Monday, August 20, 2018

Monday Memories: The Canyons

When I was a kid, there were two grocery stores in Azle: Trammell’s Pak-a-Bag, in downtown at the corner of Main and Stewart Streets, where the blinker light was; and Rochelle’s Grocery, on the highway service road half a mile from the street where I grew up. Trammell’s was a good-sized grocery store for that time period and even had a butcher shop in the back, as well as an attached dry goods store next door. Rochelle’s was smaller but closer (in walking distance, even), so we went there when we only needed a couple of things.

When my mother wanted to do some serious grocery shopping, though, she drove the six miles to Lake Worth and went to the A.L. Davis Supermarket there, and of course, being a little kid, I usually got dragged along. The thing is, at that point my mother didn’t like to drive on the highway, which was a four-lane divided highway with a median in the middle and crossovers every mile or so, plus a two-lane, two-way service road on each side. So she drove on the service roads, which had less traffic, coming and going. (When I think about how little traffic actually was on that highway back then, compared to now, it seems a little crazy that anybody would feel that way, but as I’ve said before and no doubt will again, it was a different time.)

Coming back from Lake Worth, the service road on that side of the highway went right along the edge of the Fort Worth Nature Center for a mile or so. The Nature Center is a city park and wild animal preserve and is still there. The view from the service road along that stretch is pretty scenic, with thickly wooded, fairly steep hills dropping down to Lake Worth (the actual lake, not the town of the same name) and the Trinity River. When we drove back along there after going to the grocery store, I always looked out across that landscape with great interest, because it reminded me of scenery I saw in all the Western TV shows and movies I watched at the time. I could imagine John Wayne or The Lone Ranger and Tonto or Roy Rogers galloping around out there and having shootouts with the bad guys. In my head, I dubbed that area “The Canyons” and started making up stories about what went on there.

Little did I know that 60 years later, I’d still be making up stories about cowboys and bad guys. But that was one of the places where it started.

To add a little more reminiscing about the Nature Center, this is the area where the infamous Lake Worth Monster, a.k.a. the Goatman, was supposed to live. At one time there was a small rehab facility for alcoholics located there, or as we called it with the usual sensitivity of kids, the Wino Farm. A dirt road that was sometimes passable, sometimes not, led from the Nature Center along the shore of the lake and then followed the river for several miles across an area known as Mud Flats before finally connecting with the road that went across the spillway at Eagle Mountain Lake, just upstream from Lake Worth. I seem to recall that Mud Flats was a popular make-out spot when I was in high school, but I never took a girl there other than Livia, and that was after we were married and would get out and just drive around on Sunday afternoons because gas was cheap and we didn’t have anything else to do. (I can no longer even imagine having so much free time we didn’t know what to do with ourselves. I should have been working harder back then.) When I got around to writing TEXAS WIND, Mud Flats was also the area where gangsters took my private eye protagonist to beat him up and dump him so he’d be scared off the case he was working on. (That didn’t work out too well for them.)

Jump ahead to the time when our kids were little, and we’d often take them to the Nature Center to hike the trails and look at the buffalo and prairie dogs who lived there. Those were very enjoyable trips, and when I drive by the entrance now, there’s always a part of me that wants to go look at the buffalo. Unfortunately, what was free back then now requires an entrance fee, and I’ve never paid it just to indulge a brief burst of nostalgia. Yet.

But I think about it when I drive by, and I always glance over at The Canyons when I pass them, too, and that little kid making up exciting stories in his head is right beside me, dreaming his cowboy dreams.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Popular Detective, July 1949

Bruno Fischer is probably the only author in this issue of POPULAR DETECTIVE who is still well-known at all. Pulp fans will recall Wilbur S. Peacock, Joe Archibald, and Morris Hershman (who is probably better known for the paperbacks he wrote later). One of the authors featured on the cover, along with Peacock, is William Degenhard, a name that's totally unknown to me. Just another example of the vast amount of once popular fiction that seems to have vanished forever.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Cowboy Stories, August 1936

That's a nice atmospheric cover on this issue of COWBOY STORIES. I don't know who painted it. Inside, the list of authors is more of a "Who?" rather than a "Who's Who". The best-known authors are probably Samuel Taylor and Cliff Walters. The lead novel is the only story listed in the Fictionmags Index for Matt O'Connell, which makes me suspect that may have been a pseudonym. There's also a story by Fridtjof Michelson, not a name to conjure up images of sagebrush and shootouts. Ol' Fridtjof managed to sell more than a dozen Western and adventure yarns to various pulps from the late Twenties to the mid-Thirties, though. And Alfred L. Garry contributes another installment in his long-running comedy Western series about Deputy Ham and Sheriff Egg.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Forgotten Books: The Sky Raider - Donald E. Keyhoe

One thing that most people have forgotten or never knew is that a lot of popular fiction used to be serialized in newspapers. This was true up into the 1940s and maybe beyond that. I don’t recall seeing any serials in newspapers when I was growing up, but it’s certainly possible that such things occurred elsewhere.

THE SKY RAIDER was serialized in The Ottawa Journal and other papers in 1929. It’s the first novel by young pilot Donald E. Keyhoe, who started writing while he was recuperating from injuries suffered in a crackup in 1922. As you might expect, he specialized in aviation stories. THE SKY RAIDER is an adventure yarn about air piracy, with some elements of the traditional mystery thrown in as well. The protagonist, Dick Trent, flies for the Air Mail, a relatively new operation at the time. Dick’s not exactly a daredevil, but he’ll run some risks while he’s flying if he has a good enough reason.

The owner of this particular Air Mail service has a beautiful daughter, a ne’er-do-well son, and a government contract to deliver a quarter of a million dollars for the Federal Reserve. Dick’s best friend takes the run carrying the money. When he doesn’t show up where he’s supposed to, Dick leads the search. He finds the wrecked and burned plane and the body of his friend. The pilot wasn’t killed in the wreck, though. Dick figures out that he actually landed the plane for some reason and then was murdered by someone who met him on the ground. The money, of course, is gone.

The owner of the Air Mail service, the father of the girl Dick loves, is soon arrested for the murder and robbery, convicted, and sent to prison to await execution. Dick believes he’s innocent, and the rest of the novel is concerned with our young hero’s efforts to ferret out the truth and uncover the real killer.

For a first novel, THE SKY RAIDER is decently plotted. You’ll think you have everything figured out more than once, but Keyhoe manages to put some nice twists on the story. It’s not very well-paced, though, lurching along with some stretches that drag. Most of the time the writing is serviceable at best, reminding me of the prose in a lot of those Stratemeyer Syndicate books from that era.

It really perks up, though, when Keyhoe is writing about flying itself. You can tell he really had a passion for it. There’s a nice scene where Dick is comparing flying to riding in a train, and train travel definitely comes off second best. (I have a feeling that if E.S. Dellinger had been writing that scene, it would have been the other way around. It’s interesting that enough people in those days had an affinity for one or the other that both aviation and railroads had millions of words of pulp fiction written about them.)

