Monday, March 29, 2021

Wolf Stockburn, Railroad Detective - Max O'Hara


WOLF STOCKBURN, RAILROAD DETECTIVE introduces a new character and is the first in a new Western series from Kensington, and it’s a great debut. The first chapter, which details a bloody attack on a train by an outlaw gang known as the Devil’s Horde, is as fine an opening as I’ve read in a long time, and then no sooner is that done than the reader is introduced to the title character, Wolf Stockburn, a tough, veteran railroad detective who, as we come to find out, is haunted by a pair of tragedies in his past. He also has a dry sense of humor that reminds me a lot of Deputy U.S. Marshal Custis Long (better known as Longarm, of course), another of my favorite Western characters.

Stockburn sets out to track down the Devil’s Horde, and along the way he runs into a beautiful half-breed bordello owner who wears an eyepatch, a feisty, redheaded Wells Fargo express messenger, a beautiful blond star-packer, and as nasty an assortment of outlaws, gunmen, and killers as you’ll ever want to encounter in a Western novel.

Author Max O’Hara never lets the action slow down for long in this novel, and that action, along with the colorful characters and richly detailed settings, really kept me flipping the pages all the way to a spectacular and very satisfying climax. This is some great storytelling, and I had an absolutely fine time reading it, too. If you’re a Western fan, WOLF STOCKBURN, RAILROAD DETECTIVE gets a very high recommendation from me. It’s one of the best Western novels I’ve read in recent years.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Super-Detective, February 1950

As you probably can tell from the cover, SUPER-DETECTIVE was put out by Trojan Publications, part of the same stable as all the Spicy/Speed titles, and as a result, you get a racy cover, at least one story by Robert Leslie Bellem, and a bunch of stories by authors who are either house-names or one-shots. However, that's a good cover, and Bellem is always worth reading, and chances are that some of the other stories are worth reading, too. One oddity is that while Bellem is credited on the cover as the author of "Gambling Corpse", according to the Fictionmags Index (where this scan came from), the story is credited in the Table of Contents to Ellery Watson Calder, one of Bellem's well-known pseudonyms. It doesn't really matter either way, of course.

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Wild West Weekly, January 21, 1939

This is an excellent gun and knife cover by H.W. Scott, who has become one of my favorite cover artists. He could work in a variety of styles, but his paintings are always distinctive and eye-catching. As always, there are some good authors in this issue of WILD WEST WEEKLY: T.W. Ford with a Silver Kid story, Laurence Donovan with a Pete Rice story under the Austin Gridley house-name (I didn't know that Donovan wrote any Pete Rice stories, but I'm not surprised; he wrote a little bit of everything and did it well), Chuck Martin, Anson Hard, and Guy L. Maynard.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Forgotten Books: Magazines I Remember - Hugh B. Cave

I consider myself fortunate to have traded a few emails with Hugh B. Cave before he passed away. Like nearly all of the old pros I’ve met or corresponded with, he was a true gentleman and always a pleasure to hear from. A legendary pulp writer who had a long, prolific career in their pages, Cave was unusual in that he moved on to other things and continued writing successfully all the way into this century.

His memoir, MAGAZINES I REMEMBER: SOME PULPS, THEIR EDITORS, AND WHAT IT WAS LIKE TO WRITE FOR THEM, published by Tattered Pages Press in 1994, touches on all phases of his career, not just the pulps, despite its subtitle. Most of it is drawn from a decades-long correspondence between Cave and fellow writer Carl Jacobi. The letters from the Thirties, full of news about stories they had written, sales they had made, and the changing landscape of magazines, editors, and agents, is a fascinating look into the pulp industry. Cave was prolific, though never a million-words-a-year man like Arthur J. Burks, and when he writes about how it was to make your living that way, you know he knows what he’s talking about.

But equally interesting are the sections about writing dozens of stories for the high-paying slick magazines, non-fiction books about World War II and about Jamaica (where Cave lived and operated a coffee plantation for a number of years), and finally his later career when he wrote many horror, fantasy, and dark suspense stories for various small press magazines and anthologies, along with a number of horror novels for Avon, Dell, and Tor. And that doesn’t even include the horror novels he wrote for Leisure after this memoir was published. Several times in his letters, Jacobi mentions that he doesn’t understand why Cave was still writing so much for markets that paid only a fraction of what he had earned from the slicks.

Cave’s answer is simple: He’s a writer. So he writes. And he writes for the markets that are available to him. It’s that attitude that makes me admire Cave and causes me to be glad that I knew him, if only briefly.

