Monday, April 27, 2015
Carvings, by John Snellings
No month stated, 1987 Leisure Books
Now here’s an ‘80s horror paperback that, at least sometimes, delivers on the lurid thrills. Carvings is exactly what I wanted, just a straight-up creature featured filled with gore and zero pretension. Unfortunately the cumulative effect is a bit lost in the 400 pages of text, most of which features humdrum characters going about humdrum things. But when the gore kicks in, the author really delivers.
No clue who John Snellings is/was, but this appears to be his only novel, and given that it’s copyright him I’m assuming he was a real person and not a house name. Whoever he was, he delivers a novel firmly in the Leisure mode, very pulpy and bloody, and too long for its own good. Not to mention riddled with spelling and grammatical errors – but then, this is consistent throughout Leisure’s line, going back even to their ‘70s publications. So I’ll give the guy the benefit of the doubt; it was probably the editors.
But the plot – the plot is pure ‘80s pulp horror. Similar in a way to the long-running Puppet Master franchise, Carvings is about little wooden statues that live for nothing more than to kill, kill, kill. And they do so in quite inventive ways, from using their claws to their razor-sharp teeth to employing everyday items like scissors. A construction worker digs up a metal box on a site one day, opens it in his study that night, and finds the four “Carvings” in it…and they promptly come to life and begin their massacre. Here’s how they’re described:
Each was a foot tall, with a plump body and oblong head with long, pointed ears. Their faces were identical, and hidious[sp]. They had huge oval eyes, long flat noses and ugly rectangular mouths. The mouths were filled with gleaming saw-like teeth. Looking at them, he couldn’t help but visualize a shark’s mouth. Their bodies were covered with wooden barbs, about a half-inch in length, like thorns on a rose bush. Their hands and feet were large, unproportional to the rest of their bodies and each toe and finger held a long curved nail, like an animal’s claw.
These little bastards are sadistic. When they show up, you can be assured of a bloody good time. In my review of As Evil Does, I opined that John Tigges was “too nice” of an author for the horror genre. The same cannot be said of John Snellings. This dude will kill any of his characters, and boy he makes it count. From innocent little kids to women who just discovered they are pregnant, from heavyset veteran cops to a pair of teenagers having sex for the first time, they all meet their uber-violent, gory red deaths at the hands of the Carvings.
Anyway, Snellings informs us from the outset where all this is going down: the tiny town of Trenton, North Carolina, in September 1986. So, true to most other ‘80s pulp horror, we are in a small town, and the author introduces us to the huge cast of characters, most of whom will meet their bloody ends posthaste. It would be a waste of time to go over them all, especially when many are introduced only long enough to meet them before they die (such as the case with the married woman who has just discovered she’s pregnant with her second child…seconds before her little daughter opens the door to the Carvings, thinking they’re little toys come to life to play with her…).
As mentioned, a goodly portion of the book is, unfortunately, given over to detailing the boring travails of these small town characters. Skimming is advised. Also true to many other ‘80s horror novels, most of the main characters are police officers, or in this case the sheriff and his deputies: Warren is the sheriff, a chain-smoking tough guy of sorts, and Wade is his top deputy (Snellings does himself no favors with so many similar names throughout the novel – I mean, there’s even a Lisa and a Linda). There’s also Charlie, a veteran cop from “the city” who has come here to nowherseville to be a deputy and take it easy.
There are also teenagers (like Linda and Gary, the doomed would-be lovers), a young woman driving home from visiting her brother, a bus of retirment-age folks heading to a church convention, and a group of little kids who ultimately find out where the Carvings have been hiding. This last point is one of the most intriguing but unfortunately least-developed parts of the novel; the only person the Carvings don’t try to kill is an old freak named Jarvis Taylor who lives alone with a house of cats left him by his deceased wife. This guy is himself a monster; when we meet him he’s in the act of capturing a neighborhood dog to take back to his place, where he’ll cook it and feed it to the cats!!
But when Taylor goes home, all his cats are dead, slaughtered in horrific fashion. It was of course the Carvings who did it, and Snellings ends the scene with old man Taylor seeing the little statues, who come into the kitchen and surround him, and we’re to assume he’s next on their list. But later we see that the Carvings live with Taylor, coming home each night after their latest round of murdering. But strangely enough, Snellings doesn’t flesh this out…how interesting it would’ve been to read parts where Taylor sat around and tried to talk to the Carvings; we do learn that gradually be begins to think of the things as “his.”
Instead, more focus is placed on go-nowhere subplots about the small town protagonists. Even Warren the sheriff, ostensibly the major protagonist, disappears for long stretches of time, and we’ll read incidental bits about doomed Linda chit-chatting in a diner with her whorish best friend, or about how a heavyset deputy lives at home with his overbearing mother, or how former city cop Charlie has a wife suffering from depression. True to the era of the ‘80s horror paperback, Carvings focuses on the wrong stuff again and again and again, and rather than becoming a memorable piece of horror fiction it’s instead a tiresome trawl.
But then the Carvings show up and kill someone and everything is right again. John Snellings comes off as a quite sadistic author, always a good thing so far as a horror paperback writer is concerned. No doubt the tiresome stuff with all the various minor characters is there to make us feel sympathy or perhaps empathy for them as they’re mutilated and eviscerated and slaughtered by the titular creatures, but instead I found myself skimming over all the useless stuff and just getting to the juciy gore.
Unfortunately this twisted stuff doesn’t occur near as frequently as it should. The novel is 400 pages, people. Most of it’s about rednecks shooting the shit about nothing that has to do with anything. Oh, and if you’re keeping track on your Trash Fiction Scorecard, while there’s plentiful gore, there’s zero sex. Lots of talk about it, though, from Linda and Gary working up the nerve to go all the way, to a photographer named Steve who scores quite often with the ladies. But Snellings’s exploitation sticks for the most part just to the violence, which usually intercedes when the adult shenanigans are about to ensue – proven most mercilessly when the Carvings attack Linda and Gary just as they’re beginning to have sex!
Also true to the spirit of the cheap horror paperback, the “climax” of Carvings is hilarliously, uh, anticlimactic; some kids happen to see the Carvings walk into old man Taylor’s house, then hurry back to tell the sheriff; this is after the creatures have run particularly rampant, including a bit where they sliced up the above-mentioned gal who was visiting her brother (she turns out to be the only person who lives to escape them, though). Warren rounds up his deputies, goes to the house, douses it with gasoline, and sets it on fire!
Given that we’ve only got 8 or so pages to go, it’s safe to say this isn’t the most elaborate of climaxes, though it is spiced up with Warren finally seeing one of the Carvings (he spends the entire novel wondering if they really exist, per the usual horror novel cliché)…right before they run amok on the deputies. I was hoping for something grander, like maybe cops wielding flamethrowers, but Snellings’s imagination is a little more “grounded,” you could say. Instead Warren and the deputies hurl the Carvings into the burning house and wait for it to all be over.
And speaking of over, the novel just…ends. Warren waits until the house burns down, then tells one of his deputies to call a fire truck, so the conflagration won’t spread to the surrounding houses. “Sure thing, Warren,” says the deputy, and turns to run off – the end!! I actually went back to read to see if I’d missed anything, but nope…that’s the end of the novel. No wrapup, no “morning after,” no “so this is why the Carvings were created and why they lived only to kill.” The creatures are dead and that’s that.
So what were the Carvings? Another under-explored subplot has Warren visiting “the oldest man in town,” who recalls that back in the ‘40s there was a mysterious dude who had a place right where that construction site now is. This dude was into voodoo and the like, and so the story goes he killed some people, stole their souls, and put them into these wooden carvings he created. But that’s about all we find out. Who exactly these people were, what exactly drives the Carvings to kill, who the voodoo man was…none of it is explained.
