Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Penetrator #16: Deepsea Shootout

The Penetrator #16: Deepsea Shootout, by Lionel Derrick
September, 1976  Pinnacle Books

Man, what a misfire of a Penetrator novel. Easily the worst volume yet of the series, Deepsea Shootout comes off like a lazy first draft from Chet Cunningham, who usually delivers the more unhinged installments. This time it’s the narrative itself that’s unhinged, never certain what its plot is, hopscotching all over the place in a desperate attempt to fill pages. Most unforgiveably, it’s boring, something which can’t be said about Cunningham’s previous sadistic offerings.

Even the back cover can’t figure out what the storyline is – the blurb has you thinking Mark “Penetrator” Hardin is heading to the Caribbean to save Dr. Jamison Hutch, an archeologist who’s gone missing. Instead we open with Hardin posing as a reporter as he just sort of hangs around on the young archeologist’s boat; Hutch is down here searching for a sunken Spanish galleon from the 17th century, and has brought along his attractive colleague Beth Anne, who spends the narrative sunning in her bikini and checking out Hardin.

A group of pirates are working the area, nailing tourist boats outside the harbors of the Bahamas. This is the real reason Hardin has come here. In a brief prologue we meet the pirates: made up of radicalized natives, they’re lead by a beautiful black lady who happens to be a voodoo priestess; later in the book Hardin runs into her as she’s leading her people in a ceremony. Really though this character and her priestesshood and the entire bit is woefully underdeveloped; Cunningham introduces her and her pirates as the villains, then forgets about them, then introduces some unrelated guy as another villain, and then quickly disposes of the pirates.

I suspect Cunningham must’ve taken a well-deserved vacation to the Bahamas before penning this, as the majority of Deepsea Shootout comes off like a Caribbean travelogue. Also many pages are just recaps of sunken galleon ships which were discovered in past years, Dr. Hutch going on and on in bland exposition which again just appears like a gambit to fill pages. And no surprise, this stuff has no bearing on the story – hell, when we meet him, Hutch is going on and on about the Concepcion, the ship he’s certain is here in this area, but later in the novel he’s just like, “Oh, I was wrong – it’s not here,” and the entire subplot is dropped.

There’s absolutely no action for about 70 pages or so, a Penetrator first. That would be fine if the story was gripping, but it’s not. It’s repetitive and boring, padded to the extreme. In fact it comes off like some low-budget early-‘70s TV show, Hardin recast as Mannix or something, just hobknobbing around and doing a half-assed job picking up clues.

Even those weird plot elements of previous Cunningham installments is gone, with little of the sadism we’ve previously seen. Save, that is, for a bit at the end where Hardin blasts someone with white phosphorous, and the guy pleads with Hardin to allow him to kill himself, jumping into a shark pool! This scene is strange because Cunningham writes it that even Hardin feels sorry for the dude, when meanwhile he’s the one who doused him with WP in the first place.

I’m reading my way through this series, but I have to say Deepsea Shootout isn’t a necessary read. It’s just tepid and underwhelming, and actually doesn’t even seem to be a part of the normal Penetrator universe, more like a Travis McGee rip-off sort of thing. The highlights are few: the voodoo ceremony bit, which does flash a bit of the old Cunningham quirks when Kama, the pirate leader and priestess, offers herself to Hardin (it’s an obvious set-up, though), and the climax, where Hardin infiltrates an underwater lair straight out of a James Bond movie, one complete with that aforementioned shark pool.

Oh, and for once Hardin gets hurt badly, shot in his calf in the climatic battle, the bullet smashing the bone. This leaves him incapacitated for a bit, but in the final pages he’s already planning a detour to Miami, setting us up for the next installment. Here’s hoping it’s better than this dud.

Monday, November 26, 2012


Mythmaster, by Leo P. Kelley
June, 1973  Dell Books

I love pulp sci-fi paperback originals, preferably ones from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and especially those that tap into the then-current psychedelic scene, casting their cosmic futures in a hallucenogenic glow. Usually it’s just the covers, but sometimes the novels themselves live up to this lysergic promise, and Mythmaster is a case in point. And just as surprisingly, the awesome Robert Foster cover (sort of) illustrates an actual scene in the novel!

Leo P. Kelley, who passed away in 2002, churned out a variety of genre novels, particularly Westerns; Mike Madonna informs me that he also created the Cimarron series. Starting in the mid-1960s Kelley published a handful of sci-fi novels, and if Mythmaster is any indication, they all might be worth checking out sometime. This is a slim book, a little over 200 pages, but engrossing in its storytelling and psychedelicized future setting. The novel is more of a character study than a space opera or adventure story, but the incidental details Kelley sprinkles throughout the narrative are fascinating.

Our hero is John Shannon, the titular “Mythmaster.” The way he got this title is pretty unusual to say the least. He clusterbombs populaces with pellets containing a hallucinogenic of his own manufacture; the hallucinogen drives everyone who breathes it "Mythmad" -- a euphoric, delusional state, one where they are incapable of controlling themselves. Then Shannon and his team of fellow pirates float down to the planet on their little ships and zap the fertilized eggs from the bodies of recently-impregnated women!!

Obviously Shannon is an anti-hero, and in fact the thrust of the novel is his eventual rediscovery of his own humanity. The novel plays out on a smallscale, personal level, even though it has intergalactic trips and action scenes. Shannon, an orphan who was raised by a robotic “mother surrogate,” once was a captain in the Space Patrol with a promising career, one he ruined in an attempt to save the lives of prisoners who were in an orbiting prison that was in the path of his ship.

Drummed out of the Patrol, Shannon eventually became a self-centered pirate with a variety of money-making schemes. This egg-stealing gambit is only the latest, if also the most disgusting; Shannon steals the eggs and delivers them without a care to their fate. In one case we learn that the buyers intend to eat the eventual humans that will grow from the eggs. (These buyers, the Epicureanites, are another of Kelley’s interesting creations which are only hinted at in the novel – obese lechers who live only to satiate themselves.)

One thing Shannon does get excited about is his infrequent visits to Seventh Heaven, a space station cathouse. Each level features a different erotic delight, and Shannon rewards his all-male crew with visits to the place after successful jobs. On this latest visit Shannon discovers the Star Wars-esque named Reba Charlo, a courtesan who has the entirety of the seventh level to herself, such is her fame and beauty. Reba instantly sets off Shannon’s alarms, as she knows who he is, despite the cover name he’s given (which is “Ackerman,” surely an in-joke reference to Forrest Ackerman?).

Reba knows that Shannon is really the Mythmaker; she knows this through Starson, Shannon’s “astronavigator,” a good-looking dude who happens to be gay, and who also happens to be in love with Shannon. This sets up the strange love triangle which brews through the tale: Shannon tries to subdue the feelings he has for Reba, who once was married to Starson, who himself keeps trying to get Shannon to fall in love with him! Weird scenes inside the goldmine.

Then there’s Oxon Kaedler (another great name!), a fellow space pirate who has been declared dead by the Space Patrol but who really survived; rumor is he is coming after Shannon to cut in on his profits. Kaedler is another of those great little touches of the bizarre that Kelley sprinkles through the book; his body burned beyond repair, Kaedler floats, nude and surrounded by a blue haze, overtop a hovering life-support device, and since his voice is destroyed he communicates through a lizard-like alien with telepathic powers. All of it seems like something that could’ve come out of David Lynch’s wonderfully weird Dune.

To me the novel’s greatest strength is the incidental detail Kelley puts in here and there, showing the alien influences upon this future. There’s Andromedan curtains that play “polyphonic” music when brushed open, and even a device of Reba’s that actually let’s people “taste the colors.” Also on the psychedelic tip is a later scene where Reba covers her naked body with alien “fireworms” which sparkle about her, obscuring her nudity in kaleidoscopic colors.

