Wednesday, March 29, 2023
The Invaders is (obviously) an alien invasion story. This was 1953, with the UFO craze getting into top gear, and the saucer-shaped alien spacecraft are clearly an attempt to cash in on this. It’s also a story with obvious resemblances to Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters. Heinlein’s novel was published in 1951 and Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers appeared in 1954. The aliens in The Invaders look just like us. They’re totally non-human but they can make themselves look thoroughly human.
The Invaders, like Heinlein’s and Finney’s novels, has something of a Cold War atmosphere.
The Invaders begins in Greece. Coburn is an American. He witnesses a Bulgarian raid into Greek territory. It’s not a full-scale invasion but it’s a large-scale raid intended to provoke the Greeks. Coburn runs into a British reporter named Dillon and a pretty American girl named Janice. What Coburn witnesses is extremely puzzling. In fact it just doesn’t seem possible.
Coburn finds that he can draw only one conclusion. There are alien invaders on Earth. Aliens from outer space. But is it likely that anyone will believe him?
This is of course a setup that has been used countless times. The hero knows the truth but can’t get anyone to listen to him. This book does however throw in a twist. It’s not Coburn’s veracity that comes under question, but his motivations.
The question of course is the intention of the aliens. Coburn has no doubts about this. They want to take over the Earth.
The aliens have other advantages aside from their ability to look human. They have highly advanced technology. The latest American fighter jets are helpless against therm. The latest guided missiles are of no use.
Coburn has one factor on his side. He has figured out a way to recognise the aliens.
It all sounds like a thoroughly conventional alien invasion story but Leinster wasn’t interested in just churning out completely predictable pulp science fiction. He has some plot twists up his sleeve. The motivations of the aliens remain nicely mysterious. The outcome of the confrontation between Earth and an alien civilisation remains in doubt until the very end.
There’s some action, and it doesn’t always play out predictably.
The Cold War angle adds further complications.
This might not be one of the great alien invasion stories but it holds a fair bit of interest and it captures some of the mood of the time, when people first started seriously considering the possibility of extraterrestrial life and were starting to speculate about the forms such life might take, and the potentially momentous consequences of contact with alien cultures. Plenty of alien invasion stories had been written before this time but the early 50s was the time that aliens started to seem like maybe they might be more than science fiction.
Not quite a neglected classic, but worth a look.
Armchair Fiction have paired this one with Laurence Manning’s World of the Mist (which is quite good) in one of their two-novel paperback editions.
The Del Rey paperback collection The Best of Murray Leinster includes most of his notable short stories and is very much worth getting hold of.
Sunday, March 26, 2023
Marvin Albert (1924-1996) was an American who wrote both adventure and crime thrillers.
Rick Larson is heading through the Persian Gulf in his cabin cruiser when he comes across three dead men on a reef. Except that one of them isn’t dead. Larson is no philanthropist but he is a sailor. He can’t leave the guy there so he rescues him. The guy is a Persian. And he has a map. The map ends up in Larson’s possession. It’s a strange map. It will need interpreting.
Larson has a friend who’s a scholar and his interpretation of the map is extraordinary. That map holds the key to the lost treasure of the Assassins. The assassins being a combination of religious cultists and murderous gangsters. The order was founded in 1072 and brutally suppressed a few centuries later. The order no longer exists. At least it’s believed that it no longer exists.
Much of the treasure accumulated by the Assassins in their mountain lair at Alamut was hidden somewhere in the Arabian desert. There’s no way of finding it unless you have a map. Larson has a map. But you have to know how to make sense of the map. Larson thinks he can do just that.
He has a number of people helping him in his search for the treasure, and most of them are people he doesn’t want as partners and doesn’t trust. Men like the renegade Iraqi secret policeman Hammid and an arms dealer named Ivo. He does trust Church. He’s an old friend. He thinks he can trust Darra, maybe, up to a point. She’s a Kurdish guerrilla. The Kurds want the treasure to buy arms. He doesn’t really trust Jamil, another Kurdish guerrilla. But Larson doesn’t trust most people. That’s why he’s survived so long in such a dangerous part of the world.
What worries Rick Larson is that he isn’t being followed. It doesn’t make sense. He should have bad guys shadowing him, but they aren’t there. It’s very strange, especially since early on someone did try to kill him. A young man with a strange tattoo and a poisoned dagger.
