Thursday, July 18, 2024

Gil Brewer’s Memory of Passion

Gil Brewer’s Memory of Passion was published in 1963. It is noir fiction, but not quite conventional noir fiction. It’s drenched in lust and desperation and craziness.

It certainly starts in an interesting way.

Bill is a 39-year-old commercial artist. He’s married to Louise and they have a kid. It’s a reasonably successful marriage but lately things haven’t been quite the same, for reasons that Bill just can’t understand.

Then he gets a phone call. It’s a girl. She sounds about fifteen. She claims to know Bill and she wants him to meet her at the usual place. She says her name is Karen. Bill has no idea what the usual place is and he doesn’t know any women named Karen. It’s crazy and must be a practical joke. Probably some stupid kids. But there’s something that bothers him, an elusive memory of something but he can’t place it at all.

And then he remembers. Karen. It’s impossible. That was twenty-two years ago. It was something special. It has never been that way with any other woman. But it can’t be her. He remembers the usual place now, and he meets her anyway.

It’s Karen all right, but it isn’t her. It’s not the same Karen, but it is the same Karen. And he wants her as much as ever. He has to have her.

You have to admit that’s a pretty good setup.

There’s another man connected to Karen in a totally different way. That creates a whole separate sub-plot, but the two plot strands do of course eventually converge.

Bill knows it would be foolish to get involved with Karen. You can’t relive the past. But the past was so magical. So naturally he does get involved.

Bill also knows that he’s headed for disaster but when disaster does strike it’s not the disaster he expected. It’s a different disaster. And he’s trapped.

As for Karen, we know there’s something strange about her and while we have our suspicions regarding her motivations we can’t be sure. Bill has no idea what her motivations are. He doesn’t understand his own motivations. Like any noir protagonist when a femme fatale comes along he isn’t thinking straight. He’s just thinking about Karen’s body, and how wonderful it was when they were young and they were together. He feels like his whole life has been wasted without her.

That’s assuming that she is a femme fatale. She is, but maybe not in a straightforward way.

The book is, as its title suggests, all about memory and the past. There are three key characters who are in differing ways trapped in the past. And they’re trapped in ways that involve sexual and emotional obsession. It’s also a story about people whose grip on reality starts to slip. We get the points of view of all three key characters. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. It’s a bad thing in the case of Hogan. I’m not a fan of novels that try to take the reader into the mind of a psycho. It’s a good thing in the case of Bill and Karen because they’re much more interesting, both tragic and pathetic, with intriguingly tangled motivations.

There’s plenty of sleaze here and the sex is moderately graphic by 1963 standards. Erotic obsession is what drives this story.

The major weakness is some half-baked Freudianism. The novel was clearly inspired by a certain very famous movie made a few years earlier but to say more might risk a spoiler. There’s also a lot of beat lingo, if you can dig it. It does give the novel a very early 60s vibe.

If you wanted to make a movie from this novel you could do it as a film noir, an erotic thriller, a slasher movie, a psychological thriller, a giallo or an art film. It contains all those potentialities.

Memory of Passion is slightly oddball noir fiction but it’s frenetic, crazed and fascinating. Highly recommended.

Stark House have paired this one with another Gil Brewer noir novel,
Nude on Thin Ice, in a double-header paperback edition.

Monday, July 15, 2024

Poul Anderson’s Sargasso of Lost Starships

Poul Anderson’s novella Sargasso of Lost Starships appeared in Planet Stories in January 1952.

Anderson wrote a lot of fine sword-and-sorcery and sword-and-planet tales early in his career. The Sargasso of Lost Starships seems at first to be space opera, and in fact it is space opera, but as the story develops it becomes more and more of a sword-and-planet story.

This is a clash of cultures story but it involves three rather than just two very different cultures. It’s also a story of civilisation pitted against barbarism but with ambiguities as to which culture represents the good guys and which represents the bad guys. Maybe all cultures have both good and bad in them. And maybe heroes and villains are not clearcut either. This is an exciting pulp space adventure but with some added subtleties and some complexity. At no stage in his career could Anderson be dismissed as a mere hack.

The hero, Basil Donovan, is a hereditary ruler on the planet Ansa. The people of Ansa are human, descendants of colonists from Earth. For centuries, after Earth’s interstellar empire collapsed, they have been independent. Fiercely independent. Ansa is now a backwater, a kind of feudal agrarian society but with high technology as well. They are still spacefarers in a small way. Basil is a proud stubborn aristocrat but a just and humane leader.

