Wednesday, May 25, 2022

The Gentle Giants of Ganymede

The Gentle Giants of Ganymede, published in 1978, is the second instalment of British science fiction writer James P. Hogan’s Giants trilogy which began in 1977 with the brilliant Inherit the Stars. You really need to read Inherit the Stars first but The Gentle Giants of Ganymede does include a detailed recap of the events of the first novel.

Since this book is part of a trilogy I’m going to be as careful as possible not to reveal any spoilers for Inherit the Stars. In very general terms the trilogy concerns the discovery of a 50,000 year-old human skeleton on the Moon in circumstances that are simply impossible and the even more startling discovery of a much much older spaceship on one of the moons of Jupiter. Both discoveries suggest that everything we thought we knew about the history of the solar system might be wrong. The discoveries also point to the existence of another planet, named Minerva, but the big question is why does Minerva no longer exist?

Inherit the Stars was a kind of scientific mystery story with a host of baffling and contradictory clues and a surprising but very satisfactory solution to the mystery. There are also hints of a mystery to be unravelled in The Gentle Giants of Ganymede. In fact it appears that the whole trilogy is the story of the gradual unravelling of the true history of the solar system.

It’s these mystery elements that are Hogan’s greatest strengths. They’re as enthralling as a classic detective story. There are various clues thrown at us that seem to point to a particular suspect (or in this case a particular explanatory theory) and then just as both the reader and the characters in the book are confident that the puzzle has been solved another clue pops up that totally demolishes that theory. So it’s back to square one, with the focus shifting to a different suspect (or theory).

It’s also interesting that there are two simultaneous investigations going on. The humans are not the only ones trying to solve the puzzle.

Inherit the Stars was Hogan’s first novel but the overarching plot of the trilogy is so complex and so intricately interconnected that it’s difficult to believe he could have improvised it. Surely he must have had the basic plan worked out when he wrote the first novel.

Unfortunately Hogan has his weaknesses as well. Like so many science fiction writers he has ludicrously optimistic ideas about the future of human society. The main plot strands unfold in a future of world government and universal peace. Apparently one day humanity realised that war was wicked so they just stopped fighting and abolished the military and established a utopia of peace, love and understanding.

Hogan also has some libertarian ideas that are slightly eccentric even by libertarian standards.

He does however manage to create aliens that are genuinely alien. Aliens whose evolution has been so radically different as to give the aliens and humans outlooks on life that are close to being mutually incomprehensible.

This is very much the science fiction of big ideas. In this case the big ideas involve both biology and physics with the understanding of both fields being dramatically challenged by those discoveries on the Moon and on Ganymede. The science is purely speculative but it’s fascinating speculation.

If you want space battles this book is not for you. On the other hand if you want wild provocative ideas developed with great skill and cleverness then you might well enjoy this book as much as I did. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The Lady from L.U.S.T. #1 Lust, Be a Lady Tonight

Lust, Be a Lady Tonight is the first of The Lady from L.U.S.T. sleazy spy thrillers, published in 1968.

Spies were one of the major obsessions of the 60s. Spy fiction sold in huge quantities. Spy movies were box-office bonanzas. In both the U.S. and Britain there was a proliferation of TV series about spies.

Ian Fleming’s Bond novels raised the stakes as far as sex in spy fiction was concerned, but by the late 1960s the Bond novels seemed very tame. Adding very large helpings of sex and sleaze to the spy story was obviously an idea that was going to work commercially. There were quite a few spy sleaze book series. One of the most successful was The Lady from L.U.S.T. series which ran to 23 novels.

This series was created by Gardner Francis Fox (1911-1986) who wrote most, if not all, the books in this series using the pseudonym Rod Gray. Fox was a prolific author of comic books who also wrote science fiction and enormous numbers of trashy pulpy paperback originals. As well as The Lady from L.U.S.T. he created another sexy secret gent heroine, Cherry Delight, who is even more fun.

Eve Drum has a couple of unusual talents for a girl. She’s not only a martial arts expert she is also an amateur safe-cracker. Her father was a locksmith and taught her everything there was to know about cracking safes. She’s never actually carried out any robberies but she does have that talent.

So it’s not surprising that Eve gets recruited by L.U.S.T. (the League of Underground Spies and Terrorists). Despite their name L.U.S.T. are the good guys. They’re a top-secret U.S. government agency that handles espionage and counter-espionage cases that are too dirty for the F.B.I. or the C.I.A. - L.U.S.T. commits murders and robberies but they only kill bad guys so it’s OK.

Eve is perfectly qualified to be a L.U.S.T. - female L.U.S.T. agents have to be skilled in the use of firearms and explosives and unarmed combat but they also need advanced bedroom skills. Their main weapon is sex. Luckily Eve Drum happens to be very good at sex and she’s ready to have sex any time of the day or night and with anyone she’s ordered to seduce.

The bad guys work for H.A.T.E. and they’re blackmailing top American scientists. Eve’s first assignment is to retrieve some compromising pictures from the safe of a charming Italian count who is a senior H.A.T.E. agent. Cracking the Count’s safe won’t be a huge challenge for Eve but she will need to be able to work undisturbed. The Count is so focused on getting into Eve’s pants that it’s not likely he’s going to let her get on with her safe-cracking. Even decides there’s only one thing to do. She will have to exhaust the Count completely. She challenges him to make love to her in all ten of the sexual positions described in one of the great erotic classics. After having sex with her ten times in succession she figures the Count will then want a long long sleep.

Eve’s next assignment is to track down the woman in those compromising photos. This will require Eve to enter the decadent world of very rich people with exotic sexual tastes, who have the power and the money to indulge those tastes. It will be a dangerous assignment. Eve is supplied with a number of gadgets cooked up by L.U.S.T.’s technical specialists. There’s the usual deadly cigarette lighter but there’s also a pair of explosive panties. As you can imagine they’re something you’d only resort to in a dire emergency. And her bra is a sophisticated communications device.

Eve gets into the usual scrapes that spies get into, falling into the hands of the bad guys and getting tortured. She also uses her sexual allure on various men, sometimes in the line of duty, sometimes for purely recreational purposes. She’s never slept with a woman before, but if it’s something that her duty to her country demands of her then she’s prepared to try it. No sexual sacrifice is too great for Eve. It’s not for nothing that she’s known as Agent Double Oh Sex.

There’s lots and lots of sex in this book. There is a spy thriller plot as well. It’s sleaze fiction and it’s pulpy spy fiction and the sleaze stuff and the spy stuff are surprisingly well integrated. You just have to accept that Eve is a spy whose main weapon is her sexuality, and there’s nothing implausible about that. From the dawn of history female spies have relied on their sexual allure. And somehow whenever Eve jumps into bed with a guy there does seem to be some professional justification for it. And Eve really is a professional - she’s not emotionless but she does stay in control when she’s on a case.

Of course it’s all very very trashy. If you’re not attracted by the idea of a sexy trashy ultra-pulpy spy thriller then you’d be advised to stay well clear of this one. But if you do enjoy that sort of thing then it’s good-natured lighthearted fun.

Thursday, May 12, 2022

Henry Kuttner 's Crypt-City of the Deathless One

Henry Kuttner (1915-1958) was a successful American pulp writer who was married to an even more celebrated pulp writer, Catherine L. Moore, with whom he often collaborated. Kuttner’s novella Crypt-City of the Deathless One was published in 1943 in Planet Stories (an extraordinarily good pulp magazine). The novella is a science fiction tale, with just a hint of zombies.

Ed Garth is drinking himself to death in a seedy bar on Ganymede, one of the moons of Jupiter. He gets an offer from a man named Brown, an offer he can’t refuse. In fact Garth will accept any offer that will provide him with money to buy liquor. He will be acting as a guide to an expedition to the Black Forest on Ganymede.

No sane person would accept this offer. This will be an illegal expedition. And no Earthman has ever entered the Black Forest and come out alive. No Earthman, apart from Ed Garth.

Ganymede was once home to an incredibly advanced civilisation, a civilisation long gone. All that remains is a vast collection of machines and robots and no-one has ever been able to figure out how to make them work. There is rumoured to be a lost city of this ancient civilisation deep in the Black Forest. Garth figures that Brown’s expedition is tying to find the secret of the power source used by the ancient civilisation. They are rumoured to have discovered the secret of atomic power (this was written in 1943 when atomic power was still science fiction).

