Monday, October 19, 2020

Girl of Prey - Pete Risley

It’s Halloween weekend in the late 90s and a movie theater is hosting a horror movie marathon in shabby Stankerton, Ohio. The town is plagued by a serial killer, the Westside Slasher. A new recreational drug called worm is gaining in popularity and a strange, beautiful girl from California is found wandering around a rock club stoned and alone. A vague image appears on an outside wall of the theater, taken by some to be a manifestation of Christ. And a bizarre confluence of religious cultism from faraway times and places seems to arise phantom-like in Stankerton, threatening to drive a few desperate souls over the edges that define them.

There's so much going on in this dark suspense novel that I wasn't sure I could summarize it adequately, so we'll let the Amazon sales copy do that. What I'll say is that Pete Risley does a great job with the Nineties setting and keeps the story racing along at a fast pace while juggling a large cast of characters. That's not easy to do, but he succeeds admirably. This is some good Halloween reading (that's when it comes out), although it is, as they say, not for the squeamish. But if you don't mind your fiction a little on the raw side, GIRL OF PREY is an excellent novel.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Top-Notch, July 1936

I've noticed that Tommy guns seem to show up fairly often on the covers of TOP-NOTCH. I'm not sure who painted this cover. Tom Lovell, maybe. There's no doubt some good authors contributed stories to this issue, however: Harry F. Olmsted, Carl H. Rathjen, Wilfred McCormick (author of a bunch of young adult sports novels I read as a kid), Hapsburg Liebe, Samuel Taylor, and Jack Sterrett. I'm familiar with TOP-NOTCH mostly because that's where Robert E. Howard's El Borak stories were first published, but they put out plenty of other good adventure yarns, too.

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Ranch Romances, Second May Number 1946

Most of the RANCH ROMANCES covers in the mid-Forties were still a little on the sweet side, but they were starting to show some action now and then, as in this one by an artist I'm not familiar with, Will Gimby. There are certainly some hardboiled authors inside this issue, H.A. DeRosso and Joseph Chadwick, along with RANCH ROMANCES regulars L.P. Holmes, Stephen Payne, and James Routh. Appears to be an issue well worth reading. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Forgotten Books: Whistling Lead - Eugene Cunningham

Eugene Cunningham is one of my favorite Western writers, but it had been a while since I read anything by him, so I decided to remedy that. WHISTLING LEAD was publlshed in hardcover by Houghton Mifflin in 1936 and reprinted in paperback by Signet in 1949, the edition I read. (A first printing, by the way.) It’s dedicated to John F. Byrne, an editor at Fiction House during the era when Cunningham was selling a great deal to the pulps they published. Some of his novels are cobbled together from pulp novellas and novelettes, but if that’s the case with WHISTLING LEAD, I haven’t found anything to indicate that. Although it’s pretty episodic, it reads as if it were written as a novel.

The plot is fairly simple: Arthur “Big” Gavity is a drifting cowhand who works for a Texas rancher. He falls in love with the rancher’s beautiful daughter, but the rancher opposes any such match. He’s also ambitious and wants to make his mark as a businessman, so in order to do that, and to get his daughter away from Gavity, he moves to La Fe, a cattletown that’s poised to become a boomtown because a railroad spur is being built to it. The problem is, Gavity quits his job on the ranch and follows them to La Fe.

This is actually back-story. The novel begins with Gavity on his way to La Fe and fills in the background as it goes along. Of course, as soon as Gavity arrives in the settlement, he runs into trouble, but he’s very handy with guns and his fists, and he soon comes to the attention of the mayor, who offers him the job of town marshal since the previous marshal was just shot down by a slick tinhorn gambler. Thinking that being a lawman might win him the favor of the father of the girl he loves, Gavity accepts . . . and not surprisingly, more trouble ensues as the bad element in town tries numerous times to get rid of him and he has to break up a gang of outlaws plaguing the area.