In a way, this is kind of refreshing – the Carvings are murderous little creatures. Who needs a lot of backstory? But still, I would’ve preferred to read more about them and less about the slackjawed yokels John Snellings populates his tale with. In the end, though, you get exactly what you expect from Carvings: some good stuff, some boring stuff, and the certainty that the novel could’ve been a whole lot better – not that it was terrible or anything. It just could’ve been better.
Thursday, April 23, 2015
The Spider #8: The Mad Horde, by Grant Stockbridge
May, 1934 Popular Publications
The Spider returns in this 1934 installment that comes off as even more harried than usual. My assumption is Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page banged this one out at lightning speed, which is likely how he wrote all of his other volumes, but something about The Mad Horde seems too rushed; events happen so quickly that the reader, let alone the characters, are not given sufficient time to absorb the apocalyptic events.
In a storyline similar to the bubonic plague outbreak of #3: Wings Of The Black Death, The Mad Horde exploits a similar disease: hydrophobia, aka rabies. But this is an advanced strain of the disease, turning its victims (but human and animal) into veritable zombies in less than 36 hours – and that’s zombies of the flesh-eating, mindlessly-attacking sort. Actually, The Mad Horde practically is a zombie novel, complete with nightmarish scenes of the brain-rotted (and often nude) victims shambling across warzones or countryside battlefields and attacking soldiers en masse, biting them – and thus turning them too into zombie-esque “hydrophobics.”
The only problem is, this horror-novel stuff is really lost in the breathless, frantic pace of the novel. Richard “The Spider” Wentworth once again shuffles all over the damn place, from flying his ever-constant Northrup airplane to commandeering police motorcycles to driving armored cars loaned to him by the army. Only once is he even in his Spider guise, and that’s for a very brief moment in which he threatens a hapless stooge; worth noting is that the Spider guise this time is not the “Tito Caliepi” look of the fanged hunchback, but rather a simple black mask accessorized by a pair of false fangs. The Spider’s main costume was constantly changing, yet criminals always seem to know who it is that’s threatening them, no matter what his current “look” is.
But per the norm Wentworth is already on the scene when we meet him; comically enough, he’s come here to Ohio on nothing more than a hunch gained from an article he recently read in the New York Times! Some dude named Douglas Brent has, according to the article, bought 5,000 dogs from various pounds. This has instantly set Wentworth’s “Spidey senses” to tengling, as such a large purchase could only be the promise of evils to come. And Wentworth even has a good guess what the mysterious “Dr. Brent” plans – he’ll no doubt inject the dogs with rabies and set them loose on the public!
Honestly, it’s best to just roll with it – because sure enough Wentworth is correct. And he gets almost immediate confirmation, as he just happens upon some “mad man” in the Ohio countryside who has butchered his wife and children and then stormed off. Before giving pursuit, Wentworth cradles the man’s wife, who dies in his arms, her last words being “Dr. Brent.” (Page could give a damn about coincidental plotting – and who could blame him, with about a million words a month to write?) Off Wentworth goes, ending up on the vast estate of Berthold Healy, mega-wealthy owner of various steel towns and other such things.
Basically, every person Wentworth meets in the Spider novels usually turns out to be involved in whatever caper Wentworth’s currently working on. This is of course also true of Healy, who Wentworth soon suspects will be the victim of Dr. Brent’s plan. Jumping as usual to bizarre conclusions, Wentworth figures that the “hydrophobe” dogs and etc will be set loose on Healy’s steel towns…and you won’t of course be surprised to learn that Wentworth is one hundred percent correct!
Have I mentioned yet that throughout this opening sequence Wentworth is wearing a blonde wig, his features changed by makeup, going under the name Sven Gustafsson? Anyway he shoots the shit with the people congregated in Healy’s mansion – his wife, Sybil, his attractive young daughter, his grim-faced colleagues – and then the rabid “mad man” who killed his family shows up! As I say, coincidence be damned. But the madman’s accidentally offered water and goes into a fit, collapsing…turns out he was a guard at one of Healy’s factories, or something.
But no time for that! Wentworth just happens to see a truck filled with dogs and other animals go roaring by, and off in pursuit he goes! They end up in one of Healy’s nearby steel towns, and the truck unloads hordes of hydrophobe animals – rodents, bats, dogs, and wolves. The latter are given a total horror-movie makeover, with skulls branded on their foreheads – Page does little with this tidbit, other than later mentioning that some of the human victims also have skulls branded on their foreheads! This is the first of many apocalyptic, nightmarish sequences, in which Wentworth blows away hordes of rabid animals as they slither by him into the night, to run amok in Healy’s little town.
But enough of that! Now Wentworth’s concern is the anti-hydrophobia serum factories of the country…he shows up at one in nearby Eatonville, Ohio…moments before it’s blown up, coincidence once again be damned. And per the series norm the stupid cops try to arrest Wentworth himself (who by now has dropped the Sven Gustafsson guise), thinking he’s the culprit behind the factory explosion, even though he’s the one who was shooting at the bastards who did it. Don’t worry, he’ll get away from them, as usual.
On to the next incident – commandeering a plane (his first of many in the novel), Wentworth takes to the sky, wanting to oversee a huge shipment of anti-rabies vaccine which is being flown in by the government to stave off the recent outbreak. And sure enough, an enemy aircraft swoops out of the clouds, shoots down the transport plane, and engages Wentworth in an aerial dogfight! But while Wentworth’s able to shoot him down, the vaccine is completely destroyed; but at least Wentworth lands and brands the Spider seal on the corpse of the enemy pilot. That’ll show ‘em!
Wentworth now dons unkempt clothing, takes up an Irish brogue, and goes about as “Patrick O’Roone.” He then discovers that his ever-faithful servant Ram Singh has been kidnapped. His only clue is the rabid madman who killed his family and uttered the name “Dr. Rusk.” So, uh, Wentworth visits the dude’s neighbors…who blithely give Wentworth the address of the good doctor! This leads to more snatches of of-the-moment madness…the office Wentworth visits is empty, and then later he’s ambushed at an air field…and then back he goes to Eatonville, where in yet another creepy sequence he finds himself in a house filled with rabid animals.
Here the zombie movie comparisons are extreme; hydrophobia has become such a catastrophic outbreak that its victims lurch around the town streets, just looking for someone to munch on, thus spreading the disease. Wentworth watches horror-stricken as a guy he meets in town takes up his rifle and shoots down a female victim of the plague; the man bitterly informs Wentworth that the hospitals are too full for more victims. Victims who can’t be cured, anyway. Thus the current policy is to just shoot the “hydrophobes” on site, like regular zombies.
Well, on to the next thing. Back to the Healy estate, where Nita Van Sloan has finally entered the narrative, called here from New York early in the book by Wentworth. Her vague mission is to infiltrate herself into Healy’s graces. So now she’s just sort of hanging out with the Healy family and reading magazines, but mostly she’s there to provide an introduction for Wentworth, who now poses as a government inspector here to help out; his stated concern is that “the Horde Master” (Wentworth’s name for Dr. Brent, aka this novel’s villain) has set his sights on Healy. Why? To crack down on the man’s steel mills and steel towns, or something.
For a page or two it’s a mystery novel, Wentworth inspecting each member of the Healy household; perhaps even Healy himself is the Horde Master? But the plot must change again – now it’s off to Hurzon, Indiana, where a challenge has just been issued by the villain behind all this. The army has closed off the steel town that’s been threatened, and Wentworth oversees the battlements with General Lansing. Again, Wentworth is hardly the Spider at all in this novel, and more so just “Richard Wentworth, Criminologist and Adventurer at Large.” He’s given a 1929-model armored car and tours the troops, certain that the attack will be launched at midnight, rather than the 4AM Lansing suspects.
