Friday, January 31, 2020

Forgotten Books: Holocaust House - Norbert Davis

I’ve been meaning to read Norbert Davis’s Doan and Carstairs series for, oh, fifty years now. One of the libraries I frequented as a teenager had a copy of the novel SALLY’S IN THE ALLEY, which I thought was an intriguing title. I never got around to checking it out and reading it, though. Then as the years passed, I read all sorts of good things about the series, but again, never got around to it. Until now.

For those of you who don’t know, Norbert Davis was a top-notch author of pulp stories, mostly in the detective genre. He wrote extensively for such iconic pulps as BLACK MASK, DIME DETECTIVE, and ARGOSY and also cracked the slicks, like THE SATURDAY EVENING POST. His mystery yarns included series about private eye Max Latin and bail bondsman Bail Bond Dodd.

In the Doan and Carstairs series, Doan is also a private eye, a pudgy, deceptively mild-looking little man who works for the Severn Detective Agency. Carstairs is a Great Dane, a huge, fawn-colored beast Doan won in a poker game. I just read the first story in the series, a short novel called HOLOCAUST HOUSE that was serialized in ARGOSY in 1940. Carstairs doesn’t appear much in this one, but I have a feeling he’s more of a sidekick in future books.

Instead, Doan is given the job of going to an isolated mountain lodge to protect a young heiress who believes she’s in danger. When he gets there, there’s a snowstorm going on, so the lodge is even more isolated than usual. Several other characters are on hand, all of them suspicious, of course, and it’s not long before a murder occurs and it’s up to Doan to untangle a very complicated plot and not get himself killed in the process . . . which he does with great efficiency and more than a little violence.

HOLOCAUST HOUSE is a wonderfully entertaining story with a fast-paced, tricky plot and lots of great dialogue. Davis’s prose is just as smooth as can be, often very funny and plenty tough when it needs to be. You can buy the whole series in a great collection from Altus Press. Really, you can grab just about anything by Norbert Davis and not go wrong. I’m glad I didn’t start this series until now, because I’m very much looking forward to reading the rest of it.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Dime Detective, November 15, 1934

That may not be the most politically correct cover you'll ever see, but dang, it catches the eye, as do the names of the writers inside. DIME DETECTIVE always had strong lineups during this era, and this issue is a good example: Frederick Nebel, Cornell Woolrich, Max Brand, and T.T. Flynn, along with the lesser-known Eric Taylor and Sam Powell. The cover is by John Newton Howitt, who did many of the covers for THE SPIDER and the Popular Publications Weird Menace titles.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Novels and Short Stories, May 1950

This is another Norman Saunders cover packed with detail. This scene might have seemed too busy if it was painted by many other artists, but Saunders had a way of always making it work. As usual, there are some good writers in this issue of WESTERN NOVELS AND SHORT STORIES, too: Les Savage Jr., Frank Castle, John Callahan, and J.L. Bouma. I hope no stray bullets hit that box full of dynamite!

Friday, January 24, 2020

Forgotten Books: The Pathless Trail - Arthur O. Friel

I've known of Arthur O. Friel's reputation as a top writer of adventure fiction for quite a while but have never read his work until now. THE PATHLESS TRAIL, originally serialized in the iconic pulp ADVENTURE from October 10 to November 10, 1921, is perhaps his best-known novel and introduces a formidable trio of adventurers: Roderick McKay, Meredith Knowlton, and Tim Ryan. The three of them all served together in the Great War, McKay and Knowlton as officers and Ryan as a sergeant.

As this novel opens, the three friends have journeyed up the Amazon River to the border country between Brazil and Peru. They're in search of an American who vanished in the area several years earlier. Everyone figured he was dead, but then reports surfaced of a strange wild man who matches the missing man's description living in the jungle among tribes of cannibals. The disposition of a valuable estate hinges on determining whether he's alive or dread, and McKay, Knowlton, and Ryan have taken on the job of determining that and bringing him back if by some miracle he's still alive.

