Friday, October 28, 2016

Forgotten Novellas: Murgunstrumm - Hugh B. Cave

I usually try to read something creepy for the Friday closest to Halloween, and Hugh B. Cave's novella MURGUNSTRUMM certainly qualifies. It's arguably Cave's most famous story, has been reprinted numerous times, and serves as the lead story in the World Fantasy Award-winning collection MURGUNSTRUMM AND OTHERS.

Originally published in the January 1933 issue of the pulp STRANGE TALES OF MYSTERY AND TERROR, with a cover by H.W. Wesso based on the story, MURGUNSTRUMM is different right from the start. It begins after the point when most horror stories from that era end, with the protagonist, Paul Hill, locked away in an insane asylum because he's witnessed something so hideous, so horrifying, that it's blasted his mind to bits.

Or has it? Unlike the largely ineffectual protagonists in stories by other famous authors (*cough* Lovecraft *cough*), Paul knows that, yeah, he's seen something pretty bad, but he's not nuts, and more importantly to him, neither is his fianceƩ Ruth, who has also been committed to an asylum. And he's going to do something about it. With the help of Ruth's brother, he escapes, then sets off to the small backwoods town of Rehobeth, near the Gray Toad Inn, where the dreadful incident that resulted in their being committed took place. Taking along his future father-in-law's husky chauffeur, he lures the two doctors who signed the commitment papers to the village, takes them prisoner, and forces them to accompany him to the sinister inn, which is run by the deformed title character, Murgunstrumm. Paul's plan is to force the doctors to see that he and Ruth aren't crazy, so they'll have to intercede and get her released. But once they get inside the inn, they can't get out again, and then bad things happen . . .

The pace never really lets up for very long in this yarn, and the atmosphere is hot, sweaty, and terrifying from beginning to end. MURGUNSTRUMM is pure blood and thunder, as grotesque as many a more modern yarn, and to my mind, at least, even better because it also has that wonderful headlong sense of pulp action. I haven't read the rest of the collection yet, but I know it's good because Cave never disappoints. He was one of those rare authors who could write anything, and write all of it extremely well. If you're looking for a great horror tale to read on Halloween, look no further than MURGUNSTRUMM.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016


We went and voted this morning. No line, just walked right in and got down to business. The first presidential election I voted in was 1972, and I've missed only one of them since then. I thought seriously about skipping this one, but there's also a local bond issue on the ballot I actually wanted to vote on.

My parents took the concept of a secret ballot very seriously. When I was growing up, my dad might make an occasional comment that might give you a hint of who he was going to vote for, but it would just be a guess. I don't recall my mother ever making a political comment. And if you asked them outright, they wouldn't tell you who they voted for. It was nobody else's business. Nor would they even think of asking someone else who they voted for. It was none of their business. I've tried to follow their example. So I hope all of you who are eligible go and vote, if you haven't already. But who you vote for is none of my business.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Tuesday's Overlooked Movie: Hocus Pocus

I'm not sure why we never saw this movie when it came out in 1993, but with Halloween less than a week away, it seemed like a good time to watch it. It's a nice little horror comedy, less cute and whimsical than you might think. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy (who seems at times to be channeling Lou Costello) play three witch sisters who are hanged in Salem back in 1693. But of course there's a way for them to come back to life, which they do in 1993. They're actually pretty evil. Things never get too creepy, though; this was marketed as a family-friendly movie, after all, although to me it seems a little dark for that. Nor is it a great film, by any standard. Midler, Parker, and Najimy chew the scenery relentlessly, and the script provides some good action but not many laughs. The movie looks great, though. It might have been better as a straight horror thriller. As is, it's a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours and just spooky enough to be effective at this time of year.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Punished, Book 3: Bayou Voodoo - Jackson Lowry

Hanged twice, but still . . . undead.

Vincent Bayonne’s luck may have run out at last. The former plantation owner must find William, the freed slave who placed the zombie curse on him, if he wants to avoid the unholy fate of a living death. To reach William in New Orleans, he makes his perilous way across the untamed American frontier while escaping from US Army patrols, dodging lawmen and railroad detectives after the reward on his head, and trying not to get killed by those who hate him because of his cruel rule over Dark Oaks Plantation.