Kelley follows his love triangle storyline all the way through; during a brief return visit to Earth, Shannon visits Denver with Starson and Reba. The city has been split into UpperDenver and UnderDenver, the former a closed off haven for the rich, the latter a criminal metropolis. The wealthy can buy tickets which allow them to slum with the transients in UnderDenver, and this is where the trio go, checking out the nightlife, the weird wonders on display.

But over dinner Starson spikes Shannon with those Mythmadness pellets – everyone is susceptible to them, unless they have antitode pills – and then he takes the drugged and hallucinating Shannon to a seedy hotel and has his way with him. Surprisingly enough, Shannon comes to the next day without any anger; turns out he’s bisexual (!), and indeed is more upset that Starson thought he could make Shannon fall in love with him through the fog of Mythmadness.

The Shannon-Reba love story however bears the brunt of the narrative, and Kelley provides plenty of sex scenes. But for a novel focused on hallucinogenic drugs and interstellar whorehouses, Mythmaster isn’t very graphic or explict. The sex scenes are more along the lines of “he lost himself within her” and such, and other than a late utterance of “fuck,” the book is devoid even of cursing. However Kelley makes up for it with a general feeling of decadence. For example, the bizarre scene where Shannon, awaiting his appointment with Reba in Seventh Heaven, swims in a pool filled with alien fish – alien fish which like to congregate around particular areas of human bodies, with erotic effects – and ends up “dallying” with them!

Kelley builds up the rivalry with Kaedler in the climax, with Shannon and his crew in a desperate space battle with Kaedler’s superior ship. The last portion of the book sees Shannon, Reba, Starson, and a few crew members stranded on a barren, swamp-like planet, one filled with a strange alien life. Here Kelley delivers another psychedelic scene, when Kaedler drops Mythmadness pellets on Shannon and his crew, who then stumble about in a chemical fog. (This is the scene Robert Foster apparently illustrated for his cover – that is, if his cover was actually based on the novel in the first place.) All of this leads into an unusual ending in which Shannon and Reba are cast as a sort of new Adam and Eve.

Writing wise, Kelley plays it straight, usually just giving the necessary details and moving on. But as stated, it’s those details that I found so fascinating. He also attempts to get lyrical and literary at spots, with his characters prone to delivering soul-plumbing confessions or pronouncements. I don’t think Mythmaster will be to everyone’s liking, but something about it struck a chord with me – the focus on character, the psychedelic vibe, and the incidental and bizarre details.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Godmakers

The Godmakers, by Don Pendleton
February, 1974  Pinnacle Books
(Original publication November, 1970)

Don Pendleton published innumerable books before he found fame and fortune with the Executioner. The Godmakers was one of those early books, published right around the time that Miami Massacre came out. The first edition of the novel carried the “Dan Britain” by-line, a psuedonym Pendleton apparently saved for his sci-fi output. The edition shown here is the 1974 reprint, published under Pendleton’s own name and capitalizing on the mid-‘70s success of the Executioner series, which is name-dropped on the cover…right above the wangless naked dude as he floats through a sort of blacklight-esque dreamspace.

It’s interesting to note that the original 1970 edition of The Godmakers took place in the near future year of 1975…a time when things were slightly different, like “steamer” cars on the interstates and a different sort of structure to the US itself. What’s odd though is this 1974 reprint retains that “near future” 1975 setting. Couldn’t some junior editor have at least gone into the manuscript and changed each instance of “1975” to say “1980” or something?

I’m not sure about the original edition, but the back cover of this reprint does a poor job summing up the novel, making it sound more like a “political intrique meets ESP” sort of thing. In reality, The Godmakers is more of an assault on conservative morality, fundamentalist religion, and the modern world. Indeed it’s almost gnostic in its disavowal of Christianity, even equating the god of the Christians with the devil. And it’s positively Carpocratian in its mindset that sex, sex, and nothing but sex is the only means to salvation. Not at all what you’d expect from the creator of Mack Bolan!

But man, if only the novel lived up to its gnostic promise. It seems to me that Pendleton tried to mirror (or at least was inspired by) Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange Land, with his know-it-all protagonist who blithely goes about laying waste to all the sentiments modern man holds dear. And while The Godmakers starts off strong, veering into psychedelic realms, it soon becomes an overbearing exercise in semantics, given over to pages and pages of explanatory dialog, our hero Patrick Honor info-dumping on anyone and everyone. And though there is sex (indeed, the action scenes are sex scenes), it’s all metaphysical, with prose more ornate than purple.

Anyway, Patrick Honor is a federal agent who works for a CIA-type agency, his office right beside the White House. His boss is a guy named Clinton, which proves ironic in the later scenes with the President; every time Pendleton would mention Clinton, I would think he was the President. The novel opens with Clinton giving Honor his newest task; to look into the sudden insanity of Wenssler, a scientist who is helming a government-funded research of PPS (psychic power sources).

The Godmakers bridles with a pre-PC mindset; when Honor meets Wenssler’s gorgeous female assistant, Barbara Thompson, he’s instantly checking out her “female form” and hitting on her. We learn that Wenssler has voyaged to such inner reaches that he’s lost his mind. Now all he can do is scream about “the Nines.” Barbara also has a list of dates and names, transcribed from Wenssler’s rants; these dates prove to be recent dates on which various important people have died. Many of the dates are in the future. The President’s name is on the list, with a date coming up in a month or so. Honor’s name is also on the list.

You’re prepared for a conspiracy-laden excursion into politcal intrigue, but Pendleton switches gears fast. Over breakfast Barbara starts hitting back on Honor – apparently Wenssler in one of his moments of lucidity claimed Honor might be “the one,” and Barbara has detected traces of PPS in Honor. Barbara herself has her own PPS powers and, as she telekinetically unbuttons Honor’s shirt, she informs him that sex combined with PPS might be the only way to voyage into the astral realm in which Wenssler’s mind is imprisoned.

The two rush upstairs to screw. Seriously! Pendleton relays the ensuing scene in dialog (Lots of “Ooooh! Patrick!” and whatnot), but it’s over soon, veering into the psychedelic as Honor suddenly finds himself in some sort of dreamscape. This will be repeated throughout the novel; anytime people have sex, they’re intsantly sent into this astral realm. Honor catches glimpses of Hadrin and Octavia, sort of personifications of the Ideal Man and Ideal Woman, I guess the original images that Plato spoke of.

Honor emerges with PPS superpowers. The session with Barbara obviously was the spur that he’d needed, but it comes off as so rushed, especially given that Honor spends the rest of the novel going around and explaining things to people, a sudden know-it-all, whereas in the opening pages he was cynical and didn’t even believe in PPS. What makes it worse is that the forward action of the narrative is also halted, and the entire book comes off as a descent into semantics, numerology, metaphysics, and Jungian philosophy.

Now, I’m interested in all of those things, but it’s just that the way Pendleton carries it off leaves you a bit dissatisfied. Everything is relayed via expository dialog, and Patrick Honor suddenly becomes a total bore. I do find it interesting that Pendleton makes the villain of the tale the god of the Christians. Honor elaborates (at great length, and several times) that our concept of god is actually “The Rogue,” man’s accumulated misconceptions and prejudices about god given amorphous form, so that it is now an actual entity, and worse yet one that has gained self-awareness and plans to take over our world.