Of course they run into plenty of trouble along the way, not just from dangerous wildlife, disease, and unfriendly natives, but also from a treacherous German expatriate with an agenda of his own. Luckily, they have help from a couple of highly capable Brazilian bushmen, Pedro and Lourenco (who star in a series of short stories also by Friel). Everything comes to a satisfactory conclusion, but not before several plot twists and an epic battle between tribes of natives.

Friel was an adventurer and explorer himself, and it shows in his vivid, authentic writing. I'm no expert on South American jungles, mind you, but everything in THE PATHLESS TRAIL rings true to me. And if it's not, then Friel did a really good job of making it seem that way. There's also a considerable amount of humor in the novel, especially early on, and McKay, Knowlton, and Ryan are very likable heroes, if a little stereotypical. They appear in three more novels by Friel. I have the second one, TIGER RIVER, and will read it at some point. The other two, THE KING OF NO MAN'S LAND and MOUNTAINS OF MYSTERY, are harder to find and more expensive. We'll have to see about them later.

After being serialized in ADVENTURE, THE PATHLESS TRAIL was published in hardback by Grosset & Dunlap in 1923. There was a paperback edition from Centaur Books in 1969. Today, various POD and e-book editions are available. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and if you're in the mood for some good adventure fiction, I think it's well worth reading.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Overlooked Movies: The Poison Rose (2019)

In the first few minutes of this movie, we learn that it’s set in 1978 and that John Travolta plays a scruffy private eye who lives above a movie theater showing a revival of THE MALTESE FALCON. Right after that, we get some voice-over narration from Travolta’s character that’s ripped off from—I mean, inspired by—the iconic opening paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s story “Red Wind”. That’s the kind of movie THE POISON ROSE is: one that wouldn’t exist without a lot of other movies and books to riff off of.

However, that’s not necessarily a bad thing when you like private eye movies as much as I do.

Travolta’s character has some bad guys after him as a result of a falling-out with a previous client (although it’s also implied that the trouble is over a gambling debt, not the only instance of the script contradicting itself), so he decides it would be a good idea to accept a job that will take him to Galveston, Texas, for a while. He’s supposed to check on an elderly woman who’s suppose to be in a sanitarium there, but the people in charge won’t let her family see her anymore. (Has there ever been a sanitarium in a private eye movie or novel that wasn’t sinister?) Travolta’s character is from Galveston and has some old friends and enemies there, including gambling club owner Morgan Freeman, who has a sultry, beautiful daughter. The local sheriff (Robert Patrick) is another old acquaintance, and Travolta’s ex-wife (Famke Janssen) is on hand as well. There are all sorts of seemingly random elements crammed into the plot, including a murder, and if you guess that most of them will wind up being tied together somehow . . . well, you’ve seen movies and read books like this before, haven’t you?

There’s a lot of talking, a little gunplay, and some nice scenery (not Galveston, though; the movie was filmed in Savannah, Georgia), and everything comes together in a resolution that kind of makes sense. The fun is in the getting there, though, and in that respect THE POISON ROSE is pretty entertaining. Not perfect, by any means. There are those script glitches I mentioned, and some of the performances seem a little on the phoned-in side, plus it could have used more of a noirish musical score. I mean, when I think of scenes from CHINATOWN or THE LONG GOODBYE (to mention two private eye movies actually made in the Seventies that I love), I always think of the theme songs from those films, too.

And speaking of CHINATOWN, it kind of boggles my mind that the gap between when it was set (1937) and when it was made (1974) is less than the gap between THE POISON ROSE’s setting and today. It’s even more of a period piece than CHINATOWN was but doesn’t seem so at all to me. 1978 was just the day before yesterday, wasn’t it?