The secret of the power source would be a fabulous prize since Earth is rapidly running out of power sources. Unless the secret of atomic power can be unlocked civilisation on Earth will collapse.

There may be another secret in that lost city. One just as important, and much more important personally to Ed Garth. That city may hold the key to a cure for the Silver Plague that is ravaging the Earth’s population. That’s the secret Ed Garth, Doc Willard and Moira were looking for five years earlier. Garth was the only survivor of that expedition and he brought back with home a horrible memory. The memory is horrible because it is so vague. One of the many reasons nobody goes into the Black Forest is the poison released by the noctoli plant, a poison which strips a man of his memories and his will. He becomes little more than a zombie.

Garth has built up an immunity to the noctoli poison and he thinks he has a method of protecting others from it but the method is far from fool-proof. If it doesn’t work then this illegal expedition will be in a lot of trouble.

That’s without taking into account the other horrors of the Black Forest, horrors so well camouflaged that you don’t know they’re there until it’s too late. Ed Garth knows the nature of these horrors. Entering the Black Forest with Ed Garth as a guide would be an insane risk, but entering that forest without him would be simple suicide. The secrets hidden in the lost city of the ancients justify an insane risk.

The journey proves to be just the nightmare that Ed Garth expected but turning back would be more dangerous than going on.

Garth isn’t sure if he’s happy that archaeologist Paula Trent is part of the expedition. She reminds him of Moira, and Moira is the subject of another of his personal nightmares.

What’s cool about this book is that there’s plenty of excitement but hardly any violence - the threats come mostly not from bad guys but from the deadly flora and fauna of Ganymede. Ganymede is not a nice world. Kuttner displays plenty of imagination in throwing fresh horrors at Ed Garth. There’s a nice atmosphere of doom as more and more things go wrong.

This is a kind of lost world story and it obeys most of the conventions of that genre.

The ending is not the ending you expect but it’s highly effective.

A very entertaining tale. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Jean-Claude Forest's Barbarella

I have very little interest in comics. In fact almost no interest at all. I do however make an exception for European comics for grown-ups of the 1960s and 70s such as the Italian fumetti. They have a tone and a style that differentiates them radically from American comics of the 50s and 60s. They’re a lot more sophisticated. And it’s certainly worth making an exception for Barbarella.

Barbarella was created by Jean-Claude Forest and the first Barbarella comic saw the light of day in the French V Magazine in 1962. Her first appearance in book form was in 1964. She become even more famous when Roger Vadim’s movie came out in 1968, with Jane Fonda in the title rôle. Brigitte Bardot was originally wanted for the part which would have been appropriate given that the physical appearance of the comic strip character was based on Bardot. Bardot could have played the rôle but it’s hard to imagine that she could have done a better job than Jane Fonda.

Censorship in France had been quite strict in the 50s and comics were regarded with official disapproval. Barbarella was a sensation at the time and remains a pop culture landmark. Jean-Claude Forest added sexiness to comics, and that was revolutionary in 1962. I say sexiness rather than sex. The Barbarella comic strip certainly has plenty of eroticism but it’s a cheerful good-natured healthy eroticism. This is eroticism as fun.

And there’s plenty of adventure and humour as well.

There have been several attempts to translate the comic into English, most recently with an “adaptation” (always a worrying word) by Kelly Sue DeConnick. Humanoids Press have published the first two Barbarella books, Barbarella and Wrath of the Minute-Eater (Les Colères du mange-minutes) in a single inexpensive volume.

The 1968 movie follows the plot of the first book surprisingly closely. The bird-man character is there, as is a character named Durand (who would give the band Duran Duran their name).

This is definitely science fiction, as Barbarella travels the galaxy getting into various scrapes. The science fiction elements are wildly unrealistic but they’re quite imaginative and clever. Forest was quite good at creating strange alien worlds, and putting his heroine into interestingly and amusingly bizarre situations.

The visual style of the comic is as stylish and lighthearted as the content. A lot of the situations Barbarella gets into seem to involve the loss of her clothing, not that this bothers her in the least. In 1962 Barbarella seemed quite remarkably sexually liberated (and in today’s repressive climate she again seems refreshingly liberated). Barbarella rather likes sex. That’s not to say that she isn’t interested in love, but if she can’t have love she’s happy to make do with sex.

In the second book, Wrath of the Minute-Eater, Barbarella is running the galaxy’s most outrageous circus, the Circus Delirium. She needs a new act and an aquaman sounds promising. The aquamen have gills and cannot breathe air. They can however have normal sexual relations. Barbarella has found that out for herself. Narval the aquaman however has another agenda, and it takes our heroine to the fringe worlds of the galaxy where time itself is different. Everything about this story is connected in some way with time. Her companions this time are a clown and a malfunctioning female sexbot.

Barbarella is a delightful heroine. For an adventure heroine she’s rather non-violent. Well, mostly. She prefers to use her innocence, her adorableness and her hotness to resolve problems. It’s amazing how many conflicts can be resolved by seducing people rather than trying to shoot them. And even if the conflict isn’t resolved as least you get to have some sex, and that’s never a bad thing.

The Barbarella comic is witty, clever, stylish and good-natured. And sexy.

Even if you’re a person who doesn’t like comics Barbarella is very highly recommended. Barbarella is one of the great pop culture icons, and her comics are deliriously entertaining.

Monday, May 2, 2022

Frederick Lorenz’s The Savage Chase

Frederick Lorenz’s The Savage Chase is a 1954 noir novel and it’s a wild roller-coaster ride.

Lorenz Heller (1910-1965) wrote pulp crime novels under his own name and under a variety of pseudonyms including Frederick Lorenz.

Lee Mayo owns a gambling club. He wakes up with a shocking hangover and no memory of the previous night but there’s a girl in his apartment. The girl is Della, a drop-dead gorgeous photographer’s model. She had poured him into his car and driven him home and put him to bed. Nothing happened between them. Lee would have been too drunk to do anything anyway. Taking him home had been a nice thing to do but Della gets no gratitude for her actions. Lee behaves like a pig and says some very cruel things to her and makes her cry.

As she’s leaving she overhears a conversation and realises she now has an opportunity to get her revenge on Lee Mayo. Lee has a devious plan to make some money and Della can throw a spanner in the works.

Lee has bought Ralph Stallings from a cab driver for five hundred bucks. Stallings had passed out dead drunk in the guy’s cab and the driver, Artie, recognises him as the Ralph Stallings who is notorious for being a fabulously rich guy who gets drunk and gambles and always loses, and always loses on an epic scale (his last gambling escapade cost him two hundred grand, an almost unimaginably vast amount of money in 1954). A professional gambler who could get his hands on Stallings when Stallings was hopelessly drunk could easily inveigle the guy into a game and fleece him for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It wouldn’t present any difficulty at all - when Stallings is drunk his desire to gamble is overwhelming, and he always loses. A drunk Ralph Stallings is like a gold mine. And that’s why Lee Mayo bought him from the cab driver.

He also bought him because he has a personal grudge against him. Stallings stole his girl, and married her.

This is where the book’s many plot twists start to kick in (and we’re only a few pages into the book), and it’s where the book’s character complexity starts to kick in as well. Lee Mayo isn’t really a bad guy. Once he’s had time to think about it he’s horrified that he could even have considered his plan to milk Ralph Stallings of all his money. Lee is no Boy Scout, he’s done bad things, but he is definitely not that low. He’ll go and pick Stallings up from the hotel where the cab driver stashed him and take the poor guy home.

But it’s too late. He gets to the hotel and somebody has already taken Stallings. We know that it was Della, who had seen the opportunity to revenge herself on Lee and make some money by selling Stallings to some other big-time gambler. But Lee doesn’t know that it was Della. He doesn’t even know Della’s name. He doesn’t know that she now has Stallings.

Or does she? The trouble is that people keep thinking they’ve got Stallings only to find that someone else has slipped away with him. Some people want him for their own nefarious purposes. Some people are trying to rescue him. But nobody can keep hold of him. Or even keep track of who might have him at any particular time.