Keyhoe had a long career writing for the aviation and air-war pulps, mixing in a few detective stories along the way. He also wrote the short-lived Yellow Peril pulp series, DR. YEN SIN. Then he struck gold in the Fifties with his supposedly non-fiction books about UFOs. I gobbled up all those flying saucer books when I was a kid, and I remember reading and enjoying the ones by Keyhoe. I’d never read any of his aviation stories until THE SKY RAIDER, though.

And even though it’s very old-fashioned and has its flaws, I also found it pretty entertaining. The whole novel can be downloaded in PDF format from the Age of Aces website, with the first installment to be found here. Age of Aces also publishes a number of collections of Keyhoe’s aviation pulp stories, as well as collections by other stalwarts of that genre, and I have a feeling I’m going to be buying some of them. All three of Keyhoe’s DR. YEN SIN novels are available from Altus Press and I’ll probably spring for those as well. In the meantime, you can sample THE SKY RAIDER for free, and if you’re looking for a novel that will transport you back into another era, it’s a good one.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Overlooked Movies: Northern Pursuit (1943)

I keep finding old movies that I’ve never seen, despite the prodigious amount of them I watched on TV when I was a kid. NORTHERN PURSUIT, made in 1943, is a World War II espionage adventure starring Errol Flynn as a Canadian Mountie battling Nazi spies and saboteurs, until a bad decision leads to him being kicked out of the RCMP in disgrace. Things go from bad to worse from there as, disillusioned by what’s happened to him, he’s recruited by the very spy ring he was trying to break up.

Okay, stop me right there if you’ve figured out the big plot twist. It’s certainly not hard to do, and the script doesn’t keep the viewer in the dark for very long, either. But as I’ve said many times before, it just doesn’t matter. The fun (and this movie is a great deal of fun) is in watching some top professionals go about spinning an exciting, entertaining yarn.

I wouldn’t say Errol Flynn is one of my favorite actors, but I’ve always liked him and his movies. Helmut Dantine is the head bad guy, and he’s as sleek and evil as you’d want him to be. There’s plenty of stalwart support from John Ridgley as a fellow Mountie, Gene Lockhart (a little miscast but effective as a Nazi spy), and Tom Tully as an RCMP inspector. Jay Silverheels, Tonto his own self, is supposed to be in the movie somewhere in a bit part, but I never spotted him.

The script is by none other than the old pulpster Frank Gruber, who really knew how to tell a story, and veteran screenwriter Alvah Bessie. It’s based on a story by another prolific pulp writer, Leslie T. White. I don’t know which of White’s stories was used as the source material, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was published originally in ARGOSY or ADVENTURE. And NORTHERN PURSUIT was directed by Raoul Walsh, who directed many pictures I liked a great deal, such as THE ROARING TWENTIES, DARK COMMAND, HIGH SIERRA, and WHITE HEAT. He’s another one who really knew how to tell an exciting story. I mean, just look at the guy! That’s what a two-fisted movie director should look like.

Not that NORTHERN PURSUIT is perfect. I thought the final showdown could have been a little more dramatic, and then the very end of the movie, Flynn’s last line, is so oddly wrong and tone-deaf, especially considering all the good notes the movie’s hit up until then, that I can only suspect it was included at the insistence of some studio executive overly enamored of his own cleverness. It’s jarringly out of place, and if you watch NORTHERN PURSUIT I think you should just pretend it ended ten seconds earlier than it actually did. And if you like World War II espionage adventure movies, you definitely should watch it. I enjoyed it a lot.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: North-West Romances, Spring 1944

Here's another good Mountie cover on this issue of NORTH-WEST ROMANCES. I don't know who the artist is, but I know there are some fine authors with stories in this issue, with the biggest name probably being Dan Cushman. Two authors better known for Westerns rather than Northerns are also on hand, William Heuman and Archie Joscelyn, both of them writers I like quite a bit. Fiction House regular R.S. Lerch contributes a story, as well. Looks like a good issue of the leading Northern pulp.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Story, March 13, 1926

Most of the WESTERN STORY covers during the 1920s were on the sedate side, but here's one that has some nice action. I can't read the artist's name in the scan, but maybe someone among you can identify who painted this cover. Inside this issue are two stories by Frederick Faust, one as by Max Brand and the other as by John Frederick, plus stories by Frank Richardson Pierce, Hugh Grinstead, Ray Humphreys, Austin Hall, Reginald Barker, and Kenneth Gilbert, all regular contributors to WESTERN STORY.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Forgotten Books: Renegade - Ramsay Thorne (Lou Cameron)

Not long after Lou Cameron created the Longarm series for Berkley, he began writing the Renegade series for Warner Books under the pseudonym Ramsay Thorne. Unlike Longarm, on which Cameron was one of several rotating authors, he turned out all the Renegade books himself. The series was pretty successful, running for several years. At one time, I had all the books in paperback but never read any of them.

These days, the Renegade series is available under Cameron's real name in e-book editions from Piccadilly Publishing, so when I decided it was finally time for me to sample this series, that's the route I took. And I'm glad I did, because RENEGADE is one of the better books I've read recently.

The time is the early 1890s, the setting Arizona Territory not far from the Mexican border, as the protagonist, Lieutenant Richard Walker, is about to be hanged after a court-martial. Seems he took pity on some Mexican revolutionaries/bandits who were caught on the American side of the border and let them go, and in their escape, a soldier was killed. Walker escapes as well and manages to make it across the border into Mexico, where he's promptly captured by brutal Rurales and faces execution again.

Of course, Walker escapes again, and this time he takes a Maxim gun with him, which helps him come in really handy when he falls in with that same bunch of revolutionaries. He also befriends a French mercenary who has been in Mexico since the time of Maximilian's dictatorship. Walker quickly assumes a leadership role among the revolutionaries and gets a battlefield promotion to captain--Captain Gringo, as he's known by one and all for the rest of the book, as he helps the revolutionaries in their struggle against the notorious El Presidente, Porfirio Diaz.

That pretty much sums up the plot of RENEGADE, which is a very straightforward book. But what makes it worthwhile is the wonderfully profane, crude, politically incorrect voice in which it's written, as Captain Gringo beds just about every woman he meets, mows down scores of Rurales and Federales with the machine gun he carries, and leads a long railroad chase across Mexico as he tries to get himself and his new-found friends safely from the high deserts of the border country to the jungles along the coast. There's a ton of well-written action and some bawdy humor. Sure, most of it is over the top, but that hardly ever bothers me.

The only real flaws in this one are that it's too long and therefore a little repetitive in places, and after everything that's gone before, the last couple of chapters struck me as sort of anti-climactic. But for the most part, RENEGADE is great fun (although probably not something that will be to everyone's taste) and I really enjoyed it. I'm glad the whole series is available as e-books. I may not ever get around to reading all of them, but I have a feeling I'll give it a try.