At any rate, after all that rambling around, I can say that I liked THE POISON ROSE, although I think it misses the mark in some respects. The movie has its heart in the right place, and that counts for quite a bit with me.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Thrilling Wonder Stories, April 1949

This is an odd issue of THRILLING WONDER STORIES in that the cover art isn't attributed to Earle Bergey. I don't know who painted it, but it's certainly an appealing, eye-catching cover. The list of authors with stories inside is pretty eye-catching, too: Ray Bradbury, Edmond Hamilton, Leigh Brackett, Murray Leinster, James Blish, Noel Loomis, Margaret St. Clair, and Rog Phillips. And it was edited by my old mentor Sam Merwin Jr. Some people today may not think so, but to me that was a great era in science fiction.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Spicy Western, September 1939

I don't know who painted the cover on this issue of SPICY WESTERN, but I like it. No surprise there. And it's no surprise that there are some pretty good authors with stories inside this issue, including James P. Olsen (writing as James A. Lawson), Laurence Donovan (twice, once as himself and once as Phil Strange), E. Hoffmann Price, Edwin Truett Long (as Luke Terry), and Ken Cooper.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Forgotten Books: Up From Earth's Center - Kenneth Robeson (Lester Dent)

Art by George Rozen

All things have to come to an end. A little more than 55 years ago, in the fall of 1964, I plucked a copy of a paperback called METEOR MENACE from the spinner rack at Tompkins’ Drugstore. I’d never heard of the character featured in it, Doc Savage, but the cover caught my eye and the back cover copy promised all sorts of thrills and excitement and danger. So I figured it was worth risking 45 cents.

I really enjoyed the book, and a week or so later I found a copy of another Doc Savage novel, THE THOUSAND-HEADED MAN, at Trammell’s Pak-a-Bag Grocery. I bought that one, and on the next Sunday afternoon, I sat down in my favorite reading chair after church and read the whole thing from start to finish. I was a lifelong Doc Savage fan after that, and I was soon reading THE MAN OF BRONZE (actually the first book in the series). Bantam Books had reprinted those three to launch the series, and they were successful enough that for decades after that, every month they reprinted another book from the original pulp . . . and I was there, at Tompkins’ or Trammell’s or Lester’s Pharmacy to buy them. Many of them I picked up at at Mott’s Five-and-Ten Store, which had a rack of just Bantam paperbacks. (I bought a lot of Louis L’Amour novels there, too.)

Eventually Bantam reprinted the entire series, including one book that was written but never published in the DOC SAVAGE pulp. I had them all, but there were a few I never got around to reading, and after a while I deliberately didn’t read them because I kind of liked the idea that I still had Doc Savages to read. Now, though, I’m getting to be old enough that I figured if I was ever going to finish off the series, I ought to go ahead and do it. So I’ve been reading that final handful, and now we come to the last of them, the last Doc Savage novel from the original pulp, UP FROM EARTH’S CENTER, published in the Summer 1949 issue of DOC SAVAGE MAGAZINE.

This one starts off with a man who’s stranded on a rocky island off the coast of Maine being rescued by a passing yacht. The man acts strangely, and when the yacht gets back to a fishing village not far from the rescued man’s home, one of his rescuers—who happens to be acquainted with Colonel John “Renny” Renwick, and who happens to know that Renny is in the area and Doc Savage might be, too—decides to dump the whole affair in Doc’s lap. Doc, Monk, and Ham are indeed in the area and are intrigued enough to investigate how the man got stranded on the island and why he now seems to be terrified. (Renny is mentioned but doesn’t appear in this novel, and there’s no sign of Johnny and Long Tom, Doc’s other two associates.)

The situation is complicated by the arrival of a strange little guy calling himself Mr. Wail. He’s capable of doing things that normal human beings shouldn’t be. So far, until a little past the halfway point in the story, this seems like just another oddball late entry in the Doc Savage series, more like the earlier stories from the late Forties rather than the deliberately throwback yarns, THE GREEN MASTER and RETURN FROM CORMORAL, in the previous two issues.