Della turns out to be a bit like Lee. She has some serious characters flaws. She has a fiery temper which causes her to do bad or unwise things at times and she drinks too much. But in spite of these flaws she’s basically quite a nice person. She had plans for Stallings but like Lee she couldn’t go through with them.

Then there’s Enid Stallings, Ralph’s wife. She’s done bad things as well but like Lee and Della she’s really not such a bad person. One nice thing about this novel is that there’s no Good Girl/Bad Girl dichotomy. Both the main female characters are basically good but flawed.

Lee is like that. At the beginning he behaved like a complete jerk towards Della but that was because he had a rotten hangover and was in a bad mood. As soon as the girl fled he started to feel bad and decided he would have to apologise to her. And he really would have done so. In Lee’s mind making a grovelling apology to a woman you’ve treated badly is a whole lot better than feeling like a heel.

Graham Greene once said that human nature isn’t black and white, it’s black and grey. That’s certainly true of this novel. There are plenty of genuinely vicious low-lifes in this story. There are other characters who do bad things because they’re incredibly stupid. Then there are three characters who definitely represent shades of grey. They’ve done bad things but they’re not morally completely lost.

Another thing I like is that the book does not rely on sudden changes of heart (which always seem unconvincing). The morally grey characters are perfectly consistent in their behaviour. They make mistakes that are consistent with their known character flaws and they try to make amends in a manner which is consistent with their known character strengths.

And the plot twists just keep coming. No matter how much the plot twists and turns and no matter how delightfully crazy it gets it remains coherent and believable, because the motivations of the characters are believable.

The Savage Chase is enormous fun, it’s occasionally quite funny, it has plenty of suspense and action, it has some genuinely interesting characters who are likeable because they’re so flawed and so human. This really is a terrific little novel, one of the best I’ve read this year. Very highly recommended.

Stark House Noir have reprinted The Savage Chase in a paperback edition with two other crime thrillers, Kermit Jaediker’s Tall, Dark and Dead (which I reviewed here recently) and D.L. Champion’s Run the Wild River (the latter of which I haven’t read yet).

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Ian Fleming's The Spy Who Loved Me

The Spy Who Loved Me was the ninth of Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, published in 1962. By this stage Fleming was clearly wanting to vary the formula, to find ways to keep the Bond series fresh and exciting. The Spy Who Loved Me was very much an experiment. It’s told in the first person, and the narrator is a woman.

The novel was hated by the critics. Critics had at best grudgingly accepted the popularity of Fleming’s books but they strongly disapproved. It just seemed somehow wrong that ordinary readers should be allowed to make up their own minds what books they enjoyed, rather than liking the books that critics told them to like. It seemed especially wrong that the public should insist on enjoying exciting books and sexy books rather than the worthy but dreary books that critics loved. So critics were desperately anxious for Fleming to make a misstep so that they could pile on and put the boot into him.

The Spy Who Loved Me seemed to be that misstep. Even better, from the point of view of critics, it was more sexually explicit than previous Bond books. That meant the critics could accuse Fleming of spreading moral degeneracy.

The novel has been treated even more venomously by modern critics and reviewers. I have a theory that if you approach a book with enough prejudices and preconceptions you can end up not actually reading the book at all. You end up reading the book that your prejudices convinced you that the author had written. What you have to do with The Spy Who Loved Me is something modern readers find very difficult to do - you have to just sit down and read what Fleming actually wrote, without making any assumptions about his attitudes towards women, towards sex or towards violence.

The subject of the book is an encounter between James Bond and a young French-Canadian woman named Vivianne Michel but that encounter does not happen until roughly the halfway point. The first half of the book gives us Vivianne’s backstory and explains what she’s doing in a run-down motel in the Adirondacks.

Despite what some reviewers would have you believe this first half does not dwell obsessively on Vivianne’s sex life. In fact she doesn’t have very much of a sex life. She’s had a couple of tentative unsuccessful relationships with men. Fleming thought that in 1962 it would be possible for a British writer to approach the subject of sex in a calm and fairly grown-up way. He was wrong. Britain in 1962 was still a repressed guilt-ridden puritan society eager to condemn anyone who wanted to suggest that maybe sex wasn’t dirty and wrong. Fleming is not the least bit judgmental towards Vivianne. He describes her emotional life sympathetically. It’s the guilt-ridden puritanism of society that has made Vivianne unable to have a successful relationship with a man.

So does James Bond suddenly come along and magically awaken her sexually? Well, sort of, but that’s not quite what happens. What really happens is that having faced death and torture and terror at the hands of two thugs Vivianne realises that it’s a bit silly to make such a fuss about sex. Having faced death she now wants to embrace life and what better way to embrace life than by making love? It’s really the peculiar circumstances, rather than Bond’s super-manliness, that allows Vivianne to enjoy sex for the first time.

While there is no action at all until halfway through the book when the action does start it’s fast and furious. The second half of the book is pretty much action scene after action scene. And by making us wait Fleming has built up the tension very effectively. We know this is a Bond novel. We know there’s going to be action. We know that Vivianne will be caught in the middle of it. And once the two thugs make their appearance it’s obvious that this is going to be a kill-or-be-killed situation. Bond and Vivianne are not going to be able to talk their way out of this situation, and they’re going to have to handle it themselves.

And while Vivianne is a kind of damsel in distress, she’s not entirely passive. Bond gives her his spare gun and she gets to use it.

There’s actually a lot more action in this book than in You Only Live Twice. By Bond novel standards The Spy Who Loved Me is not at all deficient when it comes to mayhem. The long wait gives the action scenes extra impact.

How successful is Fleming in telling the story from a female point of view? I’d say that he’s a lot more successful than you might expect. What a lot of modern readers object to is that Vivianne is not a 21st century feminist and the book is not a 21st century feminist powergirl tract. Vivianne belongs to the world of 1962. She feels guilty about sex because in 1962 people (especially women) were raised to feel bad about sex. Up to a point she understands that her upbringing has damaged her and has prevented her from living her life fully. But she still feels guilty. Perhaps the shock of the events at the motel will make her more determined to embrace life.

The Spy Who Loved Me is certainly an experiment but I think it’s an experiment that succeeded. Fleming was shocked by the hostile reception the book received and later described it as a failed experiment. I think he was being much too hard on himself and on the book. It’s not quite true to say that Bond is reduced to the status of a supporting character, but it is true to some extent. Having Bond viewed so completely from outside was an intriguing idea.

So I’m going to swim against the tide and say that I rather enjoyed The Spy Who Loved Me. It is an untypical Bond novel and you should not even contemplate reading this one until you’re read half a dozen of the earlier Bond books, but if you have read the earlier books then I recommend giving The Spy Who Loved Me a chance.

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Erle Stanley Gardner’s Turn On the Heat

Turn On the Heat, published under the name A.A. Fair in 1940, was the second of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Cool and Lam private eye novels.

Gardner achieved enormous success in the 30s with Perry Mason but he started his career in the pulps so a series of hardboiled private eye novels was just the sort of thing he would be likely to be good at. And he was. The Cool and Lam PI novels were extremely successful.

It’s not absolutely essential but it helps a good deal if you start with the first of the Cool and Lam novels, The Bigger They Come (published in 1939). It gives you useful backstory information on this unusual PI partnership. Bertha Cool is middle-aged, overweight, penny-pinching and ruthless. Donald Lam is a young disbarred lawyer down on his luck but he proves to be the ideal operative for the Bertha Cool Detective Agency. Donald is a runt. He couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper bag. He’s an easy guy to push around. But pushing Donald Lam around is a seriously bad idea. He’s smart and devious and he knows nasty ways to get even.

Turn On the Heat starts with a fairly routine missing persons case. Dr Listig and his wife disappeared twenty years earlier. Now someone wants to find Mrs Listig. The obvious place for Donald to start looking is the small town in which the couple used to live, Oakview. They were part of the younger set in what was then a thriving town. Oakview isn’t thriving any longer.

Donald does pick up the trail and then the plot twists begin. Finding Mrs Listig is easy. Much too easy. Cool and Lam don’t have to find Dr Listig but they do find him and that complicates things. A murder complicates things even further. And that’s not the end of it. There’s blackmail and political chicanery.