Tuesday, August 07, 2018

Overlooked Movies: Track of the Cat (1954)

As many times as TRACK OF THE CAT played on TV while I was growing up, you’d think I would have seen it by now, but that’s not the case. I’m always glad to come across a Western I haven’t seen, so we watched the DVD of it not long ago.

However, as it turns out, TRACK OF THE CAT is not a normal Western at all. Since it’s based on a novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark (THE OX-BOW INCIDENT), that’s kind of to be expected. Robert Mitchum, Tab Hunter, and William Hopper (Paul Drake from PERRY MASON, his own self) play brothers who don’t get along that well as they live on an isolated ranch in the California mountains with their parents, bitter old Beulah Bondi and drunkenly ineffectual Phillip Tonge. The youngest brother, played by Hunter, has been courting a girl (Diana Lynn) his mother doesn’t approve of, and she’s come to visit. Mitchum, Hunter, and Hopper also have an old maid sister, played by Theresa Wright. There are a lot of angsty undercurrents going on, and when a panther starts attacking the family’s stock and Mitchum and Hopper go out after it, that sets off a chain of tragic events.

I haven’t read the source novel, but there’s enough doom, gloom, domestic drama, and creepy subtext in TRACK OF THE CAT that while watching it, I kept thinking, “This is like Tennessee Williams wrote a Western.” I didn’t dislike it, mind you, but it’s the kind of movie that makes you ask yourself what the hell it is you’re watching. I was expecting a taut, suspenseful yarn, a man vs. nature action story with Mitchum battling the panther, but that’s not what it is.

The snowy outdoor photography by William Clothier is excellent, and director William Wellman keeps things moving along fairly well despite the talky script. The acting is okay, especially considering there’s not really a sympathetic character in the whole movie. Wait, I take that back. Joe Sam, a crazy old Indian ranch hand, is sort of sympathetic at times, when he’s not being creepy as all get-out. The really odd thing about that is Joe Sam is played by none other than Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer from the Little Rascals, who was all of 26 years old when this movie was made. It’s some pretty masterful work under heavy make-up.

So overall, I can only give this movie a qualified recommendation. It’s well made and interesting enough that I’m glad I watched it, but heavy psychological drama isn’t really my thing. If you enjoy that sort of movie and haven’t seen TRACK OF THE CAT, it’s worth checking out.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Monday Memories: Home

I don’t recall the exact date, but 40 years ago this month, Livia and I moved into the original house that we built on this property. She and I built it from the ground up, along with a great deal of help from her parents and other family members on both sides. We dug the foundation and poured the cement for it by hand, using a cement mixer and buckets. We dug the septic tanks and lateral line, even though we had to rent a jackhammer to break up the rock layer that’s close to the surface under the ground. We framed it and raised the rafters. It was a lot of work, but it was a darned good house.

The land itself, a little more than three acres, had only one tree on it when we started building. At one time it had been part of a farm, and the whole area was one big field. So at least it’s pretty level. We’ve planted dozens of trees over the years. Some lived, most didn’t. We added some storage barns. We built a detached building that served as my library and writing studio for a number of years. All of that was lost in the wildfire of 2008, almost 30 years after we moved in.

I don’t think there was ever any real question that we would rebuild right here on the same property. In December of ’08, we moved into the new house. Even before that, though, we had moved in a mobile home to live in while we decided what to do and got the new house built. So except for about a month right after the fire when we stayed with Livia’s parents, this piece of ground has been our home for the past 40 years.

I plan for it to remain our home. We’ve lived too much, and lost too much, here to ever go anywhere else. There are too many memories. Even when I’m gone, I want my ashes spread here so I’ll still be part of the place. Maybe some in the front yard, where I sat on the porch and watched the dogs play, and over in front of the garage where Patches is buried, and across the driveway where my studio used to be and Harvey is buried, and out where Dobie and Max are resting . . .

Well, you get the idea. I ain’t goin’ anywhere.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: 10-Story Detective Magazine, June 1949

I'm not sure I've ever come across a "girl hidden inside a tree in a graveyard" cover before, but that's what you've got on this issue of 10-STORY DETECTIVE MAGAZINE, courtesy of artist Al Drake. The best-known authors inside this issue are Philip Ketchum, Joe Archibald, and Ray Cummings. There's also a story by Joseph Commings, an author who's almost competely forgotten now, but he published fairly prolifically in the mystery magazines, both pulps and digests, from the mid-Forties to the mid-Eighties, so that's a pretty long career. We were in some of the same issues of MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE. Commings' main detective was a U.S. Senator named Brooks U. Banner. There are more than two dozen stories in this series, but his cover-featured yarn in this issue of 10-STORY DETECTIVE isn't one of them. The other authors in this issue are writers I've never heard of. I do kind of like that goofy cover.

Saturday, August 04, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Fighting Western, October 1946

This is a pulp that I own and read recently. The scan is from my copy. That looks like an H.W. Scott cover to me, but I’m not entirely certain about that.

The featured story is “Six-Gun Survey”, a novella by E. Hoffmann Price. Price was a great pulp author, one who could write in almost every genre and do a good job with all of them. From what I’ve read of his work, Westerns may well have been his weakest area (with the exception of his Simon Boliver Grimes series), but those yarns are still consistently entertaining. “Six-Gun Survey” is well written, as always with Price, and the plot, which involves a land and irrigation swindle as well as camels left over the army’s failed experiment with them in Arizona Territory, is pretty interesting. Even so, this story is a little slow and not top-notch Price. Still worth reading, though.

Victor Rousseau had a long career in the pulps, stretching all the way back to 1907 and lasting until 1948. Like E. Hoffmann Price, he wrote in multiple genres. In the Thirties and Forties, he wrote primarily for Trojan Publishing Corporation, the publisher of the Spicy and Speed magazine lines, turning out scores of detective, adventure, and Western yarns. His story in this issue of FIGHTING WESTERN, “Buffalo Trail”, is a pretty good novelette which finds six mountain men joining a trail drive. The fur trapping days are just about over, and these men have to find something to do with their lives. One is young enough that he’s done some cowboying in the past, and he’s the protagonist of this tale, which has several nice plot twists I didn’t see coming at all. It suffers a little from an over-abundance of what I call “yuh mangy polecat” dialogue, but despite that, I enjoyed it very much.

Laurence Donovan was yet another prolific, versatile pulpster who wrote a lot for Trojan. His story “Brand of a Thief” reads like it could have appeared in RANCH ROMANCES, since there’s a romantic rectangle in this one, as well as $30,000 in missing money from the sale of a herd. Donovan was good with action and there are some nice shoot-outs and fights, along with a satisfying plot twist. I liked this one quite a bit, too.