The search for the treasure will take Larson to Alamut, and it will take these six people to the most remote and forbidding desert in the world. The desert itself will be a formidable enemy. There’s also the cheering news that Bedouin bandits have been active in the area recently and they can be very dangerous indeed.
In the 60s Alistair MacLean had established himself as the world’s foremost thriller writer. Naturally he had imitators. The best of the imitators was Gavin Lyall but Desmond Bagley was pretty good as well. It’s obvious (and his choice of pseudonym makes it even more obvious) that with his Ian McAlister novels Albert was setting himself up as yet another MacLean imitator. While he never achieved the reputation that Lyall and Bagley achieved I have to say that the Ian McAlister thrillers compare more than favourably with those writers.
He’s not as good as MacLean of course but he’s still very very good. Like MacLean he’s good with exotic and inhospitable settings which become almost characters in the books, and his plotting is very sound. The action sequences in Valley of the Assassins are excellent. The tension is built up very effectively.
Valley of the Assassins is quite simply an absolutely top-notch thriller. Highly recommended.
I’ve also reviewed Driscoll’s Diamonds, the second of the Ian MacAlister adventure thrillers, and it’s excellent as well. And I’ve reviewed one of the Jake Barrow PI thrillers he wrote under the pseudonym Nick Quarry, No Chance in Hell, and it’s very good as well.
Wednesday, March 22, 2023
Hardbitten PI Jake Barrow sees a girl being beaten up and rescues her. She wants somewhere to hide out and thinks that Jake’s apartment would be a good place. The girl is Angela and she tells Jake that a couple of guys are trying to kill her and that they’ve already killed some guy named Ernie. Jake gets a call and he has to go out to attend to a case. He tells Angela to stay put.
Jake discovers he’s been decoyed out of the apartment. By the time he gets back Angela has gone. Maybe she just took a powder and maybe somebody snatched her.
Jake has no idea who this Ernie character is but the next day he finds out that a guy named Ernie really did turn up dead in an alleyway. Jake figures the matter is worth looking into. He did after all promise to protect Angela.
The trail leads Jake into the worlds of high fashion and photography and the murky world of high-stakes gambling. He also uncovers some juicy domestic dramas that might be motives for murder. And there might be a connection to another much earlier murder.
There are quite a few dames mixed up in this case. One of the dames, Lavinia, is a knife-thrower. That’s her profession. She worked a knife-throwing act in a carny. Another woman who seems to be mixed up in the case is Nel. She had been Ernie’s secretary and now someone is trying to kill her but she claims to know nothing that would cause someone to want to bump her off.
Of more immediate concern to Jake is the fact that someone is trying to bump him off.
There’s also plenty of action with some moderately graphic (by 1959 standards) violence. And there’s as much sleazy paranoid noir atmosphere as anyone could reasonably demand. And you get quite a bit of hardboiled dialogue.
In this type of fiction the key was to get a good balance between plot and atmosphere and the author manages that very effectively in this instance.
Jake is definitely a tough guy PI. He most definitely does not like to be pushed around. He’s a pretty good guy overall and he doesn’t have much liking for people who go around terrorising, and murdering, women. In fact he doesn’t have much time for murderers. He’s not a Boy Scout. He’s not an outrageous womaniser but if a woman is willing then he won’t say no.
He likes money, he likes it a lot, but he likes to earn it honestly. He’s not self-righteous about it but he does have ethics. He does the right thing but he doesn’t make a song and dance about it.
Jake is a likeable enough and reasonably colourful hero.
Most of the women have the potential to turn out to be either innocent victims, innocent bystanders or scheming femmes fatales and Quarry keeps us guessing about every one of them.
It’s not exactly ground-breaking but overall this is a well-crafted noirish private eye thriller which provides very solid entertainment. Highly recommended. It's been reprinted by Black Gat Books.
I’ve reviewed another of the Jake Barrow PI novels, No Chance in Hell (which is also very good), and also one of the thrillers he wrote as Ian McAlister, Driscoll’s Diamonds (a terrific book).
Saturday, March 18, 2023
Age of Consent was filmed in 1969. It was an Anglo-Australian co-production directed by Michael Powell and it’s a movie that deserves a lot more recognition.