Jacobi, on the other hand, in his later years comes across as a man very much out of his time who tries to adjust to change but can’t quite do it. I’ve read very little of Jacobi’s work over the years, but after reading Cave’s memoir, I’m more interested in him and his career. I have a copy of LOST IN THE RENTHARPIAN HILLS: SPANNING THE DECADES WITH CARL JACOBI, a biography/bibliography by R. Dixon Smith, and I may read it in the near future, along with a couple of collections of Jacobi’s stories I also own. But more about that later. For now, let me give a very high recommendation to MAGAZINES I REMEMBER. I’ve been meaning to read this one for years, and I’m glad I finally got around to it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Now Available: Rattler's Law, Volume Two - James Reasoner

Wild Bill Hickok may be gone, but Abilene is still a wild and woolly cowtown in need of a strong marshal to bring law and order to its streets. That man is Lucas Flint . . . a legendary lawman sometimes known as the Rattler because of his swift and deadly speed with a Colt .45. Together with his deputy, dashing young gunfighter Cully Markham, Lucas Flint will take on any challenge that threatens the safety of the town and its people that he’s sworn to protect.

As a blizzard rages on the Kansas plains, an old buffalo hunter is caught in the crossfire between a Sioux war party and a clan of bank-robbing killers. A fortune in Confederate gold lures outlaws to Abilene. A young gunslinger bent on vengeance has a startling secret. A prize bull, a hard-bitten rancher, and a gang of thieves prove to be an explosive mixture for Cully Markham. A deadly Fourth of July celebration provides more than one kind of fireworks. A man sworn to uphold the law instead launches a reign of terror. A trio of mail order brides arrives in Abilene, but they bring flying lead rather than matrimonial bliss.

Rattler's Law, Volume Two includes: Buffalo Hunter, Rebel Gold, Devil With a .38, Hell on the Hoof, Gundown, Killer With a Badge, Six-Gun Wedding, and Big Fifty Justice

Classic Noir Novels: Hoodlums - George Benet

One of the latest books from the always impressive Black Gat Books line is HOODLUMS, a crime novel by George Benet. Originally published by Avon in 1953 under the title THE HOODLUMS, as by John Eagle, it was very successful, selling more than half a million copies, but that wasn’t enough to keep Benet from walking away from the writing business and working as a longshoreman for many years before finally turning out two more books decades later.

HOODLUMS isn’t your average crime novel, though. There are plenty of criminals in it, including protagonist Kirk Wagner, an ex-con who falls in with his former partner, even though the guy double-crossed him and left him to take the rap for a previous job. Now they’re involved in a scheme where they pass counterfeit bills, which is a step up from what Kirk was doing before, which is beating and robbing homosexuals who approach him in a park near the Chicago neighborhood where Kirk lives. The money Kirk makes from this counterfeit racket allows him to pursue the girl of his dreams, a stripper/nude model/stag film starlet named Jeannie. Jeannie has a problem, a stalker who writes her long, obscene letters . . . but maybe Jeannie likes those letters a little too much.

Art by Kirk Wilson

As you can probably tell from that description, HOODLUMS is a pretty sordid, squalid book with a real sense of impending doom about it. Kirk Wagner is one of the most unlikable protagonists you’re likely to encounter, which makes it all the more impressive that Benet makes you root for the guy. Late in the book, when Kirk has a chance to escape from the darkness closing in all around him, the reader really wants him to make it. Whether he will or not . . . you have to read the book to find that out.

And I recommend that you do read HOODLUMS. There’s not much plot, and what there is just sort of ambles along, and Benet’s prose runs the gamut from clunky to self-consciously literary. But there are also a lot of highly effective passages, and he does a fantastic job of making Chicago come alive and serve as another character in the book. The places he describes aren’t ones that I’d like to visit, except in the pages of a book like this. Mostly, though, Benet has that unteachable storytelling knack that really kept me flipping the pages. HOODLUMS is a powerful novel, and if you enjoy noir fiction, it’s definitely worth reading.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Benedict and Brazos #2: A Badge for Brazos - E. Jefferson Clay (Paul Wheelahan)

A while back, I read ACES WILD, the first novel in the long-running Benedict & Brazos series by E. Jefferson Clay, actually the extraordinarily prolific Australian author Paul Wheelahan. I thoroughly enjoyed that one, so there was no question I’d read the next one, A BADGE FOR BRAZOS. Several people have mentioned that this series gets better as it goes along, and so far I’ve found that to be true. A BADGE FOR BRAZOS is a very entertaining Western novel.