Guess who’s right? The attack is another scene right out of a horror novel. Rabid dogs, rats, vampire bats, and skull-branded wolves attack Hurzon, skull-branded humans among them. Most of the soldiers run screaming, only to be bitten and infected. The battle is long and ultimately lost; too many of the hydrophobes overwhelm the army. Here Wentworth enacts his “desperate measures,” allowing himself to be caught. Gassed into unconsciousness, Wentworth wakes to find himself in a cage, nude, surrounded by an untold number of similarly-nude and caged men.
In the creepiest scene in the novel, Wentworth finds himself the guest of evil little Dern Bierkson, the creator of the virus, who keeps here all of his “human guinea pigs.” Wentworth watches in horror as one of them, who has served his purposes, is shot in cold blood by Bierkson’s henchman. The place is a literal madhouse, the men around Wentworth screaming in their rabid fits. To compound the horror, Wentworth finds that his cellmate is none other than Ram Singh – who has been infected. Once the strain kicks in, very soon now, the Hindu will be driven to bite Wentworth, infecting him as well.
But this isn’t enough for sadistic Bierkson, who has a new “guest” brought in – Nita herself! Stripped down to a silk negligee, the poor girl is put in the cell beside Wentworth. She too will be infected; Bierkson is very excited to finally try out his latest strain on a female guinea pig. But just before you can choke on the horror, Wentworth prizes an escape tool from its hiding place, taped beneath his foot, and breaks his two companions out. A quick fight, and they escape, commandeering yet another plane, which they fly to a nearby farm which Professor Brownlee is working out of, creating a new anti-rabies vaccine.
Off Wentworth goes, flying back to “the camp of the Human Guinea Pigs,” where he drops “carboys” of nerve gas, also created by Brownlee. Wentworth watches from his plane as the “mad horde” of human guinea pigs break loose, running amok on Bierkson’s guards; the sadist himself meets a grisly end, bitten in the throat by one of his own human guinea pigs. This sets the stage for the finale, in which the rabid hordes are set loose on Gary, Indiana; once again Wentworth sees the action through in his scarlet Northrup, dropping “carboys” of nerve gas left and right.
That taken care of, back Wentworth goes to the Healy estate…where he finds that Healy himself has apparently committed suicide. But you won’t be surprised to know that Wentworth suspects otherwise. In a sort of drawn-out and anticlimactic finale, Wentworth gradually uncovers the true “Horde Master,” who turns out to be one of Healy’s colleagues, whose real name is Douglas Brent. Oh, and Wentworth gets shot in the chest by the dude, but don’t worry, he rests in the hospital for about two weeks and is good as new.
Back in my review of #26: Death Reign Of The Vampire King I mentioned how Norvell Page’s writing is sometimes quite similar to Joseph Rosenberger's. Another big similarity these two “unique” authors share is a fondess for footnotes. The Mad Horde is jam-packed with footnotes, some of them as arbitrary as can be, and just like the ones Rosenberger would pepper his Death Merchant novels with, they’re filled with clinical or factual data to help support the author’s bizarre plot twists.
Most goofily, in one of these notes Page writes that the info comes directly from Wentworth himself! What, you didn’t know the Spider novels were based on true stories??
Monday, April 20, 2015
SOBs #2: The Plains Of Fire, by Jack Hild
February, 1984 Gold Eagle Books
The second volume of SOBs is much better than the first, and I’d recommend anyone new to this series to just skip Jack Canon’s first installment and start with this one, which was written by Alan Philipson, who would go on to become one of the regular authors on the series.
Philipson wisely avoids all of the scene-setting and character-building which stalled Canon’s first volume, doling out brief blocks of background for each of the Soldiers of Barrabas as he introduces them in action. He also gets to the good stuff much more quickly, and does a great job in killing off the despicable villains in memorable ways. Compare to Canon, who took forever to even get to any action, and then quickly dispensed with the villains in almost perfunctory fashion.
And the villains are quite despicable this time; they’re a legion of Islamic Revolutionary Guards, aka Pasdars, who when we meet them are in the process of torturing one of their own. The place is Iran, the man being tortured is a fervent Muslim who idolizes the Ayatollah, and the sadist in charge of the man’s torture is Razod, who has the scientist stripped down and then hammers the man’s balls to a chair, and then sets him on fire!! Why is Razod doing this? Because the scientists have discovered that the nukes they’ve been working feverishly on are going to be used in terrorist actions, and they’ve complained about it.
Well, what else can the US government do but call in the Soldiers of Barrabas? I mean, what with all those goddam liberals it isn’t like they can send in Delta Force or the Marines or whatever. So once again our mysterious Senator tasks Walker Jessup with the mission: for the SOBs to covertly venture into Iran, kill everyone, disarm the nuclear bombs, and make the whole thing look like a nuclear accident. Jessup, who has a much more contentious relationship with the Senator in Philipson’s hands, only agrees to the mission if the pay will be $200k per person, plus expenses.
The team this time is the same as the last, an unwieldy group of ten mercenaries, save for Lopez, who we are informed is still “recuperating” from the injuries he sustained last time. Barrabas is back in Amsterdam, hanging out in the heavy metal-playing nightclub of his friend/gun-runner Gunther Dykstra, the brother of Erika, Barrabas’s current woman. After meeting with Jessup Barrabas calls together his SOBs, and thankfully Philipson doesn’t make this “the” novel; within just a few pages he has them all in “The Bunker,” aka the rolling compound owned by Dr. Lee Sutton in Malaga.
Lee by the way has gotten tougher, something Philipson makes a point of calling out in the narrative. Since the previous mission, some time ago (months?), she’s continued to train, to the point where she’s in better shape than most of the other mercs, who have spent their time off laying around, getting drunk and getting laid. Philipson juggles the big group of characters around, but you can already tell in this earliest volume that there are certain favorites, besides Barrabas; namely, Lee, Billy Two, Nanos the Greek, and Liam O’Toole. The others sort of fade into the woodwork.
Barrabas lays down the dangers of the job, but the team’s all for it. They head to Bahrain in various groups, with Gunther using his gunrunning contacts to do the brunt of the cover story, using a shipment of helicopter gear shift boxes as a means to convey the team in-country. Philipson brings the local world to life with the team negotiating with the shady owner of a dhow, one which is powered by four big engines and will get them across into Iran, but they’re certain the dude is planning to kill them.
This is an almost First Blood Part II-esque scene, with the three smallest members of the team going down into the dhow to search for any hidden attackers. Lee of course is the first to find them, and when the dudes come out of the shadows and grab her, she proves herself again to be a completely different character than she was in the first book, killing one of them with a blow to the heart and then firing a gun point-blank into the crotch of the other! By the way, one thing to mention is that, while there’s plentiful violence, Philipson does not exploit the gore; usually, when someone is shot, we just read that he falls down.
The Pasdars are on a remote outpost that’s surrounded by electronic surveillance. The scientists, unbeknownst to the SOBs, are being driven to create four nukes; Razod, the sadist in charge of the place, makes off with one of them with the express purpose of bombing Haifa. Barrabas and team are not aware of this as they make their late-night attack on the base, which again is carried out with a great sense of tension and suspense and payoff – again, all of it so, so much better than the stuff we read back in the first volume.
Philipson displays what to me appears to be a bit of a military understanding, with the SOBs using knowledge and training to get past the surveillance devices, and then going for quiet kills or sniper shots to take out the various guards. But of course the way these things go, soon enough the cat’s out of the bag and it’s rock and roll on full auto. None of the SOBs really stand out in this sequence, even Billy Two, who eventually would become the most interesting character in the series (thanks to Philipson), starting with #6: Red Hammer Down.