Both novel and movie deal with a meeting between a painter and a young woman. She becomes his model, and his muse. In the novel Bradly Mudgett is forty years old and he’s broke. He’s always broke. He ekes out a precarious existence as a painter. In the movie he becomes Bradley Morahan, a much older man and an internationally acclaimed artist who decides to turn his back on the New York art world and return to his home country, Australia.
In the book Bradly rents a shack at a place called Margoola Beach. It’s primitive but it’s cheap and it’s isolated. Bradly does not like the company of people. He has his dog, Edmund. Edmund is more than enough company. The shack is surrounded on one side by the ocean and on the other by a lagoon. It’s not quite an island, but almost.
Bradly is slowly coming to realise that he’s reached a crisis in his career. He has never achieved anything approaching real success. He is afraid to take risks. He knows how to produce paintings that will sell for a few pounds. He has found a safe formula which is at least enough to keep starvation at bay.
Then he sees the girl. At first he’s horrified that there are other people in the vicinity of his hideaway. Then something about the girl strikes him. In the past he’s done nothing but landscapes. He hasn’t done figure work since he was a student. But now he thinks he wants to paint the girl. She seems to be the missing ingredient that will bring his paintings to life. She agrees to pose for him.
The girl is Cora. She’s almost feral. She lives with her foul-tempered gin-sodden grandmother. Cora is not exactly socialised. Like Bradly she doesn’t know how to deal with people. She is however a perfect model.
Then the first disaster strikes. Young Hodson shows up. Bradly had met him, briefly, in Jillabong. Now Hodson expects to be greeted like an old friend and he expects Bradly to put him up. Which is a problem. Bradly has just enough money to last him for a few months, precious months to spend painting. Now he has to feed Hodson as well. He can’t turn Hodson out. The police are after him. Bradly doesn’t have many principles but he dislikes the police and would never turn a man over to them. Not even an annoying pest like Hodson.
A bigger problem is Cora’s grandmother. She’s convinced that Cora is whoring herself out to Bradly. Cora is under-age. That gives the grandmother a lever with which to blackmail Bradly. In fact Bradly hasn’t laid a finger on the girl. She just poses for him. But Bradly is terrified of the grandmother’s threats.
This is of course (like the movie) a coming-of-age story. Cora is just becoming aware of herself as a woman. It’s all very confusing for her.
It’s also, in a way, a coming-of-age story for Bradly Mudgett. At the age of forty he knows nothing of women. His experiences with women have been confined to a few encounters with prostitutes. But Cora is getting under his skin. He thinks it’s just because she’s such a good model but unwittingly he’s getting used to having her around and he’s growing fond of her.
It’s also a story of an artist belatedly coming of age as an artist, slowly learning that maybe he is a real artist after all.
This is a very lighthearted semi-comic novel. It’s charming and throughly enjoyable and it’s highly recommended.
I’ve reviewed Michel Powell's very good movie adaptation here - Age of Consent (1969).
Thursday, March 16, 2023
Poul Anderson (1926- 2001) was an incredibly prolific writer. He is of course best remembered for his science fiction but he wrote some superb fantasy (such as The Broken Sword) and in the early 50s produced some rather wonderful sword-and-sorcery/sword-and-planet stories.
Virgin Planet is set on a planet inhabited entirely by women. They are obviously human women. It appears that the original colonists were supposed to arrive in two spaceships, one carrying the men and one carrying the women. Only the ship carrying the women arrived. This happened a long time ago and the colonisation has become encrusted with legend. The women still believe that one day the Men will arrive. They look forward to that day is a kind of religious way, but with some uneasiness. They have only the vaguest idea of what a man is.
When a spacecraft is seen to land the women think that it might be the Men at last, but it could be Monsters. They also have fairly vague ideas about the Monsters but they know that the Monsters come from the stars and have dealings, sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile, with Men.
Corporal Maiden Barbara Whitley is the one who finds the spaceship. There’s only one crew member. She figures he’s a Monster, but a friendly one. He can’t be a Man. Everyone knows that Men are wise and noble and dazzlingly beautiful. This creature just seems weird and misshapen.
The women of Freetoon are not quite sure what to do with this creature. His arrival turns out to be a disaster - it sets off a war with a neighbouring town. The creature from space and three of the surviving women from Freetoon make their escape. They’re not sure where to head for. Maybe they should head for the Ship of the Father. The Doctors may have an answer. The Doctors know everything, they even know how to work the parthenogenesis machine which allows the women of Atlantis to have children.
