Monday, February 26, 2024

Hollow Earth Tales vol 1

There’s a whole sub-genre of science fiction dealing with the idea of a hollow earth, or undiscovered civilisations deep beneath the Earth. It’s a sub-genre that appeals to me quite a bit. Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ wonderful Pellucidar stories are the most obvious examples but the idea was extremely popular in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time the idea did not seem outrageously implausible. Today of course it seems very implausible indeed but that just makes these stories more fun.

Hollow Earth Tales volume 1 is a collection of such tales from the pulpier end of the literary spectrum. They’re variable in quality but some are pleasingly off-the-wall.

The Plunge of the ‘Knupfen’ by Leonard Grover was published in All-Story Magazine in 1909. This is very much in the scientific romance mould but with some extraordinary bizarre flights of fancy. Like many such tales it involves a subterranean digging machine invented by an eccentric scientist but in this case the scientist does not seek scientific knowledge. He is after gold. He is convinced that there are unlimited quantities of the precious metal to be found if you can just get deep enough within the Earth. And his subterranean craft, the Knupfen, is capable of taking its one-man crew hundred of miles beneath the surface.

What he finds there is very strange indeed. An enjoyably lightweight story.

The Smoky God or a Voyage to the Inner World by Willis George Emerson was published in 1908. It’s a bizarre mix of pseudoscience and mythology. The most interesting thing about it is the idea that if you go far enough into the polar regions you will find yourself in the interior of the Earth. An interesting curiosity.

The Annihilator Comes by Ed Earl Repp was published in Wonder Stories in 1930. It is set in 1980. A giant rocket-propelled U.S. airship is on a mission to rescue a party of Swedish scientists lost in the Arctic, close to the North Pole. They are surprised to find themselves in a tropical region, although it’s no tropical paradise. It’s a tropical hell. The dinosaurs are bad enough but there are worse horrors to come.

They quickly realise that they are now in the interior of the Earth. An outrageously pulpy but action-filled entertaining story.

The Strange Voyage of Dr Penwing by Richard O. Lewis appeared in Amazing Stories in 1940 is much stranger and more interesting. A crazy old scientist believes that we’re not living on the surface of the Earth but inside it. The story also plays around with fun half-baked Einstein-ian ideas. Somewhat tongue-in-cheek but very clever.

The Hollow Planet by Don Wilcox was published in Amazing Stories in 1942. An earthquake plunges Randolph Hill into the interior of a planet (whether or not the planet is Earth is not quite clear). This is a world turned inside out, with people eking out a precarious existence on what is in effect the inside of a giant eggshell, with a sun in the middle. These people have no idea that any other worlds exist. They believe the interior of the planet is the entire universe.

We get Randolph Hill’s account in the form of his journal but the main story takes place many years later and involves his granddaughter and the man she loves, a man who believes that other worlds exist. In this society that is a dangerous belief. Not a bad story.

The Voice from the Inner World by A. Hyatt Verrill appeared in Amazing Stories in 1927. A meteor is sighted and a ship disappears. Then a strange radio message is picked up - from deep beneath the Earth’s surface! The message is from a survivor of that ship and he tells of a world of terrifying cannibal giantesses. And he tells of a deadly threat to the whole world. A very pulpy tale with a fair leavening of horror, but enjoyable.

The Underground City by Bertrand L. Shurtleff was published in Amazing Stories in 1939. Every few years a major coal mine is hit by a disaster. The bodies of the miners are never recovered. A young mining engineer thinks he has found a clue and it leads him to a very strange underground city. It leads him to unimaginable horrors, and perhaps an awful fate for the girl he loves. A reasonably enjoyable tale.

On the whole this is an interesting and varied collection and if the hollow earth idea appeals to you you’ll want to check it out. Recommended.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Tom Harland's Love Camp on Wheels

Love Camp on Wheels is a 1963 sleaze novel by Tom Harland that belongs to the small but intriguing sub-genre of trailer camp sleaze.

Stan manages a trailer camp for Meg. It’s the best job he’s ever had and it pays well. Stan knows that a smart guy would be careful not to let his personal life interfere with his job. Stan is a smart guy, mostly. There are however a lot of temptations headed his way.