Everything was fine until the Terrans created a new interstellar empire, the Solar Empire. Ansa wanted no part of the Solar Empire but was not given a choice. It is now merely a province of that empire. The Terrans are human and enlightened masters but they are still the masters and the Ansans bitterly resent this. Basil resents it very bitterly indeed. He had participated in the great space battles in which the Ansans fought, unsuccessfully, to maintain their independence.

Basil now lives on booze and dreams of past glories. Until he receives an Imperial summons. The Empire has need of his services. It involves the Black Nebula. Basil is unusual, indeed unique. He has been to the Black Nebula and come back alive and sane. Well, mostly sane.

Basil is to be guide and advisor to Captain Helena Jansky, commander of the Terran starship Ganymede. The Black Nebula has become a problem that needs to be confronted. Captain Jansky needs Basil’s knowledge of the Black Nebula. He is prepared to share that knowledge, but the suspicion remains that he is concealing a great deal of what he knows. Basil and Helena do not trust one another.

When the Ganymede reaches the Black Nebula it becomes obvious that there is a very great deal indeed that Basil has not revealed. He had not mentioned the voices. The voices that are reducing the Ganymede’s crew to madness. The voices seem to come from nowhere. Basil had also failed to mention Valduma. Valduma is a woman but she is definitely not human. Perhaps Basil loves her, perhaps he hates her.

To add to the complications Basil is no longer sure that he hates Helena. Perhaps he loves her. There’s a bizarre romantic triangle here. Basil must choose between these two women and his choice will have momentous consequences.

This is an exciting tale of high adventure and action and it’s a twisted love story. It’s also a story of rising civilisations and dying civilisations. It’s also a story about freedom and servitude both of which turn out to be complex and ambiguous. And it’s a story about a man torn by conflicting loyalties and conflicting loves.

There’s no magic and there are no wizards but there are technologies so advanced and so strange and so incomprehensible that they might as well be magic. They serve the same purpose that magic would serve in a sword-and-sorcery story.

Sargasso of Lost Starships is superior-grade pulp fiction that manages to deal with complex issues whilst still offering plenty of old-fashioned entertainment. Very highly recommended.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Don Wilcox’s excellent The Ice Queen in one of their two-novel paperbacks. The combination of two very good titles makes this a very worthwhile purchase.

I’ve also reviewed DMR Press’s Swordsmen from the Stars which contains three excellent Poul Anderson sword-and-planet novellas. Anderson’s Virgin Planet also has some slight affinities to the sword-and-planet genre and it’s very much worth reading as well.

Saturday, July 13, 2024

Secret Agent X: The Torture Trust

The Secret Agent X novels were published in the pulp magazines of the same name which ran for 41 issues between 1934 and 1939. The stories were published under the house name Brant House but there were in fact several authors. The Torture Trust, written by Paul Chadwick, was the first to be published.

Secret Agent X is a typical pulp hero of the time, an amateur crime-fighter who conceals his real identity. He is in reality a war hero who was grievously wounded in the First World War.

He is a master of disguise. Disguise was an obsession with crime writers in the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century. It was a somewhat over-used trope and almost always stretches credibility to the breaking point. The Secret Agent X stories push the use of this trope about as far as it could be pushed. To be fair the author tries to make the idea slightly more credible by explaining how the hero manages his extraordinary repertoire of disguises and suggests that he has some sort of theatrical background. The degree of suspension of disbelief required of the reader is still immense.

Agent X can assume his disguises in a matter of minutes, which stretches credibility even further.

As is fairly standard in pulp stories of this type Secret Agent X is regarded with suspicion by the police. They see him as either a master criminal or a vigilante and whichever he might be they don’t approve.

The author goes to great lengths to reassure the reader that despite his unconventional methods and the fact that these methods might at times veer dangerously close to being illegal or unethical he is very definitely one of the good guys. He has secret backing from the government, and of course the government would never be involved in anything illegal or unconstitutional.

As is also fairly standard in such pulp stories Secret Agent X tries very hard to avoid killing. After all if he went around killing people, even criminals, he’d be a kind of government sanctioned assassin or vigilante killer and that might get the publisher in trouble.

There is of course a vast criminal conspiracy afoot. A gang has been kidnapping prominent citizens and engaging in extortion and blackmail. They use terror as a weapon. If their victims refuse to play ball they are permanently disfigured with acid. This method is used against anyone who gets in their way. The acid treatment frequently has fatal results.

Agent X uses his mastery of disguise to infiltrate himself into situations in which he can discover the plans of this nefarious criminal organisation. He disguises himself as everything from a cab driver to a police commissioner.

