Thursday, September 29, 2022

Gardner Francis Fox's The Druid Stone

The Druid Stone is a 1967 novel of black magic by Gardner Francis Fox, using the pseudonym Simon Majors. It was published in 1967.

Brian Creoghan is in his mid-thirties but he’s packed a lot of action into his life. That life has been spent roaming the globe in search of adventure, and perhaps (we will come to suspect) in search of something more. His globe-trotting has not taken him to places like Paris and Rome. He’s always been interested in more remote and exotic places. His journeyings have brought him into contact with strange religions, esoteric sects, secret rites and other aspects of what could be described as the weird and the occult.

Now he’s settled down in a farmhouse in New Hampshire. The first sign that his adventuring days might not be over is the patch of blackness in the woods. It just didn’t look natural. That female voice he heard was a bit mysterious as well.

He gets an invitation to dinner with his new neighbours. Moira and Ugony MacArt are brother and sister. Moira is disturbingly alluring. Ugony has spent his life investigating the occult and he has amassed a collection of ritual objects. His interest in the subject is intense but whether it’s healthy remains to be seen. Now he wants Brian to join him in a little experiment. All Brian has to do is to place his hands on a druid stone.

At which point everything changes.

At first it’s reasonable to assume that we’re going to get an occult thriller. This was a hugely popular genre at the time with Dennis Wheatley’s Black Magic books being massive sellers. But before The Druid Stone actually gets underway we’re offered a tantalising hint that this story might be more science fictional than we expect.

And when Brian Creoghan touches that druid stone we find that the book has become a sword-and-sorcery tale. Brian Creoghan is no longer Brian Creoghan. He’s a great warrior named Kalgorrn, he’s in another land which doesn’t seem to be Earth at all, and he’s a different person. Or rather he’s now two people in the same body. And the action starts to really kick in.

He’s now a warrior, a lord whose lands were stolen from him by an evil sorcerer. As a result of a spell he’s been sleeping. Possibly for centuries. But now he’s found his lover, the beautiful witch-woman Red Fann, and they have a quest for revenge to undertake. And lots of terrifying monsters to battle.

To now assume that this is going to be a straightforward sword-and-sorcery adventure would however be a mistake. The author has more tricks up his sleeve.

The story continually switches back and forth between the ordinary world of the present day and the fantastic magical world. Soon Brian Geoghan is no longer sure if he really is Brian Geoghan or if he’s the hero Kalgorrn. He has other complications to worry about. Kalgorrn is in love with Red Fann but Brian is falling in love with Moira. These two women are liable to be a bit unhappy about sharing him.

He also realises that the two worlds he inhabits are liked in some way. What happens in one world could have consequences in the other. In fact the fate of both worlds could hang in the balance. And there’s still that science fiction element lurking in the background.

There’s also the problem that he’s starting to wonder exactly what Ugony MacArt is up to. There was a murder a while back and while Brian is sure that Ugony is not capable of being involved in murder the locals have strong suspicions that Ugony is the murder. So we get a mystery sub-plot as well.

Fox had a real knack for producing thoroughly enjoyable fast-paced pulp tales in multiple genres. He wrote both the Cherry Delight series of sexy sleazy spy/crime thrillers (beginning with The Italian Connection) and the equally entertaining The Lady from L.U.S.T. sexy spy thrillers (beginning with Lust, Be a Lady Tonight). There is however no sleaze at all in The Druid Stone.

The Druid Stone is a very entertaining read. Highly recommended.

Monday, September 26, 2022

William Fuller's Back Country

William Fuller (1913-1982) had been a successful writer for the slicks when in 1954 he suddenly switched to churning out paperback original hardboiled crime thrillers. Back Country was his first novel. I guess you could call it backwoods noir.

The narrator, Brad Dolan, is in his early thirties and he’s had an adventurous life, and now he feels let down by life. He’s embittered by his experiences on both the Second World War and the Korean War and even more embittered about his wife’s unfaithfulness (she’s now his ex-wife).