Bertha and Donald don’t always see eye to eye. Mutual deception and manipulation are par for the course for these two. They also both tend to take the view that if they know something that doesn’t mean they should share that knowledge. Bertha doesn’t always know what Donald is up to and Donald often doesn’t know what game Bertha is playing. Despite this they make an effective team. They’re both very good detectives.

Erle Stanley Gardner had been a prominent trial lawyer and he knew the law from the inside. And the law didn’t impress him. He thought the system was rigged against accused persons. Which is why his lawyer hero Perry Mason feels justified in using every trick in the book to protect a client. Cool and Lam take the same view. The client’s interests come first and if that means lying to the police and the DA that’s no problem. In Gardner’s novels the police tend to be either over zealous and unethical or they’re lazy, inefficient and corrupt. District Attorneys are ambitious political hacks. The police and the DA’s office don’t care about justice, they just want somebody to get convicted. That’s even more true of the Cool and Lam books. The police and the DA’s office are obstacles that it’s best to avoid and it’s also best to tell them nothing unless you have to. If you have to tell them something a smart lie is usually a better policy than the truth.

This gives Gardner’s crime fiction of the 30s and 40s a decidedly cynical hardboiled edge, and even a touch of noir fiction sensibilities.

As usual with Gardner the plotting is intricate and effective.

The real drawcards here though are Bertha Cool and Donald Lam. They really are delightful characters. They have lots of character flaws but one can’t help liking them and being amused by them. There’s plenty of barbed hardboiled dialogue, and there’s humour as well.

And there are hints of romance. Bertha is constantly amazed by Donald’s ability to charm women. In this case he romances Marian Dunton, a reporter on the local Oakview paper and also, incidentally, a key witness to that murder. Is Donald merely using Marian or does he really care for her. It’s hard to be sure and it’s probably a bit of both. He’s cynical enough to manipulate women but decent enough to try not to hurt them.

Gardner used small California towns as settings to great effect in some of the Perry Mason stories. It works extremely well here. I think it’s fair to say that Gardner was not a big fan of small towns.

Turn On the Heat is a fine fast-paced hardboiled PI yarn with an excellent mystery plot as well. What more could one ask for? Highly recommended.

Monday, April 18, 2022

S.N. Tenneshaw’s novella Beyond the Walls of Space

S.N. Tenneshaw’s short novel Beyond the Walls of Space was published in Amazing Stories in 1951.

The story takes place some time after the Moon has been reached successfully. Every attempt to go beyond the Moon has however ended in disastrous failure. The most recent attempt led to the loss of the three-man crew commanded by John Masters. Rex Blaine is to command the next mission, his crew being radio operator Ned Kline and technician George Carter. Understandably they’re somewhat anxious in the hours before their spacecraft is scheduled to lift off from the Moon.

They’re even more anxious when the missing astronaut John Masters suddenly materialises on the lunar base, delivers a terrifying but cryptic warning, and then apparently vanishes into thin air.

Rex Blaine is determined to go ahead with the next launch anyway. Now at least he has some inkling of what they’re up against and he knows that Earth is in terrible danger.

The threat comes from the planet Thallom, in our own solar system. This is puzzling because there’s no such planet, or at least nobody ever suspected the existence of such a planet. But Rex Blaine and his crew soon discover that it does indeed exist.

Thallom is ruled by Queen Lura, a woman whose astonishing beauty is matched only by her astonishing evilness. What Queen Lura wants is a large supply of men from Earth. They have to be men. You see the men of Thallom are no longer capable of performing certain functions which the women of Thallom deem to be essential. Virile Earth men are desperately needed. While not performing the aforementioned essential tasks the men will be used as slaves in the robot factories.

Queen Lura has other ambitions as well, and they’re the sorts of ambitions you’d expect from a sinister megalomanical queen. Rex Blaine and his crew are the latest additions to her man collection. Rex suspects that he is intended for her personal use.

Rex may have one ally on Thallom - the beautiful slave girl Noreen. But overthrowing Queen Lura’s power seems impossible, thanks to the obedience drug she uses on her captives.

There’s not even the most token attempt to provide any kind of scientific plausibility to any of the events or technologies described. There’s a gigantic wall in space, there are heat rays and paralysing rays. The author’s understanding of the mechanics of space flight was clearly non-existent. Of course nobody knew very much about the other planets in the solar system in 1951 so perhaps he can be forgiven for the fact that Thallom is a planet vastly bigger than Jupiter but apparently with normal Earth gravity.

This is really just a stock-standard adventure yarn about a square-jawed action hero, a beautiful but evil queen and a beautiful slave girl. This is pure pulp fiction with nothing very much to offer in the way of originality or imagination.

It does however have a certain perverse so-bad-it’s good quality and there is a certain luridness that is amusing. The first thing Rex Blaine notices about Queen Lura is her breasts swelling against her very flimsy blouse. The first thing he notices about the slave girl Noreen is her swelling breasts. There are a lot of swelling breasts in this tale. And of course there’s the fact that the captured Earth men are destined to become sex slaves.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is that S.N. Tenneshaw never existed. The name was just a house name that was used at times by quite a few writers (including Robert Silverberg, Milton Lesser and Edmond Hamilton) published by Ziff-Davis. No-one seems to know which of those writers was responsible for Beyond the Walls of Space.

Beyond the Walls of Space really doesn’t have a whole lot going for it and even the luridness is not quite lurid enough to make things interesting. In all honesty I find it hard to recommend this one.

Beyond the Walls of Space is paired with Donald A. Wollheim’s The Secret of the Ninth Planet in one of Armchair Fictions double-header paperback editions.

Wednesday, April 13, 2022

Ben Ames Williams' Leave Her To Heaven

Leave Her To Heaven was a 1944 bestseller by Ben Ames Williams. The movie adaptation from 1945 is now much better remembered (indeed it’s one of the half dozen best Hollywood movies of the 40s). I’ve developed an interest in tracking down the source novels of some of my favourite movies and I was lucky enough find an affordable used copy of Leave Her To Heaven (it is of course long out of print).

The book is told in flashback. Richard Harland recalls the events of six years earlier which left him a broken man.

Richard is a 30-year-old novelist. He is unmarried and his parents are dead. His only relative is his twelve-year old brother Danny. Danny has all but lost the use of his legs, the legacy of a bout of polio. The two brothers are unusually close. Richard is a kind of father as well as big brother to Danny.

The story started on a train, heading for a holiday in on a ranch in New Mexico. On the train is a beautiful young woman and she’s reading one of his novels but it sends her to sleep. This annoys him but the girl fascinates him. When he gets to the ranch he finds that the same girl is also going to be a guest there.

Her name is Ellen Berent. Her father, to whom she was devoted, was a bird collector. He died a year ago. Ellen is at the ranch with her adoptive sister Ruth and her mother. Harland becomes increasingly obsessed with the 22-year-old Ellen. Everyone says Ellen is an odd girl, and she is. She is strong-willed to the point of being a control freak. The only person for whom she really cared deeply was her father. She had a bit of a fixation on him (this was 1944 and authors were Freud-crazy at the time).

Ellen seems to transfer her father fixation to Richard Harland. He reminds her of her father in a way that no other man has done. She needs a replacement for her father, and she chooses Harland. She falls in love with Harland, but it’s a particular kind of love. It’s passionate but it’s intensely possessive. She had always wanted to have her father all to herself. Now she has decided she’s going to have Richard all to herself. Richard isn’t sure he wants Ellen but then they get caught in a wild storm and they’re in real danger and suddenly he feels close to her.

They marry immediately. Ellen has what she wanted, but there are two problems. The first is that she broke an engagement to State’s Attorney Russ Quinton in order to marry Harland. She had never taken the engagement seriously but Quinton took it very seriously indeed and he’s a man who holds grudges. The second problem is Danny. The two brothers are very close and Danny is now utterly dependent on his older brother. Ellen will have to share Richard with Danny. That might not work out so well.

It works out very badly indeed. And then a terrible event occurs.

But while Richard is in a state of shock Ellen announces that she is pregnant. There are more shocks in store for Richard Harland. And just when it seems that things can’t get any worse, they get much worse.

