Monday, October 31, 2011

Dark Harvest - Norman Partridge

Since today is Halloween, it seemed appropriate to post about a Halloween novel. I decided to read Norman Partridge's DARK HARVEST for two reasons: he has a reputation as a very good writer, and it was handy, sitting in a stack just a couple of feet from my computer. It was a good choice.

DARK HARVEST is one of those novels that takes place in only a few hours of time, something I always like. Set in 1963 in a quiet Midwestern town, it's about a strange ritual called the Run. It seems that every Halloween, a pumpkin-headed monster known as the October Boy rise from the cornfields outside of town and for reasons unknown tries to reach the church in the middle of town. Opposing him are all the boys from the ages of sixteen to nineteen, who compete to see who can kill the October Boy (or Sawtooth Jack or Ol' Hacksaw Face, as the monster is sometimes called).

To be honest, I wasn't too impressed with that setup. It seemed like something out of a low-budget horror movie (not that there's anything wrong with that). But Partridge turns it into something else with a number of nice plot twists and some excellent writing. I usually don't care much for books written in present tense, but if an author can make it work, I don't mind, and Partridge does. A little more sense of the time period might have been nice, but the story hurtles along so well, that's not a real problem.

This is a fairly recent book, coming out in a hardback from Cemetery Dance in 2006 and a trade paperback from Tor in 2007 (the edition I read). I don't know if there's a mass-market edition, but there may be. It's well worth reading, and if you're in the mood for a Halloween novel tonight and have a copy on your shelves, you should definitely give it a try.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Witch Got Your Tongue

With Halloween nearly upon us, what better time to read a funny, fast-paced romantic urban fantasy about witches?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Story, November 25, 1939

This is a very evocative and even creepy cover by David Berger, an artist I'm not familiar with, and the contents of this issue appear to be pretty good, too. In addition to the story by Harry Sinclair Drago featured on the cover, there's a novel by Seth Ranger (who was really Frank Richardson Pierce), short stories by Harry F. Olmsted and L.L. Foreman and an installment of the serial version of the novel DEAD FREIGHT FOR PIUTE by Luke Short.  Top-notch authors all around.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Forgotten Books: A Man Named Jones - Charles B. Stilson

(This post originally appeared in somewhat different form on August 28, 2005.)

Charles B. Stilson's A MAN NAMED JONES has an unfortunately bland title since it's actually a pretty good adventure novel. The title character is a young man who inherits a fortune from his father and therefore never has to work, so he becomes a rather dreamy sort, holed up in an apartment with a bunch of books. Then one day (and you knew something like this was coming), an old friend from college shows up with a fabulous uncut emerald, a photograph of a beautiful girl, and an enigmatic tale of adventure in the South Seas. The old friend conveniently drops dead, Jones becomes obsessed with finding the girl in the photograph, and before you know it he's off to the South Pacific where all sorts of exciting things happen.

This has all the makings of a classic adventure story, and the fact that it never quite rises to that level can be traced to the fact that Stilson doesn't have the storytelling ability of an Edgar Rice Burroughs or H. Bedford-Jones, two authors who were already at work when this yarn was published in 1919. The pace is a little slow, especially in the first half, and the writing is pretty stilted at times. The second half is a corker, though, with plenty of action and some vivid, well-written scenes. I would have loved this book if I'd first read it when I was fifteen or so. As it is, I found it enjoyable and will definitely read the sequel, the better-titled LAND OF THE SHADOW PEOPLE.

(Unfortunately, I never got around to reading LAND OF THE SHADOW PEOPLE, and at this late date, I doubt if I ever will.  But I believe that it and this novel are still available from our friends at Beb Books.  Also, the issue of ALL-STORY WEEKLY in which this serial began came out a week before the issue containing the first installment of Max Brand's TRAILIN'!, which I wrote about last week.  If I'd thought about it, I would have switched them around so the pulps would be in proper order, but it didn't occur to me.)

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh - Mark Waid

A while back I read and posted about THE UNKNOWN, the first volume of a graphic novel series written by Mark Waid and drawn by Minck Oosterveer.  Now I've read THE DEVIL MADE FLESH, a trade paperback collecting the second mini-series about terminally ill occult detective Catherine Allingham.

At the end of the first volume, Allingham had six months to live because of the tumor eating away at her brain, but as THE DEVIL MADE FLESH opens, more than a year has passed, she's still alive, and she's bothered by selective amnesia that means she doesn't remember her former assistant James Doyle.  She has a new assistant, a beautiful blonde named Adriana, and she's still traveling all over the globe solving bizarre mysteries that have some paranormal aspect.

But then there's a plot twist I didn't see coming at all, and Catherine and Adriana find themselves heading for a small town in Alabama that's plagued by a serial killer whose victims all leave mysterious one-word messages scrawled in their own blood.  And all of those words are different.

Waid does a great job of layering in the clues and tying everything together so that it all makes sense, including Catherine Allingham's amnesia and the fact that her brain tumor hasn't killed her like it was supposed to.  There's plenty of action, and Oosterveer's artwork has grown on me to the point that I really like it.  This particular storyline comes to a satisfactory conclusion, but Waid obviously has more in mind.  I'll be on the lookout for the next volume in this series.  Recommended.

UPDATE: One of the blog's readers has passed along the sad news that artist Minck Oosterveer died in a motorcycle accident on September 17.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Up in Honey's Room - Elmore Leonard

Since I read and enjoyed Elmore Leonard's Carl Webster collection COMFORT TO THE ENEMY not long ago, I thought I might as well go ahead and read UP IN HONEY'S ROOM, the other full-length novel featuring the gunslinging federal marshal from Oklahoma (following THE HOT KID).