He has a kind of assistant, a young lady named Betty Dale. There doesn’t seem to be any real romantic attachment between them. Betty’s purpose is of course to get herself captured by the bad guys so Secret Agent X can rescue her.

The villains are not ordinary criminals. A couple of them are doctors, including an expert in psychology. He knows all about breaking people’s wills. Sinister psychologists or psychologists are always fun. Naturally he employs hypnotism as a weapon.

The author uses footnotes to give an air of authenticity and in an attempt to make it plausible that Agent X is an expert in so many fields. I like novels with footnotes.

Secret Agent X has no super-powers, he doesn’t have almost superhuman strength and he doesn’t rely on gadgets. His skill at disguise is however so great that it’s as good as a superpower.

This is pure pulp fun, more or less in the mould of The Shadow, Doc Savage and other 30s pulp heroes. Highly recommended.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Perley Poore Sheehan’s Woman of the Pyramid

Perley Poore Sheehan’s novel Woman of the Pyramid was published in The All-Story pulp magazine in 1914.

Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798 had first sparked western interest in ancient Egypt and by 1914 Egyptology had become quite a craze. This novel was therefore very topical.

In the days before the First World War a young American named George Carlton is a bit of a scientific dilettante. He’s trained in psychology and psychiatry but his real interest lies in the occult and in what would later come to be known as the paranormal. He’s very interested in ghosts.

As an aside, at that time such interests still had at least a degree of scientific respectability and plausibility.

Carlton is in love with a pretty English girl named Alice Wentworth. Wedding bells would seem to be in the offing. In the meantime Carlton, Alice and her aunt are off to Egypt. Carlton already has a very keen interest in ancient Egypt.

Carlton is a little disturbed by the mysterious woman he keeps seeing. No-one else seems to be able to see her. He suspects that she’s a ghost of some sort. He also suspects that she’s connected to ancient Egypt in some ways. He thinks of her as the Woman of the Pyramid.

He becomes a little obsessed. He enters the famous Red Pyramid (the third largest of the pyramids) and there he encounters the Woman of the Pyramid again. It’s a fateful meeting. Carlton finds himself back in the distant past. The Woman of the Pyramid is the queen, Netokris, recently widowed. And Carton is no longer Carlton. He is now Menni, an important man, governor of the royal palace in fact. It seems that the queen sees him as a potential husband.

Menni isn’t interested. He’s in love with slave girl Berenice, who is in fact Alice Wentworth. Netokris is a woman who doesn’t take no for an answer. She’s ruthless, cruel and inclined to act on whims. She decides that Berenice is a rival whose existence cannot be tolerated.

There are various palace conspiracies afoot and while Carlton/Menni doesn’t want to get mixed up in them it might be the only way to save Berenice/Alice, and his own skin.

A possible ally is the priest and sorcerer Baknik. Baknik has various occult powers including the power to foretell the future. The future he predicts for Carlton/Menni and Berenice/Alice is a case of good news and bad news. His predictions of the queen’s future are not entirely hopeful either. All of the characters feel themselves to be the playthings of Fate.

This might at first seem to be a time travel story but it’s more of a past lives story. The question is the extent to which events in one life will affect their next life.

It’s also very much a love story.

Most of the story takes place in ancient Egypt but the final quarter of the book brings Carlton back to the 20th century, where the same three people seem destined to replay the events of the past. The past lives thing is done quite well here with the past lives and present lives intersecting neatly.

I don’t think Sheehan was overly obsessed with historical accuracy but the background is at least vaguely historical. Netokris probably existed and may possibly have been responsible for building the Red Pyramid. Some plot points are lifted from the account of her reign by Herodotus.

If the past lives thing appeals to you and you have any kind of interest in ancient Egypt and you happen to enjoy pulp adventure/romance then this novel will tick all your boxes. I enjoyed it. Highly recommended.

Woman of the Pyramid has reprinted in a paperback omnibus edition (including three other stories by the same author) by Steeger Books in their excellent Argosy Library series.

I've also reviewed another of Sheehan's novels, The Red Road to Shamballah. It's pretty good also.

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Bruce Elliott’s One is a Lonely Number

Bruce Elliott’s noir novel One is a Lonely Number was published as a paperback original by Lion in 1952.

Thirty-two-year-old Larry Camonille has just busted out of prison. He had five years still to serve in Joliet but those five years would have been a death sentence for him. He has tuberculosis. In a healthy climate he might live for years. In a prison cell he’d have been dead in a year or so.