The Rogue, as Honor makes clear, is really just the Collective Unconscious that Jung wrote about. What I find so strange about this is that Pendleton turns the typical assumption on its head and makes the Collective Unconscious evil! It’s often proposed that Jung was only re-discovering the god of the Gnostics, the “god of Plato” and etc – ie, the “True God” who has nothing to do with the Demiurge, aka the Judeo-Christian god. Anyway, here the Jungian god is evil, and Pendleton implies quite often that man himself is the true god.

Which brings me to the title: “Godmaker” is a term Hadrin gives Honor during one of their astral-realm chats. Hadrin explains that each human being has the potential to become a god, and Honor spends the rest of the novel tyring to teach that lesson to his colleagues. Soon he has Clinton and Clinton’s wife involved, and together they with Honor and Barbara are having orgies…all to combat the Rogue, of course! But again Pendleton skips over the naughty bits and instead has ‘em all getting ready to go at it, then after a few breathless exchanges of dialog they’re all in the astral realm.

Things get super goofy when the friggin President gets involved, “initiated” into the astral realm of PPS-assisted sex by Clinton’s wife and Barbara! (Goofier yet, Honor later informs us that Abraham Lincoln is still out there in the astral realm, a fellow Godmaker fighting the Rogue!) Anyway the President is very interested in PPS research, and there follows many scenes where he just sits around and listens to Honor tell him how much evil the Rogue threatens. Pretty soon he’s even calling fellow world leaders and warning them!

It’s all just hard to believe. Also problematic is the nature of the Rogue’s threats, and the way Pendleton delivers his metaphysical action scenes. Simply put, you have no idea what the hell is happening. Our heroes will disrobe, engage in group sex, instantly be transported into the astral realm, and then they’ll be yelling incomprehensible things to one another, like “Follow me into the root square!” or “Slice through the plane and into the geometer!”

I find it interesting though that Honor, even after “ascending” to his Godmaker status, still shows flashes of that pre-PC mindset, always referring to Barbara and Clinton’s wife as “the girls” and giving them the simple tasks. Or the sexual ones…there are many other goofy scenes where the ladies go about telepathically feeling out the sexual impulses of others and goosing them into public displays of sex…all to fight the Rogue, of course.
Also interesting is that Pendleton never once mentions homosexual sex…not that I look for such things, but it just seemed an obvious question given his position that one must have sex to fight the evil god we humans have created. Yet Pendleton never mentions what the gays are supposed to do – he makes it clear that heterosexual sex is the only way to combat the evil Rogue, that men and women are of different genders so that they can combine and achieve Godmaker status through sexual union.

Maybe the fact that the novel even caused me to think about such things is a sign of its success, that Pendleton was at least getting me to think about and question his sentiments. (The novel also promotes a healthy "question everything" attitude.) However I still feel a much better story lurked within Pendleton’s concept. Less semantics, less exposition, and a bit more understandable action would’ve made a big difference. As it is, though, I appreciated The Godmakers for its ideas and its psychedelic, sex-as-sacrament mindset.

Here’s the original edition, which sported a cool Frank Frazetta cover:

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Ninja

The Ninja, by Eric Van Lustbader
No month stated, 1980  Fawcett Crest Books

This read has been decades in the making. I bought The Ninja fresh off the racks in the mid-‘80s, desperate like other kids my age for anything about ninjas. Even the cover of the mass market paperback seemed to suggest Sho Kosugi, who came to brief fame via Cannon’s Enter the Ninja -- which, I seem to recall reading, was rushed into production to jump onto the ninja bandwagon which was kicked off by the runaway success of this very novel.

But here’s the thing…as shoddy, goofy, and bad as Enter the Ninja sometimes is, it’s still a hell of a lot better than this novel. Comically overwritten, The Ninja is one of the more pretentious reads I’ve ever had the displeasure of enduring, as if Dow Mossman, after penning his similarly-overwritten Stones of Summer, had decided to take a stab at writing “something Oriental.” You’d think I was joking if I told you that a novel about a ninja was boring, but there it is – I tell you the truth. The book should come with a pack of No-Doze.

What makes it so funny is the story is quite simple; it’s just been overblown to staggering extremes. Our hero is Nicholas Linnear, improbably-named modern day ninja of caucasian and Japanese descent. Nicholas (and no, it’s never just “Nick”) is one of the more stoic/boring/unmemorable protagonists you’ll ever encounter, lacking much spark. Raised in Japan, Nicholas eventually came to the US (after becoming a ninja, though Lustbader keeps it a “mystery” for several hundred pages), where he apparently got a job at an ad agency (just like Darrin on Bewitched!). Not that it matters, for as it opens Nicholas has resigned his post after a breakdown...or something.

Anyway, it’s all just a convenient setup so that, when we meet him, Nicholas Linnear is a broken man, despite only being in his 30s, sort of living like a bum along the beach outside of New York City. Meanwhile, people around him are being murdered. Nicholas pays no heed, until he meets dropdead gorgeous Justine, who just happens to run into Nicholas on the beach…and several pages later they’re having sex in incredibly overwrought prose. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to get hot beneath the collar or consult a thesaurus.

Gradually (and I do mean “gradually”), Nicholas learns that Justine’s father is mega-wealthy, mega-infamous bad guy Raphael Tomkin. Nicholas gets dragged into Tomkin’s story when it develops that someone, apparently a ninja, is trying to kill him…and Nicholas incorrectly assumes that the mysterious muders going on around his beachhouse are due to the simple fact that Justine lives nearby – the murders are signs from the ninja that even Tomkin’s family is in danger.

The reader, of course, realizes that these signs are for Nicholas; in the occasional scenes from the evil ninja’s perspective, we learn that this guy has it in for Nicholas and is using this Tomkin job as a convenient way to kill the proverbial two birds. So he goes along murdering people Nicholas knows, most of them fellow Japanese who have moved over to the US, many of them martial arts instructors and etc.

Sounds like a thriller, doesn’t it, but the narrative style is so torpid as to rob the story of all tension. Seriously, everything is drawn out here, put through the metaphor/analogy wringer, until it all comes off like the literary equivalent of an unintentionally campy film. Even if a character merely looks out of a window, Lustbader will go on for a full paragraph or so, comparing this to that and that to this. Pretty soon the entire story collapses beneath the onslaught of fluffy prose.

But wait, it gets worse. Not content to wheel-spin in the “present” (apparently, 1979), Lustbader will often jump back to the late 1940s and early '60s, so we can witness Nicholas’s youth. But this portion too is unintentionally hilarious, because Lustbader only tries to come up with more “mystery” to keep us reading, but it’s all just so uninvolving. I assume Lustbader is trying to set up storylines for future volumes, as he leaves all sorts of things vague…for one, Nicholas’s mother appears to have several skeletons in her closet, not to mention her “sister,” who is married to an evil bastard who turns out to be a ninja.

Then there’s Yukio, a Japanese girl of Nicholas’s age, a nympho with the mouth of a truckdriver; incapable of loving or showing any emotion, she exists only to screw, therefore giving Lustbader opportunity to write a bunch of unsexily-rendered sex scenes. Speaking of which, there’s a whopper of one a quarter of the way through the book, where Gelda, Justine’s hooker sister (and a lesbian to boot) has sex with a female client…a jawdropper of a scene involving a bathtub and a revolver. Truly, even Harold Robbins would have been impressed.

But even these flashes of perversion are lost in the deluge of pretension. Dialog also suffers, with characters, no matter how minor, given to grandiose, poetic speeches about life, love, or what have you. I mean, it would be fine if one or two characters spoke this way, but every single character speaks exactly the same. Even Croaker, a tough New York City cop who works with Nicholas in the novel, is given to prosaic utterances that seemingly have no end. And don’t even get me started on the “wizened Asian types” who proliferate through the narrative; the older they are, the bigger their bluster.