And his personal life is already a bit complicated. He’s having an affair with his ex-wife, Mae. Mae’s new husband Larry knows about it but doesn’t seem inclined to do anything about it. As long as Stan and Mae are reasonably discreet everything is OK.

Meg is a lesbian. Linda is Meg’s girlfriend. Linda and her husband Ben live in the trailer camp rent-free. That gives Ben plenty of drinking money as long as he turns a blind eye to her affair with Meg. That also seems to be a stable situation.

These situations could of course become very unstable if anything were to change. If, for example, Stan and Linda were to get involved. Even if they just slept together things might get complicated. If anything more serious happened things would get very complicated very fast. Stan knows this and he tries to keep away from Linda but he also knows that he won’t be able to.

There’s also Sonny and his wife Birdie. They work at the trailer camp. Stan already has enough to worry about. He really does need to resist Birdie’s advances.

The motivations of the characters are mixed. Ben and Sonny are just out to get what they can for themselves and they both have their eyes on Stan’s job.

Stan doesn’t know if he’s still in love with Mae. He doesn’t know if he’s in love with Linda. He doesn’t know whether he really wants either of them, or whether he wants both of them. There’s nothing vicious or calculating about Stan. He just doesn’t entirely understand his own feelings about women.

In the case of just about every character money, sex and love are hopelessly mixed up. Meg wants love but she wants her business to succeed so she’ll make compromises. Mae wants love and sex and she wants Stan but she wants Larry’s money.

And love can be pretty twisted, by jealousies and by guilt and by a desire for control.

Some of the characters are sympathetic, others less so. Ben and Sonny are lowlifes. Meg, Stan, Linda and Mae behave badly or foolishly at times but they’re not bad people. They are mixed up.

As with so much of the sleaze fiction of that era there are noir undercurrents and you can never be sure how how the noirishness will be pushed. The setup is certainly ideal for noir fiction. Things could end really badly for some, or even all, of these people but in this genre it’s not always possible to predict whether the ending will be a happy one or a tragic one.

And like so much sleaze fiction this is a romantic-sexual melodrama. There’s no graphic sex, and nothing that even comes close, but the erotic tensions are overwhelming and the eroticism is dangerous and destructive. Love is dangerous and destructive as well, or at least it can be.

Love Camp on Wheels has plenty of overheated steamy sleazy atmosphere with surprisingly complex characters. It’s all very entertaining and it’s highly recommended.

Love Camp on Wheels is included in Stark House Cult Classics’s three-novel Trailer Tramps paperback, along with Orrie Hitt’s Trailer Tramp and Doug Duperrault’s Trailer Camp Woman. All three were originally published by Beacon Books. These Stark House 3-in-1 paperbacks really are terrific.

Monday, February 19, 2024

Thea von Harbou's Spies (Spione)

Spies (the original German title is Spione) is a 1929 spy novel by Thea von Harbou.

Thea von Harbou was married to Fritz Lang from 1922 to 1933 and wrote the screenplays for most of his great German movies. Some of her screenplays were based on her own novels while in other cases she wrote both the screenplay and the novel more or less simultaneously. While she is recognised as a very important screenwriter her novels are less well known in the English-speaking world.

Which is a great pity. Her novel Metropolis (written in tandem with her screenplay for Lang’s great movie) is superb and if you’re a fan of the movie the novel adds additional fascinating layers.

The movie Spies (or Spione) was released in 1928 and was ground-breaking - it was the first great spy movie made anywhere in the world. The novel is perhaps not so ground-breaking (spy fiction was already an established genre) but in its own way it was a step forward. There’s more emphasis on technology. There’s a lot more paranoia and there are complex multiple levels of betrayal.

It’s also perhaps the first major spy novel to put sex on centre stage. The spy fiction up to that point (William le Queux, E. Phillips Oppenheim, the Bulldog Drummond books and John Buchan’s Richard Hannay thrillers) tended to be fairly squeaky clean. The reality of course was that sex had always been one of the most effective weapons in the arsenal of intelligence agencies and had always been a major factor in luring people into the world of espionage. Thea von Harbou makes this very explicit. The most dangerous spies in the novel are women and they use sex ruthlessly to accomplish their missions. And sex is always there as a motivating factor, for the good guys as well as the bad guys.