Then Doc and the others decide to explore a deep cave near the estate belonging to the man who was rescued from the island, and once they get underground, things take a wacky, even surreal, tone. I don’t think it’s revealing too much to say that the cave may—or may not—be an entrance to Hell, and the mysterious Mr. Wail may—or may not—be an actual demon. A minor flunkey of a demon, though, not the big guy himself. And if that’s true, then it’s his job to cover up the discovery of this back door to Hades.

The ending is a bit ambiguous, and it’s an odd note on which to end the entire series, no doubt about that. And yet it kind of works, too, as if Lester Dent saved the weirdest for the last, whether it was intentional or not. Dent’s writing is in top form in this book, fast and funny and definitely with a screwball slant. I was halfway expecting not to like UP FROM EARTH’S CENTER because I knew what it was about and the plot has always struck me as a little stupid, but danged if Dent didn’t make it work. I enjoyed this story, although I’m more than a little sad to say that now I’ve read all of the original Doc Savage novels. The end of an era in my life, that’s for sure.

But not completely, because now I plan to go on and read the Doc Savage novels by Will Murray that I haven’t gotten around to (there are more of them than I realized at first) and then, although I have a general rule about not rereading books, I’m going to set that aside and read again some of my favorites from all those years ago, which will probably wind up being most of them from the first five or six years of the series. I’m looking forward to it.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Overlooked Movies: The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)

Yet another movie I’d never heard of that turns out to be pretty good. THE KID WHO WOULD BE KING is a fantasy adventure about a 12-year-old British schoolboy who winds up pulling Excalibur from a stone (in an abandoned building site) and has to deal with the threat of Morgana returning from the banishment where Merlin trapped her centuries earlier. There’s some school/bullying/absent father/coming of age stuff to go along with the magical action. Oh, and Merlin’s still around, sometimes in the guise of Patrick Stewart (the only actor I recognized in this movie) and sometimes in a comical younger version played by Angus Imrie. The young star, Louis Ashbourne Serkis, is the son of the great character actor Andy Serkis and does a good job. The script’s funny in places, poignant where it needs to be, and the action scenes and special effects are okay. I enjoyed this one and think it’s well worth watching.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Ace Detective Magazine, August 1936

This is a pretty obscure pulp magazine, but you can't tell that by the top-notch lineup of authors inside: Frederick C. Davis, Steve Fisher, Frederick C. Painton, Norman A. Daniels, Emile C. Tepperman, Dale Clark, and James Perley Hughes. There are some mighty good authors there. I have to confess, I'm not that fond of the cover by J. George Janes, but it's not terrible, just not up to the level of the writers inside.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Western Story, February 4, 1939

Boy, that's an Injury to a Hat cover just waiting to happen. The guy's really asking for it! Meanwhile, inside this issue of WESTERN STORY are yarns by Jackson Gregory, Peter Dawson, Cherry Wilson, Jay Lucas, Don Alviso, and Wes Fargo, a house-name that was sometimes E.B. Mann, sometimes Roy de S. Horn, and very likely other authors as well. I have no idea who was behind the name here. That's a striking cover, one of many on WESTERN STORY during this era.

Friday, January 10, 2020

Forgotten Books: Ki-Gor: The Beast-Gods of Atlantis - John Peter Drummond

Art by George Gross

Since I’ve finished with the Altus Press volumes reprinting the Ki-Gor series in order that have been published so far, it’s time to start skipping around in the series. I just read an e-book version of THE BEAST GODS OF ATLANTIS, the 47th novel in the series, originally published in the Summer 1950 issue of the pulp JUNGLE STORIES. That entire issue can be found for free on-line.

This one begins in the middle of the action, with Ki-Gor, his wife Helene, and their friends Tembu George (the chief of the Masai tribe) and the pygmy warrior N’Geeso in a canoe, fleeing down a river gorge from a couple of boats full of river pirates. They have to shoot a rapids between two high stone walls, and when they come out on the other end they find themselves in an even worse fix, because they’re trapped by the survivors of a colony from ancient Atlantis. Before you know it, they’re enmeshed in some dangerous political intrigue involving the beautiful empress, a stalwart (but possibly scheming) soldier, an evil high priest and his minions, and another soldier who’s definitely a craven plotter.