And another big difference from Canon’s approach to the series is Philipson’s willingness to dispense with the SOBs themselves. While none of them were killed in the previous book, here three of them die in battle, and avoid this paragraph if you don’t want it to be spoiled. But Al Chen is the first to go, gunned down in a firefight; redneck Wiley Boone is next (and his passing barely registers on your consciousness), and finally Vince Biondi is the last to go. His death in particular is very well done, with race driver Biondi stealing away with the truck that holds the fourth nuke and barrelling toward the base for a fiery climax.
An even better send-off is delivered to Razod, who has hitched a ride on the back of that bomb-carrying truck, and hops off it a few miles outside of the base, realizing a madman’s behind the wheel – not understanding English, Razod has no idea that the SOBs have infiltrated his base, killed everyone, set the three nukes to blow, and have now set this last one to blow along with them in just a few minutes. But he doesn’t die in the catastrophic nuclear blast, instead rendered into what is for the most part is a mutant out of a post-nuke pulp, with his skin hanging from him like curtains and his tongue and face destroyed.
While it wasn’t the greatest men’s adventure novel I’ve ever read, The Plains Of Fire was still an entertaining, enjoyable read, and it makes me glad I picked up the entire SOBs series for a pittance the other year; I’ll look forward to reading more volumes.
Thursday, April 16, 2015
The Wereling, by David Robbins
No month stated, 1983 Leisure Books
David Robbins has published many, many novels over the past few decades; he’s probably most known for the ‘80s post-nuke pulp series Endworld, as well as its spin-off series Blade. Yet despite the guy’s prolificity in a genre I love, I’d never read any of his books, and rather than his men's adventure work I decided to start with one of his horror novels.
Beginning in the very early ‘80s Robbins published a handful of horror novels through Leisure Books, on up until the horror paperback crash of the mid-‘90s. It would appear that The Wereling is the most fondly remembered of these novels, and even received a “revised, updated, and expanded” reprinting through Mad Hornet Publications in 2013. But I’ve always been more a fan of the original issue, and so sought out the Leisure Books edition, which true to the label’s spirit has an embossed cover and lurid front and back cover copy.
I can see why The Wereling has its fans, as it’s pretty good. An old-fashioned creature feature with a new twist, it’s about a werewolf that tears apart Ocean City, New Jersey one summer season. But this isn’t your typical “changes with the full moon” sort of werewolf. Instead, muscle-bound, 19-year-old Harvey Painter, a mentally disturbed monster movie freak who lives with his domineering drunk of a mother, finds that when he wears an expensive werewolf costume he becomes possessed by the Spirit of the Wolf, which has chosen Harvey to be its current vessel on earth.
Harvey is a true ‘80s kid and parts of the book hit home for me, as I too grew up in that decade with a single mom and spent a lot of time alone reading or watching movies. Unlike Harvey though I wasn’t as much into the horror genre (and besides, I was long out of the house by the time I was 19), and I wasn’t as borderline psychotic as our villain is. Actually, Harvey Painter reminds me a lot of this creepy guy I was friends with in high school, a socially-awkward guy who was obsessed with gory horror movies. Like Harvey, my friend even had a dad who was a cop, though Harvey’s dad we learn was gunned down by a thug when Harvey was seven years old.
Now Harvey spends most of his days in his bedroom, which is adorned with monster movie posters, one wall dedicated to werewolves in particular. He reads monster mags, lifts weights, and when he doesn’t have to go to work at the local deli he likes to spend his evenings in the Dunes, a remote wastelands off of the beach where Harvey can be alone and think his morbid thoughts. But Harvey’s getting more and more pissed that others trespass on “his” domain; especially now that tourist season is in, more and more people are crashing his private fun at the Dunes.
Then in one of his beloved monster mags Harvey sees an ad for a “realistic” werewolf mask…even made with real wolf fur! At seventy-five bucks it’s pretty pricey for Harvey, who’s only managed so far to save less than two hundred bucks for his planned move out of the house. But when he sees that the mask also comes with werewolf hands and feet, both with realistic claws and also made with real wolf fur, he orders the costume. The novel opens with a prologue in which we see a werewolf tearing up the Eastern Europe countryside in the 1800s; from here we learn of the Spirit of the Wolf, and so we’re not surprised that Harvey is going to become its next vessel.
Meanwhile Robbins introduces us to a large group of characters. These will be the heroes of the tale, and Robbins is a good horror author in that he doesn’t show any favoritism when it comes to the killing. The Ocean City police force contributes the largest group of characters, in particular attractive, young Leta Ballinger, who is dating Earl Patterson, a sergeant on the force; Leta patrols with Charlene Winslow, the other hot cop on the force. Then there’s Lt. Russ Gilson, who twelve years before was the partner of Harvey Painter’s father (and who blames himself for not being there to save his friend – something for which Harvey blames “Uncle Russ,” as well).
There are other police characters to keep up with, like Chief Watson and Dr. Myrna Kraft (a consulting psychiatrist who coins the term “wereling,” which is a combo of “werewolf” and “changeling”), but outside of that world we have more characters besides. Like Allan Baxter, a 20-year-old tracker who reluctantly comes to Ocean City for one last vacation with his parents. There’s also Warren Mckeen, a radio reporter from Atlantic City who is looking for a ticket to the big leagues, and thinks he’s found it with this “Ocean City werewolf” story.
Robbins takes all these characters and more and lets them simmer – luckily, despite being 336 pages the novel doesn’t come off as very padded. And things get pretty fun when Harvey receives his werewolf costume. Having bought it just because he’s obsessed with werewolves, Harvey only later realizes that he can use the costume in a war of terror against the “trespassers” at the Dunes; he figures if he scares enough people, word will get out that a werewolf haunts the area, and people will stay away.
Given that Harvey’s costume only covers his head, hands, and feet, I guess we’re to take it that his werewolf look is more along the lines of Lon Chaney, Jr. in The Wolf Man or Michael Landon in I Was A Teenage Werewolf (or even Benicio Del Toro in the 2010 Wolfman). In other words, the werewolf of this novel isn’t the hulking, bear-like creature of An American Werewolf In London or the long-forgotten ‘80s Fox TV series Werewolf. Even when the Spirit of the Wolf fully takes over Harvey, later in the novel, he’s still just a human in a werewolf mask, gloves, and shoes.
Harvey’s initial acts are goofy fun, scaring random tourists and locals who pass by the Dunes at night. People call the cops to report the incidents, most of them flat-out calling the attacking thing a werewolf, but of course the cops don’t believe it. Gradually Harvey’s pranks become more violent, culminating in an attack on a gang of bikers who come by the Dunes after the brother of one of them was ambushed by Harvey one night. The werewolf hurls bikers left and right and ends up nearly killing one of them. Now the police are actively on the case.
A problem here is that Harvey becomes less of a presence in the novel. Robbins occasionally brings him back into the fold, but his possession by the Spirit of the Wolf could’ve been played out more, or at least more elaborated on. But it would’ve been nice to see him the morning after more of these attacks; as it is, Robbins keeps our glimpses into Harvey’s psyche rather limited, with him waking up in his room with no recollection of coming home, indeed remembering nothing after putting on his werewolf costume. We also learn that he suffers from bad headaches, and when brushing his teeth in the morning he spits out stuff that looks like meat.
When the cops get on the case, their solution is total ‘80s horror movie: have the two hot cops on the force waltz around the Dunes all night as bait! The novel kicks in gear at this point, with the werewolf ripping up Leta and killing Charlene. I should note here that The Wereling isn’t particularly gory; though Harvey the werewolf tears up several people, Robbins doesn’t provide too much graphic detail. It is though a disturbing touch when later the coroner reports that Charlene’s throat was torn open by human teeth!