There are also hints of the moral murkiness that Graham Greene and Eric Ambler would explore so successfully in their spy novels of the 1930s. There are villains in von Harbou’s novel but her villains can be motivated by idealism rather than a mere lust for power. Or, more dangerously, their motivations can be a blending of idealism and the desire for power.

The hero of the novel is an agent known only as Number 326. His chief, Jason, has given him the task of breaking a vast espionage organisation about which tantalisingly little is known. The immediate problem is a secret treaty which must at all costs remain secret.

He is soon distracted by other matters. Number 326 has always avoided entanglements with women but now he has a damsel in distress on his hands. She may have shot someone. He cannot believe that it could have been murder. And this woman, Sonia, awakens something in him. Perhaps he is after all capable of falling in love.

The question of course is whether he should trust her.

Number 326 has an ally, a Japanese master-spy. There is a question of trust involved here as well. This man is as honourable as a spy is capable of being but of course his loyalties are to Japan. Perhaps in this case the interests of Japan and of Number 326’s own country coincide perfectly. Perhaps.

Number 326 finds that love and duty don’t always mix well.

There’s decent suspense. Neither Number 326 nor the reader can be sure which characters will prove to be trustworthy and which ones will turn out to be treacherous. And treachery in this novel isn’t necessarily straightforward. The paranoia level slowly rises.

This is a story of espionage and a story of love and it works equally well on both levels.

It has a slightly different feel to contemporary British spy thrillers (spy fiction was at this early stage very much a British thing).

It’s a novel well worth reading and if you’re a fan of the movie it’s pretty much essential reading. And it's available in an English translation. Highly recommended.

I’ve reviewed von Harbou’s novels Metropolis and the flawed but strangely brilliant The Indian Tomb.

Friday, February 16, 2024

Darwin Teilhet’s Take Me As I Am

Darwin Teilhet’s Take Me As I Am was published by Gold Medal in 1952.

Darwin Teilhet (1904-1964) was an American novelist and screenwriter, writing under his own name and several pseudonyms. Take Me As I Am was one of several novels he wrote using the William H. Fielding pseudonym. It falls into the “couple on the run” sub-genre.

The novel starts with a guy named Monk and two other hoods carrying out an armoured car holdup. With a bazooka, which is a nice touch. Their boss, a guy known as Gramma (short for Grammelini), planned the heist and with half a million dollars in that armoured car Monk’s share will see him set up for life. The robbery goes horribly wrong, and worst of all there’s only a hundred grand in that truck. The police will be closing in at any moment. Monk was supposed by be picked up by his girl Alma and they would take the money to a specified drop-off point. Now there’s just one chance. Monk will lie low and maybe Alma can bluff her way through the roadblocks. She’s a cute blonde and cute blondes can bluff their way out of tight corners.

Then fate intervenes as it tends to do in noir fiction (and we’re definitely in noir territory in this story). Alma picks up a hitchhiker. His name is Bill and he’s eighteen, four years younger than Alma. Alma figures that if she can persuade Bill to pretend he’s her kid brother they can get through the roadblocks. The coppers are not going to be looking for a young brother and sister. And Bill is naïve enough to agree. He thinks Alma is such a nice girl that it never occurs to him that she could be in trouble.

Bill possibly should have noticed that the story Alma tells him is a bit odd, and she has a tendency to change her story. A couple of odd things happen, involving other blondes. Bill becomes slightly uneasy but he’s falling in love with Alma and he puts his doubts aside. And really they’re only tiny niggling doubts and he’s only eighteen.

More odd things happen. Bill has entered a nightmare world but he doesn’t know it yet. There doesn’t seem to be any possible connection between the odd events.

Gradually Bill starts to see a pattern, but it’s a constantly shifting pattern. The reader sees almost everything from Bill’s point of view. The seasoned crime reader will certainly be a step ahead of Bill in connecting the dots but there are still plenty of twists to come.