John Jo Carpenter was really John Reese, who wrote dozens of stories under the Carpenter name for the Western pulps during the Forties and Fifties, before going on to a successful career as an author of Western and mystery novels in both hardback and paperback. He wrote the novel on which the movie CHARLEY VARRICK is based. His story in this issue, “Gun-Wise and Trail-Shy”, uses the standard plot of the young man wrongly condemned for a crime who has to take up the owlhoot trail. But when he encounters another outlaw, things take an unexpected turn. Reese was an excellent writer, and this is another good story.

Paul Hanna was a Trojan Publishing house-name, so there’s really no way of knowing who wrote “Beasts of Pueblo”, the final story in this issue. Which is a shame, because it’s an excellent yarn and my favorite from this issue. The protagonist is a young man who runs a Wells, Fargo express office. He’s plagued by what we’d now think of as a phobia which makes him physically ill when he’s confronted by a situation calling for violence. As you’d expect, he winds up overcoming it (this is a Western pulp, after all), but this story has a lot of emotional depth and is very well-written.

There are only five stories in this issue, which is a pretty low number for a Western pulp, but they’re all substantial tales and they’re all good. I was a little surprised that the E. Hoffmann Price story is actually the weakest in the bunch, since I really like Price’s work, and even at that, it’s still entertaining! This is just a good all-around issue and I enjoyed reading it.

Good Dog

Don't feel like hunting up some good music while I can't sleep, so . . . here's a good dog instead.

Friday, August 03, 2018

Forgotten Books: The D.A. Goes to Trial - Erle Stanley Gardner

Quite a few years ago I read one of the books in Erle Stanley Gardner’s series about District Attorney Doug Selby. I couldn’t tell you which one, but I remember liking it all right despite feeling that it wasn’t nearly as good as the Perry Mason and Donald Lam/Bertha Cool novels that I’d read.

I thought it was about time I read another one, so I picked up THE D.A. GOES TO TRIAL, published in 1940 as the fourth book in the series. There’s not much point in trying to summarize the usual incredibly complicated plot. Let’s just say that it involves a dead hobo whose true identity is a mystery, a hotheaded rancher, a runaway wife, a divorce that may or may not be legal, the fingerprints of a dead man that don’t match the corpse, various cases of embezzlement and blackmail, and the return of Selby’s old girlfriend who is now a lawyer and will wind up opposing him in court. Gardner juggles all these elements until Selby finally puts them into a pattern that makes sense (I guess; sometimes it’s hard to tell with Gardner) and brings a murderer to justice.

Gardner was never known for his vividly descriptive writing, but there are some nice passages in this one about the Southern California landscape. And the plot is pretty interesting. As usual with Gardner, the second half of the book is better than the first, as the pace picks up and there’s a greater sense of urgency. Of course, the courtroom scenes, where Gardner really excels, usually come in the second half of the book, too. That’s not the case here, as the only courtroom scene is a short one lacking in fireworks, but overall the story moves along better anyway.

For me, the real problem with the Doug Selby books is Doug Selby himself. He’s a really bland, colorless protagonist, just one step up from a cipher. In this series Gardner seems to be trying to recreate the same dynamic as in the Perry Mason books: reporter Sylvia Martin is Della Street, Sheriff Rex Brandon is Paul Drake, but Doug Selby is no Perry Mason.

So I can only give THE D.A. GOES TO TRIAL a mixed recommendation. It’s entertaining if you stick with it, and I’m glad I read it, but I suspect it’ll be a good while, if ever, before I sample this series again.

(That’s my copy in the scan above. Below are covers from some of the other editions.)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Overlooked TV: John Adams (2008)

The DVDs of this 2008 mini-series made for HBO sat unwatched on our shelves for years, but recently we were in the mood for a historical drama and finally watched it. Often when we watch a historical movie or TV show, I have a feeling of “Been there, wrote that”, because I’ve written about so many different time periods. That’s definitely the case in the few two episodes of JOHN ADAMS, which cover the build-up to the Revolutionary War between 1770 and 1776. I dealt with a lot of the same material in my series PATRIOTS (six novels published by Bantam Books under the pseudonym Adam Rutledge), which ended on July 4, 1776.

Of course, there are some differences, too. In my books, most of the action—the Boston Tea Party, the Battle of Bunker Hill, the capture of the British cannon at Fort Ticonderoga—took place on-screen, but since John Adams himself didn’t take part in any of that, in the mini-series we hear about those historic events but don’t witness them.

What we get instead is people talking about stuff. Lots and lots of people talking about stuff. The saving grace of JOHN ADAMS, along with its good acting and very high production values, is that the things being discussed are mostly interesting, and the dialogue is well-written. There’s no getting around the fact, though, that this mini-series is pretty slow and dry. Thankfully, it goes on to cover the war itself and everything else that happens afterward: George Washington’s presidency, Adams’ own term as president, the various power struggles between him, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and others. I don’t know as much about that era, so most of it kept me intrigued.

There’s also a fair amount of soap opera—alcoholism, sibling rivalry, vaulting ambition, disease, and tragedy—all of it historically accurate for the most part, because real life often is a soap opera. But the script never lets things get too lurid and shies away from any really over-the-top moments.

Paul Giamatti plays John Adams and Laura Linney plays his wife Abigail, and their lifelong love story is really at the heart of this series. They each do a good job, as does the rest of the cast. Slow though it may be, JOHN ADAMS is a decent slice of history and I’m glad we finally watched it.

If you want plenty of powder-burning action and some real soap opera, though, I recommend that you read my PATRIOTS novels. (Sorry for the commercial.)

Monday, July 30, 2018

Monday Memories: My Home Town

I’m never going to write an autobiography. For one thing, I don’t have the time and energy, and for another, it seems a little pretentious for a hack writer to be doing such a thing. Also, let’s be honest here. I’ve read a lot of books, watched a lot of movies, and spent a lot of time in a room by myself typing. There you go. JAMES REASONER: HIS LIFE AND TIMES. The End.

However, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I wax nostalgic from time to time, and in doing so quite a bit lately it occurred to me that I ought to start a series of such posts that are sort of autobiographical in nature. If nothing else, it gets some of my memories down in a bit less transitory form, and they might provide a little entertainment for some of you or make you think back to your own younger years. And of course, one of the great advantages of doing these as blog posts is that you can roll your eyes and skip them and I’ll never know the difference.

I’m going to begin with the picture above. That’s an aerial photo of Azle, Texas, taken in 1938. Now, before you think, “Just how old are you, anyway?”, let me say that my parents didn’t move to Azle until the early Fifties, right after I was born. So that photo predates me by more than a decade. However, some of those buildings were still there when I was growing up in Azle in the Fifties and Sixties, and some of them are still there.

The two-story white building in the lower right portion of the picture? That’s one of the oldest buildings still standing in Azle. I believe it was originally MacDonald’s Grocery Store, and after that it was Stribling’s Drug Store. By the early Sixties, it was Tompkins’ Drug Store. There was a spinner rack of comic books, and I bought a bunch of DENNIS THE MENACE comic books there, along with issues of the DC war comics OUR ARMY AT WAR and OUR FIGHTING FORCES. The Odd Fellows lodge met on the second floor, and around on the side, for a while, there was a small lending library where you could check out books for, I think, ten cents a week.