In case your memory needs to be refreshed, the two protagonists of this series set shortly after the Civil War are former Union officer Duke Benedict and former Confederate sergeant Hank Brazos. The two met during the war, fought first against each other and then on the same side against a gang of renegades who stole a fortune in Confederate gold. Even though there’s a lot of friction in their relationship, Benedict and Brazos have teamed up to hunt down the varmints who stole that gold. Benedict is the slick one of the pair, a handsome, fast-on-the-draw gambler, while Brazos is bigger and more of a rough-and-tumble brawler.

When they run short on funds, they come up with a scheme where Brazos will go into a town without any lawman, pretend to kick up a ruckus, and then Benedict will ride in and “subdue” him, thereby prompting the grateful citizenry to offer him the job of marshal, which he’ll hold down until they have enough money to move on again and continue their quest for the stolen gold.

However, through a series of unexpected events, Brazos is the one who winds up wearing a lawman’s badge, and because of that, our heroes find themselves in the middle of a shooting war between the crew from a local ranch and a group of miners working a silver vein that’s just about played out. Not surprisingly, more is going on that is obvious at first, and there are hidden villains to be uncovered. Also on hand are a beautiful librarian, a world-weary gunslinger, and a female saloon owner tougher than any of the men thereabouts.

There’s nothing in the plot of A BADGE FOR BRAZOS that will surprise anybody who’s read many Westerns, but Wheelahan writes well overall and has an extremely likable pair of protagonists. He’s also a master at pacing, keeping the action moving along at a very fast clip and wrapping things up with a huge, very effective gun battle that also features some poignant moments.

These books remind me very much of episodes in the various Western TV series I grew up watching in the late Fifties and early Sixties. I loved those sorts of yarns then, and I still love them now. So A BADGE FOR BRAZOS gets a big recommendation from me, and I look forward to reading the next one. This series is available in e-book editions from Piccadilly Publishing and in handsome trade paperbacks from Bold Venture Press.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Smashing Detective Stories, December 1952

That's a striking cover on this late detective pulp from Columbia. As usual, editor Robert Lowndes has assembled a good-looking pulp with some very good authors inside, even on a low budget. In this case, that group includes Richard Deming, Robert Turner, Seven Anderton, Thomas Thursday, and Richard Brister. Those guys are nearly always worth reading.

UPDATE: Lowell Wilson points out this cover is a swipe from Ray Johnson's cover for CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON. I assume that Johnson did this SMASHING DETECTIVE cover, as well. I've seen several mentions of Johnson's work lately. He was an excellent cover artist.


Saturday, March 20, 2021

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Lariat Story Magazine, May 1944

As usual with a Fiction House pulp, the cover of this issue of LARIAT STORY MAGAZINE features both exciting action and a pretty girl. I don't know who the artist was, but I think he did a good job. Inside are stories by top Western pulpsters Wayne D. Overholster, J.E. Grinstead, M. Howard Lane, and Curtis Bishop, as well as house-name John Starr (if I had to guess, I'd say Bishop, but that's purely a guess) and much-better-known-for-his-science-fiction Clifford D. Simak. I've read a few of Simak's Western stories and found them to be very good. I like the title of that John Starr yarn: "Six Sins in My Holster". The editor must not have been quite at the top of his game, though. That title really needs an exclamation mark at the end of it.

UPDATE: The cover art is by Norman Saunders, used originally on the October 1937 issue of ACTION STORIES. Thanks to Sheila Vanderbeek for the info!

A Middle of the Night Music Post: Shaker Song - Spyro Gyra

I'd been trying to remember the name of this song for a while, when it suddenly popped into my head that the Manhattan Transfer did a vocal version of it. So I checked Manhattan Transfer songs on YouTube and that led me to the original. Both versions are excellent. Maybe I'll post the vocal version next time I'm awake in the middle of the night.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Forgotten Books: No Angels for Me - William Ard

(This post originally appeared in somewhat different form on August 18, 2006.)

I was in the mood to read a vintage hardboiled paperback, and this is what came to hand. I'd never read any of William Ard's mysteries before, but years ago I read all the Westerns he wrote under the name Jonas Ward. He created the long-running Buchanan series and wrote the first five books featuring the character (one of which was made into a movie starring Randolph Scott). Ard died during the writing of the sixth book, which was completed by Robert Silverberg, and then the series was continued by Brian Garfield (one book) and William R. Cox (all the others), with Jonas Ward becoming a house-name.