As overwrought as the dialog is, the characters themselves are just as bad. Early scenes featuring Justine are probably the worst; the victim of several unhappy romances, Justine now distrusts most people and is reluctant to get involved with Nicholas. So ensues soap opera-etic drama between the two, culminating in an uninentionally hilarious scene (one of many, really) where Nicholas, breaking the news to a heartbroken Justine that he’s going to work for her father, falls to his knees and begins to weep…! All he needed to add was a little teeth-gnashing.

Another priceless sequence is when Nicholas and Justine later reunite, in an honest-to-God disco… a scene that contains Lustbader's overwritten-but-nonsensical prose in spades. Such as:

Somewhere was the bar, obscured behind a forest of raised arms, swirling hair, shiny mindlessly concentrating faces. Dance dance dance: the imperitave was clear, treading an atavistic path, the primitive’s tribal revivals, an ecstatic communal orgy, trivialized to the point where all possible consequence was nullified.

Seriously, what does that even mean? This entire scene is hilarious, given the lengths Lustbader goes in describing the “modern hell” that is the disco…and the lyrics he writes for the blaring music is just the icing on the cake.

This is one of those novels where you start to root for the villain, if only because he does you the favor of killing off all of the annoying protagonists. So then, evil ninja Saito was a godsend for me, popping up from the shadows every once in a while to do in some colleague of Nicholas’s. Unfortunately Saito himself is lost in the turgid shuffle, to such a point that even a late scene, in which we see his own perversions (namely, taking a heroin-LSD combo and sodomizing young boys), loses its impact due to the torpor which has overtaken us.

But wait, you ask, isn’t this a novel about ninjas? Well…sort of. In actual fact, the ninja stuff takes up around 10% of the narrative. The rest is given over to elaborate backstories, elaborate philosophizing, and elaborate prose. Nicholas gets in a few quick scuffles here and there, but actual ninja warfare stuff doesn’t occur until the end, when Nicholas and Saito have their expected confrontation. But it too is anticlimatic, over in just a few pages, and lacks any novelty save for a part where Saito uses a handy corpse he keeps nearby to fool everyone into thinking he’s been killed.

And yet, The Ninja was a big seller, and indeed spawned a series of five more novels, each of them doing well. But then who am I to judge, given that the bestsellers of today are things like the Harry Potter or Twilight books; at least back then adults were reading novels for adults.

Summing up, while the storyline in no way justified the overblown prose and dialog, I still found some enjoyment in The Ninja; namely, the same sort of sick enjoyment I get when I watch overblown turkeys like Valley of the Dolls…bad films that were treated by their creators with such gravitas that you can’t help but laugh. The Ninja is just like that, and it’s a shame a similarly-overblown film was never made from it. It would've been an instant camp classic.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Executioner #264: Iron Fist

The Executioner #264: Iron Fist, by Gerald Montgomery
November, 2000  Gold Eagle Books

This is the second volume of Gerald Montgomery’s COMCON trilogy, which began with #262: Trigger Point. To recap that previous volume, Nazis insinuated themselves into the US government after World War II, their ultimate goal the removal of the US constitution and the eventual domination of the country…and then the world! Iron Fist backs down a little from the political conspiracy aspect of that previous volume, but in a good way…rather than being portaryed as crypto-fascits, COMCON is now a friggin’ Chutulu-worshipping cult who breeds Hulk-sized supersoldiers with advanced nanotechnology!

Again, the biggest surprise here is that Gold Eagle even published these books. They have nothing in common with other books in the Executioner line, filled with sci-fi weaponry and Lovecratian references. Hell, there’s even a Hunter Thompson analogue running around. What’s even more surprising is that Montgomery pulls it all off. His writing is strong, with a better focus on action than before – and he hardly delves into any gun-porn, other than a few instances here and there. (The most egregious example is where he goes on for a few pages about the C-5 plane…not technically “gun-porn,” but close.)

The novel opens with a nonstop action scene that goes on for around fifty pages; a tour de force of lurid gore as Splatterpunk, COMCON-created nanotech-powered monster, is dropped into Denver and begins killing women, all in a play to get Bolan’s attention. After busting up COMCON in the previous volume, Bolan is now COMCON's most wanted, and from what little they know about him, they’re certain that the murdering of unprotected, innocent women will draw his attention quick.

The only problem is, this opening scene outdoes the rest of the novel. Bolan is always two steps behind Splatterpunk, who has the strength of a few men and cannot be killed. Or at least it appears so. His super-tough skin deflects most weapons, even bullets, and those that do break free smash apart on his metal-like skeleton. Not only that, but it’s later learned that his body breaks down embedded ammo-bits into his bloodstream. This is all way beyond the normal Executioner ilk, which understandably might be off-putting for some. But for me, it was a wonder to even read such stuff in a Mack Bolan novel.

Splatterpunk leaves a trail of murdered women in his wake, even killing one right in front of a powerless Bolan. Montgomery does a grand job heightening the tension throughout this scene, with Bolan chasing after Splatterpunk, the cops chasing after Bolan, and chaos in general overtaking Denver. Meanwhile Montgomery often hopscotches over to Harlan T. Garrison, the aforementioned Hunter Thompson analogue, who himself is on COMCON’s trail, blasting through Denver in a permanent chemical fog, recording his thoughts into a reel-to-reel recorder for posterity, his gorgeous female assistant Brandee Wine (!) barrelling their vintage muscle car through the streets like a daredevil.

Bolan finally gets the drop on Splatterpunk, and the novel settles down, if only for a bit. Part of the problem with Trigger Point was that so much of it was dedicated to world-building, to setting up Montgomery’s elaborate plot. He does a much better job here, keeping the story moving while still doling out conspiracy-mongering backstory. Again Bolan discovers that COMCON is well beyond current technology; Montgomery even works in alien/UFO stuff, when one of the Stony Man lab assistants, after studying Splatterpunk’s inert form, swears that alien technology is behind this – she even brings up that hoary old rumor that the Nazis supposedly had alien assistance in WWII.

The most memorable character is Harlan T. Ellison, such a spot-on spoof of Hunter Thompson that you almost feel as if you’re reading a Gold Eagle rewrite of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I bet this character in particular truly set off the average Gold Eagle reader, who wondered why he was being given so much attention – for the non-Gold Eagle fan, though, the character is a blast of relief from the typical type you encounter in this imprint’s books. I suspect though that Gold Eagle probably cut out some of Harlan’s proclivities from Montgomery’s orginal manuscript; though Harlan often makes mention of drugs and the like, we suspiciously never see him partaking of anything stronger than a few cans of beer.

Splatterpunk too is a great character, and Montgomery goes the opposite route from the expected confrontation with Bolan, instead delving into a metaphysical bit where Splatterpunk, unconscious after his opening battle with Bolan, meets up with a goddess who reminds him who he once was, before COMCON turned him into the monster known as Splatterpunk. (There’s a lot of subtle goddess-worship at play here, with female deities providing salvation…Harlan’s assistant, Brandee, even makes several references to “Great Goddess” being with her.) The end result being a reborn Splatterpunk offering to lead Bolan to the Spread, the mysterious COMCON-owned place where he was created, so that together they may destroy it.

Montgomery gets even further out with the closing sequence at the Spread. Here, in addition to blazing action, we are treated to a wealth of Lovecraft-inspired stuff, with occultic orgies (black-robed priests there to soak up the “orgone energy”), baby sacrifice, and even a tentacle-headed demon, for crying out loud, though Montgomery has the characters assume it’s just someone in an animatronic mask. The implication however is that the demon is quite real.