He decides to head for Florida. He needs some sunshine. His car breaks down in a small town in Carter County, he decides he needs a drink but it’s a dry county so he has to go out of town. He gets into a fight in a gambling joint. The fight is over a woman. Getting into fights over women is the story of Dolan’s life. He wakes up in a cell and he figures he’s in real trouble this time. Surprisingly though he is released, and offered a job by Rand Ringo. Rand Ringo runs Carter County. He’s a shady businessman, a racketeer and a crooked political operator. Dolan accepts the job.

That’s the novel’s first misstep. Dolan is at heart a self-righteous Boy Scout. It doesn’t make sense that he’d take such a job. He tries to tell himself that he’s just out for what he can get but his self-righteousness is much too obvious and of course right from the word go he’s riddled with guilt.

He’s also plenty dumb. Rand Ringo isn’t just all-powerful, he’s mean and vindictive. So of course the first thing Dolan does is to sleep with Ringo’s wife Billy, an alcoholic failed actress. The second thing he does is to sleep with Ringo’s daughter Gloria. Gloria is the apple of Ringo’s eye.

Dolan gets wind of some plotting against Ringo on the part of the madam of one of Ringo’s brothel and the crooked redneck sheriff. Dolan figures he can use this information.

So far so good. We have a setup which promises some noir melodrama, with a self-pitying loser hero who is determined to get himself into the deepest trouble he can find.

And then Fuller starts on the politics. And he doesn’t let up. I’m prepared to believe that the guy was well-meaning and sincere in his beliefs and maybe he thought he was saying things that needed to be said in 1954. In 1954 he was probably right. Maybe in 1954 readers would have been interested. But reading the novel today it gets really tiresome to be bludgeoned about the head with the hot-button political issues of 1954. That’s the problem with political novels - they age very very badly.

Dolan is presumably meant to be a guy that we’re going to admire but I found him to be mightily irritating. He’s just too much of a Boy Scout looking for a crusade. His self-pity also gets old real fast. Given the background that is sketched in for the character he should be an interesting colourful guy but he isn’t.

The other characters in the novel fall into two categories - those who are brave and noble and honourable and those who are cardboard cut-out evil villains.

The plot is just a bit too predictable and much too contrived. Everything is secondary to the political message. And it’s all much too heavy-handed and obvious.

There’s a fair amount of violence and a bit of sleaze.

I suspect that the problem with this book is that Fuller’s background was in the slick magazines. I don’t think he really understood pulp fiction. The book reads as if he’s slumming. He’d prefer to be writing “proper” fiction. He just doesn’t get the tone right.

This is overall a pretty terrible book. It just doesn’t work. I really can’t recommend it at all.

Stark House have reprinted this book in their Black Gat Books line.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique

Poet-short story writer Clark Ashton Smith was a prolific contributor to pulps such as Weird Tales in the 1930s. He was part of Lovecraft’s circle of writer friends who kept in constant contact by letter, shared ideas and sometimes settings and influenced one another. The big three of the Lovecraft circle were Lovecraft himself, Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. They were three very different writers but with a good deal of respect for each other’s work. Smith wrote most of his hundred-plus short stories in the early 1930s.

Apart from being one of the finest of all writers of weird fiction Smith was perhaps the greatest of all American decadent writers. He was certainly the most extravagant prose stylist that America has produced. His stories are lush in a most unhealthy unwholesome way. It is the lushness of decay and degeneracy. Very few writers could match Smith as far as creating an atmosphere of dread was concerned, and none could match him when it came to the seductiveness of evil and the unnatural and perverse.

Occasionally, just to keep us on our toes, Smith would give us a happy ending. Yes, there is a Zothique story with a genuine happy ending. Mostly however things end badly for all concerned. And sometimes he would give us a slightly ambiguous ending. Smith understood that no matter how much a story might be heading towards an apparently inevitable conclusion it is a mistake to allow the reader to know with certainty how the tale will end.

The Zothique stories take place in the very distant future. The sun is now very old and sheds but a feeble light. The last inhabited continent is Zothique. It is a world in which the secrets of technology and science have long since been lost. The level of technology is that of the ancient world. It is also a world of magic. Human civilisation has reached the point of extreme decadence. Cultural exhaustion, pessimism, hedonism and self-indulgence are the hallmarks of human society. This is a society haunted by the glories of the past, and often haunted by the evils of the past as well.