Cunningham has a distinctive—some might say eccentric—style that takes some getting used to, but once you get into the flow of the story, it’s very effective. The tone in this novel switches between breezy, light-hearted romantic comedy to brutal, bloody violence and tragedy with such regularity and swiftness that reading it is almost like watching a tennis match, the reader’s head jerks back and forth so much. With some writers, that would be very jarring, but Cunningham really makes it work. There’s nothing unusual about the plot, but as always, it’s how an author handles a traditional plot that makes it appealing. Cunningham does a fine job of that, and as a bonus, he writes great action scenes.

Although the story is a little fanciful, there’s an undeniable air of authenticity about Cunningham’s work. Like Walt Coburn, he was a working cowboy as a young man, and as you can tell from the photograph of him on the back cover of the paperback edition, he certainly looks the part. I’ve seen Cunningham compared to Dashiell Hammett, and there’s some merit to that theory. He was the first of the really hardboiled Western writers, and WHISTLING LEAD bears some resemblance to RED HARVEST, although I guess to some extent most “town tamer” Westerns do. It’s probably even more appropriate to compare him to Carroll John Daly, although I think Cunningham is a better writer than Daly (and Daly is better than he usually gets credit for).

At any rate, WHISTLING LEAD is an excellent novel, and since it’s not tied in with any of Cunningham’s other novels, it wouldn’t be a bad place to start if you haven’t read his books. I enjoyed it and think it’s well worth reading.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Classic Horror Fiction: No Light for Uncle Henry - August Derleth

August Derleth’s short story “No Light for Uncle Henry” appeared in the March 1943 issue of WEIRD TALES. It was reprinted in a couple of Derleth collections, one from Arkham House and one from Battered Silicon Dispatch Box. It’s the first thing I’ve read by Derleth in quite a while, but I enjoyed it. It’s the story of a young man who goes to live with a bachelor uncle in a small Midwestern town. Another uncle had lived in the same house until recently, when he died. The surviving uncle gives the young protagonist strict instructions that no light is to be taken into the dead uncle’s former bedroom . . . but we wouldn’t have a story if the guy didn’t do exactly that, would we? What does he find when he steps into that deserted room and lights a match?

A sinister shadow cast on the wall, even though there’s nothing there.

I’m about as far from a scholar of Derleth’s work as you could find, but even without being that familiar with it, I get the feeling this is a pretty minor tale. The plot is fairly predictable, with the “twist” at the end not coming as much of a surprise. And yet, it’s a pretty entertaining yarn, a nice little slice of mild, rustic, Americana horror. I enjoyed it enough that I wouldn’t mind reading more by Derleth.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Classic Horror Stories: The Call of Cthulhu - H.P. Lovecraft

I decided to go ahead and read more of the Cthulhu Mythos stories, so why not go right to the source? H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” was published in the February 1928 issue of WEIRD TALES and reprinted many times since. It’s a very impressive piece of inventiveness. In this one story, Lovecraft lays out the basis for a huge number of stories by many different authors: the Great Old Ones, vast cosmic beings that come from beyond the stars, landed on Earth in the planet’s infancy and are still alive, although dormant and hidden away in vanished cities, waiting to be called back to life by a cult of their devoted followers, at which time they will lay waste to humanity, or at least try to. Although not necessarily evil by their own standards—they’re beyond the concept of good and evil—to humans they represent the greatest horrors imaginable, or, in some cases, unimaginable.

“The Call of Cthulhu” itself is a good story, fast-moving by Lovecraft’s standards, in which the narrator investigates several related series of events that gradually reveal the terrible truth to him. One section of the story set in the Louisiana swamps and another on a mysterious South Seas island could have been really good adventure yarns if Lovecraft had done more than summarize them. Even at that, they’re pretty exciting, especially the climactic battle between a ship and the reborn Cthulhu.

This is a good example of why so many authors latched on to the Cthulhu Mythos and wrote their own stories set against that background. It’s such an epic concept, filled with the potential for drama, conflict, and action, that born yarn-spinners such as Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Henry Kuttner, and many others, naturally would see the possibilities. From what I’ve read so far, it seems to me that Lovecraft’s stories function more as a series bible than as satisfying stories of their own (although I’m warming up to his style and see its appeal).