After the drug store moved to a new strip shopping center at the other end of town (where I bought even more comic books and paperbacks), the building became the home of C&W Electronics, a TV repair shop. Azle had three such shops for a long time: C&W on Main Street downtown, Jimmy Chandler’s out on the Boyd Highway, and my dad’s shop, where he worked out of our house on Hankins Drive. C&W was there for a long time, and after it went out of business the building sat vacant for ages. A few years ago, a For Sale sign went up on it, and I thought, “Crap. Somebody’s going to buy it and tear it down.” They’d already torn down the Red Top CafĂ©, just up the street, which dated back to the 1870s and started its existence as a saloon. But no, the building is still there, and these days it’s Red’s Burger House. I go in there to pick up burgers sometimes, and I still know approximately where the comic book spinner rack stood. It’s a good feeling.

Now, diagonally across the street on the corner is a two-story stone building. It was fairly new when that photo was taken in ’38, I believe. A local couple named Jim and Eula Nation built it. I don’t know the original purpose, but in the early Sixties there was a barber shop on the first floor and a snow cone stand on the corner of the parking lot during the summer. I never went to the barber shop (my dad and I got our hair cut at Hukill’s, across the street, in a building that wasn’t there yet in ’38), but I did eat a lot of snow cones from that stand. Then the building was vacant for a while, and in the mid-Sixties, the Azle Public Library, which had gotten started a few years earlier in a small space also across the street, moved in. Mrs. Nation, who still owned the building, was the librarian. I was already working at the library by that time, first as a volunteer and then as a modestly salaried employee (I made enough to buy more comic books and paperbacks!), so I worked there until, I think, 1969. In the mid-Seventies, the library moved into a new building out on the highway, not far from the hospital. The stone building on Main Street is now the Azle Historical Museum, where the original of this aerial photo now hangs, or at least it did the last time I was in there.

See the road that turns off of Main Street next to the museum building and curves up and to the left out of the picture? The second building on the right, the little white house, was still there as recently as a year or two ago, but I believe it was jacked up and moved out. I don’t know where it is now.

Across from that house, on the left side of the road (Church Street), you can see the steeple and part of Azle Christian Church. The building still sits on that property, although in a slightly different place now, and is the church’s Fellowship Hall. Follow Church Street on around, and that clump of trees and cluster of buildings on the left is what was then Azle’s only school. It’s a sprawling stone building famous in these parts as the Rock School. When I went there in the Sixties for sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, it was Azle Junior High. When my daughters attended fifth and sixth grade there, it was Azle Elementary. But whatever its official name, it was and always will be the Rock School.

There are a few other buildings in Azle old enough to have been in this picture that are further out. About half a mile to the south is Ash Creek Baptist Church, where a building that dates from 1898 is now Fellowship Hall. When I was a kid it was still the church’s main building, and that was where I attended the first church services I remember. Livia and I also had our wedding shower in that building. Farther out the same road the church is on is an old house that was built in the 1850s, within a decade after the first settlers moved into the area. When I was a kid, an old log cabin built in the 1840s was still standing on property belonging to the family of a friend of mine. I remember seeing it. I don’t know if it was torn down or fell down, but it’s long gone, like the Red Top up on Main Street. I’m sure there are other private homes in the area that date back that far, but I don’t know the details on all of them.

Since the Sixties, a four-lane highway runs right through the middle of the area in the picture. Most of that farm land you see stretching into the distance? Covered with houses, of course. Things changed a lot during that era, but in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, Azle was still a darned good place to live and grow up. One thing about living in one place all your life, every time you go anywhere, you drive right past all those old memories and they come alive again in your mind.

At least they do in mine.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Blue Book, December 1940

The usual eye-catching cover by Herbert Morton Stoops leads off this issue of BLUE BOOK, and inside are some familiar names, too. As often happened, H. Bedford-Jones has three stories in this issue, one under his own name and one each as by Michael Gallister and Gordon Keyne. Fulton Grant and Nelson Bond, two more BLUE BOOK regulars, are on hand, too, and there are also stories by Howard Rigsby, William Bryon Mowery, Charles L. Clifford, and Tracy Richardson. BLUE BOOK was one of the classiest of the pulps, with consistently excellent stories.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Story, April 3, 1943

A lot of WESTERN STORY covers seem to capture the moment just before gunplay erupts. That's the case with this one. I think it's a nice dramatic scene and I like it quite a bit. There's a lot to like inside the issue, too, with stories by Norman A. Fox, Harry F. Olmsted, William Heuman, Bennett Foster, and David Lavender, one of the few Western pulp writers I actually met before he passed away. Elmer Kelton, Bill Gulick, Thomas Thompson, Wayne C. Lee, and Fred Grove are others who come to mind. There may have been more.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Forgotten Books: Midshipman Bolitho and the Avenger - Alexander Kent (Douglas Reeman)

MIDSHIPMAN BOLITHO AND THE AVENGER is the second novel, chronologically, in the 18th Century naval adventure series written by Douglas Reeman under the pseudonym Alexander Kent. I really enjoyed the first one, RICHARD BOLITHO, MIDSHIPMAN, so I was looking forward to the sequel and it didn’t let me down.

As this book opens, 17-year-old Richard Bolitho has returned to England from his pirate-chasing adventure in the previous novel and has leave to travel to his family home in Cornwall to celebrate Christmas with his family. His friend and fellow midshipman Martyn Dancer goes with him. But no sooner do they arrive than a dead man is found on the beach of a nearby cove, then the King’s ship Avenger, under the command of none other than Bolitho’s older brother Hugh, shows up. Hugh has been sent to crack down on smugglers and wreckers working along the coastline, and since he’s short on officers, he presses his younger brother and Dancer into service on the Avenger.

There’s some action at sea, including a really excellent climactic chase and battle, but most of this adventure takes place on land as the Bolitho brothers try to break up the smuggling ring. The twist ending isn’t entirely a surprise, but it still works pretty well. Reeman writes great action scenes, and I continue to be impressed by how tight his writing is and how he spins his yarns at such a fast pace. No bloated historical novel here. This is good, old-fashioned swords and pistols high adventure, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I have the next novel in the series on hand, and I suspect I’ll be getting to it soon.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Overlooked Movies: The Ghost and Mr. Chicken (1966)

As often happens on this blog, you’re going to have to put up with some nostalgia before I get to the actual subject of this post. Or you can just scroll on down, I won’t mind, honest.

I’ve mentioned the Eagle Drive-In Theater before. When I was growing up, it was only about a quarter of a mile from my parents’ house if you cut through back yards, a field, and the parking lot of the Western Lodge Motel. I saw a lot of movies there. Somebody always took me until I was about ten years old, but after that point I usually walked, sometimes with other kids from the neighborhood, sometimes by myself. (Times were different then. Those of you who are old enough know that, and those who aren’t, just take my word for it.)