While Leta recuperates, Robbins shifts focus over to reporter Warren Mckeen, who witnessed the attack on the bikers and broke the story, much to the chagrin of the Ocean City police force. Trying to get a job with a prestigous news corporation, Warren makes the werewolf story his life, and with a total lack of self-concern starts wandering around the Dunes each night. But the heat’s picked up and the werwolf isn’t coming around. But when Warren checks out similarly-remote areas of Ocean City, he runs into the creature, only saved when he falls into the water. For some reason the werewolf appears to fear the little lake, and runs away, and Robbins never explains why.
Warren strikes gold when he finds an abandoned checkbook in the field; he assumes it can only be the werewolf’s(!), and thus he is the first person to discover that the werewolf is Harvey Painter. Rather than report him to the police, Warren eventually decides he’d like to interview Harvey – and he gets his interview, though not in the way he’d expect. In one of those stupid moves only possible in the horror genre, Warren stakes out Harvey’s home and then enters it when he sees the muscle-bound recluse leave one afternoon.
I should mention that meanwhile we’ve finally gotten a few more glimpses into Harvey’s mind, in particular his revelation that something else is controlling him. However, he seems a little too blasé about it. Robbins does provide some melodramatic spark with the payoff of Harvey’s strange relationship with his mother; after taking enough of her shit, Harvey taunts her with her impending death, puts on the werewolf costume, and rips her throat out (another hallmark from the Chaney, Jr. Wolf Man, who too always went for the throats of his victims).
While the novel is a little busy with characters, as mentioned Robbins shows no reluctance in offing many of them. Some of these kills are fun in the hoped-for B movie sort of way, like Warren’s “interview with the werewolf,” in which our stubborn reporter gets more of a scoop than he bargained for. As the novel goes on, the werewolf sightings become more frequent, culminating in a July 4th assault on the Boardwalk, in which the monster runs amok, tearing apart tourists – another fun, B movie sort of scene, featuring a tourist family with a nervous wife and an overbearing husband who insists “the werewolf will never attack us!”
In fact this stuff makes you wish the werewolf was more active earlier in the novel. But it isn’t until well past page 200 that Robbins really amps up the horror action. My favorite bit is the old widower who goes out on the now-deserted beach with his metal detector, and of course takes a nap! When the werewolf comes after him as expected, Robbins really plays it out, with the creature right at the old dude’s heels, and the guy refusing to turn around and look at it as he keeps hurrying away from the beach. But many of these kills aren’t just of random characters; another memorable incident has “Uncle Russ” visiting the Painter home to see what’s going on. Like Warren the reporter, he finds a lot more than he bargained for.
Things pick up more and more as the novel progresses, but Robbins is a little guilty of some repetition, with frequent scenes of Chief Watson sitting around with Officer Grout and discussing stuff we’ve already seen happen. Also, Leta sort of drops out of the narrative, only to be reinserted at the very end to play the hero (in what is admittedly a very fitting payoff). Same goes for young Allan Baxter, who shows up in the final twenty pages or so, offers Chief Watson his tracking abilities, and uses them to hunt the werewolf after his latest kill.
This is a fine finale, with the cops following along after Allan, who grows increasingly desperate as a storm closes in; once it hits, the fresh werewolf tracks will be lost. An unfortunate thing about The Wereling is that it doesn’t deliver on some of the payoffs you want to see, and also that Robbins decides to cut away from the action at times and stop right when things are picking up, only for the reader to find out what happened via dialog between characters after the event. The same sort of holds true for the finale, with Allan following the tracks to the Painter home, and Leta and a fellow cop rushing into the blackened house.
But Robbins doesn’t tell us what happens in there, leaving the perspective with Allan, who of course finds himself alone against the werewolf. As for Harvey himself, he’s long gone from the narrative at this point, and I guess we’re to assume that the Spirit of the Wolf is in full control of his body. Again, it would’ve been nice to have seen more of his inner turmoil, if there even was any – in other words, this is no An American Werewolf In London, with Harvey worrying over what he has become.
Despite not paying off several of the promised plot points, Robbins does deliver an effective finale, with the werewolf attacking Allan and Leta in the darkened Painter home, all while a storm rages outside. I’ve forgotten to mention that Harvey, early in the book, came across his dad’s old bulletproof vest, which somehow ends up protecting him from .357 Magnum rounds; however, the vest does not extend to his head, something which is displayed in a very satisfactory sendoff for the werewolf.
Robbins has a definite understanding of horror pulp writing; his prose is fast-moving and economical, and he doesn’t try to wow us with fancy word-spinning. If I had any criticism it would mainly be of his use of dialog modifiers; characters are always “quipping” or “stating,” with the much-better (and less distracting) “said” rarely being used. Also, per the genre norm, Robbins tends to POV-hop, with perspectives changing between paragraphs without any white space to notify the reader of this perspective switch, but what the hell; I’m getting used to it. And as mentioned, he could’ve exploited the sex and violence a little more; as it is, there’s none of the former and not enough of the latter.
But overall, I found The Wereling to be very entertaining; I blew through it in no time. It’s a very readable tale, and Robbins keeps you wanting to know what happens next. I’ve picked up more of his horror novels, and will likely make Spectre the next one I read; that one in particular is supposed to be quite gory, which is always a good thing so far as ‘80s horror paperbacks are concerned.
Monday, April 13, 2015
Ninja Master #5: Black Magician, by Wade Barker
September, 1982 Warner Books
Given that the Ninja Master series was an obvious cash-in on the success of Eric Van Lustbader’s The Ninja, I guess it was only a matter of time before an installment of the series ripped off the novel itself. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if someone took Lustbader’s book and trimmed off all the fat, then you should check out Black Magician.
Here’s my understanding of the Ninja Master series: Stephen Smoke wrote the first volume, and then turned in a manuscript for the second volume. But Warner Books rejected Smoke’s manuscript and hired Ric Meyers to write a new novel based on the already-created cover art; they then hired Meyers to do the same thing for the fourth volume. Meanwhile, Warner hired some other author to write the third volume, and this person went on to trade off with Meyers, with Meyers writing the even volumes and the mystery author writing the odd volumes.
I’d love to know who this guy (or girl?) was, because he’s pretty good. My assumption going in was that Meyers’s novels would be superior, but that might not be the case; the quality of these two authors is about the same. They both know how to write good pulp, they both deliver the martial arts violence, and they both enjoy doling out the sleaze; so far, neither is more outrageous than the other, though Meyers appears to offer a bit more gore. However, this author features more lurid and kinky sex, usually involving Japanese women being debased and tortured.
There are other differences between the two authors. Meyers appears more knowledgeable about ninjutsu, and has hero Brett Wallace using a host of exotic ninja weaponry with which he skewers his opponents in bloody fashion. Meyers’s version of Brett also often dons a ninja costume in his battles. The mystery author’s version of Brett Wallace is more of a martial arts superman, capable of inhuman feats, and he not only doesn’t wear a costume but seldom if ever uses any ninja weapons. In fact, he’s more fond of turning everyday objects into weapons, like shoelaces.
Also, this author delivers a more human Brett – he occasionally drinks, he jokes, and he swears a lot. Compare to Meyers’s almost robotic force of vengeance, who sometimes comes off like Richard Camellion on a bad day. Finally, the mystery author is much more concerned with staying true to Stephen Smoke’s first volume, often referring back to the events that happened therein; he also employs Kung Fu inspired sequences where Brett will flash back his days of ninja training and the bursts of wisdom he received from Master Yamaguchi. Meyers never does this; his version of Brett Wallace has advanced far beyond the need to reflect on past training.