The Last Hieroglyph tells of Nushain the astrologer who is disturbed one day when he notices three new stars in the sky. They are very near to the constellation of the Great Dog, the constellation which presided over his birth. He recasts his horoscope and after poring over his books he decides that it means that he will undertake an unexpected journey, a long journey, and three guides will show him the way. Whether he will find the journey profitable or unprofitable, whether it portends good or evil for him, is beyond his powers to discern.

The journey turns out to be arduous and at the end of it - well you’ll have to read the story to find that out. Suffice to say that Smith comes up with a perfect ending. It’s typical of Smith’s work - clever and imaginative with a sense of foreboding, or at least of unease.

The Empire of the Necromancers tells of two sorcerers who are banished to a wasteland for practising the forbidden art of necromancy. In this wasteland nothing lives, but that’s not a problem for men who can restore the dead to life. They create an empire for themselves, an empire of the dead. They have gained immense power but they are corrupted by it.

This is the kind of story that has gained Smith his reputation as a decadent. It’s a tale not just of a decaying or dying empire but a truly dead one. Smith’s style is rich but it’s the richness of decay.

In The Isle of the Torturers a kingdom is afflicted by a plague. Only the king is immune. With his kingdom destroyed and in despair he sets off on a sea voyage only to find himself on the fabled Isle of the Torturers. On this island torture is the fate awaiting all visitors and the methods of torture are ingenious and fiendish, relying as much on psychological terror as pain. The king’s only chance is a girl who offers to save him.

The Weaver of the Vault is one of Smith’s most anthologised stories. Three men have been sent to a dead city to retrieve a relic, but the dead are guarded well and in a terrifying manner.

The Charnel God is a superb story. In Zul-Bha-Sair the dead belong to the priests of Mordiggian. What happens to the dead is unknown but it’s assumed that they’re devoured by the god. It’s all very unfortunate for a young traveller named Phariom. hIs wife suffers from catalepsy and she’s had another attack. And now the priests have claimed her body. There is of course nothing wrong with her, in the normal course of events she would soon recover, but now she’s going to be devoured by the god. Phariom is determined to save her but it seems impossible.

The Tomb-Spawn is closer to out-and-out horror but as usual with echoes of the past. Two merchants listen to a story about a king from the distant past. He was a king and a sorcerer and he had as his familiar and creature from the stars. The merchants forget about the story and ride on but perhaps they should have remembered the story.

Xeethra is about a young goatherd who discovers a hidden valley. But what has he really discovered? Has he entered the past or a world of dream and illusion, and is he really a humble goatherd. This is a particularly evocative and subtly disturbing tale.

In The Dark Eidolon a young beggar-boy is trampled under the hooves of the horse of Zotulla. The beggar-boy survives and later, in a distant land, becomes the notorious sorcerer Namirrha. Zotulla becomes the king. Namirrha still wants his revenge and returns to the city of his birth for that purpose. He calls upon dark powers to aid him, but that can be a dangerous thing to do. Especially if you have the arrogant belief that you compel those powers of darkness to do your bidding.

In The Black Abbot of Puthuum two warrior have to escort a eunuch to a distant town. There’s a rumour of a particularly beautiful girl living here ad the eunuch is to buy her for his king. They buy the girl but on the return journey they encounter a strange wall of darkness then an isolated monastery. The abbot, a huge black man, has a sinister air about him. That monastery turns out to be a very bad place to visit. Another tale of evil from the distant past, with an ending which is not what you expect from Clark Ashton Smith.

In Necromancy in Naat Prince Yadar searches for his beloved Dalili, stolen by slavers. His quest takes him to the dread island of the necromancers of Naat. Does he find what he is seeing? Well, yes and no.

The Death of Ilalotha is a story of love, of sorts. Ilalotha, lady-in-waiting to Queen Xantlicha, is dead and is laid out on her bier whilst the traditional mourning orgy takes place. Lord Thulos had been her lover but he had abandoned her in favour of the queen. Ilalotha, who was rumoured to dabble in sorcery, took her defeat in love rather badly. Now Lord Thulos has returned from a journey, and he has the odd impression that perhaps Ilalotha is not truly dead. Love and passion usually do not end well in Clark Ashton Smith’s stories.