I’m going to continue reading these stories, including some of the other authors who wrote Mythos stories, and even though this started as a Halloween-related project, it’ll probably take me longer than that. So bear with me, even though many of you probably read all these stories years or even decades ago. They’re new to me.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Overlooked Movies: Blackbeard's Ghost (1968)

Regular readers of this blog may remember that when I was growing up, there was a drive-in movie theater about a quarter of a mile up the road, and I saw many movies there, going with my parents or older siblings when I was younger and then walking to the theater either by myself or with my friends after I was nine or ten years old. I saw plenty of Walt Disney movies there, including most of the ones that starred Dean Jones. But somehow I never saw BLACKBEARD’S GHOST, maybe because it came out in 1968, and somewhere along in there, the Eagle Drive-In changed ownership and became an adult theater, showing those dirty X-rated movies. That was the end of me going to the Eagle. (Of course, if you cut through the neighbor’s yard and went behind the Western Lodge Motel, you could see the screen fairly well from the woods back there . . . not that I would know from experience. That’s my story, anyway.)

But to get back to BLACKBEARD’S GHOST . . . Wanting something lightweight, we watched it recently, and I found it pretty entertaining. The plot is fairly typical Disney for that era: Dean Jones is the new track coach at a small college on the North Carolina coast, an area where Blackbeard the pirate was supposed to have met his death centuries earlier. He stays at a picturesque inn run by little old ladies supposedly descended from the pirates, the main one being Elsa Lanchester. Suzanne Pleshette is a professor and Jones’s romantic interest. The great Richard Deacon is the president of the college. Joby Baker, a pleasant character actor who showed up on TV a lot in those days (he played a bullfighter on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW and was one of the leads on GOOD MORNING, WORLD, a decent one-season sitcom about radio DJs) is somewhat miscast as the gangster who wants to take over the inn. Then Jones accidentally invokes an old magic spell that brings the ghost of Blackbeard back to life, but of course, he’s the only one who can see or hear the ghost. Hijinks and crude special effects ensue.

All this works only if the actor playing Blackbeard does a good job, and Peter Ustinov is great in the part, poignant at times but mostly chewing the scenery with a large amount of gusto. It’s not a great script—some of the jokes hold up, others don’t—but Ustinov throws himself into the proceedings with such enthusiasm that it’s impossible not to be entertained. Everything works out well, leaving the viewer with a warm, nostalgic feeling. At least, that’s the way it left me.

Now, I was sure I had told my Peter Ustinov story on the blog before, but I searched and don’t find any posts with his name in them, so as a bonus, here’s the tale of how I had a brush with celebrity. In 1975, parts of the movie LOGAN’S RUN were filmed at the Water Gardens in downtown Fort Worth, so my friend Bruce Washburn (Livia’s brother) and I decided to go down there one night and watch the filming. We’re walking along the street near the Water Gardens when this scruffy-looking old guy shuffles past me, a foot or so away. I didn’t pay much attention to him—there were a lot of homeless people who stayed around the Water Gardens in those days—but then a little while later, Bruce and I are standing at the top of the Water Gardens watching the scene they’re shooting down at the bottom, and sure enough, that same scruffy-looking guy shuffles out and starts acting. Yep, Peter Ustinov his own self.

I also almost bumped into Steve McQueen (literally) when he was filming THE GETAWAY in San Marcos, Texas, when I was going to college there at Southwest Texas State University, and I walked past Ben Johnson at the Fort Worth Fat Stock Show & Rodeo. Didn’t speak to either of them. I probably should have, but people like that get bothered all the time. I figure sometimes it’s best just to leave ‘em alone.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Classic Horror Stories: The Hounds of Tindalos - Frank Belknap Long

I’ve seen Frank Belknap Long’s name in books and magazines countless times over the decades, but I’ve read very little by him. The title of his story “The Hounds of Tindalos” sounded familiar to me, so I decided to give it a try. It was published originally in the March 1929 issue of WEIRD TALES, reprinted in the July 1937 issue of WT, in AVON FANTASY READER #16 in 1951, and in many collections and anthologies since then. I read it in THE CTHULHU MYTHOS MEGAPACK, an e-book anthology published by Wildside Press.

