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.