The Garden of Adompha is a nicely macabre tale. The garden belongs to the king. Only the king and his chief sorcerer have access to the garden. And very strange things happen in that garden. Things grow there that should not grow anywhere.

Morthylla is about a young man who has sampled all of life’s pleasures and he is now suffering from ennui. He needs stronger pleasures. It is suggested to him that if he visits a nearby necropolis he will encounter a lamia, and that she may introduce him to pleasures sufficiently perverse to meet his needs. Of course since she’s a lamia those pleasures might be fatal. He goes to the necropolis and meets a beautiful woman there. But is she the lamia?

Every single one of the Zothique stories is very very good. The Zothique cycle was an astonishing and unique achievement. There’s nothing else, in any fictional genre, that has quite the same flavour. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Elaine Dorian's The Sex Cure

The Sex Cure is a 1962 sleaze novel by Elaine Dorian, a pseudonym adopted by Isabel Moore. Moore lived in Cooperstown in upstate New York and her sleaze novels were based very closely on that town and its residents. So closely that she was threatened with libel suits and very nearly run out of town. The subsequent court case brought some notoriety to both the book and its author.

I’ve been reading a lot of the sleaze fiction of this era recently and it’s not quite what I expected. These books for the most part are not erotica. They’re either noir fiction that’s slightly sleazier than average, or they’re romantic melodramas with a bit of added sex. Although I always assumed that these books were aimed mostly at men they’re often much closer in feel and spirit to what would later become known as Chick Lit.

The Sex Cure is a case in point. It’s pure melodrama. It’s very similar in both tone and content to Grace Metalious’s 1957 massive bestseller Peyton Place. Both books deal with sex and sin behind the respectable façade of an American small town. Both books take aim at the narrow-mindedness, viciousness and hypocrisy of small town life. Both novels used sex as a major selling point. The Sex Cure is slightly more explicit in its treatment of sex, but only slightly.

The setting is a town named Ridgefield Corners. The town is run by two elderly men, Cy Stevens and Senator John Adams Turner. Both are elderly very nasty men and both are corrupt sleazeball political operators.

Dr Justin Riley comes from a rough deprived background but now he’s a rising thoracic surgeon at the town’s only hospital, with a glittering future in front of him. Or at least he did have a glittering future in front of him. If only Justin could keep his hands off the pretty nurses at the hospital, and off pretty girls in general. Now one of those pretty nurses, Betty Hogan, has been admitted to the hospital. She was bleeding to death after an illegal abortion but before lapsing into a coma she named Justin as the father of the child. And Justin is now implicated in a case of criminal abortion.

Betty may yet survive but the same can’t be said of Dr Justin Riley’s career. He’s in big trouble with his wife Olivia and with his father-in-law, Senator Turner. And the respectable citizens of Ridgefield Corners have turned against him and have decided that there’s no place in their town for such a wicked immoral person. Justin sees considerable irony in this. Whenever the townspeople get sick they run to him to save their lives. He has arranged abortions for lots of the respectable husbands of the town when they’ve gotten their mistresses pregnant, and most of the town’s respectable wives have welcomed Justin into their beds.

Justin’s sin is not adultery. His sin is that he got caught and now there’s a scandal and the respectable citizens of Ridgefield Corners don’t like scandals.

What’s worse is that all of Justin’s woman troubles have come to crisis point at the same time. His marriage was heading for the rocks anyway. He’s been trying to entice his pretty (and married) lab assistant Marge Myles into bed. He’s been sleeping with his old girlfriend Misty Powers again. Misty is sinking further into alcoholism.

Justin knows that his life is falling apart but he has no idea what to do about it. He’s never really thought about the consequences of his actions. He married Olivia for her money. Maybe he loved her at first. Their sex life has become a washout. Justin can’t live without sex. He assumes that the women he beds understand that it’s just harmless fun. But they don’t understand that at all. Misty is in love with him. Betty Hogan didn’t understand it. She was convinced that Justin would divorce his wife and marry her. Justin thought that he could keep his affairs discreet. Everybody knew he was a womaniser but as long as he wasn’t involved in open scandal nobody cared. Now he’s mixed up in what promises to be a very public scandal.

Justin has to figure out what to do about all these women in his life. And the women need to figure out what to do about Justin.