Then the real nightmare kicks in and the story becomes a desperate chase.

This is definitely noir, but it avoids overly obsessive clichés. Bill really is a true innocent. He just wants to believe that he really has met a nice girl.

Alma is not quite a stereotypical femme fatale. To find out what actually makes her tick you’ll have to read the book.

Bill and Alma are both hopelessly out of their depth. They really have no idea what’s going on. Alma initially thought she knew what she was mixed up in but every one of her assumptions turned out to be mistaken Bill and Alma are both trapped. Bill is horrified to be involved, even indirectly, in crime. But he loves Alma. Alma is more complicated. Both Bill and the reader are left uncertain until the very end as to whether she’s a good girl or a bad girl. Maybe she’s a bit of both, but she’ll have to make a choice.

There’s plenty of suspense and excitement and quite a bit of action towards the end. There’s romance but it’s a twisted love story. It’s not just that Bill is out of his depth with a woman like Alma. He’d be out of his depth with any woman. He’s also very conflicted. He wants to have sex with Alma, he’s resentful when she won’t sleep with him but disappointed in her when she does. He’s an innocent farm boy who thinks nice girls don’t have sex. Alma wants to have sex with Bill but she’s sure he won’t respect her if she does. There’s plenty of tortured 1950s sexual guilt in this novel.

There’s a background of corruption. There are plenty of references to the moral decay of America and the ubiquity of organised crime.

This is a good solid noir novel that moves along briskly. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Richard Telfair’s The Bloody Medallion

The Bloody Medallion, published by Gold Medal in 1959, was the first of Richard Telfair’s Monty Nash spy thrillers.

Telfair was actually Richard Jessup (1925-1982), an American novelist and screenwriter who wrote crime and adventure fiction as well as spy fiction. Jessup was apparently quite influenced by the existentialists and there are signs of that in this book. I wouldn’t quite call this an existentialist spy novel but I would call it a spy novel with an existentialist tinge. And spy fiction and existentialism are not a bad fit.

Montgomery Nash (known always as Monty) is the first-person narrator. Monty works for a secretive American counter-intelligence agency. The teeth of this agency are it’s two-man Fox pursuit squads. It’s not explicitly stated but it’s implied that they’re more or less US Government assassins.

Monty has just had the bad news that his partner Paul Austin is dead. Worse than that, Austin is now suspected of being a double agent. And worst of all, Monty is now under suspicion as well. He decides, in the best pulp fiction tradition, that the only way to clear his name is to escape from custody and find out the truth about Paul Austin.

The most promising lead he has is Austin’s mistress Helga. If Austin had turned traitor it’s likely there was a woman involved. Women were Austin’s big weakness.

Monty picks up a vital clue from Helga. It is a medallion, supposedly containing a piece of a battle flag stained with the blood of revolutionary martyrs killed at Stalingrad. There is a shadowy organisation, every member of which carries such a medallion. Interestingly enough although this is a revolutionary communist network it seems to have no links with any Soviet or Chinese intelligence agency. No official links, and no unofficial links either. The medallion-carriers are a totally independent ultra-radical revolutionary group with their own agenda.

Monty Nash does some fast talking and infiltrates this network. He has given an assignment - he has to steal 38 million Swiss francs in bearer bonds from a safety deposit box in a bank. Robbing a safety deposit box is a formidable challenge but Monty has a plan.

Things have become complicated since he shot Maria. Maria is a member of the medallion carriers gang. She’s the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen. He’s fallen for her in a big way. She likes him a lot as well and she’s not even angry that he shot her.

Maria has two formidable faithful dogs, fierce but loyal. One of those dogs will be essential to Monty’s plan. But he’ll still have to decide about Maria. She’s an enemy and he loves her.

This novel is interesting in that mostly it’s a conventional Cold War-era spy thriller of the action-adventure type with the assumption that the Americans are of course the good guys. There are however touches of cynicism and Monty starts to wonder if the spy business is as simple as he’d assumed. He’s starting to have conflicted loyalties. There’s some degree of emotional complexity. There’s plenty of action but some very dark moments. And at times there is that faint whiff of existentialism. There are also some hints of noir fiction.