Anyway, Black Magician. Take the plot of Lustbader’s The Ninja, add a little more sex and violence, change the names of the characters, make it a lot shorter and a whole lot more entertaining, and you’ll come up with this book. An evil ninja is afoot in San Francisco, killing off older men who were part of a commission that was tasked with rebuilding Japan after World War II. Meanwhile, this same evil ninja is getting his rocks off murdering Japanese hookers in SanFran massage parlors.
The commission members are dying of natural causes, but it’s obvious they are being murdered in some unknown way. Also, they each receive death threats shortly before meeting their end, and the threats are accompanied with strange Japanese characters. The cops hire a Japanese professor at Berkley who eventually determines that these characters are obscure ninja symbols. Gradually Lt. Bill Wright, who has been put in charge of the investigation, is put in touch with Brett Wallace, who decides to help the cops bring in the evil ninja – just like Nicholas Linnear agreed to help Lt. Croaker in Lustbader’s book.
The sleaze is afoot as “The Oriental” (ie, how our author constantly refers to our mysterious evil ninja, who eventually is revealed to be named Seikiei Kojiro) visits various massage parlors, always demanding a Japanese whore. He turns down the constant offers of an “Oriental” girl (the word “Oriental” is used about a zillion times in the novel, by the way); he wants a Japanese girl only. And when he gets her, he will offer her money and then debase her, demanding she repeat the words “I am a Japanese woman without honor” as he sodomizes her – killing her once he’s finished!
Meanwhile Brett himself is getting some good Japanese lovin’ via Rhea, his “no commitments” bedmate who owns the Rhea Dawn restaurant. Unlike in Meyers’s installments, this version of Rhea isn’t as involved in Brett’s war upon crime and injustice; nor this time is Jeff Archer, Brett’s younger pupil who is slowly learning the ways of the ninja. Once Brett realizes that an evil ninja is in town, he tells Jeff to stay away from him – for, Star Wars style, Brett fears that the evil ninja will tap into some sort of force and realize that there’s another ninja here in San Francisco…!
This author’s previous installment, Borderland Of Hell, clouded the sleaze element and slowed the pace by having Brett go into investigator mode through most of the novel, going around and asking one-off characters various questions. Luckily there’s none of that this time, and the author keeps things moving throughout, with more members of the seven-man commission dying “naturally” just hours after receiving their death threats. They’re all in town, by the way, as they’ve been invited by David Watanabe, a 60 year-old billionaire who became rich decades ago due to his bribing of the commission.
Obviously, these murders are payback; the commission was notorious for taking funds away from established, already-wealthy people and corporations in Japan and turning the money over to upstarts like David Watanabe. So, just as in The Ninja, these modern murders are rightings of wrongs made back in the years immediately after WWII. And just as in Lustbader’s novel, Brett gradually realizes that the evil ninja is a legendary figure he’s run into before, a man who killed off a few members of Brett’s ninja clan back in the day, including Brett’s best friend there.
Brett and Lt. Wright develop a relationship clearly “inspired” by that between Linnear and Croaker, with Brett even working for the cops only if they promise never to look into his background or attempt to find out what his real name is (apparently he’s afraid of the ramifications if they discover that he’s the guy who killed all those bikers back in the first volume, or something). Not until the cops deduce that the recent hooker murders might be by the same guy killing the commission members does Brett put two and two together and realize that the killer is none other than Seikiei, a legendary ninja who is more myth than man.
In fact Brett isn’t much help to the cops, and can only stand by as another commission member dies; meanwhile, Seikiei shows up in David Watanabe’s penthouse and sodomizes the dude’s Japanese mistress, forcing him to watch! Later Watanabe too is killed, with Brett not there in time to save him – however, in the meantime, Brett has saved the final two members of the commission, using an acupressure massage to ward off what he’s discovered is behind the murders: the legendary “touch of death.”
The story climaxes with a Brett/Seikiei match on top of Mount Tamplais at midnight; the Black Magician briefly kidnapped Rhea (she assures Brett that she wasn’t raped) to have her issue the summons to Brett. Instead of going straight into an action scene, the author instead doles out blocks of exposition, as Seikiei reveals that he was the son of David Watanabe’s partner, a man Watanabe murdered many years ago while he was bribing the commission. The two ninjas just stand there talking until they finally get to the fighting.
Again, this is nothing like the Meyers presentation of the character and his skills, with Brett basically flipping around and doing karate moves instead of decimating Seikiei with exotic weapons. He doesn’t even dispatch the villain in a novel way, instead thrusting himself and Seikiei off the mountain and grabbing hold of his sword (which he’s wedged into the earth) at the last second, to dangle there as Seikiei plunges to his death on the rocks hundreds of feet below. And that’s that; Brett happily returns home to Rhea, telling Lt. Wright it’s all “finally over.”
Like I said, this mystery author isn’t bad when it comes to pulp writing. The action scenes are pretty well done, usually featuring Seikiei taking out his opponents before they can even blink. The author retains his fondness for having characters employ everyday items in deadly ways, most notably when Seikiei takes out a cordon of police with nothing more than coins, burying them in their foreheads with a savage flick of his wrist. The author also incorporates a supernatural bent with the revelation that Seikiei can even spit fire out of his mouth, something depicted on the plot-faithful cover.
Also the dialog is good, with colorful cursing from the various cops. A downside is the author’s tendency to spin wheels with repetition, again usually via dialog, and also the fact that his version of Brett Wallace sort of comes off like a well-dressed flake who seems to enjoy drinking Perrier a little too much. In this author’s hands, the series loses the savagery it has under Meyers’s authorship, so I have to say I still prefer that author’s contributions.
Thursday, April 9, 2015
Z-Comm #4: Blood Storm, by Kyle Maning
No month stated, 1990 BMI/Leisure Books
One immediately notices a few differences about this fourth and final installment of David Alexander's Z-Comm series; not only are both the series title and volume numbering gone, but so is the inner cover artwork which graced the previous three volumes. Also, Blood Storm is published by BMI,* whereas the previous books bore the Leisure imprint.
Other than a brief reference late in the novel to the events that occurred in #2: Killpoint, there’s really no continuity at all to worry about in Blood Storm; like the other books in the series, this one appears to take place at some random point in the hectic lives of the five titular mercenaries. In fact as we meet them they’re on another mission, parachuting into Libya and blowing away a faction of the Apocalypse Battalion, a coalition of Muslim terrorists which operates out of “Colonel Daffy” Qaddafi’s country.
Alexander must’ve learned a new acronym shortly before penning this one: SLAM, which is repeated throughout, and which stands for Search, Locate, and Annihalate Missions. This has become Z-Comm’s new modus operandi and indeed Alexander must’ve liked the term so much that he even used it for a later series he published through Gold Eagle Books. But anyway, Z-Comm is here to “SLAM” some terrorists, and they do so with the trademark gore you expect of Alexander, though it’s not to the extent of his almighty Phoenix series.
While the reader might expect that the Apocalypse Battalion will be the central villains this time, they really don’t appear much; instead, the villains turn out to be Nazis! So then Z-Comm ends where it began, for just as in #1: Swastika they go up against a bunch of “vomit Vikings.” But whereas Deacon Johncock’s minions in that first volume were neo-Nazis, the ones in Blood Storm are the original issue, former Werewolf SS commandos who were mere teenagers in the waning days of WWII.
They’re lead by a sadist named Hans Kleist, known as “The Ghoul.” Decades ago Kleist hid the Proteus Chain, a Nazi-created chemical-biological weapon (or CBW; as is usual with Alexander the novel is filled with acronyms) that he’s now sold to the highest bidder – namely, Colonel Qaddafi, who plans to use the nerve gas on America posthaste. Z-Comm, who is tasked by their contact, Peter Quartermaine, will of course have to destroy both the CBW and Kleists’s Nazi underlings.