I'm glad I read them in the order I did, since this book is a direct sequel to "Comfort to the Enemy", the title novella from that collection.  UP IN HONEY'S ROOM finds Carl going to Detroit during the waning days of World War II to chase down a couple of Germans who escaped from a POW camp in Oklahoma.  Once he gets there, he finds himself involved with the sometimes dangerous escapades of an amateur German spy ring operating in the city.  He also becomes involved with Honey Deal, a free-spirited young woman who was once married to one of those would-be German spies.

There's a lot of comedy in this one, along with a more serious plot at its center and some occasional outbreaks of violence.  As always, Leonard does a good job with the dialogue and the characters, and the storyline doesn't seem to wander around as much as in some other Leonard novels.  There are a few digressions, but mostly it's full speed ahead.  The period details are good, not too heavy-handed but enough to create an atmosphere of the American homefront during World War II.  I sometimes have a problem with the way Leonard's novels seem to peter out and don't have a strong ending.  This one is okay, although I thought it could have been a little more dramatic.

Overall, UP IN HONEY'S ROOM is a pretty entertaining novel.  I don't know if he plans to write any more about Carl Webster, but if he does, there's a good chance I'll read it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies: The Giant Gila Monster/The Killer Shrews

With Halloween coming up, it seems appropriate to look at a couple of monster movies.  Back in 2004, I posted the following:

A few weeks ago at Half Price Books I bought a boxed set of 50 "Horror Classics" on DVD.  Most of these are hardly classics, but that's all right.  Tonight we watched "The Giant Gila Monster", just your basic hot rods/rock & roll/giant lizard movie.  I don't recall ever seeing it before.  Cheaply made, with mostly bad acting and a goofy script, but pretty darned enjoyable anyway.  You probably had to be there in the Fifties to really appreciate it, though.  I was a little kid then, but I still remember the era fairly well. 

In the comments on that post, Bill Crider asked me if that DVD set included THE KILLER SHREWS.  The answer is, yes, it did, and we watched it, too.  It has its own bizarre charms, mainly the sight of little dogs with carpet fastened to their backs playing the part of the Killer Shrews.  This movie features one of my all-time favorite character actors, Ken Curtis.  THE KILLER SHREWS is hardly up to the level of THE SEARCHERS or GUNSMOKE, but I'm always glad to watch Ken Curtis in anything.

These movies were filmed back-to-back in Texas by the same crews, with very low budgets, of course.  Despite the presence of Ken Curtis in THE KILLER SHREWS, I like THE GIANT GILA MONSTER the best of the two, because we're still making fun of the "monster" that terrorizes the proverbial small town.  It's a real gila monster, of course, made to look huge by the photography, and it moves very slowly and nearly always in a straight line. Anybody who could walk very fast -- or sideways -- could get away from it, so there's no real reason for the town to be terrorized.

I wouldn't say these movies are good, but I really enjoyed watching them.  If you're looking for a nostalgic Halloween double feature and have a high tolerance for cheesy fun, you could do worse.

(Thanks to Livia for her help with this post.)

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Dead Man Relaunch

Check this out.  Great prices for great books.  And you can read a brand-new interview with me about the writing of my Dead Man entry right here.

A Million Words and Counting

I've been so busy lately that a little milestone slipped past me last week without me noticing.  On Thursday I passed a million words of fiction written this year, hitting that level for the seventh year in a row.  I have no idea how long this streak will continue, but I intend to keep it up as long as I can.  Thanks as always to Livia, Shayna, and Joanna, whose help is immeasurable, to the editors who have faith and give me the opportunity, and mostly to the readers who keep buying the books.  Without all of you, I'm just a guy sitting in a room typing.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Priest - Min-Woo Hyung

I haven't seen the movie PRIEST yet, but it's on our Netflix queue. I came across a three-volume collection of the graphic novels on which the movie is based, but I probably wouldn't have picked it up if I hadn't read the back cover copy:

An evil, ancient and hungry, is roaming the badlands of the Old West. It spares not man, woman, or child, devouring all that stand before it. Only one man can stop it . . . a mysterious Priest with a cross carved into his head. His name is Ivan Isaacs, and he will smite all evil in a hail of hot lead. Hallelujah.

Oh, it's a Western. Why didn't you say so?  Of course I'll read that!

Well, the verdict is mixed. There's a lot to like:  A train full of monsters (and yes, there are action scenes set on top of a moving train, one of my favorite bits, as anyone who's read very many of my books already knows). A settlement full of zombies. An outlaw gang led by a beautiful young woman with a tragic back-story. An enigmatic, gunslinging hero. Those are the ingredients for something really good, as far as I'm concerned.

However, the execution doesn't really match the ideas. The artwork by creator Min-Woo Hyung isn't to my taste, and the storytelling leaves a lot to be desired, causing me to have to study some of the pages just to figure out what's going on. And on some of them, I never did figure it out. There are also too many anachronistic weapons (I know, that's a quibble, but some of the guns look more like they belong in a World War II story, at the very least). There's a reference to the setting as being Tennessee (!) when it's a flat, dusty desert that's obviously meant to be in the American Southwest.

Despite all that, the story did hold my interest overall, and some of the art is quite striking. The biggest influence as far as the Western elements are concerned seems to be Sergio Leone, which is always a good thing. I can't give PRIEST an unqualified recommendation, but if you're a fan of horror Westerns, you might want to give it a look and see if it appeals to you.