The creature is of course no monster. He’s very much a human and a man. He’s David Bertram and he’s on a kind of freelance survey mission.
Davis slowly pieces together what is going on. He’s on a planet named Atlantis. Technically it’s not a planet. It’s the size of Earth and it’s fairly Earth-like but it’s a satellite of a gas giant called Minos.
Society on Atlantis has regressed quite a bit. That original spacecraft was not carrying the necessary equipment to support an advanced technological society. There’s no nuclear power, no automobiles, no electricity. It’s now a rather primitive agrarian society.
There are in fact a number of subtly different cultures on Atlantis and Anderson has fun speculating on the way in which such societies could evolve. Societies made up of clones, with no men.
Naturally once the women discover that Davis Bertram is a Man they’re fascinated. All the animals on Atlantis are birds. The women of Atlantis are not only unfamiliar with the idea of human sex, they’re unfamiliar with mammalian sex. But they’re eager to learn. The complication for Davis is that some of these women are also starting to discover the concept of love. Both Barbara and her clone sister/twin Valeria have fallen in love with him.
This sounds like a recipe for a sleaze novel but that’s not how Anderson plays it. This is a serious science fiction novel although there’s also some humour and quite a bit of adventure. And there’s no sex at all.
Davis Bertram is an engaging hero because he isn’t a square-jawed action hero. He’s by no means helpless but he’s no warrior. He’s not a coward but he’s only moderately brave. He’s not stupid but he’s not a genius. He’s a spoilt rich man’s son and his solo survey mission is just an adventure to him. He’s always been rather irresponsible. On the other hand he’s good-natured and kind-hearted.
Barbara and Valeria are of course mirror images of each other. They’re warriors who believe in shooting first (with their repeating crossbows) and asking questions afterwards. But they’re gorgeous and they’re smart and underneath a slightly intimidating exterior they’re likeable.
The paperback edition includes an afterword from the author in which he explains that the only respect in which he’s played fast and loose with science is the faster-than-light travel. Other than that everything is based on solid science. This is very much hard science fiction, but it’s hard SF combined with a rollicking adventure plot and some clever speculations about the ways in which societies evolve.
Most of all Virgin Planet is extremely entertaining. Highly recommended.
Milo Manara (born Maurilio Manara in 1945) is perhaps the most famous living European comics artist and writer.
I’ve never had any interest in comics but recently I have developed an obsession with European comics, an obsession kicked off by Jean-Claude Forest’s Barbarella and solidified by my discovery of Guido Crepax. It seemed logical enough to move on to Milo Manara. I have to say that I think that compared to Forest and Crepax Manara is a lesser talent.
The comics in this volume are all overtly erotic. I have no problems with eroticism in comics, if done well. The eroticism in Barbarella is playful and witty. The eroticism in Crepax’s comics is much more strange and complex and sometimes disturbing but it’s done very stylishly, Crepax is always classy, even when he gets dark and disturbing. In this volume of Manara’s work he is too often merely crudely sexual. It feels a bit grubby. And it’s too obvious.
Il Gioco (Click or Le Déclic) dates from 1985 and is one of Manara’s best-known erotic comics and was followed by several sequels. Or perhaps it’s more a series of four linked stories.
Click is a one-idea story, although it’s an amusing idea. A sex therapist has developed a micro-machine that can be implanted in the brain. It’s controlled by a small transmitter about the size of a cigarette pack. The device is claimed to be a surefire cure for impotence. Another unscrupulous therapist, Dr Fez, steals the device and decides to find out if it will work on women as well. He wants to try it out on Mrs Claudia Christiani, a woman notorious for her lack of interest in sex.
The device works spectacularly well on Claudia, leading her into all manner of embarrassing situations. That’s pretty much it for the plot. Then there’s lots of explicit sex.
Click! 2 rehashes the plot of the first comic. The only difference is that Manara introduces some environmentalist themes which seem to be tacked on for no particular reason. There’s lots of explicit sex.
Claudia is a crusading TV journalist and she’s a particularly annoying member of a particularly annoying breed.
She becomes even more annoying in Click! 3. There’s a plot strand about forcing a girl (by very unpleasant means) to use psychic power to find diamonds. There’s a crazy guru in the jungle. And lots of explicit sex.