Right from the start things go wrong. He had some money stashed on the outside but when he got out he discovered that his girl had taken off with it. He’s just spent his last five bucks on a whore. He needs to get to Mexico. The Mexican climate would be good for him. But he needs money. He has a good plan to get some easy money fast and it works, and then things go wrong again.

He decides to hitch-hike and he’s picked up by a middle-aged woman named Vera. She arranges for him to get a job in Max’s road house. He works in the kitchen. He gets on well with Warren, the chef, and with Benny, the young kitchen hand. The job is fine but it’s women that are the problem. He has bad luck with women. They complicate his life and he can’t afford that. Vera complicates his life. She wants his help. It means easy money. It’s a bad idea but he’s tempted.

He’s also tempted by Benny’s young girlfriend Jan. Larry should see the red flags there but he doesn’t. He sleeps with her. She also wants his help. It also means easy money. It’s also a bad idea but again he’s tempted.

Larry is vaguely aware that he’s not in control and that he’s being manipulated but he can’t quite figure out how and why. If he doesn’t figure it out he’s in big trouble.

Larry isn’t such a bad guy. He’s not violent. He has a gun but he doesn’t really believe he’d ever be able to use it. In general he has no desire to hurt people. He thinks he’s tough but he really isn’t. Ruthlessness just doesn’t come naturally to him.

Larry isn’t stupid but he’s not quite smart enough. He’s smart enough to know not to trust people, but then he trusts them anyway. He thinks he knows what he’s doing but he’s just getting into more and more trouble. He’s becoming entangled in a web but he doesn’t know who is spinning the web.

There are plenty of dangerous women in this novel but they’re all different. They’re not just a succession of femmes fatales. Only one is truly evil. The others are desperate and quite capable of getting a guy in hot water but maybe they’re just as trapped by life as Larry is.

There’s no shortage of noir bleakness. Every time Larry thinks he might be about to get an even break something else goes wrong. Sometimes it’s his own fault, or at least partly his own fault. He seems incapable of making coherent long-range plans, and prison escapees who don’t want to end up back inside need long-range plans. Sometimes it’s someone else’s fault. Sometimes Larry just isn’t quite sharp enough to anticipate the blows of fate.

I like it when I don’t know how a story is going to end but when it does end the ending just feels right. It couldn’t end any other way. That’s the case with this book.

The sense of impending doom is overwhelming. There’s not a great deal of violence. There’s a certain amount of sleaze and you can smell the sweat and desperation.

One is a Lonely Number is top-quality noir fiction and it’s highly recommended.

Stark House have paired this novel with Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel in one of their terrific Noir Classics two-novel paperback editions.

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Don Wilcox’s The Ice Queen

Don Wilcox’s short novel The Ice Queen was published in Fantastic Adventures in January 1943. It’s a lost civilisation tale, my absolute favourite genre.

The Ice Queen takes place in the 19th century. Jim McClurg is an artist. He’s been hired to make a visual record of a polar expedition organised by Lady Lucille Lorruth. Five years earlier her husband disappeared in the Arctic while on a fur-trading expedition. Lady Lucille would like people to think that she believes her husband is still alive and that the object of her expedition is to find him. Jim suspects that she’s only interested in those furs. In his final communication Lord Lorruth claimed to have collected a vast number of furs, worth a rather large fortune.

The brig Aurora is commanded by Captain French. He drinks a lot and does not appear to be very honest. It’s not clear whether Lady Lucille is angling to marry the captain for the sake of his fortune (he’s a rich man) or whether the captain is angling to marry Lady Lucille for the sake of that fortune in furs.

Jim is mostly interested in the girl on the tiger. She’s very pretty, she looks like a Viking maiden, she rides a pure white tiger and she’s been shadowing the Aurora. This is impossible of course. The girl cannot exist. And yet she does exist.

There’s a stowaway who knows far too much about this frozen wasteland, and seems to know all about the girl. She is apparently a queen. We later find out that her name is Veeva.

There are unexpected dangers in the Arctic. Huge ice bubbles appear from nowhere. Several members of the party are imprisoned in these bubbles. It is possible to dig one’s way out but they’re very disconcerting, and the worry is that an ice bubble forming over the ship might sink it.

There is also a strange lost world in these frozen wastes. Possibly a very ancient world although its origins are unknown even to the inhabitants. This lost world holds the answer to the disappearance of Lord Lorruth.

A complication is that every male member of the expedition is hopelessly in love wth the beautiful young ice queen while Lady Lucille sees her as a deadly threat.