Before they can get to that, though, Z-Comm themselves are under attack. Here Alexander gives us brief glimpses into the private lives of each member of the team, something he did to greater extent in Swastika. First we have Sam Proffit, the lethal weapon of the squad, unveiling his artwork in a museum in Portland; we learn that Proffit is now a famous artist, known for his sculptures of scrap metal. The museum is attacked and Proffit uses his deadly hands and feet to take out a squad of Arab attackers.
Meanwhile Domino, the female member of the team (who does not, despite the cover art on each volume of the series, wear an eyepatch) is taking a vacation in Paris. In a subplot that is never again mentioned in the novel, Domino we learn is having second thoughts about her life as a mercenary, and wonders if she should quit. Here we finally learn about the woman’s background: once married to a Miami cop whom she had a daugter with, Domino lost her family to “savages.” Domino then went undercover, eventually becoming the mistress of the drug kingpin who had killed her husband and child. She killed the guy with her bare hands, and from there hooked up with Z-Comm.
But now Domino is “tormented by memories of the bloody tasks she had performed,” in particular the devastated look in the eyes of a Battalion terrorist she blew away in the opening sequence of the novel. Zabriskie, Z-Comm’s tech guru, surprises the gal before she can ruminate much more; they’re both here in Paris for a weapons convention, and Zabriskie wants Domino to go with him. Throughout the series Alexander has snuck in implications that these two might be an item, but he never elaborates. Anyway, they too are attacked, by terrorists who storm the convention in “duck masks!”
Finally there’s Logan Cage, the leader of the team, and Bear MacBeth, getting drunk and oggling the local gals down in Rio De Janeiro during Mardi Gras. They too are attacked, by a group of “scum sheiks” in masks who are no doubt part of the same network that’s attempting to waste the rest of Z-Comm. We learn later that this is a vengeance scheme initiated by “Colonel Daffy” himself, though Alexander doesn’t do much with it; instead, more focus is placed on the fact that the Libyans, via Hans Kleist, will soon get hold of the Proteus Chain.
Alexander provides his trademarked running action sequences as the members of Z-Comm take on their attackers. This part includes many memorable moments, like Zabriskie and Domino escaping the weapons convention ambush in a commandeered HUMVEE. But after the dust settles the team gets back together in Paris, where Quartermaine tells them about the Nazi germ warfare. Somehow they already know where it’s being held in Paris, but instead of sending in the Marines it’s up to Z-Comm alone, who hope to capture the CBW material before it can be transported to Libya.
Another action sequence ensues, as Z-Comm first blows away a ton of former Werewolf SS Nazis before they themselves are caught. In this volume Alexander inserts lots of horror-novel stuff, in particular through the guise of “soul-suckers,” ie the psycho-pharmacological experts of the intelligence world. In other words, the guys who drug you up to get the truth out of you. The opening section features a few CIA “doctors” on the job (one of whom we’re informed was a former Nazi himself), but here Kleist calls in one of his own, a sadist who shows up and immediately choses Domino as his first victim.
Meanwhile Sam Proffit, who not only appears to be Alexander’s favorite character but also appears to be the most capable member of the team, acts as a one-man rescue squad as he gets an M-60 from the Z-Comm van and goes in blasting. This scene features the debut of Kleist’s henchman, a hulking Nazi brute called “The Hook” due to his prosthetic right arm, which has a razor-sharp claw on it. He and Bear are of equal size and take an instant hatred toward one another, Alexander delivering several knock-down, drag-out fights between the two.
But despite their best efforts, including a long chase sequence in which they go after the escaping semi with the Proteus Chain on it, Z-Comm fails, and the CBW ends up making it to Libya after all. Now it’s time for Plan B: going undercover. Just as in the first volume, Cage takes the point, pretending to be an arms smuggler; he goes to Libya to sell missiles to Miles O’Bannion, Qaddafi’s top weapons buyer and a former US intelligence agent who has gone turncoat. Domino goes along as Cage’s escort, vamping it up, though she doesn’t engage in any sexual shenanigans like she did in Killpoint. In fact, there’s no sex at all in Blood Storm. Bummer!
Meanwhile, Proffit goes undercover as a globe-wandering Canadian, eventually getting a job as a dishwasher near the government mansion in which Cage and Domino are staying as valued VIPs. Macbeth and Zabriskie bide their time over in Chad, where they wait with some of that country’s military personnel for the green light to go in and kill. Speaking of which, these two characters don’t get much print in Blood Storm, but then again Alexander has focused on different members in each volume.
In addition to lurid sex, another thing lacking this time is Alexander’s patented over-the-top gore. While many, many characters die spectacularly, Alexander doesn’t dwell on the splashing brains and exploding guts as he did in the insane Phoenix books, nor does he deliver any of his goofy “vicious prick to Moby Dick” type of death descriptions. There is though a heavy sardonic vibe throughout the novel, with the dark humor extending even to Alexander’s narrative. There is also a total disdain for anything remotely politically correct, with all Libyans, even innocent bystanders, referred to as “ragheads” or “camel-fuckers.”
And just like in that first volume, Cage is of course uncovered, but Proffit shows up just in time to once again save him and Domino. Seriously, Proffit should’ve been the star of his own series; he’s very much in the Mel “Lethal Weapon” Gibson mode. After another running chase, this time over the desert surrounding Tripoli, Z-Comm escapes to Chad, where they then launch a full-scale attack on the base Cage suspects of holding the Proteus Chain.
Handily enough, all of the villains have congregated here, save for Miles O’Bannion, who turns out to be a plot thread Alexander fails to tie up (Cage swears to kill the turncoat, but it never happens, and O’Bannion isn’t mentioned again once Cage and Domino escape Tripoli). However both Kleist and The Hook are there, the former suffering an entertaining if expected end when he himself is subjected to the full effects of the Proteus Chain. Another horror-esque moment, which sees the flesh melting off the bastard’s face and body, until he’s a ravening, skull-faced freak who dies screaming!
Alexander might’ve shirked on the Cage/O’Bannion payoff, but he doesn’t on the final Bear/Hook matchup, with the two going mano e mano in a brutal handfight. Guess who wins? We get another movie-esque sendoff for a villain as The Hook is crushed by ten thousand pounds of rubble, his prosthetic arm popping off from the impact. From here it’s just a bunch of Libyan soldiers getting gunned down as Z-Comm again attempts to make their escape before the air strike comes in.
And that’s that – the team looks back at the conflagration that was once a military base and then hops back into their HUMVEE and heads over for Chad, riding off into the dawn and never seen again…in print, at least. Here endeth the saga of Z-Comm, and while it wasn’t nearly the equal of Phoenix, it was still a gory thriller of a series that I’ll miss. It looks like after this Alexander wrote a pair of standalone novels for Leisure (Hitler’s Legacy and Angel Of Death), and I’ll be checking those out next.
*I’d like to know more about BMI. Yet another variant of Leisure Books (aka Dorchester Publishing), my assumption is that BMI (Book Margins International, I believe?) is the imprint through which the publisher got rid of books that had been in the pipeline for some time. I say this because I have a few BMI books, and all of them seem to have been hastily published, Bood Storm no different, with grammatical errors even on the back cover copy.
More curiously, while the book is copyright 1990 (by David Alexander), the last page of the book features an advertisement for a new Leisure Romance books hotline which will go live in June, 1995. This is five years after the copyright date, and I can find no indication of any other printing of Blood Storm other than this one. So…was it written in 1990 and not published until 1995, when Leisure chucked it out under the BMI imprint?