Action-wise the novel is strong, with the gun-porn well worked into the narrative. Splatterpunk unleashes hell on Denver, and Montgomery doesn’t shy on the gore, nor does he in the several other action scenes, particularly the climax, where Bolan storms the Spread with members of both Phoenix Force and Able Team in tow. Montgomery even proves himself adept at writing the mandatory Able Team banter. In fact, dialog is pretty strong throughout Iron Fist.

We’re obviously far beyond the world of Don Pendleton here, but Montgomery’s conviction really sells the tale. It would be hard to imagine any other Gold Eagle ghostwriter coming up with such a far-out storyline, that’s for sure; little wonder, then, that other than one other standalone Bolan novel, the COMCON trilogy was all Montgomery ever wrote for Gold Eagle. I’m really looking forward to the next and final installment of the trilogy, though word has it Montgomery’s manuscript was drastically changed before publication. Again, though, it’s a wonder Gold Eagle even published it in the first place.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Zardoz, by John Boorman and Bill Stair
April, 1974  Signet Books

Zardoz is one of those films that’s more fun to talk about than to watch, just a weird blitz of a movie, with a flying stone head, future hippie communes, rampant toplessness, and Sean Connery running around in thigh-high boots and red diapers.  At the very least, I can respect director/writer/producer John Boorman’s attempt to “go beyond 2001.”  I mean, you’d never see someone attempt anything like this movie in today’s world, where most sci-fi is just cgi-laden, PG-13 junk that caters to the tweener market.

What’s most surprising about this novelization is how slim it is.  Given the elaborate/psychedelic nature of the actual film, one would expect the novel to be a bloated mess.  Instead it is so focused that it almost comes off like some tractate from a forgotten gnostic religion.  According to his preface, Boorman’s initial draft of Zardoz more resembled a novel, and after filming the movie in late 1973 he decided that perhaps it should be a novel after all.  So he called in colleague Bill Stair, who helped Boorman during the writing stage of Zardoz, and went about fashioning it all into a book, using excised portions and storylines from his earlier screenplay drafts.

One thing I can say is, if you rewatch the actual film after reading this book, you will certainly understand everything you see.  Zardoz is pretty unique in that it’s a film that shows more than it tells, so this novel really fills in a lot of blank spots.  And this isn’t the typical sort of film novelization, where it’s the work of some contractor who’s churning out a book based on some early draft; this is the actual work of the film’s creator. 

The story follows the film quite closely, only changing things here and there, with the biggest changes coming at the climax.  Those who have seen the film though will not find anything much different in the opening section, other than a brief background on protagonist Zed – we learn that his father was also an Exterminator, thus high above the common rabble, and so Zed too was raised to be a leader of men.

The setting is hundreds of years in the future, and some apparent calamity has sent hummanity back into a near-primitive existence.  Zed is an Exterminator who rides about on his horse, armed with pistols and rifles, blowing away the Brutals, ie peasants and the like.  His god is Zardoz, a gigantic stone head that flies around and pronounces things like “The penis is evil” in a booming voice, then spits out more pistols and rifles from its gaping mouth.  (Can you imagine Boorman pitching this to the studios?  Man, there will never be another time in Hollywood like the early ‘70s.)

We meet Zed as he has snuck into Zardoz’s mouth, lifted off into the air and flying inside his god.  Zed is not filled with holy reverence, though.  We eventually learn that Zed is here for revenge.  Instead of being the murderous villain we expect him to be, Zed is actually enlightened – for one, when Zardoz proclaimed that the Exterminators stop exterminating and instead force the Brutals into slavery, to harvest crops, Zed started to suspect something was up.  Then, after a mysterious meeting with some shadowy figure in a library, Zed began to read, homeschooling himself…and he was a fast learner, too, as the novel informs us that Zed is a “super mutant,” with both physical and mental superiority over normal humans.

All this is learned much later in the book (and film), but long story short, Zed discovers in the goofiest possible way that his god Zardoz is nothing but a joke.  (Famously, the name is a play on The Wizard of Oz.)  So Zed has snuck within the stone head to find out where it comes from, who is behind it.  So focused is he on his mission that when he sees another man inside the stone head (Arthur Frayn, the creator of Zardoz, though we don’t learn this until later), Zed simply shoots the bastard and watches him fall to the ground far below.

The stone head lands in a vast plot of land filled with buildings and robe-wearing Eternals, ie humans who have somehow learned to cheat death and now live in a sort of hive community.  This place is called the Vortex, and it is protected by an invisible barrier.  Zed comes in contact with some of the Eternals, but plays dumb, not admitting to having killed Frayn.  Not that it much matters, though, for the Eternals regenerate, even if the body is destroyed, and even now Frayn’s embryo is growing into an adult being.

A pair of Eternals latch onto Zed as if he’s a wayward dog, or at least one of Pavlov’s dogs.  The first “normal” human they’ve seen in perhaps centuries, they marvel over Zed’s “barbarian” nature and carry out various experiments on him.  In particular they are fascinated by his lusts and desires.  Since these people cannot die they’ve cast aside their sexual impulses, with the result that no one now has sex and no children have been born for hundreds of years.

Things proceed much as in the film.  After a psychedelic group mind-vote, the Eternals deem to allow Zed to stay in the Vortex for a few days, until Frayn has regenerated – then they can get to the bottom of what happened to him.  Meanwhile Zed is shuffled around the Vortex, sometimes hanging with Friend, a male Eternal who despises his immortality, other times being traded off between Consuella and May, female Eternals who harbor lustful thoughts behind their sneers.  The book even replicates the unintentionally hilarious scene where the gals try to goose Zed’s libido via a series of sexual images projected on a screen.

Zed’s mere presence fosters revolt within the Vortex, which in addition to Eternals is made up of those who have rebelled and have been aged as punishment, and finally those who are so apathetic that they do nothing but sit around and stare into nothingness.  The moral of the story is that man is not designed for infinite existence, and immortality will eventually lead to apathy and madness.

Along the way Zed learns a bit about the Vortex.  Most importantly he learns of the Tabernacle, a mysterious force which apparently controls the Vortex and its occupants.  It also mentally unites them and keeps them from remembering how it was created, or indeed where it even is, so that they may never destroy it.  Zed, who has sworn to destroy the Vortex, realizes that to do so he must destroy the Tabernacle.  But to do that, he must first figure out what it is.  Meanwhile, he discovers that the Tabernacle is trying to destroy him. 

With a group of Eternals led by Consuella out to kill him, Zed hides out with Friend and a gaggle of May’s female followers.  They understand that Zed can save them, but he must be prepared first.  Since time is of the essence, they must instruct him by “touch-teaching.”  This entails a very elaborate and very psychedelic section where Zed mentally voyages into inner and outer space, and really clarifies all of the nonsensical stuff that occurs in the film version.

Here the novel delivers the answers that the film did not.  For one, we discover that the Vortex is really a spaceship, one that never left the earth.  Hence the force field which surrounds the place, which is really just clear material of dense construction that was created to endure the rigors of space travel.  (Why is it clear?  So the spaceship occupants could see outside into space and thus manuever around asteroids and the like…!)  The Eternals were so created so that they could survive the long years of space voyaging, and indeed their fellows are far out into space, but for whatever reason this particular ship never took off, and the Eternals instead became vapid occupants of a desolate earth.

Still in his psychedelic mind-trip, Zed sees the construction of the Tabernacle.  Created by a scientist, it “lives” in crystals which are implanted in the minds of each of the Eternals.  Further, to ensure that none of them ever died, the scientist made each of them, including himself, forget how the Tabernacle was created.  It just sort of goes on and on, with Zed free-floating through psychic space, witnessing past events – that is, when one of the female Eternals isn’t having astral sex with him.  There’s a lot of psychedelic-hued purple prose here, with Zed getting busy on the mental plane with a few of the Vortex gals.