As for the movie, I'll probably still watch it eventually, but from what I've read about it on-line, the filmmakers jettisoned the Old West stuff and made it a post-apocalyptic story instead, so there's not much resemblance to the graphic novels. I would have liked to see them stick to the original storyline, but hey, they didn't ask me, did they?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Adventures, November 1930

In the Forties, Street & Smith also published a pulp called WESTERN ADVENTURES that was a companion magazine to WESTERN STORY and WILD WEST WEEKLY. This issue is from an earlier incarnation published by Clayton, and look at the line-up of authors:  H. Bedford-Jones and Erle Stanley Gardner (two of the writers known at one time or another as the King of the Pulps; if they'd just had Frederick Faust in there, too, it would have been a hat trick), plus Johnston McCulley, Stephen Payne, and James W. Routh. That's a high-powered bunch of pulpsters. The cover's not great, but it's colorful, and with those authors I would have picked up this one without hesitation if I had the two dimes to spare.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Forgotten Books: Trailin'! - Max Brand (Frederick Faust)

TRAILIN'! is one of those odd hybrids, a Western contemporary with the times in which it was written.  In fact, it opens in New York City, at a Wild West Show in Madison Square Garden, and has the hero, young Anthony Woodbury, leaping into his car after the show for a fast drive out to his father's estate on Long Island.

But from there, things change in a hurry.  While at the Wild West Show, Anthony has accepted the challenge offered up by a Westerner and ridden a wild bucking bronco.  You see, despite his Eastern upbringing, Anthony has always been interested in riding and shooting and such Western pursuits.  When he gets home, it's not long until his father is accosted by a mysterious stranger and killed in a Western-style gunfight.  Anthony sets off after the stranger, which is where the title of the novel comes in, and of course the trail leads west to the "mountain-desert" in which nearly all of Max Brand's Westerns are set.

TRAILIN'! uses the old "tough tenderfoot" plot to great effect, as Anthony uncovers secrets about his father, the mysterious killer, and his own heritage.  Any modern reader is going to see the book's big revelation coming very early on, but at this late date you shouldn't expect to read Max Brand and be surprised.

No, you should read the work of Frederick Faust, the real name of Max Brand, for the distinctive prose that makes him almost a genre unto himself, for the breakneck action scenes, and for the sheer emotional torment he puts his characters through.  Faust can really pile on the angst, but he breaks it up well with gunfights, fistfights, and desperate chases, usually on horseback.

TRAILIN'! is a little long for its plot, but to Faust's credit, he kept me reading anyway.  His best work was in the novella length, I think, but I've enjoyed all of his full-length novels that I've read.  Originally published in the pulp ALL-STORY WEEKLY in 1919, this is only Faust's second novel, following his debut THE UNTAMED.  If you're a Max Brand fan, it's well worth reading, and if you've never sampled Faust's work, it wouldn't be a bad place to start.  It's as old-fashioned as it can be, but sometimes that's exactly what I want, so I enjoyed it a great deal.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Favorite Bookstores #3: Readers World

When I was attending what was then North Texas State University in Denton, near the end of my stay there, a little hole-in-the-wall new bookstore called Readers World appeared in the row of businesses directly across the street from the Auditorium Building, just a few doors down from Voertman's, the big college/textbook store.  (I know some of you are familiar with the area, that's why I include those details.)  Given its proximity to Voertman's, it probably wasn't the best location for a small bookstore, but I liked it because it carried quite a few genre paperbacks that Voertman's didn't.  I remember buying the Zebra editions of some Robert E. Howard books there, along with some of the novels based on Lee Falk's comic strip The Phantom.  But my time in Denton didn't overlap that much with the time Reader's World was there, so I didn't visit it that often.

Fast-forward a year or so, and I'm driving through River Oaks, Texas (a suburb on the northwest side of Fort Worth) one day when I spot a sign that says Readers World.  It was another hole-in-the-wall store in a small strip shopping center, and when I went in (what, did you think I wasn't going to stop and go in?), the same lady was running it who used to have the Readers World store in Denton.  This new location of Readers World was much the same, heavy on genre paperbacks with a magazine section as well that carried all the fiction digests of the time.  That was the first place I ever bought a new copy of MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE.  I also bought quite a bit of science fiction (I recall picking up Joe Haldeman's THE FOREVER WAR and the first printing of the novelization of some movie I hadn't heard of called STAR WARS), some Starsky and Hutch tie-in novels by Max Franklin (who I found out later was Richard Deming), a bunch of comic books off the spinner rack, and the first volume of the Byron Preiss-packaged WEIRD HEROES, the subtitle of which – A NEW AMERICAN PULP! – sent thrills through me.  (Thrills which, I'm sorry to say, the Weird Heroes series never quite lived up to, although there was much to like in it.)

The store was successful enough that it moved around the corner in the same shopping center to a space that was three or four times larger.  The newsstand area was expanded, and so were the number of paperbacks they carried.  I bought the trade paperback edition of Glenn Lord's THE LAST CELT there and read it over and over again, and one day I picked up a mystery paperback called THE VAMPIRE CHASE, by an author I'd never heard of, Stephen Brett, published by an outfit equally unknown to me, Manor Books.  Well, Stephen Brett was really my buddy Steve Mertz, of course, although I didn't know him then, and Manor wound up publishing my first novel TEXAS WIND (and stiffing me on the advance for it).  But all of that was in the future, along with my friendship with Glenn Lord.

