanalyst listens to Seldon’s story and tells him it was all a manifestation of his mind, the demonic eye he thought he saw merely a sign from his subconscious that he needs to accept the fact that he is a “latent homosexual.” All this is exactly what Seldon needs to hear, the supernatural explained away in a fashion he can accept, and thus he can get back to being a sanctimonious jerk. And then a letter arrives from Mars, telling him Lella awaits him at the next moon…

The final tale is “The Road To Sinharat,” from the May, 1963 issue of Amazing Stories. This one gets back to the novella length of the other tales, and also somewhat has the vibe of the more action-centric yarns. It also seems to have served Brackett with some inspiration for The Secret Of Sinharat, mostly in the details of the titular location; in that 1964 Ace expansion, we learn that a constant wind in Sinharat has the sound of ghostly screaming, something I don’t believe was mentioned in the original “Queen of the Martian Catacombs” version of the story. The year given is 2038.

We’re back to the third-person narration, and our hero is Dr. Matthew Carey, who is so reminiscent of Matt Carse of The Sword Of Rhiannon/Sea-Kings Of Mars, from the similar name to the same occupation, that you wonder why Brackett didn’t just make it the same character. Like Carse, Carey’s a rugged archeologist, very much in the Indiana Jones mold, and he’s been at it for a while, his hair getting touches of gray. When we meet him Carey’s run afoul of the United Worlds Planetary Assistance Committee, yet another Terran government body of liberal do-gooders who think they know what’s best for Mars. In this case the Committee, led by one Winthorpe, plan to use science to transform the deserts of Mars into oceans and forests. They care little that the Martians themselves do not want this to happen – the humans know better. But they want to arrest Carey on grounds that they believe he’s so stirred up the natives to the point of revolution.

Carey though recalls something like this happened in Mars’s dim past. Brackett skillfully divulges Carey’s plan as the narrative progresses, to the point that we don’t even initially know why he wants to go to mythical Sinharat, ancient abode of the Ramas, those Martians who used their own science to gain immortality. Carey evades the police (for some reason, Interpol is after him – even operating here on Mars – led by a bloodhound of an agent named Waters), and hooks up with an old tomb-raiding Martian pal named Derrech. Along with them comes Derrech’s sexy sister Arrin, who you won’t be surprised to know traipses around in that traditional Martian garb of kilt and no top – however it appears that Martian women are mostly all small-breasted, as Brackett seems to consistently use that description for them.

The action starts in Jekkara, and we get references to barbarian leader Kynon, from “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” which Brackett would soon expand as The Secret Of Sinharat. Carey refers to this as the last time Sinharat reached the public conscious, but he knows that there might be something in the Rama archives that can stop the so-called Rehabilitation Project from terraforming Mars. Carey also makes the interesting comment that he knows, from “a pretty good authority,” that there is a water well hidden in Sinharat. Could that “authority” be none other than Eric John Stark? 

So begins a journey across the Low Canals of southern Mars, heading up north to the Drylands of the barbarians of Kesh and Shun, the group travelling in a barge that’s pulled along the dried-out canals by those lizard beasts. There’s sporadic action, like when in Valkis a group of barbarians storm the barge while Derech and his crew are off in the city; they’re no doubt muscle paid for by Waters, who knows Derech is secretly transporting the fugitive Matthew Carey. But as mentioned Carey’s no wimp, and, naked, he hefts a war axe and starts screaming at them, having learned long ago how to “go Martian” and fool people into thinking he’s a Dryland barbarian. Brackett uses the phrase “go Martian” in the same connotation as “go postal,” a phrase that wouldn’t even be coined for a few more decades.

Soon Carey’s going all the way with it, wearing a leather armor kilt and harness – ie, just as depicted on Gray Morrow’s great cover art, which you might have noticed from my overlong writeup actually depicts characters and incidents from the book, which is cool. When Carey and friends arrive in Sinharat, they find the warriors of Kesh and Shun surrounding the place, and Interpol agent Waters hiding within the city – Waters having guessed where Carey was headed. But Brackett doesn’t give us a bloodthirsty finale, instead having our heroes trick their way into Sinharat, and Carey finding the material he wants, visually recorded on ancient Rama technology.

Instead, the finale is more on the lines of drama, with Carey presenting the recordings to the Committee, he and his comrades having been safely flown out of Sinharat before the barbarians could close in. Here we get the humorous note that a Committee translator speaks in Esperanto! Well, I guess that seemed “futuristic” in 1963. But we see that the Ramas tried to terraform Mars long in the past, only with disastrous results – to the point that the Committee determines that they will not in fact bring water to the Martians. Thus, revolution is averted.

Brackett’s writing throughout is strong as ever: concise, evocative, and poetic. Special mention must be made of her brief Preface, in which she discusses how science has now confirmed that there is not and has never been life on Mars – but she still vouches for the truth of these stories. “After all, I was there.” But I have to say, it would be a damn shame if this is why Brackett’s work fell out of favor, and was out of print for so long – who cares if there isn’t life on Mars, or any of the other planets in the solar system? That doesn’t detract from the enjoyment value of Brackett’s work; the stories collected here are the very definition of escapism. And I think Leigh Brackett has become my new favorite writer.