But I'm getting off the subject here. I knew that Ard wrote mysteries as well as Westerns and have half a dozen of them on my shelves, including NO ANGELS FOR ME. The hero of this one is New York private detective Luke MacLane, who works for the All-States Detective Agency rather than being a loner PI like so many. But all the other usual elements of the genre are here. The book opens with MacLane identifying the body of a fellow PI for All-States who had been on the trail of some stolen diamonds. Vowing vengeance for his friend's murder, MacLane sets out to track down the killer as well as the loot from the diamond heist. Along the way, assorted beautiful women in varying stages of undress throw themselves at him, he gets hit on the head, drugged, and taken for a ride, and there are double-crosses galore.

This sounds pretty hokey and cliched now, but it probably wasn't in 1954, when this book was published. I enjoyed it quite a bit. There are some nice turns of phrase here and there, the action scenes are good, and even if beautiful women really don't throw themselves at private eyes all the time, I want to believe they do. I wouldn't hesitate to read another of Ard's mystery novels.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Overlooked TV: The Range Rider (1951-53)

The other day, a friend of mine mentioned the early Western TV series THE RANGE RIDER, which was syndicated for three seasons (a total of 78 episodes) in the early Fifties. By the time I was watching TV in the late Fifties and early Sixties, it was still showing regularly in reruns, and I was a big fan. I hadn't thought about it for a long time and probably hadn't seen an episode in almost 60 years, so I decided to check one out on YouTube. Since then I've watched several more. This series holds up pretty darned well, and I'm enjoying it.

The Range Rider (we're never told any other name for the character) is the sort of drifting troubleshooter we often encounter in Westerns. He doesn't seem to have any job other than riding around and helping out folks who need it. Along with his sidekick, young Dick West, he's always solving mysteries and catching bad guys. Granted, the plots aren't very complex, since we're talking about half-hour TV episodes, but the stories are well-constructed and have plenty of action. My friend who brought up the series mentioned speculation that it was based loosely on the Hashknife Hartley stories and novels by W.C. Tuttle. I've read quite a few Hashknife yarns, and if that rumor isn't true, it sure could have been, since THE RANGE RIDER features the same blend of action, mystery, and comedy.

The Range Rider is played by Jock Mahoney, former stuntman turned actor who was an early favorite of mine based on this show and his later series YANCY DERRINGER. Mahoney was never a great actor, but man, he has screen presence to spare and as a former stuntman does a great job with the action scenes. Dick Jones plays the sidekick Dick West (often called Dickie by the Range Rider) and is also very good, handling most of the comedy and romance in the same sort of performance Richard Martin gave as Chito Rafferty in dozens of Tim Holt movies. And like Chito, Dickie can be tough and competent when he needs to be.

Mahoney would have made an excellent Hashknife Hartley if we had ever gotten such a TV series. THE RANGE RIDER is the closest we'll ever come to it. I'm having a great time watching it, and it's nice to know that one of my early favorites still comes across as well-made and entertaining.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Men's Adventure Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 1: The Most Wanted Wild West Issue

Nobody knows more about the Men’s Adventure Magazines, those lurid mixtures of fact and fiction that were common on newsstands and magazine racks in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies, than Bob Deis. He’s teamed up with Bill Cunningham (and an assist by Paul Bishop) to produce a terrific new anthology series called MEN’S ADVENTURE QUARTERLY, each issue of which will focus on a different genre from the Men’s Adventure Magazines. The first one is out now and is loaded with Western stories and artwork from a variety of sources.

There are non-fiction articles about madams of the Old West and the TV series GUNSMOKE, but most of the contents are fictional, although some stories are based on historical characters such as Clay Allison and Buckskin Frank Leslie. Not surprisingly, my favorites are the tales by old pros Lou Cameron, Dean W. Ballenger, and Donald Honig. All the stories are well-written and entertaining, though.

Visually, MEN’S ADVENTURE QUARTERLY is a real treat. The production values are excellent, and it features dozens of magazine covers and interior illustrations by some of the top artists of the mid-Twentieth Century era. It’s a wonderful recreation of that time.

By the time I was trying to break into writing in the mid-Seventies, the Men’s Adventure Magazines were still around but mostly a pale shadow of what they had once been. I sent them dozens of stories anyway but never sold any. I’m sorry I didn’t crack that market, but I really enjoy revisiting it now. MEN’S ADVENTURE QUARTERLY gets a high recommendation from me. You can buy it on Amazon or directly from the publisher.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Astounding Science-Fiction, June 1939

This cover by Graves Gladney almost looks like it would be more at home on a detective pulp, rather than an issue of ASTOUNDING SCIENCE-FICTION. Either way, I like it. There's a fine line-up of authors in this issue, too: Jack Williamson (with an installment of a Legion of Space serial), Clifford D. Simak, Nat Schachner, Arthur J. Burks, Ross Rocklynne, and Harl Vincent. I'm not sure if I've ever read anything by Schachner or Vincent, but I've read and enjoyed all the other authors.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: Range Riders Western, Fall 1942