I’m not well versed enough in all the Mythos stuff to know exactly how “The Hounds of Tindalos” is connected to Lovecraft’s work, so I read it as I would any other yarn, looking to be entertained. And I was. It’s the tale of Frank Chalmers, a student of the occult who is convinced that through a combination of drugs and mathematics that he can see into both the past and the future. He enlists the aid of a friend of his, the narrator of the story, who is supposed to pull him out of his drug-induced trance if things start to go wrong.

Well, don’t things always go wrong in stories like this? There are things man was not meant to know, after all, and when you stare into the abyss, be careful that the abyss doesn’t stare back at you. (Hint: It always does.) So when Chalmers discovers cosmic horrors beyon his ken, those horrors discover him, as well, and decide to follow him back to our earth.

I can see where this is a Lovecraftian story, but Long spins his yarn with a lot more dialogue and narrative drive than the Lovecraft stories I’ve read so far, but also without the really creepy style at which Lovecraft was so skilled. As a result, “The Hounds of Tindalos” is faster and more fun but lacks some of the impact of Lovecraft’s tales. I enjoyed it quite a bit anyway and am glad I read it.

I do have a very indirect connection with Frank Belknap Long. In the Sixties and Seventies, he worked for Leo Margulies’ Renown Publications and was the associate editor of MIKE SHAYNE MYSTERY MAGAZINE for quite a while. Not while I was selling to MSMM, however. Sam Merwin Jr. came in to run the magazine a few years before I started submitting stories there, but if I’d gotten around to it a little earlier, I might have gotten rejection slips from Long, too.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Detective Tales, December 1940

I don't know who the artist is, but this cover is dynamic and eye-catching, so I guess it did it's job. There are some excellent authors in this issue of DETECTIVE TALES, including Wyatt Blassingame (twice, as himself and as Willliam B. Rainey) and Philip Ketchum, as well as some lesser-knowns such as Dane Gregory, Don James, and Edward S. Williams. I'd never heard of Tiah Devitt before and was surprised that she would get such a prominent cover mention. Turns out she was an actress who appeared once on Broadway and wrote a couple of dozen stories for assorted pulps and slicks from the Thirties to the Fifties.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Star Western, October 1947

Another Injury to a Hat cover on this issue of STAR WESTERN. I'm not sure of the artist. Looks to me like it might be Robert Stanley. Inside are some fine authors, including Walt Coburn (although rumor has it that by this stage of his career, his work had to be edited heavily because of his drinking problem), Giff Cheshire, William R. Cox, Dee Linford, John M. Cunningham, and Rod Patterson. I like the title of the Coburn story: "The Devil Sent His Gun-Angels!" Probably a Popular Publications editor came up with it, but whoever did, it sounds like my kind of yarn.

Friday, October 09, 2020

Forgotten Books: Gold Comes in Bricks - A.A. Fair (Erle Stanley Gardner)


I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk lately. I’ve read a few good books, but for the past couple of months I’ve struggled to finish quite a few of the books I’ve read, and then when I finally did, I was disappointed in them. A few, I even wished I hadn’t wasted the time reading them.

So recently, I decided to grab a book off my shelves that I knew wouldn’t disappoint me: GOLD COMES IN BRICKS, the third Donald Lam/Bertha Cool novel, originally published in 1940 by William Morrow under the pseudonym A.A. Fair and reprinted in paperback many times since. It’s possible I’ve read this one before, but if I have, it was more than fifty years ago and I didn’t remember a thing about it, so it doesn’t really matter, does it?