I became friends with the couple who owned the store, Gene and Linda Sanders (and I really hope I'm remembering their names correctly – this was a long time ago).  When I started selling to MSMM, they would order extra copies of the magazine for me, since Renown Publications never sent comp copies to the authors, of course.  I shopped there regularly for several years, making at least one trip a week into town to pick up new comics and paperbacks.

Eventually that location closed down.  Probably the lease was up, and it didn't generate enough sales to make it worthwhile to continue (but I'm just guessing about that).  The owners opened an even larger store in Hurst, around on the other side of Fort Worth from us, called G. Sanders Books.  It was there for several years and Livia and I went there a few times, but it was too far, through too much bad traffic, for us to make it a regular stop.  The shopping center in River Oaks that housed the two locations of Readers World is still there.  I drive past it occasionally, and whenever I do, I can't help but think about all the pleasant time I spent there and all the good books I bought.  I wouldn't want to live in those days again, but it's nice visiting them in my mind.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies: Madron

This is one of those films I saw once on late night TV nearly forty years ago, so I have no idea how it holds up. But I remember that I liked it quite a bit at the time. Of course, I like nearly everything with Richard Boone in it, and it's an offbeat Western, something else that appeals to me. Leslie Caron is the nun who survives an Indian attack on a wagon train, and Boone is the grizzled old gunfighter who rescues her and tries to get her safely back to civilization. It's kind of a romance and kind of a Spaghetti Western (although it was filmed in Israel, if I recall correctly). The photography is nice, the ending is poignant, and the decidedly non-Western-sounding theme song (which was nominated for an Academy Award) was a staple on easy listening radio stations for a number of years. If any of you have seen this in recent years, I'd love to know what you think of it.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Kirby: King of Comics - Mark Evanier

Chances are I first saw Jack Kirby's artwork in some of the monster/science fiction comic books Marvel published in the late Fifties and early Sixties, but back then I wouldn't have been aware of who the artists were, even one whose style was so distinctive.  I really became aware of his work when I started reading FANTASTIC FOUR and the other Marvel superhero books in December of 1963 and January of 1964.  He quickly became my favorite artist, although I was awfully fond of Steve Ditko's Spider-Man work, of course.  And I was really bummed out when Kirby left Marvel six or seven years later.  It just didn't seem like the same company without him, although the Seventies saw some excellent work come out from Marvel.

Then there were the Fourth World books Kirby produced at DC, which I've written about before on this blog, most notably JIMMY OLSEN, surely one of the oddest but most entertaining runs in comics history.

KIRBY: KING OF COMICS is a big biography/retrospective/coffee table book about Kirby and his work by longtime associate Mark Evanier.  As you might expect, part of this book's appeal is the large amount of vintage Kirby art reproduced in its pages, but Evanier's well-written prose conveys a lot of information in an informal, very readable style.  It's clear that Evanier is a guy who really loves comics, especially comics produced by Jack Kirby.  He doesn't shy away from talking about Kirby's flaws, though, and he takes a very even-handed approach to the long-standing controversy involving Kirby and Stan Lee and how much each contributed to the creation of their iconic characters.

(For what it's worth, my feeling on that controversy is that Stan got too much credit at first, then when the pendulum swung the other way, for a long time he didn't get enough credit.  Rereading those classic stories now, I'd divide it pretty much right down the middle.  Yes, Kirby's art and the concepts he came up with are great, but I don't think the books would have been nearly as successful without Lee's dialogue that brought the characters to life and his work in the captions that tried to compensate for and explain away the plot holes and logical inconsistencies that Kirby built into the stories.)

To get back to the issue at hand, Evanier has produced a book with a lot of nostalgic value for readers like me and a great introduction for people who might not be as familiar with Kirby's work.  Kirby probably is my all-time favorite comic book artist, and if you're a fan as well, you really need to read KIRBY: KING OF COMICS.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: North-West Romances, Summer 1942

I've always considered Northerns to be a sub-genre of Westerns, and hey, this pulp even has "West" in the title, so I think it counts. While I don't read nearly as many Northerns as I do traditional Westerns, sometimes I'm really in the mood for some yarns about Mounties and cheechakos and mushing over the pass. This particular issue has a Norman Saunders cover, too, so you can't go wrong there. Unfortunately, I don't own a copy, so I can't read it, but I can enjoy the cover and you can, too. Jack Byrne, who wrote the lead novel, was best known as an editor (he bought a lot of Robert E. Howard's boxing stories while he was at Fiction House, and he was the editor of ARGOSY during one of its best runs during the mid-to-late Thirties), but he also wrote quite a bit of pulp fiction in a variety of genres. I haven't read much by him, but I've enjoyed what I've sampled so far. Fred Nebel, also mentioned on the cover, was Frederick Nebel the hardboiled detective writer, author of the Cardigan stories and the Donahue stories, all of which are great stuff. I've read a couple of Nebel's Northerns, and they're very good, too. The other authors in this particular issue -- James Kirkland, Evan Slyter, Dan O'Rourke, A. deHerries Smith, Derek West, and Owen Finbar -- are all unknown to me. Some of them may be house-names for all I know. Still, with stories by Nebel and Byrne, I expect this issue was worth reading.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Forgotten Books: The Further Adventures of Zorro - Johnston McCulley

I remember being a big fan of the Walt Disney TV version of ZORRO when I was a kid, and I love the Republic serials ZORRO'S FIGHTING LEGION (with its insanely addictive theme song) and ZORRO'S BLACK WHIP (with the breathtakingly beautiful Linda Stirling). But oddly enough I've never read many of Johnston McCulley's original stories featuring the character. A few short stories here and there, but none of the novels . . . until now.

THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF ZORRO was serialized in the pulp ARGOSY – ALL STORY WEEKLY in May and June of 1922 (with the title character's name misspelled on the cover of the issue containing the first installment). It's the second book in the series, a direct sequel to THE CURSE OF CAPISTRANO, which introduced Zorro to the world. There's no secret identity in this one. Zorro has already been revealed to the citizens of the Spanish settlement of Reina de Los Angeles as the young nobleman Don Diego Vega. In fact, as the novel begins, Zorro is retired, and Don Diego is about to marry the lovely young Señorita Lolita Pulido, much to the chagrin of his best friend Don Audre Ruiz and the other young firebrands who fought at his side in the first novel. They crave more excitement, but as Don Diego says at a dinner with his friends, "I am done with roistering and adventure."

Uh-huh. Sure you are, Diego.

It will come as no surprise to any of you that a couple of Zorro's old enemies from the first book are plotting with some pirates to raid Los Angeles and kidnap Lolita. They succeed in this but fail to kill Zorro, which of course is a big mistake. He sets out to rescue Lolita and bring the pirates to justice, with Audre and the rest of his cabellero friends following closely behind him.

That's it for the plot. What follows is a lengthy series of battles, death traps, near miraculous escapes, sea chases, a lot of galloping around on horseback, and swordfight after swordfight. It's all very reminiscent of one of those Republic movie serials.

In other words, I loved it.

It's a testament to McCulley's skill as an adventure writer that he could take a thin plot like this, spin it out to novel length, and still make it compelling and entertaining. The characters are pretty good, including the pirate captain Barbados who is plenty evil but still retains a certain code of honor, the gallant priest Fray Felipe, and the Falstaffian Sergeant Gonzales, who manages to be a good guy even though he's under the command of the villainous Captain Ramon. Lolita is an appealing heroine, too, who contributes quite a bit to the action despite her primary role as kidnap victim. Zorro himself is an iconic hero, of course, always laughing in the face of danger and swashbuckling for all he's worth. There's some genuine humor in the way he continually taunts and frustrates his enemies.

McCulley evidently intended for THE CURSE OF CAPISTRANO to be a stand-alone novel, but the success of the Douglas Fairbanks silent movie based on it, THE MARK OF ZORRO, prompted him to bring back the character. A lot of the action in this second novel seems to be written with Fairbanks in mind. I can just about see the scenes playing out in my head in glorious black-and-white.

I don't know if THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF ZORRO was ever reprinted as a book (surely it was), but a new, inexpensive reprint taken directly from the pulp installments will soon be available from Beb Books. I thoroughly enjoyed this one. It might come across as hokey and old-fashioned to modern readers, but my inner twelve-year-old highly recommends it to those of you who have an inner twelve-year-old of your own. (You know who you are.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Tuesday's Overlooked TV: The Edge of Night

I make no secret of the fact that I like soap operas. When Livia and I were dating and then newly married, she got me started watching one called RYAN'S HOPE. Several of the actors who appeared on it went on to bigger (but not necessarily better) things. I also watched GENERAL HOSPITAL for a good while, during its action/adventure phase which saw plotlines like a weather-controlling machine that would allow the resident bad guys to take over the world and a villain who was the reincarnation of Alexander the Great (or at least thought he was). This was also the period that spawned the whole Luke and Laura frenzy that culminated in their wedding. Along the way, although I never watched it on a regular basis, I saw enough bits and pieces of the recently departed ALL MY CHILDREN to know who most of the characters were.

My all-time favorite daytime soap opera, though, is one that might have held some appeal for some of you reading this: THE EDGE OF NIGHT. Other soaps were primarily doctor shows or lawyer shows. THE EDGE OF NIGHT, from beginning to end, was the mystery soap opera, the show where cops and district attorneys and crooks and murderers were the main characters, not supporting roles. That emphasis goes all the way back to its origins, when Proctor & Gamble tried to create a soap opera based on Erle Stanley Gardner's iconic Perry Mason, only to be unable to reach a deal. So they just created their own version, centered around attorney Mike Karr instead of Mason.

I don't know all the history of the series, but by the time I was watching it, mystery novelist and Edgar winner Henry Slesar had been hired at the head writer, and he continued in that job for many, many years, often writing almost every episode with assistance from only one or two staff writers. The plots tended to move a little faster than on most soaps, and there was nearly always an unsolved murder or two driving the action. And action there was, with a minimum of sitting around talking. The characters were almost always in motion. The cast expanded to bring in more doctor characters, but hospital scenes were more than balanced out by smoky, jazzy moments in the local watering hole, the Blue Moon Café, run by the somewhat shady Johnny Dallas. And if you were lucky, at the end of an episode you got the full-length version of the show's theme song, which had a definite noirish, wet-streets feel to it.

I watched THE EDGE OF NIGHT for about ten years and never failed to enjoy it. I didn't figure out many of Slesar's well-plotted mysteries, either. Then, fairly abruptly, the show reinvented itself. Slesar either quit or was let go, and was replaced as head writer by Lee Sheldon, who kept some of the cops vs. mobsters plots but opened up the scope and turned it into a globe-trotting series of international intrigue. The plots got more over-the-top, including an epic swordfight between the private eye who had become the hero of the series, Sky Whitney, and the bad guy who was going to, yes, take over the world with the help of some Rube Goldberg machine. It was all pretty silly, even by soap opera standards, but somehow it worked and I really enjoyed it.