The denoument is basically the same as the film.  Chaos overtakes the Vortex and Zed’s fellow Exterminators swoop in, delivering the sweet relief of death.  Zed, who was being prepared as the ultimate deliverer of the Eternals, has been reborn after his astral/psychic voyaging, and can no longer bring himself to murder.  Nothing stops his old Exterminator friends, though, who chop down characters like Friend and the reborn Frayn, who go to their deaths with cheer, in what I assume we are to take as a happy ending.  Zed meanwhile escapes with Consuella, where we are told – just as in the film – that they eventually have a child and then grow old together and die.

Writing-wise the book is pretty good, with a literate feel...or, at least, the striving for a literate feel.  It does though have the expected clinical/sterile tone I get from most British pulp, but in this case it actually complements the aloof tone of the story itself.  Finally, the authors are adept at doling out metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, serving up some truly delirious dialog.  (Choice line: "Stay close to me, inside my aura.")

So then, the novel really exists as a clarification of the events in the film, sort of like a companion piece.  I guess the biggest compliment I can pay it is that, after reading this book, I wanted to watch Zardoz again.  And who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll get drunk enough that I actually will.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Rich Dreams

Rich Dreams, by Ben and Norma Barzman
April, 1982  Warner Books

Harold Robbins was notorious for writing blockbuster novels about characters who were thinly-veiled analogues of real-life figures; I often wondered, then, why no one ever wrote a Harold Robbins-type novel about Harold Robbins himself. Well, someone did – Ben and Norma Barzman, friends of Robbins, who, after hearing Robbins's (fictional) life story, realized it had the makings for a perfect blockbuster novel. Rich Dreams was the ensuing book, a paperback original that apparently went unnoticed and was soon forgotten (I only discovered it via the biography Harold Robbins: The Man Who Invented Sex). However, it did succeed in pissing off Robbins, who quickly cut all ties with the Barzmans.

The Robbins analogue here is Arnold Elton, “sex-novel king” who, now in his forties, has reached the pinnacle of success. He’s relaxing in his villa on the French Riviera, enjoying the good life with his newly-pregnant third wife, and meanwhile brokering a deal to take over a failing movie studio. This is the “present” storyline of the novel, and the movie studio deal takes up a goodly portion of the narrative; like his real-life inspiration, Arnold Elton is more interested in business deals and making money than writing novels. Indeed, Elton’s novels are given short shrift.

Elton’s business acumen and wheeling and dealing are given most focus throughout these portions, and obviously this is a good indication of the real-life Robbins. But then, Elton is nowhere as colorful or memorable as Robbins. By all accounts, Harold Robbins was a drug-taking, booze-drinking lout who was more often seen with a hooker on his arm than one of his wives; a running joke in Rich Dreams, though, is that Elton is pretty much a square, looking for true love from his various wives, hardly partaking of anything stronger than a mixed drink.

In other words, our protagonist is boring. This is one of the biggest misses with the book, and the biggest puzzler. If the Barzmans had more fully captured Robbins the wild man, we would’ve had a hell of a book. As it is, Elton is more a businessman and less of a deviant, which makes for a mostly tepid read…not to mention an exhausting one, given the novel’s 526 pages.

The early portions are the best. We meet Elton en route to France, having bought out the entire first class compartment of a 747. Before the flight’s over he’s managed to talk a stewardess (still so-called here) into sleeping with a millionaire Texas oil man who happens to be back in coach – there because he couldn’t get a seat in first class. All so Elton can keep his precious deal from falling through. Long story short, Elton once worked for a movie studio, of the Universal/Paramount type, and the place is about to go under. With some trickery and chicanery, Elton can get it for a few million.

From there to Elton’s villa, where the reader finally gets a bit of some Harold Robbins-esque goodness; Elton is greeted by the sight of his nude Mexican assistant (nude save for a coke spoon which dangles from her neck, that is), who wants to have sex with him while Elton’s wife watches. And Elton’s wife approves; in fact it was her idea. Elton’s response is to throw the assistant out and rant and rave; he only wants to be with his wife. The reader sees that we have another 500-some pages to go, and the dread sets in.

We also must endure some scenes with Elton’s two children, both of them in their early 20s and both looking to their dad for some money to make a feature film with hardcore sex scenes in it. The kids are incredibly precocious and demanding and it’s a great commentary by the Barzmans on the type of children Harold Robbins might have had, or at the very least, a person who wrote his type of novels might have had – there’s a great scene, much later in the novel, where Elton has breakfast with the two kids while they are still pre-teens, and they start asking him about fellatio and the like, all of it stuff they learned about from his novels. (Elton’s uneasy response is to tell them his books are for adults.)

Midway through, the novel jumps back to Elton as a boy, and for a few hundred pages we read about how he came to be. Growing up in hardscrabble roots, he escapes into the navy, fights in World War II, and lucks into a job in Hollywood, at fictional Alliance Studios. The Barzmans don’t really bring Golden Age Hollywood to life, as Elton is too low on the totem pole to interact with stars or go to lavish parties. In fact, he finds most joy working in the accounting department – yet more tie-in to the real Robbins story.

After another break, though, Elton ends up writing scripts. When his first is rejected for featuring straight-up sex scenes, he’s fired and a writing friend advises he turn the tale into a novel. Elton does and the ensuing book is a huge success, playing up on the salient aspects and going over huge with the late ‘40s reading public. The most Robbins-esque scene occurs soon after, with Elton meets a fiesty agent who barges into his place, announces that she is going to make him huge, and later has him explore every aspect of her body before they have sex, announcing everything she feels during it – all “research” for Elton’s novel, for greater accuracy. Unsurprisingly, she becomes Elton’s first wife.

The majority of this portion of the book is about Elton’s married life. Again, his actual novels aren’t much covered; we’re just told they’re sexy and usually deal with characters who are successes in some arena. Now, this is obviously more commentary on the real Robbins, who likely just considered his own novels product for the masses. But still, Robbins was sure to pepper his novels with outrageous/sadistic/insane sex scenes, stuff completely off the map, stuff that no one else would ever think of let alone write. There’s none of that in Rich Dreams, and it’s all a matter of telling rather than showing.

Meanwhile, back in the “present,” which I assume must be 1982, Elton is told shortly before a grand party he’s hosting that someone has put out a contract on his life. You expect this would turn the narrative into more of a suspenseful or at least paranoid tone, but still the Barzmans give us endless scenes of people just talking about business deals and the like.

At this point the “naughty” stuff is totally gone, and the book is past the point of becoming a total bore. The worst part is that when the culprits behind Elton’s death contract are revealed, it’s not only stupid but anticlimatically resolved. (Spoiler warning: It turns out to be his damn kids. Why? Because Elton wouldn’t give them the money for that film. And what does Elton do when he finds out? He slaps them around.)

There are a few bright points here and there. The aforementioned uncomfortable breakfast scene is one, with Elton’s kids discussing the lurid details of his novels matter of factly. Also the Barzmans insert a few in-jokes; early in his career Elton is advised that, in order to keep from being sued when writing a roman a clef, just have a cameo from the real person he’s writing about in the book – ie, if you’re writing about a Hugh Hefner type, have a party scene later in the book and mention that Hugh Hefner’s there. The Barzmans then do just that, mentioning that Harold Robbins is vacationing nearby during Elton’s climatic party scene.