Another action-packed scene involving a stagecoach on this issue of RANGE RIDERS WESTERN. I don't know the artist. For those of you not familiar with this pulp, it featured a lead novel in every issue starring a trio of range detectives, Steve Reese (the leader) and his two sidekicks Hank Ball and Dusty Trail. It's a time-honored setup (think of all the trio B-Western movies that were made during the same era) and RANGE RIDERS WESTERN delivered consistently good stories, many of them by Walker A. Tompkins, the author of this issue's lead novel. I've never understood why the stories from this pulp weren't reprinted in paperback during the Sixties and Seventies the way the stories from TEXAS RANGERS, RIO KID WESTERN, and MASKED RIDER WESTERN were. I think they would have done well. This particular issue also has some back-up stories by Allan K. Echols, Eugene A. Clancy, Clinton Dangerfield, and Ralph Yergen, not big names but steady producers in the Western pulps. 

Friday, March 12, 2021

Forgotten Books: A Yank at Valhalla - Edmond Hamilton

I’ve been a fan of Edmond Hamilton’s science fiction novels and stories for more than fifty years now, starting with the Starwolf series he wrote for Ace in the mid-Sixties, the paperback reprints of his Captain Future pulp novels, and the stories of his that were included in Isaac Asimov’s great anthology BEFORE THE GOLDEN AGE. It’s entirely possible that I read some of the Superman stories Hamilton wrote for the comic books, too, but I’ve never really looked into that part of his career.

Recently I read a 1973 Ace Double edition of one of Hamilton’s science fiction novels that appeared originally in the January 1941 issue of the pulp STARTLING STORIES. That’s my copy of the paperback in the scan. Just the title is enough to make my blood start to pump a little faster: A YANK AT VALHALLA. That certainly sounds like an epic.

And it kind of is. The narrator is Keith Masters, a two-fisted scientist/pilot who is part of a scientific expedition to the Arctic. The ship which carries Masters and his fellow scientists to these polar climes has dropped anchor, and the group trawls the sea floor to see if they can come up with anything interesting. What would you call an ancient golden cylinder covered with Old Norse runes? What could possibly go wrong with finding something like that and hanging on to it?

Well, if you’re Keith Masters, your rocket plane (the only real indication that this yarn is set in the future) could be blown off course by a violent, mysterious storm while you’re exploring. And you could find a hidden land beyond a mysterious barrier where there’s an island called Asgard off the coast of a continent known as Midgard. And there’s a rainbow bridge called Bifrost spanning the gap between the two, a big guy named Thor who carries a hammer, a wise ruler called Odin, a beautiful shield maiden, two feuding races, the Aesir and the Jotuns, and an evil scientist named Loki who has been imprisoned for centuries along with his giant wolf Fenris and the equally giant Midgard Serpent. Any guesses what rune-covered artifact will free Loki and unleash Ragnarok on the world?

Snark aside, that summary isn’t as much of a spoiler as you might think, because everything in it is established pretty quickly. In fact, that’s really the only weakness in A YANK AT VALHALLA. Keith Masters adapts to the bizarre situation in which he finds himself a little too easily for it to be believable. “So . . . I’m in Asgard having adventures with the Norse gods. Sure, why not?”

But this novel was written for the pulps, after all, where the motto was action, action, and more action, and A YANK AT VALHALLA delivers on that in fine fashion. This is a Front Porch Book for sure, the kind of thing I would have raced through on a lazy summer day, sitting in a lawn chair on my parents’ front porch with a glass of iced tea beside me.

In addition to that, though, Hamilton actually comes up with the plausible (or at least, plausible-sounding) explanation for the existence of Asgard and the Norse gods. I’ve always liked Hamilton’s scientific speculation. Some of it may be far-fetched, but you can tell he put some thought into it, and he was one of the best at combining such speculation with swashbuckling action.

So, does the twilight of the gods fall on Asgard because of the mortal Keith Masters? You’ll have to read the book to find out. I don’t imagine it’s difficult to find in the paperback edition, and there’s actually an e-book version available, so it’s not completely forgotten. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and if you enjoy action-packed, big-idea science fiction, I think there’s a good chance you might, too.

Monday, March 08, 2021

A Writer Prepares - Lawrence Block

I’ve always been fascinated by writer’s memoirs. I’ve seen them criticized as being a series of “And then I wrote” recollections, but the best ones contain a lot more than that. Besides, I like reading about how certain books came to be written, the story behind the stories, if you will. This summer, Lawrence Block will release a memoir called A WRITER PREPARES, and I’ve been fortunate enough to read an advance copy of it. It’s a look at his college days and his early career as a writer, and how those two eras overlapped. He wrote a little more than half of it back in the mid-Nineties, then set it aside and never finished it until the past year. It makes for very interesting reading.