Monday, April 6, 2015
The Spider #7: Serpent Of Destruction, by Grant Stockbridge
April, 1934 Popular Publications
Norvell “Grant Stockbridge” Page continues to impress with yet another high-velocity installment of the Spider series. This time our fanged hero takes on a nationwide criminal syndicate which seeks to subdue the populace via cocaine and heroin, the first wave of their assault focused on the upper crust of society. Richard Wentworth, the Spider, will of course kill as many of the bastards as he can.
Using the awesomely-goofy slogan “It’s smart to be dopey,” the Bloody Serpent gang has practically ensnared the elite, once Serpent Of Destruction opens; as usual with this series, society is already on the brink of collapse before page one. And as usual, the Spider is already on the scene, sneaking into a New York penthouse in his mask and cape just as a pretty woman named Alice Cashew has been stabbed in the back, and not in the figurative sense.
She’s been killed by her boyfriend, notorious crook Big Mick Harrigan, who at the moment is assisted by another gorgeous moll, Tess Goodleigh, a sexy blonde who serves as this installment’s hot evil woman. We get another of those trademark Norvell Page opening action scenes as Wentworth blows away several crooks, Harrigan and Tess escaping; Alice’s dying words are about the “bloody serpent” and “coke.” Wentworth also saves a bound and drugged girl named Alice Puystan, whom Harrigan and Tess were also about to murder, and further planned to frame for some plot.
With its cocaine paranoia, and even a few trips to Washington, DC, Serpent Of Destruction is eerie in how it prefigures the 1980s. Wentworth is alert to the growing “dope menace,” and informs his fiance Nita van Sloan about all sorts of horrors he’s recently heard about, including a young female dope addict who became a hemophile, so enamored with the sight of blood that she sliced up a little dog! But the Bloody Serpent gang is preying on the glamorous elite of New York (and the rest of the country), and bootleggers have turned to coke and heroin now that booze is legal.
Off to DC Wentworth flies, trying to figure out who is behind the ring. Here through a government contact he learns how dire the situation is; only 160 narcotics agents are employed by the government, and 100 of them have been murdered! In another action sequence Wentworth rescues one of them, an agent who is almost dipped in lime by the sadistic members of the Bloody Serpent gang. Meanwhile, Wentworth suspects that Senator Tarleton Bragg may be the secret “chief” of the Serpent gang, but has no proof. He returns to New York.
Events continue to spiral out of control without the reader being given a pause for rest. Quickly we learn that Commissioner Kirkpatrick, not featured in the narrative as much as usual this time, has been framed on a bribery charge; the Serpent gang is so insidious and powerful that they have succeeded in setting up one of the few men who could actually stand against them. As per the series standard, Wentworth must therefore stand alone against a veritable army. Meanwhile, the “middle class” has now fallen for the dope menace as well, Wentworth in disguise watching in horror as cab drivers and the like congregate at a bar and openly snort coke.
Amid all the chaos Wentworth decides he needs two things – one, a cane with a hidden nozzle that shoots out spider venom(!), and two, a bullet-proof metal mask. In fact, he needs a bunch of bullet-proof stuff, and after tasking his pal Professor Brownlee with working on the cane, he spends an all night session creating the armor. The mask is a metallic version of his Tito Calliepi guise, ie the look that would eventually become “the” Spider look – the hawklike nose, the lank hair, the fangs. Thusly armed and armored, Wentworth is ready to kick some true ass.
Serpent Of Destruction is even more action-packed than previous volumes I’ve read, which is really saying something; this time Page himself seems unable to keep up. Apparently Brownlee’s house in Yonkers is destroyed by the gang, but the kindly old professor only thinks to inform Wentworth of this the next day (even Wentworth asks, “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”). To keep his comrades safe, Wentworth presses a button and his posh Fifth Avenue penthouse is encased in steel; this too is but a moment’s detail that’s quickly forgotten in the ensuing maelstrom of action.
Another memorable sequence soon follows in the Rhumbana club, a Caribbean-themed nightclub recently overtaken by Big Mick Harrigan. Wentworth, as the Spider, has proclaimed that a certain crook, one he’s identified as part of the Bloody Serpent gang, will die that night. Disguised as a member of the band, Wentworth pulls on his metal mask, hits the dude in the forehead with his poisonous cane in front of the entire club (enduring a hellstorm of lead – which naturally is deflected by his armor), and escapes in the chaos!
But why the poison? Because Wentworth has realized that the only thing that truly gets through to people is the threat of torture; it’s the only thing even a hardened criminal might fear. Thus when this crook takes a full day of torment to die, the Spider is even more feared. And while Nita van Sloan continues not to be much involved (the supporting characters were apparently given much more focus once Page returned from his six-month sabbatical in 1937), off Wentworth again goes to DC.
Another confrontation with Senator Bragg, who professes to know nothing of any Bloody Serpent gang. But is it an act? Before he can decide, Wentworth is ambushed by sexpot Tess Goodleigh (what a name!), a known Serpent member, and one who has lead many narcotics agents to their doom. The woman proves to be an eternal thorn in the Spider’s side, even magically appearing in another sequence, in New York, as Wentworth in the Spider guise confronts Harrigan in his office at the Rhumbana.
Wentworth returns to New York. More action, particularly in a nice sequence where Kirkpatrick himself helps out, the two men ambushing a convoy bringing drugs into the city. Here Wentworth does not wear a disguise, but it’s obvious Kirkpatrick knows he’s the Spider; the top cop even taunts Wentworth that there’s no Spider seal left on the gangsters he’s killed in the firefight. But off Wentworth rushes to another big setpiece, and right on cue Nita is kidnapped. Per the norm in these early books, she serves no more purpose than to be abducted and eventually saved.
But the doom Nita is threatened with is pretty entertaining; the Bloody Serpent Chief, that dastard, calls Wentworth and tells him that, if the Spider does not join the gang (all criminal masterminds are aware that Wentworth is the Spider, you see), then Nita will be forcibly hooked on dope! To prove his threat, the Chief sends Wentworth the next day a photo of an obviously-drugged Nita, with her “hot mouth” and “half-closed eyes” betraying her possible wantonization – the Chief alludes to the fact that, once hooked on the drug, Nita will be much less “exclusive” and open to “the casual friendship of other men.”
Now our hero is on a rampage; crooks are killed right and left, sometimes so quickly that the reader doesn’t even have a chance to register it, like when Wentworth hits Big Mick Harrigan with his venom-filled cane. But it all leads to a somewhat-muddled finale where Wentworth pretends to agree to join the Bloody Serpent gang, and he and the Chief arrange to meet at Wentworth’s Long Island estate (which also factored into the finale of #3: Wings Of The Black Death). There, in a meeting with all of the Chief’s minions, Wentworth will openly join the gang, and Nita will be returned to him.
When the expected trap is sprung, the Chief blithely telling his people to gun Wentworth down, our hero is saved by a hidden sniper, who shoots at vials of nitrogylcerin Wentworth has hidden about his large study. (We learn later that Kirkpatrick is the hidden marksman.) Here in the chaos Page delivers one of those nonsensical “big reveals” where it turns out the Chief isn’t Senator Bragg at all, but some dude pretending to be him – oh, and Tess Goodleigh turns out to be a deep-undercover secret agent!
What’s missing from Serpent Of Destruction is the usual hyperkinetic violence of the Spider series, as the Bloody Serpent plot doesn’t reach the catastrophic levels of the typical villains this series was known for. Indeed, their “victims” seem rather happy, as Wentworth notices while in disguise in a club, watching in disgust as members of the middle class happily snort cocaine! Also, the supporting characters are given short shrift, particularly Nita van Sloan.
But that’s not to say it isn’t an enjoyable installment. In fact, I haven’t read a bad Spider novel yet!