This is a murder mystery of sorts, but with complications. There are two deaths. The circumstances of both are unusual and ambiguous. This is not detective fiction. We, the readers, know too many of the circumstances of the deaths beforehand although we don’t know everything. There is some mystery, but not much. It’s also a courtroom drama of sorts. I dislike courtroom dramas unless they’re written by Erle Stanley Gardner. Courtroom dramas are inherently dull but he knew how to make them gripping and exciting. Willians throws in a few surprises but the courtroom scenes are still a hard slog. And they go on and on.

The movie version arouses controversy over whether it qualifies as film noir or not, and it can also be debated whether the novel is noir fiction or not. In both cases the main argument in favour of noir status is Ellen, who certainly has some major femme fatale qualities.

She’s not quite a typical femme fatale. She is however a monster. We come to understand her motivations even while we are horrified by her behaviour.

The major problem is that the impression given by the novel is that the author thought he was writing Serious Fiction rather than a mystery. He actually has a rather brilliant mystery/crime plot but he gets bogged down with lengthy descriptive passages, and unnecessary details about minor characters. The book is much too long. The movie tightened things up a great deal and this is one of the reasons the movie is superior to the book. The movie also made Ellen slightly more sympathetic, or at least slightly more ambiguous, and this made her more interesting.

The book is worth reading if you’re a fan of the movie. I've reviewed the movie Leave Her to Heaven (1945) as Classic Movie Ramblings.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Glen Chase’s Cherry Delight #1 The Italian Connection

The Italian Connection, published in 1972, is the first of Glen Chase’s Cherry Delight sexy crime/spy thrillers.

Glen Chase was one of the pseudonyms used by Gardner Francis Fox (1911-1986), a prolific writer for comic books who became a prolific pulp writer. In the 70s he found a lucrative niche for himself churning out sexy paperback crime/spy thrillers with very heavy lacings of sleaze and more than a dash of kinkiness.

We think of the 1950s and 1960s as the period in which television came to dominate popular entertainment but it’s not as simple as that. Television took a huge chunk of the entertainment market away from Hollywood but the book market was thriving as never before. The period from 1945 to the end of the 70s was the period of the paperback boom. Books went from being a luxury item to being ridiculously cheap. The public developed a voracious appetite for books.

The 50s and 60s was also a period in which TV and movies were subject to extraordinarily strict censorship. Sex was a subject that could not be addressed. Sex did not exist. As far as TV and movies were concerned married couples slept in separate beds and never saw each other naked. The book market was much more lightly censored. Booksellers and publishers were occasionally prosecuted for obscenity but in practice you could get away with dealing with sex in books without much danger. You could even get away with dealing with illicit sex and kinky sex.

The result was an explosion of sleaze fiction in the United States. There were numerous publishers specialising in sleaze. Writers, if they had the ability and the discipline to write a lot of books very quickly, could make a good living from sleaze fiction.

Censorship in movies was slowly relaxed in the 60s but censorship of books became even lighter, in fact almost non-existent. Paperback sleaze fiction continued to be lucrative because over the course of the 60s sleaze writers were able to keep pushing the edge of the envelope. Descriptions of sex went from moderately graphic in the early 60s to very graphic indeed by the early 70s.

Sleaze fiction was popular but it was even more popular when combined with crime, espionage or adventure.

Which brings us to Cherry Delight. Our heroine is Cherise Dellissio but she has red hair so inevitably everybody calls her Cherry Delight. Cherry is a professional crime-fighter. She doesn’t work for the F.B.I., she works for a top-secret agency which employs methods that the Bureau would consider to be highly unorthodox, probably immoral and possibly illegal. The agency’s job is to combat the Mafia, and they can’t do that effectively if their hands are tied by a bunch of pesky rules and laws.

The agency is the New York Mafia Prosecution and Harassment Organisation, or N.Y.M.P.H.O. as it is generally known. Cherry works for the elite Femme Fatale squad. The Femmes Fatales are highly trained with advanced martial arts and firearms skills but their main weapon is sex. As such their bedroom skills are of a very high order. When it comes to bedroom skills Cherry Delight has no equals. The secret to Cherry’s success is that it’s not just a job to her. She really really loves sex. Some girls might not enjoy having to have sex with gangsters and sleazebags in the line of duty but this doesn’t bother Cherry. No matter what the circumstances and no matter who the guy is Cherry likes sex. And oh yeah, she doesn’t mind having sex with girls occasionally.

And she is always prepared for action.

As far as sleaze is concerned The Italian Connection hits the ground running. It opens with Cherry lying naked in a coffin. But she’s alive. She knows she’s alive because she’s incredibly sexually aroused. That may have something to do with the fact that her N.Y.M.P.H.O. colleague Mark Condon is tickling the intimate parts of her anatomy with a feather. But this is not mere pleasure. Cherry is on a case and she needs to be in the mood for sex to carry out her part in the operation. The idea is that Cherry is going to be sent to Joe Turessi as a gift. Joe Turessi is a Mafia big wheel. Cherry is supposed not just to give him a good time that night but to give him such a good time that he won’t want to part with her. That’s how N.Y.M.P.H.O. intends to infiltrate Turessi’s criminal operation.

It should be explained that, as a clever front for their crime-fighting activities, the Femmes Fatales work as call girls.

Cherry seems to be succeeding in her efforts. She quickly figures out that Turessi is kinky. His kink doesn’t have anything to do with coffins. It’s a particular kind of voyeurism, a very very kinky kind. Turessi is having a really good time and so is Cherry. Then something goes very wrong.

Cherry will have to find a different way to infiltrate the Mafia. Her new plan takes her to an orgy. She needs to blend in with the crowd (she is a trained secret agent) so she picks a man and starts having sex with him. The things a girl has to do for her country. But Cherry has never shirked her duty.

The Mafia have gained possession of a high-tech gadget which would give them even greater power than they already have. It is a threat to the whole world. This gadget is the McGuffin that drives the plot.

And yes, there is a plot. Cherry spends an astonishing amount of time having sex but in between she does find time to do some actual crime-fighting. The plot is serviceable enough and it has to be said that there are lots of action scenes. There are gun fights and fist fights and cat fights. Cherry is a sex machine but she’s a violence machine as well. OK, maybe her skills in marksmanship and unarmed combat are a bit too formidable to be entirely plausible but this is lighthearted pulp fiction which has zero interest in realism. The indifference to realism is something I applaud. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this writer is his ability not only to switch from a sex scene to an action scene in the blink of an eye but to combine sex and action in a single scene. In this novel love-making can be deadly, and unarmed combat can be sexy.

Cherry is basically a crime-fighter but the book does have some vague spy fiction overtones and there’s even a very slight science fictional element.

The sex is very graphic but it never seems crude. Perhaps that’s because Cherry is so clearly having such a good time. And even when she has to have sex with a bad guy or a deadly enemy she makes sure that he enjoys the sex. It’s a matter of pride for her. The violence is not graphic but the fights are fairly exciting.

If you’re looking for sleazy, sexy, lighthearted action-filled pulp fiction then The Italian Connection delivers the goods. This book might be trash but it’s incredibly enjoyable entertaining trash. Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice

You Only Live Twice, published in 1964, was the last Bond novel completed by Ian Fleming (he had written only the first draft of The Man with the Golden Gun when he died later that year). You Only Live Twice was the closing instalment of what became known as the Blofeld trilogy.

After the disastrous events of the previous novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond seems to be all washed up. He’s moody and depressed, he’s making mistakes, he’s drinking too much and gambling too much. M has decided that he’s going to have to fire him but is persuaded that what Bond needs is an impossible mission, or at least a mission that is so unlikely to succeed that Bond will simply have to stop brooding about himself. The mission is to persuade the Japanese to give the British access to their MAGIC 44 top-secret intelligence material, and there is no logical reason why the Japanese would want to do that. In fact the Japanese would have very strong reasons to refuse. Bond’s job is to find a way to change their minds. M has no idea how this could be done. That’s up to Bond. It will be a formidable challenge that will require cleverness rather than action, and Bond needs to start using his brain in a productive way again.

Bond meets (and befriends) the head of the Japanese intelligence service, a man named Tiger Tanaka and discovers that as far as the Japanese are concerned the British Secret Service has no secrets worth trading for. But there is one possibility. If Bond would agree to carry out a mission for them they might trade. They want him to assassinate a Swiss scientist.