The Eagle had a promotion during the summer called Merchant’s Night, which was, I believe, on Tuesday each week. Businesses around town would buy bunches of really cheap tickets and give them away to their customers with purchases made in their stores. With those tickets, you could get in free on Merchant’s Night. The double feature was always older movies (cheaper for the theater to rent, I’m sure), so you got a lot of Elvis and Audie Murphy movies from four or five years earlier.


I loved this Don Knotts movie (the first one he made after leaving THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) when I saw it as a kid. Svengoolie ran it on his show a few weeks ago, so I had to record it and watch it for the first time in almost 50 years. Knotts plays Luther Heggs, a typesetter on the local paper in the small Kansas town of Rachel. He has an ambition to be an actual reporter, though. One of the local legends involves a creepy old house in town where a notorious murder/suicide occurred 20 years earlier. The old man who owned the house murdered his beautiful young wife in a fit of insane jealousy, then climbed into a tall tower attached to the house, played crazy tunes on the organ there, and finally leaped to his death.

So who do you think gets the job of spending the night in the murder house on the twentieth anniversary of the crime? Actually, how do you think the rest of this movie is going to go? Because you’ll probably be able to predict everything that happens in it, right down to the identity of the bad guy.

But here’s the important thing: It doesn’t matter. This is a wonderful film, and I had a big smile on my face the whole way through it. It’s just a beautiful snapshot of small town Americana, from the diner where the citizens of Rachel eat to the bandstand in the town park. I’ve been known to say that a little of Don Knotts goes a long way, but he’s great in this one, doing all of his usual nervous routines but pulling back from them when he needs to. Dick Sargent is the owner and editor of the newspaper, Skip Homeier is the arrogant reporter who makes life miserable for Knotts’ character, and Joan Staley is the beautiful girl-next-door Knotts has a crush on. The supporting cast is full of familiar faces: Hal Smith (Otis from THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, playing the town drunk here, too), Burt Mustin (from LEAVE IT TO BEAVER), the great Charles Lane, and many more.

My friends and I loved this movie when we were kids. We spent weeks hollering “Attaboy, Luther!” (the movie’s most famous running joke) at each other and thinking it was hilarious. It’s still pretty funny. Watching it now, I still love it. I know intellectually that those days really weren’t simpler, better times for everybody, but they were for me and THE GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN did a great job of transporting me back there for a while. Attaboy, indeed.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: War Birds, January 1932

You just don't run across stories with titles like "Fokker Dust" anymore. Thomson Burtis was a well-known writer of aviation and air-war stories, but I don't believe I've ever read anything by him. Also in this issue of WAR BIRDS are stories by O.B. Myers, another prolific and well-regarded aviation pulpster, Allan R. Bosworth, an excellent Western author who wrote a little bit of everything for the pulps, William E. Barrett, best remembered for the novel THE LILIES OF THE FIELD, and several authors whose names are unfamiliar to me. I've never really read much from the aviation pulps compared to some of the other genres, but I've generally enjoyed what I've read.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: New Western, September 1945

As I've said before, no poker games ever ended peacefully in the Old West, at least according to the Western pulps. This issue of NEW WESTERN is another example. Although violence hasn't broken out yet, you just know it's about to. So while the brawl's going on, you can read stories by Wayne D. Overholser ("Gun-Cure for Lava City" is a great title), D.B. Newton, C. William Harrison, Thomas Thompson, M. Howard Lane, Ralph Yergen, Theodore J. Roemer, and Charles Hammill, an author I've never heard of. Any Western pulp with Overholser, Newton, Harrison, and Thompson is going to be worth reading. 

Friday, July 20, 2018

Forgotten Books: When Dames Get Tough - Hank Janson (Stephen D. Frances)

I’ve been aware of the Hank Janson series for many years (and the gorgeous covers by Reginald Heade), but never got around to reading one until now. Although it might not have been the wisest course of action, for reasons I’ll get into below, I started with the very first Hank Janson novella, WHEN DAMES GET TOUGH, published in 1946.

Some quick background: Stephen D. Frances was a young, struggling writer/publisher in England who had been writing what were known as gangster stories, lurid, hardboiled tales set in America, mostly written by authors who had never been in America and had only a loose grasp of American slang and geography. As a publisher, Frances found himself in need of urgent need of a 15,000 word novella over a weekend, and not having anyone else to do it, he wrote it himself, dictating it to a secretary. Not only is the protagonist named Hank Janson, that was the by-line on it, as well.

This was WHEN DAMES GET TOUGH, a fast-paced, first-person yarn narrated by a traveling salesman (of ladies’ cosmetics) named Hank Janson. Hank happens upon a beautiful young blonde being interrogated and tortured by thugs, so naturally he wades in and rescues her, which lands him up to his neck in a criminal scheme involving black market goods (still a hot topic in those days just following World War II), mistaken identity, yet another beautiful blonde, and more than one attempt on his life.

This novella is certainly not without its flaws. Frances’s American tough-guy patter is less convincing at this point than that of James Hadley Chase (Rene Raymond) or Carter Brown (Alan G. Yates), the other two English authors I’ve read who produced mainly American-set mystery novels. The plot is driven by several pretty hard to swallow coincidences. And making your wise-cracking, two-fisted hero a salesman of ladies’ cosmetics is, well, an unusual choice, to say the least.

However . . . WHEN DAMES GET TOUGH is pretty darned entertaining. Frances’s style may be a little crude at times, and his Americanisms may not ring true, but dang, this yarn rockets along and is told in a distinctive voice, which I always like. There’s plenty of action, the girls are sexy, and Hank is a likable galoot. The Heade cover depicts an actual scene from the story with a fair degree of accuracy (the girls are both blondes in the story). I wound up liking this one quite a bit.

There are a couple more early novellas before Frances retooled the character as a crime-busting reporter from Chicago, and those tales are included in an ebook currently available, along with two short stories featuring the later incarnation of the Janson character. I plan to read those as well and then move on to the ebooks of the full-length novels. I’m glad these reprints are available since the original editions are sort of hard to come by, and I want to read more about Hank Janson.  

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Coming From Stark House: The Red Scarf/A Killer is Loose - Gil Brewer

Roy Nichols needs to find some quick cash to keep from losing his motel. The new highway was supposed to go through, providing plenty of business, but now it's been delayed. The bank refuses to help, and his brother turns him down. Desperate and on the way back home, he catches a ride with a bickering couple named Vivian and Teece. They start drinking, then Teece gets spooked, and crashes the car. That's when Nichols discovers that his travelling companions have been carrying a briefcase full of cash. Teece appears to be dead, and Vivian confesses that they have robbed the mob, and begs him to help her escape. But to do that, Nichols will have to lie to his wife the cops...and ultimately, to a very dangerous man named Radan.