Then, even though ABC was still broadcasting the show (it had started out on CBS), the local ABC affiliate stopped carrying it in order to schedule something else, I don't remember what it was. That bothered me, but the proverbial writing was already on the wall and ABC cancelled THE EDGE OF NIGHT entirely a few months later. It ended, appropriately enough, with the mysterious disappearance of several of the characters.

This was all a long time ago. You can still find a few clips from THE EDGE OF NIGHT on YouTube, but soaps don't translate well to DVDs so I doubt if we'll ever see more than that. You can tell from my comments and how much I recall about it that I was very fond of the series, and I hope a few of you remember it as well. I've been known to say somewhat facetiously that everything I know about plotting, I learned from soap operas and comic books. For good or bad, there's probably some truth to that.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles, Vol. II - Edward A. Grainger (David Cranmer)

The first volume of the ADVENTURES OF CASH LARAMIE AND GIDEON MILES was a fine collection of Western short stories, but Volume II is even better.  Cash Laramie, known as the Outlaw Marshal because of his willingness to bend the rules in order to achieve justice, dominates this collection, which leads off with "Origin of White Deer", the story of Cash's boyhood and how it shaped his later life.  There are six more stories in Volume II, some new and some previously published, and all of them good.  My favorites are the bizarre mystery "Cash Laramie and the Masked Devil" and the particularly bleak but very well-written "Reflections in a Glass of Maryland Rye".

Edward A. Grainger is, of course, David Cranmer, the mastermind of the BEAT TO A PULP website and anthologies, and he's making a well-deserved name for himself as one of the top new writers of Westerns.  If you enjoyed the first Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles collection, you'll definitely want this one, and if you haven't yet made the acquaintance of these two fine characters, Volume II is a great place to start.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

O'Doul - Wayne D. Dundee

Wayne Dundee is quickly making a name for himself as a top-notch Western writer. His short story "This Old Star" won the Peacemaker Award for Best Short Story from the Western Fictioneers. His novel DISMAL RIVER has been acclaimed as one of the best Westerns of recent years. And his e-book novella THE GRAVE OF MARCUS PAULY has been very well-received as well.

His new e-book novella O'DOUL was published recently, and it's another winner. O'Doul is an old cowhand with a grim secret. He works on a ranch where the owner and his much-younger wife are haunted by a tragedy of their own. There's also a young puncher involved, but he's an honorable man and the complicated relationship between him and his boss's wife doesn't work out exactly like you might think. All of it leads inevitably to violence.

There's not a lot of action in this story. It's more of a low-key, intense, character-driven yarn, but Dundee's fine writing keeps things moving along just as briskly as if there were a gunfight every few minutes. I have a lot of admiration for a writer who's skillful enough to make human emotions as exciting and compelling as action scenes, and Wayne Dundee definitely fits that description. O'DOUL is an excellent novella, and I highly recommend it.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Fighting Western, October 1945

As you can tell from the "Speed" logo on the cover, this pulp was published by Trojan, the same company that published SPICY WESTERN and its later incarnation SPEED WESTERN. As such, it's not surprising to find Laurence Donovan as one of the contributing authors. He wrote a lot for the Spicy/Speed imprints. Other authors in this issue include William Heuman, whose work is always good, and a couple I'm not familiar with, Charles Handley and Max Neilson. I like the cover fairly well, although I'm not sure how politically correct it is. (Political correctness isn't something you'd expect from the pulps, especially those published by Trojan!)

Friday, October 07, 2011

New Glen Orbik Cover for Hard Case Crime

This book won't be out for a while, but Hard Case Crime has released the cover by the great Glen Orbik, and it's up to his usual fantastic standards. This would have been right at home on a Gold Medal novel and really makes me want to read the book . . . which, of course, was the goal. There's more info here. Check it out.

Forgotten Books: Sword of Tomorrow - Henry Kuttner

I enjoyed THE CREATURE FROM BEYOND INFINITY, that Henry Kuttner novel I read a few weeks ago, enough that I decided to read another one. "Sword of Tomorrow" originally appeared as a complete novel in the Fall 1945 issue of the pulp THRILLING WONDER STORIES. It never had a paperback reprint, but it's available as a free download in a number of places on the Internet.

Like a lot of pulp novels, "Sword of Tomorrow" is fairly short, more of a novella than a full-length novel, but that doesn't stop Kuttner from packing a lot into it. Not as much as in THE CREATURE FROM BEYOND INFINITY, mind you, but that one was really stuffed to the gills with plot. "Sword of Tomorrow" begins during World War II, with its protagonist, American fighter pilot Ethan Court, being held prisoner by the Japanese in a POW camp in China. Could Ethan Court be related to Stephen Court, the hero of the previous Kuttner novel I read?  Well, sure, why not, although there's nothing in "Sword of Tomorrow" to indicate that. I like to think it's true, anyway.

But I digress. Ethan's captors torture him, trying to get him to reveal vital military information, so to thwart their goals, he puts himself into suspended animation using a technique that a fellow prisoner learned in a Tibetan lamasery. (Obviously, they know how to do all kinds of stuff in those Tibetan lamaseries.)  Court is being held in an underground dungeon, so when an Allied bombing raid late in the war destroys the prison camp, he survives, although he's still in his trance, with all his bodily functions slowed down enough that he sleeps on and on and on, for a thousand years or more before he finally wakes up.