Lone wolves are not exactly unusual in crime and spy fiction and the idea of a cop or spy deciding that it his superiors will never believe he is innocent and that he will have to go rogue and handle the case on his own on a totally unofficial basis is not dazzlingly original either. These clichés don’t seem like clichés here, mainly because Monty isn’t just a straightforward square-jawed hero and the dilemmas he faces have real consequences.

On the other hand Nash is breathtakingly violent and ruthless. He kills a lot of people during this case, and he does so without hesitation or compunction and feels no remorse. Oddly enough he also cries quite often. He’s a complex kind of guy.

Maria is also not quite a straightforward beautiful dangerous lady spy. Her motivations are complex and enigmatic.

An exciting entertaining read with just a bit more to it than you might be expecting. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 9, 2024

Dorothy Quick, Mistress of Dark Fantasy

Mistress of Dark Fantasy is a collection of stories by Dorothy Quick that were published in pulp magazines from the 1930s to the mid-50s. Most of them appeared originally in Weird Tales.

These are horror tales combined with love stories. That’s a common enough combination in gothic romances but these are not gothic romances. Or perhaps they are in a way, but not in the usual sense. They do however all deal with love.

In some of these tales the horror is quite real. In others it’s more ambiguous.

There’s a definite fairy tale vibe to a lot of these stories.

Quick is not a great prose stylist, in fact her prose on occasions is just a little flat. On the other hand she comes up with very clever story ideas. Some are startlingly original but even when they’re not original she gives them fresh twists.

If there’s a weakness to these stories it’s the author’s unwillingness at times to go for a full-blooded horror payoff.

The stories all have contemporary settings but the author shows a lot of skill in introducing familiar gothic trappings to such setting.

The first story is The Witch’s Mark. Aspiring writer Shamus O’Brien has just figured out that he’s in love with Trudy. He’d thought they were destined just to remain friends. Then he meets gorgeous glamorous redhead Cecily. It’s lust at first sight but he starts having some strange memories of events in which he could not possibly have been involved. Memories from long long ago.

Had Shamus and Cecily been lovers centuries ago? The memories seem so real. They may be real, but not in the way he thinks. It’s an effectively spooky tale of a dangerous love.

In Strange Orchids a young woman meets a rather creepy man at a party. She feels him undressing her with his eyes, but then she feels that he’s peering into her soul as well. He gives her a very beautiful orchid. She has the strange feeling that the orchid almost speaks to her. She meets another man as well. He’s looking for girls. Eighteen of them. All of whom have mysteriously disappeared. A very good story.

In The Cracks of Time a woman notices some faint cracks in one of the tiles in her sun room. She fancies that the cracks resemble a face. The next time she notices the cracks the face seems more distinct. She is sure it is the face of Pan. The face even changes expression. She feels it might in some mysterious way be communicating with her. And then she hears the music. A low-key subtly mysterious story, but very effective.

A Year from Tonight
initially seems like a goofy lighthearted story. A guy gets caught in a wild storm on a quiet road in Georgia. His car breaks down. He sees a light and thinks he’s found a house where he might be able to some help. Instead he finds himself held captive my mediæval nights in what appears to be an authentic feudal castle. He thinks he’s found himself among lunatics but slowly comes to think that maybe he really is somehow in the year 1050. The story does slowly become rather darker.

The Horror in the Studio has a Hollywood setting. A young woman is hired to design the costumes for Bryant Holden’s new picture. She had Bryant had once been sweethearts. Bryant is disturbed about the movie, based on an old manuscript someone at the studio found. It’s the story of a man who sells his sold to the Devil and then tries to redeem it by delivering five other souls to damnation. Bryant think the story is pure evil and has a bad feeling about it. He’s right to have that feeling.

A man being possessed by the spirit of someone else, someone truly evil, isn’t a dazzlingly original idea but making the victim an actor, someone whose stock-in-trade is pretending to be someone he isn’t, makes the idea work rather well. A good story.

Edge of the Cliff is not really a story, just a very brief vignette which manages to be very dark and very romantic.