This one begins with Donald being hired to pretend to be a physical trainer for a rich man who wants to find out if his daughter is being blackmailed. The idea of Donald being a physical trainer is pretty amusing to Bertha, but she wants the fee so she orders Donald to take the job. In short order, complications pile upon complications. What else would you expect in a Gardner novel? In this one, we get a murdered gambler, legal shenanigans involving corporate taxes, a romantic South Seas cruise, more shenanigans involving dredging for gold, missing love letters that provide the motive for a second murder, and jujitsu lessons. For what it’s worth, I figured out who the killer was, but not until more than  halfway through the book and I didn’t have all the plot untangled. The murderer’s identity was at least partially a guess. Donald, as usual, was ‘way ahead of me.

One reason (other than the fifty years that have passed) I don’t recall whether I’ve read this one before is the realization that the plots absolutely don’t matter in Gardner’s novels. Sure, they’re always complex and it’s a lot of fun to try to keep everything straight and maybe figure out the killer, but honestly, I pretty much forget the plot of most Gardner novels five minutes after I’ve read them. What keeps me coming back is simple: I love Donald Lam being a wise-ass and Bertha being a curmudgeonly skinflint and the camaraderie of Perry Mason, Della Street, and Paul Drake. I love the fast-paced dialogue and the breezy narrative and the humor (Gardner was a lot funnier than he’s usually given credit for). His books, especially the ones from the Thirties and Forties, have a really nice sense of time and place, too. Gardner has a reputation as not being a particularly good writer (Steve Mertz, if you’re reading this, what’s that Raymond Chandler quote about Gardner you once told me?), but he’s an absolutely wonderful storyteller.

And this book didn’t disappoint me at all and has restored my faith in fiction, at least for now. Quite an accomplishment for a 1940 mystery novel by a guy once known as the King of the Pulps, ain’t it?

Wednesday, October 07, 2020

Classic Horror Stories: The Colour Out of Space - H.P. Lovecraft

 As Halloween approaches each year, I generally try to read more horror fiction. I’m getting an earlier start than usual this year by delving into the work of H.P. Lovecraft. Longtime readers of this blog may recall that I’m not a big Lovecraft fan, but I read something by him now and then. Recently, on pretty much of a whim while waiting in a doctor’s office, I read one of his most famous stories, “The Colour Out of Space”, which appeared originally in the September 1927 issue of AMAZING STORIES and was reprinted in the October 1941 issue of FAMOUS FANTASTIC MYSTERIES, as well as in countless Lovecraft collections over the years. (Neither of the pulp covers have anything to do with Lovecraft’s story, but at least it rates a mention on the issue of FFM.)

I have a hunch most of you have read this story already, some of you probably more than once. The plot is a simple one: a mysterious meteorite plunges from space, lands on the farm belonging to Nahum Gardner near the town of Arkham, time passes, evil things happen. The Gardner family descends into madness. The well is ruined and nothing will grow on the land. Eventually everybody else in the area shuns the farm where all this creepy stuff happened, until an engineer comes along to conduct a survey for a dam-building project and hears the story from one of the locals.

I have to say, I still have some problems with Lovecraft’s work. As with almost everything I’ve read by him, I got to the end and thought, “Wait. That’s it?” Robert E. Howard has spoiled me. I would have much preferred if the engineer was a two-fisted scrapper and the evil entity from space crawled out of the well and the two of them whaled away at each other with the plucky human emerging triumphant over the cosmic horror. Now that’s a story! But . . . it’s not the story that Lovecraft chose to write, is it?

However, for the first time I got a real glimpse of why Lovecraft’s work remains so popular nearly a hundred years later. The long paragraphs and the scarcity of dialogue take some getting used to, but I’ll admit, in this one I got caught up in the style and the sheer creepiness of the whole thing was very effective. For once, Lovecraft actually had me flipping the pages to see what was going to happen. There’s some actual storytelling going on in this yarn, and I can honestly say that I enjoyed it. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more of these Lovecraft story posts here on the blog before the month is over.

Sunday, October 04, 2020

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Short Stories, October 25, 1946

This is a cute cover by A.R. Tilburne, but I'm not sure how well it fits a magazine of two-fisted adventure yarns. However, there are some fine authors, including some of my favorites, in this issue of SHORT STORIES: Dan Cushman, Donald Barr Chidsey, James B. Hendryx (with a Halfaday Creek story), Jim Kjelgaard, Gordon Young, Paul Annixter, and Edward Parrish Ware. The famous "red sun" is barely visible on this one but still there.