Click! 4 is even more stridently political with Claudia lawyer husband defending an evil chemical corporation. As usual Dr Fez shows up with his transmitter to send Claudia into more sexual frenzies.
The other story in this volume is Rendezvous in B-flat. One again there’s a political subtext, and once again it doesn’t amount to much more than telling us that politics is crooked and corrupt which I think most of us kinda already knew. It’s the story of a would-be politician who gets into debt with a loan shark. His wife has to repay the debt, in a very unpleasant way. It’s a pretty nasty story.
I don’t find the eroticism in these stories to be genuinely erotic at all. To be interesting eroticism has to be more than a succession of explicit sex acts. Manara just goes straight to crude sex. And it’s pretty crude and pretty nasty. It’s also relentless and it gets a bit tedious.
I’m not usually sensitive to such things (I’m not the sort of person who reads books looking for things to be offended by) but the level of sexual violence directed at women is a bit hair-raising.
I found these comics to be lacking in style and wit and I didn’t really enjoy them at all. Your mileage may vary of course.
I’ve enjoyed some of Manara’s later comics quite a bit so I’m not writing him off by any means.
Jean-Claude Forest and Guido Crepax are more to my taste. I highly recommend Forest's Barbarella and Crepax's Evil Spells.
Monday, March 13, 2023
Fleischman had been an American professional magician in vaudeville, until vaudeville died. He then turned to writing fiction. Between 1951 and 1954 he turned out half a dozen paperback original spy thrillers, most of them published by Fawcett Gold Medal. He then tuned to writing screenplays and finally to writing children’s books. He was fairly successful in all these fields.
Danger in Paradise follows the standard Fleischman formula - crime and international intrigue in exotic locations, mostly in the Far East.
Fleischman was not a writer who planned his books in intricate fashion. He didn’t bother with outlines. He just started with a very vague idea and sat down to write, having no idea how the plot was going to develop. It was a method that worked for him.
With Danger in Paradise his original idea was to have beautiful young American woman in Bali. A beautiful bare-breasted young American woman.
This American woman is not the central character but much of the plot revolves around her and she’s certainly the most colourful character in the book.
The narrator of the story is an American oil geologist, Jeff Cape. He made a lot of money in places like Indonesia. He managed to spend almost all the money but he had fun and he has no regrets. Now his ship is about to sail. He’s heading back to the States.
Or at least that’s where he was intending to head, until he ran into Nicole Balashov in a waterfront bar. She wants him to take a package with him. She won’t tell him the contents but it’s terribly important. Jeff figures that Nicole is trouble and he wants no part of it, but she seems rather sincere and she’s very pretty so of course he agrees.
Pretty soon Jeff has guys trailing him and he’s pretty sure they mean to do him harm. He suspects they intend to do Nicole harm as well. All his instincts tell him to just get out of the situation and get on the ship and leave Bali far behind him. But Nicole might really be in danger, those men who are after her might even mean to kill her, and even though he thinks it’s her own fault for getting mixed up in dangerous games he just can’t leave her to her fate.
Those guys are still after Jeff. There’s Apollo Fry, the fat man who might be mixed up in gunrunning. Fry is definitely up to no good and he’s ruthless. There’s also Mr Chu, the polite Chinese gentleman with the bird (the bird will be important later). And the man with the Malacca cane. Jeff has no idea where these guys fit into the picture.
And he meets Regina Williams when he takes refuge in her house. She’s a stunning American blonde. He notices her. It’s hard not to notice her, given that she’s naked from the waist up. Regina always goes topless. She’s adopted a lot of local customs. Having her breasts bare at all time is the most noticeable of these customs. Regina also informs Jeff that she is always interested in sex. Another of Regina’s habits is to take her showers in the open. When she’s not half-naked she’s totally naked. Jeff is maybe not quite the archetypal clean-cut all-American boy (he’s spent several years in exotic and often exciting places) but Regina does make him just a tad uncomfortable. When she starts dancing for him he’s even more uncomfortable. Regina’s dance is the sort of dance that gets a man’s attention. He then commits what Regina considers to be a major social faux pas. He turns down her offer of sex.
Jeff can’t really decide which of the two women, Regina and Nicole, is the more dangerous to his peace of mind. They both seem likely to slot into the femme fatale category.