The Gothic Window is about a window that has a long tragic history going back to mediæval Spain. The window now resides in a modern house in America but it has to be kept locked at all times. This is a story that seems to be heading in a predictable direction until Quick throws in a couple of clever twists at the end. A very good story.

In The Lost Door a young American, accompanied by his friend Wrexler, travels to France to claim his inheritance. It is a magnificent chateau named Rougemont. By the terms of his father’s will he must live there for six months in the year, and everything in Rougemont must be kept just as it was in the sixteenth century. The two young men both see and fall in love with a beautiful girl, but the girl appears to be a ghost. There is a curse, and a mysterious door. Good story.

The Man in Purple concerns a haunted hotel room and, once again, a curse.

More Than Shadow has a strong folk tale feel. There’s the shape of a dog that appears on the carpet when water is spilt, then a dog turns up and Mona has a dream that the dog offers her something. It is perhaps an offer that she should not accept.

In The Enchanted River an Englishman in Ceylon falls in love with a girl but the priests forbid the marriage. They get unexpected help. It’s another story in which the distant past has a profound effect on the present. Not a bad story.

The Lost Gods once again deals with supernatural powers from the past. A man is tempted by a Dream Woman. She is perhaps a goddess. He finds ancient jewels that might bring her to him in reality but what will this mean for his wife? A clever story hingeing on the power of belief.

The Woman on the Balcony is a routine ghost story and is rather disappointing.

The White Lady is the first story in this collection to have a period setting. In the England of Henry VIII a young heiress wishes to choose her on husband, against the wishes of a scheming abbot. It’s an OK story.

Turn Over seems to be an attempt at whimsy but it falls very flat and it’s the worst story in the collection.

Final Thoughts

I’d describe most of these stories as gothic romance with some genuine horror elements. The later stories are just romance with the supernatural thrown in to advance the romance plot. These later stories are not very successful.

Overall there’s more good than bad in this collection and Quick does have an approach that is intriguingly different to that taken by most pulp weird fiction writers. This book is worth a look and is definitely recommended to gothic romance fans.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Calvin Clements Sr's Satan Takes the Helm

Calvin Clements Sr wrote four pulp novels with nautical backgrounds in the 1950s. Some were essentially Far East adventures but Satan Takes the Helm, published in 1954, is very much noir fiction.

Calvin Clements Sr (1915-1997) had been a fireboat pilot before becoming a writer.

Times are tough for seamen. The narrator of the novel, Martin Lewandowski, has his master’s ticket and had held a command but at the moment he’d be willing to settle for just about anything. An old buddy tells him of a possible opportunity but Lewandowski doesn’t think it’s even worth the trouble of following up. He does so anyway. He is surprised that his employer is a woman and he’s even more surprised to get the job. The biggest surprise is that he is not to be Chief Officer of the steamer Eastern Trader but the skipper.

The battered old freighter belongs to Ezra Sloan. Sloan is an old man, too old now for active command. He’ll still be aboard and Lewandowski will theoretically be working for him but in practice Lewandowski will be the captain. There’s yet another surprise. The woman who gave him the job is Sloan’s wife and she’ll be aboard as well.

Ezra Sloan is the most physically ugly man that anyone has ever set eyes on. Joyce Sloan is half a century younger than her husband and makes no secret of the fact that she married him in order to inherit the Eastern Trader. They’ve been married for six years and she had been rather hoping he wouldn’t live quite so long. She and her husband do not share a bed. That does not mean that Joyce has no interest in sex. She’s very interested indeed in sex, and she intends to have Lewandowski as her bed partner.

You can pretty much see where all this is going to lead. It’s a standard noir plot but it’s very well executed.

It helps that Clements has a lively writing style.

Joyce Sloan is a classic femme fatale, scheming and ruthless. There’s no subtlety to the characterisation of Joyce Sloan.

Her husband is more interesting. He’s not the silly old fool that one might have expected him to be. His main weakness is that he’s a decent man who lacks the ruthlessness that is called for in hard times. Tough decisions need to be made. Costs have to be cut. The crew will not be happy about any of this. Lewandowski discovers that his job is to make those tough decisions and make sure they’re accepted by the crew.