This is pure unalloyed romantic melodrama. There’s plenty of sex but it’s not at all graphic. The book is aiming for sin and sensation rather than mere erotic thrills. It’s also obvious that the author intended this as a poison-pen letter to her hometown. In Ridgefield Corners she’s created an extraordinary world of corruption and hypocrisy.

The characters are on the whole not especially admirable, but apart from the two crooked politicians and the equally corrupt local police chief they’re mostly people who have made a mess of their lives though weakness, short-sightedness, poor judgment and wishful thinking. Although they’re all messed up they could extricate themselves from their predicaments. But they probably won’t.

In these sleaze novels you’re never quite sure whether you’re hoping to get a happy ending or a downbeat ending and in this case the author keeps us guessing. Even Justin is perhaps not beyond saving, if only he could convince himself that Justin Riley was worth saving.

It’s all reasonably entertaining and it certainly offers lurid sensationalism. Recommended.

If you enjoy this sort of thing that I can highly recommend Dallas Mayo’s One Night Stand (1962), another small town sex melodrama. Other sleaze novels that are basically romantic melodramas are Florence Stonebreaker’s excellent Reno Tramp (1950) and Lawrence Block’s Kept (1960).

Thursday, September 15, 2022

The Executioners Nick Carter Killmaster #55

The Executioners was number 55 in the prolific Nick Carter Killmaster pulp spy thriller series. It appeared in 1970. All the books in the series were credited to Nick Carter. This one was written by Jon Messmann.

Nick Carter is a secret agent for the top-secret U.S. spy agency AXE.

Of course you know that there’s going to be a nefarious plot to destroy or undermine western civilisation, a plot hatched by one of America’s enemies. But it does come as a surprise that in this book the threat comes from - the Australians! The book opens with an Australian aircraft carrier sinking an American guided missile cruiser, with the loss of most of the crew of the cruiser.

Undoubtedly the inspiration for this book was a real-life incident in 1969 when the Australian aircraft carrier Melbourne did indeed sink an American destroyer in an accidental collision.

But in this novel it is no accident. Then those damned Australians drop live bombs on American troops doing an exercise. And, oh yeah, the Australians also blow up a whole bunch of British soldiers in another training exercise.

These incidents are officially written off as accidents but Hawk, the chief of AXE, doesn’t believe it for a second. Those American and British servicemen were killed deliberately. So what’s going on? Have the Australians become the latest of America’s enemies or is there some mysterious sinister scheme behind all this? Could it be the commies? AXE’s ace agent Nick Carter is sent Australia to find out.

Nick follows up a number of leads. Most of the leads involve women. He discovers that Australian women have very impressive breasts. Nick doesn’t notice too much about women’s personalities or emotions or motivations but he always notices their breasts. In order to get more information from these women Nick naturally has to sleep with them.

There are three women who play key roles in this story. There’s the assistant to the chief of Australian Intelligence, Mona Star. Mona has jutting breasts. There’s Judy, who works in a bar that seems to be linked to the case. Judy has round full breasts. Then there’s the Lynn, the girlfriend of one of the Australian soldiers involved in those accident. She has thin breasts. Yes, this book really is largely taken up by loving descriptions of women’s breasts. And steamy sex scenes.

Nick manages to find time (in between bedding Aussie women) to get beaten up, almost incinerated in a blast furnace and to get thrown out of an aircraft and stranded in the Outback. Where he encounters kangaroos. There’s no point in setting your novel in Australia unless kangaroos are going to play a part in the story.

You’ll have no difficulty whatever in guessing what is behind all this mayhem. It’s pretty much spelled out for you in the first few pages of the book. There is an amusing implication however that if those Australians start thinking about leaving their alliance with America they’ll need to be slapped down hard.

Even more amusing is that the author manages to get every single thing about Australia totally and ludicrously wrong.

There’s quite a bit of sex but (surprisingly for a book published in 1970) it’s not at all graphic.

It sounds like I’m mocking this book. It’s certainly very trashy, but I like trashy books. I like trashy overheated spy thrillers and I enjoy good old-fashioned paranoia (and there’s plenty of Cold War paranoia here). I also have no objections whatsoever to having generous amounts of sleaze added to spy thrillers. I don’t even have a major problem with thrillers in which all the female characters spend most of their time naked. I know it’s not politically correct but if you’re worried about political correctness you’re not likely to be considering reading a Nick Carter KiIlmaster book (or reading a review of such a book).