The trick with lost civilisation stories is not just to make the lost civilisation interesting, but believable as well. There have to be plausible explanations for the strangeness of such a civilisation. Wilcox succeeds rather well on both counts. Veeva’s icy realm is strange but it makes sense. Even the fact that Veeva claims to be 22,000 years old makes sense. And the sleeping king ends up making sense. It all hangs together.

There’s a suggestion of menace about Veeva’s realm, but it’s a subtle menace. Veeva appears to be good-natured and cheerful. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for the expedition members to be afraid, and yet there’s something slightly sinister about it all.

There’s a suggestion that Veeva may have access to certain powers, possibly technological and possibly magical, and that technology or magic may be behind some of the mysteries of her kingdom, but it’s left nicely vague and ambiguous.

This books ticks all my boxes. I love lost world stories and I love adventure, horror or science fiction stories in polar settings. And how could anyone not love a pretty young heroine who rides a huge white tiger whilst wearing furs, a metal breastplate and a Viking helmet?

The Ice Queen is very pulpy but it has plenty of atmosphere, danger and excitement and it’s hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

I know almost nothing about Don Wilcox (1905-2000) other than the fact that he was American and his writing career seems to have been confined to the 1940s and 1950s. I have read another of his novels, Slave Raiders from Mercury, and it’s very pulpy but quite enjoyable.

Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Poul Anderson’s The Sargasso of Lost Starships in a two-novel paperback edition.

Friday, July 5, 2024

Bonnie Golightly’s Beat Girl

Bonnie Golightly’s Beat Girl was published in 1959. It’s included in Stark House’s three-novel Beatnik Trio paperback edition. I’m not at all sure how to categorise Beat Girl in genre terms.

Bonnie Golightly’s main claim to fame is that she sued Truman Capote for libel, alleging that Holly Golightly in his novel Breakfast at Tiffany’s was based on her. Her allegation was so flimsy that the matter never went to court. Bonnie Golightly wrote quite a few books. She later joined the counter-culture and wrote books about LSD.

One can’t help suspecting that the title Beat Girl was chosen (probably by her publisher) in a desperate attempt to cash in on the craze for all things Beat. There are beatniks in the book but they don’t appear until very late in the story.

Mostly it’s the tale of a rather mixed-up seventeen-year-old heiress, Chloe. After her mother’s death Chloe is packed off to an aunt in England. After a chance meeting with an old flame, a young American named Pritchard Allyn, Chloe decides to return to New York. Pritchard was the man to whom she lost her virginity some time earlier so he’s a bit special to her even though she’s since slept with countless men. Chloe at this stage is no beatnik but she is a bit of a wild child, and she’s a very rich wild child.

The entire book focuses on Chloe’s romantic dramas. Which is OK but if you’re expecting a sleaze novel or a hardboiled story or something noirish or beatsploitation (which are the kinds of things you would expect from a Stark House reprint) you’re going to be disappointed. It’s just a regular romantic melodrama with barely a hint of sleaze. I guess in 1959 a female protagonist who admits to promiscuity would have been shocking, and most sleaze fiction of this era is very tame, but in this case the actual sleaze content is close to zero.

And beatniks make only a very brief appearance, mostly as a warning to innocent young girls to stay away from these dangerous weirdos. Having the beatniks as dangerous weirdos might have been fun, except that they don’t seem very dangerous or very weird.

We get only the briefest of glimpses of the beatnik culture. We discover that they smoke joints and take their clothes off. That seems to be all they do.

Chloe is your basic spoilt rich brat. She’s the narrator and you may very well grow tired of her. She feels sorry for herself a lot. In fact most of the characters spend a good deal of time on self-pity. I guess being rich is pretty tough.

Of course nobody in Chloe’s family understands her. Her husband’s parents are horrible to her. They seem to regard her a spoilt rich brat. It’s hard to disagree with them. They’re also only moderately rich and didn’t go to the very best schools which makes them beneath contempt in Chloe’s eyes. We don’t know how Chloe feels abut the working class. She’s never met a working-class person. Apart from the servants of course. The servants look up to her, which is only right and proper as far as Chloe is concerned.

As you may have gathered it’s difficult to like any of the characters.

Chloe’s romantic woes are not especially interesting.

Overall the book just didn’t grab my interest very much at all. I don’t think I could seriously recommend it.

The other books in the Stark House Beatnik Trio are Dell Holland’s The Far Out Ones (which is very enjoyable) and Richard E. Geis’s Like Crazy, Man (which is so-so). I do think it’s cool that Stark House are making these very obscure beatsploitation titles available even if the genre does seem to be a bit hit-or-miss.