The scientist has created what Tanaka calls a garden of death. He has bought a large estate and filled it with deadly plants and animals. Japanese intent on suicide are using it to kill themselves. The Japanese want this Swiss scientist eliminated quietly.

Bond has to pose as a Japanese. Apparently a bit of skin dye and some work on the eyebrows will transform a Scotsman into a convincing Japanese. Bond’s base of operations is an Ama island, the Ama being a distinct tribe who exist by diving for shellfish and are best known for the fact that the diving is done by naked women, a practice of which Bond thoroughly approves. He naturally gets involved with pretty Ama diver Kissy Suzuki, his love interest in this novel.

And he will of course encounter Blofeld again.

The novel includes many of the themes that run through Fleming’s work, especially nostalgia for Britain’s lost greatness and bitterness about the contempt with which the U.S. now treated Britain. The story begins with the British Secret Service sending Bond on a delicate and embarrassing mission, to beg the Japanese to give them access to high-grade intelligence material. The Japanese have some extraordinarily valuable material but the C.I.A. will not allow it to be passed on to the British. M is hoping the Japanese will agree to pass on their intelligence material to Britain secretly. Bond arrives thinking that he has something worthwhile to trade, the Macau Blue Route material of which M is so proud, only to discover that the Japanese already have all of this material. Bond comes face to face with the harsh reality that Britain is a second-rate power and that the Japanese do not consider Britain to be an ally worth cultivating.

In the later Bond stories Bond is becoming just a little sad and disillusioned. An edge of cynicism and melancholy had been creeping into the Bond stories for a while. We get the feeling that perhaps Bond is getting ready to call it a day and retire. Fleming of course was increasingly conscious of his own failing health and knew that he was not likely to live very much longer. He apparently expected The Man with the Golden Gun to be the final Bond novel. When he wrote You Only Live Twice it’s possible that he was already aware that his career as a thriller writer was drawing to a close.

Personally I think this makes late Bond quite interesting. He’s starting to do things that his younger self would never have done. In the novel that preceded You Only Live Twice, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, he does a number of things that the younger Bond would certainly not have done. In the later stories he seems to be often thinking about resigning from the Secret Service. He’s also developing a bit more emotional depth. He’s finding himself thinking about the future and about the consequences of his actions in a way that would have been out of character for the Bond of the glory years of the mid-1950s. But it’s done quite convincingly. Bond is getting older.

Fleming was also experimenting with downbeat endings. Casino Royale had ended on a note of bitterness, but it was a defiant bitterness. Bond had been hurt but he was a big boy and he’d get over it. A decade or so later later Fleming would end a Bond novel on a note of abject defeat and despair. In some of the later short stories the endings are rather cynical (The Living Daylights), or melancholy (Octopussy).

I think it’s simplistic to say that Fleming was growing tired of Bond, but he was growing tired of writing Bond stories to a rigid formula. After the modest success of his debut novel Casino Royale Fleming had found an incredibly successful formula and proceeded to write six brilliant spy thrillers one after the other. The 60s saw Fleming experimenting with variations on the formula.

The biggest problem with You Only Live Twice is the pacing. We have to wait a long long time for the action scenes. When they finally arrive they’re good but a bit perfunctory.

Bond completists will want to read this one. If you’re new to the world of the Bond novels you should definitely start wth the 1950s books. You Only Live Twice is recommended, with reservations.

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Nick Quarry's No Chance in Hell

Marvin H. Albert (1924-1996) was an American who wrote in a number of different genres using quite a few different pseudonyms. He wrote westerns. He wrote adventure thrillers under the name Ian McAlister (including the excellent Driscoll’s Diamonds) and he wrote lots of crime thrillers. Under the name Nick Quarry he wrote the half-dozen Jake Barrow private eye thrillers. No Chance in Hell, published in 1960, was the fifth book in this series.

Jake Barrow wants to show off his luxurious new apartment to his girlfriend Sandy (a lady cop), but when they get to the apartment there’s a girl there. Her name is Nina Cloud, she’s a sixteen-year-old Navajo girl and she’s the daughter of Johnny Cloud, an old army buddy of Jake’s. Johnny has told Nina that she’s in danger and that she’s to trust Jake.

Johnny Cloud seems to have landed himself in trouble of some sort. Whatever that trouble is it’s led to the murder of Johnny Cloud’s girlfriend Margo, an attempt to kidnap Nina and the shooting of Sandy. It’s the shooting of Sandy that has Jake really riled up. She’s in hospital and the surgeons don’t know if she will live.

All Jake knows about the man who shot Sandy is that he’s tall and redheaded, but Jake intends to find him and kill him.

Revenge for the shooting of Sandy is Jake’s main motivation but in order to find the man who shot her he’s going to have to unravel the mysteries surrounding Johnny Cloud and his daughter. Jake is going to have to figure out just exactly what kind of a jam Johnny is in, and he’s going to try to get Johnny out of that jam. They’re buddies. And since Johnny is a buddy Jake is obviously also determined to keep Nina Cloud safe.

The first step is to find the red-headed man. Jake thinks the red-headed man was working for Harvey Kew. Kew has a lot of business interests, some of them legal, and he’s a powerful influential man. Getting to see Harvey Kew isn’t easy but Jake does get to see Harvey’s wife. That makes a few things clearer.

There are quite a few women mixed up in this case. I wouldn’t describe any of them as classic femmes fatales although some of them could certainly be dangerous. If Jake can find out exactly where each of the women fits in the puzzle he should be able to solve the case.

If he lives long enough. Jake has picked some powerful people to upset. And some very nasty people. Jake gets beaten up so many times that you wonder what keeps him going. In fact it’s the power of hate that drives him.

There’s a rather epic chase sequence through the storm sewers after Jake is framed for a murder.

This is a fine hardboiled mystery thriller with a nice little final twist. There’s a great deal of violence and it’s moderately graphic. There’s no sex at all. I’m not sure I’d describe this novel as noir. It’s more an action-packed roller coaster ride of a crime suspense thriller.

While noir protagonists tend to be swept along by events Jake Barron is a guy who makes things happen. They don’t always turn out as well as he’d hoped but at least he keeps things moving. He’s not a guy who waits passively for trouble to come to him - he’ll go looking for it and he usually finds it.

He’s pretty much your basic tough guy private eye hero.

There’s nothing really dazzlingly original here. This is just a very well-told very satisfying tough private eye yarn. That’s good enough for me. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 25, 2022

Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams

Arthur Machen is known (insofar as he is known at all) as a writer of supernatural fiction, and is sometimes considered to be a representative of Late Victorian Gothic. Whether his novel The Hill of Dreams is really a novel of the supernatural is hard to say.

The hero is Lucian Taylor, the son of an impoverished English country clergyman. In adolescence Lucian has a mystical, visionary experience in the remains of an old Roman fort. Whether he has really come into contact with occult forces that linger there, or whether the visionary experience comes entirely from within, is never specified and in the end it really doesn’t matter. What matters is that Lucian, who is already obsessed with “useless reading and unlikely knowledge”, feels himself from this point on to be set apart from the rest of humanity. He dreams of becoming a writer.

The Hill of Dreams is a book about books, and the writing of books. It’s a book about visionary experiences. It’s also a book about a young man whose entire life is taken over by such experiences. He becomes more and more cut off from the general run of humanity, and from what ordinary people consider to be reality.

This is also very much a decadent book, and can be considered to be one of the finest flowerings of the English Decadence, even though that movement is generally considered to have run its course by the time it was published in 1907. The writing is gorgeous, highly charged and subtly erotic. The whole book has an intensely visionary quality. There’s a sense of another reality intersecting our everyday reality. This other reality cannot be perceived by everyone, but for those attuned to such things it may be more real than everyday reality.

This is an absolutely superb book. One of the most exciting books I’ve read in a long time. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

UFO-1 Flesh Hunters (TV tie-in novel)

UFO-1 Flesh Hunters, written by John Burke under the name Robert Miall and published in 1970, was the first of two novelisations of Gerry Anderson’s excellent 1970 sci-fi TV series UFO. This was a novelisation rather than an original novel and was based on four episodes of the series.