The package Nicole handed to Jeff early on is effectively a McGuffin. All that matters is that everybody seems to want that package.
There’s no graphic violence but there’s a great deal of action and the pacing is relentless. The plot twists and turns in a pleasing way. Jeff is a rather hapless hero. He’s not stupid and he can handle himself in a fight but he’s hapless because he doesn’t have a clue what’s going on. His efforts to take control of the situation leave him more confused than ever. But he’s likeable, he doesn’t lack courage and he tries his best.
Fleishman’s prose style is lively. There’s plenty of the atmosphere of the Mysterious Orient that was so hugely popular in pop culture at that time.
There’s no actual sex but there’s plenty of sexiness, which is often more fun.
Danger in Paradise offers excitement, intrigue, dangerous sexy women (often with bare breasts), romance and a very solid plot. Very enjoyable, and highly recommended.
I’ve also reviewed Fleischman’s Counterspy Express and Shanghai Flame. They’re both excellent.
Friday, March 10, 2023
Mark Harris wakes up in a mission. He has no idea what city he’s in or what the date is, or even what month it is. He doesn’t remember anything about the previous five weeks. He was too drunk. He does however remember what happened before that. For example he remembers shooting his wife. He also remembers that he was a very successful trial lawyer. Not however a very ethical one. Had he been ethical he would not have had to shoot his wife.
He assumes the California cops are searching for him so it’s a bit of a relief to discover he’s now in Chicago. It’s an even bigger relief when he discovers that the cops are not searching for him after all. But his problems are not over. Cass will still be searching for him. Cass is his late wife’s brother. Cass is a gangster. Mark knows that Cass will kill him when he finds him.
In the meantime he’s in this mission. He gets preached to, which doesn’t impress him very much but if you don’t let them preach to you they won’t feed you. There are compensations. Mrs Hill is the major compensation. She helps out at the mission. Mrs Hill is a widow, she’s about thirty, she’s petite and pretty and blonde. She’s remarkably nice to him. She says she’ll get him a job. Which she does. She offers him a job as her chauffeur.
Everybody at the mission tells him that Mrs Hill is crazy but they won’t say why. In fact they don’t seem to know what’s crazy about her. They just know that she’s crazy.
She’s also rich. Rich and crazy can be a dangerous combination. She lives in a strange house - a mansion in a sum neighbourhood, richly furnished but with all the windows boarded up. It’s a slightly depressing house, hence the ironic title of the novel.
Mark forms his own theory. She’s been a widow for ten years. He cannot imagine how a woman could live without sex for ten years. He figures that she picks up men at thew mission. Men who aren’t really bums, men who are simply going through a rough patch. She picks them out, employs them as her chauffeur and uses them as bed companions.
That’s his initial theory but it soon gets blown out of the water. He comes up with a new theory. She really has gone without sex for ten years and now she just can’t stand it any longer.
Mark is good at coming up with theories to explain women, but his theories don’t seem to work out where Mrs Hill is concerned.
He does seem to correct in his assumption that she wants to sleep with him but then she pulls a few unexpected twists on him.
Even when he finds out that, like him, she has dark secrets in her past he still can’t put the pieces of the puzzle together.
And there are pieces of that jigsaw that he can’t fit in anywhere and he isn’t even sure if they are part of the jigsaw.
The final resolution of the puzzle is handled pretty neatly. It all feels right. And the ending is very noir, but not necessarily in a totally conventional noir way.
This is however very definitely noir fiction. Mark isn’t a particularly admirable human being and Mrs Hill may or may not be a femme fatale.
It’s also very definitely an erotic noir thriller. The sex isn’t the least bit graphic but it’s eroticism that drives much of the plot. And in the case of at least one major character it’s a very unhealthy eroticism. In fact you could argue that all the eroticism in this novel is at least somewhat unhealthy.
Keene’s prose is in keeping with the very dark cynical tone of the book.
Joy House is a nasty little minor noir masterpiece. Highly recommended.
I’ve also reviewed Day Keene’s Sleep With the Devil, another noir classic (although a lot more violent than Joy House) and Wake Up to Murder (which is quite good). All three novels are included in a Stark House Crime Classics triple-header paperback edition.