Ex-cop Steve Logan is down on his luck. With a baby on the way, Logan decides to pawn his last pistol to a bartender friend. On his way, he rescues a stranger, Ralph Angers, from being hit by an oncoming bus. Angers is an eye surgeon and a Korean War vet, and he has plans to build a hospital in town. Unfortunately, he is also prepared to kill anyone and everyone who gets in the way of his plans. So when Angers manages to get a hold of Logan's Luger, he also drags his rescuer into a nightmare of murder and insanity. Logan becomes a hostage to Angers' plans, and there will be no mercy to anyone who gets in his way.

This Gil Brewer double volume will be available from Stark House in a few months. That's a quote from one of my reviews on that gorgeous cover, and I'm very happy for my words to be sharing space with some beautiful artwork by Robert McGinnis. Man, when I was buying all those Carter Browns and Mike Shaynes with McGinnis covers off the spinner rack at Lester's Pharmacy when I was a kid, I never dreamed that I'd be part of a cover like that someday. This is very cool for me.

Not to mention, THE RED SCARF is a great noir novel. I read and reviewed it back in 2011. But I haven't read A KILLER IS LOOSE, and I remember Bill Crider telling me about it. I thought there was a review of it on Bill's blog, but I can't find it now. Maybe we just talked about the book. But I'm sure looking forward to reading it in the near future, and when I have, I'll be writing about it here. In the meantime, this Stark House edition is available for pre-order, and like everything from Stark House, if you're a fan of great hardboiled and noir fiction, it's going to be well worth your time and money.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Tragon of Ramura - John M. Whalen

John M. Whalen’s new novel TRAGON OF RAMURA is a sword-and-sorcery adventure in the classic mold, set in a world that seems an alternate history approximation of our own. The protagonist Tragon has been framed for the murder of his king and is already on the run when this yarn begins, having fallen in with the crew of the ship Orion. But he has sworn that someday he’ll return to his home of Ramura and overthrow the sorcerer Caldec, who is responsible for all the evil that plagues the country as well as for framing Tragon.

While in a dangerous port city, Tragon encounters an old soldier/mentor of his named Darius who has fallen on drunken hard times. When Tragon and his companions on the Orion are hired to travel to a lost city and rescue the daughter of their client, Tragon decides to sober up Darius and take him along.

The man who hires them has been to the lost city of Caiphar before, in search of a mystical gem called the Crimson Eye. His daughter was captured during this trip, and he barely got away. Now he has to return and rescue her before the time rolls around for a ritual in which the city’s evil king will take her as his wife. And of course, stealing the Crimson Eye is still on the table as well, so in addition to hiring Tragon and his crew, the man also brings along a group of hardened mercenaries.

Of course, the whole thing winds up being complicated by double crosses, traps, monsters, immortal evil, a tower full of dead souls, and a beautiful high priestess who may or may not be trustworthy. There are a lot of influences in this book: Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE DIRTY DOZEN . . . and plenty of Whalen’s own talent, as he spins a fast-moving yarn with interesting characters, a lot of well-written action, and some surprisingly poignant moments. There’s enough back-story left unresolved for a number of sequels, too, although this novel is quite satisfying on its own.

I’ve written many times before about what I call front porch books, the sort of thing I read sitting on the front porch of my parents’ house on long summer days when I was a kid. TRAGON OF RAMURA, although it’s brand new, is that same sort of pure pleasure, so I’m naming it an honorary Front Porch Book and recommending it if you’re a fan of sword and sorcery action.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Overlooked Movies: Mystery Ranch (1934)

This movie has maybe the weirdest opening of any B-Western I've ever seen. It starts with a shot showing part of a Western pulp cover (more about this later), then a close-up of a page from a Western manuscript, then a voice-over as an actor reads from this story while the action takes place on screen. The bad guys have captured the beautiful girl and have her tied up, and then the stalwart hero shows up to rescue her. It's all silly and deliberately terrible, as we find out when we see that the old-timer reading the story is the protagonist's father, said protagonist being Western novelist Robert Morris (played by Tom Tyler). Never mind that what the guy is reading is clearly a pulp, not a book.

Anyway, the old-timer makes fun of his son's writing and says that it's not realistic. The son explains that he's been invited to visit a real Western ranch and so he'll find out first hand whether or not his stories are authentic. However, the ranch in question--the Mystery Ranch of the title--is actually a dude ranch and the people running it intend to stage a lot of phony Western action to impress the visiting author. Of course, none of this works out as planned, and then a real bank robbery happens, and naturally enough, the author has to turn hero . . . and you can write the plot from that point on just as well as the actual scriptwriters did. Possibly better.

Don't get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this movie, although the bizarre opening sequence is the real highlight. Nobody would mistake Tom Tyler for a great actor, but he's okay and has enough screen presence to make up for a lot. Veteran heavies Charles King and George Chesebro are on hand to liven things up, and blond Roberta Gale, an actress I'm not familiar with, is really good-looking. There's some decent stunt work by Tyler and others. As usual with Hollywood, the screenwriters have no real idea how publishing works, but I'm used to that. The whole thing is a little off-kilter, but in this case, that's good.

Note that there's a better known B Western from a couple of years earlier called MYSTERY RANCH. That one stars George O'Brien. There's also a Max Brand novel with the same title. This movie doesn't have anything to do with either of those.

Now, about that pulp . . . As soon as I saw the opening shot, I thought it was a real pulp featured in it. You can't see anything except the middle part of the front cover, with some of the art and the word "Magazine" visible, along with the bottom of the word "Western". But something about it seemed familiar to me, and I realized it looked like it might be a cover from an issue of ALL WESTERN, published by Dell. So it was off to the Fictionmags Index, and sure enough, it's the cover from the June 1934 issue, which was probably on the stands when the movie was filmed. So somebody went down to the newsstand, bought a copy, brought it back to the studio, and ALL WESTERN made what may well be its only movie appearance. You can see the cover, which is a pretty good one and was painted by R. Farrington Elwell, below. And if you want to watch MYSTERY RANCH, the whole thing is available on YouTube, although I watched it as part of a DVD set of public domain Westerns.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Detective Novel Magazine, Spring 1949

This issue of DETECTIVE NOVEL MAGAZINE features an eye-catching cover by Rudolph Belarski. And that's the purpose of a pulp cover, isn't it? The featured story in this issue is a reprint (possibly abridged) of a 1939 novel by Q. Patrick, actually Richard Webb and Hugh Wheeler, who also wrote as Jonathan Stagge and their best-known pseudonym, Patrick Quentin. There are also stories by William Campbell Gault and Arthur Leo Zagat, both top-notch pulpsters, and John L. Benton, a Thrilling Group house-name, so the author of that one was probably pretty good, too.