This yarn moves like the wind. Admittedly, the whole colony-from-ancient-Atlantis setup is overdone and already was even in 1950, but whoever was behind the John Peter Drummond house-name this time around takes that stale concept and springs a few welcome surprises along the way in terms of both plot and character development. And he does so in tough, lean, hardboiled prose that delivers with a vivid setting and plenty of gritty, brutal action. Ki-Gor is almost Conan-like in places in this novel. Helene doesn’t have a lot to do, but the author keeps Tembu George and N’Geeso busy being the fine sidekicks they are. By this time in the series, George’s origin as an American from Chicago seems to have been completely forgotten, but he’s still a good character. No mention of Marmo the elephant.

The author crams so much into this tale that he sets up a few things and then never gets back to them, but that’s all right in a story that has so much else going for it. THE BEAST-GODS OF ATLANTIS is regarded by some Ki-Gor fans as one of the best in the series, and I can see why: good writing, good characters, plenty of action, and an epic ending. It’s certainly one of the best I’ve read so far, and as always, I’m looking forward to reading more Ki-Gor novels in the near future.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Overlooked Movies: Domino (2019)

I’d never heard of this movie, and I’ve never gotten into the whole Scandanavian noir business that’s become popular in recent years, but DOMINO looked kind of gritty and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau made Jamie Lannister a pretty interesting character on GAME OF THRONES, so why not? Turns out to be an okay decision.

Coster-Waldau plays a police detective in Copenhagen who answers a domestic disturbance call with his partner. You know things like that never turn out well, and this one leads to violence and tragedy and plunges the hard-nosed cop into a complicated investigation that involves terrorism and international espionage, when all he really wants to do is catch a killer. Carice Van Houten plays another cop in the case, and Guy Pearce is a smarmy CIA agent.

The plot is okay and so are the performances, and there are some scenes that generate genuine suspense. As I was watching those scenes, I found myself thinking that the way they were edited and the use of music reminded me very much of Alfred Hitchcock, and then when the end credits rolled and I saw that DOMINO was directed by Brian De Palma, that explained it. De Palma has been making Hitchcock homages all the way back to the early days of his career. The first film of his I saw was OBSESSION, which was very much influenced by VERTIGO, and DRESSED TO KILL and BODY DOUBLE have to fall into that Hitchcockian category, too.

DOMINO is nowhere near that level, but it’s still an entertaining film and certainly worth watching.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Crime Busters, February 1938

I'm not too fond of the photo covers on CRIME BUSTERS, but man, look at that line-up of authors! The Lester Dent story is part of his Click Rush, the Gadget Man, series, while Walter B. Gibson, writing as Maxwell Grant, contributes a Norgil the Magician yarn. Ted Tinsley's story features his female private eye, Carrie Cashin. The others are all series stories, too, although, while I certainly know the authors, I'm not familiar with the characters: Steve Fisher (Big Red Brennan), Norvell Page (Dick Barrett), Frank Gruber (Jim Strong), and Norman A. Daniels (Boxcar Reilly). Photo cover or not, I'd sure read this one if I had a copy of it.

Saturday, January 04, 2020

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Real Western, April 1948

This looks like another pretty good Western pulp from bargain basement Columbia Publications, beginning with a nice dynamic cover by, I think, H.W. Scott. But I could be wrong about who the artist was. Inside, the lead novel is by Cliff Campbell, who could have been just about anybody since that's a house-name. Other authors on hand in this issue of REAL WESTERN are Lee Floren, Chuck Martin (twice, once under his own name and once as by Clay Starr), Allan K. Echols, and Harry Van Demark.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Forgotten Books: Spawn of the Flames - Wayne Rogers

Several years ago, Altus Press published a series called TERROR TRIOS, each volume of which reprinted three Weird Menace novellas by leading authors in that genre. SPAWN OF THE FLAMES focuses on Wayne Rogers, who was notable for writing some of the most violent Weird Menace stories in the pulps.