I generally enjoy TV tie-in novels but I much prefer original novels based on a series rather than novelisations and this book is a good illustration of the reasons why.

The book is of some limited interest to fans of the TV series but it doesn't quite work.

Here's the link to my full review at Cult TV Lounge.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Edmond Hamilton's The Avenger from Atlantis

The Avenger from Atlantis is a collection of eight stories by American science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton (1904-77) originally published in Weird Tales between 1935 and 1944. Hamilton was married to Leigh Brackett.

Most of these stories could be considered to belong to the sword-and-planet genre, although they’re slightly unconventional examples of the breed. Time travel figures prominently in several of these tales. The stories range from moderately competent to extremely good with the good outweighing the bad. And all are at least interesting.

In The Six Sleepers it is 1934 and an American prospector takes refuge in a cave. He finds five bodies in the cave. They are the bodies of a Roman legionary, a Crusader knight, a 16th century Italian condottiere, a 17th century pirate and an 18th century French nobleman. What really surprises him is that these men are not dead. They are asleep and they have been sleeping for centuries. He figures out that there is a strange gas seeping into the cave, a gas that has the property of putting a person into an endless sleep. Unfortunately by the time he’s figured this out he too is asleep.

When he awakens (along with the other five) it’s not just centuries have have passed but tens of thousands of years. They are in a strange future. A mighty civilisation has arise and then decayed into oblivion. People still exist, along with half-human half-animal creatures. The nastiest of these are the rat-men.

At this point in the story you expect a beautiful young maiden to appear, and sure enough that’s what happens. The girl and the five men are going to have to battle the dreaded rat-men. A very good story.

The Fire Creatures is a lost world story. A scientist invents special protective suits to allow him to be the first to enter the heart of an active volcano. He disappears. His daughter Helen and her boyfriend Jerry Holt (wearing the fireproof suits) have to enter the volcano to find him. What they find is extraordinary - creatures that live in a world of fire and extreme temperatures. Not just fire-creatures, but men adapted to live inside a volcano. In fact a civilisation.

It turns out to be a none-too-friendly world.

The plot isn’t that dazzling but the fire world is an impressive and bizarre creation. Fire-men fishing on a lake of molten lava. Cold air used as the ultimate weapon. An entire ecosystem of fire creatures. An excellent highly imaginative story.

The Avenger from Atlantis
offers yet another version of the fate of Atlantis. This time it’s the result of a woman’s betrayal. Ulios, chief scientist of Atlantis, is determined to exact vengeance both for the city’s fate and his wife’s betrayal. He doesn’t care how long it takes.

In fact it takes for several thousand years Ulios and his faithful servant pursue the woman and her lover. They witness the rise and fall of civilisations. Ulios cares nothing for this. Nothing can take the place of Atlantis.

So obviously a story of obsession and love turned to hate. Hamilton takes the opportunity to have his hero mixed up in great events, and to meet major historical figures. And to add some amusing alternate history takes on some of these events, such as the notorious reign of the Roman Emperor Caligula. An ambitious and clever story.

In Child of Atlantis David and Christa Russel are enjoying their honeymoon on board David’s yacht, en route for the Azores. They’re enjoying until suddenly they are wrecked on an island that isn’t there. One moment they were surrounded by empty ocean, the next moment the island was there. An island with a black castle perched on a clifftop. Having made their way ashore they notice something odd. Looking out to sea they can only see a few hundred yards and after that there’s just a strange shimmering.

The island is inhabited by shipwrecked sailors of many nation some of whom have been there for twenty years or more. They cannot leave the island. If they try the Master calls them and they cannot resist his will. At various other times one of the marooned sailors is called by the Master. The Master’s will compels him to enter the black castle and he is never seen again.

David refuses to accept this. There must be a way to escape. But that seems increasingly impossible.

Once again Hamilton has a cool idea and he makes good use of it. Another fine story.

Comrades of Time is a time travel story similar in some ways to The Six Sleepers. This time it’s an American serving in the Foreign Legion in the 1930s, a soldier from ancient Egypt, a conquistador, a Viking, a 19th century American frontiersman and one of Cromwell’s soldiers who find themselves in the distant future. It is however a different kind of future. A million years into the future the last continent on Earth is doomed. There’s a mad scientist (but a kindly one), a wicked king, a beautiful maiden and a hideous ageless insane genius.

Our six adventurers have to get hold of the time-ry machine that can send them back to their own times. It’s OK but one of the lesser stories in the collection.

Armies from the Past is a sequel to Comrades of Time. The same six adventurers are plucked out of the past, and this time they’re sent two million years into the future. The kindly mad scientist and his beautiful daughter are in trouble again.

Earth is ruled by the Masters, who appear to be human-like aliens. The human population is drugged to force them to obey.

Thing go wrong for our time-traveling adventurers and the scientist’s beautiful daughter falls into the hands of the Masters. A terrible fate lies in store for her if she can’t be rescued and she’s being held in an impregnable fortress. It would take an army to storm it. The scientists tells them they can have their army.

Like Comrades of Time this is a slightly disappointing story with a reasonable central idea that isn’t developed all that well.

Dreamer’s Worlds is more interesting. Henry Stevens and Khal Kan have a problem. They’re the same person. Or they might be. Henry Stevens is a meek little clerk in Midland City, Illinois. Khal Kan is the warrior prince of Jotan on a planet that is clearly not Earth. Every night Henry Stevens falls asleep and dreams of his life of adventure and swordplay and lusty wenches as Khal Kan. Every might Khal Kan falls asleep and dreams of his prosaic life as Henry Stevens. Maybe Khal Kan exists only in Henry Stevens’ dream. Or maybe Henry Stevens exists only in Khal Kan’s dream.

What makes Henry Stevens suspect that Khal Kan is real is that his dreams have perfect continuity. When he falls asleep Khal Kan’s life picks up exactly at the point it had reached in the previous dream. It’s just one long continuous dream, and it has none of the disjointedness or illogicality of a normal dream. Quite a good story.

The Shadow Folk is a change of pace. A race of transparent people live in the high mountains. They are totally invisible to ordinary folk but to each other they are semi-transparent. They live in fear of their existence being discovered by the Others (their name for ordinary non-invisible people). A mistake by one of the young female Shadow Folk could reveal their secret. She makes an even bigger mistake. She falls in love with one of the Others.

This sounds like a fantasy story but it’s actually science fiction, and the emphasis is on romance. An odd but quirky story.

On the whole a varied and fascinating collection from DMR Press. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s vampire novella Carmilla was serialised in the magazine The Dark Blue in late 1871 and early 1872. Later in 1872 it was included in the short story collection In a Glass Darkly, which featured various cases investigated by Dr Hesselius. Carmilla is historically important for a number of reasons. It was an early example of a vampire tale involving a female vampire, it was a very early example of a lesbian vampire story (although Coleridge’s 1797 poem Christabel has been claimed by some as an earlier example) and Dr Hesselius is the prototype of the occult detective. But in fact Dr Hesselius plays no actual part in Carmilla.

Irishman Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) wrote many excellent gothic horror and ghost stories as well as some of the finest examples of the Victorian sensation novel (such as Wylder’s Hand), one of the ancestors of the detective story.

Laura is an English girl in her late teens who lives with her father and her governess in an isolated castle in Austria. Laura is happy enough but a girl her age naturally gets rather lonely in such a situation. She is naturally overjoyed when a happy accident brings her a young female companion, Carmilla. The carriage in which Carmilla and her mother were travelling overturned. Luckily nobody was hurt but Carmilla was badly shaken. Her mother is distressed. She cannot break her journey for a moment but Carmilla is in no state to travel. Laura’s father very gallantly offers to allow Carmilla to stay in the castle for three months, until her mother returns.

There is one thing that disturbs Laura. As a little girl she had been frightened by a vivid dream in which a female figure had climbed onto her bed. And Carmilla looks exactly like the female in that dream. Oddly enough Carmilla tells Laura that she had a similar dream at the same time.

The mood in the nearby countryside is sombre. A number of young women have died rather suddenly, after claiming to be attacked in some mysterious way. As Laura and Carmilla pass the funeral of one of these women Carmilla’s behaviour becomes rather odd.