Still, it was a chore of a read, much too long for its own good and not nearly lurid enough. The potential was there, though, and it was fully squandered. Who knows, maybe Robbins was most offended by Rich Dreams because it made him seem so boring and domesticated?

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Savage Report: 1994 (aka The Savage Report #1)

The Savage Report: 1994, by Howard Rheingold
No month stated, 1974  Freeway Press

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while – I love retro sci-fi, particularly of the psychedelic variety, and Howard Rheingold’s Savage Report: 1994 seemed to offer everything I could want when I first spotted it 6-7 years ago in the sci-fi section of a Dallas Half Price Bookstore. Rheingold’s name might be familiar to those into dream research and/or New Age-y nonfiction pieces; in the early ‘90s, for example, he co-wrote Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (the book on lucid dreaming, for all those who might be interested in experimenting with it).

The Savage Report: 1994 is the first volume of what is promised on the back cover as a monthly series by Rheingold, published by Freeway Press. In reality though, the “series” lasted all of two volumes. No idea if this was due to low sales, problems with the publisher, or simply because Rheingold couldn’t keep up with the accelerated publishing schedule. And it’s not like there’s much info on the book out there; Rheingold, who has his own website, leaves the Savage Report books strangely unmentioned in his bibliography. But given the novel’s predilection for New Age mindsets and psychedelia, there’s no question it’s the same man’s work.

It also seems like this series was an obvious attempt to meld men’s adventure with sci-fi. The only problem is, Rheingold’s leanings toward inner exploration, yoga, and the like don’t really jibe well with gung-ho men’s adventure action, to the effect that the few genuine action scenes here are rendered a bit…clunky. But then, the entire book is kind of clunky, with a goofy far-flung future world of 1994 populated moreso by caricatures than actual characters. What makes the clunkiness odd is Rheingold’s gift for wordspinning; he doles out a brace of ten-dollar words, many of them concantenations of his own devising, which only serves to heighten the psychedelic/Future Shock feeling of the book.

Anyway. The series details the adventures of the three-person “Savage Squad,” movers and shakers in the very-different United States of Rheingold’s 1994. Rheingold pulls a neat trick here in that he shows more than tells for the duration of the novel; with intimations and references from the many characters, you only get a glimpse of what happened to make this 1994 as it is. Only toward the end, during a televised debate (which is the friggin’ climax, by the way), does Rheingold get into a bit more depth – namely, after the hippies ushered in a new mindset in the ‘60s, the public went into an eco-awareness sort of thing in the ‘70s, to such a degree that capitalism itself was abolished in the ‘80s.

Now, the United States, which we’re told is no longer a world power nor is interested in being one, is a nation of inward-journeying post-hippies, more interested in self-potentializing than in making big bucks or messing in world affairs. Yet for all that, somehow this doesn’t stop them from creating ultra-advanced technology, well beyond what we even have today. But then, science fiction is always more about the time it’s written than the time it takes place, and The Savage Report: 1994 comes off more like a hyper-accelerated 1974. Despite the advanced technology, the changed national mindset, it all still comes off like a mid-‘70s book, with an appropriately-macho hero and a refreshingly-liberal attitude toward sex and drugs.

Eve Savage is the gorgeous blonde host of “The Savage Report,” what we’re told is the most popular “holo-program” in the entire world. Eve I guess is like a female version of Norman Spinrad’s Jack Barron; with a mere word she can make or break entire organizations. But even with such power and influence she only has a small, two-person team at her disposal: Jack Anderson, the aforementioned macho hero who, wouldn’t you know it, used to work for some shadowy intelligence agency as a covert operative, and Smoky Kennedy, also-gorgeous combat master and tech wiz, who has a casual sex thing going with Jack…who himself has a casual sex thing going with Eve. (Unfortunately, Eve and Smoky don’t have a casual sex thing going.)

So the way this all works is, Eve hosts her globally-popular show while Jack and Smoky go out in the field and perform research and investigations, even setting up shots in dangerous locations for location footage and the like. It’s just a goofy concept, a reporting team that’s also a group of commandos, especially with Jack packing a “radar-jamming” .357 Magnum and Smoky backing him up with a host of weaponry. (The weapons throughout are positively sci-fi goofy, like Smoky’s “lase-knives.”) The storyline of this first novel has the team uncovering a plot among the military elite – a plot to put the US back into the world arena as a verifiable military presence.

Jack Anderson is really the star of the piece, though Rheingold often trades off to scenes from Eve’s point of view. (Smoky gets relatively little screentime.) Jack is actually the impetus for the Savage Squad’s latest piece; while enjoying a drink at a “shuttle port” bar (a drink served up by a “lesbian bartender,” we’re told…and Rheingold just leaves it at that), Jack meets up with a former covert ops pal who, mere seconds after saying “so long,” is killed in a shuttle-bombing. The guy left behind clues, and pretty soon Eve’s team has stumbled onto an elaborate plot, one that has Jack and Smoky fighting off a variety of assassins, infiltrating a secret base in the jungles of Mexico, and even being psychically tortured by the infamous Dr. Tek, aka the villain of the piece, a cyborg evil genius who is behind the governmental conspiracy.

Back in the US, Eve’s narrative concerns her trying to figure out who is behind this military plot, the goal of which appears to be the ousting of the president and the restoration of America’s military roots. This culminates as mentioned in a live debate on Eve’s show, with Eve up against one of the generals behind the plot; Rheingold makes the general yet another caricature, spouting out all sorts of right-wing blowhardy, ranting against the hippie-fied mindset of the world; of course, it all comes down to Vietnam, which, according to the general and his cronies, is when America truly lost itself, because it left the war unfinished. Ironically, the stuff the general says throughout this scene seemed to me more “realistic” insofar as what an American of today would say, if debating with a Brave New World-type of character like Eve Savage, whose reality is impossible…it’s hard to imagine this America of Rheingold’s ever happening, especially in just twenty short years from publication.

So if Rheingold’s future world comes off as a bit too rushed, so does the novel itself. The book is a little breathless, which adds to the clunkiness. Well, breathless so far as the scenes with Jack Anderson go. The scenes with Eve come off a bit as wheel-spinning, with Rheingold using her parts to sort of recap what has happened thus far. In fact there’s quite a bit of repetition in the narrative, not to mention a ton of grammatical and spelling errors – which, again, just adds to that breathless pace, I guess. But as mentioned, it is admirable how Rheingold shows his weird future world in effect, instead of spending pages and pages telling us about it.

Another admirable thing about The Savage Report: 1994 is the focus on self-potentializing, which itself was a mainstay of ‘70s sci-fi. Jack and his colleagues spend a goodly portion of the narrative boosting their reaction times and whatnot via popping pills; “stims,” as Rheingold calls them – neurostims to help them think more clearly, a muscle stim that Smoky takes that makes her run so fast that she plows through a rock wall, and etc. Heavy focus is also placed on meditation and yoga, but then this comes off a bit goofy when a captured Jack assumes a yoga position when faced with his captors, in an effort to protect his thoughts from the expected mental probing. It’s a bit hard to imagine say James Bond settling into a lotus position when confronted by Blofeld.

Again though, this is just another example of how the two thrusts of the novel don’t work together, the action stuff and the New Age/better tomorrow stuff. Another problem with the book is the characters. In short, none of them are likable. Jack is the typical men’s adventure protagonist, so nothing surprising there. But Eve comes off as shallow and manipulative, not to mention arrogant. We’re constantly told how popular and respected she is, but she does nothing really to make us understand why she’s so esteemed. And Smoky doesn’t do much other than save Jack, have sex with him (usually right after saving him), or trade banter with Eve – the two have a bit of hostility toward one another, and Rheingold intimates this is because they both like Jack.