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: New Western, September 1940

I feel like I ought to know who painted the cover on this issue of NEW WESTERN. The hat on the cowboy with the red bandanna looks awfully familiar. I kind of want to say Walter Baumhofer, but I don't really think that's right. Anyway . . . There are some popular, prolific writers in this issue: Barry Cord (Peter Germano), James P. Olsen, John G. Pearsol, Rolland Lynch, Lee Floren, and Glenn H. Wichman, along with Marian O'Hearn, who appeared most often in RANCH ROMANCES and the other Western romance pulps. 

Friday, October 02, 2020

Forgotten Books: Her Cheating Heart - Lloyd Kevin (Harold G. Sweet)

I admit, I bought this book mostly for the great Tom Miller cover (that's my copy in the scan), but I was also curious about the author. “Lloyd Kevin” was the pseudonym of Harold G. Sweet, who published about a dozen stories under that name in the Western pulps during the Fifties and another handful under his real name. There’s not much information about him on-line. According to a newspaper in San Bernardino, California, in 1953 he was a civilian employee at Norton Air Force Base and had written a novel under the Lloyd Kevin name. However, HER CHEATING HEART, published by Monarch Books in 1962, appears to be the only Lloyd Kevin novel that exists, and I couldn’t find any under the Harold G. Sweet name. Did Sweet write this book in the early Fifties but didn’t sell it until a decade later? Or did that book mentioned in that newspaper article fail to sell at all? A little biographical blurb in HER CHEATING HEART refers to Lloyd Kevin as being the pseudonym of a “well-known author of Westerns and contemporary novels”. We may have to chalk that up as editorial hyperbole, or else Sweet was writing under other name (or names) I don’t know about, which is certainly possible.

All that being said, how’s the novel itself? Well . . . kind of a mixed bag. This is a “down on his luck drifter finds trouble” yarn. That plot has been used many times, so the appeal in a book like this lies in how well the author handles those traditional elements. The protagonist in HER CHEATING HEART is Trigg Melnor, and I have a mixed reaction to that, as well. Trigg is a good, tough, Ennis Willie-style protagonist name; Melnor doesn’t have a lot of punch. But anyway . . . Trigg hitches a ride to a big construction project in Arizona where an old friend of his has promised to get him a job. The government is building a giant missile base, and Trigg has experience operating heavy machinery. All the workers live nearby in a trailer park, and Trigg’s old buddy Hutch expect him to stay with him and his wife Joy. Trigg didn’t even know Hutch was married, let alone to a beautiful, hot-to-trot redhead who immediately falls for him.

But wait, that’s not all. The boss of the construction project, Kirby Breckline (a much better name), is an old enemy of Trigg’s, and he’s involved with Joy as well. Then there’s Breckline’s scheming wife Eunice, and a possibly sinister Italian with a secret and an agenda of his own.

With a set-up like this, I kept expecting HER CHEATING HEART to turn into a noirish crime yarn, but it never really does. There’s an attempted murder, but it’s not the focus of the plot. For the most part, this remains a domestic drama all the way through, concentrating on Joy and the three men who are involved with her. The problem is that Joy is a really bland character with almost no personality, so you have to keep asking yourself why these guys want her in the first place. She practically disappears from the pages in the scenes she’s in.

However, the book does a pretty good job of depicting blue-collar construction workers and the early Sixties setting. Trigg isn’t a very likable protagonist, but I did wind up rooting for him, at least a little. There are some poignant scenes and a very occasional touch of welcome humor. The plot lurches along and comes to a sort of satisfying climax. HER CHEATING HEART isn’t a book you want to go out and search for, but if you ever come across a copy at a reasonable price, it’s not terrible. I know, that’s about the faintest praise I can offer.

It does have that really good Tom Miller cover, but you know the old saying about not judging a book by it’s cover. That’s true here, only the opposite way around from the usual meaning. The cover is probably the best thing about HER CHEATING HEART.