Monday, March 6, 2023
The House of Arabu is a fairly early Robert E. Howard story. It was apparently written in 1929 but was unpublished during his lifetime, eventually seeing the light of day (under the title Witch from Hell's Kitchen) in the Avon Fantasy Reader in 1952. At this stage Howard was still experimenting with the new sword-and-sorcery genre (which he had more or less invented).
The House of Arabu takes place in a quasi-historical rather than a fantasy setting, Mesopotamia during the Bronze Age. This is the only story Howard wrote featuring Pyrrhas the Argive. This was almost certainly not because there was anything wrong with the character (he’s a colourful proto-Conan) but because Howard realised that sword-and-sorcery tales were going to work better in a more overtly fantasy setting rather than an historical setting.
And this is definitely a sword-and-sorcery tale. There’s the loner barbarian hero, there’s an atmosphere of supernatural menace.
Other sword-and-sorcery writers have equalled or even surpassed Robert E. Howard in some areas but nobody has ever matched the raw vitality of Howard’s writing, and no-one has ever created barbarian heroes as convincingly barbarian as Howard’s. Pyrrhas is not a civilised man. He has the mercurial nature, the superstitious outlook and the casual almost innocent cruelty that typifies a Howard barbarian hero.
Necromancy in Naat is one of Clark Ashton Smith’s best-known stories. Nobody could match Smith when it came to creating an atmosphere of decadence, decay, degeneracy and doom. A prince’s search for his beloved, kidnapped by slavers, takes him to Naat, the dread island of the necromancers from which no man has ever escaped alive. He finds his beloved but it’s not the joyous reunion for which he had hoped. And he faces an almost unimaginably horrible fate. Nobody’s sorcerers were as evil and depraved as Smith’s. A superb story. This is claimed to be the complete text of the story, unpublished until recently. The original published version appeared in Weird Tales in 1936.
The Woman of the Wood by A. Merritt (published in Weird Tales in 1926) is about a scientist named McKay who talks to trees. And they talk back to him. He is drawn into their world, a world of strange tree-women. The trees are at war with three men. The men want to destroy the trees. The trees want to destroy the men. McKay wants to help the tree-women. He’ll do anything for them. Maybe even kill.
Merritt was one of the greatest and most imaginative of the pulp writers. This is a very strange story and maybe nobody else could have pulled it off.
Slaughter of the Gods, dating from the late 80s, was the final story written by Manly Wade Wellman featuring his hero Kardios, the last survivor of Atlantis. The other five Kardios tales are included in the excellent DMR Press volume Heroes of Atlantis & Lemuria. The Kardios stories are fine examples of sword-and-sorcery and Slaughter of the Gods is excellent. Kardios arrives in a city that has no kings, only gods. The real ruler seems to be a goddess. Kardios has his suspicions about the nature of these gods and his suspicions are well-founded. The goddess worries him a little as well. He has sex with her and it’s very nice but then she gets the idea that she now owns him. A neat little story.
Lin Carter’s People of the Dragon (1976) is a prehistoric tale of a tribe migrating southwards to escape from a land that is increasingly a nightmare of snow and ice. A young hunter named Junga sets out to find his father and brothers who failed to return from a hunt. Junga encounters an unimaginable horror but it teaches him a number of things that are essential to the tribe’s survival. A fairly decent story.
Lin Carter’s The Pillars of Hell (1977) is a kind of sequel to People of the Dragon. Carter intended to write a series of stories about the prehistoric tribe who called themselves the People of the Dragon, with each story taking place one generation later. Characters who were young men in one story would appear as old men in the following story. It was an idea with potential and it’s perhaps a pity that he ended up writing just these two stories. The hero of The Pillars of Hell is the son of Junga, the protagonist of People of the Dragon.
The tribe’s southward trek has taken them into barren desert country where fresh horrors await them. Members of the tribe start wandering off into the desert and are never seen again. The hero discovers that they face an appalling unseen enemy. An excellent story.
The Rune-Sword of Jutenheim by Glenn Rahman and Richard L. Tierney dates from 1985 and includes everything you’d want in a sword-and-sorcery tale - a doom-laden atmosphere, a brave Viking warrior, a sexy giantess, an evil sorcerer, magic swords, an epic struggle between the gods. It’s all pretty conventional but it’s done with style and energy and it’s fun.