A Middle of the Night Music Post: We Gotta Get You a Woman - Todd Rundgren

Always liked this song. Brings back a lot of good memories. Of course, I could say that about all the songs I post in the middle of the night, otherwise I wouldn't care enough about them to do it.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Fighting Western, June 1946

The cover on this issue of FIGHTING WESTERN is just oddball enough that I really like it. Inside are stories by E. Hoffmann Price (one of his Simon Boliver Grimes series), Chuck Martin, Branch Carter, and two by Victor Rousseau, one under his own name and one as by Lew Merrill. This looks like a good issue of a generally underrated Western pulp.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Forgotten Books: The Bronze Axe (Richard Blade #1) - Jeffrey Lord (Manning Lee Stokes)

I’ve written before about what I call front porch books—the sort of book I read when I was a teenager, sitting in a lawn chair in the shade of my parents’ front porch on summer days when it was too hot to play baseball. THE BRONZE AXE, the first book in the long-running Richard Blade fantasy adventure series, is definitely a front porch book. Which is not always a good thing and is, in fact, sometimes a mixed blessing.

First some background on the series, which was packaged by Lyle Kenyon Engel before he formed Book Creations Inc, the company I worked for many years later. I’m going by memory here, but I seem to recall reading in an interview with Engel that it was George Glay, the editorial director at Macfadden-Bartell Books, who actually came up with the concept of this series. Knowing how Engel worked, I imagine Glay said something like “How about a series mixing James Bond with Conan?”, since those were two very popular literary figures at the time. So Engel called up Manning Lee Stokes, one of the authors who regularly wrote books for him, and said, “I need a series mixing James Bond with Conan”, and then Stokes came up with everything else. I suspect that’s how it went, anyway.

But no matter what the details of its creation, the Richard Blade series really is James Bond meets Conan. Blade is a top agent in British Intelligence, working for a secret division of MI6 called MI6A, which is headed up by a spymaster known only as J. Blade is recruited as a test subject in an experiment being conducted by gnomish scientest Lord Leighton, who hooks him up to a supercomputer. The object of the experiment is to download all the information in the computer directly in Blade’s brain, but there’s a glitch and instead it hurls him into a parallel dimension that comes to be known as Dimension X, which has all sorts of different alternate Earths in it. (I gather that some of this is established in later books.)

In this book, THE BRONZE AXE, Blade winds up in an alternate history version of Bronze Age England, where he rescues a beautiful princess and runs afoul of a beautiful queen, a beautiful witch (the witches are known as Drus, obviously inspired by Druids), and another queen who’s not really beautiful, but Blade fools around with her anyway, as he does most of the women he encounters. When he’s not getting laid, he fights the Dimension X equivalents of Vikings and not surprisingly kills their leader so he can take over the dreaded sea raiders. Then Lord Leighton fixes the problem with the computer and manages to bring him back to good old England in the Swinging Sixties.

Stokes was one of the regular authors on the Nick Carter, Killmaster secret agent series also packaged by Engel, and I gobbled those novels down with great enjoyment in those days (definite front porch books). I didn’t know at the time who was writing them, but I didn’t care, either. Now, all these decades later, I find that Stokes’ prose hasn’t aged all that well, at least in this book. He can get awfully long-winded and pretentious at times.

However, there are also some really good action scenes in THE BRONZE AXE, some likable and interesting characters, and a surprising amount of humor, most of which actually works. If I had read this when it was first published in 1969, I suspect I would have loved it. Somehow I never saw it back then, though. Reading it now, I still got a considerable amount of enjoyment from it, despite being able to see its flaws.

A little more history on the series: Macfadden-Bartell published six Richard Blade books in 1969-72, all with pretty good covers by Jack Faragasso, but that seemed to be the end of the series. Then in 1973, Engel struck a deal with Pinnacle Books, which had grown enormously in the past few years due to the success of the Executioner, the Destroyer, and other men’s adventure series. Pinnacle reprinted the six books originally published by Macfadden-Bartell, this time with covers by Tony Destefano that I don’t like nearly as well, and then continued on with original novels until the series totaled 37 books. Manning Lee Stokes wrote the first eight, and Roland J. Green wrote all the books after that except for #30, which was written by Ray Faraday Nelson. Engel, or an editor who worked for him, talked to author Geo. W. Proctor about continuing the series, but that never came about. After Russian reprints of the early books were successful, a couple of Russian authors began writing their own sequels, so there are a number of unauthorized Richard Blade novels that have only been published in Russia and have never appeared in English.

I have the first three books and then maybe a dozen more scattered through the rest of the series. I enjoyed THE BRONZE AXE enough that I’ll probably try to round up the rest of the Manning Lee Stokes entries, but whether I continue beyond that is sort of doubtful since I’m not a fan of Roland Green’s work. I’m glad I read this one, though. It brought back enough of those old feelings to create quite a bit of nostalgia for those days. I wouldn’t go back there permanently, but I sure like to visit.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Now Available: Tragon of Ramura - John M. Whalen

A dream starts Tragon of Ramura and his friend/bodyguard Yusef Ahmed on a search for an amulet said to be the source of the most powerful magic in the universe, Their search leads them to the lost city of Caiphar and the beautiful and mysterious Sai-Ul-San, high priestess of the cult of Zoth-Amin. Tragon finds the Crimson Eye of Caiphar, but the city holds dark secrets of an evil a thousand years old that threaten to unleash a demon intent on destroying the world. Can Tragon defeat the ancient forces that rule Caiphar, or will he remain trapped forever in the Tower of Lost Souls?

Flying W Press announces the release of John M. Whalen’s new sword and sorcery novel, TRAGON OF RAMURA. It’s a novel deeply rooted in the traditions of the sword and sorcery genre, but which attempts to take that kind of story into a new realm.

Tragon of Ramura is a character that has been around a while. He first appeared in 2006 in a short story, “Island of Fear,” published in Howard Andrew Jones’ Flashing Swords e-zine. “That was the first cash money I ever got for a short story,” author John Whalen said. “Howard said he thought I had something with the characters of Tragon and his sidekick, Yusef Ahmed. I think he was right. So I finally gave them their own novel.”
Tragon and Yusef also were also featured in Christopher Heath’s Artifacts and Relics anthology, and another antho, “Shadows and Light,” published by the now defunct Pill Hill Press. They have also been published in Greece and translated into Greek.

In TRAGON OF RAMURA, our two adventurers are in search of the Crimson Eye of Caiphar, said to be the source of the most powerful magic in the universe. Tragon believes he must obtain it in order to return home from exile and combat the evil wizard who assassinated his king and framed him for the killing. In the Lost City of Caiphar Tragon encounters the beautiful and mysterious Sai-Ul-San, high priestess of the cult of Zoth-Amin. The priestess agrees to help Tragon in his quest, but can they overcome the dark forces that rule the city and defeat an ancient god who threatens to destroy the world? And what terrible secret is the priestess hiding?

“I didn’t want to write the same old Robert E. Howard Conan pastiche,” Whalen said. “It’s been done to death. The book has some of the usual tropes, but they’re handled in a different way, and mixed with some mind-bending ideas that S&S fans probably haven’t seen in this context before. It’s a combination of horror and adventure, and some far out things. It’s different.”