Shades of Buck Rogers!  Kuttner has worked a clever variation of Philip Francis Nowlan's ARMAGEDDON 2419 A.D., although Ethan Court wakes up to find himself in a world on the verge of war, rather than already in the middle of one like Anthony Rogers. With his 20th Century knowledge of weapons, something that's lacking in this future world, Court is a valuable commodity and is soon caught up in a lot of dangerous political intrigue, as well as a romance with a beautiful redheaded queen.

As usual, Kuttner keeps things speeding along with numerous action scenes and an abundance of double- and triple-crosses. I'm usually pretty good at spotting twists, but there's one late in this yarn that took me by surprise, and it leads to a surprising and powerful ending. Kuttner does an especially good job of putting the reader inside Court's head and dealing with the shock and disorientation he feels when he wakes up to find himself a thousand years or more in the future.

"Sword of Tomorrow" offers another interesting aspect about midway through when Court finds himself trapped and has a series of hallucinations brought on by a machine that belongs to one of the plotters. This is a long scene, and the writing is much more vivid and colorful than that in the rest of the novel, which leads me to suspect it may have been written by Kuttner's wife C.L. Moore. I don't know that, of course, but it just reads like Moore's work to me, and they were famous for working on each other's stories.

No matter who wrote what, "Sword of Tomorrow" is a very entertaining yarn. If you enjoy pulp adventure SF like I do, you should check it out.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

The Night and the Music - Lawrence Block

I remember very well the supermarket where Livia and I bought most of our groceries when we were first married. It was still called Buddies then, although it changed later to Winn-Dixie. And as grocery stores did back then, it had a good-sized paperback rack. That was where I bought a paperback original private eye novel called THE SINS OF THE FATHER. The author was Lawrence Block.

Now, I knew that name, of course, because I'd been seeing it on Gold Medal paperbacks for a number of years, mostly notably the Evan Tanner novels. Since I loved private eye novels and knew the author could be depended upon to produce good books, I didn't hesitate in picking up THE SINS OF THE FATHER. That was my introduction to unlicensed, alcoholic PI Matt Scudder.

Since then I've gone on to read quite a few (but not all) of the Scudder novels, most recently A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF, and a few of the short stories featuring the character. Now Block has collected all the Scudder novelettes and short stories into a new volume called THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC, which he's published himself as an e-book and a trade paperback. They seem to be in the order in which he wrote them, which makes for a very interesting look at the evolution of the character. Some of the short stories are flashbacks to the time in Matt's life before his debut in THE SINS OF THE FATHER. And all of them, as you'd expect, are very well-written. My favorite, I think, is the title story, "The Night and the Music", which has no crime element at all, but instead finds Matt and his wife Elaine talking and listening to music in various places around their part of New York. That may not sound like much, but this story is so elegant and evocative that it reminds me very much of some of Irwin Shaw's stories. (Shaw being one of my favorite non-genre writers.)

Also in that vein is the final story in the book, the recently written and fittingly titled "One Last Night at Grogan's", again not a mystery or a crime story. I don't know if Block plans to write any more about Matt Scudder, and he may not know, either, but "One Last Night at Grogan's" has a beautifully elegiac feel to it, and if it does turn out to be the series' farewell, it's a good one.

If it seems like I've read quite a bit by Block this year, that's because I have. And I'm sure my Block Binge will continue, since I already have several of his early novels on my Kindle, ready to read, plus I want to catch up on those Scudders I've missed. (I've also read a lot by Robert Silverberg this year, but I can't think of a catchy phrase to describe that.) THE NIGHT AND THE MUSIC holds a lot of nostalgic appeal for me, as I alluded to at the beginning of this post, but there's a lot more to it than that. These are fine stories, written by one of the best in the business, and this volume gets a high recommendation from me.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Paths of Righteousness Now Available in Trade Paperback

My science fiction collection THE PATHS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS is now available as a trade paperback, and you can order it here, if you're so inclined. Also, I should have signed copies available soon. You can email me for details. (The address is in my profile, if you don't have it already.)

Tuesday's Overlooked Movies: Hooded Angels

Here's one that I'll bet most of you have never even heard of, let alone seen.  HOODED ANGELS is a low-budget, independent Western filmed about ten years ago in South Africa with an international cast, most of whom I'd never heard of.  It's about a group of women who are brutalized in an attack on their town by Union soldiers during the Civil War and how after the war they become outlaws and drift across the West robbing banks.  The son of one of the men they kill during a robbery goes after them, along with some of his friends.

This isn't the easiest movie to follow, and we never really find out as much about the characters as I would have liked.  But at least the filmmakers tried to make a decent Western, and I'll give them credit for that.  HOODED ANGELS has some problems, including sloppy editing (a revolver is cocked, then uncocked, then cocked again, things like that) and that murky script I alluded to when I said the story is hard to follow.  And some of the costumes are just, well, weird.

But there are plenty of action scenes that are fairly well-staged, and there's a long scene with plenty of gratuitous nudity.  Paul Johannson, who I really like, makes a fine hero and I wish he would have made more Westerns.  Amanda Donohoe is good as one of the outlaws, and Gary Busey shows up in a small part as a sheriff, although he doesn't have a lot to do.  I don't know that I'd say HOODED ANGELS is a good movie, but it's certainly not terrible and if you're a Western fan you might well enjoy it.  I did.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Comfort to the Enemy - Elmore Leonard

I really have mixed emotions about Elmore Leonard's work.  I like his Westerns a lot, and I enjoy his crime novels, too, but they frustrate me because the plots meander around so much.  I guess I'm just too much of a plot guy.  But several years ago I read and liked his novel THE HOT KID, about U.S. Marshal Carl Webster, which was set during the Thirties in Oklahoma.  So when I came across Leonard's collection COMFORT TO THE ENEMY, which also features Webster, I thought I'd give it a try, and I'm glad I did.