Lewandowski is a reasonably complex protagonist. He’s decent enough and more or less honest but he’s not a soft touch and if the crew suffer as a result of decisions he has to make he’s not going to let that worry him. He’s a hard man.

He knows it would be both wrong and stupid to start sharing Joyce Sloan’s bed but he does so anyway. Mainly he’s just worried that rumours will start among the crew that he is sleeping with Ezra Sloan’s wife. This could be a real problem. The crew are devoted to old man Sloan.

Lewandowski is a mixture of good and bad. Which of course makes him a fine noir protagonist.

Clements is able to bring the story to a very satisfying conclusion.

The book’s biggest strength is the shipboard setting which Clements brings vividly to life. You can almost smell the salt spray. I’m a huge fan of mysteries, thrillers and adventure tales with nautical backgrounds and this is a very fine example of nautical noir. The battered old steamer becomes almost a character in this tale.

Satan Takes the Helm is a very solid noir and is highly recommended.

I’ve also reviewed Clements’ excellent Hell Ship to Kuma which is more of an adventure tale but with a few noir tinges.

Saturday, February 3, 2024

Dwight D. Swain's Drummers of Dauvago

Drummers of Dauvago is a short science fiction novel by Dwight D. Swain originally published in Fantastic Adventures in March 1943.

Dwight D. Swain (1915-1992) was an American who wrote in various genres including science fiction.

Drummers of Dauvago has been re-issued by Armchair Fiction in one of their excellent two-novel paperback editions. They’ve put out an enormous number of forgotten pulp science fiction novels and novellas dating from the 1930s through to the early 60s. It’s amazing how much of the obscure pulp stuff really is worth reading. Some of these novels are truly excellent. Most are at least good fun.

Which makes Drummers of Dauvago a bit of a disappointment.

Since it was published in 1943 you won’t be surprised to find that it deals with villainous Nazi plots. It starts with an American intelligence agent named Holcomb convinced that he has spotted the notorious Nazi spy Lubeck in Chicago. That’s impossible, because Lubeck is known to be in Australia. The guy he’s spotted doesn’t even look like Lubeck but Holcomb has no doubt that he’s right in his identification. Lubeck is after all a master of disguise.

Holcomb trails Lubeck but it all ends disastrously, with an American intelligence agent dead and Holcomb facing a murder rap. No-one will believe his fantastic story.

Holcomb realises he’ll have to escape from the cops and single-handedly track down Lubeck and foil his plans. It’s his duty to escape. The fate of America depends on him.

He hooks up with a girl named Sheila. She believes his crazy story and she’s a reporter and she smells a story. Holcomb and Sheila head for Ecuador. That’s where Holcomb’s only lead points. That lead is a shrunken head.

There are the usual elements you expect in a story such as this. Holcomb and Sheila get captured and have to escape, they discover the secret of Lubeck’s evil plans. They also get captured by fierce (and huge) amazon warriors. Holcomb is not giving up. Lubeck must be stopped.

The first problem with this book is that Lubeck’s plan, which is the core of the story, is very silly. It’s not silly in an engagingly goofy fun way, it’s just silly.

The second problem is that the action scenes are pretty poor. Holcomb has lots of narrow escapes but there’s nothing clever about the escapes. There’s no imagination on display. If he gets tied up he just naturally manages to untie himself. If someone points a gun at him he just knocks the gun out of the bad guy’s hand. These scenes don’t generate any real sense of danger or excitement because they’re too straightforward and obvious and, to be honest, boring.

Holcomb is a stock-standard square-jawed hero. The Nazis are stock-standard evil Nazis. Even the amazons are not very interesting. OK, the drums are a nice touch.

It is at least fast-moving. But it’s the kind of story you can read and five minutes after you’ve finished it you’ve forgotten it because there’s nothing memorable about it.

Drummers of Dauvago is just very routine and it’s hard to recommend.

Armchair Fiction have paired this novel with Emmett McDowell’s 1948 novel Citadel of the Green Death (which is a rather interesting story and worth reading).