Some of this information I’ve seen before in introductions to various of Block’s novels and in published interviews with him, but there’s plenty that’s new to me, too. He doesn’t spare himself, going into some detail about personal failings, possibly unwise business decisions, and the various sorts of screw-ups that plague all of us. But he doesn’t dwell on those things and keeps the focus primarily on his writing. I especially enjoyed the section about his brief stint working in the mail room of Pines Publications, publisher of some of my favorite Western pulps. Next time I pick up an issue of RANCH ROMANCES from 1956, I’ll think that Block may have been wheeling a mail cart around the editorial offices when that issue was being put together.

There’s a lot of material about his time working for the Scott Meredith Literary Agency, his breaking into print with novels for Harry Shorten at Midwood under the pseudonym Sheldon Lord, his prolific output for William Hamling’s various soft-core imprints under the name Andrew Shaw, and his time writing medical case history books (which were almost all fictional) for Monarch, Lancer, and other publishers. All this makes me want to read more of those early books, and luckily I can since Block has reprinted most of them in the past decade. There are also sections about his friendship with Donald Westlake and Bill Coons (who ghosted a number of the Andrew Shaw novels for Block) and other authors, editors, and agents. It’s a vivid portrait of one little corner of the publishing business from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Sixties.

A WRITER PREPARES ends at a logical point, when Block has pretty much left the pseudonymous work behind to concentrate on books under his own name. This is when he began his Evan Tanner series for Gold Medal, and as it happens, those Tanner books were the first ones by Block that I ever saw, bought, and read, picking up most of them from the spinner rack in Tompkins’ Drugstore, one of my regular stops for paperbacks and comic books. After that, I’ve kept up, more or less, with his career. So it’s nice to read about those early days. I really enjoyed A WRITER PREPARES. The e-book edition is already up for pre-order. I give it my highest recommendation. I’ve been doing that a lot lately. I’ve been on a run of really great books, and this is another one in that streak.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

Sunday Morning Bonus Pulp: Top-Notch Magazine, First May, 1931

Yep, just polin' down the river on a raft with a machine gun. Think what a different book THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN might have been if Huck and Jim had had themselves a machine gun. They might have had some real adventures then. But not to get too far afield here . . . TOP-NOTCH had some good authors, as you'd expect from a Street & Smith pulp. In this issue are stories by James P. Olsen, George Allan England, house-name Valentine Wood (with a Kroom, Son of the Sea yarn), and Warren Elliott Carleton, among others. Not big names, but Olsen was always dependable no matter what the genre and quite a bit of England's work has been reprinted. Despite its name, I've never considered TOP-NOTCH to be in the upper rank of pulps, but I'm not sure why I feel that way, since I've read very little of what was published in it, mostly just the few stories that Robert E. Howard had there and the Ozar the Aztec stories written by Walker A. Tompkins under that Valentine Wood pen-name. (Speaking of that, the final Longarm novel I wrote, LONGARM AND THE BLOODY RELIC, was inspired by those Ozar stories and has a character in it, a ship's captain, named Valentine Wood. For whatever that's worth.)

Saturday, March 06, 2021

Saturday Morning Western Pulp: 10 Story Western Magazine, April 1953

It's not often you see the Old Geezer on a Western pulp cover without his pards, the Stalwart Cowboy and the Angry, Gun-Totin' Redhead, but here he is on this 10 STORY WESTERN MAGAZINE cover by Norman Saunders. I like the way he can shoot it out with the bad guys and continue smoking his pipe. He's a tough old bird. This is probably a pretty tough-minded issue, too, with stories by H.A. DeRosso and Jonathan Craig, along with Lee Floren, Robert Trimnell, Will Cook, Bill Burchardt, and some lesser-known Western pulpsters including Doc Winchester, a by-line that has to be a pseudonym or house-name, although it hasn't been identified as such.

Friday, March 05, 2021

Forgotten Books: Sage Tower - Dean Owen (Dudley Dean McGaughey)

(This post originally appeared in somewhat different form on April 25, 2007.)

The title of this short novel isn’t a geographical reference, as I thought it might be when I first picked it up. Instead it’s the name of the hero. Published as half of an Ace Double Western (with Ray Hogan’s KILLER ON THE WARBUCKET on the other side), it has some of the best blurb page copy I’ve read.