Rogers’ real name was Archibald Bittner. For many years he was primarily an editor, helming such iconic pulps as ARGOSY and SHORT STORIES. However, he also dabbled in writing using the Wayne Rogers name and eventually concentrated on that end of the business. During the Weird Menace boom, he was one of the most prolific and highly regarded pulpsters turning out those stories, as well as occasionally filling in on pulp hero series such as Operator #5 and The Spider.

Art by John Newton Howitt
“Spawn of the Flames”, the title story in this volume, was published originally in the June 1936 issue of TERROR TALES. The protagonist is a young man who was born in a crematorium and fears that he has grown up to have a split personality, one of whom is a vicious pyromaniac and torture killer. He comes home because his father is ill and on the verge of death, bringing his fiancee, his best friend, and his best friend’s girlfriend with him. His lawyer and stepmother are on hand, too. Some of them won’t survive, as “Spawn of the Flames” becomes as violent and sadistic as any slasher movie or splatterpunk novel. I’m not a fan of such graphic stuff in movies, but it doesn’t bother me as much in prose. Rogers’ style is incredibly fast-moving, which also helps. This is one of those stories where the plot only makes sense if you squint your eyes and hold your mouth just right, but I enjoyed it anyway.

Art by John Newton Howitt
“The Devil’s Step-Daughters” (TERROR TALES, February 1936) is set in the idyllic-seeming town of Malstead in New Hampshire, where the narrator, lawyer Ted Walton, is engaged to the oldest of three beautiful sisters who are believed to be descendants of a witch who lured young men to their deaths back in the Seventeenth Century. When a wave of grisly murders strikes Malstead and sinister black-robed figures begin prowling the streets, the placid fa├žade of the town is shattered forever. As a mystery (which most Weird Menace tales, at their heart, really are), this one is pretty easy to figure out, and Ted Walton is an even more ineffective protagonist than you usually find in yarns like this. However, it does have Rogers’ breakneck pace and brutal action scenes going for it, so while it’s not as enjoyable as “Spawn of the Flames”, it’s still pretty entertaining.

Art by Tom Lovell
This volume wraps up with “The Mummy Pack Prowls Again”, from the April 1937 issue of DIME MYSTERY MAGAZINE. This novella also takes place in a small New England town, Waterville, which is plagued by the sudden outbreak of a mysterious malady that turns its victims into living mummies by withering their flesh until they’re just skin and bones. This affliction also drives them mad and makes them seek human flesh. In other words . . . they’re zombies, in the sense that the word is often used now. The narrator, Warren Craig, is the city manager (protagonists in Weird Menace usually have mundane occupations like that, instead of being cops, private eyes, etc., probably to make them more identifiable for the readers). Compounding the horror is the fact that his beautiful fiancee falls victim to the sinister illness. This one isn’t quite as gruesome as the other two yarns, possibly because it was published in DIME MYSTERY, the flagship of Popular Publications’ Weird Menace line, rather than the generally more graphic TERROR TALES.

Having read these three stories, my first impression is that Wayne Rogers’ work in this genre is a little too violent for my taste, or maybe I just read them too close together. (I did space them out with other stuff in between but still read all three in the span of a week and a half.) That said, I’d read more by him because his action scenes are very good and he knows how to maintain the sort of breakneck pace that I like. I can see why he was a popular writer. For now, if you’re already a fan of Weird Menace stories I can certainly recommend SPAWN OF THE FLAMES. If you’ve never sampled the genre before, this might not be the best place to start.

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Happy New Year!

SPICY STORIES, January 1930, art by Enoch Bolles

My New Year's "Revolution" for 2020 is do more things that are chuck full o' fun! I hope it's an excellent year for all of you folks and that you have fun, too.