There are two short stories, "Showdown at Checotah" and "Louly and Pretty Boy", which fill in more of the background concerning Carl Webster, and then the title novella, "Comfort to the Enemy", which is more of a novel as far as I'm concerned.  (I don't agree with people who claim that anything less than 70,000 words is a novella, but that doesn't really have anything to do with the subject at hand.)  Whatever you call it, "Comfort to the Enemy" is a really fine story, one of my favorites by Leonard.  Set during World War II, it finds Carl Webster investigating the murder of a prisoner in a POW camp full of Germans.  The plot is actually pretty straightforward, although Leonard does manage to work in some gangsters and Nazi saboteurs.  The whole thing generates a considerable amount of suspense by the end.

There's another Carl Webster novel, UP IN HONEY'S ROOM, that I haven't read yet.  I have a hunch that I'll be reading it soon, as much as I enjoyed COMFORT TO THE ENEMY.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Ranch Romances, 2nd April Number, 1957

RANCH ROMANCES is the only pulp I remember seeing new on the stands, although by the mid-Sixties when I began to notice them, they had shrunk slightly from the standard pulp size and the page edges were trimmed. It didn't cease publication until the early Seventies, but by then it was all-reprint. I never bought an issue new. It had "romance" in the title, after all, and I wasn't interested in romance fiction.

It was only years later that I realized RANCH ROMANCES wasn't that different from all the other Western pulps. Most of the authors who wrote for it wrote for other Western pulps as well, although a typical issue of RANCH ROMANCES would include at least one female author who didn't show up in DIME WESTERN or WESTERN STORY (at least not under her own name). And all the stories had to have some sort of romantic interest in them, but that's nothing unusual. So did most of the stories in the traditional Western pulps. The biggest difference in RANCH ROMANCES was in the features that it ran, which leaned toward pen-pal requests, movie news (allegedly written by actor Bob Cummings, although I doubt if he penned a word of it), astrology columns, and relationship advice. The stories, though, were usually good, hardboiled action Westerns.

The lead story in this particular issue, which I own and read recently, is "Holdup at Stony Flats" by Clair Huffaker, and as I started reading it, it didn't take me long to realize that there was something very familiar about it. The protagonist is Jack Tawlin, a gunfighter recently released from prison, who gets involved with his brother and some other crooks in a scheme to hold up a heavily armored stagecoach carrying a fortune in gold. That's right, this novella is the story that Huffaker expanded into his novel THE WAR WAGON, which was subsequently turned into a pretty good movie starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. ("Mine hit the ground first," Douglas boasts to Wayne after a gunfight. "Mine was taller," Wayne drawls.)

I've read THE WAR WAGON, but it was many years ago. My impression is that other than the lead character's name and the basic set-up, "Holdup at Stony Flats" is considerably different. It's very entertaining, though. There's a good reason so many of Huffaker's novels were made into movies, often with screenplays that he wrote himself. He knew how to tell a fast-moving story with interesting characters and plenty of action. That's certainly true in this one. (And if you haven't read Huffaker's best novel, THE COWBOY AND THE COSSACK, you really should.)

Backing up Huffaker's story is a novelette by Robert J. Hogan, author of the bizarre World War I aviation series G-8 AND HIS BATTLE ACES, as well as a number of other aviation and Western yarns. "Track the Man Down" finds gunfighter Vermilion Smith (great name!) helping a young woman escape from a Paiute war party. Oh, and the woman happens to be the sister of a man Smith is sworn to kill. Although this story lacks the goofiness of the G-8 novels, it's told in the same clipped, fast-paced style and is very entertaining. They should have made this into an Audie Murphy movie. As I read it I kept thinking it would be a perfect vehicle for Audie, with its flawed, hardboiled hero and its effective and somewhat unexpected ending.

The short stories start off with one of those female authors I mentioned above, Dorothy Roseborough, who seems to have contributed stories only to RANCH ROMANCES during a career that lasted from 1947 to 1957. Her story "The Short Trail" is about a young woman and her alcoholic father who join a wagon train bound for California and the trouble they encounter along the way. There's nothing at all ground-breaking about it, but it's a well-written and enjoyable yarn. Next up is "The Legacy of Happy Valley" by Teddy Keller, an author I hadn't encountered until now. It's a rancher vs. farmers story, but with the nice twist that the rancher is the only cattleman in a valley full of sodbusters determined to run him out. I liked this one quite a bit. I don't know if the author, Teddy Keller, was male or female, but while most of his/her stories appeared in RANCH ROMANCES, Keller also published some mystery stories, had a few appearances in men's magazines, and even published a science-fiction story in ANALOG, leading me to wonder if Teddy Keller is the only author whose work appeared in both RANCH ROMANCES and ANALOG. That seems possible to me. The final short story in this issue is "To the Last Man", a feud story by Ben Frank, an author whose work I'm on record as disliking. This forgettable story didn't change my opinion.

Overall, this is a good solid issue of one of the longest-running Western pulps. I may not have been a fan of RANCH ROMANCES when I was a kid, but I am now.