There was also the incident with the old travelling entertainer/huckster, who claimed that Carmilla’s teeth needed to be filed down. And his dog seemed terribly afraid to approach Carmilla.

Laura is also a little taken aback by Carmilla’s tendency to be physically over-affectionate, showering her with kisses.

Odd things continue to happen. Carmilla disappears for a day but offers only a confused explanation. Laura suffers from an increasing weakness.

Then there’s the encounter with the neighbour, a retired general. He has a strange story to tell. Not long before Carmilla’s arrival it had been intended that the General’s beloved niece would pay an extended visit to the castle but the niece suddenly took ill and died. The General was convinced that her death did not come about by natural means and he now believes he has proof. His tale is of vampires, and the long-dead Countess Karnstein who may not be as dead as everyone supposes. The General is determined to wreak vengeance on the vampire.

This is only a novella so the plot really consists of two fairly brief episodes, the one involving Laura and the one involving the General’s niece which is told in an extended flashback. These two episodes will come together at the end.

This novella is interesting for many reasons. It added quite a lot of what would later become part of accepted vampire lore, but it differs from later vampire tales in some respects. These are vampires that feed on blood, they are governed by rules as to where they can sleep undisturbed (they must have the shroud in which they were buried), they may either have some shape-shifting ability or more likely an ability to appear to take on other forms. They seems able to pass through locked doors. On the other hand they are perfectly capable of being active during daylight hours and are more or less indistinguishable from normal living persons.

Is this really a lesbian vampire story? I would say, yes and no. These are vampires who appear, on occasion, to develop a strong bond with their victims. It’s a kind of erotic romantic bond but there is no indication in the text as to whether this bond usually develops exclusively between female vampires and female victims but it’s implied that this is not so. I think there’s no doubt that Le Fanu intends to suggest that vampirism can be linked to sexual attraction and I would guess that he was aware that Carmilla’s obsessions with her female victims were somewhat erotic in nature. I’m not sure that he actually intended to sit down and write a lesbian vampire story. The idea of vampirism as something linked eroticism was however already well established, and would be further elaborated a few years later in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Carmilla has been filmed several times, with Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960), Vicente Aranda’s The Blood Spattered Bride (1972) and Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers (1970) being notable examples. And Carmilla has been an indirect inspiration for countless vampire movies.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Diane Cilento’s The Manipulator

The film career of Australian actress Diane Cilento (1932-2011) was at its peak when in 1967 she decided to try her hand at writing a sleazy satirical novel about the film industry. The result was The Manipulator. A second novel followed in 1972. At this time Cilento was married to Sean Connery, to whom The Manipulator is dedicated.

A group of British film people travel to Acapulco for a film festival, accompanied by a British cultural attache. They’re promoting the latest movie by whizz-kid director Nicholas Jeff, a movie that is also intended to launch actress Terry Grant into stardom.

Naturally they spend most of their time bed-hopping, bitching about each other and plotting. The manipulator of the title is Jeff. He loves to manipulate people both emotionally and professionally. He’s planning to stab his producer, an American named Bronson, in the back. He also plans to break up the relationship between his screenwriter Holden and his girlfriend Alfrida and to interfere in the marriage between Scandinavian beauty (and part-time prostitute) Ebba and poor fisherman Juan.

He doesn’t really have much to gain by these manoeuvrings. He just enjoys playing games with other people’s lives. Maybe it gives him as much pleasure as he gets from manipulating the actions of the characters in his movies. Maybe secretly he knows he’s not a very good director. His latest movie is just a concoction of ideas he’s stolen from other people’s movies.

Of course all this manipulating is likely to end disastrously, but disastrously for whom?

You get the feeling that Cilento was pretty cynical about the film industry. Of course she was trying to write an entertaining and amusing satirical novel but you also get the feeling that she’s not exaggerating the foibles of film people all that much. As she portrays it the world of movies is a world of backbiting, intrigue, jealousies, opportunism, sexual adventurism and decadence.

The closest thing to a sympathetic character is Ebba. Being a whore she’s a bit more honest and realistic about sex than movie people. But she does a certain amount of scheming as well.

There’s no graphic sex but there’s certainly an atmosphere of sleaze and decadence. People with too much money and too much ego who are too accustomed to seeing other people in terms of what they can get out of them.

None of these people care very much about movies. They care about making deals and making money, or they care about fame and reputation.

Cilento is quite an amusing writer and while her characters are appalling excuses for human beings they’re very entertaining.

I know nothing about her second novel Hybrid so I can’t tell you if it’s along similar lines or not.

The Manipulator is long out of print but used copies are not too difficult to find, without paying an arm and a leg.

If you’re into stories about sex and sin in the movie world there’s plenty here to enjoy and the fact that it’s the British film industry rather than Hollywood makes it just a bit different. Recommended for those who enjoy this sort of thing.

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Ian Fleming’s On Her Majesty's Secret Service

On Her Majesty's Secret Service was the tenth of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels and was published in 1963.

By this time Fleming’s health was definitely failing. He would complete just one more Bond novel, You Only Live Twice, in 1964. Fleming had completed only the first draft of The Man with the Golden Gun when he died in 1964.

Fleming had been on a roll in the 50s, producing six successive top-notch Bond novels - Live and Let Die, Moonraker, Diamonds Are Forever, From Russia, with Love, Dr. No and Goldfinger. After that it was not that he seemed to be growing tired of Bond but he did seem to be growing tired of just churning out Bond novels to the same basic formula. In 1962 he wrote The Spy Who Loved Me, a highly experimental Bond novel (an experiment which Fleming considered to be a total failure), and he wrote several short stories which were also somewhat experimental.

In some of the stories (notably For Your Eyes Only and The Living Daylights) we see Bond becoming bitter and disillusioned. In For Your Eyes Only he loses respect for M. In The Living Daylights he hopes to get fired.

There are traces of this taste for doing something slightly different in On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which opens with Bond drafting a letter of resignation from the Secret Service. The novel also focuses quite a bit on Bond’s emotional life. He has fallen in love before, but not like this. In fact the love story proves to be more important than the spy story and we really do get to see a different side of Bond.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is the second novel in the Blofeld Trilogy. After the events recounted in Thunderball Ernst Stavro Blofeld appears to have vanished off the face of the Earth. He may well be dead. His sinister criminal organisation, SPECTRE, has ceased to exist. But the Secret Service is not satisfied. They want to be able to close the file definitively. So Bond finds himself spending a boring frustrating year hunting Blofeld even though he personally thinks Blofeld is dead. This is the reason for his letter of resignation.

Then he meets Tracy. She speeds past him in her Lancia sports car. Pretty girls who speed past him in sports cars are always of interest to Bond. Pretty girls who drive so well that he cannot catch them are even more fascinating.

He then encounters her in the casino (it’s the Casino Royale). Pretty girls who gamble with money they don’t have also interest Bond. And women who react in the bizarre fashion that Tracy reacts after he beds her are really intriguing.

Then Bond discovers who Tracy is. Her father Marc-Ange Draco is the head of the Union Corse, the Corsican equivalent of the Mafia. Bond meets Draco and likes him. Draco asks him for a favour, a favour involving Tracy, which Bond is willing to grant at least partially. In return Draco gives Bond some information. Blofeld is alive and he’s in Switzerland.

Fleming loved researching obscure subjects for his novels (after doing the research for Diamonds Are Forever he wrote a non-fiction book on diamond smuggling). In this book the obscure subject is heraldry. Blofeld has decided he wants the respectability that a title will bring and he may even genuinely believe that he is a member of the nobility. To track Blofeld down Bond goes undercover as Sir Hilary Bray, a member of the College of Arms. Bond has to take a crash course in heraldry.

When he arrives at Blofeld’s new headquarters in the Alps he gets to meet the girls. There are ten of them. They are all young and pretty. They’re patients at Blofeld’s private clinic where they are being treated for their allergies. Ten pretty girls are always going to attract Bond’s attention but it won’t be until much later that he realises their significance.

Bond’s cover is quickly blown and he faces a battle for survival.

This is a fine spy thriller, not quite up to the standard of those six earlier books I mentioned earlier but still with plenty of excitement.

And then there’s the ending about which I can say nothing without revealing spoilers other than to say that it packs a punch.

On Her Majesty's Secret Service is highly recommended.