There were three things that brought Sage Tower out of Texas:
an eight-sided goldpiece;
a dying Mexican woman;
a message reading: there are no flowers on Emilio’s grave.

If you can read that and not want to read the book, you’re made of sterner stuff than I am, compadres. As usual with a Dean Owen novel, the plot is complex, there’s a lot of back-story, and the characters are well-drawn. He packs a lot into a short (in this case, 118 pages) novel. Here we’ve got lust, revenge, buried loot, murder, gun battles, and several brutal, well-written fistfights, all in tough, lean, hardboiled Western style. This is a fine novel and only makes me want to read more of McGaughey’s books.

Thursday, March 04, 2021

The Wild Adventures of the Spider: Fury in Steel - Will Murray

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that my introduction to The Spider was in 1969, when Berkley Medallion reprinted the first two books in the series, THE SPIDER STRIKES and THE WHEEL OF DEATH, both by R.T.M. Scott. They released these in an odd, “buy one, get one free” scheme which saw the two paperbacks bound together with a paper band around them. I bought them off the spinner rack in a drugstore in Stephenville, Texas. My mother and I were on our way to my aunt’s house in Blanket, Texas, and I usually talked her into stopping at that store in Stephenville because they had good paperback and comic book spinners, as well as a big magazine rack where I saw some of the late issues of RANCH ROMANCES but didn’t buy any because I was spending my money on paperbacks like those two Spider novels.

Anyway, to get back to the subject at hand . . . Berkley reprinted a couple more Spider novels, these by Norvell Page writing under the house-name Grant Stockbridge. Page was far and away the most prolific Spider author and really defined the series’ tone with his wild, over-the-top plots and almost non-stop action. The problem is, I never saw those paperbacks. They just didn’t show up in any my usual book-buying haunts. It was more than a decade before I read any more of the Spider series, although by then I had read quite a bit about it. A few more reprints started trickling out in the early Eighties, a trio of trade paperbacks published by an outfit called Dimedia, and I found an issue of the actual pulp in a thrift store, and I picked up used copies of several novels published by Pocket Books that had been rewritten and “updated” but still retained some of the pulp feel. More actual reprints followed, some in mass market paperback, some in facsimile editions from small press publishers, and I read most of them. I’m not a Spider expert—I’ve read maybe half of the series in one format or another—but I always enjoy the character and his wild exploits.

Which brings us to The Wild Adventures of the Spider, a series of brand-new novels by pulp expert and fine writer Will Murray. The first one, THE DOOM LEGION, guest-starred two other characters from Popular Publications pulps, G-8 (the Flying Spy) and Operator 5, Jimmy Christopher his own self. I loved it. Murray’s latest Spider novel, the recently released FURY IN STEEL, also has some guest stars, in this case Emile C. Tepperman’s intrepid trio of fast-shooting FBI agents, the Suicide Squad: Johnny Kerrigan, Dan Murdoch, and Stephen Klaw. I’ve read half a dozen of Tepperman’s Suicide Squad stories, and they’re great. So seeing them in the same book with The Spider was a big draw for me. They don’t exactly team up—in fact, for most of the book the FBI agents are trying to arrest Richard Wentworth and in fact succeed in doing so at one point—but their efforts against an invasion of New York by giant killer robots makes for some great reading.

That’s right, giant killer robots that can bite off a man’s head, tear him limb from limb, and, like steel termites, gnaw away the foundations of skyscrapers to bring them crashing down. Another week, another apocalypse in the Big Apple, a crazed scheme by another villain to wreak havoc, panic the nation, and cause the deaths of thousands. And the only one who can stop it, of course, is The Spider.

FURY IN STEEL is just pure fun from start to finish. The plot is well-structured, flowing smoothly from great action scene to great action scene, Murray’s prose captures the frantic tone perfectly, and he has a keen sense of the absurd, pushing the boundaries but always stopping short of letting things get silly. I enjoyed this novel a great deal, and if you’re a fan of The Spider, or just a fan of wild pulp adventures in general, I give it my highest recommendation. 

Tuesday, March 02, 2021

Overlooked TV: Gravity Falls (2012-2016)

I was vaguely aware of the animated TV series GRAVITY FALLS but didn't really know anything about it until Livia bought the whole series (there are only 40 half-hour episodes) on DVD and we watched it recently. It's the story of two 12-year-old twins, Dipper and Mabel Pines, who are sent to the small town of Gravity Falls, Oregon, to spend the summer with their Great-uncle Stan (or as he's known to the kids, Grunkle Stan).