Princess of Chaos by Bryce Walton appeared in Planet Stories in 1947. It takes place on Venus. Moljar is half-Terran half-Martian gladiator. He belongs to the Princess Alhone. Alhone is not entirely human. She’s covered in fur. She’s a kind of catwoman. Moljar lives for one thing only. One day he intends to kill Princess Alhone, skin her and present her pelt to his tribe as a trophy.
In the arena Moljar meets Mahra. She’s a gladiator (should that be gladiatrix?) She’s a Terran but she’s also a mutant. Nobody likes half-breeds like Moljar and nobody likes mutants so they should get along, but they don’t. Then the Mistmen attack and Alhone offers Muljar a mission. Mahra accompanies him because she figures they have a better chance of survival together.
There’s a lot Muljar doesn’t know about Venus and there’s a great deal he doesn’t know about Princess Alhone. Almost everything he thought he did know turns out to be wrong.
There’s action in generous quantities and a few cool science fictional ideas. This is obviously a sword-and-planet rather than a sword-and-sorcery tale, and it’s a very good one.
This is a fairly strong collection embracing both conventional sword-and-sorcery stories and stories that either fit into related genres or don’t fit neatly into any genre. Either way it’s highly recommended.
Thursday, March 2, 2023
Orrie Hitt (1916-1975) wrote around 150 novels, most of them paperback originals. He started his career writing crime novels. Much of his sleaze fiction is in fact crime fiction with often a very strong noir fiction flavour. When he switched genres all he really did was to add strong dashes of sleaze to what he was already doing. It’s always a mistake to assume that the writers of sleaze fiction were untalented hacks. Many were very talented writers who went on to have illustrious careers in other genres. And even those who were never able to escape the sleaze fiction ghetto were often very fine writers. That certainly applies to Orrie Hitt. His books compare quite favourably to most of the noir fiction of the 50s and early 60s.
Della Banners is around twenty and she hasn’t had much of a life. She lives on a run-down farm just outside a small hick town. Her father Chuck is a likeable enough guy but he hates work and he’s always cooking up crooked schemes to get money without working for it. He’s not very successful at it. He has a whole bunch of finance companies pursing him. Della has had enough. She’s leaving and heading for the big city. Well, not exactly the big city. Port Benton isn’t big and it isn’t much of a city. She’ll need a job, and they’re hard to come by.
Then Jack turns up on her doorstep. Jack is a salesman for a shingling company. They have two types of salesmen. The canvassers make the initial approach and persuade people to talk to the other type of salesmen - the closers. The closers. The closers are the ones who get the customer to sign on the dotted line. Jack figures that Della would be an ideal canvasser. Della thinks it sounds like a promising way to earn a living. The Wyandot company isn’t exactly honest and it’s not exactly crooked.
Della doesn’t care. Money is money. She wants money. She knows that with her stunning looks and spectacular figure she won’t have much trouble attracting customers for the company. She turns out to be an amazingly good saleswoman.
Gaining promotion with the company proves easy. The combination of her sales skills and her bedroom skills makes sure of that. She isn’t troubled by the idea of using her body to get ahead.
She and Jack have figured out that they can make a lot of money honestly, and even more money dishonestly. Defrauding customers if profitable and defrauding the company is even more profitable. It’s just a matter of how long they can get away with it, and how long before her complicated relationship with Jack gets just too complicated.
Della is definitely a bad girl. She’s a crook and she’s no more honest in her personal relationships than she is in her business dealings. We don’t entirely lose sympathy for her however. It isn’t surprising that her upbringing has made her cynical, and has made it difficult for her to make an emotional commitment. She assumes that people will let her down, because her family always let her down, and she doesn’t see much reason to care about people. And, to be honest, her experiences with people since she left the farm would not encourage anyone to take a rosy view of human nature.
She has a nice apartment, a fancy car and expensive clothes but she’s never satisfied. Maybe more money will make her happy. She doesn’t really consider the possibility that she might be unhappy no matter how much money she has.
The book has a sleazy atmosphere and there’s plenty of sex going on but we don’t get even moderately graphic descriptions. Sleaze fiction in the 50s was like strip-tease in the 50s - it was all about the tease.
She Got What She Wanted is really pure noir fiction. It deals a good deal with sex, but then sex is one of the main drivers of the action in a very large proportion of noir fiction. As noir fiction She Got What She Wanted is excellent, with a memorable noir heroine (or at least noir protagonist since she’s hardly a heroine). Highly recommended.