What this series did provide was lots of mindless action and sex, and those are good things. On the whole The Executioners delivers what readers of this series were looking for. The revelation of the nefarious scheme is just a bit too obvious.

The front cover promises babes in black bikinis and scuba gear. And yes, there are indeed black bikini-clad babes in scuba gear. And a brief but pretty effective underwater action climax.

The Executioners is not a great Killmaster book but it’s reasonable enough entertainment.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Dolores Hitchens' Strip for Murder

Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robins Birk Olsen Hitchens (1907-1973) wrote mysteries initially under the name D.B. Olsen. With her second husband Bert Hitchens, who was a railway detective, she wrote five railway mystery thrillers including the excellent End of the Line (1957). She also wrote mysteries under the name Dolores Hitchens, including her 1958 novella (really more a short novel than a novella) Strip for Murder.

Stark House have reprinted Strip for Murder and since it’s only a novella they’ve thrown in a couple of short stories as a bonus.

Strip for Murder begins with a guy named Bellew getting poison-pen letters. He runs a theatrical agency but in fact the entertainers he represents are strippers. Sometimes they get sent on jobs to private parties. Bellew is a quiet little guy who has no carnal interest in the girls he represents. Such things no longer interest him.

He thinks the threatening letters may be linked to an incident that occurred twenty years earlier. He’d sent a girl named Janie Gordon to a lodge party and she’d been raped. Afterwards she committed suicide. Bellew has always felt vaguely guilty although it was an incident that could not have been predicted.

Bellew asks Warne for help. Warne is an insurance investigator with an office across the hall from Bellew’s. Warne does a bit of private detective work. Warne does some checking up on Janie Gordon’s parents. Her father is still alive, he’s very very old and he’s extremely rich. Which is strange because he used to be extremely poor. Warne is convinced that it would be worth finding out where the old boy got all his money.

The old man has a bodyguard, which is also odd. The bodyguard is young, fit, tough and mean. He’s itching for a chance to beat up people like Warne who start nosing around. Warne isn’t too worried. He’s handled punks before. Old dogs tend to know some rather nasty tricks.

What worries Bellew about the letters is that they contain a prediction that what happened to Janie Gordon is about to happen again.

Warne becomes steadily more interested in the case. He also becomes steadily more interested in Bellew’s secretary. He’d never taken much notice of her previously. He hadn’t noticed how attractive she was.

Bellew is worried because he’s about to send another girl to a private party. The party is organised by a club that claims to be a group of patriots but Bellew thinks they’re more interested in naked girls than in saving the country. Bellew isn’t bothered by their hypocrisy. He takes such things for granted in his business. And Candy Carroll knows how to look after herself. Candy has just flown in from Vegas and she’s staying with another stripper, Chickie Anderson.

What happened twenty years earlier doesn’t happen again, not exactly, but something does happen. Now the police are interested. Hard-nosed reporter Fred Robinson is interested as well. He smells a story.

This is not really a hardboiled or a noir story. It’s a straightforward mystery. Warne isn’t your typical tough guy private detective but he’s tough enough. Private detective work is not really his field but he’s a good insurance investigator with an instinct that tells Im when someone is telling him lies. And he figures he’s definitely being lied to.

The plot struck me as being just a little contrived. Hitchens uses a certain method to throw us off the scent and it’s a method about which I have mixed feelings. Is the plot fair-play? I guess it is. The solution works, even with the plot contrivances.

The first of the short stories is If You See This Woman. Junie was brought up in a home for intellectually disabled girls. The girl were taught how to care for babies and were then placed with married couples as cheap live-in nannies. Junie looks after Mr and Mrs Arnold’s year-old baby Petey. One day Junie overhears something which she takes literally, and she then decides that Petey is in danger and that she must save him. If you can accept the slightly far-fetched premise (it’s hard to believe that anyone could take things as literally as Junie does) then it’s an interesting emotionally affecting story which pays off quite nicely.

The second story is Blueprint for Murder. Old Mr Harvod tells his nephew about a murder he committed and the nephew realises he now has a plan for the perfect murder. Quite a clever story.