Once they get there, they discover that all sorts of weird things happen in Gravity Falls. Grunkle Stan takes advantage of this to run a hokey tourist attraction called the Mystery Shack that consists of fake "oddities". Only some of them aren't so fake. Dipper finds a mysterious journal detailing some of the actual paranormal creatures and occurrences. Before you know it, the kids are battling bizarre menaces and also trying to navigate the pitfalls of adolescence, including making friends, Dipper's crush on 15-year-old Wendy, who works at the Mystery Shack, and Mabel's crush on practically every boy in sight. Meanwhile, the mysteries are deepening.

GRAVITY FALLS is a monster-of-the-week show, but like THE X-FILES and LOST, a couple of series it actually resembles, it has an overarching mythology, a little more of which is revealed episode by episode. Only unlike THE X-FILES and LOST, creator and writer or co-writer of every episode Alex Hirsch knew what he was doing and where he was going from the start, instead of just making it up as he went along. A lot of plot points and clues are planted early and don't really come to fruition until much later in the series, but when they do, the results are epic and apocalyptic.

This is one of the best TV series I've seen in a long time. It's smart, funny, well-written, and very good-hearted. The animation style took me a little while to get used to but never actually bothered me. The characters are great, including Soos, the lovable handyman who also works at the Mystery Shack, Old Man McGucket, the local hillbilly/eccentric who may be more than he seems, Mabel's friends Candy and Grenda, and Wendy, who, as a lumberjack's daughter, is something of a bad-ass. The voice cast is excellent: Jason Ritter as Dipper, Kristen Schaal as Mabel, Linda Cardellini as Wendy, and creator Alex Hirsch as dozens of the other characters, including Grunkle Stan, Soos, and Old Man McGucket.

I was really sad to see this one end. It's just a wonderful show, and if you haven't seen it, I give it my highest recommendation.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Gun Runner - Larry Correia and John D. Brown

Years ago, I read several novels in the long-running BattleTech science fiction series, tales about a galaxy-spanning conflict between rival clans, fought mostly by giant robots piloted by humans who controlled them from a cockpit within the robot’s body. Kind of like giant tanks that could run around and punch each other in addition to firing all sorts of futuristic weaponry. I even wrote a BattleTech novella when the publisher had an open call for an anthology, but it didn’t sell and has since been lost.

This was my first real exposure to the concept of mechs, which has become a popular element in science fiction. I don’t know where the idea originated. Anime, maybe? Was that the idea behind Robotech? All that’s too long ago; I can’t remember anymore.

But I digress. Folks love them some giant robots. I just read GUN RUNNER, a recent novel by Larry Correia and John Brown, and it’s a fine example of the genre, plus plenty more to boot. It takes place in a future where humanity has spread out from Earth, using artificially constructed gates in space to travel faster than light and colonize hundreds of planets in distant solar systems. The protagonist is Jackson Rook, a young man who pilots a battle mech in a civil war on his home planet. Jackson is one of those rare individuals whose brain is suited to being directly hooked up to the mech he pilots, so the giant battle machine responds directly to his mental commands instead of him having to use physical controls like most mech pilots. This backfires on his him when the enemy takes control of his brain and uses him as a weapon against his own allies.

This is back-story established in a prologue in which the captain of a smuggling spaceship rescues Jackson from his tragic fate. Jackson goes to work for this captain, who supplies weapons and other supplies to various planets where they’re otherwise unavailable. Jackson can still pilot mechs manually, although he won’t allow himself to be hooked up mentally to one anymore for fear that his brain will be taken over again. Of course, when the ship delivers a state-of-the-art mech known as a Citadel to a backwater planet ruled by a dictator and Jackson happens to fall into the hands of the outnumbered rebel faction, most readers are going to have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen sooner or later.

As with traditional Westerns, though, the appeal of a book like this is not so much the plot but the skill with which the author, or in this case, authors execute it. And Correia and Brown do an excellent job of making GUN RUNNER a fast-paced science fiction adventure yarn. In addition to the mech angle, there are cyberpunk elements, several shadowy conspiracies that will no doubt bear fruit in sequels, lots of very likable characters and despicable villains, and giant, non-mechanical monsters roaming a planet where, as they say about Australia, everything wants to kill you.

With all that going on, it’s not surprising that it takes a while to get to the “giant robots whaling the tar out of each other” point, but when that epic conflict finally breaks out, it’s great stuff. I read this on my Kindle and couldn’t turn the digital pages fast enough during the last 25% of the book. GUN RUNNER is a very good book, one of the best I’ve read so far this year, and I’m looking forward to the next in the series. If you’re a fan of adventure SF with terrific action scenes and some fine worldbuilding and characters, I give it a very high recommendation.