Bayonne's quest for revenge is now a fight for sheer survival. The medicine he needs to hold back the slow coarsening of his body and mind, turning him into a zombie, is long gone. His only hope is to find William, and to do that he must first get Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, to befriend him. His only allies are a beautiful woman from his past and his own incredible strength while under the curse. With the choice of becoming totally undead or begging those he hates most for aid, Bayonne plunges into the darkest recesses of black magic, hoping for a cure—and redemption.

(The final volume of this Weird Western trilogy by Jackson Lowry--really Robert E. Vardeman--is just as entertaining as the first two books. If you haven't checked out this series, it's the perfect reading for the Halloween season. Highly recommended.)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Blue Book, August 1936

Yep, that's Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg his own self appearing in a pulp magazine. Of course, BLUE BOOK wasn't really a typical pulp magazine, and not only because it reprinted a number of Sandburg's poems. This looks like a fine issue with an Arms and Men story by H. Bedford-Jones, part of a Kioga serial by William L. Chester, a Tiny David story by Robert R. Mill, and other stories by Leland Jamieson, Fulton Grant, Richard Howells Watkins, James Francis Dwyer, and others. It's generally hard to beat the line-up of authors in any issue of BLUE BOOK, and that's certainly true here. Plus a good Foreign Legion cover by Herbert Morton Stoops, who provided top-notch covers month after month.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Story, July 25, 1931

Traveling by stagecoach must have been really dangerous. They're always getting chased by owlhoots! Inside this issue of the legendary pulp WESTERN STORY are two stories by Frederick Faust, one as by George Owen Baxter and one under his John Frederick pseudonym. Also present are popular author Jackson Gregory (with the first part of a serial) and lesser known writers Kenneth Gilbert, E.C. Lincoln, and Joseph F. Hook.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Forgotten Books: The Long Arm of the Mounted - James French Dorrance

I'm always in the market for a good Mountie yarn, so when I came across a copy of THE LONG ARM OF THE MOUNTED, published by Macaulay in 1926, at Half Price Books, I bought it even though I wasn't familiar with the author, James French Dorrance. Even after more than fifty years of reading pulps, and reading about pulps, from time to time I still run across an author from that era who's new to me. Such is the case with Dorrance, who produced dozens of stories for the pulps during the first three decades of the Twentieth Century along with a number of novels, many of them Northerns with protagonists from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

This novel is actually more Western than Northern, because the hero, RCMP Sergeant John Childress, is working undercover for practically the entire book, pretending to be a horse rancher just across the border from Montana. Rustlers from the States have been crossing to border to raid the herds of the Canadian ranchers in the area, and it's Childress's assignment to break up the gang and bring its leader to justice.

That job is complicated by a couple of beautiful young women, one the daughter of the rancher just west of the spread Childress takes over, the other the young widow who owns the ranch to the east. Both of them fall for Childress, he's torn between them, and that romantic triangle takes up a considerable portion of the book. Childress never completely loses sight of his assignment, though, and eventually he uncovers the hidden mastermind behind the rustling (whose identity will come as no surprise to anybody who's ever read many Westerns).

Dorrance's writing style is on the old-fashioned side, as you'd expect from a book published ninety years ago, and to be honest, this novel could have used a little more action. The story flows along pretty well, though, and there are a couple of nice slam-bang scenes late in the game. Dorrance wastes an opportunity for an even better climax, however, giving the reader a rather limp ending instead. All that said, I enjoyed the book quite a bit. I like putting myself in the mindset of readers from previous eras, as should be obvious from all the old books I read. I can see why Dorrance wasn't a big name but also why he had a fairly long and productive career. THE LONG ARM OF THE MOUNTED is a mild but pleasant diversion from real life. These days, most of the time I'll take that and be grateful for it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Now Available for Pre-Order: Blaze! The Christmas Journey - Stephen Mertz

Husband-and-wife gunfighters J.D. and Kate Blaze are just about the unlikeliest Santa Claus and Santa’s helper that the Old West has ever seen. But when a bank is robbed in Arizona Territory and a frantic mother has to embark on a desperate journey to save her son’s life, it’s Kate and J.D. who ride along to make sure everybody gets what’s coming to them for Christmas, whether it’s a hangman’s noose or hot lead! By horseback, stagecoach, and train, it’s up to the Blazes to deliver presents for one and all, and there’ll be outlaws and Apaches stirring before Christmas morning dawns.