Strip for Murder isn’t quite a neglected classic of the mystery genre but it’s enjoyable enough, Hitchens writes pretty well and the sleazy background adds interest (although the sleaze quotient is at best moderate). The two short stories are a little offbeat. So this book is worth a look.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Pirates of Venus

Pirates of Venus is the first book in the Venus series by Edgar Rice Burroughs, published in serial form in 1932 and in book form in 1934. This was the last of his book series. Compared to the Tarzan, Mars (Barsoom), Carnak and Pellucidar cycles it’s just a tiny bit disappointing. Burroughs was very good at creating imaginary worlds that radically differ from our own world. His world of Venus (the inhabitants call it Amtor) is not quite as imaginative.

Carson Napier is bored with his life. He needs an adventure. So he decides to go to Mars. He’s a keen rocket hobbyist and he is convinced that he can build a rocket that could reach Mars. He builds the rocket and it is launched successfully, with Carson Napier as the sole passenger. Unfortunately he made a mistake in his calculations and he ends up heading towards the Moon instead. The Moon’s gravitational field alters his course and he assumes that he is going to be headed off into the limitless void of space. 

But at this point he gets a lucky break. He ends up on Venus.

He discovers that scientists were both right and wrong about Venus. The planet is indeed covered in thick layers of cloud but it is no uninhabitable. He encounters one group of inhabitants immediately, the Vepajans. They live in the trees. Literally in the trees - they live inside the trunks of the trees. These are not like trees on Earth. These trees grow to a height of 6,000 feet and the trunks of some of them have a diameter of 500 feet or more.

The Vepajans are friendly but they warn him not to try to approach the girl in the garden. Naturally he does approach her and he falls instantly in love with her but she gives him the brush-off in no uncertain terms.

Carson gets captured by the birdmen of Venus and after a number of unpleasant experiences he turns pirate. The book then becomes a pretty decent pirate adventure yarn, but in ships that use what sounds like a 1932 idea of what nuclear power might be like.

There’s plenty of action and Carson doesn’t forget about the girl. Despite her coldness he is sure that she secretly loves him.

Apart from the fact that Amtor is not quite as interesting as Carnak or Pellucidar there’s another problem with this book. Burroughs decides to indulge in some political satire. His target is communism. Sadly the satire is incredibly heavy-handed.

Carson Napier is your basic Edgar Rice Burroughs hero, largely interchangeable with all the others. Burroughs had a formula and he stuck to it. He know how to make that formula work and how to produce exciting stories. His world-building could be extraordinarily impressive. Pellucidar remains one of the great fantasy worlds.

Pirates of Venus is entertaining, the city in the trees is a nice idea and like all Burroughs books it’s well-paced.

It’s also worth mentioning that you only get a partial plot resolution at the end. There’s a kind of cliffhanger which sets things up for the next book in the series.

If you’re new to Burroughs then start with the first of Pellucidar stories, At the Earth’s Core, or the first of the Carnak novels, The Land That Time Forgot, or the first of the Mars books, A Princess of Mars. Pirates of Venus is a lesser work. Recommended, if you’re already a hardcore Burroughs fan.

Saturday, September 3, 2022

John Cleve’s Purrfect Plunder

John Cleve’s Purrfect Plunder, published in 1982, was the sixth of the nineteen science fiction sleaze paperbacks published by Playboy Press between 1982 and 1985.

Andrew J. Offutt (1934-2013) was an American writer of science fiction and fantasy. He wrote sleaze fiction under a dozen or so different pseudonyms, including John Cleve. To make things a little bit more confusing the name John Cleve was used by other writers and to make things really murky some of the Spaceways books may have been collaborations.

Purrfect Plunder starts with an epic space battle.

Kenowa is one of the officers of the Dauntless. It’s not quite clear what her position is but we know that she’s sleeping with the ship’s commander, Captain Sword. After the battle the spaceship Dauntless is left a drifting wreck. Kenowa finds herself stripped naked and carried off by some kind of tentacled robot. She is placed in a tiny cubicle, in a hold that contains countless other naked females.

It’s a grim situation but things are not as they seem to be.