In addition to the stim-popping, yoga-practicing, and politicking, Rheingold also adds a little sex and violence. There are just a few action scenes, the most memorable being where Jack and Smoky defend themselves against black-garbed assassins, killing the lot of them…and then having sex right there amid the carnage. Rheingold combines sex and violence again later in the tale, when Smoky frees Jack from a cell deep within a cave; Smoky informs Jack that the muscle-boosting stim she used to run through the rock wall has some rather unexpected side-effects. Rheingold gets a bit purple in the sex scenes, which makes it all the more enjoyable.

Because in the end, that’s the one word to describe this goofy book: “enjoyable.” I mean, you could bash Rheingold for concocting such an impossible 1994, mock him in retrospect. But I respect it when an author just gets out there, and in its own way The Savage Report: 1994 is like a more action-focused, pulpy take on Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy. Not as good, but similar, even with a bit of an occult/metaphysical streak. (No fnords, though. At least, none that I could see…)

So yeah, it’s rough and it’s wild, and at around 220 or so pages it’s a bit too long for its own good. And yet, it’s also too bad that the next volume, The War of the Gurus, was the last one. But I’ve got it, and I look forward to reading it for another blast of retro-futuristic, stim-popping sci-fi.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Gannon #3: Blood Beast

Gannon #3: Blood Beast, by Dean Ballenger
No month stated, 1974  Manor Books

For Karen Bonner it was a terrifying night. Her first night in jail. But the worst part were the two dykes who tried to lesbian her.

Yes, friends, we are back in the crazed world of the Gannon series by Dean Ballenger, a man whose narrative style and syntax are so outrageous that he can even use nouns as verbs. Sadly this was the last of the series (so technically it could be considered a trilogy, I guess), but it’s a hell of a way to go – despite the fact that Blood Beast comes off like a clone of its two predecessors, it’s just as wild, violent, and mean. (The title, by the way, comes from Gannon, who refers to himself as a “blood beast.”)

Once again Gannon serves as a “Robin Hood,” taking on the rich fat-cats who exploit the working class. And once again, Gannon is almost a co-star in his own series; he isn’t called onto the scene until events are well underway, and there are many scenes where he just disappears. But again as in the previous two books, it’s not like Ballenger spins his wheels when Gannon isn’t around. As ever, Ballenger populates his tale with a cast of upper-class and lower-class oddballs who talk in a bizarre patois, like ‘30s gangsters mixed with truckdrivers.

The above-referenced Karen Bonner is the mark this time, set up to take a fall by her super-rich boss, Peter Hibbs. Reason being, Hibbs’s playboy son Brian is “vigorished” by Juice Ollman, a hood who extorts the kid for seventy-five thousand. Hibbs Jr goes to his dad, who sets up Karen Bonner, a gorgeous blonde who works in accounting who wouldn’t let Hibbs sleep with her. Hibbs has the books done up so it looks like Karen embezzled, and after a joke of a trial she’s sent to jail, where the aforementioned “lesbianing” takes place.

Karen’s dad, a working joe who can barely afford his mortgage, hears about Gannon and gives him a call. As in the past, when Gannon shows up his potential client feels underwhelmed; Ballenger reminds us that Gannon’s just a “little tiger” and doesn’t look anywhere as tough as he actually is. But one look in Gannon’s eyes and Karen’s dad knows he has found his man. Gannon as is his custom doesn’t want any money from Karen’s father; he’ll get his payment from the fat-cats and hoodlums he busts up.

Even though this novel takes place about two weeks after #2: Blood Fix, Gannon has apparently become a kung-fu master. This is mostly so Ballenger can throw in the occasional “donkey fist” or other martial arts term in the brawl scenes, but also so he can write things like “the kung-fu’d dude” in regards to the people Gannon beats up. Also worth noting is that for once Gannon doesn’t employ the spiked brass knuckles which he used so memorably in the previous books.

Gannon pays Karen’s bail and insists she live with him as Hibbs or the crooks will surely send some hoods after her; Karen could easily blow Hibbs’s entire story. It’s funny because, while Gannon feels sorrow for the shafting Karen was given, and her living with him is necessary to keep her alive, Gannon doesn’t let that sway him from planning to give the gorgeous lady a “shafting” of his own. There are many humorous scenes where Gannon, while reflecting on the current case, will segue into the “good thoughts” of how he will soon go back to his hotel to screw Karen…only thing is, Karen is probably the weakest female character yet in the series; she only has a few lines of dialog, and most of the time she’s either crying or freaking out over the corpses Gannon has just created.

And to be sure, Gannon once again creates a ton of corpses. I think Blood Beast has more action scenes than the previous books; there are many scenes of Gannon blowing away hoods with his Sten gun. There’s even a goofy scene where Gannon goes to Hibbs’s corporate office and threatens the guy; Hibbs calls in his security guards, one of whom is a psychopath, and a firefight ensues, complete with Hibbs himself leaning out of his own office window and blasting away at Gannon down in the parking lot!

Hibbs Jr and Sr are mostly forgettable, but Juice Ollman is another of those Ballenger-patented creeps who jumps off the page. He spends the entire novel trying to off Hibbs and Gannon, always failing. He does succeed with offing Hibbs Jr, though, and this is another of those unsettling but played for laugh scenes that Ballenger excels in, where Juice calls in his two best guys, a pair of sadists who hoist Brian Hibbs up on the rafters of an abandoned loft and take bets on how long he will live after they set him on fire – putting the flame to his exposed genitals, of course. (In fact, poor Peter Hibbs suffers the most in this tale; after getting screwed over by Juice he then gets his ears cut off, and later on gets his thumbs cut off!)

But the usual darkly comic sadism is in full effect, for one last ride…people get blown apart by Thompson subguns, shot in the face, set on fire, beaten to death. The action stuff is great, but had me wondering. The igenuity and determination people show after Gannon arrives on the scene makes their earlier reluctance questionable. What I mean is, Peter Hibbs spends the narrative trying to get Gannon killed, when meanwhile all he had to do was show this same determination at the beginning of the tale, and have Juice Ollman killed after he tried to extort Hibbs’s son. But I guess that’s missing the point.

It’s hard to relay the dark humor Ballenger so effectively doles out, in both the narrative and the dialog. And Once again his hero is an unflappable, hardcore bastard, not even fazed when a pair of would-be muggers get the jump on him – and, mind you, Gannon doesn’t have a weapon on him:

Gannon looked at Costigan. He had a Webley in his hand. With a silencer. Concealed by his attache case from anyone who might come into the lot.

“It’s not a healthy thing,” Gannon said, “laying a gun on people. It’s liable to get you dead.”

“Listen, wise ass, just drop that wallet!” Costigan said.

“You’re making the kinds of sounds,” Gannon said, saying it low but very hard, “that people make who are tired of this world. So rip off, stupids, while you still can!”

I love these books, they’re just a blast to read and Ballenger’s style is so unusual that, as I’ve said before, you don’t even mind how he tramples over ordinary grammatical and writing rules. But I wonder how much longer this series could’ve lasted. Ballenger makes no intimation that this is the last volume; like its predecessor, Blood Beast ends with Gannon planning to leave town posthaste, given that once again a lady (Karen herself) wants to become “Mrs. Gannon.”

I think it would’ve been tough for Ballenger to keep this up for more volumes. The story setup is too limited; how many times can you read about Gannon getting hired to clear the name of some poor sap who was screwed over by the rich? All of which is to say that I think it’s a good thing the Gannon series only ran for three volumes, giving us an undilluted blast of nutzoid violence that never grew stale.