BLAZE! THE CHRISTMAS JOURNEY is a Special Holiday Edition from series creator Stephen Mertz, full of action and humor and heartwarming plot twists. It’s Christmas in the Old West with the deadliest pair of gunfighters to ever hit the trail!

Sunday, October 16, 2016


Those of us who are friends with Ed Gorman knew this day was coming, but that doesn't make the news of his passing any easier to take. I've had many wonderful friends in the writing business over the years, but only a handful I can say are truly like family to me, and Ed was one of those.

Ed was a wonderful writer, of course. Anybody who's read his work knows that. But he was an even better man and friend. It's not too much of a stretch to say that if not for Ed Gorman, there's a good chance I wouldn't even be a writer anymore. Time and again over the years, when I was having trouble selling and was ready to throw my hands in the air and quit, I'd get a phone call from Ed and he'd say, "James, I know this guy who needs somebody to write a series, and I just told him to call you," or "James, I know this guy who needs somebody to ghost a book real quick, and I just told him you're the man for the job."

On two occasions, it was Ed himself who needed a book written in a hurry. He'd sold some Westerns to Zebra but didn't have time to write them. He sent me an outline for a book called THE MAN FROM NIGHTSHADE VALLEY and told me to make it as much like a Max Brand novel as I could. That was no problem, since I'd been a Max Brand fan since I was ten years old, but I quickly read several Brand novels anyway to get in the mood and launched into the writing. The book turned out to be one of my favorites. Zebra published it under the name Jake Foster, with a pretty good cover and the title changed to HELL-FOR-LEATHER RIDER. Since the book's protagonist was a Pony Express rider, that sort of fit, although not as well as Ed's original title.

The other book I wrote for Ed was very different, a noirish Old West novel about a man unjustly blamed for a bank robbery returning to the town where the crime took place. Ed's title was THE PRODIGAL GUN. Zebra published that one, again as Jake Foster, under the less appropriate title RAMROD REVENGE. Many years later, when I republished these books under both of our names, I restored Ed's original titles to them.

I'm trying to remember when Ed and I first met. It was around 1985, I know that, and I believe it was Bob Randisi who put us in touch. Ed sent me a couple of his horror novels that Zebra had published under the name Daniel Ransom. I loved them: fast-paced yarns, funny in places, and genuinely creepy. I'm not sure Ed was that fond of these books in later years, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for them because they introduced me to his distinctive voice. His horror novel THE FORSAKEN (published by St. Martin's, I believe) has passages in it so poignant that they still get me a little misty-eyed when I think about them decades later.

But Ed was one of those guys who could write just about anything. His mystery novels and stand-alone thrillers were all top-notch. He could do excellent house-name books, although he preferred working on his own stuff, and who can blame him for that. But for my money, his best novels are his Westerns. Intricately plotted, tinged with melancholy, full of painfully sharp observations about the human condition . . . We might as well just go ahead and say that Ed Gorman was the best author of Western noir of all time.

When I said above that Ed and I "met" in 1985, I mean through correspondence, of course. Ed wasn't a guy who got around a lot. He liked being at home, and he didn't like crowds. We traded emails and letters for thirty years, though, and in the pre-Internet days we talked for hours on the phone. I'm one of the lucky folks who met him in person, at the WWA convention in Jackson, Wyoming, in 1992. Our visit was a short one, but I treasure the memory of it.

Forgive the somewhat scattered nature of this post. All sorts of memories are bouncing around in my head today. Ed never ended an email without expressing how much Livia and I meant to him. The feeling is mutual, my friend. We'll miss you forever. Rest in peace, Ed, and our deepest condolences to Carol and the rest of the family.

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: All-American Fiction, July-August 1938

What a cover by Rudolph Belarski. And what a line-up of authors: Max Brand, H. Bedford-Jones, Donald Barr Chidsey, Frank Richardson Pierce, Joel Townsley Rogers, Richard Sale, and James Francis Dwyer. That's an all-star issue of ALL-AMERICAN FICTION.