Then an interstellar cargo ship, the India Spring, sends a distress message. It’s been attacked by pirates. Captain Jonuta picks up the signal in his ship the Coronet and decides to answer the distress call and rescue the merchantman. Which is a little surprising. Captain Jonuta is after all a slaver. That possibly makes him marginally less lawless and disreputable than a pirate, but not much. Jonuta has never been known to do anything unless there’s a healthy profit in it for him.

The India Spring is carrying a couple of passengers. One of them is a female HRal. Her name is HReenee. This is a newly discovered species. They’re felinoprimates. They’re humanoid, but part cat. They’re an intelligent advanced species but they have some very definite feline tendencies. The capture of the India Spring by the pirates was actually fortunate for HReenee since at the time one of the India Spring’s crew members was raping her. Or rather trying to rape her, and in the process discovering that HRal have razor-sharp slashing claws.

What follows are the usual adventures you’d expect in a story about space pirates. Prisoners escape, there are lots of fights and there’s a tense climactic space battle as Jonuta faces off against a hated rival, Captain Corundum. There’s also a complicated four-way romantic/sexual tangle involving HReenee, her stepbrother HRadem, Captain Jonuta and his first officer Kenowa.

There are three lengthy explicit sexual scenes but I figure that if you’re going to be reading a science fiction sleaze novel (or if you’re going to read a review of a sci-fi sleaze novel) you’re probably going to be able to deal with that. And given the setup outlined earlier you’re probably going to be prepared for some inter-species sexual encounters.

Mostly though this is space opera. And it’s pretty good space opera. The author was an actual science fiction writer and he knows how to write space opera. He’s also familiar with at least some of the realities of space travel, things like zero gravity and creating an artificial gravity effect by having a spacecraft rotating. Most of the science and technology stuff is not outlandishly implausible by space opera standards.

And he knows how to handle action. There are some fine zero-gravity fights and the space battles are quite exciting.

There are several things that make this book a bit more interesting than you might expect. The human characters are just a little bit more than cardboard cut-outs. Jonuta is a slaver so he’s a criminal and his ethical standards are very flexible. But he does have ethical standards. He doesn’t like killing. Sometimes it’s an unfortunate necessity and he’s not going to wallow in guilt about it but it’s something he prefers to avoid. He’s had countless lovers but he’s not entirely predatory towards women (just slightly predatory). Jonuta is no Boy Scout. He is not a conventional hero nor is he a conventional villain. He’s a kind of anti-hero, albeit a reasonably likeable anti-hero.

Kenowa is sex-obsessed but not entirely without at least some romantic feelings. Jonuta and Kenowa are not madly in love but they suit each other and their relationship is not entirely based on sex.

The best thing about this novel however is that it features some of the best aliens in science fiction. Catwomen (or catpeople) were by no means an original idea in 1982. They’d been featured in various movies and the best known fictional examples were the kzinti in Larry Niven’s Known Space stories. But the HRal are a lot more interesting and a lot more convincing than the kzinti. The HRal really are both humanoid and feline. They have an advanced technological society and they’re as intelligent as humans but culturally, socially, emotionally and sexually they’re totally cat-like. And the author gives us both a female HRal (HReenee) and a make HRal (HReenee’s step-brother HRadem). HReenee is cat-like in a very female way and HRadem is cat-like in a very male way. HReenee really is a wonderful character - she is totally alien and yet believable. The behaviour of the HRal throughout the book is completely consistent with nature as feline humanoids.

Unlike many science fiction writers Cleve doesn’t seem to have any ideological axe to grind. There is a galactic empire of sorts but in practice it exercises limited control over the various member planets. There’s a galactic police force but it’s overworked ad undermanned and doesn’t achieve very much. Cleve is one of the few science fiction authors to realise that no central government could possibly exercise any real control over an interstellar empire - the distances are too great and it takes too long to cross those distances. It makes no difference what kind of central government you have, they will still be very very limited in what they can do.

The author has obviously given Playboy Press what they wanted - a science fiction adventure spiced up with lots of sex. But he’s also managed to produce a very entertaining space opera with very cool aliens. This book is much much better than you might expect. It's still trashy, but it's quality trash. And sexy space opera turns out to be a rather attractive concept. Purrfect Plunder is highly recommended.